The difference between theory and practice.

By Roger Wilkinson

I don’ t know if you`ve noticed but there are heaps of study papers and articles about the best way to coach and develop young players. Many are thought provoking but what stands out is that very few of the writers have had real long-term experience working on the junior side of the game. The latest favorite is “let the game be the teacher” – let the players play and learn from their own mistakes, a big move away from the tidy drills and organized outcomes mantra that has dominated coach education and resulted in a generation of ordinary players.

Once again be warned its not as simple as that!


For example, did your parents when teaching you to walk down the street, say “off you go run down the street if you get run over by a car that’s a valuable learning experience for you?”

No! but if we reference it to ‘let the game be the teacher’ that’s what is being advocated.

What your parents did was to hold your hand during these foundation experiences and guide your learning.  I remember my mum holding my hand tight, commanding that I “Walk on the left”,  “Move right (or left) to avoid that gentleman”, “Stop! let this lady move through the gap” or

“No don’t just walk out Roger when crossing the road make sure to check right , left and right again or you could be run over”.

You were being taught to constantly look ahead, take mental pictures and make decisions ahead of time. This teaching included multi decisions and habits in a totally realistic environment and was repeated numerous times until your parents had assessed that you were ready for next stage. They then made you walk by the side of them with decreased input to give you the ability, confidence and understanding to be set free to walk the walk.

Your parents guided your understanding in real life situations.

Football coaching is like life!

Roger Wilkinson

By the way I’m definitely not saying that coaches should order the decisions like my mum and definitely don’t clip kids round the ear if they get it wrong!

Clever coaches guide the discovery of young players with progressive logical tips and coaching points in programmed realistic sessions. They introduce the important coaching points and game challenges gradually and logically to advance the young player’s ability and independent understanding. Importantly, they know the type of player they are striving to produce.

When working with an 8 yr old player coaches MUST realize they are NOT working with an 8 yr old they are working with a 24 yr in the early part of their playing career.” John Cartwright.

Clever coaches know what makes a great player and the ingredients of the great game style they are coaching towards. Sounds commonsense, but very few grass roots coaches work this way.

Clever coaches introduce multiple coaching detail alongside the main themes of their session (as well as teaching us to walk down the street mum also re enforced good manners!).

They also use imagery, demonstrations and encouragement to make the session challenging and enjoyable. They value every minute of practice time to nurture the development of the young player through progressive, realistic practices.

Nurture by making every player a special project with support, empathy, individual positive targets and feedback.

Progressive because each session is part of a programme of work that cements the critical skills the young player needs and constantly pushes their skill and understanding to advance their ability.

Realistic because the practices introduce the learning in a logical, easy to understand sequence that is totally game related.


This coaching experience is a super reference point for the kids when they play their own “pick up” games. They have an individuality and a game style to aspire to, they know what they are trying to do and if they make a mistake they know how to put it right.  Great coaches by clever use of guidance also teach the kids how to coach themselves.

The era of street football was a great breeding ground for outstanding players but as one tremendous ex player said to me “playing in tight areas forced me to make decisions BUT if I‘d also had a great coach on the sideline helping my experience what a difference that would have made “. So even then the coach would have been a crucial factor.

The big challenge in the modern era is that at the grass roots level, from 5 to 14 yrs of age, we need the very best coaches. Unfortunately the foundation stage is dominated by poor practice, with National bodies often promoting supposed “fun” practices that have no real affect on the development of the real skills of the game.

We need to develop coach educators who have real experience and working knowledge of the needs of this age group and who are totally focused on educating the coaches that have the expertise to develop great players.

I’d rather be coached by a great coach on the club car park than a poor coach at Lilleshall” Malcolm Allison.

13 thoughts on “The difference between theory and practice.

  1. Remember remember the 1st of November.

    Man City now have a coach who has an in-game management plan that is fascinating to watch and exciting to think about what might be ahead of them (‘play in the future’).

    This may not be exciting for English international football prospects, though. How are our English players going to catch up with the or ice cold colleagues who, when in front of goal, pass the ball in to the ney? Consider Sterling, who panicked taking his first touch too wide and shooting awkwardly in to the side netting.

    We need Premier Skills Practice Play sessions for KS1 & KS2 kids across the nation, in my view.

    I am aboard this bus and want to spread the word…

    • Oh dear – never a good idea to try a quick response via a hand held device when in a rush and it’s tricky to see what has been typed for a quick proof-read before posting….

      I meant to say:
      How are our English players going to catch up with their ice cold colleagues who, when in front of goal, pass the ball in to the net?

      My point is that even our best English players seem to lack the skill sets that make autonomic execution of tasks clinically from zone 14 and in the box/ in front of goal (i.e. Sterling’s 1st touch and subsequent shot missing the target 2nd half). It’s interesting that Sterling chose to pass to Gundogan for Man City’s first goal against Barca. Whilst the accuracy and weight made Sterling’s pass and decision making seemingly excellent it was arguably easier to shoot. I wonder if his decision to pass was based on an unwillingness to take responsibility. That seems harsh given that the skill execution and outcome was optimised in this instance, however.

      I have recently got involved in coaching my son’s U7 team. Despite having exposure to FA Level 1 & 2 Coaching and playing football a lot myself from 8-18yrs (now 48) I have done little coaching previously. I am finding the task of getting ideas across to a group of 6 to 7 yr olds quite challenging.

      Thinking about my own football ‘philosophy’ in recent years I thought my preferred coaching points would pivot on these simple ideas:
      1 – Look forward: play forward (when you can)
      2 – Play in triangles (unless there is a better option)
      3 – Play as a team
      4 – Play with style and confidence

      Having looked at the Practice Play videos that Roger sent to me recently I can see how playing as an individual/ playing as a team needs the guiding hand of the coach. The pre-requisite here is that the coach needs to have a deep enough understanding of coaching, football and [young] people to know what and how much information to impart – and crucially… when. Timing is everything, as they say. That’s true whether you are in zone 14 or the danger zone crossing the road, I suppose.

  2. It is interesting that Roger quotes an unnamed ex-player who learnt the game in the street but expressed his disappointment at the absence of a great coach to teach and guide him also.
    George Best is probably the most gifted British player of the last 50 – 60 years. He went to Man Utd having developed his skills on the streets of Belfast. His rise at Old Trafford to become one of the world’s best players of the time was meteoric but his decline was both rapid and tragic. His decline for football reasons can be traced to either a lack of good coaching or his reluctance to take it on board. Great individualism also entails knowing when to release the ball to his team’s and colleagues’ advantage. No-one suffered more at United from Best’s lack of awareness to play the early pass to exploit the opening that his brilliance had created, than Denis Law, whose lightening runs into space became futile as Best indulged his skill by retaining the ball when the better option was to pass.
    The title of this blog is ‘Keep The Ball’, but in days gone by, great learning was gained from the street, but great teaching to produce the ability to combine with team mates, still had to come from the coach. But now both the individualism and the collective must come from the coach.

  3. You are so right Steve.The coach has even greater responsibility now.During the street days it would probably been a word in the ear to give guidance.Now the coach needs a variety of coaching skills to guide the player. That is the brilliance of Cartwright and Venables they used all these coaching skills seamlessly to “push the carrot out a little further” to extend and improve the player.

  4. Peter very interesting reply. At least you are working from a game style philosophy. Great coaches are always learning and adapting to the game. After each session John would always discuss and assess his work. This way each session is part of the process to make you a better coach. Einstein once said ” Once we think we know it all it means we don’t !”

  5. Hi all. In all the years I have walked in London’s crowded streets I have not seen many collisions with people bumping into one another. There is constant space and time decisions being made to avoid each other.
    If ordinary people can be so aware it shouldn’t be that difficult to get our players to improve.

  6. In grassroots football, children on average train 1 – 1.5 hours on one evening during the week and then play about the same length of time on a Sunday. There may be some additional time with a school team but that seems to vary.
    Compared to their predecessors, children today are playing much less than was the case in past generations. Even if the coaching is of the highest quality, the potential for real improvement and progress in that time frame is very low. The best young players, of course, are in the academies and so their playing/coaching time is greater. However, I think that all young players must practice and play much more than is presently the case and there have been many cases when players of some potential have missed the academy system.
    This is where I believe the Premier Skills methodology is particularly strong. In his article Roger makes the point of kids being able to “coach themselves”. Many of the technical details and skills on Levels 1 and 2 are easily adaptable for young players to successfully adopt for practising on their own in addition to attending club coaching sessions. The work described on the online video – Football Homework – is an excellent tool for this.
    So young players are ‘learning how to practise’ when they attend training sessions, as much as developing their technical skills in those weekly sessions. This was always the case, because in the past a child on their own would pass a tennis ball or small rubber ball against a wall and return the rebound with one touch or their weaker foot. Against an uneven wall quick feet movement would be essential to reach the unpredictable bounce and the child could play either on his/her own or with others.
    Getting on the half term to address the ball, checking the shoulder just before the ball hits the wall, can all be introduced as the child begins to learn these technical details from the sessions at their club. As coaches, we must do all we can to encourage our young players to put this extra time into their ‘football week’ and ensure that they are completely familiar with the technical points we are coaching them in. We must emphasise to the children that the work can be done in the smallest of spaces, like the back garden, and ensure they understand that time and space limitations are all the better for them to master the techniques and progress.
    Parental involvement is also vital, as Premier Skills stresses in the Football Homework. If the parent, elder sibling or friend acts as a server then points for improvement can be focused on. That is why it is so important for the parent or guardian who brings the child to training is made fully conversant of the work which is being carried out, so that they can effectively observe and correct their child’s ‘homework’.

  7. In his Sunday newspaper column, Glenn Hoddle is bemoaning the absence of a player with “a touch of magic” to lift his old club, Tottenham, following their poor performance against Bayer Leverkusen last week in the Champions’ League and their recent run of disappointing results in the Premier League.
    It’s players with magic touches that English football is just not developing. Ironically, in the same newspaper as Hoddle’s article, there is an interview with Paul Gascoigne, with reminiscences of his playing days and some unfavourable comments he makes on the current state of the English game.
    Both the England team and Tottenham need another Gascoigne, perhaps the last English player of real skill and invention. Our development methods are not producing this type of player and how much longer must we wait for our National Association to properly address the situation?

  8. Hi John…The FA are keen to bring in experts from other sports who have a wide knowledge in various fields of sporting activity,such as fitness conditioning, mental preparation, nutrition etc. These are important subjects and I am not down-playing them in any way. However, I have never read about football skills coaches being brought in from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, France and Spain. Rene Meulensteen from Holland was skills coach at Manchester United for a number of years and did a lot of work with their academy players. He eventually moved up to coach the senior players and had a spell as Fulham’s first team manager/coach, but I understand that he was much more effective as a skills coach with youth players. Someone like Meulensteen would be a good addition to the FA’s staff and provide more valuable work than specialists from the worlds of cycling and rugby, experts though they may be in those sports.
    Of course, since the FA do not wish to use your coaching knowledge and expertise,then there is little chance they will make the correct decisions on the subject of young player development.

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