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!
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.