Realism in Teaching and Learning

By John Cartwright

On passing my 11plus examination I obtained a place at a local Grammar School. The school had a good reputation locally for producing students for Universities and the educational format was set totally towards an academic education. Classrooms provided the daily venues for all subjects – no ‘hands dirty’ approach to learning, just books to read and write in and chalky blackboards to look at – Metal-work, Carpentry etc. were not part of the curriculum.  I was never interested in going to University and left school at 16 with my ‘O-levels’ for various subjects but I knew nothing about things that were to become extremely important to me throughout my adult life. Any academic success I had at school derived from teachers who ‘brought their subject to life’; were able to ‘display’ their subjects in a clear, progressive and purposeful way. For me, recognising the ‘linkage’ between learning and its application into everyday life was of paramount importance.


From 10 years of age I wanted to be a pro footballer. At every opportunity, in streets or school playgrounds, I would play the game to improve my skills and, if nobody else was around, I would spend time on my own perfecting my techniques by using walls as rebound surfaces.

These make-do ‘practice/playing’ areas were my classrooms and without realising it I was learning to ‘link’ non-interference technical practice, with competitive, interference during small-sided games. This practical learning combination of technique/skill acquired in street football continued into full match-play at junior and later, senior levels.  At the higher playing levels there is a gradual reduction in space and time that forces non-interference techniques to be ‘honed’ towards skills to comply with the increase of interference associated with real game situations.

We have a conundrum in development – how do we, with we less practice time available than in the past, produce players with realistic skills and game understanding for modern football?

Lost learning time will not be regained by continuing to teach ‘by the book’. Academic coaching ‘projects’ of one kind or another have been introduced into our development system over decades, but all have ignored the importance of time for practice and how to overcome its loss.


Emphasis in development has shuttled from one extreme to another – from ‘Direct Play’ to ‘Possession Football’ – ‘classroom, academic leadership’ that has devised and controlled development here since the demise of ‘natural learning’ in the street have failed to realise the importance of realistic practice time to develop the skills to use   competitively at the higher levels. The academic learning mentality that has been imposed on development here over the years has seen classroom time – talking and watching, surpass realistic practice time – out on the grass. This ‘clean’ but unrealistic approach to teaching the game has made excellence an impossible target to achieve. Today, players ‘camouflage’ poor playing ability with increased athletic qualities. We have now entered the period best described as the age of ‘Robotic Football’ – a simplistic playing style that reflects the simplistic football qualities of our players.

But this debasement of such a skilful game as Association Football can be over-turned. There is a way to combine time with football teaching/learning and so improve playing standards towards excellence……..Future teaching of the game must relate more to actual game requirements. This process must begin from day one on the development ‘pathway,’ for the work provided for a child of 5-6 is the foundation of his/her competitive ability at 18+ !!   Realistic ‘doing’ must become the corner stone of teaching and learning. To begin, a pre-defined ‘playing vision’ must be clearly established with a ‘practical pathway’ to follow. Teachers must bring actuality into their sessions and their players must recognise where, why and how the work at present links with work previously completed as well as the work to follow.

Like the best teachers’ in a school, the best coaches of the game in future must be able to ‘bring their subject alive’; have a clear/realistic program to follow – introduce it with patience –  make it understandable at all levels – support realistic practises with suitably arranged games. The loss of practice time can be overcome with skills and game knowledge improved considerably as well.

Finally, let’s make teaching and learning something that players just can’t wait to take part in. It’s a great game. Let’s make English football great to teach – play – watch. Let’s become the world’s best football nation…….. it is possible.

12 thoughts on “Realism in Teaching and Learning

  1. While as you correctly relate John that development has been from ‘Direct Play to Possession Football,’ the foreigners have always known that having the ball is better than not having it, and that talented individuals combining with others is a necessity if quality is to be the result … AND sustained. Direct play for them has been a strategic alternative, not a method ignorantly imposed and then ‘blindly’ followed!

    While the FA Coaching Scheme has been vaunted, albeit with excellent self-promotion, it has produced the crisis that now envelops the game in English speaking countries.

    It is ironic that a country with a proud history of warfare has in many cases failed with football. Yet, saying that, many great pioneers like Jimmy Hogan were progressive influences on the game worldwide; however, now the English coaching scheme must turn in on itself and find its own heroes to take it out of the mass of mediocrity that is so prevalent, and suffocates the game.

    • Hi Brazil94. As I have said in these ‘blogs’ so often, a playing style without variation reduces success. Even the recent great Barcelona ‘ Tiki-Taki ‘ team needed to vary their playing style to overcome teams that ‘ parked the bus’ .

  2. From 10 years of age I liked the idea of playing professional football, but I didn’t really understand what it might take to get me there. I practiced and developed myself becoming very good at some attributes for the game, but wholly deficient in others. I didn’t get the right guidance at the right time.

    Later, when I was an associate schoolboy and then an apprentice the coaching I received was more akin to a military regime than the beautiful game: fight-ball, I think you call it, John? Above all, I wasn’t as pacy and as mobile as my peers and my confidence drained away when the curtains had been opened and I had a glimpse of life in professional football. And confidence is a key attribute to playing the game well.

    Confidence is easy when you know exactly what is required for each situation (i.e. good decision-making). When you have been coached to be confident on either foot, shield and run with the ball on the safe side, run across players rather than go direct, look for ways in which to draw players out so that others can use that space – that is when we will be making progress. The press write that there were signs of a recovery in the 3-0 win against Scotland. And on Wednesday they will likely write that there are recurring signs of ‘fragility’ and a lack of resilience when under pressure (i.e. Spain will be a bigger test).

    Gareth Southgate appears to be a decent, intelligent man, who is a student of the game and might yet go on to do very well as a coach (the jury is out due to doubts about his mental toughness and winning mentality). In Adam Lallana, we can see a player who is pleasing on the eye (looks like a Practice/ Play player, imo) and appears to be improving his goals to game ratios. All positive.

    But this new FA initiative about regional hubs being the answer to augment St George’s Park (SGP) is a joke. I live in Yorkshire and my kids will get zero playing time at this facility this year or next. What we need in this country is a small area of land set aside in the heart of each community where a ball can be kicked away from traffic or other modern dangers (including the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality where pick-up games used to take place years ago). There is literally no safe space to play football anywhere near where I live where my young kids can play safely on their own. Their practice time is way below what I had. This is the problem.

    We don’t need SGP, or the regional hubs, or Wembley Stadium for that matter. We need the FA to invest their money bringing coaches in to communities where young kids at KS1 & KS2 have a small space set aside to play small sided games. The pre-requisite for these FA coaches is that they need to be coaching something useful!

    Since 2010, having returned in the last few years to a game I loved so much as a kid I am amazed at the quality of coaching that is being delivered by the FA – and not in a good way! Listening to talkSPORT in recent years I have been intrigued to hear Stuart Robson talk so highly of the coaching he received as a player. Reading Football for the Brave and now watching the coaching videos of Practice Play I can see why.

    When you learn a martial art you can’t progress unless you have got the basic movement patterns of the central ideas right. There is strong attention to motor co-ordination and biomechanics even though the young student might not realise this at the time. Practice Play appears to be like this in that there is a natural progression and development of fundamental ball skills and body alignment to the extent that the same Practice Play sessions could be of benefit to the new [football] student and the football ‘black belt’. Why have the FA have not jumped at the chance of incorporating these ideas in to their syllabus – or even making Practice Play their syllabus? My guess is it’s political (very topical!).

    Maybe we ought to campaign for a split in English football like what has happened in martial arts and boxing so that different schools with different ideas (i.e. Practice Play) can gain ground and emerge as a force for good [football] in this green and pleasant land.

    Or maybe that is too fanciful, I don’t know. You tell me [why not?]

  3. Hi Peter. Like yourself as you say , I also had the disappointment of not hitting the heights in the game. My problem was Tuberculosis, that i had affected my lungs from the age of 7 . My playing ability was fine but my stamina, especially on muddy pitches of the 50’s.
    Love of the game however, made me stay in the game and coaching became my interest. I did not believe that coaching methods then and those that followed could produce playing standards that could deliver excellence — that’s why I set about writing the Premier Skills Coaching Methodology.

  4. It is a very long time since my schooldays but I certainly feel that too much of present day coach education is delivered in a classroom setting. This is in conjunction with the current enthusiasm for power point presentations. In my experience, there is far too much statistical detail put forward and it seems to me that anything can be proved with figures.
    Whether you are a coach wanting to develop his/her coaching skills and knowledge or a player wanting to improve his/her technical skills and game understanding, the place to learn is out on the grass. So the fact that every Premier Skills Course which I have attended has taken place out on the pitch, apart from the initial introduction at the start of the Course and the closing address at the end, is of great benefit.
    Because so much of the teaching in schools of the past was delivered in a dull and mechanical fashion we escaped into an exciting world of our own when we played our street football. That’s why football was an escape. But with the gradual disappearance of the street or pick-up game, the child of today is increasingly reliant on well-meaning adults to provide and organise teams, matches, leagues and training for children and young people. If we don’t get it right and deliver the playing and coaching of football as an exciting and fulfilling activity then the number of young players of genuine talent and potential coming through will continue to diminish.
    As John has said on many occasions, in England we are far too ready to regard mediocrity as sufficient. We must coach and encourage every young player to run and dribble with the ball, even if in the early stages they appear to have no talent for this. For everyone who is working from the Premier Skills methodology, work particularly hard at getting the youngsters to use the gates in the middle of the practice area to cut across the pitch with the ball. When playing the Game Practice with the safe areas down the side, get them whenever possible to spot a gap between opponents and run through that gap with the ball at their feet. I find so many kids will always want to pass the ball because already they have been conditioned to choose the easy option and have suffered the criticism for trying something special and different. Somewhere there could be an English Messi, maybe a number of them, but they are hidden from sight because they are not being allowed to flourish and show what they can do.

  5. Hi Steve. I feel sorry for young players today, they have everthing that amounts to nothing. The real qualities and beauty of the game has been denied to them. Individual skills – imagination – creativity – game understanding – love of the game etc. are all aspects missing today.
    Football is a competitive sport and to play it with ‘beauty’ one has to ‘ear the right’. Unfortunately, in our game the right is achieved but the beauty is beyond us.

  6. I think that Gareth Southgate deserves credit for the way in which he set up England to play Spain at Wembley on Tuesday night. He was right to play a counter attacking game, knowing how well the Spanish play in possession and so Vardy was a good choice up front to make runs in behind their defence. Southgate made good tactical switches during the game until the play became disjointed, which is the norm in friendlies, through too many substitutions made mainly to appease club managers.
    However, Spain were short of more than half a team of their top ranking players and so it would be foolish to conclude that England are anywhere near the level of the world’s best teams. But it did illustrate that there is some talent in the squad and bearing in mind that this is now a much younger collection of players than for some years, then there could be some grounds for optimism.
    It seems as though Southgate has studied the tactical approach and coaching methods of the world’s top sides very closely since he has been at the FA and the early indications are that he has the ability to get the England players to buy into his methods and beliefs. I hope that he is confirmed as England Manager/Coach as soon as possible and that the early impressions are proved to be correct.

  7. Hi All. i thought the England v Spain game the other night displayed a vital requirement – game-style variation! I have been emphasising the importance of tactical change and not have a ‘one way fits all situations’
    . It seemed to me that Spain, in the first half had not realised their failures in the last World Cup and recent Euro Comp. where, on both occasions they continued with the now redundent Barcelona-styled ‘ticki-tacki’ version of the game. Barcelona, had to make radical changes to their over-emphasis on possession and introduced more penetrative variation to their game. Spain, opened the game v England with a team that looked unable to play forward with more speed and penerative intention and this suited England’s tactics on the night. However, their was an obvious change to Spain’s game-style in the second half where they displayed a more positive approach that combined skilful possession and positive penetration with off-theball runs with more intent to deliver passes in behind England’s defence —a game-style that reflects the same change that Barcelona was forced to make!
    The most important tactical aspect here is Spain’s ability to make that change during a game. This is due entirely to the quality of their playing stock who have the playing skills and game understanding to make such tactical changes as situations demand. Individualism, is the framework on which the ability to produce variable tactical changes is achieved. I have said for decades that our game possesses the positive, direct aspects of the game but lacks the skilful requirements to formulate a more variable playing style. We must teach our young players the skills to play the game which includes the ability to combine the ‘short and long’ aspects — a la Spain/Barcelona.

  8. Arsene Wenger has been saying that Bournemouth manager, Eddie Howe, should forget any thoughts of applying for the England job in the foreseeable future because, as a relatively young man, he needs to develop the good work he has been doing at his club and fully utilise his coaching talents.
    I would basically agree with this but having thought that Howe was the best candidate in the frame for the job from the original applicants, I do not see why Howe could not combine continuing to manage and coach Bournemouth as well as taking on the England job. Does the National Team really need a full-time manager? The low number of English players currently playing in the Premier League means that it is quite easy for any manager to keep tabs on them whilst staying in his club job. The handful of international games each year would not take the England Manager away from his club duties for any great length of time and, of course, the major tournaments, World Cup and Euro, are in the summer.
    Wenger says that when he was Howe’s age he was coaching Monaco to the French League title and the French job was offered to him because of his work at that club. But Wenger turned down the opportunity and says that he has never regretted it, believing that the national team job is for someone in their sixties. I think that would only be the case if the National Team is the sole job of the manager, because the younger man always wants the day to day involvement of his club. If Howe has good staff at Bournemouth and is a good delegator, then it would tick over perfectly well when he is with England.
    Eddie Howe has gained a reputation as being one of the brightest of the young managers in England and I think that his development would be accelerated by coaching and managing at both club and national level.

    • Hi Steve. I disagree about the England job being a part-time occupation. In fact, if the situation was properly organised, the England Manager’s job should include his overall control of all national teams. He should be available at development get-togethers at all levels. In this way we might get some related game co-ordination throughout all our national levels.

  9. Hi John…I suggested a part-time position for Eddie Howe so that he can continue to gain coaching experience with Bournemouth.
    Yes, I agree that that the England manager should be the overall supremo for all the England teams and get a consistent development process in place throughout the whole structure. Ideally, he should also be the FA Director of Coaching, as Walter Winterbottom was many years ago. But do we have anyone who could really fit the bill for such an onerous position? I don’t think there is anyone who could fulfil this role and though I think that Gareth Southgate could do a decent job as England manager, his limited number of years in charge at Middlesbrough do not really give him an adequate background of experience.
    Southgate has worked for a number of years at the FA and while he has probably increased his knowledge during this time has he also improved his own personal performance? Well, only time will tell. Germany seem to have got their system right when it comes to appointing a new National Coach. Most of their National Coaches get the job after a good many years working for the DFB and the best ones work through the various age group teams as they prove their capabilities. Their club backgrounds do not seem to be taken as the most important factor. I believe that Joachim Lohr had a very moderate record in club managing/coaching and in fact was in charge of a team that was relegated from second to third tier. But his work for the German Federation got him the German Team and he has clearly proved his worth.
    In fairness to the FA, they have been promoting some young, ambitious coaches, who have performed well in Academy Football, to take charge of the age group teams. They must be examined closely and promoted quickly if they continue to realise their potential.

  10. Hi Steve. The FA have made selections as coaches for the various international teams they have. If they have made their selections and employed these coaches surely the sensible thing when a position becomes vacant is to promote from the coaches already involved and employ a new coach at their junior level.. As you say, the Germans do this and it has been successful for them. Surely our national coaching scheme can produce people of a standard to fit these jobs…….OR CAN IT!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s