A short course with shortcomings

FOOTBALL: Coaching is a controversial subject, but how are coaches themselves coached? Glenn Moore found out
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A wintry day in South London: it has been raining for three hours and it is freezing. The sports field is deserted except for 15 sodden footballers and an apparently demented grey-haired old fellow who keeps leaping from side-to-side shouting "you have got to keep the clock ticking".

This is Arthur Hammond, coach to the starmakers. He's pushing 60, a welder by trade and a football coach by desire. We are apprentice coaches taking the Football Association's Preliminary Badge. This will entitle us to work at the many Schools of Excellence that are sprouting at professional clubs, to make a few bob teaching American kids in the States, and generally be a bit flash about our supposed football knowledge.

It will also make us part of a nebulous body of (primarily) men who are frequently blamed for British players' lack of technique and whose standard and practice are under attack at present.

While the FA is looking at overhauling the coaching structure, it is the Professional Footballers' Association that is setting the pace, having already produced a deeply researched and broad-based critique of current practice and future development.

The report, "A Kick in the Right Direction", is highly critical of the FA coaching department's educational standards and emphasis. It believes the current coaching awards, the Preliminary and Full Badge, are inadequate. It is a view the FA is slowly coming to agree with and, this week, its coaching department met the PFA officials who had implicitly criticised them in the report.

It was a potentially tense meeting. The FA's coaching `Godfather', Charles Hughes, is not given to publicity or enthusiastic about criticism, having received a barrel-load of it after the failure of his disciple, Graham Taylor, as England manager.

In the event it was described as `conciliatory' and, though neither side are willing to go into details, further meetings are planned and the likely consequence is greater professional involvement.

The present courses are overseen by Hughes, the FA's long-serving Director of Coaching. He is widely regarded as the high priest of long-ball football and the popular belief is that coaches are taught direct play to the exclusion of all else.

That suspicion is strengthened when you buy the course books, The Winning Formula and Soccer Skills and Tactics, which are written by Hughes. The latter is obsessed with statistics. Did you know that 79 per cent of goals are preceded by moves of four passes or fewer; that long forward passes are an element of 27 per cent of goals; and 64 per cent of goals are scored through headers? No? You probably would not care either, except that these statistics helped persuade the last England manager to adopt some of his most criticised policies.

So, armed with a pair of boots, enough figures to pass the maths GCSE, and some trepidation, I went to the NatWest sports ground in Norbury to learn to be a coach. Courses vary, but are at least 26 hours and cost between £40 and £80. This one, through the Surrey FA, cost £55 and consisted of six successive six-hour Sunday sessions and a few hours' weekly written homework.

A reasonable level of fitness and technical proficiency are required. On alternate Sundays the students are taught techniques and then demonstrate how they would coach them. Assessment is in five parts: the three practical coaching demonstrations, a written paper on coaching theory and an examination on the Laws of the Game. All five parts must be passed.

My colleagues were a disparate group ranging from 18 to late thirties in age and from accountant and hairdresser to student and journalist in occupation. All were male. Some were there with a view to making a career from coaching, others to improve their own game, the game of the team they manage or simply to make sense of the game they write about.

On the first session we concentrated on basic skills; turning, trapping, heading, passing. The sort of things you should have been taught at school but were not because all the kids ever wanted to do was play, not learn.

They still do, which was why Arthur was constantly encouraging us to make it fun, to enjoy it, to pump some life into what we were doing. When you have 20 10-year-olds to control, it is a sight easier if they want to do what they are told. Being well organised also helps you to retain their concentration and considerable emphasis was placed on that aspect.

As the weeks went by we graduated to small-sided games. Six against six (not everybody survived the course) with the play frozen - a bit like the players - and defenders and forwards guided to where they should be. A similar process, using video, has enabled Gerry Francis to tighten the Tottenham defence.

We soon realised that when teaching a technique, the person you do not use in your demonstration is the guy who can do it properly. Only if he is doing it wrong can you demonstrate how you would step in and teach him the right way.

Some of it - shooting, volleying, watching someone else demonstrating diving headers on a muddy day - was a lot of fun. Attempting to provide accurate crosses in a swirling wind as a student tried to coach goalkeeping techniques was less so.

Encouragingly there was no mention of statistics at all and, though there was a slight emphasis on moving the ball forward quickly, there was no overt espousal of direct play.

Last year more than 5,000 took the course. Just over a quarter passed. Success enables you to move on, via a preparatory course, to the Advanced course for the Full Badge. This costs £540 and involves a two-week residential stay, usually at Lilleshall. Last year 163 people took this, including 29 in a special course for prison officers. The rest were divided between professionals, who sit one course, and the general public, who do another.

Before the criticism, the praise. If you have ever wondered about taking one of these courses, do so. Even if you never coach a team in your life, you will watch it and play it with a far greater appreciation of both the nuances and the broader picture. It is a considerable commitment (especially in winter) but it is well worth it.

But they are not adequate preparation for coaching the lite players of tomorrow. I passed but do not feel capable of teaching a dozen 15-year- olds, who are probably better players already, how to master the Matthews Move (after Sir Stanley). In time, with further coaching experience, I would - but that is unfair to the first few groups I would deal with.

The course also makes no mention of nutrition, physiology - very important when dealing with players with developing bodies - sports medicine and injuries, warm-ups and warm-downs. The PFA would like to see all these included on a 12-hour course similar to those on the continent. They would also like to see the next stage, the Advanced course, made much more extensive. Successful attendance would be compulsory for professional club managers, as it is in countries like Germany.

At present, for holders of the Preliminary Badge, there is no compulsion to continue learning. Various associations, like the Surrey Football Coaches Association, and the FA, do provide courses but you do not have to do them to retain your qualification.

This, like much else, is likely to change. It will cost money, not least in raising the wages of coaches, but the game, as a whole, is not short of cash. It is short of talented young players and coaches.

For details of coaching courses contact your county association. The FA (0171 402 7151) can provide addresses.

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