When I volunteered to coach my son's football team I reeled off my qualifications to reassure parents I would not metamorphose into the Ray Winstone character from the FA's Respect advertisements once a ball was kicked: Uefa B licence, the FA's first aid and safeguarding children certificates, a CRB check. The parents were impressed; unfortunately, the kids were not.
When I finished my first session and asked for feedback they replied: "It was boring." I realised that while I was theoretically qualified to coach teenagers and adults, the pre-teens were another matter.
I was not alone. The FA has realised that the overhaul of coach education over the last 15 years, while laudable in many respects, largely overlooked the key age-group most receptive to learning – the five- to 11-year-olds.
Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, recalled when they recruited Tesco skills coaches (a scheme which sends specialists into schools and clubs), "many of those who had very good CVs, right up to A licence, put on terrible sessions in which the kids neither enjoyed nor understood what the coach was trying to do."
The demise of street football and its replacement by a result-centred formal structure has meant pre-teens have increasingly been told how to play by well-meaning volunteers focusing on the weekend match rather than learning for themselves through experiment. Also filling the void have been a number of commercial ventures which, while good for developing technique, often lack a match context ("line-dancing for football", said one coach derisively).
This has produced players who lack the combination of technique, awareness and decision-making which will be so evident when Spain come to Wembley on Friday.
Disinclined to take risks players pass instead of dribbling, and clear the ball rather than play it out from the back.
To remedy this, the FA has developed the Youth Award, aimed at coaches who work with pre-teens from grass roots to professional academies.
One of the tutors is Chris McGinn, a coach who has worked with many pro clubs. He said: "In the past, as a coach's qualifications and technical expertise have increased, they have left the kids behind. The aim of this course is to produce coaches who have a greater depth of knowledge relating to the young player."
McGinn was my tutor last month as I sought to fill the gap exposed in my coaching education by the Under-10s. Module one (of three) of the FA Youth Award was a four-day non-assessed course with about a quarter of the time on the park, the rest in the classroom.
The latter involved all manner of modern educational techniques including role-playing and group discussions – in short, plenty of opportunities for problem-solving and guided discovery, the philosophy that now underpins the coaching of children.
"Traditionally we have taught what to coach; this is about how to coach," said Les Howie, the FA's head of grass roots coaching. "There are thousands of drills around on the internet now [which coaches can find for themselves]. This is about how you motivate and excite children, and what methods of communication you use to encourage them to learn. It is player-centred."
On the ground this means presenting drills (see right) in which the children feel they have "ownership" and make decisions, perhaps by determining the size of the playing area themselves, or devising their own tactics, all the time being guided – not told – by the coach.
McGinn gave an example of coaching a dribbling session. "Instead of telling the child 'Do this', ask 'Can you get past him?' Thierry Henry would use pace, Dennis Bergkamp balance and agility. If a player believes he has come up with the answer himself it is more likely to stick. When it breaks down the coach uses his technical knowledge to guide them." McGinn recalled a session at Arsenal in which a new teenage recruit attempted a pass which the centre-half cut out. Instead of telling him he should have played the ball over the top, former England coach Don Howe, who was running the session, asked him what he was attempting. The player explained he intended to play what they realised was the equivalent of a snooker screw shot, in which he put so much backspin on the pass it would hold up for the striker running on to it. He had simply mis-hit it.
That was when Howe and McGinn realised that in Cesc Fabregas Arsenal had signed a diamond. "Don was always asking players, 'What did you see? What did you try and do?'" said McGinn.
There is a lot of emphasis on psychology, the need to promote self-esteem, and to let children learn by making mistakes, rather than being scared of experimenting. Physiology, including growth spurts and the signs of over-use injuries, is also covered.
Some of the advice was very relevant to professional academies (such as the pros and cons of playing early or late developers in an age-group more appropriate to their size). Other aspects were helpful in a parenting context, not just a coaching one. Around half the students, whose age varied from 19 to the 50s, were employed in some capacity in football, at least six associated with league clubs. Others were seeking a career in the game.
That will encourage the FA, which is working towards a situation where it is mandatory for staff in the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) academy system to have age-appropriate training.
I found the course eye-opening, thought-provoking and deserving of the acclaim it has received within the coaching fraternity.
It is sure to improve the experience of youngsters at grass roots level and, together with developments such as EPPP, more small-sided games, and the addressing of birthdate bias, may even help produce an English Fabregas.
Youth module is an exercise in fun
Ownership, decision-making, fun: these are the buzz-words of the youth module and this exercise illustrates how they can be realised.
Set-up Four "guards" are given four coloured cones each and told to mark out their own square in a corner of a coned-off rectangle. The other children are divided into teams, one ball per team.
Play The children pass the ball, by hand, to each of the guards in whatever order they choose. First team back with the ball to their "box" (an area on the sideline) wins. The guards are asked if, now they know the game, they are happy with the size of their square. They can change it if they wish. After the first round, teams are asked to discuss their tactics among themselves. After the second round the winning team explains its tactics and all teams have the chance to reassess what they are doing.
Progression Once the children have mastered the principles they are told they can use their feet instead of hands. On the course the adults continued to throw the ball, until told to kick, my under-10 team moved on to kicking as soon as there was a choice. A goal net at each end is introduced with teams told they finish by scoring in either goal.
Aims The session empowers the children as they get to decide the size of the boxes, and their tactics. The latter also develops teamwork. Explaining how they won builds self-esteem. Once they begin kicking the ball it improves the techniques of passing, receiving, turning and running with the ball. It enhances spatial awareness. It is competitive. And it's fun.
FA course details
FA Youth Award modules one and two are provided by FA-approved tutors through county FAs. Mine, via the Surrey FA, cost £150 (£120 for Chartered Standard clubs; county fees vary). Ten of the 24 attending received funding through their clubs or leagues, but the vast majority of those who paid their own way also thought it good value. Module three is provided and assessed by the national FA (£325-£455).