Changing the culture of a nation’s grassroots football coaches is a slow process when decades of bad habits need correcting. We were well into the 21st century before the Football Association realised the decline of street and schools football meant young players were learning the game in structured leagues “coached” by parents. While well-meaning, these volunteers usually lacked training in both educational methods and football techniques; they were often also more interested in winning matches than long-term player development.
The consequences can be seen from the parks, where wannabe Mourinhos are still barking orders to nine-year-olds, to the Premier League, where barely a third of players are native.
The FA is trying to make up for lost decades. Having drastically overhauled the courses that lead to Uefa A and B licences, and sought to raise the status of coaches with a series of initiatives, it created youth modules targeted at coaches who work with children.
Youth Module 1 focused on the environment, both in training and matches. The old win-at-all-costs martinet style was out, in its place a child-centred philosophy that encouraged coaches to let their players learn through guided discovery rather than instruction. There was an emphasis on rotating positions, providing equal playing time, praise rather than criticism. When I took the course I thought it outstanding and the initiative has continued to be extremely well received.
YM1 is just the first of three modules. With England’s senior team in Alicante last night, facing a Spanish team that has won three senior and 16 junior titles in the last 20 years (to England’s two), it was time to investigate YM2.
This, I discovered on a four-day course that combined classroom and training ground, looks at the structure of practice. In particular, how to design sessions to meet the FA’s “four corner” approach, and do so in a realistic fashion. The four corner philosophy aims to fulfil four needs: technical (including tactical), social, psychological and physical. Crudely put, an exercise needs to improve the child’s playing ability, build social skills (eg communication and self-esteem), develop aspects such as decision-making and problem-solving, and enhance such physical elements as fitness, agility and co-ordination. To do this coaches need to know their players as individuals, and appreciate differences in maturity, motivation and personality.
Chris McGinn, who has worked with clubs including Arsenal and Queen’s Park Rangers and now combines teaching coaches with guiding the GB Deaf team to the 2015 European Championship bronze, was the lead tutor. He was joined for two days apiece by Andy Ritchie, a former academy coach with Chelsea and Crystal Palace, and Tessa Payne, back coaching full-time after a spell combining it with FA administration. All three were able to draw on a deep well of experience from working with eight- and nine-year olds to players such as John Terry and Cesc Fabregas.
The 24 of us were divided into four groups based on the ages of the children we oversee. We would work in teams, debating issues, presenting and critiquing practices. Much of the benefit is in the conversations coaches have with each other, discussing problems they have come across. The majority of my fellow students, an ethnically mixed all-male group, who ranged from late teens to early fifties, coached as grassroots volunteers, but many aspired to gain paid employment in the game. Those who had already done so hoped the expertise and qualification gained would help them progress up the ladder.
We were shown a series of loose templates, from which a variety of exercises could be developed. Language was emphasised. Instead of players being told to do something, stifling creativity, they should be “challenged” to try it, which means they still feel able to choose other, maybe better, options.
The equation between repetition and realism was considered. Take a session devoted to improving short passing. A player hitting a ball against a wall is able to hone his passing, but will not have to make any difficult decisions regarding timing, movement, etc. Playing a four-v-one in a box will still allow for a lot of passing, but with a variable introduced – the defender – which forces players to think about when they pass, and who to. Progressing the practice to a five-a-side brings realism, but fewer opportunities to practise the target skill. With eight-year-old grassroots players the first exercise may be a good place to start; 16-year-old academy players would be bored immediately.
Match-related practice needs to be realistic, a judgement that also needs to take into account the ability and age of the players. Take “defending when overloaded”. At an academy Under-18s team that might mean teaching a full-back how to deal with an overlap. In the Under-nines match it is more likely to involve one isolated defender suddenly finding four kids running at him or her with the ball from the halfway line.
Although the tutors said the course was aimed at all youth coaches, from grassroots to academy, it felt more geared to the latter than YM1 had been, with deeper consideration of such topics as biomechanics, overuse injuries and the relative-age effect. This seemed reasonable and appropriate. A third of the students had paid their own way, a third were fully funded (by their club or employer). All were complimentary, the large majority believing the course (full cost £175) was good value.
The biggest problem with the course is that not enough people are taking it. This is related to a lack of tutors, the legacy both of decades of neglect, the increase in coaching opportunities in the professional game following the arrival of (the Elite Player Performance Plan, and the rarity of enhanced academy pay rates for having the youth modules. They thus attract only the already open-minded.
Steve Harper, the former Newcastle United goalkeeper, for example, has just completed YM2. He told The Independent that, though he had the Uefa A licence, “I wanted to increase my knowledge and found the courses very beneficial, not only for drills but regarding type of practice etc.”
However, there are still too many coaches qualifying, most with nothing like Harper’s experience in the game, who have not been exposed to the player-centric approach. They are easy to recognise on a touchline at weekends – they are the ones fixated on winning, shouting at their child teams. Less obvious is what they are doing in training, which is where the value of YM2 lies.
In an attempt to draw them into the fold the FA is reviewing its coach education courses, with changes likely to involve incorporating the youth module into the core courses, levels 1, 2 and 3, which comprise the Uefa B licence. It is not before time.
Glenn Moore attended FA Youth Module 2 via Surrey FA. Course costs vary, often being cheaper outside the South-east. Discounts are usually available for coaches at Charter Standard clubs.