THE DIARY OF A FOOTBALL COACH
DAY # 1:
REACHING LEVEL ONE
As I approached the venue for my first session of the Level 1 FA Coaching course, I did so with all the enthusiasm of a child being asked to brush his teeth. I knew it was something I had to do, that in the long run it would pay dividends. But actually, I could think of literally a million other things I'd rather do on a breathtakingly hot summer's day on the south east coastline.
I entered the clubhouse to see rows of desks and seats facing a projector screen and a man sat behind a laptop. I took the only seat left and glanced around to see an assortment of men and women all dressed as if ready for PE. I was pleasantly surprised to see a real range of ages and physical specimens. I had dreaded being the only person there over 20 something, but was relieved to see men and women who sat at both ends of the grey hair spectrum upon which I find myself at the age of 36. Self preservation aside, it was also nice to see that there is still a passion for the game at all ages in this country and that so many want to do it the right way. As the state of grassroots football continues to fall into disarray, it is heartening to see that at least the people involved at ground zero see the importance and the impact of what they do, and want to do it the best they can (or at least have been told that they have to by the respective youth teams they work within!)
Our host for the day is Darren Hare who enjoyed a career in non league football around the South East coast before embarking on a coaching career that has seen him work with Gillingham and Crystal Palace, standing in as caretaker manager for the Kent club on two occasions. He has coached England internationals and worked alongside former England manager Peter Taylor. However it is his persona, rather than his CV, that gives Darren his gravitas. Over the duration of our eight hour day he shows why he has been a successful coach - he has that quiet air of authority coupled with a sense of humour and above all else, an evident love of football and what he does.
The first thing Darren asks us to do is introduce ourselves to the person we are sat next to and learn why we’re all here. The story I hear back from my desk buddy is a variation of my own, and doubtless at least half of those in attendance today. Lee, like myself, is a parent who offered to help out in order to ensure the side his kid plays for doesn’t fold. In my case, my son had begun his football journey playing for the under 11 side. At the end of season awards in 2017, their manager at the time asked me if I would be able to help him out on match days - my willingness to run the line and wave a flag clearly marking me out for the step up to assistant manager.
Over the course of pre-season last summer, my responsibilities quickly grew from just marking out the Respect barriers (the FA initiative for youth football that acts as a police line keeping parents back from the pitch and reminding them to show ‘respect’ to officials and players etc.) and ensuring the water bottles where full. At first it was “Can you start the warm up sessions at training?”. Then “Could you manage the whole session?”. This quickly led to “How do you feel about just taking over the side?”. The reason for my quick ascension through the ranks was in no way down to my coaching acumen or footballing philosophy. It was because the manager who had been doing the job a) had only stepped in last minute the season before because another bloke had left the kids manager-less and b) he was/is an incredibly good coach and incredibly good coaches at grassroots level are like gold dust. He was wanted at higher levels within the club. He runs three other sides and oversee’s the clubs whole youth programme. My desire to keep my son involved in football and my inability to say no to anything meant that for the entirety of the 2017/18 season I was the manager of the Under 12 side, taking part in their first competitive season in the East Kent Youth League. On my own. Without any real idea what I was doing. And that’s why I am doing this course - to learn how to not ruin the footballing futures of a dozen kids before they’ve begun.
The next hour or so is spent considering what makes a good coach and what a good coach should be doing and working on. The key attributes that we came up with were they had to be engaging, enthusiastic and organised. We all spoke with a hint of admiration/pinch of resentment, about fellow coaches who just seem to be able to control the room. Coaches that when they talk the players listen and respond. It is a skill I am yet to master.
Darren gave us some advice on this in the form of an anecdote about body language and non verbal communication (it would be the first of many a trip down memory lane during the session, and whilst it could come across as self indulgent, it was anything but. It simply showed us that every coach has a learning curve).
This first tale involved a goalkeeper who had a very Karius-esqe performance in a match, basically costing his side a two goal lead. Having seen the lead literally slip through his 'keepers hands, Darren stood on the sideline, head in hands, before throwing his clipboard to the ground. A typical and entirely understandable reaction - but not one that gave his players the impression that they would get back into the lead.
The point of his story was that our body language says much more to our players than we consider in the moment. So when I arrived at training sessions last year, weary from my day at work, still needing to blow footballs up, lacking in equipment and saying ‘football stuff’ when asked ‘what we were doing today?’, I was inadvertently telling my players that I was at best, unprepared, at worst unbothered about them.
As this penny dropped, I envisioned Gareth Southgate during this years World Cup. His calm, assured manner, his commitment to his players, their game plan and his grace under pressure. How empowering for the his players to know the manager had complete faith in them and their ability. No wonder we all started to believe too.
It is definitely something I need to work on.
We were given other tips and hints as the day progressed. Set clear boundaries and rules for the players as it helps them to feel safe, which in turn helps them to focus on the tasks and instructions at hand. Try not to micromanage everything. Allow the kids to work things out for themselves and teach and learn from each other. Break your coaching session up into three parts; a ‘welcome task’, a main drill and then a ‘match’ to see if they can apply what they’ve learnt.
All of these nuggets of advice reminded me very much of the teacher training courses I went on years ago. I don’t know why the similarities hadn’t been clear to me before.
When the FA unveiled St.Georges Park back in 2012, they hoped it would become a Centre of Excellence for all things football in this country. They wanted to drastically improve the provisions of coaching available to all, and the multi-million pound complex would act as a university for those that wanted to learn the trade. In short it was an investment in the teachers of the game. It seems obvious then that these Level 1 courses should make that link clear.
The other side of the FA’s plan, alongside their new state of the art building, was to streamline what their coaches should be teaching - a philosophy for all to deliver. It is known as the England DNA and concentrates on three key aspects. How we play ‘In Possession’, ‘Out of Possession’ and how to recognise and what to do in the ‘Transition’ stage.
Darren explained and broke down for us the different aspects of play involved in each stage. The key principles of each, as well as the components that make them up. So for example, ‘In Possession’ we should encourage our players to consider how they are looking to penetrate the opposition, how they move, create space and try to be creative. This requires us to focus on components such as how they receive the ball, how they pass it, dribble with it coupled with their decision making.
It all seems so basic, and yet as a child who played football from the age of nine, it seems a million miles from the coaching I received. My experiences - as much as I loved them - largely consisted of standing in a gym, having a ball chucked at me, being told to control it, pass it back and then run to the back of the queue to await my next turn. This would be followed by going out to the concrete pitch outside to play a game.
Now, the FA have even produced a coaching ‘manual’ that has hundreds of age appropriate coaching drills that aid in the development of the principles and skills that make up the England DNA. We didn’t see that on day one (although I have downloaded a version), but am hoping to learn more about it as the course develops.
Following his breakdown of the England DNA and the three stages we as coaches should be working on, Darren led us outside to show us some examples of ‘Welcome tasks’ we could use. The key point of these was to a) stop kids just arriving and blasting balls about whilst we as coaches set up the session and b) to act as a lead in to whatever the session was aiming to work on. So if you plan to work on the ‘In Possession’ stage, and the principles of support play, have your arrival activity relate to this. The key to a good ‘Welcome Task’ is that it is fun, game related and has room to be expanded on later in the session.
Having learnt from the man, it was then our turn to show what we could do. We were put into groups by the ages of the kids we were coaching, and told that over the next three weeks we would all have to deliver a session. Whoever went on day one would do the arrival activity, week two the main session and week three would oversee a ‘game’. All three of our drills should be linked to show how they would follow each other during an actual training session.
I didn’t volunteer as tribute for our trio. That display of bravery was left to John, who said he would go first. Darren told us that our drills had to work on the ‘In Possession’ skills and so we sat and discussed the components we could try to develop. We decided on passing, movement, support play and decision making. The activity we came up with was effectively a game of keep ball with six players aiming to complete 10 passes before the two ‘defender's’ could intercept the ball. If they completed 10 passes they scored a point, if the defender's intercepted they scored a point. After two minutes the ‘team’ with the most points would win and give the losers a forfeit.
We, and the other trio’s then went out and delivered our sessions. We recorded them as well as the feedback from Darren and our fellow coaches and were asked to later reflect on the advice, taking it forward into our second day of the course. It was a really enriching experience and helped us to see the good of what we had tried to do, as well as how it could be better. It helped us to recognise what isn’t working and how to correct it as well as seeing further coaching opportunities within the drills.
Darren had said at the start of the day that if we finished the course and weren’t more excited about the coaching journey we were embarking on, he would consider that a failure on his part. I still have a further four Sunday's that I have to give up before I complete the course, but I can say I will be looking forward to next week's session with much more enthusiasm than I did the first, so he is definitely doing something right.
Read more from Greg here.