Prioritizing Youth Development

When developing youth players you are helping the players improve their decision making and the executions of these decision in the context of football. Now, for some reason this is not something that everyone seams to understand and as a result there are youth players all over the world doing a lot of strange things besides playing football in training. In this post the subject of training with multiple groups/teams during a single training week will be looked at. In some countries there is a ’quantity discussion’ since they are prioritizing different external interests instead of developing football players that we will shortly discuss before moving on to the non-existing quality discussion.

Imagine going to the gym in the morning to lift weights and then going back to the gym after work repeating the session, will you be 100% recovered from the morning when you start the session after work? Of course not, this is impossible due to the muscle damage (more or less) picked up in the morning. You may feel ’not tired’ when you start your after work session, but you felt more fresh in the morning. For football players, this means that when the players train twice a day, they arrive to the second session without being fully recovered from the morning session. They start the second session fatigued, more or less. When this fatigue accumulates over time, odds are the body of the player will at some time step in and protect the player from its surroundings through injury or illness that gives the player time to rest and recover. It is important to remember that it’s not normal to become injured or ill, even though it seams like too many football coaches think so.

Given these facts it’s obvious that you should only train football once a day, so the burn-out problem in youth players is mostly solved. But let’s zoom out from the now settled ’quantity discussion’ and look at the effects of the quality of football development. What is the consequence for youth players when they train with two or more sets of team-mates (other players) and multiple coaches on different days in the same week? What happens when a player is training one session with one group of players and the next day trains with another group of players? Are these two groups who contain different players using the exact same playing style and therefore the tactical reference is the same in both groups? Or might there be a difference in the tactical reference (the playing style) from one group to the other which means that the job of the player might be vastly different even when playing in the same position in both groups?

This example of potentially different tactical references visualizes the fact that communication between players and their interpretation of the surroundings will be compromised when training with different groups of players one day after the other. Just imagine that you are playing in a central midfield role with one group and developing certain habit patterns and behaviors that make you a very successful player in this surrounding. However, these same habits and behaviors turn out to be counterproductive or even unacceptable in the second group you are training with. If your behavior on game day is the one learnt from the ’wrong’ group you will perform worse than you could’ve done otherwise. As a youth player this poor performance might lead you to think that you are not able to perform at this level and you might end up on the bench as a result. This makes the negative thinking spiral and ’thinking that you can’t do it’ might soon be a common thought in games and trainings. The question you have to ask yourself as a player is if you are only wasting your time in these trainings or if you are actually becoming a worse player?

Now you may be thinking that we have a problem with this picture, and this is before we have  covered the fact that all players in these different groups are different individuals who have their own personal non-verbal communication (body language) and decision making. So even if these two groups were to use exactly the same tactical reference, there could be other problems, so let’s look at a couple of examples of what could happen. Imagine being the central midfielder again, in the one group you would have a right winger who comes towards you wanting to receive the ball in the feet. However, when the right winger of the second group comes towards you it is to drag the defender out, turn and get the ball in the space behind. Now imagine a striker in the first group who has a defender on the right side and calls for the ball, wanting to receive it to the left. The striker in the second group, being in the same position with a defender to the right wants to receive the ball in front to use their body to turn the defender away and go the other way. Could this lead to miscommunication between you and your team-mates and as a result some ’bad passes’ in the game on Saturday?

These two groups may be different teams in one club, it could be club and regional team, club and school programs or any other variant with different groups. The problem is the same in each scenario. As a consequence of continually exposing players to different groups during the training week, the decision making of youth players are being underdeveloped. When the surrounding is constantly changing from day to day the level of communication between players is lower and the information required to make good decision is less. When you add things like growth spurt and hormonal changes with the effects on the thinking of youth players into the mix you will probably agree that this practice by adults, constantly changing the surroundings for these youth players, is irresponsible at best.

Creating a safe environment for youth players should be of the highest priority for all coaches. An environment where the player can think about their football actions and improving their decision making instead of thinking about who they will play with, what pitch to train on, what color shirt to wear today and what coach to listen to. This does not mean that a player should never train with a second group to test that level, however constantly changing groups and/or teams from day to day may not be very smart.

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Protect it

What happens when you are in a position of power and notice that someone below you in the hierarchy threatens your position as the proverbial top dog? Back in the old days when the King felt threatened by an underling he simply ordered them killed and the problem was solved. The King knew that if the threat to his position wasn’t removed, nature would run its course and he would eventually be replaced as King. But what does any of this have to do with football in general and coaching in particular?

Well, if we disregard the killing part, and exchange ’King’ with ’Coach’ you might recognize this behavior from clubs or teams where protecting one’s position as head coach is more important than improving players. This protectionist behavior could be a natural response to a string of bad results when a coach becomes fearful of being fired and isolates themselves and their loyal servants from the rest of the world. It is also possible that a protectionist behavior stems from the underdeveloped culture that the coach is working in, club or country, or it could simply be the consequence of a coach with low intelligence and who is lacking knowledge. Usually in bigger leagues, you sometimes see this protectionist behavior arise in clubs that are struggling, a common precursor to a coaching change, which is ironic since the fear of being fired could be one of the major reasons to become protectionist in the first place. However, in smaller countries and lower level leagues this type of behavior could be cultural, meaning that it is represents the normal and not the abnormal way for a head coach to behave. In these countries and leagues, the one eyed is King.

Imagine you are working in a coaching staff for a club that has historically been doing pretty well. Now, despite their relative success, you have identified a range of areas that could be improved in order to achieve better training, better players and increase the chance of promotion. In preseason you sat down with the head coach and talked about the things you identified and explained that if you could implement some changes the quality of the sessions would improve dramatically.  When you explained these things your head coach looked somewhat dumbfounded but you were given the go-ahead to implement some of your suggestions in preseason training. The suggestions rejected by the head coach was due to the fact that it was not something the head coach had done before and things had been going quite well anyhow.

You were allowed to implement some of your suggestions early in the preseason when the head coach appeared to be less interested in the sessions. However, a couple of bad results at the end of preseason made the head coach change things around both in games and in the training sessions, guess what things were discarded first? When the season begins and your team starts by losing the first three games, all of the suggestions you implemented in preseason are gone. The head coach stop listening to you and reverts to doing things the way it was done the year before since they didn’t lose the first three games that year. You notice that the directors of the club think that the head coach made a smart decision in reverting to the old ways that worked before, and you might somewhat agree since the team did in fact lose the first three games of the season. This thinking is common in the lands of the ”blind”. However, what is the long term consequence of always doing the same things every season?

When the head coach closes the door on you and the other assistants and revert back to doing things the way they have always been done, the protectionist is in place. Imagine yourself being the head coach in this example. What is the consequence of shutting out your assistant coaches who come with suggestions on how to improve your training sessions and the team? Not only will your training sessions always be at the level they have always been, your players will hardly improve if you as their head coach show them that you’re not interested in improving yourself.

When you as the head coach close the door, or removes the perceived threat, the protectionist culture is in place and your assistant coaches will refrain from coming with future suggestions and ideas that could improve your team. Within a short period of time you also risk building up resentment from those who are supposed to help you which means you’re left with the only option that was available to the ancient kings. Getting rid of those coaches and players who are threatening your position on the throne.

”It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” – Steve Jobs

Now, odds are the losses at the end of preseason and the start of the season had less to do with the improvements in the training session you implemented and more to do with other factors. If it was your improvements that was the problem, shouldn’t they been discarded earlier in the preseason and not after 8 preseason games and the first loss? Your head coach should recognize that continuous improvement is one of the corner stones in good organizational leadership and be thankful for having good assistant coaches. Isolating yourself from the outside world when things are bad and thinking that you can do it all on your own is never the solution.

Turn It Around

Imagine a team that is over-performing in the first half of the season to the degree that they are in the top of their league. All of a sudden they start losing every game and towards the end of the season they find themselves on the verge of relegation. What might be the reason for a team that has been over-performing predictions in the first half of the season to suddenly fall into a long losing streak? More importantly, what can you as the coach of such a team do to turn a long losing streak around and save your team from potential relegation?

There may be many different reasons for a team to over-perform in the beginning of a season, ranging from the timing of when you play who and where to the simple, but difficult to comprehend, factor of luck. Nevertheless, the interesting part in our example is not why the team is over-performing but what happens to players and coaches when it does. How is the thinking of players and coaches affected when their team that was predicted to struggle and finish in the lower half of the table over-perform and find themselves in a position to potentially challenge for the title? Are they still thinking actions and tasks or are they thinking how good they are all of a sudden? Imagine yourself being the coach of this team, wouldn’t it be easy to start thinking about the increased attention your team is receiving? Your players who were predicted to be in the lower half of the table all of a sudden find themselves in this new and surprising situation of being touted as a top team. Could this affect the thinking of your players? Is it possible that they may start thinking consequence (positive or negative) instead of thinking actions?

Imagine walking down the sidewalk and looking at your phone while thinking reading article instead of thinking avoiding garbage can. Suddenly you are realizing that your foot hurts after banging into the garbage can that all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere. Now, you know that this pain in your foot is your own fault and the logical consequence of thinking reading article on your phone instead of thinking walking on the sidewalk. Applying this analogy to our example of the over-performing team it makes sense that when players and coaches start thinking about something else than actions and tasks you risk banging your foot on the garbage can all of a sudden. The question is if you as the coach are able to realize that it’s your own fault that you banged the garbage can and have the ability to correct your thinking to be more aware of the sidewalk and as a result increase the chance of avoiding a long losing streak that brings your team on the verge of relegation.

What are some of the common traps coaches fall into when they find themselves in this situation with a sudden losing streak after a successful start of the season? The biggest mistake is of course to ignore the garbage can entirely and only blame the external factors; ”it came out of nowhere”, ”someone else put it there” or ”the pain in my foot comes from something else”. Coaches who ignore the facts and blame the surroundings instead of holding themselves accountable have a greater risk of making the following mistakes. For example, a coach thinking external factors might start to make many changes to the lineup in an attempt to counteract these external factors, real problems or not. In the middle of a losing streak you not only see coaches changing the lineup from game to game but you also see coaches who attempt to change their playing style midseason and introduce new formations from game to game. All this to fight the symptoms of pain instead of fighting the disease of not thinking walking on sidewalk.

What is the consequence for your players when the lineup is changed after each game? What if you introduce new formations and change the playing style midseason? Naturally, the level of communication between the players drops since they are playing with new team-mates from game to game. When introducing a new formation or a new playing style in the middle of the losing streak you also risk that the players decision making take longer since they find themselves in a new surrounding with new directions. In other words, the players are not sure what to think, they are exposed to uncertainty since they don’t know who will play or even how they will play from game to game. Instead of players thinking about their own actions you now have players thinking about the coach’s actions and the consequences these might have for them.

Switching the thinking of your players and coaches back to actions and tasks in the middle of a losing streak is by no means an easy task. The higher the pressure from the outside world is, the harder it is for players to think actions instead of thinking consequences. However, as a coach it is a good idea to not make things worse for yourself by falling into the traps described earlier. This scenario of being in the middle of a losing streak might also be a very good opportunity for a coach who is leading like a teacher or a manager to switch leadership style and start coaching like a commander. Simplifying the decision making process for the players by limiting their options for a period of time will help them to start thinking actions instead of thinking consequences. When you snap the losing streak and return to a situation when your coaches and players are again thinking actions and tasks instead of external factors you can switch back to your earlier leadership style.

This scenario of a team drastically over-performing in the first half of the season only to fall into a long losing streak that puts them on the verge of relegation might seam a bit extreme. However, the main point of this example have been to visualize one of the biggest challenges for coaches and players during a long season; the ability to maintain thinking actions and tasks regardless of the external factors and the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of games. If you are able to maintain thinking actions throughout your season the chance of your team performing more stable increases dramatically.

Top Down

What do you see when looking around on the internet or when you are at coaching seminars? Do you mostly see objective information about the game and how to improve your knowledge or is it mostly the flavor of the month, a quick fix to be a successful coach and books about drills? You probably recognize that in these environments it’s mostly the quick fix that is bated around for gullible coaches to bite and swallow. Drills and ”methods” that has worked well in someones environment and that is sold as universal even though it is per definition a subjective application based on their external factors, not yours.

It is interesting to think about where this need for a quick fix comes from and why there are so many coaches buying books filled with drills instead of learning about the game. Imagine if your child’s teacher would buy books on the execution of a class-session instead of learning thoroughly about the subject they are teaching at the university. How would that make you feel as a parent, knowing that your child’s teacher doesn’t really know what they are talking about, but only applying someone else’s session and subjective experiences? The teacher would have to hope that something sticks with your child so that they can claim learning has taken place and that they have done their job.

Could it be that this behavior by coaches of looking for drills instead of learning objectively about the game has something to do with what happened at their first coaching course? Think back to when you walked into the room at your first coaching course and reflect on how the structure of the course was and what kind of information was presented. Did the coach educator start with an objective reference of the characteristics of the game or was it straight into subjective application and experiences?

”Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

Imagine walking into that room with an urge to learn about football and expecting a coach educator who would teach you about the game in an objective way. Unfortunately, the coach educator probably started by sharing knowledge based on subjectivity, either from the experiences of the coach educator or the information put together by the federation with good intentions, but a poor and subjective chaos as a result. There was probably a nice looking Power Point presentation and a very nice coach educator. However, the presentation had too much information and you probably struggled to make sense of the context and structure. The coach educator gave you some advise that may or may not have been relevant for you and you discussed everyones favorite drills as ll the coaches in the room shared their experiences.

What is wrong with this picture of your official introduction to coaching football? Imagine yourself sitting there during the course and feeling like you were told what to do in terms of drills and coaching methods. Odds are you wouldn’t really understand why that drill was good or why that method was the way to coach because something was missing. It could be that when the coach educator showed you some drills you where happy that there was finally something that you could understand, take note of and bring back home. However, it’s also possible that you recognized this top down style of education from school and your time in the classroom many years ago. You didn’t like it then and you don’t like it now. What do you remember from school anyway?

After finishing your first coaching course you received a certificate that says that you are now a competent coach, even though you didn’t learn anything except some drills. These drills where recommended to you by someone because it worked for them in their environment with their external factors. As a certified coach when someone asks you to describe what football is, you end up using words that you heard last night on TV and respond with non-contextual words like ”feelings”, ”enjoyment” and ”passion” while struggling to keep a straight face. Maybe you are lucky enough to recognize that you don’t really know what you are talking about and think to yourself ”why wasn’t I educated about what football is when I attended my first coaching course?”.

Instead of this subjective top down coach education, the solution for federations worldwide is to first educate coaches about the game in an objective and factual way. When the context of football is clear, coaches can come up with their own drills and subjective methods suited for their external factors. Instead of giving away drills and quick fixes to coaches the federation should provide these coaches with an objective way of thinking about football. ”Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. If coaches are taught objective knowledge about the game they will have the competence to design drills that suits their subjective environment and their playing style for the rest of their career.

What is football?

In earlier posts we have put things that the football coach does into the context of which the coach operates. For example, we have discussed that the way you coach should be decided by the context, the sport you are coaching and only thereafter the external factors in your specific situation. In this post we will look at the overarching context for everything on this blog, namely the game of football. The purpose of this post is to give you an objective description of the game, a frame of reference for your coaching.

First and foremost football is a game which is defined as a competitive activity played according to rules that are specific to the sport. Moreover, football is a team sport, meaning two or more players working together while competing with another team to win the game. Football is played with 11 players on each team with the consequence of a game that is extremely complex. Due to this complexity the game is simplified for younger players by reducing the number or players on both teams.

As previously noted, the objective of the team game football is to win the game. This is done by, within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent. The ’within the rules of the game’ part is important to notice. Imagine that you were allowed to pick up the ball with your hands and run to the other side of the pitch and throw it into the opponents goal to score. It would be much easier to control the ball with your hands than trying to control a spherical object with your feet. However, the rules of the game states that you are not allowed to control the ball with your hands (except for the goalkeeper inside the penalty box) and that is only one rule that makes the game more difficult than it could be. Also, it should be noted that it can sometimes can be of a higher order for a team to not lose a game instead of winning if this point will help the team reaching a greater objective of winning the league or staying up at a certain level.

To summarize, the objective of football is not to ”play well”, ”keep possession” or ”have fun” even though these are common answers from coaches all over the world when asked what the objective of football is. No, the objective of football is to, within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent and as a consequence win the game. Does this mean that the players shouldn’t have fun? Of course not. Playing a game and competing against others are what is fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or chess, the competitiveness of these different games and your autonomy as a player to execute decisions are what makes it fun. Imagine you are playing chess and you’re constantly getting told by the chess coach what move to execute next, would you want to keep playing over time? What if you where not allowed to play chess to win, but the way you moved the pieces was regarded as more important. Would you keep playing or would you eventually throw the chess board up in the air and walk away?

So players have fun if they are allowed to play the game without someone telling them what to do all the time, but they should ”keep possession” all the time, right? No. First it’s important to understand that keeping possession is not an objective by itself and that scoring one more goal than the opponent is of a higher order. When you score a goal you actually give away possession since the other team will start with the ball after you score. Therefore if you say that your highest objective is to keep possession, you are saying that you do not want to score a goal. Secondly, you cannot score a goal (by yourself, the other team can score an own goal) unless you are in possession so it is important to regain possession after you lost possession. Keeping possession for the sake of keeping possession makes no sense and is not football. However there are moments during the game where keeping possession might be very important, for example when you are 1-0 up and it’s 5 minutes left of the game and you can win by not giving the ball away.

Ok, the objective of the game of football is to, within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent. But it’s equally important to ”play well”, right? What is ’playing well’? When you and you friend are watching a game you might think that team A is playing well but your friend doesn’t think so and says that team B is playing much better. Who is right, you or your friend? Both are of course right since ’playing well’ is a subjective interpretation by whoever is observing the game. What you as a coach might think is ’playing well’, your board might not agree with and as a consequence you have a problem. To ”play well” is a subjective interpretation of how the different team functions are being executed by your team and therefore of a lower order than the objective characteristics of the game.

Now you might be thinking ’what do you mean by team functions’? Well, in football there are three team functions; attacking, transition and defending which all have different objectives that are connected to the main objective of ’within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent’.

Attacking
When a player on your team has the ball under control (in possession) your team is per definition attacking. This means that all of your players are attacking when someone on your team has the ball. When the striker has the ball, your goalkeeper is also attacking and the other way around. The objective of attacking is to create opportunities to score that can be converted into goals by scoring. This is done by the team tasks of building up and scoring.

Transition 
When your team is regaining or losing possession there is a short moment when you are in transition from the team function of defending to attacking or from attacking to defending. This short moment of a few seconds is when the defending team is unorganized.

Defending
When a player on the opposing team has the ball in possession your team is per definition defending. This means that all of your players are defending, not only the players that are closest to your goal. The objective of defending is to prevent the opponent to create scoring opportunities and above all prevent the opponent from scoring. This is done through the team tasks of disturbing the build up of the opponent and prevent scoring.

Within these team functions there is constant communication between team-mates (non-verbal and verbal) and opponents (non-verbal). Players have to make decisions based on their game insight to execute football actions within the different team functions. This is the context of football that you as a coach are working within to develop your players and improving your team.

Personal Development

In todays post we will have a look at personal development, what it is in the context of football coaches and also give some practical tips you can use to improve and become a better coach. Personal development for football coaches usually means going to coaching courses, reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, practicing your coaching on the pitch and maybe using a mentor to receive quality feedback. However, what could be a problem for many coaches is if they go to these courses and read books without a clear frame of reference for the what that is their why, namely coaching football. Personal development as a coach means that you want to execute better coaching actions and improve your way of coaching football.

Imagine that you’re moving into a big house that has a beautiful bathroom with a huge jacuzzi. When moving in you go over the house to fix some small stuff and you realize you have to clean your jacuzzi before using it. But how does one clean a jacuzzi and how does it actually work? Since you want to avoid a flooded bathroom and expensive water damage, you start by finding the manual or instruction booklet for the jacuzzi before unplugging drains and hoses and risking chaos. You first learn about the mechanics of the jacuzzi and thereafter you learn about how it works in general and the specifics of cleaning in the context of the jacuzzi. This way you make sure you don’t flood the bathroom in your new house or break your jacuzzi. For other things around the house the procedure is the same; first you learn about what it is, then how it works and only thereafter you start tampering with it. You are creating a frame of reference before you start to learn about how it works and only after this you start focusing on how you are going to change it.

Using our metaphor with the jacuzzi, what you see coaches who are looking for personal development doing, is running into the bathroom without knowing what to do and unplugging the hose from the jacuzzi and flooding the bathroom. Instead of learning about the jacuzzi and how it works first, they start by unplugging the hoses and the result is chaos in the bathroom. Your personal development is about you executing better coaching actions and improving how you are coaching. Therefore it could be a good idea to first establish a frame of reference for the what, in this case the sport, namely football. That means learning about the game from objective facts and philosophical principles instead of subjective opinions and someone else’s application of coaching.

The style of your coaching is determined by the leadership style that you use when interacting with your players. Maybe you are telling your players what to do in which case you are coaching like a commander. Or, you are focusing at maintaining the current level of the players so you take a step back and coach like a manager. However, if you take the game as the starting point the chance is that you are guiding the players and helping them develop their decision making when you coach like a teacher. In your personal development you want to keep improving these different leadership styles while also learning to master them all and not only the one. Depending on your external factors you might need to use all three leadership styles in your coaching which is why you should also practice switching between them.

Regardless of what in your personal development process you are focusing on, the reference with it’s philosophical principles or the application of these principles, you probably want to maximize your learning effect. Think back to when you attended a coaching course the last time and check with yourself if you remember the different topics that were discussed. And what was that thing you said you learned from that amazing book you read last year? Do you remember that situation after training last month when you said to yourself that you had to learn and not make the same mistake again? If you don’t remember, how do you know that you’ve learned and improved as a coach?

Personal development means finding your own way of improving as a coach and there are different ways to learn. However, your chance of retaining information and learning increases substantially if you write it down. Therefore a smart move could be to keep a journal and it’s something that can be done in many different ways, so you have to find a method that suits your personal development process. If you journal regularly that will give you the opportunity to revisit your learning situations which will increase the learning effect for you. Imagine that before you go to bed, right before you turn the lights out, you reflect upon the situations of the day and summarize objective and subjective learning points in your journal. What did you learn today that will improve the quality of your verbal and non-verbal communication? What have you learned today that will improve your decision making tomorrow? How did your staff and players respond to the execution of your coaching actions today?

When you reflect on these questions and write them down in a general summary or more specific learning points, you increase the chance for personal development. The added benefit of journalling is that you can revisit earlier situations and learning points to make sure that you’ve actually learned from them. Why not spend an hour or two every other month to go back and read through your journal, visualize the situations and what you learned instead of going to the pub. After the season it could be a good idea to go through your journal to reflect on the situations that has happened during the year and what you’ve actually learned from them. This way you can summarize the whole year and make sure that you will take the next step in your personal development.

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Maintaining Good Coaching

When you are coaching football you are interacting with your players and coaches within the context of football. Your players are executing football actions when they are on the pitch and as the coach, you are executing coaching actions. In order to improve as a coach you want to execute better coaching actions which means that you are increasing the quality of your coaching by disregarding your own personality and taking the game (situation) as a starting point while using the correct leadership style when coaching. In this post we will look at maintaining the quality of your coaching actions over time with examples and suggestions on how you can maintain good coaching actions.

When you are coaching your team, do you want your players to pass with the same quality at the end of the game as in the beginning of the game? Do you expect your midfielders to create space with the same quality at the end of the session as they did in the beginning? You probably answered these questions with a big yes, you expect your players to maintain the same quality of their football actions throughout the session and for the full 90 minutes of the game. Maybe you are also training your players in a way that will help them maintain good football actions throughout the game.

Now, as a coach you should only demand of others what you are willing to do yourself. That means that as the coach of these players whom you expect to keep their quality throughout the session and the game, you should also maintain your own quality throughout the game and training session. In other words, you should maintain good coaching actions for the full 90 minutes of the game and throughout the training session. However, this does not appear to always be the case and sometimes you see coaches that are coaching really good in the beginning of the session or game but for some strange reason, the quality of their coaching drops after some time.

Imagine that you, in the beginning of the session are able to notice all the details around you, make good decisions based on that information and executing your coaching actions with top quality. But for some reason, when the end of the session is coming closer you are suddenly struggling to notice everything that’s going on around you and you are not able to make good decisions anymore. As a result, the quality of your coaching actions has deteriorated and is now lower than in the beginning of the session. You have become a worse coach than you were in the beginning of the training session.

If this happens, it means that your players have a coach in the beginning of the sessions who is of a certain quality, but at the end of the session their coach has become one of a lower quality. Now, think of how you would handle this situation if we were talking about a player instead of a coach. Imagine one of your players passing the ball with a certain quality in the beginning of the session, but at the end of the session the passing is of a low quality. What would you do? Take that example and think of it in a game situation where your player is not able to maintain good passing in the second half and the result would probably be that you substitute the player. Hopefully you as the coach have not been substituted by your club for not maintaining good coaching actions.

Now, the question is; how can you maintain the quality of your coaching actions throughout sessions and games? In order to answer this question we need to understand what is happening and why the quality of your coaching actions drops throughout a session or a game. Imagine yourself coaching a session at your club and the session is nearing the end. What can you think of that might cause the quality of your coaching actions to go down? External factors like; the weather, your assistant coach, the directors, players problems, win/loss record and fans could be causing you some headaches. Or maybe you are tired, hungry, have family problems or feel frustrated for some reason you can’t explain and this is affecting the quality of your coaching, making you unable to maintain good coaching actions.

Let’s have a look and see if these examples listed above of external factors and your personality is a problem? Sure, in itself all of these different external factors and your personality issues could be a problem for you. However, in the context of coaching football and the football training, should they be a problem? The answer to this question is no, your players does not deserver a lower quality coach because of some external factors or the personality of their coach. What is the real problem and the reason for the quality of your coaching actions to drop during the session and the game?

The problem is not the different external factors or your personality issues. The problem is that you are unable to control your thinking and maintaining thinking coaching actions. Now, some of these external factors might contribute to you struggling to control your thinking and as a consequence the quality of your coaching actions is lower. Will it be more difficult to maintain thinking coaching actions if you are tired? Will it be more difficult to maintain good coaching actions if you are hungry? To increase the chance of maintaining thinking coaching actions throughout the session and as a result maintaining good coaching, you as a coach need a recovery strategy.

As coaches, we focus a lot on the recovery for players between training sessions and games, but there is not so much talk about the recovery for the coach. As the coach, you also need to recover between games and trainings in order to start training fresh so that you give your players the quality of coaching that they deserve. If you as the coach are unable to maintain good coaching actions during the session, you are under-developing your players and in essence doing a poor job.

Take care of your recovery and practice to control your thinking in the face of the different external factors and your own personality issues that can arise during a season. This way you will give yourself a greater chance of maintaining good coaching actions throughout every training session and game. As a result you will be a better coach for your players, a coach that will be there for them during the entire game, not only the first half.

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Way of Coaching

In the sport of football it is the players who are continually executing their own decisions within the context of the game. This is different than from other sports, i.e. baseball were the coach makes the decision and the players go out on the field and execute the coach’s decision to the best of their abilities. The same can be said about American football since the play, the positioning of the players, is already decided by the coaches and the players try to execute this play. When comparing these sports we see that baseball and american football can be called a ’coach sport’, since it is the coach who make the main decisions within the game. However, when we look at the characteristics of football, we see that it is the players who are making the decisions on the pitch that they execute themselves. This fact means that football is a ’players sport’ since they are the ones making the decisions and not a ’coach sport’.

Knowing and understanding that football is a ’players sport’ and not a ’coach sport’ is the first step for football coaches who want to learn how to coach football. Since the job of the coach is to improve the players, an understanding of the characteristics of football is necessary. If the players are executing better decisions on the pitch, they have a greater chance of reaching the objective of the game; scoring minimum one more goal than the opponent. Hence, the job of the coach is to improve the players by helping them to improve the quality of their decision making on the pitch. Given this fact, the question becomes; what is the best way of coaching to promote improved decision making in the players? Or in other words, how should you coach your players in order for them to improve their decision making?

In football there are three general leadership styles that coaches use when coaching their players. You have seen coaches using variations of these leadership styles many times to a varying degree of success. In alphabetical order these leadership styles are; the commander, the manager and the teacher. The coach who is coaching like a commander is the coach who is telling the players what to do, what decision that should be made and executed by the player. The manager however is a coach who is on the opposite side of the commander and approaches coaching the players in a more laissez-faire way. Coaches who are using the leadership style of the teacher are guiding the players through the process of learning football. All of these leadership styles have their time and place within the context of improving football and coaching football in training and in games. However, based on the characteristics of the game, football being a ’players sport’, there is one leadership style that per definition should be the starting point for how you coach your players. Let’s use some examples to see if we can find out what the (right) way of coaching should be.

Imagine that you are coaching a team that is in a situation that resembles some sort of crisis. Think of a scenario where you have taken over a slumping team in the middle of the season and before your first session you are reflecting upon what leadership style to use. In a crisis situation like this, the players are probably experiencing a lot of pressure from the outside which leads to them overthinking everything they do. In order to relieve this pressure that the players are experiencing, it could be a smart move by you as the coach to make the decisions for them, if only for a short period of time. Using the leadership style of the commander in your coaching reduces the decision making that is required by your players and helps them relieve the pressure they are experiencing. It also gives you a chance to implement an extremely clear reference for how things are going to be done on and off the pitch from now on. Telling the players what to do when taking over a team in the middle of the season helps you to hit the ground running and to implement your reference for football.

Now, imagine you are brought in to coach the team that won the league last season with a big margin. This team have a lot of experienced players that have been successful in different places over time. For you as the coach, the question is if you are going to start by telling them what to do or if it could be a good idea to give these players more freedom to make decisions? Taking over a successful team with experienced players and start telling them to do things your way might not be a very good idea. Perhaps it could be smart to use the experience of the group, take a step back and coach more like a manager. In this scenario your main job is to maintain the current level of the players and try not to interfere in a negative way. That means instead of being a commander or a teacher, you want to be a manager who facilitates the players existing knowledge and good decision making into good execution on the pitch.

After reading these two examples of scenarios you can ask yourself if they represent most of the situations that you as a coach encounter or if using the leadership style of the commander and the manager are more an exception to the rule. Given the fact that football is a ’players sport’ and that the job of the coach is to improve players by helping them improve their decision making, the question is what leadership style is best suited? You have probably already concluded that being a commander or a manager is not the best way of improving your players decision making and that this leaves only one answer.

When you are coaching like a teacher you are guiding the players through the process of learning football. That means that instead of telling players what to do, the coach guides the players by asking different questions that are more or less open and/or leading to help the players improve their decision making. These question does not need to be verbal questions, they could also be questions that are asked by the coach through manipulation of game situations in the training session. The leadership style of the teacher is therefore the best way of improving the players decision making in football and as a result, the best way of improving players. To answer the question that we started with; what way of coaching promotes improved decision making in the players the best? – Coaching like a teacher.

Coach Educators

In this post we will look at the role of the coach educator in the context of observing coaches on the pitch in training sessions. As a part of mentoring coaches and when consulting clubs there has been observation of sessions with direct feedback to coaches with a written report afterwards. These experiences and the comments from the coaches observed is the background for this post and it’s content.

Think back to when you did your last coaching course and where on the pitch delivering a session. When you received feedback afterwards, how was that feedback delivered and what did it consist of? Most of the coaches observed this year noted that their previous experiences from coaching courses was that the feedback often consisted of opinions from the coach educator. For example; ”I think that…”, ”Maybe you should’ve…”, ”In my opinion that was…” and so on. There was usually not any objective feedback that they felt was really helpful. This of course doesn’t mean that the feedback from the coach educator was useless, all coaches reported getting some valuable tips that helped them in their execution of coaching actions. But they also noted that they expected more from the course and the feedback.

What is the problem with experienced coach educators basing their feedback to young and inexperienced coaches on their opinion when giving feedback? These coach educators are often coaches with a lot of experience, isn’t learning from them and their experience exclusively a good thing? Well, of course it’s good to learn from other coaches experiences, the problem however is that these experiences are from a football situation that had specific external factors that the young coaches does not have in their specific football situations. If coach educators teach coaches by giving feedback based on their own opinions and personality they are teaching the coaches to subjectively apply someone else’s subjectivity. Chaos!

When observing a session as a coach educator it’s easy to fall into the trap of either comparing the coaching actions to those of other coaches or noticing certain actions that you think are good/bad and give feedback to the coach based on your subjective opinion. However, when observing a session all coaching actions should be evaluated within the context of the game and the characteristics of coaching football. This way the feedback to the coach will be objective in the context of football and not subjective in the context of the coach educator’s opinion.

So, how can you as a coach educator make sure that your observation and feedback is based on objectivity and your subjective opinions? The first step is to make sure that you observe the actual coaching actions executed by the coach and not make assumptions of the coach’s intentions or thoughts. It’s impossible to know what someone else is thinking but it’s very possible to observe their actions. The next step is to check if the session or activity the coach is executing has all the characteristics of football present in order to make sure that there is actual coaching of football and not coaching of something else. After these first two steps you observe the coaching actions of the coach. What is being coached and how, i.e. which leadership style is used when coaching the what.

When following these steps you as the coach educator have an objective starting point for giving the coach feedback based on football. In keeping your opinions and your personality out of the equation the quality of your feedback will increase. If coach educators teach coaches by giving feedback based on the game and coaching football they are teaching the coaches to subjectively apply an objective reference. Football!

National team observation

Today’s post is an analysis of real life football coaching taken from three different youth-national teams. After observing these teams train and play games against each other we will theorize what was observed and see if there is something for you as a coach to take away and learn from. This post will first look at the structure of the tournament before a short description of the training sessions for each of the observed national teams. Thereafter the leadership of the coaches, how they coached in the sessions is discussed before looking at the games to see what the transfer from the training sessions were. Lastly there will be a summary and a list of potential take aways for coaches.

Somewhere in the world there is a tournament with four youth-national teams from countries with similar population, social and economic status. Let’s simplify it by calling them National team A, B, C and D. The teams observed in training was National team A, B and C and the games played the day after these trainings was; National team A versus National team D, National team B versus National team C. Prediction for the games after observing the training sessions was that team D would beat team A in a game where A have more possession but struggle to score and D scoring on the counter attack, teams B and C would play a close game where B would win, probably by scoring a late goal.

Two of the three teams observed trained in the 2 days leading up to the game and the third team arrived on, and only trained on the day before the game. National team A training was filled with a lot of different themes and concepts within the two sessions. They practiced defending, attacking and set pieces in different ways, switching in between the themes and mostly doing unopposed or low grade opposition (sticks, passive opponents, coaches as opponents). A lot of information for the players to take in during a relatively short time with many water breaks (minimum 5). There was little or no maximum football actions observed during these trainings, low tempo football with low quality execution of actions. There was also very little coaching football, mostly coaching of something that looks a little bit like football. The goalkeepers hardly interacted with the other players during these sessions. In two sessions there was a total of 20 minutes that was actual football training, the rest of the time was artificially constructed situations where the intention was probably to mimic the game in some degree.

National team B was a refreshing experience to observe after seeing national team A train. There was coaching of football from the start, after the warm-up and activation of players. In the session there was a gradual build-up of the players football actions the first 25 minutes and after this point every football action seamed to be executed at 100% of the players ability with the consequence being high tempo football with high quality execution of football actions. There were two themes in the session, the coaches started with defending opposition build-up before coaching transitioning to attack. There was no sticks and a limited amount of foreign objects on the pitch and the progression within the session was fluent. This was a quality football training session.

National team C arrived the day before the game and started off by allowing a handful of players shooting on goal for 10 minutes before the warm-up while the medical staff was engaged in some sort of game with the rest of the coaching staff except the head coach and assistant coach. After practicing running around the pitch for one lap, the warm-up continued for 45 minutes with non-contextual drills and activation of the lower and central part of the body. After these 45 minutes national team C begun with passing exercise that progressed into a possession game before ending with a short tactical game. There was two main themes during the last 45 minutes (none in the first 45 mins) of the session; attacking build-up and defending opponent build-up. Hardly any foreign objets on the pitch, only a few cones and regular goals. The last 45 minutes was coaching football with high quality execution of football actions and high tempo football.

Now, let’s have a look at how the coaches coached in these session, what leadership styles they used when executing coaching actions. We will try to analyze all of the coaches in the staff, although that is not entirely possible since some coaches never interacted with the players in the sessions observed. There will not be any opinions regarding the quality of the coaching actions, only the observed leadership style.

For national team A it was very clear that the head coach was using the leadership style of the teacher with both his players and his staff. In addition it was noted that the head coach was coaching like a very ambitious teacher, trying to cover many subjects for the class in one school session. Something that was very interesting was that even though the head coach was a teacher, the assistant coaches used the leadership style of the commander when executing their coaching actions with the players. They never explained why something should be done in a certain way and from our vantage point never asked questions to the players, only telling. A surprising fact given the leadership style of the head coach and something that did not to appear to be a conscious decision.

The head coach of national team B appeared to coach more like a manager, taking a step back and observing his players while allowing the assistant coaches run the bulk of the session. The assistant coaches were undoubtably teachers who guided the players through the tactical themes of the session in a very clear way, allowing for some discussion before quickly reaching consensus. When only observing one session it’s impossible to say if the head coach always uses the leadership style of the manager or if this was a conscious decision for only this session, the first of the week and two days before the game.

Watching national team C train it was interesting to observe the staff and what they did, or more precise, what they didn’t do. There where throughout the session, minimum four staff members standing around with no apparent responsibilities except fetching balls and filling up one team for a short part of the tactical session. The head coach and his assistant (not included in the four) where both using the leadership style of the teacher when they where coaching the players. Interestingly, there was almost no interaction between the head coach and the rest of his staff, the four onlookers who did a good job of supporting the posts of the goal on the sideline.

To summarize the leadership style of the coaches for these three national teams we were able to observe, there were as expected, mostly teachers. That we also saw the leadership style of the manager was not shocking but more of a pleasant surprise while noticing the two assistant coaches for national team A coaching like commanders actually was a shock. (Why were we surprised? Read this post: How should you coach?)

The two games where played on the same day after each other. First up was national team B against national team C. The prediction after watching the training sessions was for team B to win in a relatively close game where B would finish off C the last 15 minutes. How did this prediction stand up to the game? The game started evenly the first 20 minutes with some beautiful goals from both teams. The score after 20 minutes was 2-1 for national team B. In the last 20 minutes of the first half however, team B was dominant and added 2 goals to make it 4-1 at half time. In the second half, national team C started well and dominated the first 20 minutes and scoring one goal to make it 4-2. They pushed on for 10 more minutes until the 75th minute from which point team B could easily control the last 15 minutes and winning 4-2. To summarize, the game was not played as evenly as predicted but it was by no means a one sided game and national team B did get the predicted win. Even though they didn’t win the game by scoring the last goal at the end of the game, team C did not create one scoring chance the last 15 minutes while national team B had full control of the game.

In the game between D and A there was early signals that the prediction for the game would be wrong. This in itself was not very surprising given that the biggest X-factor in the prediction was the team that we did not see train and knew nothing about, national team D. However, it started as predicted with National team A having more possession the first 15 minutes and team D countering before team D took over and had more possession the last 20 minutes of the first half where they also scored the first goal of the game after a beautiful attack in the last minute of the half. There where a lot of corners in the first half, where 5 of team A’s 7 being bundled together in a sequence of 5 minutes. This sequence was a good argumentation for why football should never implement effective playing time. In the second half, the game was evenly played with team A having some possession without creating a single scoring opportunity before the 80th minute mark and team D having numerous counter attacks where they created 4-5 quality chances to score their second goal in the game. At the 80 minute mark, team A shifted some players (they substituted a total of 8 players throughout the second half) and changed their approach to attacking by implementing long balls to the physically superior players positioned as strikers. This shift in strategy was smart since team D had smaller players than team A and it consequently led to the creation of two scoring opportunities and a handful of situations that could have led to chances in the last 10 minutes. When the second opportunity arose in stoppage time on a set piece the equalizing goal was scored and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. This meant that the game was finished with penalty kicks that national team D won 5-4. The prediction of which team would win turned out to be right, even though the way it would happened was not entirely as predicted.

To summarize and draw some conclusions from this limited observational exercise, we will compare the training sessions with what happened in the games. For national team A it was apparent in their attacking that they had not practiced football in training and the time spent doing unopposed ”attacking training” was a waste of time. However, they did get a lot of set pieces which they spent a great deal of time practicing and they also did practice the penalty kicks, although they ultimately lost the game this way. The head coach of team A should receive much praise for having, and practicing an alternative strategy for 10 minutes in training since that led to the goal and the chance to win the game at the end.

National team B was the training session where the coaches was coaching football throughout which also showed in their game against team C. Team B played high tempo football and had a higher level of communication within their team in all of the team functions than their opponent. There was also a clear correlation to what was practiced in training and what was executed on the pitch in the game. For national team C there was some limited transfer of the attacking training to the game. However, team C always was a step behind team B and did not look like they had played together before when defending. This could be a result of the fact that they arrived the day before the game and had a long session with 45 minutes of warm-up before 45 minutes of football training.

What are the possible take aways for coaches in watching and comparing these different approaches of training before the game?

  1. Coaching football in training is the best way of creating a learning effect and transfer to the game. (Don’t know what this is? Read the post coaching football.)
  2. Choose one or two subjects / themes to coach and stick to it.
  3. Use as few foreign objects as possible in training.
  4. As a head coach, make sure you decide how you and your staff coach the players, what leadership style you use and don’t let the personality of the coaches decide.
  5. Delegate responsibilities to all of your coaching staff to avoid staff members only ”hanging around”.