Improving coaching standards, it is commonly agreed, is the surest way of improving the standard of football in a country. Nowhere is this issue more relevant than in Great Britain, where England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 (coupled with the enduring mediocrity of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish national sides) sparked a timely debate on the quality of coaching in a nation where technical deficiencies have long been an area of concern.
The soul-searching prompted by the failings of the Steve McClaren era generated a belated and somewhat begrudging acceptance in the English game that formal coaching training was probably quite a good thing after all. But what does training to become a coach in the UK actually involve?
Liam Graf, 24, obtained the Football Association’s Level 1 coaching badge towards the end of 2009 and will shortly be embarking upon Level 2. He spoke to Football Further about the work of a trainee coach.
FF: What are you expecting to gain from the Level 2 FA coaching badge?
LG: From what I’ve been told, the progression up to Level 2 requires a greater emphasis on ensuring players understand the skills that they are developing while playing the game – not just the obvious physical and technical skills like running, passing and dribbling, but the social and psychological skills like movement into space, decision-making and consistent communication. My aim on this side is to progress as high up the FA coaching badge ladder as possible.
In terms of experience, this is where I’m having some difficulties as a number of coaching jobs – even at grass-roots level – require a number of years’ experience. This can create a vicious circle, as you’re looking to gain experience but struggle to obtain it, as a number of opportunities require it in the first place!
But I’ve been lucky with what I’ve managed to undertake thus far. Last year, I was working with a couple of youth football clubs in the Middlesex area and that was highly beneficial in developing communication skills and suitable coaching drills/practices for age ranges from five to 14. I’m currently working with after-school clubs organised by Elite Soccer Academy and I’ve been speaking with Phil Gridelet, an ex-professional who is working towards his UEFA A licence and who part-runs the academy, to further my knowledge.
What does your work on the training pitch involve?
It all depends on the age range being taught. With the after-school clubs, the children are generally no older than seven, so the main aim is to ensure they have fun at the session, but a good coach will design practices that maximise enjoyment while developing football skills without the kids actually realising it.
With some of the older groups that I have been involved in coaching (such as those up to the age of 14), you can focus more on designing drills relevant to developing football-related skills, such as shooting, defending and movement. It’s often said that the ‘golden age’ for football development is between the ages of eight and 12, and so practices should be carried out to maximise that potential. Although, as I’ve found out, such drills are fine for kids with naturally strong football ability, but in a given group there will be a large proportion who lack that natural ability (and interestingly have lower concentration levels because of it) and so you should also throw in a few of the so-called ‘fun’ drills to ensure that those kids don’t become frustrated or disheartened.
You learn such training methods when carrying out the coaching badges, but you also develop your own methods by talking to other coaches and attending monthly seminars and workshops.
How much work have you done on tactics?
At the level I’ve been working at with children, tactics doesn’t play a massive role. The main aim for very young kids – those aged between five and seven – is to ensure that they enjoy the session. A child’s view of fun is, of course, not heavily focused on understanding tactics.
With some of the older groups – those from around the age of 9/10 onwards – it becomes more important, as you look to teach and develop the fundamental skills of the game. So, for instance, an FA-recognised drill is called ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and it aims to improve the participants’ shooting, defending and goalkeeping. I won’t go into depth about how the drill works but, basically, as you progress the task (and taking shooting as the example) the participants move from short to medium to long-distance shooting, while still having the traditional goalkeeper and four-man backline in place. And so, at the long-distance phase of shooting, for example, you look to ensure that team-mates are in and around the box to pounce on rebounds and evade defenders. I wouldn’t say tactics are the main focal point here, especially if the number of participants fails to stay consistent on a week-by-week basis, but they certainly play a part.
As mentioned earlier, through attending coaching workshops I’ve been able to develop a greater understanding of football tactics and how they are continually evolving. These workshops are, in a way, more appropriate for top-level managers who need to co-ordinate and manage football strategies at their clubs, but they’re nonetheless thoroughly interesting.
For instance, we recently looked at how the shift from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 has developed in the past decade, particularly in response to the growing importance placed on the deep-lying forward role. For an example of how football tactics might develop in the future, we’ve discussed the potential return of the attacking centre-back (in Franz Beckenbauer mould), as with a 4-2-3-1 formation there is only one striker to mark and the full-backs can provide additional cover, thus allowing, in theory at least, one centre-back to roam freely.
How is the tactical side of coaching taught?
Seeing as I’m still at the early phase of the FA coaching badges, the tactical elements tend to be embedded when we carry out the practical tasks in small groups. That is to say, there is no specific focus solely on this area.
But for the additional coaching workshops, the tutors require us as coaches to take the role of players to aid visual learning and understanding. They explain, for instance, if you move there, what that will mean for the balance of the team and how different formations require different transitions from phases of defending and attacking. It’s all very interesting, but I haven’t had the chance to properly implement this learning into my day-to-day coaching. Hopefully, that will change in the future as I continue my progression through the FA badges, and when I move onto teaching older age ranges, where the importance placed on effective tactical decision-making cannot be underestimated.
What have you learnt about the game that you didn’t know before?
This may sound big-headed, but I did initially feel that I had a strong knowledge of the game. However, learning about how formations have developed and how each player responds, and might respond in the future, to different tactical instructions has been a real eye-opener.
In my day-to-day coaching duties with Elite Soccer Academy, and with the learning tools brought to my attention in the early phases of the FA coaching badges, I’ve so far been carrying out and observing the game in its fairly basic form.
However, there have been one or two interesting insights obtained, even at this early stage. For instance, in England, we’re generally renowned as having poor ball retention skills, particularly compared to a footballing nation like Spain. From working with those at a young age, it’s already easy to see where we’re going wrong. Children here just do not seek to keep the ball as well as their continental cousins. The reasons proposed for this are as interesting as they are varied. But, essentially, it seems to boil down to the fact that keeping the ball and playing short, simple passes is boring and ‘uncool’.
There is a general desire for kids to ‘be the hero’ – to burst forward and try to score that wonder goal rather than keep it simple and invite others into play, and the on-off determination to say ‘I know best’ and foolishly ‘go against the grain’ with what the coach is attempting to teach. While seen as relatively harmless at such a young age, it sets a precedent for the future and it is considered one of the greatest coaching challenges to change that mentality. It would be naïve to suggest that Spain won Euro 2008 purely because of their ability to maintain possession and wear down their opponents, but it certainly played a part and is something that we need to look to carefully incorporate and adapt in our grass-roots level game.
Has training to become a coach changed the way you watch football?
I certainly take a greater interest now in the tactics devised prior to and during the match, and how post-match reaction relates to the decisions that have gone before. However, you often find that you have to draw your own conclusions as there is very little of this information displayed in your average TV coverage.
Also, with substitutions, I try to see how the formation might have to adapt to accommodate the introduction of new players and the withdrawal of others, and what this may mean for that team’s overall gameplan – will the changes upset the balance? etc. In the past, while I would have appreciated this area of the game, I don’t think I paid it the level of attention that it rightly deserves, especially when considering the impact that it can have on the final result.