In the third instalment of an intermittent series of interviews about coaching badges and the standard of coaching in the United Kingdom, Football Further spoke to Pavl Williams, a Level 2 coach working towards his UEFA ‘B’ licence.
Pavl has been coaching youngsters of varying ages since 2004 and is (amongst other things) currently working with elite local players aged 6-16 at Manchester United’s Carrington training centre. He is also the editor of Better Football, a coaching website that offers advice and learning resources for developing better coaches.
FF: How has formal coaching education made you a better coach?
PW: Like the vast majority of coaches I came into the role with no experience of playing high-level football and very little experience of talking to children. The most important thing that formal coach education can provide is information about kids. Great coaching is about tailoring the practice to the participants. So without a thorough understanding of your player’s motivations, experiences and perceptions, it’s very hard to communicate with them in a meaningful way. The Youth Award qualifications are great for this and have especially restored a lot of my faith in The FA’s development plan.
Another crucial aspect is that I grew in confidence when I attended my coaching courses. Getting a Level 1 certificate (and the requisite Child Protection and First Aid certification) relieved a lot of the pressure associated with parents watching critically from the sidelines. Similarly, going and completing the Level 2 and Youth Award qualifications has afforded me more credibility in the eyes of my players and more respect within my club [AFC Urmston Meadowside], where, despite being one of the country’s best junior clubs, there are still only a handful of coaches who have gone beyond the mandatory Level 1 certification. This confidence allows me to experiment with new ideas and, I believe, become more effective at what I do.
How easy is it to become a qualified coach in the UK?
Obviously the starting point for all coaches is the Level 1 certificate as this is, rightly, a mandatory requirement for anybody helping out to run a team at Charter Standard Clubs. At this level courses are quite easy to come by, don’t cost very much (in fact many clubs and County FAs provide free places) and are pretty straightforward – based more on attendance than ability.
As one tries to move up the coaching pathway it can become more difficult to find courses because in the major cities Level 2s and 3s are frequently oversubscribed, meaning some coaches have been told their next available dates are six or seven months away.
There are also a number of private companies that offer coaching badges but they are still relatively thin on the ground. Coach education tends to be monopolised by the County FAs and I know of situations where County FAs have actively sought to reduce the number of courses offered by other accredited organisations.
How would you assess the standard of grassroots coaching in England, compared to other major European countries?
There’s a growing number of better qualified and more considered coaches entering grassroots football over here – in fact the internet allows many of us to meet up and discuss ideas – but the situation is generally very poor. The vast majority of coaches are parents without any technical understanding of the game at all. Everybody involved in the grassroots game will be able to name two or three managers whose conduct borders on the outright abusive. We’re currently in a situation where there’s absolutely no consensus on the role of grassroots clubs, let alone agreement on what, when and how to coach. This vacuum often allows the bossiest parent to take charge and all too frequently they judge their success on their results and not on the development of their players.
Spain, Italy and France have all won World Cups in the last 15 years and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these countries have more community-focused sport programmes than we do here. For example, I went to watch some junior teams in Catalonia last year and remarked on how smart the teams looked in their full matching kit and tracksuits (they were about nine years old). A friend of mine who lived in the area picked up on this and informed me that the boys all arrived on their own team bus, having been picked up from their deportivo in the middle of their town where hundreds of locals regularly turn up to watch them play. The boys weren’t playing at any sort of high standard, but the sports club was a symbol of pride for the local population and they backed it heavily. In turn the local government provides superb facilities including great playing surfaces and top coaching. This is all part of a national strategy for sport development that has a strong vision of how their football should be played.
What are the reasons for England’s failures at grassroots level? What kind of changes would you like to see implemented?
In England a similarly sized town might have 10 competing junior clubs. This necessarily waters down the quality of facilities on offer and means the stronger players are invariably split across the teams. In footballing terms this means that all the teams play on poor playing surfaces instead of a high-quality shared pitch. It also means all the best players are stationed permanently in either centre midfield or up front, where they can score lots of goals against inferior opposition and afford the coach victory over their ‘local rivals’.
I’d like to see all the most talented players grouped together so that we have junior grassroots teams in which the centre-halves can play out from the back, the full-backs can carry the ball up the pitch and so on. If we had either more direction from the top or more consensus at the bottom of the football hierarchy then we might finally start to see a different, more fluent, style of play emerging.
How can more grassroots coaches be encouraged to get properly qualified?
I believe that there have been a number of issues with the coaching pathway for some time. Firstly there is the cost, both financially and in terms of time commitments, of attending coaching courses and doing all the extra work required to become qualified. Perhaps it sounds trite, but given the vast sums of money in the game I think there really ought to be greater subsidisation of course fees from The FA and Premier League. These are the organisations who stand to benefit the most from an increased supply of well coached grassroots players.
The time cost is a different matter because I wouldn’t want The FA to make significant concessions to coaches who aren’t willing or able to put in the time to reach the required standards. It’s vital that qualifications don’t become devalued by becoming too easy to attain. However, I think technology could play a much larger role in coach education and make the courses more accessible, more flexible and more supportive than they’ve previously been. The number of online resources for football coaches is growing rapidly and there’s now a treasure trove of information available to any coach who is working towards their badges.
A final complaint – which I have some sympathy with – is that the coaching badges aren’t relevant to coaches working in the grassroots space. This is a sentiment I would have agreed with a couple of years ago, especially as I specialise in coaching young players who aren’t amenable to the “Stop… Stand Still” coaching method. But with the advent of the Youth Award qualification I feel like these issues have been acknowledged and to a great extent remedied. The new qualifications are all about age-appropriate coaching and are especially suited to grassroots scenarios. This alternative pathway allows coaches to work towards a Level 3 coaching qualification, whilst still offering their own team the best possible training style for the players.
Martin Samuel wrote a superb article in May about how playing on full-size pitches fundamentally harms the development of children playing competitive football for the first time, and yet the FA made no commitment to reducing pitch sizes in their planning document, ‘The Future Game’. Do you think it’s as significant a problem as Samuel suggests?
Like most discussions about junior football, this boils down to the fundamental questions about what we want grassroots sport to be: 11-a-side football on full-size pitches only really makes any sense if you believe that grassroots football is an arena for kids to replicate their Premier League heroes, in which case the more accurate the representation of the professional game, the better.
I think the reality is a little different and that the aspects of the game that young footballers love to mimic are the moments of individual skill that make all the difference in a game; the pirouette out of a tight space, the back-heel that releases a striker in the box, the finger-tip save.
Unfortunately the balance between dimensions, speed and strength that force senior professional players to produce these moments in their games is simply not present in junior games. The odds are stacked so high against young goalkeepers and in favour of attackers, that the rational strategy for a strong player is always to hit a high shot from wherever they happen to be stood on the pitch. By removing the constraints on these types of actions in the game we also remove many of the elements of excitement.
Small-sided games reintroduce those constraints and so force players to make the decisions and pull off the techniques that will continue to serve them as they progress through the age groups and into the full version of the game. There is a slow shift amongst grassroots coaches towards acknowledging that players need to learn how to achieve ‘outcomes to football situations’ rather than the more simplistic ‘results’. I hope this is an idea that gains wider acceptance in the coaching community.
Earlier this year Football Further spoke to Liam Graf, who was working towards his Level 2 coaching certificate, and he said one of the problems with coaching English children is their apparently ingrained desire to ‘be the hero’ by doing everything on their own and not passing the ball to their team-mates. In your experience, are English youngsters more resistant to coaching than children from other countries?
I’m reluctant to generalise about young players! I would say that for every ‘hero’ there will be a number of boys who never want the ball to come anywhere near them and I think the ideal position is somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
To a quite tremendous extent a player’s attitude can be a reflection of their parents’ comments or criticisms, which means that the expectations and education of parents is an important aspect of coaching. We should probably also take a look at the type of players we deify in the media and not disregard the impact that commentary and punditry can have on developing footballers’ ideas about how the game should be played.
I can’t comment on the relative ‘coachability’ of English kids compared to other European nations. In the last year I’ve done some coaching in China and Ghana and whilst there were certainly very identifiable national characteristics, the overriding sense was that most 10 year olds act in a certain way regardless of their upbringing!
What is your take on the argument that foreign players prevent home-grown talent from getting a chance to shine in the Premier League?
If the argument is that home-grown talent is being kept out of Premier League teams then I don’t think there is much of a counter-claim to be made. What I think should be said is that this has resulted in an infinitely higher quality league than England has previously seen and therefore it shouldn’t surprise, let alone outrage, anybody that English players find it harder to get into the top teams.
As certain EPL managers are fond of explaining, if a player is ‘good enough’ he will play, regardless of his nationality. Those English players who break into Premier League sides are then, necessarily, of a higher standard (top 500 in the world?) than they would have to be if they were only competing against home-grown players (top 500 in the country?). Therefore the overall standard of English players is as high as it’s ever been in terms of technical ability, fitness and professionalism.
The problem – as regards the England national side – is rather one of depth, because there are an awful lot of players who are good enough to make the fringes of the England squad who aren’t amassing valuable experience playing regularly for their clubs. This means that, if current ability levels are maintained, it is logical to present the influx of foreign players as diametrically opposed to the progress of the national side (and therefore to see a conflict between having a world-class league and a world-class national team).
But instead I think that the crux of the problem lies before any of these players sign professional contracts and goes back to youth development. The question needs to be ‘Why do Spain, France, Italy and Germany seem to be producing more top 500 players than England?’ If we fail to address these issues and instead pursue a jingoistic belief that it’s the foreign players’ fault then I think we will sacrifice the quality of our league without seeing commensurate improvements in England team results.
How important is the National Football Centre at Burton-on-Trent? What can it realistically be expected to change?
The National Football Centre is worth more than the sum of its parts. It is a symbol of The FA’s commitment to football development and of its leadership in implementing a national football strategy. Of course this means that The FA’s continued stalling on the project is equally symbolic and, I think, reflects the confused sense of purpose and apparent half-hearted commitment to youth football from some in the organisation.
When the doors finally open I hope we see a renewed authority ready to drive forward with the initiatives outlined in ‘The Future Game’ because, world-class facility or none, only The FA is in a position to ensure higher standards across all levels of football in England. Whatever questions surround youth development in England, for me, getting better coaches into all areas of the game can only lead to better players and, ultimately, to better football.
You can follow Pavl Williams on Twitter.