‘Get rid!’, ‘Play the way you’re facing!’ ‘What are you, a girl?’ ‘Keep it simple!’ ’Who wants it?’ Get stuck in lad!’, ‘Let him know you’re there!’
For those of us of a certain age, likely those whose formative years took place in football’s dim and distant past, phrases like these would have been a familiar refrain during Saturday and Sunday football. This was the era of ‘command and control’, of children being the pawns for a coaches’ grand vision, of it being ok to scream (and possibly insult) a 10-year-old from the touchline.
Thinking back to those days, it’s amazing how long some of us stuck it out playing junior football. I wince at some of the names players got called in the teams I played for, shudder at the advice we were sometimes given (usually centred around exacting revenge) and look back with frustration at how that environment limited us as players.
But the days of ‘command and control’ at junior level appear to be nigh. The writing has been on the wall for a while, as the FA has gradually modernised its approach over the course of the past 15 years. But it was 2014 that really marked a watershed moment. That was when the FA launched its innovative coaching strategy, England DNA, which runs right through the development period of game.
‘One of the most important things for us is to get young people to fall in love with this game. We want them to have positive memories of playing football and to engage with the sport. And even if they decide that football isn’t for them later on, we want to create people who will have a lifelong involvement with sport. We think that it’s difficult to create engagement if you’re being shouted at, doing repetitive drills, or spending most Saturday mornings sitting on the bench’ says FA National Development Foundation Lead, Pete Sturgess.
The new strategy for Foundation Level (aged 5-11) represents a quantum leap from the ‘old’ style of coaching.
‘There is much more emphasis on giving the players ownership of the game. By this we mean encouraging them to explore as they learn, by us asking questions, posing challenges and seeing how they react and develop. We are trying to move away from coaches simply telling their players what to do’ says Sturgess.
Equally, there is also a shift away from static drills, the kind of repetitive training that would often see children doing the same activity again and again.
‘We try to incorporate our training into game-related practice as much possible’ says Andy Garrett, who coaches U10s at Rotherfield FC in East Sussex. ‘The idea is to get the kids on the ball as much as possible, to make what we do relatable to the game itself and also to almost make them feel like it’s not a teaching environment. They get enough of that in school all week, so they don’t need it at the weekend too.’
Watching the kids train at Rotherfield, it seems so far removed from my own memories of playing football. Aside from the environment, which is calm and without pressure, there is also so much more time spent ‘on the ball.’
‘The FA recommends that in training, the kids enjoy a minimum of 70 per cent ‘ball rolling’ time, that is time spent active on the ball. And we try and adhere to that as much as possible. The kids need to develop a relationship with the ball, and that’s not going to happen if they’re stood around waiting for their turn in a “drill”, spending time doing “physical” training or sitting around too long while a coach outlines his grand strategy’ says Garrett.
This relationship with the ball is a key element of the England DNA, specifically at foundation level, as Pete Sturgess explains.
‘In the past, you’d have coaches trying to get kids to quickly play ‘adult’ football, whatever style that was. But what children need is to run with the ball, dribble with it, feel it. That relationship is vital to how they develop and how they learn to enjoy football.’
Key to initiating this new approach to grassroots football is the education of coaches. For those clubs seeking FA Charter status, all youth sides should have at least one FA Level 1 accredited coach for each team. And it’s through the Level 1 qualification that coaches are introduced to the England DNA.
For coaches, the qualification is more about ‘how to coach’ children, less about ‘what to coach’. It uses constructionist learning ideas, rooted in the thinking of PE guru Muska Mosston and his spectrum of teaching styles. Taught in both the classroom and on the pitch, the curriculum is underwritten with an approach that takes into consideration the ‘whole’ player.
‘One of the most innovative aspects of the course’ says Rotherfield Level 2 coach, Rob Selby ‘is the introduction of the ‘Four Corner’ player development model.’
This breaks development down into four areas, technical/tactical, physical, psychological and social.
‘It gets you thinking differently about a player’s development’ he continues. ‘It brings other considerations to mind, such as how well they work with others, how well they deal with challenges, how they understand the game.’
At Rotherfield, age levels don’t stream before they reach 11-a-side (U13), something that is recommended by the FA. And this ties into the ‘whole player’ approach encompassed in the ‘Four Corner’ model.
‘In the past’ says Andy Garrett ‘everything was about “ability”. Good players were streamed ahead, less developed players were left behind. But with the Four Corner model, we look at everything. After all, what exactly is a “good” player at this age? You can be good on the ball but a poor team player. You could need work on the ball but excel in other areas, like psychological strength or sportsmanship. Our approach is to take all four areas into consideration during the development stage with the aim of making these kids the best they can be by the time that streaming might occur.’
Allied to the above is the creation of a less competitive approach to football.
‘By this’ explains Pete Sturgess ‘we don’t mean no competition. Football is, by its very nature, a competitive sport. And children need to learn that. The overwhelming majority probably like that part of it too. But what we don’t want to see is coaches running sides for results. If that happens, as it often did in the past, then you just end up with needless streaming, kids being sidelined, kids dropping out and development coming a distant second to results. And that’s not doing much to create positive memories.’
The Respect League in Manchester is the perfect embodiment of this new approach. Developed by local coaches, the league operates on a principle of development first.
‘The league has a set of guiding rules, which cover things like equal time for every player, silent sidelines, playing kids in every position and, perhaps most importantly of all, mixed ability. Everything is about long term development and not about short term results. The Respect League is great because it gives you the perfect environment to just let the kids play and have fun, which is what football should be about at this age’ says Ben Hamilton, who coaches with Respect League member, Hough End Griffins.
This new approach (non-competitive, mixed ability, rotating positions) is possibly the most vulnerable link of the new coaching philosophy. The competitive urge within football, as anyone who has ever played or followed the game can attest, is a strong one. During the course of writing my new book ‘How to Run a Football Club’, a book that looks at the state of the national game, I chatted to youth coaches from across the country and what became clear is that although many undertake the Level 1, not all buy into its thinking.
‘Where my son plays in South London’ says U11 coach Mike Quigley, ‘sometimes you wouldn’t know much had changed in the past 20 years. Lots of sides are still streamed, some kids spend more than others on the bench and players get stuck in one position the whole game. There are clubs doing it the “right” way, and they are growing in number but I think you still have some cultural resistance to what the FA is trying to do.’
For those who stay true to the FA approach, like Andy Garrett, it can be a frustrating experience. ‘We have three sides in a local league, each of which is characterised by mixed ability, equal playing time and rotating positions. Our teams must come across about 20 different sides over the course of a season. From this, probably around a third operate in a similar way to us. So, some games are made much harder for our kids and we get mismatches, which result in heavy defeats. And that can be hard. I know we are doing the right thing but sometimes you have to remind yourself of why you’re doing it.’
Rob Selby, who has had similar experiences, thinks that the problem is a generational one:
‘People my age grew up with football being run in certain way. It was results driven, quite tough and unyielding and, when it came to coaching, pretty reductive. I think a lot of people do the Level 1 because they have to but only pay lip service to the philosophy it preaches. I’d say that about half of the clubs we play stream at this age, they put kids in one position and they play it long. They do this because the coach wants to win. And at this level, that kind of approach delivers “results”. You see on the touchlines just how much it matters to them. I’ve seen some coaches absolutely lose their mind at times, acting they are Jurgen Klopp or something. To change that mentality might take years. You might have to wait until the kids we are coaching today become coaches themselves, kids who have been brought up in a different environment.’
The FA gets a lot of stick when it comes to grassroots football, often labelled as something of an absentee landlord. When it comes to issues such as investment in pitches and facilities, there might be some truth in that. But when talking about coaching, the organisation has a much better recent track record. That the revolution in coaching hasn’t been complete probably shouldn’t come as any surprise. There will likely always be those who view results as being more important than development. The FA is powerless to stop coaches from vicariously living out their football fantasies. But at least efforts are being made to make that less common and in doing so ensuring that for many young players out there, the days of ‘Get Rid!’ are increasingly a thing of the past.
‘How to Run a Football Club’ will be published by Pitch Publishing early next year.