Player Ownership – Developing The Team

Ok so it’s that time of year when the season draws to an end and you can reflect on the development of your players. The presentation night has been and gone and with maybe a couple of summer tournaments to look forward to, you can start to think about the pre season programme for the next campaign.

Towards the end of the season I began to dabble with a bit of ‘ player ownership ‘. It was actually a fellow ‘ blogger ‘ that put this thought into my mind. I have always been quite vocal in encouraging players to communicate on the pitch, looking back it comes across as quite comical, with me on the sidelines shouting ” . . why have we gone quiet guys?! “. During the previous season I really wanted the players to be talking to each other throughout the game, constantly throwing ideas about and building a real team spirit but I had noticed that the only time voices were becoming raised were when someone had misjudged the ball and knocked it out of play. There wasn’t much positivity running through the squad and me pointing that out from the sidelines didn’t appear to spur any reaction either. Maybe the occasional cheer after a goal but that was pretty much it. This could make it quite uncomfortable for new players who were maybe a little low on confidence and had not had much in the way of ‘ match day experience ‘. With this in mind we decided to give the players some ownership on match days and developed a small warm up routine which they could take themselves. Whoever the team captain is on the day leads the warm up and I have found it is a good way to encourage them to start talking to each other about the weeks events, things we maybe did in training that they liked, didn’t like or things that they may try in the game. It can also be used to get them thinking about team tactics. It can be fascinating to listen to a group of eleven year olds discussing different plays that may occur during the match.

The relative success with the warm up then lead me to think about including player ownership in the training sessions. Instead of me trying to teach them football, maybe we could get a system going that gets them to make decisions for themselves, and each other on the pitch. This is where, once again, the FA Youth Award helped a great deal, reinforcing the idea that kids can come up with many more solutions to a footballing situation than I can. One particular game that is used during the Youth Award is a game called ‘ Risky Business ‘. It is a game where you split the group into two teams, one attacking and one defending. The teams are then given five attempts each to score as many points as possible. Points are determined by different game situations, for example a 1 v 1 is worth five points if the attacking team score whereas a 3 v 1 ( 3 attackers v 1 defender ) would only be worth 2 points. It would probably be alot easier to use an internet search engine to explain it but the general idea is that the players determine which order they go in for themselves. I find using a whiteboard is great for this as they can huddle as a group and the attacking team can write the order down whilst the defenders discuss who will go out to defend a 1 v 1 etc. The politics that unfolds before your very eyes is great and although you may get the confident ones with the pen, the whole group is communicating and supporting each other, making sure that everyone gets a go.

Giving the players this responsibilty has already done more for the social and psychological areas of the kids development than any amount of ” . . why have we gone quiet?! ” would achieve. I have also started giving the kids ownership or their positions and formations during training games. Again the whiteboard has come into play and some of the formations I see are brilliant. I took the reserves for a friendly against a touring team a couple of weeks ago. After the warm up I presented them with the tactics board and magnetic markers. ” Right . . ” I said ” . . you guys have a couple of minutes to sort out positions and formations. Ok? and then let me know what you are going to do “. Five minutes later I was told that they would be using a ‘ christmas tree ‘ formation and the wing backs would push up and try to counter attack! These guys are eleven years old and they are detailing counter attacking plays from set pieces to me! As it turned out we lost 7 – 1 but when that one goal went in the whole team went ballistic, as did the mums on the side as well as the opposing teams parents who had witnessed the tactical build up. I told them that I would be redundant from now on but I can honestly say that I enjoyed that game more than any of the previous league matches.

This is where my mind has begun to wander. One thing that stands out from these sessions is that certain players, who were pretty much pigeon-holed into places, have started to experiment into different positions within the team. This is something that I really want to try and push on with in the future. For me, the ultimate aim as a coach is to allow players to develop as far as they can in every position. I want to produce players that are comfortable, and therefore able to express themselves, in every area of the pitch. The handing out of trophies has never been a thought to me whilst youth coaching and the ‘ Golden Boot ‘ has always annoyed me a bit because there are usually only two to three players out of a squad of maybe twenty that have a realistic chance of winning it due to the rigid position systems that we use. I believe that in the long term, this rotation method could really shine when they become adult players. From a coaches point of view, think about the dynamics of the game. Most senior teams, that I have experience of, have always had a set way of playing. It may be possession football, counter attacking, direct, wing play and so on, with a couple of star players and maybe a ‘ Plan B ‘ option from the bench. What about if you could develop players that could read a situation from any position and adapt to it instinctively? What about if you could completely change the ‘ dynamic ‘ of a game without any sacrifice. Imagine the opposition defenders having to deal with maybe a physically stronger centre forward, only then for that centre forward to drop to midfield and then suddenly they have to deal with a smaller, quicker forward who then makes way for a technically advanced player who suddenly moves to the wing and allows the tall centre half to play up front for a bit, allowing an extra injection of pace at the back. The combinations would be frightening!

Now how do we develop these players from youth level? I don’t know. One thing I am thinking of trying next season is to set a team target. We are allowed one starting team of nine players and we have a squad of around twenty. What I was going to do is set a target that we would like every player in the squad to score one league goal each next season, regardless of their current ‘ usual ‘ positions. I am hoping that setting this target will really bond the players and get them playing for each other as well as developing their ability to be comfortable in any position. I am also hoping that it will promote fair playing time for all players so that they get a decent experience of the different positions within a football team. I realise that setting this target could bring about a certain amount of pressure for maybe the less confident kids but this is where I am hoping that the social and psychological areas of the team really come through.

Ultimately this will be a bit of a social experiment in giving the players a great deal of ownership and responsibilty whilst being in a league situation. My hope is that the stronger, more confident players will support their team mates and communicate positively to each other, this in turn will allow the less technically developed players to flourish without the pressures of winning the game and become more confident themselves. At the same time the technically advanced players are encouraged to develop their technical skills in a variety of positions. All in all it is about creating the right environment. It could well back fire but I think that you need to try different ideas and make mistakes to become a better coach. The game is changing constantly and the style of play in ten years time could be completely different to the styles that are championed now. The next step is to develop a ‘ fluid formation ‘ which will allow these position changes to happen naturally, helping players to read the game and become great decision makers, having the ability to adapt without the need for the coach to start waving their arms about and shouting. But that is for another day!

The summer tournaments will be a decent guage as to whether this could work or not. Let the players choose their own positions and formations and see what develops. I would really like to hear from any coaches that have tried this or are now thinking about trying this as it would be great to see the different outcomes that we get.

Watch this space!

Follow me on Twitter – @richpickinsuk

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Grass Roots Evolution

Football coaching in England is changing. If there was ever a time to get involved, and I mean ‘ really ‘ involved, then now is that time.

You can make a real difference to the future of our national game, our players and our clubs. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? I often used to think that the footballing world was one that was cut off from us mere mortals, only accessible to ex professional players and the ‘ old guard ‘ of coaches who have been engrained within the sport for what feels like an eternity. For what it is worth I think that paving a professional career within the elite clubs of English football is still a little adventurous for the modest grass roots coach, but in the elite professional clubs is not where the solution to the national problem can be found. The solution lies within the expanding community of a new breed of football coach, a relatively small group of like minded souls, who are spreading the gospel of the beautiful game throughout community clubs and playing fields up and down the country.

On the face of it The FA are making huge strides forward with the development of St Georges Park, a haven of knowledge and learning for the modern football coach. Scratch the surface though and it is apparent that there is still a monumental amount of work that has to be done to change the grass roots culture of ‘ win at all costs ‘. The term ‘ win at all costs ‘ in itself is ironic in as much as, in the long term, it is actually having the opposite effect on our sport. There may be a short term gain involved for the local under 11’s coach by playing the tallest, strongest and quickest lad at centre forward, ordering his players to ‘ hoof ‘ the ball up and over to him at every opportunity. He may get his name in the back pages of the local gazette along with a photo of himself holding a gold painted plastic trophy but this approach is not going to produce the next Paul Gascoigne or the next Leo Messi.

For those of you with children, family or friends who play for local youth club teams, school teams, county teams etc I would like to ask you the following questions. When you are standing on the sidelines, cheering on the kids, do you find yourself shouting any of the following . . . ” Get it out son! Clear it! “, ” Get into him! “, ” Pass it! ” or my personal favourite, which usually occurs after a wayward shot . . . ” Unlucky son! “? There is a good chance that, unless a huge gust of wind burst across the pitch at the exact moment when the ball left little Johnny’s foot, it was never going to go in and had nothing to do with luck whatsoever but we still consider this a positive word of encouragement. Get it, hit it, miss it, unlucky! We seem to panic young players into getting rid of the ball as soon as possible. The ‘ old guard ‘ of coaches are equally to blame here. It is what we have been brought up with, each one of us that has played the game will have heard these generic phrases being bellowed out at us on a Saturday morning and we are simply following suit.

As a relative ‘newbie’ in terms of grass roots coaching, I too found myself slipping into the trap of praising every uncompleted pass and sliced shot with a loud ” Unlucky! ” and a round of applause. I recently attended the FA Youth Module 1 and it was a real eye opener. After four days of learning and several ‘ eureka ‘ moments later, I realised that what we really should be encouraging is the effort and not the result. Let’s praise the point that little Bobby recognised the opportunity to make a pass, made a good decision, communicated well with his team mates, made a run into space etc. The modern way of coaching is all based around developing the person and not just the player. There has been a tendency to concentrate on the physical and technical footballing abilities of kids when really we need to be concentrating our efforts toward developing the social and psychological areas, obviously we shouldn’t ignore the technical ability of young players but if we create the right environment for our kids to play football then the technique will come. At 11 years of age Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, now I’m not saying that Messi would have been ignored by coaches in this country due to his size but it does make you wonder how many players, maybe late physical developers, have been ignored in favour of the more dominant kids and slipped through the net due to the old way of thinking. Consider that point on a national scale and the numbers could be huge.

All children are individuals, they all develop at different rates and the real skill of a grass roots football coach is knowing how to manage all of these personalities during your training sessions so that every player is allowed to flourish. Make football fun, challenging and achievable. Let them make mistakes, let them try to find the answers themselves. An imaginative 10 year old is likely to have more solutions to a footballing problem than us adults will. We want to develop a new generation of brilliant people, in turn this will produce brilliant, creative players who will maintain a love for our beautiful game.

There has never been an easier time to get involved, with FA courses open to coaches of all abilities and working at all levels within the game. On a personal level, becoming a football coach has been a hugely rewarding experience and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the game. Pop along to your local grass roots club on Saturday morning, have a look and see if you feel that you could make a difference. Support our young players . . . . only try doing it without shouting ” Unlucky! “. It is more difficult than it sounds!

Your country needs you!

Richard Bullock – Follow on Twitter @richpickinsuk

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