“Hey Thomas. Love your bravery to try that first-time pass. Keep it up. Your next challenge is to try to make sure you leave the ball playable for Adam or Conor. Play …”
After about 10 minutes – and a few more failed attempts – Thomas edged towards goal before checking back to bamboozle his marker, glancing over his shoulder as the ball hurtled towards him, and flicking a first-time “around the corner” pass into the path of an onrushing Conor, who lashed the ball home.
“Thomas, stunning assist. How did that feel?” I called. “Great,” he beamed back.
He wasn’t the only one feeling good after a decent pass.
About 45 minutes later I’d been told I’d ticked enough boxes in an interview and one-hour practical assessment coaching my grassroots under-14 players that I’d successfully completed the Football Association’s Level 3 youth award. I’d shown I could help improve the players’ understanding of how and when to use quick combination play in the final third to beat a compact defence. It’s no easy task, as Roy Hodgson might testify post-Euro 2016. Or his successor Sam Allardyce for that matter.
There was no time for celebration though. We had to scarper from our patch of mud-coloured grass in a Reading park to avoid being trampled by hordes of revellers heading to the funfair that had rocked up on an adjacent pitch a few days earlier, presumably to truly test my questionable ability to engage teenagers suitably distracted by a backdrop of intermittent 1950s tunes, wind-assisted whiffs of sugar-laced hot donuts and the screaming joy-angst of the vomit-inducing Waltzers. Grassroots football, bloody hell.
The youth award is nine years old. Its introduction filled the gaping void of age-appropriate, child-centred coaching courses in the FA’s footballing landscape.
Split into three four-day modules – developing the learning environment, the practice and the player – it uses a Teaching Games for Understanding approach to help coaches hone their skills to develop the whole player using the FA’s four-corner model (technical/tactical, physical, social and psychological) with an eye fixed firmly on fun and the long term.
The architects of the three modules – Pete Sturgess (head of the FA’s foundation phase coaching and former England futsal team coach), Paul Holder (now head of Brighton’s academy) and John Allpress (now at Tottenham) – have teaching backgrounds. While this fact is no guarantee of quality – the 1980s doyen of POMO (positions of maximum opportunity) at the FA, Charles Hughes, is also a former teacher – the blend of applied pedagogy and footballing nous runs right through the youth award.
It is a long way from the rigidly formulaic “teach to the test” approach to coaching the coaches employed in the past.
Les Howie, the FA’s director of grassroots coaching, says it is about helping “develop a new breed of coaches”. This mirrors the talk on the development of flexible, creative players, with the Future Game template and more recently the England DNA seeking to create a unity of ethos and purpose linking the muddy grassroots of Palmer Park, Reading, to the pristine pitches of St George’s Park, Burton upon Trent. At the top the “new breed” of player is expected to be a tactically intelligent, turbo-charged decision-maker; at the grassroots, it’s about an inclusive approach to give players a robust foundation that will allow them to “play at the highest level they can”, says Howie.
Coaches progressing through the modules learn the “fundamentals of the coaching and teaching”, he says. “Then it’s about how you build on it with communication, motivation and creating the environment [to learn]. This is about having more young people play. It’s about having coaches who develop their skills, focus on development over winning – particularly at the younger ages – and who help develop the game understanding of children and encourage them to be inquisitive, creative and exciting with the ball.”
But the real game-changer has just been announced. Starting in August the youth award will finally be integrated into the core coaching pathway.
As someone with experience of FA coaching courses in the days when child-centred coaching wasn’t really a thing, it feels like a huge moment. Both pathways are essentially complementary; the core pathway Level 1 is an introduction to coaching. “It does what it says on the tin,” says Howie.
The Level 2 and Uefa B courses cover the grammar of the game, the principles of play (attacking, defending and in transitions). Uefa A and Pro licences are exclusively aimed at the professional game.
But this merger eliminates the striking disconnection of the discrete coexistence of the “old” and the “new”.
The youth award is much more about “how to coach” children, less of “what to coach” adults. It uses constructivist learning ideas and bears the hallmark of the PE guru Muska Mosston’s spectrum of teaching styles. The course content – part on the pitch, part in the classroom – is set against a clear evidence base for the considerations in areas such as physiology, psychology and skill transfer in the three age phases: foundation (5-11), youth development (12-16) and professional/senior development (17-21).
It seems more geared towards the academy coach as you progress through the award. On my module 3 course at St George’s Park, a majority of the 20 or so candidates were working at pro clubs. But the messages for coaches – whether grassroots or at a category one academy – are consistent: it’s more whispering than shouting; more questions than answers; a 70-30 ratio in favour of ball rolling time to standing/talking.
Static line drills are out, game-realistic practices are in, with Mosston’s “slanty rope” approach to inclusion to the fore. Plus there’s a sturdy approach to planning practices (constant, variable or random), coach interventions and individual, team and unit challenges – with feedback and reflection – to hone the skills of a coach to guide youngsters towards enhanced game sense, decision-making and creative tactical and technical solutions on the pitch.
Clearly, the Euro 2016 debacle exposes the scale of the task in hand. In simple terms, England appear to have substituted the lost art of street football with a highly structured and adult-centric system of drills – from the grassroots to the pro academies – that, at its worst, churns out “robotic” players while stifling their freedom and creativity to find a way to win. The 90-minute psychological and tactical meltdown against Iceland in the Stade de Nice betrayed a new level of fragility that overshadows the clear progress in terms of technical ability and, more questionably, possession stats. The players were simply scared, according to the FA chairman, Greg Dyke. It’s the weak and overly pampered “academy generation”, said the former Liverpool and England centre-half Jamie Carragher.
My youth award assessor, Andy Ritchie – a former teacher who holds an A-licence and counts Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale as his former charges in 30 years of academy experience at various clubs – was keen for me to show how I could give “ownership” to the players while tailoring the challenges to the precise needs of individuals. The two other big messages I took away were “don’t forget to go in and coach” and remember the Uefa B principles of play. One of the drawbacks of the course is that some coaches come away feeling like they’ve been told to just start a practice and sit back and watch. The key is balance; between letting the players learn by mistakes as they play and intervening in the right manner to make an impact on their understanding. A flexible rigour, if you like.
Dyke’s commission in 2014 saw the value of the award too. It declared an intent to increase the number of Level 3 youth award coaches from 800 to 3,000. It’s getting there: to date the figure is 1,836, with an estimated 27 coaches a month passing. It also set bold goals to tackle the “degree of crisis” over facilities in the grassroots game: building thriving football “hubs” in 30 cities by 2020 and more than doubling the number of 3G artificial pitches to 500.
Howie says the timing is right because the post-Dyke commission restructuring has left the FA in much better shape.
The injection of fresh energy in the FA tutor workforce seems clear. The number of full-time county coach developers has gone up from 16 last year to 41; all the part-time FA tutors have had to reapply for their roles to prepare for the new courses; and 300 FA coach mentors have been recruited in the past three years to work in the grassroots game supporting coaches.
This will enable the assessment method (at the coach’s club with their own players rather than at a central venue “with all the coaches spending days running round as players on each other’s sessions”) to be widened, explains Howie.
Coaching and education has simply moved on too, he says. “The changes make the courses more accessible.
“We’re bringing together the still important aspects of the traditional pathway with the youth award as well as new, modern blended learning. We’re looking at how the game’s developing and adapting, looking at examples across education … and looking at a competency-based framework so that the assessment becomes more about how the person develops over the course, not a 20-minute snapshot.”
Howie is keen to point out that “this doesn’t mean everything in the past was rubbish”.
“It means just as education evolves, football evolves,” he explains. “We have to keep in front of that and look at modern ways. We have new opportunities now. Ten years ago, we didn’t have the iPad, YouTube, Captured. We have to reflect that modern coach as well.”
Ben Bartlett, one of the senior FA youth coach developers responsible for educating coaches on the youth award in the professional academies, agrees that the cultural shift away from teaching to the test is huge.
The strict coaching formula (observe, diagnose, intervene, instruct, demonstrate, rehearse, play) required to pass Uefa B has led to many coaches naturally coaching this way, regardless of the age/experience of their players. Why wouldn’t they if that’s what they were taught?
It’s a theme Bartlett is keen to explore. “In the same way the youth award puts the player at the centre of the process, our job now is to do the same thing with the coach,” he explains. “To put the coach, not the assessment process, at the centre.
“Due to the way those courses were delivered, the people doing those courses were generally encouraged to behave in a way that was linked to the way they were assessed,” he adds.
“If you’ve got 30 minutes to demonstrate competence against some technical and tactical outcome, there’s a decent chance you’ll set up practice to allow that to succeed … by stopping it a lot and giving lots of information. This then tends to drive performance; so you get the performance in the moment but you don’t get long-term understanding and learning. This then became a backdrop for the way that everyone then coached. That became what coaching was, as opposed to understanding that it was only being kept that way because of the way we assessed people.”
This makes sense. But then again, so too did my 1991 copy of Charles Hughes’s bible on skills and tactics in some ways.
In a foreword, Bobby Robson says the book is concerned with “how to practise correctly” and issues a prophetic warning: “My experience is that it is very much easier to develop good habits than it is to change bad ones.”
The book was still very much in vogue when I embarked on the FA’s all-new Uefa B licence in 1998, although “guided discovery” teaching had been added to the lexicon.
In truth, however, the broad thrust of much of what is seen by some as revolutionary today was already there, albeit slightly hidden and unexplored.
The Hughes tome contains chapters on the principles of learning and coaching (“an open and enquiring mind” was seen as vital for players and coaches) and implores “schoolmasters” to move away from 11-a-side with children and engage in “simple progressive practices” and “small-sided games” – not a million miles from banging the drum for futsal as a tool for football skill development.
Similarly, the Uefa B course literature from 1998 includes a section on the merits of the “whole, part, whole” method of teaching. This is fundamental to the youth award ideas.
But any potential gains were arguably minimised over the years by a fixation with rigid, formulaic command-style coaching and Hughes’s obsession with POMO, risk-avoidance and set plays. All of which allowed many coaches to cherry-pick the messages and hop on to an ultimately regressive win-at-all-costs bandwagon.
So will the joined-up approach work? “We’ve made the case [over the past nine years] that this is a good way of working,” says Bartlett. “The FA has appointed enough people now to put it all in place, so hopefully what this means is that it’s not just a ‘finger in the air’ moment saying this might work. It’s been going on a number of years and coaches have seen real value in it and we’ve been working on changing the culture on how people think about ‘education’ and ‘courses’.”
This all sounds promising. Things won’t change overnight, though. Howie accepts it is part of the long-term vision articulated by Dyke when he targeted World Cup success for the men’s national team in 2022 or the women’s in 2023. “For everyone at the FA, for everyone who calls themselves a fan in this country, it has got to be about international success in 2022-23 and beyond,” he says.
Coaching the coaches is only part of the solution, of course. The dearth of decent grassroots football – and futsal – facilities and ability to attract willing volunteers to let tomorrow’s players practise should also be an urgent priority.
So in the classic parlance of the youth award, my feedback to the FA would be: I love the brave decision-making on the youth award. Now your next challenge is to try to leave the game playable for the next generation.