Pathways & Academy’s: What’s the point in Premier League Academy’s?

I recently attended the match at Boundary Park between Oldham Athletic & Rochdale. This was an end of season derby with a few things at stake. Oldham needed at least a point to ensure their safety, whilst Rochdale ideally needed a win to have a chance of making the League 1 playoffs.

Something I found interesting, and also something I was quite happy about being a Mancunian was the amount of local lads and academy graduates playing in the game, albeit mainly for Rochdale such as their goalscorer on the day Callum Camps. Rochdale is classified as a Category 3 Academy under the EPPP, yet currently have the 12th highest amount of professionals making a living from football out of the entire 92 professional teams in England. That means they sit above several Category 1 Premier League sides in that ranking. This did make me contemplate what actually is the point in some Premier League Academies?

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Using the two more successful academies based on results recently, Man City & Chelsea, even though their kids clean up at U18 level winning the FA Youth Cup, winning the Premier League 2, and even doing well in the UEFA Youth Champions League, none are considered good enough to be given a chance in the first team. Usually this results in the players then being sold or released from the club and dropping down the leagues. If we take a sample of the players released over the past few seasons by Man City, such as George Evans, George Swan, Alex Henshall and Reece Wabara, only one of those players is currently playing at a higher level than the League 1 level that Rochdale currently occupy. That one being George Evans who is currently at Reading in the Championship. Now this is not a dig at City in any way, this is the same for the majority of Premier League clubs, currently it could be argued that only Tottenham, and Man Utd are producing players that are Premier League standard if not good enough for their own club, examples of this include Tom Carroll, and Jake Livermore from Spurs, and the likes of Danny Drinkwater, Michael Keane and Jonny Evans from Man Utd. City themselves pre takeover did produce Premier League quality players, Ben Mee, and Kieran Trippier for example are very good Premier League players.

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I feel in general what this demonstrates is that the stature of the club can be unimportant at academy level, the most important thing is actually the pathway the players have and also the coaching they receive. Again using the Rochdale vs Man City argument, Rochdale’s facilities and stature are much poorer than that of City, however they have been able to give more local lads a career in professional football currently than City have, why is this? It can be argued this is because there is less pressure at that level, however I would have to disagree. Football at that level is very physically demanding with a more packed fixture list, teams tend to be a lot more evenly matched so it’s possible for a team to have a great season reaching the playoffs one year only to be followed by relegation the following and vice versa. So I would argue that giving players a chance at that level has the potential to backfire more than at the highest level where it’s possible for a world class talent to bail the team out. The difference is that the Rochdale players have a pathway to the first team and they seize it when it’s given to them, arguably it could be argued the coaching philosophy at Rochdale may be even better than that at Man City and that is what allows their players to be more prepared for that step up.

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Rochdale Academy Graduate Scott Hogan

 

At Aston Villa currently, City graduate Micah Richards is playing with Rochdale academy graduate Scott Hogan. I believe this can be used as an inspiration to lads currently in academy’s. Just because they haven’t been picked up by a Category 1 Premier League Club, that doesn’t mean they cannot forge a successful career in the game. Like Hogan, I’m sure we will see more players coming from the lower rated academies and having a career just as strong as that of those with a Premier League education, because as mentioned, it’s not about the club they’re at, it’s about the pathway given to them by the club and the coaches.

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Reflection on the year

I feel the use of the blog has made me reflect on the sessions I have coached this year. I believe the topics covered and the articles I hav read have been extremely useful. To see top class coaches like Steve Hansen still strive for improvement gives faith to beginner coaches like myself. As a rookie coach I tend to look at the elite level coaches in awe at how good they are, but I feel there is something quite comforting in the fact that they too have self doubts about their ability, and concerns just like I do.

 

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Work outside of University

From the placement I have had this year at Blackburn Rovers, it has allowed me to observe and compare different coaching styles, methods, and also how coaches behaviour changes from coaching the foundation level players at the age of 8-9 up to coaching the scholars striving for a professional contract at the ages of 17-18. I have also been able to see first hand how professional coaches reflect on not only their teams performance but also their own coaching performance, through the use of video analysis.

 

At Blackburn I have also been fortunate enough to record the PFA’s UEFA B Licence courses that they have been running up at Blackburn. This was fascinating to see how these ex-international footballers reflect upon their coaching sessions with the assessors afterwards. Again I think this is quite comforting as some of those players have played in World Cup’s, Champions League Finals, and even they look back on their sessions, reflect and see what could have improved.

 

Progression

I think going forward, I will continue to reflect on my sessions when I coach and use this as a method of improvement. I’ve always been a supporter of reflection anyway, as I see how important and beneficial post-performance analysis is from my work at Blackburn. It is also a great method to improve. I personally believe if you finish every session and think it went perfect that you are probably delusional. There is always room for improvement, and in an environment like football that is constantly evolving and changing it is vital to stay ahead of the game.

If you look at arguably the greatest British manager in football Sir Alex Ferguson, he had to change how he coached to adapt. He was winning trophies constantly in England, but coming unstuck against European opposition. In order to change this and make Man Utd more of a force in Europe, he reflected on his coaching styles and altered them for European games.

Fergusons Tactical Evolution

 

Going forward on my coaching journey I know that this reflection will have been extremely useful. FA Level 2, and UEFA B Licence courses both require documented evidence of sessions in the form of post session reflections, and I know I will now have the relevant experience to hopefully pass the FA Level 2 at least within the next 12 months.

 

 

 

 

Impression Management

As a coach it is important to consider the impression that you give off. This will vary depending on the level and age group you coach at. If you are a grass roots youth coach, the chances are you will be placed under the most scrutiny by the players parents more than anyone else.

 

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Grassroots Level Coaching: Impression to Parents is important

 

Whereas if you are an elite level senior coach, you will under constant media scrutiny, and even outside of your job you will have to show a good impression of yourself. So for coaches at this level, they may have to make more of a positive impression on people who aren’t even based within their club or organization. They will also have to make a good impression to any stakeholders in the club such as sponsors, as any negative attention can often see sponsors back away from supporting a club or team.

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Elite level coach: Has to present a good impression to the media

 

 

My Image

 

As a base image, I feel it is always important to look professional when coaching. I always make a conscious effort to wear a tracksuit and football boots when coaching. These are only small details however it promotes an image to parents and also the children that you take the sport seriously, and take coaching seriously.

The image I like to give off when coaching will vary from age to age. I feel with the much younger children I have coached, it is important to be seen as approachable and not too serious. Some children at the age of 7-8 aren’t there necessarily because they want to be, but because their parents want you to babysit. For this reason I attempt to come across as a more laid back coach to try and encourage those children to get involved. When coaching older children around secondary school age, I attempt to become more authoritative as these children usually are there because they want to be there, but also because they have a habit of zoning out now and again. Therefore the tone I would use would be far more assertive than my tone when coaching the 7-8 year olds.

When coaching my sessions I attempt to try and look in control and organised to the best of my ability. As Goffmann states there is a division where we have a backstage where everything could be chaos, but we present the on stage version of events that appear to be controlled. I feel this is something I attempt, although my session may seem like it may be progressing to the outside, in my mind I am constantly thinking about what could be corrected.

 

Other Coaches

I’ve been lucky enough to observe UEFA A/B coaches first hand and to see how they coach, and how they interact. I have noticed a contrast between how they act when the players are not around, and how the act when they are. Recently, I saw a coach on a U13’s Category 1 side refuse to shake the hand of the opposition coach after the game got heated. As this was away from the players, I don’t think the coach thought the players would see, however they did, and clocked onto this straight away. I believe that if that encounter had taken place 5 yards away from the players rather than the other end of the pitch that the coach would have shaken the other coaches hand. I understand exactly why he didn’t shake his opponents hand, however at a professional club it is important to set an impression to the players you are developing, otherwise they believe this type of conduct can be acceptable. Another noticeable difference through the age groups is the use of language. Up until about U15/16 level coaches tend to be a bit more reserved in their language, especially when it comes to criticism, however above that age, coaches will swear a lot more regularly as they know the lads need to hear that sometimes to get a reaction.

 

Improvement

I believe there is always room for improvement with coaching, I have done a few coaching qualifications through the FA, and so far their main criticism of myself was never to do with the impression I gave to the participants. I have been praised in my feedback as well for the technical delivery of sessions, however I have been told that I should increase the intensity of my sessions. I feel that I may be too nice at times in my sessions, and I possibly need to show myself as being more assertive in future. This I believe though could be to do with a lack of self confidence and that I’m worried I will mess up my session. And as Schlenker says “You never get a chance to make a first impression.” I think this weighs in my mind too often at times and is the reason I am too easy on my participants.

 

Schlenker, B. (1980). Impression management. The self-concept, social identity and interpersonal relations. 1st ed.

Goffman, E. (2007). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1st ed. [S.l.]: Academic Internet Publishers Incorporated.

 

Questions as a Coaching Approach

Using questions as a coaching approach can be beneficial when coaching children as it can allow them to have an input which can then be guided, or praised. This is effective as it is important to build up the confidence of children when coaching them and give them alternatives to something they may have done poorly rather than be critical of them. This kind of feedback can also increase and maintain intrinsic motivation of children (Henderlong and Lepper, 2002) .  Therefore by questioning what they have done in a positive contructive manner we can ensure they stay engaged and motivated in the sport.

 

I recently coached goalkeeping to a group of Under 8’s, I attempted to try and use a balance of questioning and feedback without criticising the youngsters. As they are all fairly knew to football, the idea of the session was to give them the basic technical skills required to play the position, handle the ball correctly, and ensure they fall correctly when diving as not to cause injury. Within my session I started by just feeding the ball to the player and seeing how they set themselves, and then how they attempted to stop the ball. Due to their age many of them had some obvious technical faults, so I decided to ask a simple question of “why did you do it like this?” I felt this was an effective question as many of them had an answer as to why they decided to catch the ball or stop the ball in this manner. The answers ranged from “I don’t know” to “I saw Mignolet do it .” From these answers I was then able to build upon this and try and add some more technical aspects into the session such as the start and set position moving on to the hand positions. By doing this, this allowed me to then ask more questions around the techical developments I had tried to incorporate. For example after I had ensured one participant was in the correct start position I asked him how it felt after he had made a save from starting like that. The idea was to try and see if the children understood why they start in that position, and how it improves their ability to react. I feel this was a good question as there’s no incorrect answer to this question, the start position that I taught incorporates the very basics of goalkeeping, however there is no right or wrong answer with this, as shown below by the comparisons. Fabien Barthez always started with his hands placed on or around his thighs, where as we can see Manuel Neuer starting more with his hands down by his sides. What is noticeable on both though is that their legs and feet are in an almost identical position.

 

 

I feel that with this age group, my questioning comes at the very start of Bloom’s Taxonomy, that being the Remebering and Understanding stages.

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Blooms Taxonomy (1956)

As we can see, the idea is that the children will remember the set position and the hand position from the questioning I have used. As the children are Under 8’s and learning the very basics of goalkeeping we do not need to really go much further than the understanding stage at this part of their development. As they become more experienced with the position they will  naturally progress up the pyramid, and a lot of their feedback may become more intrinsic as they learn from a more trial and error basis.

 

I feel the video below is a good example of how to use questions with the same age group that I use:

 

 

These players are U8 players at Southampton, so they are better standard than I coach normally, however we can see that the coach sets out the task for the players and then introduces questions rather than critcising. For example during the one on one phase he wants to see the players improve the tempo and increase the speed. He gives a demonstration and asks the players “Am I slowing down as I come forward?” As we can see all the players are engaged and reply to the coach. This is clearly an effective method of using coaching as the coach has angled this in a way that the players will improve without actually receiving any criticism. The are improving simply through answering the question the coach has asked them.

As these children are technically superior for their age range we can see more elements of Bloom’s Taxonomy in effect such as applying and analyzing. The players are applying the answer that the coach has led them to by improving the speed at which they move, and they then become able to analyse why they need to do it that way, and also if they are doing it incorrectly.

 

References

Anderson, L., Sosniak, L. and Bloom, B. (1994). Bloom’s taxonomy. 1st ed. Chicago: NSSE.

Henderlong, J. and Lepper, M. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), pp.774-795.

Unopposed Practice: What exactly are they learning?

I recently read an article by Ben Franks called “Unopposed Practice: What exactly are they learning?” The link to the article is below.

Unopposed Practice: What Exactly are they learning?

I felt the article was very well written by Ben and I personally agree with a lot of the sentiments that Ben mentions. He alludes to the fact that if children constantly practice in a Block Practice type method that is unopposed, they are only improving at that particular skill in that particular setting.

“…learning in non-complex, unopposed, blocked practice with limited perceptual variability- training in these environments will not afford the appropriate behaviors that the player will need the next day in their game.”

I feel this point in particular is an excellent one, if you look back at coaching manuals from the 1990’s from English football coaches, the majority of ideas published in there are very structured Block Type practice, however there are videos from around that same time period from other more successful football nations such as Germany and the Netherlands that show a more fluid Random Type practice. I think we are still a few years behind, but we are now attempting to coach sport in a more Random manner that replicates the sport.

“…if I learn in a simple way, I’ll have simple solutions limited to single linear directions with little transferable ability.”

The point above is similar to the first point I mentioned, however I really do think Ben is hitting the nail on the head with this. Sport and football in particular now has become such a multi-million pound business that we now have technology in place to properly analyse and scrutinise training and coaching methods within youth development. And as Ben mentions here, the more simple the practice, the less transferrable this is.

“They’ve Got Natural Talent, You Can’t Teach That”

I would say this is the only point where I don’t completely agree with Ben within the whole article. I appreciate the point where he says “At some point, somewhere, Messi had adapted to a problem in a game which he overcame with a certain movement solution constructed by his interactions with his environment.” Simply because what Ben is alluding to is true, however I still believe that certain individuals are born with tools at their disposal to become a better footballer or athlete than another person.

As mentioned I still think Bens point is valid, as if we use Brazilian footballers for example, they tend to have more flair and skill than most and this certainly can be a product of their environment where Futsal and Street Football is King (Moore, 2012). However if an individual is not biologically pre-disposed with a certain level of co-ordination, strength or speed they simply would be unable to learn these skills and pick up these skills to a good enough level. I think you can see perfect examples within sports of this. The 100m Sprint Final in the Olympics for example is always contested between men of African descent, and biology will back up that is due to the fact they are born with more fast twitch muscle fibres in their legs than other races (Entine, 1999). This for me is an example that some people will have pre-determined tools at their exposal to perform certain skills and techniques better than others.

 

Entine, J. (1999) Taboo: Why black athletes dominate sports and why we’re afraid to talk about it. New York: PublicAffairs,U.S.

Moore, R. (2012) Why are the south Americans so good at football? Available at: https://engineeringsport.co.uk/2012/05/25/why-are-the-south-americans-so-good-at-football/

 

 

Random Practice vs Block Practice

I am looking at the differences between Random Practice and Block Practice, and to find the advantages and disadvantages of both methods of practice. First in order to do this we need to define both Random Practice and also Block Practice.

Random Practice

Random practice is exactly as it sounds. It is practice where skills are not trained in any specific order, and are trained randomly to better recreate a real world situation. If we use for example three practice drills, Drill A, Drill B, and Drill C, random practice will vary the order in which we focus on each of these drills. It will follow no particular pattern, therefore one set may be CAB, followed by ACB and so on (Schmidt, Wrisberg, and Lee, 2013).

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Block Practice

Block Practice is effectively the complete opposite of Random Practice. If we use our example above of Drill A, Drill B and Drill C, block practice will mean that the same order continuosly takes place. Therefore the pattern will constantly be A, B, C and will never vary from this.

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Random v Block

Why are there these two different types of practice? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both of these? According to the study undertaken by Shea & Morgan (1978), random practice is better for retaining learned motor skills, however block practice was shown to be more effective for the acquisition of motor skills. It is believed the reason that Random Practice is more effective is due to something called the “Elaboration Hypothesis.” This is where the participant learns the skill by comparing each different skill and finding similarities which then help them to perform and learn the new skills (Shea & Zimny, 1983). The advantages however of Block Practice is that the brain will try and apply the solution from the first Drill to the next Drill which may help reduce the time needed to find a solution. However a negative of this is that the participant is not necessarily learning a new solution for each Drill therefore the level of learning can be quite poor.

Across the levels

So from what we now know about the types of practice we can look to consider what sort of practice would be most effective for participants of sport from a novice child up to a professional adult athlete.

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Young Novice
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Professional Adult

Novice

If we were to take a seven year old novice, who was new to football and never played before. I believe a distirbution of around 80% Block 20% Random may be a good starting point for them, however it could be argued that maybe even a split of 90% to 10% could be even more beneficial. If we think about the basic skills of football the child would have to acquire, this would certainly be for the best. He would be at a point where he would need to be shown primarily the techniques to just kick the ball, once he had mastered this through Block Practice, these skills could then developed further to a point where we are teaching him to pass with the inside of his foot and then to try and shoot with his laces. This would take up around 90% of the practice time. Once we could be confident he has developed basic understanding of these skills we could make the use of these skills more random by setting up a little 5aside game for example where he will need to use these skills but in no particular order.

Intermediate

If we were to take a fifteen year old intermediate, the ratios would be different. This lad would have been playing the sport probably since about the age of seven, he would have acquired the basic skills a long time ago, and would be looking to build on these and push himself to the next level. I believe a ratio of 75% Random to 25% block may be about right for a player at this level. As he is an intermediate level player there will be things that he will need to improve upon, and these can be improved by Block Practice, such as heading for example. If we knew this was a weakness of his this could be improved by a Block Practice where the coach is crossing or throwing the ball to him and the goal of the session is to score. As this would be the same scenario repeating this would considered Block Practice.

However the situation may be different for other areas of his game. If we knew he had those basic skills of controlling the ball and being able to pass, a Random Practice such as the Rondo drill seen below.

As we can see, the players in this video are intermediate level players between the ages of 13-15, and this type of Random Practice is excellent for developing upon skills the player already has. This exercise replicates the real demands of a football match very well which I feel is a strong point of Random Practice.

 

Professional Adult

With the Professional Adult, the ratio would be around 90% Random, 10% Block. This is because athletes and players at that level already have the fundamentals of the sport performed to an exceptional level, a level that is quite difficult to really build upon further (Curneen, 2013). Therefore we are looking for a method of training that keeps them engaged and fulfils the demands of the sport they practice or play professionally. I believe the video below of the England National Football team shows how Random Practice works well for players at that level.

From the video we can see that this type of practice is completely Random. The players are playing small sided high tempo games to replicate a real match of football, they are effectively just building upon and sharpening high levels of already exisiting skills.

 

Curneen, G. (2013) The modern soccer coach 2014: A four dimensional approach. London, England: Bennion Kearny.

Schmidt, R.A., Wrisberg, C.A. and Lee, T.D. (2013) Motor learning and performance w/web study guide – 4th edition: A situation-based learning approach. 4th edn. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Steve Hansen: The Art of Coaching

I recently read an article on the New Zealand Herald website. This was an interview with the All Blacks Head Coach, Steve Hansen. Although Rugby Union is not my sport I still found the article extremely interesting as it gives a great insight into the mind of an elite level coach, how they plan and encourage their athletes, and also how they are able to reflect on their own performances as a coach. There were several points he struck upon during the interview that I found extremely interesting and also struck a chord with me.

Winning as a Child

A point that Steve touches upon is around how children were being developed as players a number of years ago as they were progressing from young rugby players to senior players, he says:

“Where we got it wrong a number of years ago was when we said winning was not important. You ask any kid from the age of 10 – whether it’s rugby or two kids playing marbles – they want to win. That’s a natural instinct……What we should be focussing on is what are the things that allow you to win? Teaching the skills you need to win marbles under pressure is more important than worrying about whether you’re going to lose your favourite marble or not.”

I found that this point resonated as I find that in the UK in football especially we are struggling to find this balance. We have gone from a mentality in the 80’s and 90’s of win at all costs, to a mentality now where up until the age of 15 or 16 young footballers are being told it’s more about the “taking part” and even at the elite level there have been calls for league tables to be scrapped (Echo, 2011).

 

Overcoaching?

As I also undertake the module around performance analysis in sport so I found this point interesting that Hansen alluded to:

“Yes you can over-coach, most definitely. Does it mean you’re over-coaching because you’re watching mountains and mountains of footage? No, that’s not over-coaching. Over-coaching is when you take all that stuff you’ve looked at and then try to make someone else process it.”

I think Hansen makes excellent points, he is saying that performance analysis can be used to help the coaching process and especially reflection. However if you ask your players to solely rely upon that and don’t actually engage them in your sessions, that footage that you have analysed and watched becomes useless as the player simply won’t process all that information. In fact several recent studies carried out around the use of performance analysis in sport show that, if used appropriately it can help individuals and teams to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals (Kuper, 2012).

 

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Reflection as a Coach

 

Even though Steve is a top class elite level coach who has the won the Rugby World Cup, he still knows the importance of reflection:

“You don’t start out like that. As I said, I’ve probably lived on the negative side for a while when it came to some things, but as you learn to accept that you don’t have to be perfect it’s easier to admit your own failings. Once you can admit to your failings you’ll have greater self awareness then it’s easier to learn.”

 

 

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I thought this quote in particular is excellent as for myself as a young coach who is constantly trying to develop, I tend to look at how the session could have improved, or how the team could have improved their performance, and I feel like I constantly have to strive for perfection. However Steve says here that even the best coach will make mistakes, and if you understand and realise that, you will be able to reflect as a coach and develop. Steve’s idea fits into the learning by doing theory (Gibbs, 1988). Which is shown above.

 

 

References:

Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. London: FEU.

Echo (2011) Former England and Middlesbrough defender Gareth Southgate calls for youth football revolution Read more at: http://www.Sunderlandecho.Com/sport/former-england-and-middlesbrough-defender-gareth-southgate-calls-for-youth-football-revolution. Available at: http://www.sunderlandecho.com/sport/former-england-and-middlesbrough-defender-gareth-southgate-calls-for-youth-football-revolution-1-3366606 (Accessed: 03 January 2017).

Kuper, S. (2012) Football Analytics: The moneyball of football. Available at: http://http//www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaTALIiKvAQ (Accessed: 27 October 2016).