With Academy coaching split into three different developmental phases, we spoke to three coaches about their pathways into the system and the challenges of working with each age group…
THE FOUNDATION COACH
Born: 29 September 1983
Playing career: Arsenal, Bournemouth
How did you get into coaching?
I was playing at Bournemouth and I started voluntary coaching at a local school and doing some sessions at the Bournemouth Centre of Excellence. I did my Level 2 badge in a summer holiday and it took off from there. Within a year I’d done more coaching, had to retire through injury and was offered a role at Bournemouth. It was part luck, part opportunity – one door closed and another opened.
What skills do coaches need to work with Foundation players?
You need to really understand your kids and how they work. Ultimately every young kid plays football because they want to have fun. You need to understand the variation in each individual child, which can be a good challenge in terms of how you engage them. At that age they’re a bundle of energy and just want to play, so you have to be very clever with practices. The session design has to be spot on, otherwise you can lose them in terms of their concentration span.
How do you manage the expectations of very young players?
You need to accommodate their dreams and also make them understand the development pathway is not always plain sailing. There are lots of hills they have to climb. Ultimately the young boys dream of being a Premier League player, but they don’t understand that if you sustain a career at a lower level you’ve done well. As they get to the older age groups they start to understand as they see their friends being released. They have to understand how fortunate they are and that not everyone will be playing together in the first team in ten years time.
What do you get out of it?
This is my fourth season at Arsenal and the enjoyment you get at the Foundation Phase is that you have a chance to shape and develop these young boys. They’re quite fresh and not necessarily the more hormonal teens you can get at the Youth Development phase! You have a real blank canvas to help them develop good habits early. And there seems to be less fear – they chuck themselves at any challenge and that’s really refreshing to see. They’re willing to try things, make mistakes and go again. That has been a real positive part of the role – to see the pure essence of wanting to play football for enjoyment is refreshing.
THE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT COACH
Born: 6 July 1976
Club: Derby County
Playing career: Carlisle, Derby, Southampton, Sunderland, Stoke and Republic of Ireland
What are the challenges of working with this age group?
The main problem is they’re coming out of education into a full-time, professional environment. That’s quite hard. You can’t be too tough on them because it’s their first time in employment. When you go and work outside sport you’re judged on your work, whereas as an elite athlete you’re also judged on what you do away for the club – nutrition, psychology, there are so many different parts to it. You can’t expect them to come in as the finished package, it’s a difficult transition from school into professional football.
How do you use your experiences as a player to inform your coaching?
You know what it takes to come through. I’m not saying coaches who haven’t come through that system aren’t any good, but I think you need a mix of coaches who have and those who have come through the educational way. In a long career – I was in the game for 21 years – if I’ve seen something a player is experiencing and been through it myself, that’s invaluable.
When did your coaching journey begin?
It seriously started when I was 33. I started thinking about what I was going to do next and started my B Licence. Unfortunately I couldn’t fix it because of work commitments, so I ran out of time.I started again when I was 35, doing a few sessions at first, a couple at Stoke. Moving on, I did a few at Barnsley, a few at Burton. Then I found a local team and properly started cutting my teeth.
Do you enjoy it?
I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t want to do it if I didn’t. I don’t think you get the best out of someone if you don’t love the game. It’s a tough game, a brutal game. But for me there is no other job, or sport, that has the highs and lows of football. I like the brutality of it – that if you’re not on your game, you’re out.
Will you go into management?
One day, hopefully yeah. But I’ve got a lot to learn. I came in pretty green. When I first started I was that nervous I could hardly speak. I don’t want to go in too early – I’d love a crack at first team level but I’ve got a lot to learn.
THE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT COACH
Born: 27 September 1965
Playing career: Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Bolton Wanderers, Huddersfield, AGF Aarhus, Mansfield
What inspired you to start coaching?
I wanted to stay in football and I felt it was the closest thing to playing. As a player I always took an interest in young players and talked to them, helped them. I had a really good youth coach as a young kid, a guy called Keith Mincher who taught me a lot, and I thought how he did it was very successful. Most of all, it was just a love of football and to stay in the game. I knew I couldn’t play forever so when I was about 32 I started to look at the future and take my coaching badges.
Why do the badges – they weren’t as essential a few years back?
I wanted to have the experience of being a player but also the expertise of knowing how to coach. I don’t think being an ex-player makes you a good coach, it’s a different job, totally.
You had a long spell at Man City’s Academy – what was that like?
I went in as a coach at U18 and from there became almost head of football. My job was to design the programme, design the style of play, the sessions… It was very much a managerial role, which I hadn’t done and was thrust upon me. I really enjoyed it and I’ve taken a lot of the skills in management and leadership stuff that I learned there with me.
And the resources must have helped…
Yeah, the resources are great but I don’t think they necessarily make players. There have been some unbelievable footballers produced from some very poor facilities. If you give a child everything you can create a spoiled brat. It’s a difficult balance that City have in terms of giving people everything while maintaining humility and standards and respect for the opportunity.
What skills do you need to coach professional development players?
Experience is important but it doesn’t necessarily have to be playing experience, it can be experience of coaching at that age group. The players have to understand about winning and the responsibility of being a professional footballer, about self-management and self-sacrifice. It’s about helping them to maintain their love of the game. We call it ‘serious fun’. We want them to look forward to coming in every day – and that comes from what we deliver.
Three phases explained
Academy coaching is split into three age groups designed to mirror the developmental phases of players on their journey to becoming pros…
According to the FA’s England DNA blueprint for player development, the foundation phase focuses on core skills including developing enthusiasm, confidence in possession and an enjoyment of winning the ball.
At this stage players are expected to evolve a more strategic approach. They should be able to manage the state of the game and disrupt opponents in possession.
Players in this group are preparing for the step up to first team football. This is when their understanding of their individual role and how they need to operate as part of a team are finessed.