Friday, 10 August 2012

Coach Dave August 2012 Blog – Football Success Through Inclusion Not Perfection


15 years or so ago I became quite keen on the game of golf. My ability was limited to say the least, but I thoroughly enjoyed playing. The scenery, the company, the gentle exercise, the sense of achievement, were all highly appealing. Then again, all these attributes still appeal to me but I haven't picked up a club since the turn of the millennium. Whilst I found that I could hack my way around any course in my unorthodox style, and my putting was as good as any of my peers, I felt a massive pressure to improve.

This pressure came from friends who were better than me. It would appear their beef with my game was my swing, or lack of it. Rather than starting directly above my head, it started from about a 35% angle behind my back leg. I was perfectly happy playing like this – being in my early 20's, any chance of winning the Open had long gone. But they wouldn't let it go. "You've got so much power, you could be awesome if you had a correct swing" was the kind of comment I'd hear on loop. Finally, I gave in and booked a course of lessons with a 'pro'. He was not amused by my style of golf at all. "You can't do that, you must do this, that and the other". I tried, but the higher my swing starting point, the more air shots I made. And that was when I wasn't hacking lumps out the turf. I was hitting everything but the ball.

I persisted for months with what I'd been 'taught'. But gradually lost patience and fell out of love with the game. It wasn't fun any more. It was hard work, frustrating, even embarrassing. When I heard Bubba Watson had surprisingly won the US Masters, one commentator described his style as "Like watching an octopus cut down a tree with a chainsaw". He then went on to remark on how ridiculous Bubba's long arms would look poking out the end of the Green Jacket's sleeves. This seasoned pundit was pretty much saying 'how could such an unorthodox freak win one of golf's biggest prizes?' A man who by his own admission has never taken a single golf lesson! Well he won it pal, and he won it his way.

Who actually wrote the manual for sports which says 'you can't do that and you must do this'? Surely if a technique works and gets results, then it's right. Yes practice is vital to success, as is dedication. but as I heard Howard Wilkinson say recently, "We need to convince players, not tell them". Surely it's basic psychology, 'Don't expect but suggest instead'. Anyone who's ever been nagged at about anything understands this. It's exactly the same with coaching. Present the information in a fun and engaging manner. Don't ram it down their throats.

When Dick Fosbury decided not to do a scissors style high jump in the 1968 Olympics and invented his own 'Fosbury flop' ensuring he won the gold medal and broke the world record in the process, did anyone say 'you can't do that'? Well I'm sure they probably did, but I doubt he cared very much. It's now a technique which has been used ever since and we saw it at London 2012 and I am sure it will continue well into the future. Until someone dares try something different, that is.

So what's this got to do with football and coaching? Everything, I believe. In England we are so obsessed with protocol. What's right, what's wrong, what's 'the done thing'. Until recently, many pro clubs looked at children's parents to see what the child was likely to develop into genetically. Wouldn't be surprised if some still do. Tall Mom and Dad meant little Billy would be big and strong. Little Mom and Dad meant little Billy would stay little and that was no use to them. The logic remains you can turn an athlete into a footballer but you can't turn a footballer into an athlete. Theo Walcott is a good example. At 16 he had a 100 metres time which was borderline Olympic qualification. Wasn't great at football, but hey that's the easy bit to teach isn't it?

Time and again we see comparatively small foreign players who are nothing less than geniuses. Messi, Zola, Juninho, Tevez, Maradona, to name a few. Would these guys have made it in English football? Would the scouts have wanted them? We'll never know. But my guess is we've discarded a wealth of talent at the expense of brawn and power over the years.

11 year ago I was watching West Brom play QPR in a scrappy Championship game. WBA were winning 1-0 and in the 2nd half QPR brought on a young 6"7 bean pole striker called Peter Crouch. The whole stadium rocked with laughter. Myself included, I'm now ashamed to admit. "One Rodney Trotter, there's only one Rodney Trotter" and then "Rodney, Rodney give us a wave” echoed round the Hawthorns.
I, and everyone else in the stadium, had been brought up, conditioned to think people that big were good for one thing only. Basketball. I bumped into the then chief scout at WBA the following week. His name was Richie Barker. Some of the older ones amongst you will recall him as a manager in his own right – I think he was at Wolves and Stoke. Richie was in the winter of his career at this stage. But I'll never forget bringing up the subject of 'That Rodney' and Richie cutting me dead to say "He'll make some player one day, son, you mark my words. He's got it all". I was confused. I liked Richie as a person, and respected his opinion, but surely he was talking rubbish? Well 11 years later Peter Crouch has fetched a combined transfer fee of £47 million, played for England 42 times scoring 22 goals, played 395 pro games scoring 156 goals, oh and he recently scored easily the goal of the season with his sublime technique.

Football fans have selective memories. Doubt many of the 20,000 or so at The Hawthorns that day remember shouting 'Freak' every time he touched the ball now? So Richie was right. But how many Richie Barker's are there in our game at the top level, in junior football and on the terraces? Sadly, very few. Judging a book by it's cover is still the order of the day.

Crouch is probably one of the most gifted footballers English football has produced in recent times. He just doesn't look like he should be.

I believe the way to increase the amount of gifted footballers in our game is to increase the amount of quality football played and coaching received. Skills development centres are becoming far more widespread but are still the poor relation to the league systems. As I've said before, I believe leagues do serve a purpose for some children but there is absolutely no reason why kids can't play in leagues (if they want to and aren't forced by parents) and also attend skills development centres too.

I myself am starting a development centre for year one and two children as my own children have now reached this age and are too old for Little Kickers. My intention is to hold one hour sessions. The first 20 mins or so will concentrate on ball mastery in various situations. Coaching will consist of limited command style, with majority of games having a guided discovery ethos. The rest of the sessions will consist of various small sided games with themes. Smaller numbers the better to encourage higher amount of time on the ball for each player. We'll have a debrief at the end when there'll be a little, relaxed Question and Answer coaching.

We'll have a pool of players of mixed abilities. Sides will be picked and changed, handicapped and swapped. Positions will be changed too. How can an 8 year old truly know they're going to be a goalkeeper for the rest of their lives? They can't. So they'll rotate positions. Learn how to emphasise with team mates, develop a rounded appreciation of all positions. At the end, the children will go home not having won or lost 12-0, but having played football, and, most importantly, lots of it. Hopefully, having thoroughly enjoyed themselves without having (if I'm being kind) nonsense shouted at them. If I'm being honest, sometimes borderline abuse shouted at them.

My philosophy is football coaching should be about inclusion not elitism. I think the English game should work on the basis of 1000 average young children playing in a positive, fun environment is likely to reap greater dividends in the long term than a so called elite group of 20 of whom the majority will fall out of love with the game because of pushy adults and elitist coaching before they become teenagers.

If anyone agrees or disagrees with my philosophy I'd love to hear from you. I'm particularly interested in coaches and parents thoughts regarding the pros and cons of children's leagues in comparison to skills development centres. Why can't they exist happily together? Being diplomatic, perhaps there are lessons they could learn from each other for the greater good?

You can follow me or comment on this blog @CoachDaveLKFC on twitter or please leave a comment here. I'll always reply to feedback, so long as it's not abusive. Thank you for reading!

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