Written by David Ramzan.
St George’s Park and the Wembley Style Pitch
As a Level 2 FA football coach, mainly working with children and young adults with special needs and disabilities, I had the opportunity to go along to the first FA Licensed Coaches Club Seminar ‘Shaping the Future’ which took place over the weekend of December 1st – 2nd at the prestigious FA international training centre ‘St Georges Park’ in Staffordshire. This two day conference was specifically for Level 1 and 2 coaches, where on the following Monday to Tuesday, a similar conference was held for Levels, 3,4 and 5, and later in the week it was the turn of the UEFA B, A and UEFA Pro-Licensed coaches.
Is time standing still on the football fields of England? Over the past few years the national game has seemed as if it was standing still, and in some periods almost looked as if it were going backwards, ‘FA Grassroots’ football has also been wobbling along on a similar path, like young footballer’s on a cold and wet November night being instructed, one after another, to try dribbling in and out a row of cones marked out around a rain sodden, muddy pitch.
You may well ask that if I have been so sceptical about the FA’s grassroots and youth development coaching plan, then why have I taken my FA coaching Levels and joined the FA’s Licensed Coaches Club? The short answer is, that because there was a lack of opportunities for my son, who has a visual impairment, to become involved in a sport he loved, football, I had no other choice than to start organising some football for not only him, but other youngsters who were being excluded because of their learning difficulties, physical disabilities and special educational needs. This lead me into first taking my FA Level 1 coaching qualification and FA disability coaching workshop, after which I innocently began following the FA’s trusted guidance and coaching methods which seemed to have been written to aid and enable me, as a coach, to teach these young footballers how they could reach the pinnacle of football excellence. Then after several months carrying out my coaching sessions following the FA’s coaching guidelines, and throughout this time finding that these FA coaching practices were neither practical nor enjoyable for children with learning difficulties and physical disabilities to carry out, I came to hear about a GUBOG football coaching workshop. Although this workshop, which ran over a weekend, was not held in such an auspicious venue as St Georges Park, on attending this GUBOG workshop my own opinions of good coaching practices were changed for the good, and I came to realise that the children’s game, which had been played for enjoyment and fun, had now been taken over by adults with their own agendas and win at all costs mentality, where the children involved in playing football at grassroots level were not playing for themselves but for those who ran the clubs, organised the leagues and coached the players.
I have no doubt that amongst the hundreds of players involved in any grassroots youth football club there may be one player, perhaps two, who have the skill and aptitude to make football a professional career, and although all player’s in those grassroots clubs should be able to have the same opportunities to improve their footballing abilities through the coaching they receive, most of these youngsters, girls and boys, are only there just to play football for the enjoyment and fun of it. This is even more prevalent in disability football where although there are opportunities for youngsters with learning disabilities and physical disabilities to progress through the player pathways into playing international football for impairment specific teams, once again it’s the fun aspect and social camaraderie which brings most of these players to training on Sunday mornings each week.
Coaching workshop under 12s
There is no doubt that the FA have turned a corner in relation to the ongoing youth development plan at grassroots level, through the ‘Your Kids Your Say’ initiative, and The Future Game, the FA’s Technical Guide to Young player Development, first published in 2010, where the FA’s vision for players and coaches reads “The Future Game vision is intended for the whole game, with the same underpinning values applicable for coaches from grassroots to elite level. A vision for players: To produce technically excellent and innovative players with exceptional decision-making skills. A vision for coaching: To train, develop, qualify and support more innovative coaches, who are excellent teachers of the game”.
Now for the FA’s Shaping the Future Licensed Coaches Club Conference 2012, which I will endeavour to recount in an unbiased manner, leaving my own personal thoughts to the end.Opened just a few months ago there is no doubt that St Georges Park is a magnificent sporting complex, with two hotels, a large indoor training facility and numerous grass and artificial turf pitches, all set amongst some 300 acres of Staffordshire countryside not far from Burton-on-Trent. The Level 1 and 2 coaches conference saw some 300 grassroots volunteer coaches in attendance, with guest speakers including Sir Trevor Brooking, Les Howie Head of Grassroots Coaching, Brent Hills Assistant National Coach of Women’s Football, Jeff Davis National Development Manager (Disability), Toni Minichiello coach to Olympic Champion Jessica Ennis, Dr Steve Peters Consultant Psychiatrist to UK Athletics and British Cycling Team, former Bolton Wanderers Manager Owen Coyle, Mick Baikie FA National Clubs Service Manager, Steve Smithies Nantwich Town, Graham Keeley National Game Coaching Workforce Manager, Brenden Batson Football Consultant St Georges Park and Jamie Houchin Head of FA.
The costs to attend the Level 1 and 2 coaches conference ranged from £90 to £185, dependent if you stayed overnight and attended the Saturday evening Gala Dinner. The first day started at 10.00am, where all coaches attending registered in the large modern and spacious lobby of the onsite Hilton Hotel, where each of the coaches were issued with a badge, folder full of St Georges Park literature, coaching material and an extremely nice black canvas coaches shoulder bag to put it all in. Lunch was provided on both days and there were copious amounts of coffee, tea, biscuits and pastries available throughout each of the conference days. After registration it was down to business in the hotel conference suit, where FA guest speakers and sports guest speakers took a turn on stage discussing their roles in football and sport, from grassroots football to Olympic coaching, and at the end of each segment the attending coaches were offered the opportunity to put questions to the guest speaker. After lunch the coaches had the opportunity to attend varied practical workshops which were taking place throughout the afternoon of the first day, including coaching age specific players, girl’s football, Futsal transfer and goalkeeping. The day finished with another guest speaker taking to the stage followed by a review and round up of the day’s activities. Before the gala dinner the FA Licensed Coaches Club members had an opportunity to take a tour of St Georges Park, where the FA guides took us to all parts of the complex to view the indoor coaching facilities, sports medicine centre, hydrotherapy suite, human performance lab, strength and conditioning gym, rehabilitation gym, changing rooms (all fitted out with England first team kits hanging on pegs), conference and meeting rooms, and the full size indoor 3G pitch, which were all extremely impressive.
The second day began at 9.30am, starting once again with a series of guest speakers and then further opportunities for coaches to take part in a coaching workshop before lunch. In the afternoon several coaching demonstration were laid on, run by the FA Youth Coach Educator Pete Trevivian and Neil Dewsnip Academy Head Coach with Everton FC. After the practical coaching demonstrations had finished the conference proceedings came to a close with an FA coaching pathway presentation. At the end of the day’s events each of the coaches attending received some free FA Licensed Coaches Club kit, t-shirts, coaching tops and jackets, and a memory card an FA The Future Game Technical Guide. Throughout the weekends conference there was also plenty of opportunity to buy FA branded Licensed Coaches Club kit, The Future Game manuals and electronic memory cards, for varied levels of coaching, and register, with a big discount, for a coaching software analysis system for accessing the development of club players.
My main reason for attending this conference was firstly to have a chance to go to St Georges Park, England’s national training complex, and secondly to find out exactly where the FA’s grassroots plan was heading, as throughout the previous two to three years, FA coaching strategies at grassroots level have seen some dramatic changes, hopefully for the better.
The FA’s £100m facility at St Georges Park is not only the new home for England’s 24 national teams, the centre is the new home of FA learning and will be used to deliver all FA national education courses, which all Licensed Coaches Club members will have the opportunity to attend. However although St Georges Park will be used predominantly by England International teams, as the glossy brochure reads ‘ you don’t have to be an England footballer to take advantage of the world class facilities on offer at St Georges Park’. The centre is open to the public, where they can stay at either of the hotel facilities, and where junior footballers through to sports athletes can use sports and coaching facilities for a fee. For a minimum price of £30 each, young footballers can take part in an FA coaching clinic, open to all ages and abilities, which includes two hours of fun based football under the guidance of FA St Georges Park coaches, which I thought was very reasonable price and I’m sure that there are many young players out there who would love to experience taking part in a training session at the home of the England national teams.
Spot the buffet?
I must admit I am, and probably will remain, somewhat sceptical about the FA’s ongoing plan and vision for grassroots football, because ever since my first GUBOG workshop I have become an advocate of fun football first, as in my experience this is the main reason why children begin to play football. Although I know that all players need to receive good coaching practices to progress in their footballing skills and abilities, this shouldn’t take precedence over playing for the fun and enjoyment of it. However I was encouraged to find through this conference that the FA are now emphasising coaching sessions should be made enjoyable for the players, and gone are the days of session line ups, queues and dribbling around cones, practices which are at long last being replaced by small sided games developed to challenge players and to help them improve their game, which sounds somewhat like the GUBOG ethos.
During one of the conference workshops with FA National Development Coach Pete Sturgess, one of his assistance remarked ‘does your own fun and enjoyment in coaching come through teaching boys and girls how to play football….or how to win?’ The coaches attending this workshop were not required to come back with an immediate answer, but to think about their own reasons for becoming involved in coaching, however it would have been interesting to find out the percentage of coaches who would have answered ‘how to win’.
Throughout the conference those speaking who represented the FA made reference to how there was a need to change old coaching habits as FA coaching has now moved on, and how there should be a change in the way FA qualified coaches deliver their football practices and sessions. The FA acknowledged that not all qualified coaches deliver in the same way, but deliver sessions differently for the benefit of the players they coach, and there should be more flexibility for coaches when carrying out coaching at grassroots level. The FA wants St Georges Park to be the motivation for coaches to register with the FA Licensed Coaches Club to become better coaches at grassroots level and to have the opportunity to go to St Georges Park. It was said that the FA’s Licensed Coaching Club is about ongoing learning, where qualifications only make up 10-15% of this learning, and how there was a genuine commitment by the FA to support every coach across the game to help learners become more effective in the work carried out on behalf of the players they coach. It was emphasised by those speaking on behalf of the FA’s The Future Game coaching programme that coaches needed to be allowed more flexibility in their coaching practices, where previously they were required to adhere to FA structured coaching methods. Coaches are now encouraged to progress their sessions to challenge themselves further, to become more flexible and to change methodical practice sessions to achieve a better end result, which is not just to win but to make sure players get better.
During an on stage interview Owen Coyle remarked that ‘kids today can no longer kick a ball about in the streets and now need to go to clubs to feel safe and enjoy their football’ he went on to say that it was now down to those grassroots who were attending the conference today to ensure that these youngsters are given the best coaching opportunities to help them improve as players and to be able to play the game.
The FA are now promoting The Future Game and the FA’s Licensed Coaches Club as a way to help and improve coaches and players ongoing learning, which will give the FA an opportunity to communicate with grassroots coaches, where they can all work together to improve the coaching workforce, emphasising that the CPD, ‘coaches personal development’, is in place to help coaches ongoing development, as well as way to continue to challenge the FA in what it can do to improve the game from grassroots to elite players, and identify what coaches need themselves to progress in their football coaching.
In my case I believe that it is important for coaches to continue to challenge the FA, if they believe that the plans and coaching methods being produced through the The Future Game are not meeting the needs of the majority those actually playing the game, and by being part of the FA’s Licensed Coaches Club, this gives you an opportunity to make your views known from the inside rather than from outside. The FA hope to make registration to the Licensed Coaches Club free as from next year, however as the FA Licensed Coaches Club undoubtedly needs to make an income to be able to be sustainable members will be required continue their CPD, coaches personal development, up to the required minimum hours each year, which means paying to enrol on specified FA coaching workshops.
The problem I have with this is if you are inclined to join the Licensed Coaches Club, with all good intentions of making your CPD hours annually, as a volunteer coach who is involved at the basic grassroots level, there is only go so far along the FA suggested development coaching pathway, as it is not practical to continue moving up the coaching ladder to achieve your CPD hours when you are only coaching a local grassroots children’s Sunday side for one or two hours a week purely as a volunteer.
During the conference I had the opportunity to have a conversation with the FA’s head of learning, to make my views known, that a majority of those volunteer coaches would not have the time to keep up the required CPD hours to ensure they were able to retain their Licensed Coaches Club registration each year, and although I understood that the FA’s vision is to have all grassroots coaches registered through this scheme, it could cause many volunteer coaches to give it all up. This is more predominant in disability football, where those involved in coaching special needs and disability football do so out of necessity, as although the FA legislation makes it clear that all grassroots clubs should give all players whatever their ability and disability the opportunity to play football, this does not happen. Many of our own players who have learning difficulties, autism, ADHD and asperger’s syndrome, have come to our club because mainstream clubs just do not have the tendency or knowhow to include them. For the passed six years I have been putting together my own series of sessions and football practices which I hope has ensured that all children, whatever their need, disability or ability, has helped them enjoy their football experiences, and which I hope to get published as a easy reference guide which other coaches may find useful when working with Pan Disability players, which can be quite a challenge if you have no experience in running sessions to meet their varied learning, physical and ability needs.
One of the most enlightening guest speakers at the conference was Dr Steve Peters, Consultant Psychiatrist to UK Athletics and the British Cycling Team, who some people may have seen after the Olympics where he spoke about taming the ‘Inner Chimp’. He spoke about how he had helped athletes prepare for the psychological demands of elite sport, explaining ‘When it comes to the mind a lot of people don’t know what’s going on. We often act very emotionally and behave incorrectly or inappropriately and afterwards regret it. So I try to explain to people simply that if you consider the mind in terms of science we have two thinking brains the human and the inner chimp’. Dr Steve Peters has worked with the very best athletes who have developed methods to manage their ‘inner chimp’, the emotional and irrational part of the brain triggered by anxiety and fear, which can then help the human mind reach optimum performance, a method which can be applied to all walks of life. Working with children with learning difficulties, autism, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, this piece of information was invaluable and I will be looking at how I can use Dr Steve Peters methods when working with our players, and within my own work in special needs education.
In my own opinion, although the content of the conference went someway in demonstrating how the FA’s grassroots programme has become more child friendly and more child focused, I believe that the FA learning programme is still looking upon young players as potential future professionals. After one coaching session, run by Everton Academy Head Coach Neil Dewsnip, he noted how the young players, aged around 13-14 years old and who had been drafted in from a local community club, were not comfortable using either foot in the shooting practices he had been running. He asked ‘whose fault was this?’ and suggested it was ‘us, the coaches’, explaining that if youngsters at this age were not comfortable using either foot then what chance would they have to go further in game especially if they had asperations of playing professional football. Of course he made a good point, that players should always be encouraged to become comfortable on the ball and to be able to use either foot, which is a skill many overseas born players seem to have in abundance, however was this achieved through coaching, or by learning this through play?
This brings me back to the reasons why I joined the FA’s Licensed Coaches Club and to what is the purpose of our role as volunteer coaches, is it to make grassroots players better in the hope that one day they will become professional players, or is it to ensure that in the first instance they enjoy playing football? The FA Licensed Coaches Club has been established because, as written in the FA Learning Course brochure, ‘Whether you’re paid or not, every coach should take a professional approach. That’s why The FA is determined that coaching is seen as a profession, not a hobby’.
As far as I am concerned If any young player is talented enough to make football his livelihood, then he will no doubt be picked up at a very early age through a professional clubs community programme, youth development project, or through recommendations from the local team he plays for, where in which case he should then receive top quality coaching in that professional clubs youth development programme. For me and the coaches at my club, although we are all there to hopefully make ourselves better at coaching and the players we coach better at playing the game, the main reason we are involved is to ensure they are all having fun playing their football, as the majority of youngsters who play grassroots football will only ever do so for the enjoyment that it brings them.
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