15 June, 2015

Why I'm pleased my son is born in May...

It's been a hotly discussed topic for many years, there are countless opinions available relating to the subject but the topic of birth bias keeps rearing it's head. For example, a quick Google search for "relative age effect" brings up over 21,000 articles linked to this and a further search on Scholar raises another 1,300 research pieces on the subject. It's clearly a worldwide and recognised phenomena. 

If you aren't familiar with this it essentially suggests that if you are born in the first few months or half of the 'selection year' for a particular sport you will have more chance of being selected for higher level teams. This brings about the increased opportunity of better facilities, playing with and against better players and working with better coaches. It's akin to the "Matthew Effect". 

The Premier League football academy programme supports just skewed statistics with 57% of players in the system born in the first third of the year (Sept-Dec), with just 14% born in the last four months of the selection year (May-Aug). However, birth rates for children across the year are largely level, there isn't a variance of any major discrepancy that should skew these stats enormously. 

The world of football scouts select their children from grassroots participation - from local leagues that play up and down the country. These leagues are often bias already due to someone's mum or dad making the 'first selection' of players and deciding who plays and sometimes who doesn't. Evidence suggests that it doesn't always mean the quarter 3 and 4 born children don't get to play, it means they might be in teams in lower divisions rather than the top teams. Where do scouts look? Primarily at the top. Therefore, often some of the late developing children might get missed from the system.  

However, I'm going to give an alternative view from my own experiences. 

Being the smallest sometimes isn't a disadvantage, it can be really helpful (if you get IN the system). And that's the challenge. Getting in. However, once you are in the accelerated learning experience you can get compared to others is important to recognise. I have coached Academy teams, full of mixed birthdays and sizes, for the last six years and seen all sorts of kids from different backgrounds come through. 

Here's the thing - I sometimes think that it's the big kids that can be disadvantaged! This is often what you witness in the players...

Player A (early developer):
- Wins most of the physical battles and 1v1's through size and strength.
- Technically more powerful (longer range of passing and shooting from distance).
- Better scores in physical testing such as straight line sprints and jump tests. 
- Less need to focus on learning as success can come from physical advantage.
- Socially dominating due to size and others can be intimidated.

Player B (late developer):
- Loses out when pitted against a giant in outcomes that can be won by strength. 
- Technically often skilful in possession with good agility but less 'impact'.
- Scores lower when benchmarked against players chronologically older.
- Criticised for "not influencing game" or "not getting about the pitch".

However, Player B gets some advantages:
- Has to be a better learner to survive against the older players.
- Solves problems in different ways and comes up with creative solutions as can't use their physical advantage.
- Develops coping and adapting strategies that will serve them well in latter years and key to become an elite player.

The skills that Player B can develop (assuming the right environment is created and the coach recognises the importance of this matter) are huge and in the long term can massively outweigh any early physical dominance. If they have the psychological support and skills they can thrive! But word of caution and don't forget, the early developing Player A could always be the biggest!!

The challenge for coaches is to ensure that we allow all players to develop the mix of skills. The things they gain from being the biggest (self-confidence possibly), can we let the little ones gain this by playing down? The things that the early developers miss out on in their own age group, can we generate this by playing them up against bigger kids so they now have to think differently? I appreciate this solution is easier within the rules for the professional game but many grassroots clubs have mixed age group training nights so some things can be tried. 

The key to all this is patience... Give every kid the same opportunity, not just because they are shaped in a particular way today. See beyond what is in front of you now because the long term will look very different.  

31 May, 2015

Helping children becoming better players...

It's fairly well recognised that our role as coaches is to help children get better, whether that is becoming better people or better players. However, what is also becoming more apparent to me the more I read about things is that it is ultimately about children becoming better learner's too. 

There are many quotes from inspirational football managers from Pep to Sir Alex that talk about the importance of having a player that can learn but as a grassroots coach what role can we play in that process? Well, there are simple things we can do to encourage young people to develop these skills and foster a brighter outlook towards improvement. 

Self-talk is recognised as playing an important psychological role within both the practice and performance phase of taking part in sport and how a young person uses that inner voice can have an effect on learning. As coaches we spend all of our time trying to help a player master a specific technical aspect or solve a tactical problem but if all the time you are competing against a voice internally in their head that tells them they can't do this it is going to be a real struggle for us. 

The cycle then has the potential to spiral downwards... "I'll never get this" in the player's head becomes the coach thinking "they are hopeless, why can't they understand" and dangerously can move towards the coach considering "I'll find another player that can do this instead" and all because we didn't support their tape being played internally.

So, consider helping the player change those words. Discuss these with them, talk about how it affects them, get them to print them out and stick them on the fridge, use this how you like!

Instead of:                                          Try thinking:
I'm not good at this                             What am I missing?
I'm awesome at this                             I'm on the right track
I give up                                              I'll use some strategies we've learned
This is too hard                                   This may take some time and effort
I can't make this any better                  I can always improve so I'll keep trying
I made a mistake                                 Mistakes help me learn better
Plan A didn't work                               Good job the alphabet has 25 more letters
It's good enough                                  I can still make it better
He's so good, I'll never be that good     I'm going to figure out how he does it to help me

I found this lists on a photo somewhere so not sure where they came from but they were linked to classroom learning. However, these are absolutely appropriate for the sport's world too. 

So, as well as helping the player's with the technical and tactical aspects of the game try affecting the little things that could make a massive difference, to them as player's and as people. 

10 April, 2015

Techniques to encourage learning...

Ultimately, we are all there to help the kids. Sometimes we help the children with football stuff, sometimes we help them learn to tie their laces - it varies on different days and at different ages. However, our chosen methods to draw out learning from the people in front of you can make a difference on the effectiveness. 

I'm sure you have all been in the same situation: you have just called the players in after a twenty minute 'practice' on something specific and are ready to ask them some questions to see what they have learnt. Then what happens? Well, I observe this a lot, we fire out a problem for them to consider and...

a) the same hands go up first
b) you try a few answers and skip on past the incorrect ones
c) you go to the kid you know will answer correctly

or...the question isn't quite clear enough so there are no forthcoming answers immediately from the players. To avoid awkward silence you ask the question again and slightly rephrase it, hoping to get a response this time. Recognise being in that position?

Research from education suggests that if teachers haven't got the answer they were looking for within 2 seconds they ask it again. Two seconds?! That isn't a very long time for children to think about something! And this is something I see coaches doing also. 

So, in order to aid learning, here are a few things to consider doing or not doing. This blog (http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/why-hands-up-teaching-kills-learning.html) offers some great points to think about including:

Asking for hands up:
Be cautious with this approach. The players who's hands go straight up often know the answer so I'm not sure if this extends their learning?

It can also have negative effects to the self-esteem of players that really don't know too.

Does this encourage the children more naturally introverted to answer? Will they be willing to risk putting their hand in front of others with more self-confidence in case they get it wrong? What if the answer involves 'showing' something? Does this just encourage the more technically proficient to answer? 

Have a read of the blog link as this offers further ideas. 

Asking for a no-hands up approach:
I have often used a method that is about not putting their hands up after a group question. With a well constructed question that really focuses on learning, this makes every child think of answer. This means there is a chance I will ask a child that might not be right, but that's ok. It can spark discussion.

I'm also comfortable to wait longer, four or five seconds (which might seem like forever) in order to let players have time to think. You can play around with this method, to get them answering in pairs so half the group answer rather than one in front of everyone etc.

Also...Don't miss the wrong answers!! The wrong answer from a player doesn't mean you keep asking kids until you get the right answer. The wrong answer also tells you exactly where that person is with their level of understanding, and a starting point of where you can extend them from. 

The crux of coaching is beyond the X's and O's - it is about the meaningful interactions between coach (more capable other) and the learner. This is a key place we need to invest our own time in to get better at. Follow good blogs such as the one quoted above and read things like http://www.edutopia.org/blog/asking-better-questions-deeper-learning-ben-johnson for more ideas. 

Then try new stuff out!! We ask the players to be brave and try new things, we have to do the same as coaches...

12 March, 2015

It's a Team Game...

We have a fascination currently in the country within player development that seems to be growin, at the expense of other key components - and that's the desire to produce a flair, attacking, creative dribbler. A Number 10. 

However, it is essential that we don't lose sight of the bigger picture of what constitutes a team. This is made up of a number of essential parts that allow the whole thing to function effectively, like an well-oiled machine. Even a team of 11 Lionel Messi's wouldn't be very functional!

I saw a statistic today that was somewhat alarming and runs parallel to the matter of our eternal quest for the next Number 10. Since the Premier League season in 2000, there is a 15% decrease in the number of English centre halves. This is a hugely important matter and should influence our shaping of player development.

So, what does the team at the elite level consist of:
- Leaders of others
- Workers like soldier ants
- Ones with a tall stature that protect the goal
- Physically dominant players that 'allow' others to play
- Skillful players in possession
- Jokers that keep the team together
- Sensible people that keep the team together
- Technical players that can manipulate the ball
- Selfish ones with a desire to score goals
- Older heads that support the youthful exuberance
- Younger and enthusiastic players to push boundaries
- Attack minded by nature
- Defence minded by nature
- Tactical thinkers that understand the game

I'm sure there are more essential roles and you can add to the list within the comments section but we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. Yes, it's essential we allow the players to experiment through free play and within an environment that expresses creativity and the ability to try new things. 

But also don't forget you need players that are going to throw their head in the way to block a goal-bound shot and do all the ugly stuff when we don't have possession to get the ball back. It's the fully functioning team unit that ultimately allows our creative, game winning players to do their stuff. 

The question for you as coaches is how do we set up our sessions to ensure we: 
a) allow all of these skills to develop? 
b) value the importance of these?
c) recognise these in players?

Just a thought...


27 February, 2015

Coaching Session - Attacking Play 1v1's

Through the wonders of social media I see a multitude of coaching sessions, it's a fantastic tool to share thoughts and ideas, so figured it was about time I posted part of one of mine! Developing ball mastery and the ability to beat people in a 1v1 situation is a common topic for coaches to help players get better at so below are some views on this, linked to sound learning principles.

Make the practice real:
Unless I am much mistaken, there are no cones acting as defenders on a football pitch, and real defenders have the ability to move about! They make things a bit more tricky than a static piece of plastic from my experience! Good learning knowledge would lend us to ensure that we make the practice authentic and answer the question - what would happen in a real game? That should be the basis for all our sessions. 

The traditional view of assuming that players need to 'learn something in isolation before adding some more pressure and then putting into a game' is not necessarily always the answer from a learning perspective. Effective learning research would suggest that the attacker being able to recognise the cues and triggers of HOW the defender is acting leads them to the solution they want to use. 

Problem faced = Leads to Solution. 

In this case it is: (defender to beat and he is fast/slow/right/left etc) = (attacker chooses particular move to solve problem). 

In trying different solutions to solve that problem, learning takes place. The attacker can start to recognise which solution might be the answer to that specific conundrum. For example, an attacker will realise that doing their trick too far away from the defender means the opponent has chance to react and change their defensive tactic again. This comes from experiencing this, against a real person. Doing this against a cone doesn't allow this learning opportunity to occur. 

Now, I am aware some people will believe that players have to have the technique developed first BEFORE they can use it against a real person. Evidence is starting to suggest otherwise. Yes, they will need a basic level of movement skills to be able to perform a 1v1 but allow them to explore different moves themselves. This provides them, through a cleverly constructed game, the chance to understand WHY. Evidence also suggests that the technique they learn in isolation isn't exactly the one they use in the game - so why spend half hour drilling something that doesn't exactly replicate?! 

Make use of your coaching skills:
As adults we are there to help. This might take a variety of forms at different times but in this situation we are there to help children get better in 1v1's. As the children are playing the game, getting lots of repetition of dribbling moves against different defenders, this is where observation skills are crucial.

Who can do different things moves and sort things out themselves?
Who might not quite have things worked out....yet?
When do I step in and help or see if they can self-correct?

Below are notes of mine for some 1v1 games I was doing (excuse the rough scribbles though, this was purely for my own pocket at the time!) Whilst the children are rotating round the different pitches, getting lots of repetition and experiences of similar but slightly different things I'm watching intently, not saying much. 

If I need to go and help an individual, or ask them a question or two, or bring them over to me to work on something specific, or give them a little piece of advice...that's coaching! 

Make the game relevant:
You will spot from my scribbles that different pitches are laid out for the 1v1 practices in varied parts of the pitch. Consider these:

How does a 1v1 look in a wide area compared to a central area?
How does a 1v1 look high up the pitch around the penalty box compared to in the midfield area?
How does a 1v1 look when you receive the ball with back to goal or if attacking from the front?
How do you start a 1v1 if you receive the ball from the side or from behind?

The answers to the above are "it's different every time"! 

If you are dribbling to beat a full-back in a wide area you (typically) have more space you can use in front, to the side and possibly behind the defender. You might also have in mind a cross as an end product. This affects your decision making and the choices you make.

If you are dribbling at a central back at the top of the 18yd box in a central area there will be a lot less space in all areas, likely to be other players nearby and have a different end product in mind to the wide area dribble. Again, spotting these affects what we do.

So the 1v1 has to be different! Therefore, why do we do a 1v1 game that has no context to where on the pitch this would occur or what the end product might be? I have lost count of the amount of times I did this when I was a younger coach until this dawned on me!

As you read this post, think about your last 1v1 session, how you did it and consider what you might change in light of reading the above. Be great to hear your views on where you would take the session next too!

13 February, 2015

The Evolution of Learning

As generations progress we are getting smarter with our understanding of the learning process. Many myths about learning appear along the way that unfortunately can get swallowed up and accepted as common practice (e.g. NLP, learning styles, right/left brain thinking) and requires us to think carefully about the methods for helping players learn. However, what is becoming clear is that young people are an evolving type of learning animal and have different views and outlooks on the process than previous generations. This post will look to examine a few of these and the implications for coaches. 

Access to information:
Back in the days of only four TV channels (mostly in black and white) and with Match of the Day being the only opportunity to see football if you didn't go to live games, the coach was crucial. The coach was the essential component in passing on information to the next generation because the richness of content wasn't available. The coach was King!

However, children growing up today cannot remember a life without the internet and social media. If they don't know something they will Google it. When I did my Level 2 in 1997 Google didn't exist and certainly wasn't accepted as a term for 'searching and learning'. We call it "technology" but for them, it's just "the way it is".

Today, children can watch worldwide football on Sky Sports and have 24/7 access to learning tools, clips and tricks of every top player via You Tube. They don't need the coach to 'demo' a specific turn in the same way as years gone by when that child might not have seen it. Today, they are showing the coaches and this can be cleverly planned for.

How do you use technology yourself? Do you embrace it or a technophobe?
How can it be used to support learning in sessions and away from sessions?
How can you use it to save you time when interacting with parents?

Coach tells v Player constructs meaning:
Many of us will have grown up through an educational system that consisted of the teacher at the front of the class, the font of all knowledge, telling those sat in front of them everything they need to know about a subject (copying down what they said). I still see lots of coaches that deliver in this way to groups of children and I'm not surprised - this was what they experienced in their education process and research tells us you often 'teach' the way that you were taught. 

However, many views exist now that it is the learner that constructs meaning. Everyday a variety of different stimuli and sources of information will be presented to a person and they make sense of this, through their eyes and building on their existing view of the world. Learning is not necessarily a coach downloading what is in their head into a player's hard drive!

Today, the modern player arrives at your session in a different 'learning' place to every other player. They have all had different experiences, know a varied amount of things and can put this into practice at differing levels. Some will know exactly what is right but might not be able to do it...yet. Some will be able to do something really good and not know why or how, and that's OK too. 

How can you critically reflect on your teaching process? 
How do you present information for the learner to make sense of it themselves?
How do you structure questions effectively for players to have to think?

The right way:
I've witnessed it countless times and done it myself - "To do a Cruyff turn you must put your foot here, your non-kicking foot must be here...." because that is the right way to do something. Previously, traditional learners will have been brought up thinking there was in fact a right way to do something and this was the way that was passed down from teacher to learner from generation to generation. 

However, the modern learner now considers that there isn't necessarily a right way. There are probably lots of different solutions to certain problems and they want to be able to experiment and solve these problems themselves. They recognise that learning is done collaboratively, shared globally and they want to involve others - searching out for answers through friends, social networks, mentors and others. 

Today, with the wide variety of tricks and skills shown by top players everyday I'm not convinced we can show that their is a "right way". Information during a game around you changes all the time and that influences how you do a particular skill. For example, is a 1v1 in a wide area different to a 1v1 at the top of the penalty box? Absolutely. Is a 1v1 against a fast player different to doing a 1v1 against a slower player? Definitely. What if you approach them from a different angle or at a different speed? It's never the same, but maybe similar. 

How can you teach the principle of the action rather than be prescriptive of the action?
How can help players recognise the cues that determine their choice of move?
How can you develop games that encourage them to do the problem solving?
There are loads of things to think about as learning and our understanding of it develops and this blog just hoped to give a flavour of some of these. The modern learner is different to a traditional learner and because you learnt that way doesn't mean that today's child will do. They have been born in another time, as the Chinese proverb says. You wonder why the player's sometimes mess about during sessions? It might be linked to your approach towards their learning.

We need to be smart with our games and practices that empower young people to make decisions for themselves because I can guarantee, once they step over that white line to play, it's all about them and children's sport should not be PlayStation for adults...

24 December, 2014

Seeing the game through their eyes...

At a coaching conference this year I had a good discussion with a couple of coaches. I was sat in front of them watching a practice going on and listening to them commentating of the game and their opinion of what every player should have done differently at a variety of moments in the game. It made me think. How do they know?

The final comment that prompted me to ask them a question or two occurred after one lad got down the left wing to the by-line and into the box and stabbed a ball across the front, which got cut out, with his right foot. The guys behind proceeded to say how he should have played the ball with his left foot, should have done this, should have done that... 

My question to them was - "how do you know what he saw?"

As coaches, we are very quick to make judgements from our viewpoint, through our eyes and from our position. But we have ZERO idea what they saw. We have even less idea about what they were trying to do, until we start a conversation with the player. 

It was an interesting discussion. How apparently he was all one-footed. How he should have used his left foot to pull it back. But through my lens I saw things a little different. I'd like to know:

- What did you see?
- What did you try and do?
- Why did you choose that specific technique?
- What would you do next time?

Because, whilst it could have been what they said was wrong, it also could have been the lad thinking he wanted to play it quickly off his front foot, in his stride, as he didn't have the time to wait for his left foot. He might have made the right decision and just got the technique wrong. Who knows. 

Or we could have talked it and it could have been the same answer the coaches' suggested. But that is my point, until we speak to the player, talk through the 'moment' from their set of eyes (not ours) we are guessing. Guessing!

So next time you consider shouting at a player on the other side of the pitch for doing something different to what you thought they should have done, think about pausing and see if you can find out what they saw. Explore the world through their eyes.