23 April, 2014

Developing Creative Players...first you need to understand creative people!


One of the most common phrases I hear up and down the country is the distinct lack of creative players in the English game, currently possessing an English passport. Whilst we talk lots about wanting to develop this, the real question is, what do they look like and how do we foster these traits on the grass? I’m going to start by sharing some findings from a research study to help our understanding of just what it is we should be looking for within our children and I’ll attempt to add the football architecture to the plot.

1.   Associative orientation: The people with creative talents may well be more imaginative, playful and have a wealth of different ideas. They have an ability to be committed yet slide transitions between fact and fiction.

In the football world, have you come across the player that wants to talk about lots of different ways to approach things? The ones that when you show them a tactics board will move all the counters, proudly saying “...and then he could run here, and she could pass the ball down to him, and he could run into there and cross it here....” – recognise those ones? Try not to miss the conversations these players are starting, as whilst they might not be what you want at that time and a little frustrating, they are sharing a unique insight into the creativity of their mind.

2.   Need for originality: The creative ones will often resists rules and convention; not sticking to what is expected. Some really creative people will have a rebellious attitude because of a need to do things no one else does.

When you are setting up a practice and the focus of learning is on a particular skill, but one player doesn’t want to do that one, they want to make up their own trick and try something different - can you think of many players that do this? I can remember one boy I used to coach that used to drive me barmy doing this, not focusing on the learning I originally thought, but actually this is often where the best and newest ideas come from. The Cruyff turn? Ronaldo’s free kick technique? Ideas developed through play and exploration then honed through practice.

3.   Motivation: Creative people have a need to perform, are incredibly goal oriented and possess an innovative attitude. They often have the staying power and stamina to tackle difficult issues.
Match day comes round, you’ve been working in training during the week on ‘when to pass and when to dribble’ yet all of this seems lost as Mr. Creative decides to try and take on two players in the middle of the pitch, loses the ball and the other team score... I think we have all been there. Our immediate reaction as a rationale adult with a fully developed brain is ‘has he not learnt anything this week’ but for that player, they were just having a go at something new! Rather than worry about the score as the outcome, engage them in a conversation on performance and allow them to start making the links.

4.   Ambition: The people with bundles of creativity have a need to be influential, to attract attention and recognition.

It is very easy as an adult to confuse this with ‘showing off’, the player that likes to be centre of attention. Transfer this across different domains and think about this at school, through the eyes of the music teacher, drama teacher or art teacher. What does a creative child look like there? They may showcase their talents in a very different way and often the very best in those domains are not the showing off types. In a football sense, try and spot the players in your group that like to try different ideas, that aren’t afraid of getting it wrong in front of others. Under the surface their brain may be calculating different ways to make that attempt better.

5.   Flexibility: Creative brains have the ability to see different aspects of issues and come up with optimal solutions.

Coaches have the ability to facilitate learning across a multitude of different levels; helping players get better at football is one way but also helping them become better people is vitally important too. The way you structure your coaching can help promote this. For example, when splitting up the team into small groups to develop tactics and strategies to solving a particular problem you have set them, consider the outcomes closely. There are certainly the specific football parts that will be developed but it’s vital you listen to the process as much as the outcome. Who has a different view to other people? Who offers something that others haven’t considered? Who see’s the problem from a different perspective to other people? They might be your creative talents.

6.   Low emotional stability: Creative people have a tendency to experience negative emotions, greater fluctuations in moods and emotional state and a failing self-confidence.

There is no denying it, the most talented players of different generations are often the flawed genius, bringing with them challenges in other areas of their life, compensated by wild extremes. Do you recognise this in some of your players? We often associate these traits with different ages and stages of maturation, of which many are, but sometimes there is a knock-on effect to our coaching style also. How do we manage these young people? There is a great saying that coaches need to adjust their style of delivery to the learner, not the learner needing to adjust to them. Some players require an arm round the shoulder at times and if our default style is a little more towards the other end of the spectrum it is important we recognise this.

7.   Low sociability: The most creative have a tendency not to be very considerate, are often obstinate and will find faults and flaws in ideas and people.

The creative ones will view a problem through a different lens to the other players, not in a ‘concrete sequential’ kind of manner, but with more ‘random and abstract’ thinking. If they don’t see their team mates sorting out a challenge in a way they would, when they consider their ideas to be better, they will often demonstrate frustration and criticise the plan. Managing this in terms of developing their people skills is important, helping them understand that listening to different views can be beneficial and it shows good emotional intelligence and empathy towards other people.

As you will notice, some of these traits sound positive, such as the motivation, but others can sound hard work within a team environment. The challenge for you as a coach is to recognise these exist and then manage them, not stifle their creativity. Managing your own frustrations is an important part and understand that by setting the right environment, you have the ability to foster some absolute creative geniuses, maybe not in the professional football sphere, but in their wider life. And that is really important.

Nick Levett
FA National Development Manager (Youth Football)
@nlevett


√ėyvind L. Martinsen. The Creative Personality: A Synthesis and Development of the Creative Person Profile. Creativity Research Journal, 2011; 23 (3): 185.

08 January, 2014

Developing Better Players - Switching Teaching to Learning


This is not going to be like my typical blog post, a ramble into something I have been thinking about that I feel others may find value in reading or sharing. This is going to be more questions to myself than answers for others. This is going to be more about sharing reflection and potentially starts the voyage into a paradigm shift in my coaching. However, I hope you can see where I am coming from and that you may have similar thoughts and conversations from your own coaching.

When I look back over the years I have been coaching, having started at 16 and now just turned 37, I can reflect and say that I think I have honestly only ‘coached’ for the last five years. Before that, I’m not convinced what I was doing was coaching, maybe putting on football practices for kids, but I certainly didn’t KNOW what I was doing or WHY I was doing it. Having spent time considering the journey and influencers on my coaching I can now start to understand a little more about what I’m really doing.

Things were at a point where I was comfortable, happy with my approach to coaching and helping the boys get better; as people and players. But I think I am coming to another crossroads where this comfort is going to change. See, I’m not convinced I’m getting it totally right, or rather, I think I am missing part of the plot – an essential part of the plot!

I’ve spent a good few years learning about HOW to teach; the essential components on what makes a good experience for young players, about coaching styles, different approaches to questioning strategies and really focused on the TEACHING element. However, I think I have I’ve not spent enough time on their LEARNING – truly understanding what they are getting from the practices and sessions, whether they are actually learning anything.


Two quotes I think are particularly useful at this point:

“You haven’t taught it until they have learned it” 
(John Wooden)
“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear” 
(Red Auerbach)


Last night was the start of the journey into changing this, into beginning to understand what the players are actually learning and then I believe I can start to evidence that me being there is making a difference. This is what happened:-

Our Support Coach is leading the U10 session; he’s working on breaking the line with your first touch.
During the first game, I ask one of the players a question quietly – “Have you learnt something new in this practice or are you practising something you already knew?”
He thinks it’s a trick question at first but answers with “something I already know”.

So my brain is running now, thinking about his answer, what we are setting out to achieve and loads of questions are firing off:

Q1. What do the players already know?
Q2. Do we undersell their knowledge and they know lots more than we give them credit for?
Q3. Do we have to teach them something new every session?
Q4. Is it ok to just be practising and refining something you already know?
Q5. What's the percentage balance between these points? Is there one?
Q6. How do we find out what they know?
Q7. When do we find out what they know?
Q8. What about when some know something and others don’t?
Q9. How does this shape and influence our planning of sessions?

At this point there is a conversation with the ‘Coach Developer’ at the Club and I share where my brain is going. He is aware of my thoughts around shifting the focus from teaching to learning anyway and is a good person to debate stuff with. For example, Q9, I suggest that in the next session I deliver I am going to bring some flip chart paper and get them to feed in everything they know about the “session topic” before we start. I’ve done this before recently when we did a session on communication skills and it worked well. Coach Developer makes a great point – if they know most things, to extend their learning now is going to mean planning on the hoof, developing a session there and then to meet the needs of the players. That’s not easy. Therefore, should we ask the question about their existing knowledge in the session before the one we do later in the week, to help my planning? Good point.

Added to this we then discuss the aspect of doing reviews/debriefs to find out what the players have learnt. This is normally done by most coaches at the end of the session - the kids collect the equipment in, they are then thinking about their journey home and all they really want to do is shake the coaches’ hands and leave. Is this a meaningful time to ask them to reflect on their learning? I’m not sure this is now.

This sparks another conversation – when is a good time to find out what they have learnt? The outcome is that we are going to play about with some different approaches and see what happens.

Back to the session
As we finish we get all the boys together for a ‘classic’ approach to finding out what they have learnt and undertake a review. By this stage, the Support Coach and I have been talking about these things too so we start by getting them into pairs to discuss “Have you learnt something new in this practice or are you practising something you already knew?”, the question I asked the one player earlier.

Listening to some of the conversations, many started with “I didn’t learn anything new but....” When we got all the boys together to hear some of their answers only two of 20 said they had learnt something new (which was the same thing) – this was a coaching point I had added into the second game via an intervention to their half of the group.

The journey home for me is always an interesting time to reflect on my coaching and this one was a particular thoughtful one. Is it ok for the players to not learn something new? Do we label sessions before we start that ‘this is about technical refinement’ or ‘this is about learning something new’? How do we manage this for the whole group, as they are all in different places with their knowledge and understanding and ability to apply this to the game?

I really believe that this slight shift in focus is important. I am in a place where I am comfortable with my knowledge and understanding, and therefore approach, to teaching for the value of the players. I now need to spend more time thinking about assessing their learning. After all, isn't that the most important part? I can deliver 120 fancy coaching sessions a year, with bells and whistles and all sorts of singing and dancing stuff going on, but if the players aren't learning, I've failed!

When you start to really drill down into it, facilitating learning through good teaching and engaging practices is one part, knowing that you ARE genuinely helping to making better players is something different.

Quite a lot to think about in this coaching lark...! 

10 December, 2013

To Stick or Twist? Rotating Positions in Youth Football...


It’s a hot topic in youth football that rears its head regularly, not one that’s as contentious as sideline behaviour or the intricacies of coaching, but still vital in the scope of player development. Take these players for example:

Player 1: over 75 England caps, over 400 Premier League games at centre back.
Player 2: over 100 England caps, over 400 Premier League games at centre midfield
Player 3: over 100 England caps, over 400 Premier League games at left back
Player 4: over 50 England caps, over 400 Premier League games at centre forward

What have they all got in common, other than fantastic careers? Well, all of them throughout their youth career played in a different position to the one they made full-time careers in. Player 1 spent most of his time in centre midfield or as a forward, Player 2 played most of his youth football as a defender or wide player, Player 3 played as a striker and winger most of the time and Player 4 played as a winger.

For young players, the benefits of playing in different positions are massive. Developing a whole round game understanding is a vital part of the education of young players and something that as adults we can help develop reasonably easily. To develop pictures in your mind of different scenarios linked to things that might occur in the game is really important.

For example, I played my main football career at full-back and had all the game on the inside of me, nothing to consider elsewhere and developed certain pictures in my head of how to play. I have now dropped down a few levels and playing for my friend’s team, he asked if I could play in the centre midfield. WOW! I need a map to play in there! The game is going on behind me, on both sides as well as in front of me and having never been exposed to understanding how to play in different positions I find it a real struggle. It’s just so different. Equally, when there had been injuries in other games and I was asked play in a different position I simply never had the experience to perform well enough in a different role for the team.

We need to allow players the flexibility to be able to play in different positions and ensure they recognise that it is in their best interests of helping them get better. As a coach, that is our role, to focus on the long term player development. This is a story from one of our senior FA coaches;

I’d worked with the team for a few years and got them to a position that they could take ownership for their own development. It was an U18 fixture and I can recall our centre forward after the first period coming over and saying “please can I play in centre defence next quarter?” I replied “of course, but I need a reason why” and the player replied “I have seen their striker causing problems for our defenders and would like to play against him to see if I can learn from his movement to then use it in my own game.

Two things strike me from that story. The first is how smart the player is to recognise that he can learn things to develop his own game and puts the development of that above winning the match or scoring goals right now. The second is how good the coach must have been to have worked with the team to foster in them that mindset and to take risks in the game for their development, over and above the outcome of the game.

The challenge is to get past our own ego first though! We have to put aside the score sometimes and recognise that we have to put the player’s needs first. This has to be done on several levels; first of all, managing our own expectations about when things might not go as well on a ‘team’ basis as it would do when playing all our best players in their best positions, and also managing the parents.

This is an education aspect, for the parents and the players. Once the children know it will help them become a better player, they may grumble a little but they will understand as long as you are consistent with all the players. You can’t then play your son or daughter as striker every game if you have declared a policy on rotation of positions! Equally, managing the parents is an important aspect too, explaining to them why you are doing this and the rationale behind this is imperative. If you suddenly just spring this approach on them without forewarning there is likely to be a bit of push back from them, so explain to them the approach at the start of the season.

So what are the options in terms of rotating positions? It will depend on the format of football you are playing, number of players you have available of course. The challenge is developing a policy you are comfortable with that meets the needs of the children and the club. Some questions to consider:

Q. How often do players play in a different position?
Q. What information do you give them prior to the game about different roles and responsibilities?
Q. What games do you select players to play in different positions? Tough games or easier games?
Q. How many positions will they play in a season?
Q. How long will they spend in one position to start to understand this before trying a different one?

There are lots of different ways to approach this and as a coach it’s important you understand what and why you are taking the approach that you are. For example, what are the benefits and tradeoffs of playing a predominantly left-footed player on the right side of the pitch? How do you manage this before you put them there? Do you show them You Tube clips of Lionel Messi and explain the benefits of being able to cut in to dribble and shoot? Do you show clips of Steven Gerrard scoring goals with both feet to highlight the importance of being two-footed and practising your weaker foot? How do you manage the self-esteem of the player when they go down the right wing and then kick it off the pitch because their weaker foot isn’t very good? How do you manage the other players and parents when they kick it off the pitch? (The answer is you praise them for being brave and trying their weaker foot!)

There are lots of things to consider, it’s not simply a case of dropping players into different roles and expecting great returns. Things take time to learn and develop. Top developing professional clubs recognise this too – Ajax, for example, rotate youth players around a triangle of three roles in one season; playing right back, right centre back and right midfield in their 4-3-3 system.

So the challenge for you as a coach is not to pigeonhole children from a young age. Just because they are big today doesn’t mean they will always be the biggest and therefore they don’t always have to play in central defence! Develop a policy with your club, involving all the different groups to do what is best in the development of the players.

That simply has to be the focus – developing a long term love of football and an all-round ability to play in our wonderful team game.


Nick Levett
FA National Development Manager (Youth Football)
@nlevett

31 October, 2013

Working with 14-16 year olds, dealing with a different animal...


Changing times...the emergence of a young adult

Across the country we have a challenge in youth football - when we get to U14 and upwards we start to see a decline in young people playing the game. This continues as a challenge in the transition from youth to adult teams and it all falls in line with a time young people experience some of their biggest changes. As well as growth and maturation developments being at their fastest for many young people, it coincides with exam pressures and a shift in their priorities too. As a young person eleven years old and below, their interest is in pleasing adults and as they get older, this shifts into impressing their peers before they start to connect to others and the world around them.

When you listen to young people going through these teenage years it is fascinating to hear their insight into what they would like their experiences to be. This article will look at the demographic of young people in the 21st century; share some research from young people on why they are dropping out of the game and their views. You may not agree with these from your experiences, but these aren’t your experiences, these are the views of the people we spoke to and therefore cannot be written off or ignored.

When asked about the things they love about football, this was their feedback... (the bigger the size of the word, the more important to them it was)



It is clear from this that the ‘team’ and social outcomes from young people in this research, 14 – 16 year olds, is one of the biggest things they love about the game. Fun is hugely important for their continued participation, as is the ability to practice their skills. Notice also some of the words that aren’t as important from the perspective of young people too. Interesting that competition is bigger than winning and this fits from my experiences of speaking to young people – they want a competitive match every week, not a 15-0, but don’t get hung up on the outcome of the game as long as some adults do.

Some questions to consider:
How do you foster and develop teamwork?
Do you recognise the importance of teamwork and therefore plan to develop this as much as you plan for technique and skill development?
Having fun is a massive outcome for young people; do you create an environment that enables this to happen (on their terms, not yours)? 
Do you inadvertently focus on the smaller words rather than the bigger words because they might be your outcomes?

When asked about the reasons they joined a club, this was their feedback...



A mixture of outcomes here which suggests young people enter the game with a variety of different intentions. It is evident they want to be with their mates, aligned with what they love about the game, but that they also want high standards. They want an organised competitive match, with a qualified referee on some decent facilities. Winning is important as they get older and this starts to become evident here and there is also still a hope of being scouted by a professional team. 

Some questions to consider:
Does your approach align with their motivations and drivers?
Have you asked the players what they want from football?
Do you deliver the outcomes they are hoping for from their football experience?
How do you ensure there is opportunity for all to play in a professional environment?

When asked about the reasons they stopped playing football, this was their feedback...



Many of the reasons they stopped playing were extrinsic to their own thoughts; not getting any game time (decision made by adults), not getting picked (another made by adults), too competitive (influenced by adults), bullying (not managed by adults) and quality of training (led by adults). If we are going to ensure we keep young people in the game to transfer to become adult players these are things that we can manage better. There are factors on there we cannot influence as easily; girls, exams and school work, but there are many we can.

Have a read of many of the small words on there, does it scare you that adults are acting that way and causing young people to stop playing? It certainly does for me! Things like; arguing, angry parents, drills etc. Equally, things can be combined, such as if the negative situation causes one player to leave, and that’s their friend, one player leaving often becomes two or three because the reason they are there is friends in the first place.

Some questions to consider:
What can you easily influence and change to make the situation better?
How do you need to change personally?
What are the controllable factors you can make better and invest energy into rather than the uncontrollable elements?

Quotes from young people
These are all genuine quotes from players that have lapsed playing or felt like they were going to stop playing football. There are some really crucial messages we cannot afford to miss here.

“The A team is a lot more serious than the B team. Everyone wants to play on the B team.”
“You feel a bit sad if not picked, just sat watching the game.”
“As a kid you want to be a professional. As you get older you start to ask ‘where do I go from here?  Will it happen for me?”
“Training is too tedious. It’s the same every week and they do too much stamina training.”
“The parents take it more seriously than we do.”
“If it’s not fun, you don’t look forward to it.”
“There is more pressure than when I started out. You get punishments like 3 laps round the pitch if you do something wrong.”
“Your mates are like ‘come out’, but you have to train. I’d prefer to be out with my mates.”
“It takes up too much time. I have other things to do like school work. I need to study for exams.”
“The club expects you to give them priority. They expect you to turn up to training instead of doing homework.”

Many of those ring any bells if you have coached older players? Many on there we can influence? I definitely feel there are a number we can certainly affect which means we can keep more players in the game for longer. We might need to consider a number of things moving forwards if we are going to address some of these issues, things like;

-       alternative/later times
-       making it more affordable
-       more appropriate training for young people, with variety and ownership
-       summer leagues
-       youth leagues to make allowances for exams being a priority

In summary, coaching young players in their teenage years can be a challenging time. We all know about the hormonal changes going on and sometimes they can be difficult but they are just finding their way in the world. They are ready for more responsibility and get frustrated when they don’t get this. Your challenge as a coach is to manage when you start doing this together, developing them as decision makers in different ways, and giving them a voice on things that truly matter to them.

The best coaches I have seen working with older youth players make this look easy – they enjoy the company of teenage boys and don’t treat them like they are still 8 years old. They allow them to lead on the warm up, recognising that they have done GCSE PE and Sports Leaders qualifications and know plenty about the human body, they use current coaching methods that don’t involve just telling players what to do the whole time and they make the environment feel like it’s all about them, not the coach. Easy, when you look at it that way...