• Luke Harris

Coach development, are we doing it right?

In episode 2 of the Functional Football Podcast, I spoke to Ed Ferguson, who is the Community Football Manager of Northern Suburbs Football Association. In our chat, Ed spoke about one of his role being supporting new coaches in creating an environment that keeps youth players coming back to training and games each season. He also mentioned a fascinating conversation he had with a fellow coach that was used to convince him to become a coach developer.

As a coach, you’re changing 10 people’s lives. As a coach developer, you can impact 10 coaches and each one of those impacts 10 kids, and therefore, through your coach developer role, you’re impacting 100 kids every time you step on the park.”

This quote from Ed has stuck with me ever since our chat and now that Australia’s National Technical Director, Eric Abrams has stepped away from his position and as a result, a review of youth football development has been announced, I thought it was the perfect time to discuss the process of coach development.

Here, in Australia, we have two coach development pathways, a community coach system, whereby you do a course relative to the age group you are coaching and then you’re on your way. Then there is an advanced pathway, which is tiered like many other countries, beginning with a C Licence, B Licence, A Licence and finally a Pro Diploma, where you must complete each course and assessment requirements before progressing to the next level.

These courses are an important part of the coach education process, providing coaches with a framework of the coaching process, developing the coach’s toolbox around the areas of training, the match and management. However, my question is, “do they prepare a coach in the way they seek to?”.

A report in 2014 from the Australian Council for Educational Research found that many teaching graduates find that a four-year Bachelor of Education degree does not fully prepare them for the job. Many coaches could argue coach education courses don’t either, which is expected when they are only a couple of hours or weeks, in comparison to a four-year teaching degree. In a classroom situation, can you actually develop strategies for dealing with back to back losses? Or how to cope when your team is facing relegation? What about how to bounce back from a last-minute loss? I would argue these questions are hard to adequately cover in the coach education classroom.

For students studying a Bachelor of Education degree to become a teacher, they have to go to classrooms to firstly observe lessons made by an experienced teacher, and then teach lessons themselves with that experienced teacher observing. They get to experience the core business of the job, with the safety net of someone who is experienced watching over them and giving them feedback. An important stepping stone for a new teacher to test the theory in a real context.

This is probably something that is missing for new coaches in the grassroots arena. Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs going around. Teaching football, one of the most challenging sports, to kids, outside in an open environment, can arguably be more difficult. At the time I finished my first coaching course, I feel I was lucky. I had the opportunity to be an assistant to an experienced and knowledgeable coach. A mentor. I was able to watch, to listen, to learn, to analyse, to wonder, to ask why and to reflect on everything this coach did. For me personally, this was just as valuable, if not more valuable, than the education in the course classroom, because it had context, a real context.

It would make sense for clubs to introduce new coaches not just with a coaching course, but with the opportunity to watch and learn from an experienced coach. Allow them to see a session, it’s plan on paper, and it’s changes in a real training context. To see how the dynamics of the session can change the plan. To hear what a coach says and see how the players react. After all, what you say, when you say it, and how you say it, really matter. This stepping stone allows a new coach to see the theory in practice. The next stepping stone is for the new coach to have their own turn. A turn with the knowledge they have back up, an experienced person who can guide them, who can jump in if you get stuck and give them feedback on what they did well and what they can improve.

For coaches who do already have experience, but are looking to improve, there is the advanced pathway and licencing system. For these coaches, is this enough? Is the theory, practical and assessment way of delivering coach education sufficient? Given the internet and the social nature of our use of it, the face of ongoing learning has changed. It is the new era of coach development, where people are openly sharing their content, their knowledge, experience and ideas. Twitter has allowed me to access new ideas, new research and new perspectives on football and from varying sports. YouTube has allowed me to see sessions I’ve never thought of delivering. Podcasts have allowed me to hear varying philosophies, offered a new understanding of psychology in sport, and ways to develop team building from different coaches from different footballing cultures. In this context, I think this is a worthy supplement of the traditional coaching courses.

However, I have found that knowledge and ideas are great, but not if you don’t use them. That is the challenge with any resource or new research. If practice doesn’t change, then the scrolling of Twitter is just that, scrolling. So how else can coach education be supplemented if the current system isn’t enough? Last season, in the club I started coaching at, the Technical Director decided to have a meeting before every session. Only 30 minutes long, but it is 30 minutes I look forward to every day that I coach.

This learning community that our technical director has created, has been one of the best forms of coach education I have experienced. Why? Because it is ongoing. It is collaborative. It is a challenging and it happens immediately before I coach a session, so I have an opportunity to consciously change my behaviour in a way that is relevant to what has just been discussed.

In these meetings, we not only discuss the session, it’s aims and the football problems we are trying to solve. We also discuss the why, the intention of what we will do in the session, what we might see, what we can ask and what might not work. We discuss articles we have read, we watch TED Talks, we continue debates that happen on Twitter and relate it to what we are doing in our academy. Before every session, we are creating a conversation about what we are doing on the field. We are preparing what goes on out on the training pitch as a group. These discussions have stretched our knowledge, our understanding and challenged us. Is this the ingredient that coach education is missing?

One of the most eye-opening things we did in this meeting was have our sessions filmed, watch them and give feedback on each other’s session. Watching my own session, interventions, mannerisms and communication with players, forced me to reflect upon what I thought was happening in my sessions and what actually happened. Hearing the constructive feedback from my respected colleagues allowed me to take a step back and think about how my players would view me.

The experience of these meetings has really challenged me to set myself goals in my coaching. To add elements, to change habits and consciously reflect on what I do. Without a technical director who watches parts of every session, without meetings before sessions and having my sessions recorded, I don’t feel I was making meaningful adjustments to my coaching practice. I was still browsing Twitter, watching sessions on YouTube and listening to podcasts, but I wouldn’t say I had taken the time to implement the ideas in my practice. So as Football Federation Australia do a review of Youth Football Development, my question would be, how can they add mentoring and learning communities to coach development?

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