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What are you coaching?

Last week I spent Saturday morning at a south London college. The reason for my presence there, along with the other assembled coaches, parents, and grandparents, was to watch a showcase game organised by a local football development academy for Championship side Millwall.

Put succinctly, showcase games like these give opportunities to boys, in this case, year 10’s, who are considered by the parents and coaches who put them forward, to have a chance of pursuing a career in professional football by joining a professional academy. In some cases, the academy coaches in question are looking to fulfil positions at their academies, where they are short on talent or quality. In other scenarios, it is an open opportunity for boys across all positions to impress academy staff, be it from one club as in this case, or several as is the case in other guises.

The football scouting landscape today rarely allows genuine talent to fall through the net, but given the rates of development among boys from one age to another, in terms of game intelligence and understanding, strength, size, speed and of course ability, it’s not uncommon for a boy who looked average at age 10,11 or 12, to look like a real bundle of potential at age 14 or 15.

Some showcase games contain what are considered purely ‘elite’ players – those who have spent time in academies but have been released. However, this one wasn’t that.

Here a note of caution and a nod to the many advertised showcase games promising opportunities to impress ‘professional’ scouts. They often charge a fee to take part, with little consideration of ability, other than the participant's ability to pay, not ‘play’. This wasn’t that either.

On this sunny Saturday morning we had a mix of players who had probably flirted with pro clubs in the form of trials and maybe spells at development centres, and those who may have been overlooked playing amateur Saturday or Sunday football level, but had ‘something’.

As I watched what quickly became clear, was that for so many of those on show, the hardest thing for them to do, was the simple things.

Some of the physically bigger, stronger players, who hitherto relied on their strength to allow them time on the ball to do what they wanted tended to overplay by taking far too many touches. In the leagues they play in, they can probably get away with this, producing what appears to be outstanding things at that level. The higher up they get however, the better the opposition, and the harder it is for this to happen. This is especially the case in midfield, where moving the ball as quickly as possible, in one or two touches, is what coaches should be drilling into their players. However, time and time again this didn’t happen.

I understand the desire to impress and show off the full complement of their ability. However, as I’ve always said to young players, the boys that stand out are the ones that do the simple things, correctly, and consistently.

Indeed, very few players on show did this. In their eagerness to get noticed players dribbled, chopped, and flicked without any real end product at the end of these spells in possession. Too many times when a simple pass was required, it had to be proceeded with something.

I’m certain these boys can play the right way. I’m sure they’ve been involved in sessions where one and two touches is paramount. It just seems that when they get on the pitch, many simply choose not to, whether it’s a showcase game or a regular league fixture. I see it time and time again. As coaches this must be addressed. Could the problem be that the players don’t trust their coach regarding this message of simplification? Is your social relationship with your players one where they hang off your every word, or secretly question your input?

I’d never say there isn’t a time or place for this on the pitch. In certain moments and situations, a player’s ability to do that little bit extra, that something special, can lead to a goal, or open up opportunities in tight areas or situations. However, game intelligence and understanding should dictate when and where these moments are. Correct decision-making is key to football and should be key to your coaching.

The second observation I made was a distinct lack of scanning by players looking to receive the ball. Too many times players received the ball with closed options, resulting in missing opportunities to open up or switch play. Their restricted perception again resulting in loss of possession or playing into areas they should be looking to play away from. Fixation on the ball without an awareness of space, threats and opportunities consistently leads to negative outcomes.

Getting your players to have their head on a swivel, constantly scanning the game their in for shapes, patterns and pictures is crucial to player development. It’s also something that actually catches the eye, especially when allied with game simplification on the ball, and a consistent correct execution of what is intended with it.

Even watching the recovery runs of some of the defensive players, the lack of scanning was apparent. Both on and off the ball having ‘pictures’ and knowing where potential threats are developing are as important as what a player does in possession of the ball.

The longer I watched, the more one player began to stand out for all the aforementioned reasons. He wasn’t the biggest, or quickest (although sharp over 5 yards). Wasn’t overwhelmingly skilful but possessed a reliable first touch and always received the ball in ways that dictated his next pass or move (a skill in itself). He was tenacious and deceptively strong given his size, and always found himself in pockets of space. Not by coincidence, but because he was constantly aware of where he was in the game (game intelligence and scanning). There were no ‘tricks’ but he did go past people when required, however, he generally kept his game simple. Passed and moved with purpose and thought. When he was replaced halfway through the second half (started on the bench), those around me were in agreement about how talented he was. What happens for him next remains to be seen, but for me, he has a future in the game if he wants it.

As for the rest, there were plenty with potential. Plenty who indeed had ‘something’, but just were not quite the finished article. At 14 or 15 what player really is? Again, the coaches working with them need to recognise this and work to build upon what’s already there, enhancing ability in the right ways and aligning it with concepts about the game at a higher level. This will stand them in good stead, should they get opportunities to get there.

I left with the feeling that either way, it was a good learning experience non the less for all involved. An indication of the levels you need to reach, or a realisation that the football dream, for now, maybe unattainable. As mentioned previously however, there is still time for growth and development. This is where you as non-academy coaches come in. Are you coaching to win matches in your league, or are you coaching to develop players who have a chance? If it’s the latter, prepare them for the step up, not the level they are at. If that means stopping them from overplaying every week and simplifying their game, then that’s your role if you really want to help!

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