The coach’s conundrum

The coach’s conundrum

THE MODERN FOOTBALL COACH IS LIKE A HOME BUILDER. While not an architect, they are tasked with the construction, organisation, and management of several pieces that must align to complete the overall project successfully. What’s the best way to build a house? Surely not by building the roof first then framing it and while we’re at it, go ahead and decorate the interior walls with a calming shade of paint. When time permits, go ahead and get around to digging, pouring, and setting a sound foundation for this glorious house.

This nonsensical scenario is a misstep into madness that could go on forever, but you get the point. In recent years, it seems this same wonky logic is how the modern coaching structure has matriculated at the grassroots level. Coaching is integral to the promotion and development of football for any nation. Obviously, without good coaching, the game suffers. But why is the ratio of qualified coaches to unqualified coaching such at such an influx of disparity?

The following are two examples (there are many more) of scenario-based routes to coaching that occur in both England and the United States – two nations struggling to implement a cohesive style of coaching and style of play at all levels and representations of the game, irrespective of FIFA ranking and league strength. The disparities are not as far off as one might imagine.

Coach A: This father of three children coaches his eldest son’s U10 matches every weekend and runs the training sessions twice a week. He’s motivated by his continued involvement and immersion in his team’s success and genuinely does his best to balance the playing time for every player. Coach A never played the sport at a competitive or high level, nor did he really show a candid interest in the game until his son gravitated towards football a few years ago, scored a few goals, and more importantly for Coach A – won a 4th place trophy.

But, despite his lack of playing experience, Coach A has an unrivalled enthusiasm and zest for each practice session and weekend adventure watching his team proudly and wildly gallivant around the pitch chasing a ball amid the shrieks and screams of the sideline mob rife with overzealous and overreacting parents all shouting, “Come on, Coach, what are you doing?!”, “Shoot the ball, son!”, and “You gotta call that, ref!”

The excitement is mirrored by Coach A, who shouts the obligatory, “Just like we practiced, team!” while cursing through clenched teeth and holding his clipboard against his torso in the vice grip of his folded arms. Perhaps, due to a profound sense of parental obligation or a genuine new-found love for the game, but Coach A does his best to perform a very important role that requires him to wear multiple hats – both literally and figuratively.

Coach A has taken to reading coaching manuals, paying the requisite and exorbitant fees to earn the first of his coaching licenses (or badges) and has even stocked his closet with football clothing and a multitude of accessories that serve to validate his place on the sideline. The whistle around his neck serves as the shining pendant of parental power; the instrument of assertion and exacting directives culled from the three how-to coaching books that he has duly annotated by highlighting every section.

With any luck, his team will be in contention for another trophy this season. Each training session is a structured drill taken from a book verbatim. He holds the book open on the training pitch and recites the words on the page, telling each player where to go, what to do, how and when to do it. When the whole drill implodes, Coach A steps in and re-explains every detail while the players who aren’t involved in the drill become bored, the ones demonstrating become scared, and all of the players stiffen with inactivity. Coach A is trying his best and should be commended for his dedication.

The parking lot, full of overpriced SUVs and minivans, awakens as training ends. The parents emerge like cryptic shadows cast against the setting sun and halogen headlights as Coach A looks at his watch and sighs to himself, having tried in vain to accomplish something, anything, with his team of rowdy youths. The look on each parent’s face says it all. But it’s their shared murmurs that add pressure to Coach A.

He knows they’re judging him for the lack of playing time, progress, worst of all, lack of silverware they each feel their son is entitled to receive. Coach A collects the gear as the kids trudge off the pitch and then reviews his notes and coaching guides with a furled brow, “I set it up right. Where did it go wrong?” he says to himself. When the parents leave, he decides it’s safe to pack up his son and head home.

“I’m not doing this next season, someone else can…” he says to himself as he walks off the training ground.

Coach B: This gentleman walks up to the training pitch in a pair of old running shoes, a torn pair of sweatpants, a faded hoodie, and a slightly overgrown mask of stubble that he’s calling a beard. If you didn’t know him, you’d never suspect he was the coach of another crop of young players. A bag of randomly collected footballs, a few foul-smelling training bibs, some training discs, and an extra pair of football boots hang over his back – because someone forget their boots last training session. The players run around chasing one another as Coach B calls his flock in from the field. He looks at his left wrist, but remembers he forgot to wear a watch, so he pulls out his mobile phone to track the time.

Coach B was a player. A serious player whose career spanned a multitude of victories at the youth level before he went on to play lower league football becoming a professional journeyman of sorts; traveling from trial to trial, living off per diem allotments, and sleeping in the back of his car when a trial lasted longer than he could afford to stay in a local motel.

He did all of this while putting off the inevitable career trade off of basking in the limelight on the football pitch for tanning under the fluorescent lights of an office cubicle full-time. Coach B has a network of resources from all around the country ranging from former coaches to former teammates still involved in football at various levels. On Sundays, he wakes up early staving off his mild hangover, to play in multiple Sunday league matches for three different teams.

Every now and then, Coach B measures what’s worse: the physical injuries that railroaded his aspirations of playing at a higher level, or the mental injuries inflicted to his ego and confidence by misinformed coaches lacking the knowledge to help players like him reach their full potential. These days, Coach B loves coaching. He cares about winning, but knows the U10 team he coaches doesn’t really understand what winning means in the larger context of life…yet. In fact, he doesn’t even regard the team as his team; he’s just happy to help.

His training sessions revolve around possession-based drills, competitive and repetitive training of basic skill sets, and small-sided games that his players beg him to participate in. The whole session is off-the-cuff. The exhausted players talk when he’s talking and he tolerates the chatter. There are no sprints at the end of training, but rather a, “Well done today, lads! See you Thursday!”

Coach B can’t be bothered to get his coaching licenses because each license becomes more expensive through progression and requires more classroom courses covering material packaged in hourly increments that he already knows with a standardised test at the end of the course. The aforementioned Coach A, however, has taken the classes. Every so often, the parents ask one another about Coach B’s credentials despite the obvious enjoyment and improvement of each player and their curious concern is valid.

After a defeat against a local academy team, a bold father taps him on the shoulder and tries luring the young coach into a conversation that will undoubtedly force the coach to justify his decisions, but it’s really an exercise in the anecdotal centred on the father’s own playing days. Coach B doesn’t know what to say because this parent isn’t interested in anyone but his own son and asserting his opinion on the young coach.

Coach B knows he’s not armed with a thick-stock paper coaching certificate. Every week, another father asks if the U10 team will play a ‘False Nine’ or a 4-3-2-1 on the weekend. Another will ask Coach B if he needs any help and, “Have you thought about playing my son in the center of the park, believe me, that’s his best position.”

Coach B sighs, knowing full well what he’s hearing is a mixture of ridiculous politics and back-handed reminders that he’s not really a coach without the licenses in their eyes, is he? “What the am I doing here?” he says.

So, who is the better coach? Of course, these two coaches are fictitious. Or are they? One issue with football development is the quality of coaching at the grassroots level. I’ve always considered a sport like football to be the lifeblood of a bleeding world and at the grassroots level, the game is dying. As the governing football federations and associations aim to educate and standardise the coaching models, more and more coaches find it increasingly difficult to stay current with the revolving model up top.

Comparing these two personas is surely an exercise in futility and reveals only what many already know – the route involved in coaching education has become stale and elitist while pricing many younger coaches out of the profession. And it’s not that coaches don’t want to be qualified, but rather they don’t see the system working at the senior levels and therefore, find it hard to validate what’s being funnelled down to the grassroots level. Or, many see the popular foreign coaches come in, take over, and don’t practice what the “system” is preaching and selling the country’s coaches at lower levels.

Looking at the standard USSF coaching pyramid and the structure in place with the English FA, this paradox is frustrating. In countries with a consistent track-record of success from the senior teams to the youth teams and a strong foundation of player development, the incentive and ratio of qualified coaches to players is evidenced by the quality on display year after year.

Perhaps both coaches are being assessed on the wrong criteria. Coach A is taking the standard route to enhance his coaching knowledge to educate himself with the game he’s learning to love, and performing his due diligence by following a complicated and expensive model. Whereas Coach A is learning how to be a student of the game, Coach B pulls from a wealth of knowledge as a player and has always been a student of the game.

Of course, he’s at a different stage in life than Coach A, and therefore, sees little value in taking courses he might consider overly-redundant and in some cases, overkill on the basics of the game. Plus, Coach B doesn’t have any children of his own yet, so he’s not subjected to balancing his love for the game with his love for his child, as Coach A must at this stage.

Some concessions have to be made to recognise a deeper problem with coaching education and retention: Firstly, coaching education should be rigorous and comprehensive in nature and it must balance classroom education with real assessment on the field. For example, in the US the coaching ladder ranges from the ‘E’ License all the way up to an ‘A’ License, with each tier requiring a waiting period of at least a year, costly expenses, and dedicated hours for each course. A coach may wave the lower levels if proof they played professionally or at an equivalent coaching level abroad is proffered.

The FA requires coaches to attend and go through a rigorous curriculum to earn FA Coaching Badges from Level 1 to the UEFA ‘A’ License. Furthermore, the availability and instances of these courses is sporadic at best with difficult offerings based on time and location making enrolment costly and difficult for many.

Secondly, the best players don’t make the best coaches and the “best” parents surely don’t make great coaches. Coaching is a vocation, one that many approach with expectations misaligned with reality to the point it’s far too late to save themselves and worse, their child, from burnout. Even at the highest level, former players who go directly into the coaching ranks seldom know enough to experience prolonged success. To them, the game is still fresh and raw. To them, it’s an exercise in vicariously living through the players entrusted to their care. To former players, it’s about winning first, development later.

Conversely, to many parents taking on a coaching role, it’s about winning first, development never – especially at the younger ages in grassroots football. Placing emphasis on competition and winning are two different things. Winning refers to winning a match. Competition should reference the development of the competitive elements that will aid a player such as shedding the fear of injury, losing a match or individual battle, getting “stuck-in”, striving to improve individually, and understanding that there are always better players and there’s always something to work on.

Thirdly, as a result of the standardised structures that governing bodies aim to trickle down from the top; coaches try to make kids play as adults. There is a profound difference between players in academies like: La Cantera, (Barcelona’s academy that is pre-La Masia), De Toekomst at Ajax, and La Fábrica at Real Madrid to name but a few of the football mills fostering young talent. These structures play by a different set of rules… literally. But for the kids at the grassroots level to succeed and enjoy the game, they need good coaches. Coaches who can afford and are motivated to continue their coaching education without being dovetailed into a one-size fits all model.

One problem is coaching retention. Many coaches simply cannot see the value in continuing their coach’s education curriculum when they don’t receive the requisite direction and funding from the top tier to the grassroots level. The overall governance of a nation’s football coaching guidelines shouldn’t be a hindrance, but with the vast amounts of cash on the top tiers staying at the top combined with the constant revamping of what works – what’s in and what’s out – coaches have less incentive to stay the course (pardon the pun).

There is much value to coaching education courses that expands beyond the pitch. Covering topics such as diet, concussion testing, learning how to organise and present material in an educative way to name a few, but the federations need to be more proactive with their involvement at the lower levels to explain and highlight these elements of the courses, and it’s simply not happening at the moment.

The game at the grassroots level is being gobbled up by academies attracting the best talent. Good coaches can concede when a player is better off playing in an academy. The route and motivation for coaches at the grassroots level has its complexities, but the fact remains that as more coaches burnout or walk away from the role, it’s the young players at the grassroots level who ultimately lose and the grassroots level is, after all, where the game grows.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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