The FA – article.

I was asked to write this article in November 2017 for the FA’s Hive Learning coaching site. It was written before my Copywriting Diploma, so there’s plenty I’d do differently now.

Length of sentences is one 😉

But I’m including it here, not as a brilliant piece of copy – I’d take an editor’s red pen to much of it – but because it went down so well with readers.

I was told by the FA that out of the thousands of articles on their Hive site, this was the article with the most Likes and the most comments.

It’s been viewed over 9,000 times with over 200 comments.

Due to the success of this article, the FA have asked me to supply more content for their site.

Creating an enjoyable match day environment.

I coach eleven boys, which make up one of our club’s U9 squads that is newly formed following grading (boo hiss) at the end of last season, including the addition of three new boys for this season.

There’s also a further six new ‘training-only’ players who joined us late, missing the league registration. So there’s seventeen at training and, as you can imagine, they’re all at various stages of development.

I give you this background as I feel the social and psychological corners are especially important with this group. They’re newly formed, and some of them also came through, what I think, was at times, an emotional grading process (boo hiss again) at the end of last season.

So, in the few days leading up to the match, I (hopefully) get confirmation on who can play, and put together the substitution and position rotations.

I’ve been experimenting with having the positions and substitute rotations out on laminates, so the boys can all see who’s playing, and when. I’m going to try a simpler version, though, where I only make one round of substitutions in each half, rather than two, and also try keeping them to maybe two related positions per match. But, the main point to make is that the boys definitely liked having the subs and positions out clearly for them to see. (Each square is 10 mins).

On the actual match day, as the boys arrive, I greet each one individually with their own individual high five/handshake combo that they’ve each been teaching me over the last few weeks. As this is a newly formed squad the individual handshakes have been a great way to help get to know them, break the ice, give them that individual attention, and help tick those social and psychological corners early on.

In training, at the moment, we’re really focusing on having fun, mastering the ball, being more comfortable in possession under pressure, and being creative. So, as they start arriving on match day, they’ve been doing keepie-uppies (trying to beat their own record) and/or simple warm up games, like ‘Challenge’ as we call it, which I stole from my son’s academy sessions. This is where they have a ball in pairs or threes (depending on the changing numbers as they arrive), and practice quick crisp passing, maybe putting in a turn or skill, while having little chats with each other. Then, when I say “Challenge!”, the person with the ball has ten seconds to keep it away from their partner, before going back to passing. During this time I’ll be giving them lots of positive comments and the odd ‘drive-by’ intervention, but it’s more about making them feel relaxed, happy and positive in a safe environment to try out things.

Either during this time, or as the boys are having a drink afterwards, I’ll say “hi” briefly to the parents as a group, tell them the team target for the match e.g. how many shots can we get in the first half, can we spread out in possession, etc. I’ll remind them that the boys will have individual targets, so not to coach from the sideline as it might contradict what they’ve been asked to try out. It’s early days in the season but the parents seem to have really bought into the whole ethos of positivity, playing without pressure and creating an enjoyable atmosphere for the boys.

I’ve also started inviting a different parent each week to come and stand near me on the other side of the pitch. This starts to give the parents an insight into what goes on during a match and helps break down the coach/parent, them/us scenario.

I make sure there’s plenty of time for the boys to have a breather and relax before the match, as we briefly go through the team target and their individual targets. I’ve started using player cards for this which I got from my Level 2 tutor, or just write the targets myself on the white board using famous names they suggest. This has really gone down well with the boys – they love sorting through the cards and suggesting players (“Can I be Neymar/Ramos/Pogba?” etc.) and they’ve said it helps give them a focus during the match.

During the match I’m fairly quiet on the touch line – lots of positive comments though, especially if it’s to do with the targets and what we’re working on. I’ll sometimes ask questions or use one of the five trigger or reminder words we’re gradually introducing – scan, trust, compact, spread out, security. But that’s about it.

During the match, the substitutes tend to look at the target cards, so I get them to tell me how they think the targets are going, put a mark down on the white board each time a target is achieved etc, or they might practice their keepie-uppies and passing. All with lots of humour. Before they go on, I remind them to enjoy it (I often remind myself to enjoy it too at various points!) and to try out something creative if they feel like it, or maybe remind them of their target if they want to try that. When a player comes off they get some specific praise and then also maybe see how they did with their target.

After the game while the players are having a drink and chatting, I’ll get the parents to come over to listen to the review/reflection. There’s more positive comments, and we reflect on the team target and how the individual targets went. I only talk when they’re not – it requires patience sometimes, but does work quite quickly. When they put their hand up they get “Yes Johnny, thanks for putting your hand up”. Bit of a mouthful and possibly overkill at first, but again it’s paying dividends now, as I have to say it less.

So, touch wood, there’s been no behaviour issues yet on match day – hurray! We might identify something that could have gone better or something to work on gradually in the future, or something we’ll look at in the next training session, but I tend to stay away from quick fix type comments like “we’ll sort out shooting on Thursday night”.

I remind parents not to over-analyse the game with their sons, and remind them of a Ted Talk I sent them, which includes a bit about just saying after a match “I love watching you play” rather than a ‘Match of the Day’-style analysis on the way home. They give themselves a round of applause and high fives and that’s that for another week.

I know all the above sounds like everything you’ve already heard on a Level 1 and 2 course, or a load of old dippy-hippy nonsense, and hopefully I’m preaching to the converted, but to me, it really does work in practice.

Be positive. Be positive again. Smile. Enjoy it. Put the individual players completely first. Leave your ego in the car. Laugh. Do up lots of shoe laces. Untangle contortion-inducing bibs. Remind them they changed ends at half time. Resist the urge to out shout the shouty coach down the line from you. Less is more. Take the pressure off them, there’ll unfortunately be plenty of that when they’re older.

There’ll always be hiccups along the way, but having some kind of positive plan and routine helps massively.

Oh, did I mention the score? No? Oh well, never mind 😉