Player Development Project sits down with Andrew Watt, Youth Development Phase Manager at Fulham FC, to discuss how the Premier League club supports players across the U9-U16 age groups.
Below, Andrew provides insights into the Fulham Academy’s principles, his views on talent identification, the different approaches to coaching kids from U9s all the way through to U16s, and how to manage the transitions to different game formats. He also offers practical advice on session design, the merits of isolated and opposed practices, and how to communicate effectively with parents, providing tips from a world-class academy that can be utilized by clubs at all levels, including at grassroots.
In this article
How to coach soccer: A principle-driven approach
The first thing Watt emphasizes is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a soccer coach; there are multiple options when it comes to player development and session design, and we must make decisions based on their suitability for our players and the environment we’re trying to create.
Through the first phase of a season, Watt focuses on getting to know his players and building a relationship with them. By assessing things like their responses to different situations, their current level of ability, the challenges they face, and their motivation for playing soccer, it’s possible to open a dialogue with players and help them establish their goals — whether for the short-term or the season ahead. Getting to know children as individuals and forming this connection with them is key to engaging them and effectively supporting their development.
Once those goals are established, coaches should support their players by creating an environment that challenges each of them individually, constantly reviewing their progress, and making adjustments where necessary. Some players might need things to be made slightly easier while others may need to be challenged more, and we must regularly assess their progress and have an alternative plan ready if something doesn’t work for a particular child. This regular appraisal and readjustment will also help us to develop the high-quality reflection skills that are an essential part of a good coach.
At Fulham, coaches strive to take a holistic approach to coaching children — one that develops them as humans, not just soccer players. “We talk a lot about trying to develop the person — that matters to us a lot,” explains Watt. “When players leave our program, whenever that is, it’s important that they leave in a better place, as a better person, more rounded, more skilled, much richer for the experience that we’ve been able to support them with.”
Fulham’s academy are fortunate to have education and player care teams whose focuses are separate from soccer. The club regularly organizes workshops and guest speakers for young players, with the aim of establishing a good relationship between wellbeing and performance, and helping kids to form a healthy sense of identity that isn’t centered upon being a soccer player.
Grassroots clubs may not have designated education or player care teams, but they can still take elements from this approach. Watt notes that it’s easier for Fulham’s education staff to have an unconditional relationship with players because players know that these staff members won’t influence decisions regarding their journey in soccer. It’s easy for us to forget that players can often feel like they’re being observed and judged, and that this can have negative connotations and create anxiety. As coaches, we can alleviate that sense of uncertainty by getting to know our players and building trust with them.
“You’re going to get so much more from players if you go through that process early on,” says Watt. “Building that consensus about what a player’s goals are, building a relationship with players in the early stages of your time with them; they will take much more from you later on in the season and in the journey… They know you’re in their corner because the trust has been built.”
Identifying potential in youth soccer players
As coaches, we regularly make decisions about players — such as what goals to work on with them and what position they’re most suited to — and we should be prepared to admit that we don’t always get them right. Kids undergo lots of changes throughout the Youth Development Phase, and it’s important we’re able to recognize them.
The transitional nature of development at this stage can also cause difficulty identifying potential, with the disparity in physical development making it particularly challenging. Increasingly, coaches are looking at the character of individuals to provide an indication of potential. “The things that are less likely to change over time relate to personality and mindset,” says Watt, who believes that certain performance behaviors are more commonly developed at younger ages.
Ultimately, soccer players must have drive and motivation if they’re to transition to professional football so characteristics like resilience can sometimes be useful in identifying long-term potential.
Coaching soccer from U9-U12s
As coaches, we encounter a mixture of kids and abilities from U9s-U12s, and it’s vital that we take an individual approach to coaching players. Watt gives the example of encountering children whose understanding of the game far exceeds the norm for their age group; if players are advanced in certain areas, we must challenge them and help them develop those skills further, but this can be difficult in a group setting, particularly if their teammates don’t understand the concepts we want to discuss. It’s important that, instead of ignoring their strengths, we take time to talk to them individually and find different ways to push them.
In terms of the broader approach, he says it’s often easier to establish a relationship with younger players; at these ages, they still look up to adults and can be a little more naturally enthusiastic than older children. By creating a positive environment and consistently encouraging our players, we can engage them in ways that will help them to enjoy soccer and make them want to practice.
Try to seek out and praise specific things, acknowledging intent as well as outcomes. “It’s a lot easier to praise effort than it is to praise outcome because, more often than not, effort is there, even if the outcome might not quite be there yet,” explains Watt. This is key to helping players establish the mentality that if they keep working at something, they will achieve their desired goal. We don’t want players who are unwilling to attempt things because they’re afraid to fail, we want them to keep trying. This is where positivity and encouragement are essential.
We must also remember to tailor our language to suit our players. This means checking that they understand any soccer-related words or phrases we use and explaining those words if they don’t, building a shared language as we go along.
Finally, Watt recommends devoting equal focus to time in and out of possession. “If you want to increase your opportunities to get on the ball, to then practice the stuff on the ball, you probably also need to be quite effective at getting the ball back,” he explains, acknowledging the temptation to focus solely on time with the ball and technique.
Watt reveals how this coaching philosophy is applied to younger teams in the foundation phase, who, between the start of the season (August) and December, concentrate primarily on possession and man-marking — exaggerating the focus on playing 1v1, defending, and winning the ball back. “Once you do that well, you find your team are on the ball more often,” and that gives them more opportunities to practice technical skills in game situations.
It’s still essential to practice technique. But coaches should balance it off so that players are also capable of winning the ball back.
Soccer coaching with U13-U16s, and supporting the growth and maturation phase
The period covered by the Youth Development Phase is an immensely transitional time for children. Through their teenage years, players will undergo considerable physical, psychological, and emotional growth while experiencing new pressures and social dynamics. Our job is to support them throughout this process and help them cope with the challenges they face as they mature.
Again, there is no go-to strategy for dealing with every player; each individual and their needs are different. At Fulham, staff maintain a dialogue between themselves in order to evaluate each player’s needs and establish which aspects of the playing environment can be manipulated to help them. It’s common for opinions on a player — for instance, whether they’re coping well or if they need a little extra support — to differ, so having regular conversations ensures that players are constantly observed and their needs are thoroughly considered.
Coaches work together to form a consensus on what a child requires before thinking about what approaches might work, accounting for things like the child’s personality and character, how they’re performing, and their target area(s) of improvement. In cases where a consensus still cannot be reached, Watt advocates involving parents in the discussion.
Watt’s main strategy for approaching the growth and maturation phase is to appreciate the importance of individual journeys and regularly assess kids’ physical growth. At Fulham, they record players’ heights and weights every 6-8 weeks, providing regular touchpoints throughout the season to track development.
Faced with players at markedly different stages of their physical development, they also add variety to practices by occasionally mixing age groups. This gives players new challenges and provides a great insight into how they react to playing in different environments. It’s an approach grassroots clubs could also adopt, for example, by organizing ‘street soccer’ nights where different age groups are brought together and simply left to play.
Besides providing children with new challenges and playing experiences, this approach affords great opportunities for informal play in an age where factors like technology and “no ball games” signs frequently impede it.
Game formats: From 5v5 to 11v11
Youth soccer often feels like a race to 11-a-side matches, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of small-sided games. As coaches, we should remember that, while the transition usually goes upwards, we can still go back and use smaller game formats.
Watt cites the example of Fulham’s U18 team still participating in 5v5 tournaments over the course of their season. Players’ primary focus is learning to play 11v11, and some may even be training with the senior team, but they can still benefit from the different challenges posed by smaller-sided games.
With younger age groups, the transition is gradual, starting with 5v5 and moving incrementally up to 11-a-side games at U13s. At Fulham, their philosophy is built around different moments of the game — each moment containing certain principles for players to consider — and those moments remain consistent from 5-a-side all the way through to 11v11.
Even as game formats change, the language coaches use and the principles they talk about remain relatively consistent, giving players a continuous thread that helps them to transition more smoothly.
Similarities can be seen in the Belgian Model, where an emphasis is placed on individual duels within small-sided games, and the things players learn playing 2v2 games are relearned playing 3v3, 5v5, 8v8, and 11v11 matches. There’s an accumulation of learning whereby players continue to use the same skills, with the only significant change being the complexity of the game.
Traditionally, Fulham have also used certain formations to make the transition easier for players. Watt explains that, when their 11-a-side teams used to play 4-3-3 formation consistently, the system was easily scaled down for smaller-sided games; for example, they’d keep the same formation at 9v9 but lose the full-backs, make the wingers work harder defensively (itself a good developmental exercise) and keep the midfield structure; at 7v7, they could either remove their wingers and have two 10s playing slightly wider or remove the 10s and have wingers, depending on the individuals in the team. This gave teams a consistent feel as they progressed through different game formats.
However, Fulham’s academy now teaches players about a range of different formations when playing 11v11, acknowledging that a relatively fast turnaround of managers in professional soccer makes it important to prepare individuals to play in a variety of different systems. This increased adaptability will benefit players throughout their journey in the game, though the absence of a set formation for 11v11 games makes deciding the set-up for smaller-sided games more complex.
Watt says that Fulham are still forming a consensus on the right approach, with academy staff having regular discussions and trying to consider every aspect of any decision before settling on one. It’s a great example for all coaches, no matter what level we’re coaching at, of the need to keep an open mind and constantly reflect on our approach.
When moving through game formats, the biggest transition for young players can be the progression to 11v11 at U13s, and it’s often striking how much more physically prepared some children are than others. It’s important that we adjust our expectations accordingly and support them through this challenge. The Fulham Academy educates players about different formations and assures them that, while the system they play in will be changed throughout their journey in the Youth Development Phase, the playing style and overarching philosophy will remain the same. By showing players that formations will be adapted in order to give them different experiences, provide new challenges, and support their development, we can go a long way to alleviating any fear about playing in a different system.
Ultimately, Fulham’s example is a principle-driven approach that emphasizes style of play over formation. Any coaches looking to follow it should resist the urge to fixate on tactics, consider what suits the individuals in front of them, and think about how they can maintain a certain playing style while using a variety of formations.
There are several stages to session design. The first is to understand who you’re working with, planning for the people, not just the number of players. Begin by asking yourself “How many players have I got, and who are they?” We want to consider factors like our players’ goals, how they’re progressing, recent performances, and the mood within the team.
We should also take into account any other information we have about our players — for instance, is everything okay in their home life? Have they had school exams? Is their self-esteem high or low? The answers to these questions won’t necessarily be critical to our practice design, but they should impact how we coach an individual, affecting things like what constraints we put in place, and how much attention we pay them.
Then we can plan the session. Watt designs each of his sessions from scratch in order to help him appreciate each of the individual needs within the team. Team sessions are usually built around a game or opposed practice, with his initial focus being what positions he’s placing each player in, how that relates to them and their development, and whether he has the right number of players to make the activity work.
For example, in a group with only four defensive players, you might play an opposed game with just two defenders per team and impose constraints (such as making the pitch narrower to reduce the need for full-backs) to make it work. Alternatively, you may be able to drop certain players back into defense because the experience complements their developmental goals.
In addition to each player’s position, it’s important to think carefully about who we’re matching them up against on the opposing team. Have we matched them against someone who provides an appropriate physical and/or technical challenge? Or are they working on a skill they’re less strong at or less confident with, and do we want to match them against someone who’ll give them more time on the ball and who they might have more success against? We must be purposeful in the experiences we give each player, and small details like these make a huge difference.
Once the practice and positions are marked out, Watt considers the different ways he could alter the session as he delivers it. “We’re always trying to challenge the best players in the group and set the session at quite a high standard, but you’ve got to be prepared [to change it up]”. Remember that kids aren’t consistent. Sometimes children will have an off-day. Others, we might have misjudged the practice. We must be flexible and have a few methods of adapting the session ready, whether that’s to make it easier or more challenging. These modifications can take the form of individual layers — for example, specific challenges for certain players — or tweaks for the entire team.
A good session plan needs structure and organization, but it must also have a degree of variability, and we should be prepared to move away from a plan entirely when it isn’t working. As coaches, our ability to adapt and work with what’s in front of us will improve with experience, and ultimately help us to deliver smoother, more engaging sessions.
Different types of practice: Isolated soccer drills or a game-based approach?
When it comes to choosing between isolated or opposed drills, Watt says there’s room for both. At Fulham, where they’re privileged to have a wide-ranging program, different types of sessions are run across the week.
Team sessions are primarily opposed and game-based, occasionally encompassing brief unopposed segments on tactics or shape to help players to understand their roles and responsibilities if a team is in the early stages of playing a new system. Formats vary from 1v1 tournaments all the way up to 11v11 games based upon the particular developmental areas coaches want to work on in that session.
Unopposed drills usually fall within the academy’s Individual Development Program, which uses practices in small groups to work on specific technical themes. For example, in a group of four players, you might have a midfielder working on their passing, a winger improving their crossing, and two forwards practicing their finishing from crosses; a practice where the midfielder passes the ball out wide, the winger crosses, and the forwards finish, repeated with a range of variations for each player, works on all of their individual needs.
It’s also possible to incorporate opposition into these individual practices (for instance, if you had a center-back working on defending crosses, you might have them track the forward in the practice outlined above) if you believe it will benefit the players. “If we’re trying to address something, we might begin unopposed… and then feedback on what’s going right and what’s going wrong,” explains Watt, “But once you’ve got that understanding established, some sort of pressure is usually of benefit.”
There are merits to both isolated and opposed practices. Deciding the appropriate time for each comes down to our own interpretation of what our players need. “No one can tell you when is the right moment to bring in some pressure, and how much pressure to introduce,” says Watt. “You’ve got to get a sense of it, ask the player how they feel… add it, remove it, [and] really intently watch how they’re performing with it.”
Soccer coaches and parents: The path to effective communication
During the Foundation Phase, most key information, such as the dates and locations of matches and feedback on how players are progressing, goes directly to parents. But this changes over the course of the Youth Development Phase as we try to provide more information directly to the players.
As coaches, we want them to take responsibility for honoring commitments, arriving on time, and requesting information when they need it, and help them learn to communicate effectively. This is crucial preparation for whatever comes next, whether that’s in soccer or the wider world.
But parents care about their children’s development and still need to be kept informed. “With a lot of parents we approach it like a partnership,” explains Watt. By having well-established goals for each child and communicating clearly with both the player and parents, we can redefine success and help parents recognize it when they see it on the pitch. For example, their child might be working on carrying the ball; by knowing this, they can appreciate that success for their child on a matchday is winning 1v1 duels against their opponent, rather than feeling frustrated about outcomes that are less relevant to their child’s development.
Watt also recommends maintaining a constant dialogue with parents and being as open with them as possible, keeping them abreast of what’s happening within your team, and checking in with them to see how their child is getting on. “It has a big impact on players,” he concludes. “If the relationship between staff, our academy, parents, and player is strong, we’re definitely in a much better place.”
The key points: Soccer coaching tips from a world-class academy
- Getting to know your players as people and building a positive relationship with them is key to being an effective coach. This connection will help you to individualize your approach to coaching and tailor your training to get the best out of your players.
- Performance behaviors and character traits like resilience can be good indicators of long-term potential. But it’s still difficult to accurately identify potential in young players, and we should be cautious not to get carried away when identifying talent.
- We should take an individual approach to coaching, considering factors like players’ ability, physical maturity, confidence, and developmental goals in order to give them an appropriate challenge.
- We must provide young players with a positive and encouraging learning environment where they want to try new things and aren’t afraid to make mistakes.
- Balance out technical practice with work on winning the ball back. This will lead to your teams having more possession in games and getting more opportunities to practice their technical skills in game situations.
- Children experience markedly different rates of physical development during the Youth Development Phase. We must work with each child individually, strive to determine what support they need, and carefully manipulate the playing environment in order to give it to them.
- We need to prepare individuals to play in a variety of systems. Instead of fixating on tactics, we should consider what playing style suits the individuals in our team and try to maintain it while using a range of different formations. This will make players more adaptable, benefiting them throughout their journey in the game.
- When it comes to session design, think carefully about the individual players in your team. Plan the position you play them in and who you match them up against in a way that helps them work on their specific areas of development.
- Adaptability is integral to effective coaching and session planning. Be prepared to vary your practice, making it easier or harder for certain individuals or the entire team as required. And don’t be afraid to move onto something new if a plan isn’t working.
- There’s a place for isolated drills but a focus on opposed, game-based practice is emphasized in a team setting. This may be more relevant for those in grassroots environments with only one or two sessions per week with their team. Individual drills can be a great way for players to develop confidence and improve specific skills before practicing them in opposed situations.
- Treat your relationship with parents as a partnership, being open with them and helping them to understand their child’s developmental goals. By maintaining positive relationships between coaches, parents, and children, we can work together to give players a safe, supportive, and enjoyable learning environment.
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