Sean Reed is a coach who epitomizes a lot of people working in professional football in England. Sean is a man who has quietly gone about his work over the last 16 years in two of London’s top clubs from academy to first team level resulting in a wealth of knowledge and experience. We caught up with Sean to discuss his experiences in football fitness, cognitive development and coaching in the Championship.
Sean grew up playing locally and at the school of excellence of Wimbledon FC. He concedes that “size was never on his side” and he ended up playing for a semi-professional conference team. So when an opportunity to go to America, get an education and play football on scholarship came up, it was too good to turn down. After four years at Rollins College in Orlando, Florida, Sean returned to England still hungry to play but with a newfound enthusiasm for coaching.
So where did it all begin? Sean explains, “I started off in 2000 at Crystal Palace in the academy foundation phase (8-11 year-olds) whilst still playing semi-professionally and completing my Masters. I’d initially spent some time observing until a role came up, which I jumped on. I was quite young at the time and one thing that I learned early on (and has stuck with me ever since) was when one of the senior coaches approached me as I was setting up my session and said, ‘Just to let you know, if the Academy Director sees you doing a ‘drill’ he’ll sack you.’ Immediately I learned that I would have to be creative in how I worked. The focus was on decision-making within sessions, multi-directional movement and teaching players to be independent.” He continues, “There were times when I would turn up having planned my session to then only be told that the numbers had changed, there was limited equipment available and the space I could work in had been dramatically reduced so this taught me to be adaptable. There were some great people at the club. Working at Palace was a great experience, a fantastic education for me.”
In 2004 the opportunity arose to move to South-West London club, Fulham FC. Sean suggests “a few things had changed at Palace” so he took his chance and moved to London’s oldest professional club. Given his Masters was in Sports Science in Coaching, Sean brought a unique skillset. I asked him to elaborate in more detail on his work in football fitness and rehabilitation. He explains, “I came into the club coaching in the academy. Then after about 2 years along with my coaching, I began implementing and delivering a movement programme working with other players and teams (in the warm ups or within the session). As time went on I started working with specific groups which included position specific. I looked to continually develop this and eventually this would become part of the work I did with the senior players”.
Sean moved from the academy to the first team in 2008. “I was brought in to bridge the gap between the football and the fitness. From that opportunity after a couple of years I created a bit of a niche for myself working with players returning from injury. Instead of just getting them fit I was coaching them back. Making it position specific and inline with the Managers playing philosophy. Going into the rehab work, it was about making the work specific to the players’ individual needs and working with the sports science department and the coaching department.”
With some high caliber staff at the club at the time, there were “a few changes” according to Sean. “I got asked to coach the U21s,” he explains. “That role basically took over from the previous rehab work with the first team. I initially worked alongside Ray Lewington before he went off to work with England. I then worked with Kit Symons for a couple of years with the U21s. When Kit got promoted to the first team manager role, I went with him and became first team coach.”
So having worked in both developmental and performance phases of football, how does Sean differentiate between them? How can coaches find the balance?
“They almost work together but the key is to prioritise them based on who you’re working with and when you’re working with them. At first team level it was performance driven and about the result on a Saturday or Tuesday and building towards that. However, within that you still have a development element. Whether that’s working with a group or individuals you still have to improve and develop people. The outcome might be about the win for the first team but at U21 and below, it’s got to be more about development.” He continues, “The players need to be prepared for that next step where winning becomes more of a priority. Conversely, you can’t turn to a 15-year-old and say winning isn’t important because he will think it is. It’s important not to label it. Most of the time kids don’t need to be told to win. There is an irony in the fact that we can’t talk about winning at times but then players will often be told in academy environments they are not good enough, so it becomes natural for them to compete and want to win.”
With 16 years in top football environments in England under his belt, I ask Sean what he believes are the most common errors that coaches can make in their work? His answer is considered, “Over time I have often come across coaches who put sessions on for themselves, not the players – so it makes the coach looks good and actually doesn’t benefit the player.” He elaborates, “I think as coaches we can also be guilty of falling into the trap of believing the coach always knows more than the player. Sometimes we have to put it back on the player. It’s also important not to become dictatorial – it’s crucial to encourage players to become thinkers. Finally, coaches are performers as much as players. Coaches have to help each other perform and even if it’s a player centered environment, coaches have to look after themselves, review each other, be at our best and in the right place mentally to plan to ensure the best practices for players.”
In modern coaching there are plenty of views on football fitness, from game based approaches to sports science and of course the importance of periodization. What advice does Sean have that can help coaches ensure football fitness and movement is included in session planning and what kind of balance between on the ball and off the ball work should we strive for?
He explains, “You need a variety. There are some things you can’t achieve in fitness with a ball. High speed or high intensity running is best practiced without a ball if you’re just looking at speed. However, where you can use a ball it’s advisable to do it. If it’s game specific (in or out of possession or in transition) then it does add value.”
Sean elaborates on the importance of communicating with your staff, saying, “Working with fitness coaches, it’s important to know what their objective is for the session along with what the football objective is. Then from here the session can be developed and adjusted accordingly.
So what kind of football fitness should we be implementing into our session or seasonal planning?
Again, Sean considers his response, explaining, “There are so many variables there. The main one is the player’s ages. With young players I wouldn’t even label it fitness, I would just do what you need to within games. The big focus from early on and throughout player development is football specific movement. Looking at football movement with and without the ball can be done in warm ups but you will get a lot of it in game based learning. It’s important that they get those movements right and you don’t neglect football movements at different times of their development.”
As with all of our interviews we love to discuss the idea of creativity. How does Sean define it and how can we help players improve on it? He replies, “I look at it as the ability to be innovative, to adapt, to think and act within a moment to generate a solution. We as coaches need to be creative to challenge the players we work with. It’s important to put players in situations whether it’s in or out of possession and push them to find solutions and innovate.”
So with 12 years at a top London club under his belt, how does Sean reflect on his own development and his experience? He explains, “It was great! It was very unique in the sense I was able to work within the academy, the fitness department and with the first team. Through those experiences I was lucky enough to work with some fantastic people and have been exposed to highs and lows. The highs like the Europa League final, the club being in the Premier League and more recently in the Championship. Each role within the club provided with me with new challenges. I was always given the chance to try things and had the support of the club. I really enjoyed the time there and having worked my way through the club from the academy to first team made it quite unique.”
Throughout his own coaching journey, Sean has displayed a particular enthusiasm for psychology in football, something I am interested in personally, so I ask him to explain the value of the courses he has done and his thoughts on the value of learning about psychology and applying it to coaching. “Some of the courses were through The FA and some were through my Masters. Understanding the player as a whole gives you enormous advantages in terms of how you work with them. It is important to consider the type of environment you create, the way in which you communicate, the type of feedback you provide, the type of sessions you put on and how you deliver them. I have been guided in recent years by one of my mentors, Mike Critchell, to really try and understand more about how the brain works, from a learning and development perspective. Mike has written a number of books on the topics of movement patterns and cognitive development.” He continues, “He is someone I constantly share ideas with. If you’ve got that understanding that influences how you work with people, what you deliver and what you do as a coach.”
As our conversation draws to a close we get on to the topic of the biggest challenges Sean has faced and coach education. Sean explains the difficulty of being a coach at the top level without having played professionally. He explains, “One of the biggest challenges is having not played at the top level. That question or challenge comes up consistently, people will ask, ‘What have you done from a playing perspective?’ That’s always a challenge, but it’s not until you get involved in the environments at top level and work with the people involved that it’s a different entity. The most important objective at the top level is getting the best out of people (which is a skill in itself), getting your message across, delivering relevant sessions and ensuring you’re delivering what is required for the team and the players.”
So what importance does Sean place on building the environment and developing trust as opposed to having played the game? He continues, “Developing trust is critical. As soon as you develop trust with players and they believe in what you’re working towards it is a huge step forward. Going back to the idea of working with players with long term injuries is an example of where you have time over a number of weeks and months to develop that trust and help educate them along the way, but it does take time.”
Is a playing background integral to a coaching career? Sean answers, “Having that playing background gives you an advantage providing you with experiences to draw reference to, an understanding for the demands of the profession and an appreciation from a players point of you. However, there is a lot more to coaching and management beyond a playing experience. There have been a number of managers who played at the top and found the transition into coaching a challenge. The qualifications will help and guide you but they won’t prepare you for the everyday challenges working under various pressure, constraints, developing and building relationships with members of staff from the kitchen staff to the coaches.”
He continues, “There is a lot more to managing and coaching than getting a qualification. Experience, being willing to learn and developing from coaching and working with others key. There has been some controversy recently with former players being given licenses more easily than others, but although their experience does add value to their cause they still need and will want the support to prepare them for the next step. However, if you haven’t played and are looking for role models, you don’t have to look further than Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Roy Hodgson – they have had playing careers at a low level but been very successful at coaching at the highest level. The definition of coaching and managing to me is to get the best out of people, to lead people in the right way.”
With some insightful answers and plenty of experience to draw on, Sean Reed acts as another role model for developing coaches around the world. The hunger to learn, to approach your own development with an open mind and growth mindset is something that Sean has clearly done in his career so far. Wherever he ends up next there is no doubt he will bring an educated and methodical approach to his work.