We discuss coach innovation and development philosophy with Stuart English, Head of Coaching at the Brentford FC Academy, and one of most exciting young coaches in the game.


PDP: Why is it important that long-term player development programmes have a clear philosophy?

SE: A clear philosophy is of paramount importance within a long-term development programme because it allows the players, parents and coaches to have a shared understanding of the planned pathway ahead. It makes sure that everybody involved is aware of the demands and have the same end goal, the same vision. This is why it’s crucial that the philosophy is clear and there’s no ambiguity. It ensures everybody is aware of the possible drawbacks of this philosophy and the potential challenges that the player, parent and coach will have to solve on the journey.

An example of this may be playing out from the back. If this is an integral part of the philosophy then it will lead to the players having to learn how to play out from the back, which in turn is going to lead to lots of mistakes and goals conceded. If the player, parent and coach is prepared for this then it won’t affect the player’s journey. If they aren’t prepared then it definitely will affect the player’s journey and could potentially put them off trying to play out from the back ever again.

Stuart (right) in action at Brentford.

Stuart (right) in action at Brentford.

All coaches have slightly different beliefs and ideologies about their team’s playing style. So if each coach within the academy worked to their own philosophy it would lead to lots of confusion for the players. For example, some coaches would like to win at all costs, but some coaches accept that sometimes winning may not always be the best way to learn and develop as it can increase the levels of fear and perhaps deter players from wanting to try a skill or technique they’ve practiced.

If you look at successful academies like Manchester United, Liverpool and Crewe the first thing that springs to mind is their playing style and philosophy. Each has a distinctive and clear philosophy and each has had success from it in helping produce players that play in the first team.

PDP: How would you describe the player development philosophy at your academy?

SE: Our academy has both a playing and a coaching philosophy. A playing philosophy will determine the style of play the team will be encouraged to play, whereas the coaching philosophy will be the way in which this playing philosophy is taught or coerced out of the players. Both philosophies are important, but I feel the coaching philosophy can play a more significant role in long-term player development.

The playing philosophy at our academy is to play a possession-based game with a purpose. To dominate possession in the game, but use the possession to attack, move our opponents around and penetrate with forward runs and passes to create and score goals. We want all our players to be calm and composed with the ball and be able to play with both feet. We encourage our players to be thinkers, intelligent footballers and high-level decision makers.

Our coaching philosophy, like our playing one, is ever evolving through the changes that are occurring in the game day to day and the changes we predict could happen in the future. We aim to set a positive learning environment where the players love attending and can’t wait for the next session. In order to create this environment we ensure the sessions we put on are enjoyable, challenging and individual specific at all times. We challenge the players to find the answers to the problems they encounter and help them to find the possible answers.

We believe our academy is a place of learning and the players will be challenged across all corners of development: technical/tactical, social, psychological and physical. We try to create a family atmosphere where players feel they can talk to any member of staff.

PDP: How do your staff embody this philosophy with the players?

SE: The important thing is that there’s an environment created in which playing style can be practised effectively. Every member of our staff gets to know the players at the academy and meets and greets every player when they arrive or leave training each and every session.

The staff will be friendly and care for the players in order to build a positive working relationship. This relationship is one where players are encouraged to ask questions or to discuss problems they’re having with the members of staff. Before and after sessions staff will get into non-football discussions with players to find out about their individual interests and views on any number of topics.

During training, the staff create a safe working environment and encourage the players to show their individual characters and abilities. The staff will create practices that are specific to the players’ needs and these sessions will be very challenging but always enjoyable. The players will be encouraged to solve problems on their own and also in groups or teams. This is where staff give players ownership to try and find the answers.

When coaching, coaches will use lots of different teaching styles to ensure the players are always thinking about the practice they’re involved in. A question and answer format is a common style used to check understanding and test knowledge or concentration, as is guided discovery.

Stuart (centre) oversees a training session alongside other Brentford staff.

Stuart (centre) oversees a training session alongside other Brentford staff.

PDP: Does the philosophy of the academy influence the approach of the coaches?

SE: Absolutely, all coaches embrace the philosophy and if one or two coaches feel there needs to be a change, for whatever reason, then this will be discussed as a group and we’ll decide on a plan. Not all coaches work this way so when a new coach arrives it takes time to teach them our coaching philosophy and the way we work. Ultimately it isn’t for everyone and some coaches haven’t been able to adapt their own style to tie in with our philosophy and have moved on to other academies.

I must stress, however, that it’s crucially important that every coach puts their individual stamp on the philosophy. We’d never want to create robotic coaches that always say the same things and act the same way. All our coaches work to the philosophy but in their own way to ensure there is a great variety for the players at every session.

PDP: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to innovate in the player development area?

STUART: Great question – I feel innovation is key throughout the academy in every area; however, I feel the biggest opportunity to innovate is with coaching sessions. Lots of coaches use session plans that they’ve used before and are comfortable with, and this is perfectly fine. But remember that players want to be surprised and intrigued when they come to training, so innovation and creative thinking is crucial too.

At the moment there is football on every single night so inspiration is everywhere. Watch a game, and while watching analyse and come up with a session from what you’re seeing players excel or fail at, depending on the needs of your group of players. Borrowing sessions from others is great too, but make sure you put your own twist on it.

The important thing is that there’s an environment created in which playing style can be practised effectively.

PDP: How would you describe the ideal environment for player development?

SE: Personally I feel the ideal environment for player development is one that is:

Safe: Players know they won’t get hurt and know that mistakes are a part of development and learning

Happy: A place where people are smiling and happy will always lead to a higher level of performance

Positive: the approach from staff and players is looking forwards and highlights good performance rather than dwelling on past mistakes

Relaxed but demanding: Players need to be relaxed and happy to try new things and solve problems, but they also need to be constantly tested physically, technically, psychologically and socially to make sure they’re driven to progress and move forwards.

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