UEFA A licensed coach & PDP Editor, Dave Wright discusses why an individual approach to player development is crucial after recently presenting at a conference in Australia. The presentation was based on his philosophy, PDP research and experience from his time at Fulham FC.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Football Federation Victoria (the state governing body for football in Victoria) to present at their State Coaching Conference in Melbourne. I was given freedom to choose a topic, but encouraged to push a message which would shake things up a little bit. Throughout this article, I will share several the slides from the presentation and don’t forget to look out for the full version in Masterclass video form in the New Year.
Having only recently arrived in Australia after almost 5 years in England, I have spent a good amount of time meeting with local clubs, A League clubs and staff at Football Federation Australia, discussing the local landscape and some of the cultural challenges that player development in Australia is facing.
Under the guidance of National Coach Education Manager, Sean Douglas and following excellent work in previous years from people like Kelly Cross (Sydney FC Academy Manager) & Rob Sherman (Former New Zealand Football Technical Director), Australia has been forging a strong path in coach development for a long time, running excellent courses and always adapting their approach in line with the latest research. The next challenge is to ensure that coaches take this knowledge and embrace the concepts we promote heavily at PDP into their own environments.
Since arriving in Melbourne, some concerns had been expressed to me via a number of the aforementioned conversations with coaches locally. Some people spoke of a win at all costs mentality still dominating NPL (National Premier League) football across age groups. League tables and results are apparently still the dominant measure of success and stories of players being locked in, or pigeon holed into positions at a young age to ensure results for clubs have all been mentioned.
Accordingly, based on the discussions I had, I decided that sharing my own experiences and philosophy whilst tapping into some of the previous 3 years research via PDP and citing our contributors was essential. I also wanted to share some of my experience from the world of academy football in England with Brentford FC & Fulham FC. Whilst the academy system is not perfect, there are so many good clubs running great programs giving talented football players the best opportunity possible. With the permission of Fulham FC Academy Manager, Huw Jennings to share some club insights, I put together a 45-minute presentation combining PDP research and Fulham FC as a case study on how to develop the individual.
The key topics within the presentation were:
- The danger of ego
- The environment
- Socio-cultural constraints
- Task constraints
- Fulham FC as a case study
- Individual learning plans
- Session design and game preparation
- Recreating street football
Get Over Yourself
For many of you who have been loyal PDP readers for a long time, you would have heard me speak and write about the dangers of ego. I decided to start by challenging the 140 coaches in the room to check their egos at the door, to get over themselves. Why do we coach? Surely, it’s to facilitate an environment for players to get better and have a positive sporting experience? This challenge laid down, I proceeded to outline the environmental factors such as family, football club, school life, home life and more. These socio-cultural constraints must be understood to ensure we know and understand our players well enough to have a positive effect. By painting this picture I aimed to provide a holistic view, citing the work of PDP contributors like Ben Bartlett, Mark O’Sullivan, Paul McGuinness and of course, our own Lead Researcher, James Vaughan.
An Individual Approach
If we are to truly develop players as individuals and ensure our coaching is not a one-size-fits-all approach, then by knowing our players and manipulating a constraints-led approach, this can be achieved. One of the most prominent elements of the Fulham FC philosophy was individualising the process. Using the acronym, CLASS, all players had individual learning plans based around four key criteria and an overall definition of success. This definition was nothing to do with the result, the score board or the team performance but entirely driven by the club’s desire to develop every individual to the ensure they fulfill their potential.
One of my key roles in my second season at the club was to take Individual Technical Practice (ITP). This was where a group of players would work with me each week (usually 5-8 players maximum) and I would have to build sessions based on their technical targets. This was a great challenge for my own coaching and meant I got much better at planning sessions that looked like the game but by manipulating constraints, I could ensure each target came out.
To go about this, I would take a players’ individual learning plan and then blend the targets into the session – see session plans below.
Players each set up in a position relative to their target. Each player may have a constraint which allows them to come up. The session is set up on a small 7v7 size area, looks like game and is position specific. The mini goal allows the defender an option for forward passing.
The image above outlines the constraint for the central defender. He is encouraged to only defend centrally (realism) whilst the winger must play of 2-4 touches and stay wide to work on long range releasing (repetition).
Whilst training sessions were one component of our approach, ensuring that our behaviour was consistent throughout the week both in terms of how we delivered and how we planned was key. This was tied together by ensuring that when we worked with the players at any given moment, their targets (whether technical, tactical, psychological or physical) were our focus, not the outcome of the game. By doing this, we engaged players in their own learning journey, encouraging reflection, mistakes, honesty and a hunger to improve – a growth mindset.
Developing the Individual Learning Plan
This is a key component of taking an individual approach. Every player is different, have unique strengths, various weaknesses and ensuring a strengths based approach or focus on their attributes will ensure we get the best out of our players. Developing individual learning plans (ILP’s) should be a collaboration. Whilst we as coaches obviously have more experience in life and in football, we must be humble enough to accept that once relationships are formed and trust is built with our players, they may be willing to open up a dialogue about what they want to work on. This engagement and desire to create their own targets is the beginning of facilitating intrinsic motivation, we are now beginning to redefine success. Whether the player drives all of the process, some or none will come down to the individual, their own level of confidence, understanding and development. Your job as the coach is now to facilitate and support their plan and put it into action, to live and breathe it. The quote below from Kristjaan Speakman, Academy Manager at Birmingham City FC is one of the best I have heard in terms of prioritising the individual over the team, seeing the big picture and putting the players needs first.
Sessions & Game Day
When I was on the UEFA A license, my course tutor, Ted Dale (Former Chelsea U18 Manager & FA National Coach Developer) said to our group, “When you’re planning a session, ask yourself, ‘Who is James Bond?’”
This stuck with me and is something I have kept in mind since. If James Bond is the star of the show, he needs supporting actors and extras. This is a way of approaching session design to incorporate the individual. If your ‘James Bond’ for 20 minutes or 90 minutes of the practice is a centre midfielder looking to work on receiving to play forward, who does he need around him to do this? It might be two centre backs playing out who need to pass with detail to his back foot. It may be a striker for him to play into. Around that, he may need wingers and fullbacks to create width to enable him to practice his target. These considerations are all key to any part of a session plan. Aside from the actual design of the practice, it’s important to consider some of the elements pictured below when you’re working with young, developing players and thinking about your game or session. On game day, it might then be about looking in more detail at ideas around knowledge transfer and player ownership.
Recreating Street Football
We’ve produced content around the importance of recreating street football since Player Development Projects inception. Our recent Masterclass with Paul McGuinness was perhaps one of the best we have ever done and he spoke so often about the importance of play, creativity, variety of pitch sizes, game formats and more. Part of my presentation involved using the video below to reiterate that by creating an environment that uses constraints and a games based approach, we can develop decision-makers on so many levels. Paul outlines the huge social and emotional outcomes on top of the technical/tactical results that came about for individuals through informal play and street style environments.
What is Success?
This was the question I left the audience with. If we embrace non-linear pedagogy, accept what we don’t know, move our ego to the side and put our players needs first, we can facilitate an environment which focuses on success for every person within your group. Whether that’s scoring their first goal, enjoying their sporting experience or going on to play at the highest level, coaching for me is creating the environment. A space for mistakes to happen, fear to be removed and learning to be a constant focus. Success is not winning the local U12 league title, because in reality, while at the time the players will enjoy the glory, the long lasting result will be whether you have been one of many coaches who has been influential enough to keep them in the game long after they have worked with you.
Header image: Yasar Kocal/Unsplash