Rob Sherman explains the player-centred approach and asks whether it is exclusive to youth development.

Rob has over 30 years’ experience, starting in amateur leagues before graduating to be an Area Coach for the Welsh FA and coach of Wales U16. After several years as the Welsh National Player Development Manager and Technical Director, in 2007 he became High Performance Manager at New Zealand Football and coached at FIFA events and two Olympics. After establishing the Asia Pacific Football Academy, Rob returned to New Zealand as National Technical Director, before most recently working as Technical Director of Football Australia.

On many of the courses I have directed over the years I often ask the question: why do people coach? The overriding theme in the answers is to ‘help players or to give something back’. Seldom do coaches talk about what’s in it for them. As discussions evolve, especially around youth development, the ‘player-centred approach’ is often touted. But what exactly does a player-centred approach mean and is it exclusive to youth football?

Fundamentally, ‘player centred’ is a principle or value, but without the overarching vision and supporting behaviors it is unlikely to be uniformly applied across an organisation. In my experience, I have found that in many environments where player centricity is held as one of the core values, it is in fact forgotten when it’s more convenient for the coach or club to place their interests first. It’s a fine balance – as a coach we must look after our organization’s best interest, the key stakeholders and the technical and support staff. Ultimately, however, our main asset is the player and their welfare should be the key consideration. Whether you’re coaching at the top level or at grassroots the challenge remains the same: how do you keep the player at the centre?

Your personal vision

As a coach it’s vital that you understand and know your own motivations. It’s important to explore your opinions and beliefs about football and life in general. I’m not talking about your playing vision and style of football. I’m talking about your core values, the things that make you who you are. These are the anchors to which you remain true and will not compromise upon.

Do you have a personal vision? What are your values and the behaviors that you demonstrate? You might want to be an excellent coach who can improve players and performance. Your underpinning values might be ‘people first’, ‘no detail too small’, ‘teaching and learning’, ‘team first’, for example. The behaviors you live by may be ‘integrity’, ‘empathy’, ‘honesty’, ‘respect’, ‘hard work’, ‘commitment’ and ‘discipline’. Whatever they are for you, these values and behaviors should be clearly defined in your mind and set the framework by which people can recognize you as a person and coach.

The vision of the club

The club should also have a vision to provide a reference point for those who operate or interact with that club. Without the vision, the underpinning values and supporting behaviors, there is a real potential for the organization to drift away from its purpose and values and underperform. In essence, the vision should provide a checkpoint at which at any time we can ask ourselves, or others, ‘is what we’re doing leading us towards the vision?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then don’t do it.

A key consideration when taking a coaching role is whether the vision, values and behaviors of the organization are clear and if they are aligned with your own. We can never be sure, and even if on the surface it appears to be aligned at some stage we will find out one way or the other whether the two are compatible. At these moments you will find out how true you are to your values. If the purpose of the organization is clear and the values and behaviors clearly defined, then people can be held accountable to these. And with accountability comes responsibility. It is essential that everything is defined and not ‘open to interpretation’. If the ‘player at the centre’ is one of the values, you need to define this and explore the actions that will bring this to life, and how that might look on and off the field.

Establishing these foundations will help you maintain the difficult balance of living the values and asking the right questions of yourself and the organisation when these are tested. For the avoidance of doubt, the player-centred approach puts the best interest of the player first and not the self-interest of the player.

Knowing people

The second step as a coach is to understand that not everyone sees the world through the same lens. You may have a common vision and set of values and behaviours but people are very different and act, learn, and process things in many different ways. Emotional intelligence is a key factor for any coach, and the ability to recognise and deal with different behaviour models and adapt your own behaviour accordingly is essential. You may be someone who likes being told something in a direct manner or someone who learns by seeing, but you must remember not everyone does. You can’t know your players until you know yourself, and you can’t place the players’ best interests first if you see everything based solely on your own perspective.

Develop people

As a coach it’s likely you believe that you can teach and help players develop. If we are effective leaders then we must also look beyond the player’s time with us. We need to make sure that we do everything we can to help the player grow and be better for today, their time with us, and tomorrow, their time after us. We should be developing them for life inside and outside football, in essence educating them for football and life. Education isn’t exclusive to youth development and I am convinced players want to develop throughout their careers.

Placing the player at the centre and doing the best we can for them is a value that should benefit all parties. But where there is a conflict the default should be what is ‘best’ for the player. This is the continuous dilemma of the ‘player at the centre’ mantra and needs to be applied across the myriad of situations.

If we hold this as a truth then we need to start by thinking beyond their time with us and consider a number of elements that place them at the centre.

Exit point

Every football career comes to an end and, of course, players move between clubs. This means we need to prepare, educate and manage players for the time this happens. This applies no more or less to the player being told there no longer a place for them in an academy, a young pro not securing a second contract or a seasoned pro coming to the end of their contract or career. Preparing players at this difficult time will help them and help the club build its reputation as being player-centred.

Football is a vehicle in itself to develop football and a vehicle to develop life skills. Skills such as working with others, facing disappointment, dealing with success, commitment, dedication and taking responsibility. Preparing a player for our first team is a given but we should also be using football as a means to create opportunities beyond football. Academies should pride themselves on the range of exit routes they provide. How many provide strong partnerships with clubs at a lower level where they can place a player (at any age), provide pathways to US scholarships, links with local colleges, tertiary education, vocational training and with the school the players attend so they can monitor their progress and help encourage study and manage scheduling? Academy alumni should include first team players, players at other clubs, lawyers, teachers, sports scientists, physiotherapists, businessmen, plumbers and coaches – and at the very least people who can forge a happy life. A true measure might simply be how many keep playing the game. If the academy experience has turned them off football, then we have done something seriously wrong.

Does the same mantra apply at senior level? As a head coach can you help the player stay in the game as long as possible? Get the best out of them for your club and help them sustain a career by moving them on in the right way when they are no longer part of your requirements or when they have outgrown you? Of course, bringing this to life is not easy and may not always be successful. It is time consuming and takes resource. But because it’s hard does that mean we shouldn’t do it, or is this something that gives you a point of difference when recruiting players?

For anyone who has played professionally, the day when that ends is a shock. When I didn’t secure my third contract and stepped back into the real world I was totally unprepared for the change in lifestyle, the lack of career prospects and I sorely missed the environment. It is becoming increasingly obvious that players are struggling outside of the football bubble, and moving away from the limelight is such a radical change in life that many are failing to cope. We need to prepare players for the days beyond football.

What to develop?

The Four Corners Model will be familiar to many.  In this model, Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental/Social Emotional occupy each corner. I believe these are key aspects but feel the social/emotional aspect should not occupy a corner but be the all-encompassing factor, the culture if you like. That to be player-centred, the player’s best interests must be put first and as such their emotional and social welfare is paramount and the starting point.

If we have a clear vision, values and set of expected behaviors, then the day-to-day culture is a teacher itself. This culture should help create the environment where people feel safe, valued, cared for and respected and are able to demonstrate these values when interacting with others. The junior and youth player should be focusing on football and maintaining their education, but there is nothing stopping the senior player taking a course of study and expanding their horizons. Needless to say it would have to be built around their commitments and be flexible enough to withstand the movement that comes with a career in football.

Additional training and education across a range of disciplines can also grow the player, health and wellbeing, guidance on career planning financial management, diet, nutrition, gambling and addiction, planning and goal setting and of course a coaching career. The list is endless and many clubs already embrace this. Does yours?

How to develop

The technical, tactical, physical and mental elements are distinguishable but not separable from a football perspective and can all be developed on the pitch in the football context. The pace of football demands that players use unconscious thinking, to be able to recognize the nuances and act without conscious thought. To evolve to this level demands a massive amount of exposure to the game. The training methodology should expose the players to this as much as possible and be developed through an age-specific, periodised programme. This should be based on the individual capacity of each player and their specific talents. The aim is to take the assets the player has and make these great while strengthening areas of weakness.  An individual plan should be developed where as a starting point the player’s ability to read the game, perceive the situation, make the right decision and execute the correct action are developed systematically.

The focus for the young player should be on mastering the core skills and deploying these in co-operation with teammates to overcome an opponent to score and prevent goals. As the players age, the programme should evolve so they can use their skill in the tactical context. This should be built around and the key principles of a style of play.  The mental and physical attributes should be developed with an age-related focus using the natural windows of development. Much of this can be achieved in the football context by playing football.

What about isolated training? I’m sure we all kicked a ball at a wall for hours and hours and other things to hone our technique, but we also played in games, formal and informal, for hours and hours and it is this that develops skill (P.D.E.), game related physical attributes and mental skills. Technical, mental and physical training can of course be developed independently to prepare and develop a myriad of competencies that can help with injury prevention, movement efficiency, agility, concentration and emotion control. Again this must be governed by the needs of the player and in relation to their age both biological and chronological.

Where time is rich, then a programme of development away from the pitch can be encompassed. But this should be managed carefully so as not to impinge on the player’s schooling and social time. However, where time is limited, then retaining the context to the game is key and developing them with the game resistances present is something that shouldn’t be given away readily.

Individual growth

Once you have your vision, values and behaviors in place, underpinned by your playing philosophy articulated by your periodised plan, you need to have the processes in place that ensure the programme and its impact is recorded and measured.

The basic anthropometric measurements of height and weight taken monthly to record growth rate are essential. Perceived sleep quality, muscle soreness and fatigue should also be recorded on a weekly basis as well and an injury record. This will help to gain an in-depth personal profile of each player’s life and training impact. Match and training data should be collected to determine the game-specific actions and intensities to help manage loading. This raft of specific data should be the basis of the individual training plan.

This detail would also form part of each Players Personal Development Plan (PPDP) and along with the technical and tactical facets build a personal development profile specific to their strengths and linked with their player tasks and associated actions. This plan should be a jointly agreed strategy between the coaching staff and the player. The player input is an absolute must, as this engagement will increase intrinsic motivation and continued ownership and responsibility for their own development.

Feedback is crucial both from the player and from the coach and the communication between needs to be constant. Training and match review using video (where possible) and supported by data can lead to objective appraisal. This constant feedback can be supported with regular meetings with the player and more formal meetings with the player (and parent if of academy age). These meetings are conducted to re-evaluate the plan and gauge progress. The PPDP is a fluid process constantly adjusted so the player’s progress is carefully planned. This approach will let the player know that you are helping them strive for their best self and their development is mutually important.

So if the ‘player at the centre’ is a fundamental of your programme, does this sit within a vision-and-values-driven club philosophy bought to life by coaches who share that values system? Does the club have a playing philosophy that forms the basis of the periodised plan and a clear training methodology that develops creative game intelligent players in a game specific way? Is progress agreed and measured with feedback given through a range of mechanisms? Are demands adjusted to ensure the player fulfils their potential or can perform at their maximum? If you can answer ‘yes’ with certainty to these questions then you have a player-centred approach. If not, ask yourself what you have to do in order to ensure you place the player at the centre.

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