A coach’s value of learning – soccer schools

For a number of kids, soccer schools have played a big part in their development. Popularity and perceptions have changed over time, as have the demands on those looking to bring on the next generation of player – the coaches.

When I was the director of coaching at Arsenal Soccer Schools we knew we had to make the most of the time with the kids. They come with high hopes and expectations, and it’s on the coach’s shoulders to deliver a great football experience – one they learn from.

The challenge is no different to that of any other coach which means constantly asking ourselves if we are getting the best out of our kids. To help achieve that we used a formula that is focused on designing practices which allow the children to think, express themselves and develop their cognitive skills.

Conflicting approaches

We still frequently hear of coaches who are very prescriptive in what they deliver, allowing little room for children to think. These days, “I want you to…” should be replaced with “Can you show me…”. Only allowing a child to perform a skill the way the coach has shown may provide success in the short-term, but over a greater period of time the player’s movement and skills will be one-dimensional because, to a large extent, they haven’t been allowed to explore for themselves.

A new wave of coaching means that instead children are allowed the freedom and the permission to express themselves and learn from their own mistakes. We call this ‘guided discovery’. It’s the old adage about guiding the children to the answer rather than just presenting it to them.

This is, essentially, the coach delivering a session that develops every aspect of that child’s game, and is based around development of knowledge and game understanding. Methods can be verbal or visual, and vary between constant, variable and random practices.

I think coaching, as a whole, is getting a clearer idea of these sorts of processes – they’re all based in flexibility. That doesn’t mean we don’t stick with our beliefs, but we do look to explore new ways, ideas, theories and research. As part of that, I would recommend for any coach at any level to work towards qualifications and badges. At Arsenal Soccer Schools, the main methods we use involve Q&As, ‘observation and feedback’ and ‘guided discovery’, where the coach offers challenges for players to solve. And competitive fun is always encouraged.

The mechanics

The sessions themselves usually follow a structure of warm-up (5-10mins), technique (10-15mins), skill-related practices (under game-realistic pressure), 2v2s, 3v3s (20mins), and then final 4v4 or 5v5 small-sided games (20mins). And we end with a debrief.

Youth development is improving at great pace. There is more research in every aspect of coaching from nutrition, psychology, communication, training theory, periodisation and planning of training programmes. And of course, there are a lot of tools and resources available.

And the best lesson is in watching others. I would recommend that anyone wanting to develop their coaching goes out and observes, but don’t take everything they say as gospel – look for the research and theory behind a coach’s practices and judge for yourself if it’s relevant. It’s good that a growing number of coaches agree that ‘old-school’ methods involving little or no thinking should be put to one side. Their impact has affected a lot of youth development for many years, particularly in England, from the bottom right through to senior pros.

In England our players are amongst the best in the world but the problem lies in the fact that they can’t improvise, and a lot of this comes down to how they have been coached. There has been a lack of learning and developing the key cognitive and life skills needed, whereas abroad the coaching is more focused on developing all aspects of each player.

The future?

Leading soccer schools are now right behind these approaches, and that is helping to change what can sometimes be an indifferent perception. Soccer schools are trying to encourage an improvement in the quality of coaching provision, giving children a better environment and an opportunity to further develop their skills.

Don’t look for big targets, simply that children have learnt and developed, and in doing so want to learn and develop more. Soccer schools want to leave a lasting legacy in the lives of the people they’ve worked with, and in doing so be regarded as the best for developing youth. And in that respect, Soccer school aims are no different to any coach in any country.

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