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‘Coaches have got to be prepared to adapt’
Tony Mee is a Uefa A licence coach who is currently the youth development phase lead coach at English lower-league club Doncaster Rovers.
He was previously at Rotherham United, working with various age groups before being promoted to head of youth academy coaching, and served as academy manager at York City.
Tony is also the author of Through The Thirds: A Systematic Approach to Planning Your Football Season.
But he has not always been a coach – his first calling was as a physical training (PT) instructor in the British Army.
Here, Tony talks to former SCW editor Dave Clarke about how he switched careers, his role at Doncaster, tips for session design and the importance of being creative, and what he terms the “lost art” of on-pitch communication in youth soccer…
SCW: You used to be a physical training instructor with the army. How did you go from that to coaching?
TM: “I joined the army in 1979 and became an assistant PT instructor within the Royal Corps of Signals.
“It was kind of my secondary job behind working with communications, but I spent more time working in gyms than I did in radio relay wagons.
“I did my first football coaching course, the old FA half badge, while I was still in the Signals. Then I transferred into the Army Physical Training Corps and did the full badge a year after that.
“When they introduced the Uefa qualifications, in about 1998, we did these conversion courses. I think I was on probably the second conversion course to transfer my old FA full badge into the Uefa A license.”
SCW: Now you are lead youth development phase coach at Doncaster Rovers. What does that involve?
TM: “My remit is to look after all the teams that play 11-a-side football. For us, the youth development phase goes from under-13s to under-16s.
“My main role is coaching the under-16s but also overseeing the whole program, making sure the syllabus is in place, that we are fully staffed, and that the coaches deliver from the syllabus.”
“I did my first coaching course, the old FA half badge, while I was still a PT in the army…”
SCW: Do you have an input into that syllabus?
TM: “That was something that a group of us sat down and put together. It evolves over the years but we are now into the second year of our current syllabus, which works really well for us.
“When I first started in centre of excellence football at Rotherham United, it was pretty ad hoc – you were given a bag of balls, a set of cones and some bibs, and you were pretty much left to your own devices.
“Over the time that I have been involved in and around pro clubs, it has got much more focused, much more directed and we now have a syllabus which covers all the different moments in the game, all the different areas of the pitch, both in attacking and defending, and probably the most important part for me, which is transitions.”
SCW: When it comes to designing sessions, where do you start? Do you find that the game model impacts your session design?
TM: “To a degree, but obviously for us the syllabus affects our session design. Having an idea of what you’ve got to deliver, and where you’ve got to deliver it on the pitch, is what informs a lot of my practice design.
“Not every session I design and deliver is an original session – I might do the same as other coaches, where I’ll read a book or see a session online.
“However, I’m not working with £50 million full-backs – I’ll need to moderate my expectation in terms of what I get out of that session from those individuals.
“Coaches have got to be prepared to adjust and adapt sessions to fit the players they have got and the space they have got. We have to be really creative.
“I put a session in [SCW’s stable title] Elite Soccer magazine, with a 75×50 area – that is probably twice as big as some people ever get to work in.
“What coaches could do, if you only have a narrow area, is to change where you put the goals. If your focus is doing something from wide areas or switching play, instead of putting the goals on the two narrow ends, put them on the long ends.
“Just by manipulating the area and the numbers you have got, you can pretty much make any session for any age group.
“I strongly believe that every session that can be invented has probably already been invented. You very rarely see a session now that you haven’t seen before or something similar to.”
SCW: How do you motivate players who aren’t necessarily central to the session?
TM: “I think if you can set little individual challenges for the players that aren’t the focus – it might be pass completion, it might be to pass more with your weaker foot – that might focus their motivation.
“I believe every session that can be invented has already been invented…”
“They know the pass completion rates for the players at the highest level of the game because they watch football or they see it on these FIFA cards. Their motivation will be to not give the ball away as much.
“So you can give them little challenges within the game so that they’re not left out.
SCW: How do you coach communication?
TM: “Probably the most complained about aspect of youth football is how poor they are at communicating on the pitch.
“You get them into a huddle and ask the questions, and they will come up with all the answers. They are really good at that. You then put them out on the pitch and all of a sudden these chatty, expressive young players become almost mute at times.
“But if you work to a common vocabulary, for example, you only need half a dozen buzzwords – if players know what they are, and are prepared to use them, you do start to get some understanding.
“It might not be as noisy on the pitch as it was when we were kids. I don’t know whether that is a football thing or a societal thing – the majority of kids these days don’t communicate face to face, they communicate over headsets playing Xbox, and via text.
“That art of communication on the pitch is a bit of a dying art, really. I’m not sure how we get it back. But we try.”
“With experience, you develop a good filter around what sessions you can deliver and how you can adapt other people’s sessions…”
HEAR MORE FROM TONY MEE, INCLUDING FURTHER ADVICE ON SESSION PLANNING AND HOW BEST TO INTERVENE WHEN THINGS ARE NOT WORKING, ON OUR PODCAST — CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD