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Exclusive Interview: An example of coaching excellence
When Kevin Nicholson joined Cardiff City shortly after his 27th birthday in 2013, he became the youngest U18 Manager and Lead Professional Development Coach (U17-U21) in the United Kingdom. He went on to become the youngest ever holder of the FA Uefa Pro License in England.
Aside from the experience he has gained of youth coaching, Kevin himself was once an academy footballer, signing for Derby County’s Centre of Excellence when he was just eight years of age. Having narrowly missed out on a scholarship aged 16, he moved to Rotherham United, Sheffield Wednesday and spent a year and a half in Kidderminster Harriers’ youth team.
His interest in coaching began when he was 17, coaching young players as part of Derby County’s Football in the Community scheme between 2004 and 2005. He got a major break in July 2006, when he landed a role as a part-time coach at Stoke City, coaching the club’s U11 side. He returned to Derby in 2007, holding a variety of positions including U18 Assistant Coach, Academy Development Coach (5-12), U12 Head Coach and Technical Skills Coach before becoming their Head Academy Coach U9-U16 and U16 manager in 2010.
Kevin’s rapid rise in the coaching world continued in 2012, when he became Exeter City’s U18 Manager and Academy Professional Development Coach and helped shape the careers of players such as Matt Grimes, Matt Jay and Ollie Watkins. In his role at Cardiff City, he steered the U18 side to their highest ever league finish and the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup – the first time the club had achieved such a feat in seven seasons.
He is now First Team coach at Bangor City sitting on top of the Welsh Premier League with 6 wins from 8 games including 4 clean sheets. Kevin has also become a coach educator with FA Wales looking to inspire others on the coaching path.
As bright and ambitious as the most talented players he has worked with, Kevin shares his views of coaching with SCW…
How did your path into professional coaching begin?
“I started combining my training and playing with various clubs with a coaching role on Derby County’s Football in the Community scheme from the age of 17. I started my qualifications early and got my Level One FA Coaching Badge aged 17 and Level Two aged 18. I had achieved my UEFA ‘B’ Licence at 19, which was unheard of at the time. That gave me a lot of confidence in my coaching.”
Do former professional footballers have a greater advantage of making it as pro coaches?
“A lot of people think you need to have played football at the very highest level to be a great coach, but that isn’t always true. There are examples of both former pros and non-ex-pros making good careers in the game. Playing and coaching are two different jobs and have two totally different skill-set requirements. Being a good player doesn’t necessarily make you a good coach and vice versa. As long as you’ve played the game at a reasonable level and more importantly, you have a clear understanding of football, then you have the basics to work towards becoming a professional coach.”
What words of advice would you offer to a grassroots youth coach?
“The way you interact with footballers from grassroots right through to professional level is vitally important. There are certain basics you need to get right as a grassroots coach in terms of the organisation of your training sessions and that you know what you are looking to achieve. Every practice, drill and coaching session should be purposeful and re-create game scenarios.
“You have to gain the respect of the players you work with. I once listened to a talk from Brendan Rodgers and he said the biggest thing he learnt from working under Jose Mourinho was that to gain players’ respect, you have to prove you are a good human being first and fore most, by showing you care and doing everything you can to help your players.”
What other aspects of coaching do you see as fundamental?
“You will achieve a great deal more with your players if you teach rather than just train them. Your role is to offer a football education to the players you work with. Coaching is teaching. You have to show players what you want, teach them how to think and make sure your messages are always clear and concise.”
How can grassroots coaches ensure the players they work with achieve their potential?
“If you are looking to help a player achieve their potential, then patience is a key word. You can’t expect a player to master anything you are trying to teach them in the space of a day, week etc.
“You have got work continuously with a player. Players will benefit from repetition work on the training field.”
How can grassroots coaches help develop their players’ technique?
“What you want to see are players that are totally comfortable with a football and my advice to a grassroots coach to help encourage this is to get them working with both feet. When I was a young player, I’d spend a few hours just passing the ball against a wall, using my right foot and my left foot.
Do you think grassroots coaches should get young players to focus on playing one set position?
“Coaches should encourage players to try playing in a number of different positions on the field. This will help young players broaden their experience of the game. It’s good for them to be in different areas of the pitch when playing a match – it’s certainly very different playing right-back than it is playing in central midfield.”
How can a grassroots coach take the pressure off your younger players?
“I think interaction with parents is important for this, as this can at times be a channel of pressure for players. They (the parents) need to understand that encouragement is vital and that the player must enjoy their football first and foremost. Whatever level you play football, there will always be a certain degree of pressure as it’s the nature of a competitive sport and competitive industry. But you can never forget your love of the game – that is the ultimate driving force for any player or coach.”
With such a high percentage of goals, from grassroots to professional level, scored inside the penalty area, Kevin has come up with a series of drills focused on finishing from close range as well of ways of working the ball into the box.
“The smart time investment from coaches when it comes to shooting is working on headers, volleys, right-foot shots, left-foot shots and first-time finishes in and around the box,” says Kevin. “Repetition is a vital element of training and these drills ensure players are getting plenty of opportunities to shoot in situations that closely replicate a match environment. They also provide practice for working the ball into the box, be it a cross, passing move or someone pulling the ball back from the by-line.”