Theory of evolution

Rob Atkin’s varied coaching career spans over 30 years.

His roles have included football development officer at Newcastle City Council, a coach at Newcastle United academy and head coach of Newcastle United Women.

Rob has since returned to the grassroots game, working with the junior teams at Blyth Town FC. As a Football Association coach mentor, coach education is also high up on his list of priorities.

SCW caught up with Rob to discuss staying relevant, core techniques, the concept of meaningful competition and what a good session looks like…

Rob with some of his Blyth Town youngsters

SCW: You have been in coaching for a long time and had so many roles. How has a coach’s role changed in the time you have been in the game?

RA: “It has changed massively. It doesn’t look anything like it was when I took my FA preliminary badge. We now have this product from the Premier League right down to grassroots and some fantastic facilities.

“The way children learn is totally different. As a coach, starting off, it tended to be lots of commands. Now, we get children to question things, we use question and answer, we use guided discovery.

“Ultimately, the game hasn’t changed. It is four jumpers and a ball, and getting kids to play, have fun and express themselves. But there seems to be this race to get people into teams at under-eights – and somebody tried under-six at one point.

“You can do your FA Level 1 online now. I think we lose a bit that way. You have to get out on the pitch and do the hard yards, you have to have played some football, otherwise you don’t really grasp what it gives you.

“I am not talking about by watching but by playing and being allowed to try different skills and techniques.

“We have come a long way and I would say to any coaches who have been in it a long time, please evolve and don’t turn into one of these bitter and twisted old people who talk about ‘back in my day’.

“It doesn’t matter, that’s gone. It’s the kids of the future that really matter.”


SCW: You’re also really keen on making sure those kids learn and practice techniques. What techniques are key for you?

RA: “I just keep demanding, as we did 30 years ago, that you get on the ball, express yourself and take people on. But we have to give them the tools to be able to dribble, to turn, to receive.

“Kids coming along, they want to stay on the ball – it’s a toy to them and shouting ‘pass, pass, pass’ isn’t great.


“Don’t turn into a bitter old person. It’s the kids of the future that really matter…”


“On one morning last week, other players were shouting at a teammate ‘pass, pass pass’. Where has this come from? It’s only come from the adults.

“We have to allow kids from the ages of 7 to 12 to be on the ball. People will say ‘what happens if they lose the ball and the other team score?’. Well, it doesn’t matter because the scores aren’t supposed to be kept and a kid will only learn from making mistakes.”


SCW: For some coaches and parents, meaningful competition means winning. But what does it mean to you?

RA: “It means put a ball down for two kids – they will bring competition to the table. “I think that’s one of my challenges to get through to coaches. We’re trying to impart our knowledge but the kids are not interested really – they’re not at school.

“It’s a case of setting an environment: there’s the problem, who is going to solve it? The best players at that given time will solve the problem quicker.

“In one session of a coach I was mentoring, a game finished 6-0 to one team. I was doing a bit of a debrief afterwards and asked who picked the teams. He said the kids did.

“Well, kids aren’t stupid, they will pick the best players. You have got to balance it out – have your best attackers against your best defenders so we have got something that looks like the game of football.

“I would rather get beat 3-2 than win 10-0 because I will have learned something.”

Rob recommends getting young players into a game as soon as possible – “Kids love tag games – they are running with the ball, turning, getting their head up and socialising.”

SCW: Have you got any tips for coaches managing parents on sidelines?

RA: “At the start of the season at Blyth, we have a coaches meeting and one of the questions I put to the group is ‘Do you hold regular parents meetings?’.

“Mostly the answer is ‘not really’, or they might have one at the start of the season or if there’s a problem.

“But how are you going to manage parents’ expectations without having that discussion? How are you going to explain to them what you are doing, what your beliefs are, what is in your DNA?

“We have to give the coaches something they don’t get on a coaching badge – this skillset to hold a meeting and pass information to the parents.

“We’ve got parents paying £5 to their child to score a goal. So you’ve got a young boy or girl picking up £35 a week for scoring all these goals.

“That’s not healthy, because they will get to the stage where they aren’t going to pass to anybody or won’t want to play in a different position where they might not score many goals.

“One of the big questions for my coaches is how do you manage the expectations of the parents?”

SCW: What does a good session look like for you?

RA: “I ask ‘would you want to play in that?’. And I have actually had an answer back from a coach – who was a professional footballer, would you believe – who said ‘no’.

“I said, ‘Why are you delivering it? What in your wildest dreams makes you think if you don’t want to play in it that they do?’.

“The kids are of the age where they won’t question it. But as they get older, they’ll actually tell you it is not very good.

“A coach educator from many years ago, Jack Detchon, said, ‘Rob, if you’re not sure, just have a game, because my generation grew up just playing the game’.

“So, for me, get into a game as soon as possible, even in the warm up. Kids love tag games – they are running with the ball, turning, getting their head up and they are socialising. Sometimes there’s a bit of physicality in there to get away or to dodge somebody.

“In a 3v3 game, somebody will be in the middle, somebody will be to the right and the other player might not know where they are, but they will find a space.

“What they do on the ball is more important than what they do off it at that moment in time. As they go through the age groups, they will start to find the answers themselves, through their intelligence, what influences they have had or how much football they watch.


“We’ve got parents paying £5 to their child to score a goal. That’s not healthy..”


“It [a small-sided game] has to look like the game of football. It has to be that you are going to get touches of the ball.

“I have watched people put a session on for under-eights and asked ‘what are you going to do now?’, and they have said, ‘I’m going to play 8v8′.

“I’ll stand there and count with them how many players don’t actually touch the ball. And they become surprised when you tell them that 75 per cent of them didn’t even get a kick.

“It is again about having some meaningful competition: put your best three against your best three, then put another three against another three and see what comes of it.

“It is about getting the pictures and things happening in the kids’ heads so it becomes automatic.

“I spent a lot of time in more clubs than I care to mention as an FA mentor and, at any given time, probably 70 per cent of coaches within a club are going through a certificate, and using the kids as guinea pigs.

“There is not enough live play happening because there’s too much time spent on ‘stop, stand still, I’m going to show you what you should have done’. We have to get that balance.

“I would say go and find another team to coach to get your coaching badge. It takes a bit more time out of your week but it’s not fair to use your players and their play time to get your certificate.”


“Seven-year-olds are blank canvases – you’ll get tears, you’ll get laughter, you’ll get anger…be aware of what’s coming next…”


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