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Like so many others, my Coaching Journey began as a ‘Grassroots Dad’. Readers of my previous blogs will have an idea of and perhaps relate to much of the experience. Dads begin with the best intentions and form various philosophies along the way. Sometimes these philosophies link to our own children and our knowledge and learning evolves as we go. Being open to new ideas, talking to parents, players and countless other coaches has helped me develop. However, if there is one thing I hadn’t prepared for or expected was the metamorphosis that I should have seen coming…
…The Rise of the Teenager!
Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve spent most of my weekends (several hundred days, to put it into context) with the same kids. Some I’ve known since nursery school and most through primary school age. I’ve been privileged to coach some since they were six years old, others have joined us as older children but the majority have been together since the Foundation Stage. It has always been a nice little team, ticking the participation boxes, working across the four corners and a real community within a larger club society. I’ve loved it but this last season has been the most challenging to date. They’ve reached the age of 14. They’ve changed!
It’s not as if I hadn’t been warned. The excellent Youth Modules are heavy on the different psychological and social needs of the adolescent player. They describe how they are likely to react differently to both praise and pressure. Course content reflects on the outside influences of the 13-16 age groups and how the likelihood of them giving you honest feedback diminishes, along with a growing fear of how they are perceived in the group. Looking back on a season now, I wonder if my preparation for the year was adequate. Did over-confidence in my coaching philosophies, language and attitude around younger players mean that I neglected the need for change? Did I pay enough attention to my own template, produced ready for the FAYA assessment? It’s one thing knowing the answers on paper. We need to put them into practice.
Let’s take the positives of the season first. The learning environment was set as always. Players free to experiment. Mistakes an opportunity for correction rather than humiliation. Player rotation was set (as agreed with parents) with player ownership on session content and match formations to the fore. Players of other clubs were not targeted and win at all cost mentalities were not encouraged. Unlike some, we still did things ‘right’ and I’m still glad we stuck to those principles. However, these kids had changed.
Some were now turning up without parents as they enjoyed more social freedom and autonomy, the technical areas now surrounded by bikes as well as bags. The arrival activities and the 10am start were still well supported but we battled for time on a Saturday morning with the Xbox or the lie-in (or both, with some admitting to being on-line well into the early hours the night before). I’ll admit to a disappointment that football with us was no longer a focal point for some and reflected on the belief that if they’re enjoying it they would turn up. Was this a theory that belonged with younger children or was I suddenly doing something wrong? Was it the draw of other activities or should I take it personally? Do they now see their Coach as yet another authority figure in their lives, rather than just ‘Rich – the football guy’? Some players were in a local Advanced Programme and when Grassroots training occasionally clashed with higher profile games, they correctly chose to play at the higher level. My passion, organisation and planning remained the same but outside influences for young people began impacting on their decisions. I noticed the changes in growth and body shapes as nature took effect, learning later that it’s far easier to spot the visual evidence than it is to notice the changes in their nature and the language we need to use. Psychological and Social attitudes were shifting. Quickly!
The problem was not that I was doing everything differently but I was trying to remain the same. Up to now, I’ve always worked with children and treated them as such but I missed this jump into young adulthood. Phrases like ‘No worries, your idea was a good one’ or ‘Nice try, loved the fact that you tried to pass early’ were no longer adequate. Very young players are aware of mistakes but can either self-correct or react to positive encouragement. Clearly now, these older players became more aware of the CONSEQUENCES of the mistake in game-play. A misplaced pass, bad touch or dropped cross were more of an issue than they ever had been. Their emotions were their own and the pressure to do well came from within. The small differences in character that were noticeable in the early years opened up and became wider. Some of the players that had showed early leadership became quieter, preferring the background rather than shouldering the responsibility. The de-construction of performances at the school gates loomed large and for some, the realisation set in that the innocent childhood dream of being a footballer would never become a reality, resulting in them taking solace by making sure the rest knew they weren’t the worst player in the group (and who they believed was). A new social order started to develop which I couldn’t influence and our philosophies were questioned on the playground. I’ll play a player whatever the circumstances but some kids haven’t put the effort into making practice or working hard on the weeks they are there. Some knew their game time was ‘safe’ whether they worked to improve or not. Other players see this and no longer accept that they should share playing time with a lad that doesn’t seem to care enough. Some still live for the game, for others it’s just a part of a busy, interesting life where they enjoy many things. Every Child Counts and we stuck to our rotation, giving everybody a game but some players began to wish otherwise, especially when taunted by schoolmates from other clubs. It didn’t matter a few years ago, I doubt it will matter in a few years’ time but I do understand that it DOES matter now.
Did we learn from the season? Most definitely and while disappointed I wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead, writing this has helped me understand how I can best learn from this and take it forward. Communication techniques have to change. I’ve enjoyed the days of being the smiley faced clown as we pretend to be sharks, super-heroes or Horrid Henry but those days have gone. They are more individual than ever, studying different subjects at school and forming new interests and social groups. Sessions have to be well presented, mirror the game but importantly be interesting and varied. There has to be a ‘point’ to doing everything otherwise it will be met with a teenage shrug. They’ve also reached an age where little is offered free and have to put the necessary effort in for themselves and their team and I have to be stronger if they don’t.
My previous Blog ‘Just a Dad Doing His Best’ asks that we don’t immediately condemn the new coach at U7 level as he learns his new trade. Perhaps there are Coaches of older children reading this that find the teenage player easier to work with and wondering what my issue is, forgetting that they may have once been the same. It’s a learning process for me. The next set of fourteen year olds I work with will have a better coach, ready to understand the challenge ahead. Unfortunately, with most Grassroots teams, the coach grows old with the players and only gets one shot, so should we be looking much closer at age group specialisation? I’ve learnt so much this year away from that Comfort Zone of the Foundation Stage player. Time to move forward.
Thanks for Reading
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Great blog Rich and I think you may be being too hard on yourself! Change is inevitable and often cannot be planned for, as the theory doesn't match the reality. With anything, principles and philosophies change alongside the changing environment (either as planned or not) and I think by recognising this, you are halfway there. The area that struck a chord with me was around the playing time within the team, with it being of equal measure. It is something I have debated previously with coaches, and have noticed it before that the players can see the ones who don't try, who may not be as technically proficient, etc and this is the way of life. Could a change in principles, through playing time, mean that there is a change of attitude and application? I would say it may not always be a positive one, as some may drop by the wayside, but you may benefit because of it. Interested to hear more of your next challenges....
Thanks Jon,I guess you're right, I'm usually perhaps overly self-critical ! We learn more from our weaknesses?There were many positive things about this season but I guess this piece is about where the year could have gone better. A self congratulatory piece of writing about the good stuff would be OK but I think when things haven't gone perfectly, we should first look inwardly to identify the issues. Once we take responsibility for where we went wrong as individuals, we can then look at the external factors within our control and make things better for 'next time'?For example, a bad result is easily attributed to a referee, pitch, weather, timing etc. but progress is made when we analyse our own performance and action rather than look for external factors (or excuses).Your point about playing time is a good one. As mentioned in the Blog, perhaps a bad example is set by some of the less committed when they ultimately get the same reward? As always, I'll put the question to the players for feedback.More challenges to be met, for sure.Cheers
Loved reading this Rich. Despite being a coach of youth rugby so much of what you detail is also directly applicable to my experiences - for me, confirming the development of any child presents the same problems/challenges for coach and player alike whatever the shape of the ball. I found myself smiling and nodding as I read your article and whilst I applaud your observations I have to agree with Jon that you are being far too hard on yourself. The very fact you recognise, reflect and are prepared to adapt puts you in a different league to most. If I ever coach U14s again I also believe I would be a better coach - like yourself I think I will be more prepared for the particular needs of that age, but in some way (granted, maybe to a lesser degree) I think I could say that about any age group. I'm also finding that in reality (now coaching U15s) I am essentially dealing with a group of very different kids as they race into adult hood. On paper they are U15s....... but I'm pretty sure I've got players that have 18yr old bodies with 13y old mentality, vice versa and everything in between!!!!!! Basically its impossible, and if I went back armed with experience I suspect different groups and sub-groups of U14s would serve up a whole new set of challenges. Moving forward, I am the bloke in the clubhouse warning other coaches to be prepared for the astronomical change awaiting them as the birth of the teenager mutates before their very eyes!!!!. However, I suspect, like I did, they believe they've got it covered!.......... let me know if it gets easier ;)
Thanks for the support Matt,I'm not as neurotic as I might sound! So many good things happened during that season but it would have made a far less interesting piece. I wanted to share the thoughts for those in a similar situation. I guess I'm that on-line equivalent of the bloke in the clubhouse, pointing out that things are likely to change for fellow coaches. I've definitely taken plenty from the experience. I had my first session with a new set of U13 players yesterday and consciously changed my language and approach. Things went very well and now very much looking forward to working with them this season,....and I love your wording. Recognise. Reflect. Adapt.All the best
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