Anti-coaching, part 2

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of coaching at Harefield Academy, home of the Watford FC Academy boys. You may have heard of Watford’s project at Harefield: The secondary school age children chosen by Watford FC are schooled together at the same school, thus allowing extra hours of coaching to be interspersed with academic study and lessons. Each young footballer at Harefield was getting roughly three hours a day of expert football coaching – much more than they’d be able to get if they were all schooled separately.

I was impressed with the set-up at Harefield. The sports facilities were excellent, and the school has become renowned for its sport specialism; aswell as housing future professional footballers it also schools budding gymnasts. The Watford football sessions I watched were varied and interesting, and the relationship between the club and school seemed very mutually beneficial. The children were enjoying a great academic environment and a good football education also.

My role at Watford FC was as a coach of primary age children and they were coached at Harefield straight after their own school day had finished. One day I arrived ridiculously early, and rather than sit in the car park and wait I thought I’d take the opportunity to see what was going on on the excellent indoor 3G pitch. It was still school hours, and a class of young teenagers were having a PE lesson. I hadn’t seen a PE lesson in England for years, probably not since I finished school myself. And I was shocked to find they haven’t changed at all. No sooner as I had pushed open the door to the indoor area, I recognised the drudgery of what passes for sport in schools in this country. Expecting to see movement, expression, skill and learning, I was face-to-face with perhaps the least efficient and most sedentary game ever: Rounders.

For those who aren’t familiar with the game of Rounders: Two teams. One team – the batting team - stands in a long queue waiting for their turn to pick-up a bat and strike a moving ball. The other – the fielding team - stand across the rest of the area, waiting on the off-chance that the ball will be hit in their direction, if it’s hit at all. In reality, the ball isn’t hit very often, and the fielders have hardly anything to do. Only two people – the bowler and the batter – are actually engaged in any skilful activity at any one time, and often the teacher takes the bowling duties themselves.

I watched the game of rounders at Harefield for 15 minutes or so and in that time everyone on the batting team had a chance to hit the ball once each. I watched the kids on the fielding team stand chatting to each other, and the teacher – who looked almost as bored as some of the children - make no effort at all to engage the “learners” with the game or the potential learning aspects it included. I reckon that in their 90 minute PE lesson each child would have the following average activity: Three attempts to strike a moving ball, six throws of a ball, two catches, and six runs of about 10 metres each.

And this is Sport in English schools. I hear that primary school teachers get just a few token hours on PE in their year's training. And we wonder why we have fat kids and a national culture of video games and TV. I've lost count of the number of children I've met who've told me that they don’t like sport. I’d say that if rounders is their experience of sport, then they don’t even know what sport is. And what of the few children who are into sport? I recall my own school PE lessons playing rounders, counting the minutes until break time when we could get a football out in the playground and do some real games.

What are PE teachers learning that they think a class game of rounders is an acceptable use of children’s time? It’s the sport equivalent of putting on a reading session for 30 children with just one book that only two kids can see.

If the learning outcome is Striking, Throwing and Fielding, here’s a lesson plan that is exciting, varied and full of learning:

(Excuse the fact that the children look like they are playing Rounders using baguettes. I could not find anything that looked like a Rounders bat in my football graphics programme!)

This is a circuit made up of a series of activities for groups of three children. They spend 4-5 minutes on each activity then move on to the next. Encourage them to make their own rules and adjust the games to suit themselves. The teacher's role is to help those who are struggling, and extend those who are finding it too easy. Use groups of three to demonstrate new ideas, good technique or good team-work. (TIP: Have LOTS of soft foam balls in the practice area. Don't waste children's time by only giving them a ball each and expecting them to go and fetch it each time they make a suucessful hit. This is not a good reward for success!)

To finish the session, how about four or five mini-Rounders games? All at once, of course. I suggest that by the time you've seen the children in the circuit above, you'd be able to group the children for mini-Rounders into games and teams of similar ability.

In summary, PE doesn't have to be dull. Children's sport shouldn't be about waiting for your turn. It’s all very well for Watford to house their young footballers at Harefield so they can maximise the time they can spend with them. But maybe if PE was done brilliantly throughout primary and secondary schools there wouldn’t be such a need for this in the first place.

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  By Mark Carter. April 2012

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Mark Carter

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