Why is a coach called a coach? The internet has a few answers to this question. But one that keeps coming up is that a coach is named after the ‘coachman’ - the person who drove the horse and carriage back in the old days, the person whose responsibility it was to get from A to B.
I like this answer, because it reminds me of one of our most important duties as a coach: To take people from A to B. Whether you are a skills coach, or a team coach, at any level in any sport, it is your duty to progress or develop the people you serve. You are responsible for taking them on a journey. So the big question is therefore: Do you know where you’re taking them?
This case-study follows a team of Under-14 Girls preparing for a National Tournament. It is a team I coached a few years ago. They were an exceptional team because of the level of “team-ness” they performed with. Of all the teams I have ever coached they remain the gold-standard for me in terms of how to support each other on the pitch, how to bring the best out in each other, and how to work together in pursuit of a common goal (i.e. How to get from A to B).
Brief Description of the environment and situation
The team was comprised of a squad of 18 girls, at under-14 age-group level. The girls had been selected to represent their region in the national tournament. Some of the girls played in the same club teams, and about half had played in the national tournament the previous year.
The coaching team comprised of two coaches, myself and an assistant coach. We had worked together before in similar roles. We also had the voluntary services of a psychologist. The psychologist worked in the prison system with young offenders, but had an interest in sports psychology so was keen to be part of the set-up. His football knowledge was scarce but he was expert at getting young people to think about the future and bring direction to their lives.
The National Tournament was a one-week residential tournament for 7 regional teams. The squad for the tournament was finalised 9 weeks prior to the tournament so the process that follows all takes place in that 9 week period.
We had three sessions with the team each week – two trainings and a weekend game. For one of the weekly sessions, we usually spent 30-40 minutes of time in the classroom. The case-study I describe here mainly concentrates on that classroom time. We obviously also had a practical programme for on-field organisation, tactical work, skill development, role understanding etc – but much of this is not relevant to this case-study.
Step 1: Setting expectations (week 1)
The first thing we did at training was simple: We let the girls play football. We had a group of girls from all different social backgrounds, and playing football was what they all had in common. During this time, the coaching team took a step-back and just observed the general level of play, and the interactions of different groups and individuals.
Classroom session for players and parents/families:
Some general rules and expectations made clear to parents and players: Lateness & absence. Behaviour expectations. Communication through weekly sessions and email to parents.
Our philosophy explained: Equal game time for all. Emphasis on development of players, not winning games. Not everyone playing in favourite positions. Commitment required. Rewards great, a chance to develop toward international age-group football.
[We included parents right from the beginning. They were in the classroom with the children for some sessions. Some weeks we had separate sessions for the parents while the children played, e.g. “How can you support your child?”.]
The pyschologist introduced himself briefly.
Step 2: Creation of a positive learning environment (weeks 1 & 2)
Getting communication started, Forming friendships, Building trust. We tried to do lots of smaller group work during the football sessions. For example, in the warm-ups we divided the girls into groups of 3 or 4 and nominated specific players to lead a dynamic warm-up. We didn’t worry too much if they didn’t include everything we wanted – we wanted to give them space to lead and be lead by each other.
Small 6v6 games. Scenarios. E.g. One team is 2-0 up but a player down with 15 mins left. Plan your strategy. What do you want to achieve and how will you do it. Play game, and review.
11v11 games against other teams: This started in week 2 and happened every weekend from then on. The important thing here was that the coaching was not loud or instructional. There was no “Shoot!” or “Pass!”. The coaching was all positive with lots of encouragement. There was never a mention of “must-win”.
During this time the psychologist was watching/observing/learning. He was watching the players, and also the coaches.
Team formation was one of the key things that the coaching team decided on, without consultation with the girls. It was based on the players we had available, and what we thought we could teach best given the time limit. We decided on a 4-3-3 formation. Each position was given a number (e.g number 4 for an anchor midfield) and a set of brief roles/responsibilities for each number were discussed and distributed to all players and parents. (A brief job description for each position with two or three in-possession and two or three out-of-possession duties).
Homework: What do we want to achieve at tournament?
Homework for each player to do at home, with input from parents. The hwk was given to both players and parents together. Coaching team talked through some examples of SMART goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound). We gave examples – the most popular among the girls being “This time next year Rodders, we’ll be millionaires!” (from Only Fools and Horses).
Step 3: What do we want to achieve? (week 2)
Classroom session: Outcome goals are set. Session lead by coaches. Players in small groups with A1 paper and some pens. Then feedback and agreement on a set of Outcome Goals.
- Win at least 4 games at the tournament
- Score 10 goals at the tournament
- Aim to get in the top 3 in the tournament
- Have at least 2-3 shots on goal each half
- Developing new friendships in the team
- Learning new skills from each other and the coaches
Coaches role: Make sure they are SMART.
Parents: Brought into classroom at end of session and presented with Outcome Goals of team.
Coaching team decide and announce team captain. Captain decision was based on ability to lead others with conviction. Some leaders can lead with humour in a relaxed way, but we wanted someone who would be able to focus on what we wanted to achieve and help make sure we got there.
Homework: What do we need to do well in order to achieve our Outcome Goals?
Homework set in front of parents. Parents asked to contribute to this also.
Step 4: Process Goals: The things we must do well in order to perform well (week 3)
Classroom session: First psychologist-lead session. In small groups and Q&A. The girls came up with an agreed a set of Process Goals (these can be seen in the picture below).
Psychologist really probed into each one of these goals. He asked: What does encouragement look like? What does it sound like? How will we from the sidelines know you are not afraid to try new things? In front of parents: How can your parents help you to achieve these process goals? There was an in-depth discussion and the girls were very open. I think this was a key discussion in the process, and it was one which was partly successful because we had a professional psychologist running it. He knew when to probe further, and what to ask to bring out the details.
The Outcome and Process Goals: emailed to all parents/players. At each classroom session from then on these goals were visible. These goals provided the backbone of everything else we did, and were referred to often.
11v11 game: We got hammered 6-0 by a boys team in the weekly friendly game. I note this because it was the first time the psychologist inputted into the post-game talk. He congratulated the girls on how well they had supported and encouraged each other (one of the process goals). He referred to a situation when the goalkeeper made a mistake and a goal was conceded and one of our defenders picked her up from the floor and patted her on the back. He said that that was what he thought encouragement and support looked like. Key thing: There were lots of negative things in getting hammered 6-0, and the performance was terrible, but the psychologist picked one of the few positive things that happened and highlighted that and nothing else. Importantly, it was something that was directly related to the process goals the girls had set themselves.
Step 5: Team-building event (week 4)
As part of process goal setting, girls came up with idea of organising a team-building event. This event was their own idea and completely organised by the captain. They decided to visit the High-Ropes adventure course. The High Ropes team are experts at running team-building events.
I got in touch with the High-Ropes manager and explained who we were and sent them our process goals. They set up an event based on those goals. The girls did a variety of activities based around an adventure course, some in pairs and some in small groups. Each activity was set-up to explore some of the elements of their process goals. This reinforced some of the questions the psychologist had asked them: What does encouragement look like? etc
11v11 game: Coaching team assigned each player two or three possible positions that they may play at tournament (e.g. Libby to play 3 or 5). These were agreed with the player, and communicated to the parent also. This gave everyone a focus on where they were to play, kept parents realistic about what position their daughter would be playing, and gave each player (except goalkeepers) some variety in playing position.
Step 6: Visualising success (week 5)
Classroom session and 11v11 game: Lead by psychologist in the classroom session. He explained what visualisation is, how it works etc. He then lead a visualisation session before the next 11v11 game. This was non-compulsory, and if players wanted to opt out that was fine as long as they didn’t disturb those that wanted to take part. I think all the girls took part.
1. What could our Mission statement as a team be?
2. Brain storm all the things that would help make you focused, supported and “centred” in the game and what statement could you find to summarise these things?
Step 7: Mission Statement and Keyword (week 6)
Classroom session: Lead by psychologist: Mission Statement and Keyword. This was again small group discussions and Q&A. Again, it was interesting just how open the girls were to new ideas and to talking about how they wanted to play football. They came up with:
Mission statement: To play each game as if it is our last, with passion, flair and intensity
Keyword to use on field for inspiration: Dig Deep
The psychologist laminated a plastic A6 sheet for each player with Process Goals, Mission Statement on (pictured above).
It was about this time that the psychologist started doing some special work with the captain. She had special homework and discussions about how to inspire the players during games, about noticing key points in games when her team-mates needed inspiration, and how different team-mates needed different types of stimulation.
Step 8: Tournament preparation (weeks 7-9)
Classroom session: Nutrition and diet while away from home. One of the key messages here was that different people need amounts of food and sleep than others. If we are going to support each other then we need to look after each other off the pitch as well. Let other people sleep. Help each other eat properly.
Discussion: We had 18 players in squad, for 11v11 games. We can only make 3 subs. How should we make this fair? Players agreed: Equal game-time. 2 players not in squad for each game, rotate these players each game. Coaches to keep a sheet of game-time for each player, and all players to have roughly equal time. Two players not part of game to record key stats from each half and report at half-time.
Coaching team: Set their own personal goals for what they want to achieve at tournament. Mine was to be consistent and positive at all times, irrespective of the score-line.
Homework: 1 or 2 individual goals for tournament based on the position you are playing
We gave some examples: When playing number 7, get two crosses into the box each half
The psychologist didn’t come to the tournament with us. We had one classroom session per day at tournament, usually in the evening.
First classroom session: Using the individual goals you set for homework, can you turn your individual goal from something that you want to do, into someone you want to be? In my experience it is more powerful to have a goal of ‘being’ than ‘doing’.
For example, we had a very skilful girl playing in centre-midfield. Often the opposition goalkeeper would boot the ball downfield. Our girl was getting in good positions to compete for a header, but she had a habit of pulling out of the header at the last minute and letting the ball bounce just behind her – difficult then for the centre backs to deal with. She had an individual goal “To head the ball from opposition goal-kicks”. I challenged her to change this into a ‘being’ goal instead and she came up with “To be courageous”. She then shared this goal with the girls who played around her.
The sharing of these individual goals was another key moment in developing the glue that stuck the team together. In the example above, when her team-mates knew that her goal was to be courageous, they all gave her heaps of encouragement when the next opposition goal-kick went up and she got her head underneath it. On the occasion that she failed to head the ball, her team-mates were able to support her also saying “Don’t worry about that one” or “You’ll get the next one”.
This had massive impact on communication on the field. It was positive communication, and it was very supportive. It was also support for a specific thing that each girl was trying to achieve.
Pre-game: Dynamic warm-up by captain. Ball warm-up in pairs. Opposed warm-up by coaching team. No complex last-minute instructions or team-talks from the coaches at all.
- Feedback from 2 players not involved in playing squad. Rotated these players, so everyone had one turn (except GKs). They fed back some key stats: Shots on goal. Positive examples of encouragement, lack of fear (all linked to process goals).
- Coaches make subs – making a note of game-time for each player and making sure it was going to end equally (this took advance planning rather than spur of the moment decisions in some games).
- Coaches brief positive feedback on process goals if needed, and highlighting one or two tactical things – very simple feedback maybe to one or two players, or to a unit of players. Complicated things were left until that evening. If there was nothing to say, the coaching team said nothing.
- Captain and other players could discuss things they felt they needed to.
End of game: Cool-down together (coach lead). Time for players to spend with parents.
Importantly, we treated every game with the same process, regardless of opponent, regardless of half-time score, full-time result. Remember: Coach should not focus on the win/lose. Coach should focus on the agreed process goals.
Classroom session: We looked at specific tactical topics on a couple of occasions, for example we had a problem with over-defending (midfield and defender both marking the same opposition attacker), and we talked about how to deal with this. We went into specifics of what actual communication was needed to remedy the situation: Who would notice it was happening, what would they say/do, to who, and when – and what action would then happen?
Classroom session: Video analysis. Trust had been built up – so coaches could show positive and negative clips of players without players being offended. We always tried to include just as many positives as negatives, and certainly if we showed a player doing something negative then we made sure we also found a clip of the same player doing something positive. The clips and analysis was always related to individual or process goals or to some recent tactical discussion.
Visualisation: We tried this twice at tournament as a group before games. This worked even better once individual goals had been established. It is much easier to picture yourself being creative, being courageous, being focused, being supportive. We also tried visualisation where the players visualise their team-mates doing something positive – eg our central midfielder winning the header.
We had a set of 1-on-1s (coach and player meetings) mid-tournament with the coaches. We used this to give praise and feedback for each player. For most players, a realistic individual longer-term football goal would be selection to national age-group teams, and we gave each player feedback on what we felt they needed to do/be to get to that stage. We had more 1-on-1s at end of tournament (with parents).
Coaches also reviewed their individual goals mid-tournament. I shared mine with my assistant coaches, and also with the team.
De-brief at end of tournament: Go through Outcome Goals – did we achieve what we set out to achieve? With parents.
Summary of key elements
- Coaching team: Closeness, honesty, defined roles. But one leader.
- Set expectations, rules, make it clear to all what is expected of them at the beginning
- Include the parents from start to finish as an integral part of the team – their collective power is awesome
- Be positive – even when there isn’t much positive around!
- Set Outcome Goals (SMART). The coach’s role in team sport is to take the team from A to B. Define B at the start of the journey.
- Set Process Goals – what do we need to well in order to achieve our Outcome Goals? Everything else that follows should be in pursuit of the process goals.
- Get expert help from outside of the immediate football world if needed. E.g our psychologist and use of High Ropes centre. Be prepared to give away some control for this. Communicate clearly with them about what you want, and be prepared to reinforce what they say to the team (work together)
- Coaching team make key football decisions: formation and captain. Captain should be chosen as the best person to lead the team in pursuit of their process goals
- Work with the captain. This is often over-looked in football. We could learn from games like rugby. A powerful captain can inspire a team to punch well above its weight
- Team Building event: This needs to link directly to the process goals. Just playing on some high ropes is not in itself a Team-Building event. But if it is directed by what the team set-out to achieve then it can be very worthwhile.
- Individual Goals – should be focused on who you need to be in order to do something, rather than the doing something itself. They need to be shared. This will give your team a responsibility to each other and a reason to communicate.
- Visualisation: This works very well, but needs practice. Again it should be linked to particular goals
Outcomes of process
The team achieved all their Outcome Goals. Just. They needed to come back from 2-0 down at half-time in the last game in order to do so. Just as important, they also played true to their Mission Statement – they played each game as if it were their last, with flair, passion and intensity. They were at least twice as intense, noisy, commanding and supportive of each other than any of the other teams they played. By the end of the tournament the coaching team were doing very little at games, and the girls were running the pre-match and half-time processes pretty much by themselves.
It was interesting what happened with their Keyword, Dig Deep. This didn’t really take off for the girls and they didn’t really use it at first. The psychologist said that I shouldn’t start using it as then they would associate it as something from the coaches. He wanted it to be their phrase that they used on the pitch, something that meant something to them. During the tournament they did start using it though, and it was interesting that it changed from “Dig Deep!” to “We Deserve This!” during the last couple of games – when it was voiced loudly by the majority of the team.
Of the 18 girls: One got a scholarship to play in the US, three are age-group internationals at U-20 level, six more are in training squads for age-group international teams. One starred in the full Women’s World Cup squad this year. Two more are internationals in other sports.
During the 9 weeks, all the girls went through a process of setting goals and working as a team to achieve them. This is very useful experience for other things in life – work, relationships, study. The important distinction between what you need to do and who you need to be is important, and I hope this is something that they took away. It gives us the power to re-invent ourselves each day, and not to allow previous poor performances to affect how brave, creative, brilliant we choose to be in our next game (job, meeting, relationship etc).