Having recently completed the assessment for the FA Youth Module 3, I can now look back at the FA Youth Award and my journey through its various stages. (I did the week-long FA Youth course in 2008, the FA Introductory Youth Module in 2010 and the FA Youth Module 3 in Sept 2011). Here are my top 10 thoughts:
1. Relevant to coaches of children
At last! A series of courses that are relevant to coaches of children. No longer will youth and junior coaches have to make-do with the Traffic Lights games they learn on Level 1, or the Stop-Stand-Still phase of play they learn at Level 3. (Imagine a whole nation of youngsters growing up with one or other of those as their source of learning, imagine English football until the invention of courses for children's coaches...) Yes, it's long overdue - but let's be positive: We now have a series of courses that recognise that children are not the same as adults, and children’s coaches therefore need a different set of skills, ideas and knowledge than coaches of adults. Well done to all those instrumental in bringing about this change. The children and the nation salute you!
(Having said this, the reason I began the Youth Award was because I want to become expert at coaching ages 5-11 in particular. However, in order to progress to a UEFA A course for that age-group, I have had to complete the Youth Module 3 - a course which focuses on ages 17-21. So there still isn't actually a pathway to the very top for coaches who only want to work with children).
2. Adults learn the same way children do
Children learn by doing, by experimenting, by trial and error, by guided discovery. Sometimes children will come up with different answers than their teachers - sometimes better answers too. ... But you know, all that's true for adults too isn't it?
In particular in the Youth Module 3, I felt the coaching style was very much "This is the way to do it". Perhaps this is natural given there is an assessment at the end of the module, and tutors want to make it very clear what is expected. But I think it would be a better learning experience if there was more coach-led trial-and-error. The tutor-led practical sessions on the Module 3 were very similar in nature, and the tutor feedback of participants sessions seemed to me to be very much focused on making all our deliveries, set-ups and interventions comply with some form of standard.
When we coach children, we aim to create the kind of environment where they can learn Game Craft. Game Craft is the set of skills needed to understand and perform in game situations, and is learned mainly through exposure to the right kind of games and play. The theory is that if a child has enough appropriate exposure to lots of similar game-situations, then they will build a better understanding of what is happening, and be able to select the best decision of what to do based on their previous decisions, successes and mistakes. Well surely this is also true of coaching coaches?
Coaches need Coach Craft skills in the same way children need Game Craft skills. These are best learned (and therefore best taught) in environments which are experimental, open and unrestricted. To learn Coach Craft, I think youth coaches need to be working with children - not in the unreal world of coaching other adults on a course - see next point.
3. There are children involved (kind of)!
Something that has always puzzled me is why courses for coaches of children so often lack the essential ingredient: the children. It’s a bit daft - in my opinion - to try to teach adults how to teach children when there are no children there. To me, it’s a bit like doing a cookery course with no ingredients.
“Now take your imaginary egg and mix it with your imaginary flour”.
Courses that don’t include children also don’t include the unique challenges, opportunities and examples that children bring. Adult learning would be so much enhanced on courses if tutors actually had a set of kids in front of them. We could observe how the session really would work, in real life, and learn from all the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in communication and behaviour that real children would bring to the session. Coach interventions would be more realistic to the environments we work in, and it would generate discussion centred around the child as a learner rather than the coach as a teacher.
But the Youth Award does include the kids: In the assessment following Module 3, an assessor observes you coach a session with actual children in it. Sure, there’s a long way to go before we have FA Tutors actually working with children on courses, but it’s a start … enough for a smiley face anyway :-)
Of course, if you opt not to do the assessment following Module 3, then you are back on the cookery course with no ingredients...
4. Cost and Accessibility
In my opinion, the FA Youth Award is not great value-for-money. If you are not working in a professional club (and therefore have to fund yourself), I question whether it's really realistic and affordable to put yourself through all three youth modules and the assessment which follows. If you have to pay for the courses yourself, and find suitable cover for the coaching you miss while you are on the course, then you have to ask whether it is really an option compared to other cheaper, easier and more flexible (but equally effective) ways of learning. Including taking into account the management cover I needed for Ministry of Football in order to attend the weekend courses, I paid a total of well over £1000 to complete the Youth Award.
Of course, for this price I have gained knowledge, experience, ideas and new skills. I have certainly grown as a coach as a result of my Youth Award experience and reflection. But could I have got the same growth opportunities elsewhere at a cheaper price? Yes, I think so. Informal observations of expert youth coaches would provide the same kind of learning. I remember when I was coaching at Watford, Dick Bate did a series of monthly coach workshops which were exceptional. They were free, drop-in sessions - theory indoors, practical outdoors following. It was relevant, well-taught, inspiring and easy to attend. This is an example of the kind of set-up which may offer better and more relevant growth opportunities at a fraction of the cost. Co-coaching, observing others etc offer just as much chance to gain ideas and develop as a coach as expensive weekends away. Or there are the Practice-Play courses run by Premier Skills, which in my opinion offer better value-for-money than the FA Youth Award.
In order to reach more coaches - especially the old-school coaches who most need this type of education - and also those with families and their own business - the FA will need to find ways of delivering the same messages more cheaply, more locally and with more flexible hours. The majority of bad youth coaching is delivered by parent coaches with family commitments for whom football coaching is an add-on hobby. It's not realistic to reach these coaches at costs of hundreds of pounds and nights spent away from home.
5. Consistency of Delivery and Assessment
The quality of any learning programme is mostly dependent on the quality of the teacher delivering it. The Youth Award courses are run by specially-trained FA staff and thankfully taken out of the hands of the old-school county-based tutors. This means that one Youth Module 1 is going to be much the same as another Youth Module 1. The quality of delivery is high, and the quality is consistent. That was certainly not the case with the old Level 2 for example, which was taught in some counties by modern, forward-thinking tutors while it may as well have been taught by a stegosaurus in others.
In particular, I am pleased that the assessment following Module 3 seems to have been made much more consistent (than the old Level 2 & 3 assessments). The expectations of the assessment appear clearer, and the assessment itself is now delivered by a smaller group of trained staff. Hopefully this will mean an end to the stories of candidates being treated differently across the counties for delivering essentially the same session. Fair and consistent assessment is the very least a candidate can expect after investing such large chunks of time and money to complete the Youth Award.
6. RAE: Why assume there is no solution? Take responsibility!
For those that don’t know, the Relative Age Effect is where children born early in the Academic year are more likely to do well in almost all areas of life – including football. RAE is discussed in the Youth Award, along with some mediocre ways of dealing with it such as knowing children's dates of birth. On the course I was on there was a brief discussion about it - with a focus on the scope of the problem and its causes rather than plans to actually solve it.
There is such a simple solution:
Q. How do we prevent children's future potential being based on their relative age?
A. Stop grouping them by how old they are!
Why do we group all seven year old footballers together for example? When we think about what they need to learn and grow, is their age really their most important common factor among them? The way we group children is copied from our school systems, and persists unchallenged as the only way we can do things. I think this assumption needs to be challenged.
There is a collective wisdom that we need to group children together according to age so we can play them in leagues. This is simply not true. It is absolutely possible to provide children with competitive games that are not age-based. We need to stop our obsession with strict age-based leagues at young ages and give children what they really need to grow. We need to invent systems where a 9 year old late-developer or late-starter can play and compete alongside a 7 year old who is forging ahead in their own age-group. This needs to be the norm rather than the exception.
(Recently, Ministry of Football tried to get FA accreditation for its 4v4 Mini-League small-sided games programme. We weren't able to get this accreditation because we don't have specific u10, u11 etc leagues. Our 4v4 Mini-League is free of Relative Age Effect - with the same % of children born Sept-Dec as Jun-Aug. Yet, because we don't comply with the very system which is to blame for RAE in the first-place, we can't get accredited. Silly eh?)
Of course it would take an incredible organisational effort and insight to develop the kind of national system where children are grouped according to their needs rather than their DOB. But what else is the national FA for? Come on guys, be incredible, be insightful, be inspirational! Instead of putting the Relative Age Effect out there on youth courses as an unsolvable problem, challenge the wisdom of the masses, and think outside the box. You can make a dramatic and lasting change, and you just might show our school system that there are other ways of doing things.
7. Environment–>Practice–>Player: A sensible progression
I thought often during the Youth Award about the progression from Module 1: Developing the Environment to Module 2: Developing the Practice to Module 3 Developing the Player. And I've decided I like it! I think this progression works as a practical pathway for coach improvement.
I have thought about the team of coaches we have at Ministry of Football, and what stages they are at, and what they need to improve. And I can link the skills and knowledge that coaches require at MoF to the Module 1>2>3 pathway:
Developing the Environment
Here is what an Environment coach should be able to do:
Learn children’s names and offer appropriate praise where needed; Be positive, enthusiastic; Set-up sessions that flow, and use equipment effectively; Give clear instructions and limit Teacher Talking Time; Plan sessions that allow child self-expression and creativity; Pair and group children appropriately to give them all the best chance to learn; Include all the children in the group; Use skill activities to develop decision-making; Maximise learning time: E.g. set-up one activity while previous one is still going on.
Developing the Practice
A Practice coach should be able to do everything an Environment coach can, plus:
Recognise group needs and plan and deliver practices with learning outcomes relevant to the group; Adjust and progress practices appropriately (in relation to the group's response), using STEPs for example; Plan practices that flow, allowing children to experience flow in sessions; Design and deliver relevant, realistic practice which bring about repeated game situations to learn from (the 3 R's: Realistic, Relevant, Repitition); Deliver group feedback, through Q&A for example.
Developing the Player
A Player coach should be able to do everything an Environment coach and Practice coach can, plus:
Identify and recognise individual needs; Plan and evaluate a session (and activities within that session) with different levels of learning outcome dependent on level of child; Plan and deliver a wide range of interventions to challenge children who are forging ahead, and help those who are struggling; Teach within the practice to ensure every child reaches their intended learning outcome; Demonstrate effectively and help children see new solutions or ideas; Facilitate individual children learning from one another.
This is not the same breakdown as in the FA youth modules. I have tailored the three stages to fit with the development of a MoF coach. But I think it very effectively describes the different learning stages a coach goes through on their way to becoming an expert.
8. Being a learner again
It's always good to be put in the position of Learner again. It is a refreshing reminder of what it is like to listen to instructions, to keep having your game stopped by a teacher, and to experience first-hand the difference between being taught and learning.
Often as coaches we are so all-consumed with the teaching process, that to experience life as a learner is a bit of a wake-up call. Here are some of the aspects of coaching that I changed after my experience of being in sessions on the Youth Award:
- Planning the exact wording of my interventions. E.g. The exact question or challenge. I did this as I realised the need to be specific in what I was asking or instructing, but also in order to waste as little of the children's session time as possible.
- Understanding that one Learning Outcome for a session may not suffice for an entire group. Delivering sessions that had multiple Learning Outcomes instead. So one child (or pair or small group) may be working at a different level to others - but within the same topic.
- Realising the impact of off-side on the game. And including elements of this for many age-groups. E.g. having areas to break into, or having an offside line in small-sided games.
9. Networking and sharing ideas
One of the biggest benefits of the FA Youth Award is the informal knowledge sharing that goes on when you bring together a group of passionate individuals all doing similar things in different ways.
Teaching can be a very solitary vocation at times, and almost all coaches deliver hours and hours of sessions with no expert adult feedback at all. We can easily get stuck in a particular way of doing things, or run out of fresh ideas.
For example, it was a conversation in the bar at the Youth Award that lead me to design the Advanced Class at Ministry of Football - a specific game-based class for the very advanced 10-12 year olds we had in the programme. This would include weekly homework, some of which would ask the children to review their performance in videod small-sided games.
10. An overdose of questioning?
On the final evening of my Level 3 course, many years ago, most of the guys on the course went out to get a well-earned beer at the local pub. There was much hilarity when one of the young guys standing at the bar chatting up a local lass was elbowed out of the way by one of the older chaps with a resounding "Stop! Stand Still! Let me take your place!"
Coaching courses can often be hugely repetitive if they stick to one predominant style. We lost count of how many "Stop! Stand Still!"'s there were on the Level 3 course. The Youth Award, especially Module 3, is also guilty of this to some extent. Again, in the pub on the last night of the Module 3 course, the regular joke of the night was "What's stopping you from getting to the bar?". So often had we experienced in practical sessions being asked the same questions over and over by the tutor. "What's stopping you from playing forward?" "How many channels should you cover when in possession?" etc etc that they had become almost meaningless to us.
The idea of using questioning is to get the children to think. If we use the same questions over and over again, then there is no thought - just regurgitating of the words the children know you want to hear. Of course, as coaches we need to be clever about what questions we use, and when we use them. But I don't think this cleverness was modelled well by the tutors on the course - it was the same questions over and over.
Another concern: If the nation's children are to be coached with the "What's stopping you from playing forward?" method, is it likely they will look to play forward at every opportunity? I think maybe it is. There are times when it's not always the best option to play forward - even when it is possible to do so. I often feel when I am playing or coaching football that the decision of where and when to pass (for example) is more about the 'feel' of what we do next rather than a deliberate and rational internal conversation.
I have a concern that children don't think at all when they play football. In fact some of the time, they play and enjoy football especially because it allows them not to think. I have covered this in a previous blog, but I think it's very relevant here also. If we over-run the children's sessions with questions, and we don't let them feel the flow of the game, we are in danger of creating a future game which is functional but lacks any real passion, flair, spontaneity or rhythm.
There are some excellent and enlightened people at the FA. And the Youth Award is a result of their highly skilled work plus a great deal of effort I should imagine. The approach taken in the Youth Modules is fundamentally that children are different from adults, and that their teachers need courses which recognise this difference. This is a HUGE step in the right direction.
Unfortunately though, the Youth Modules – and the delivery of this education to the children through the coaches that have attended the Modules – sit within an overall environment for children’s football which does not recognise children as different from adults. While some of the more enlightened folk at the FA have implemented changes to youth coach education, these folk comprise only a small part of a beast of an organisation that persists with year-long leagues for seven year olds onwards, and rewards clubs that have appalling adult touchline behaviour with Charter Standard status.
My fear is that within the cauldron of overly-competitive, year-round leagues for children, the key messages from the Youth Modules will be lost. It's a bit like dropping an aspirin into a drum full of oil. The national football environment for children is not right for the key messages of the Youth Modules to make a difference.
Key points for improvement
- Use children on the course. They make the environment real. They allow coaches to learn their craft. The children are the key ingredients. Don't leave them out. Yes, it's more hassle, more logistically difficult, blah blah blah - but don't make that an excuse.
- If we want to make a difference at a national level, then these courses need to be more accessible. This means they can be completed at a much cheaper price, are more local and have more flexible hours. Only then will we reach the kind of people that don't usually go on coaching courses.
- Football is about expression. Would you walk onto a bustling club dancefloor and question someone about why they just clapped their hands? No, because dance is about expression and spontaniety. Allow this expression to happen in football. Understand that learning happens through play, and children will learn Game Craft through games, and can learn to be brilliant without constant adult inteference. In fact they will learn beyond what any teacher can teach, if only they are given enough freedom to do so. We don't need one standard way of teaching. We just need lots of ways of learning. This applies to coaches teaching kids, and tutors teaching coaches also.
- Tackle the bigger picture of children's football in order that the messages of the Youth Award take root in a environment which has children's real needs at its core. This means:
- Getting rid of year-long leagues for young children so that the main focus is on skill development - not training to win the next weekend game.
- Create and encourage shorter-duration of competitions, in small-sided formats (including Futsal and indoor football) with all children involved who want to be (i.e. no trials). Ideally this would be local centres of in-house leagues (of a few weeks or less) or tournaments.
- Dealing with Relative Age Effect by moving away from a system where children are grouped by age.
- Include on coaching courses the skill of identifying learning needs and of grouping children. This is necessary if you move away from a system of grouping by age.