Reflections from the UEFA A License Block 3 and my wider learning journey

I have aspired to be a learner on the UEFA A License for many years. So, when getting a place on the course around 12 months ago I never imagined to be halfway through the content and not kicked a ball! However, the combination of absorbing the content remotely, then adapting and applying in my own coaching context has given me the opportunity to experiment, explore and understand more about coaching the beautiful game in a way that is right for me.

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Technical detail and tactical understanding were two of the key drivers for me to take part in the UEFA A License, and block 3 of the course (Create the Attack) has been by far the most immersive and useful part of the experience so far. When reflecting on the course, I came into the UEFA A as an open book. My coaching experience at a senior level was limited, and my thoughts, feelings and understanding of a playing style / approach that suited me was very much a blank canvas – perhaps this has helped me as I have looked over the content with fresh eyes and a wider perspective. However now understanding more about the playing principles of the England teams, coupled with a real-life setting to “try stuff out” at Oxford United Women I believe that my biography as a coach has evolved and a game that sometimes appeared chaotic and complex, now presents itself as dynamic and clear.

Maybe a controversial point but listening to other coaches talk about the way that Guardiola or Klopp set up their teams intrigues me, but after some time I find myself bored and disinterested. The context of coaching in the Premier League is a long way away, and I believe that for a game that has endless possibilities, trying to map exact movements and combinations can be time poorly spent. Experience in the UEFA A has reinforced this for me, and rather than considering the granular detail of who moves where and when, outlining clear principles that are a guiding light for players and coaches feels more useful and appropriate to the game. From reading the book The Constraints Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design the authors highlight in a field hockey context the overarching and guiding principle of “First, Fast and Forward”. These feel like appropriate, straight forward principles for players to understand and clear for coaches to observe and support.

From a recent conversation with a world-leading coach in Australia, he highlighted to me the trends of coaching practice. The game, which not so  many years ago was played freely in unstructured environments with little or no formal coaching has evolved in to a highly structured activity where (unfortunately) more often than not, the aims and objectives of the coach, and perhaps the academy or organisation where the football takes place do not align with the motivation, interest or needs of the people taking part in the activity. How did we get here? What happened to the game, when was it taken from the feet of the players and became about to the needs of the coach. Where does co-creation live in modern football development; it has to be part of any programme, system of practice.

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My dad likes to read books about all kinds of subjects and called me a couple of years ago as he was reading something to do with evolution. It was one of those conversations where he spoke a lot and I chipped in with an, “ah right” or “okay dad” from time to time. What stuck with me though was an analogy of the evolution of the engine you find in aeroplanes. Today’s jet engine looks and performs quite differently to the motors you would find in older propeller aircraft. I know nothing of engines, but I realise that if the propeller engine had been evolved and modified over decades of development it would appear very differently to the re-invented jet engine of today.

And perhaps that can be said of football, and the way that coaching has imposed itself on the game, maybe most with the youngest age groups. If we had a book, with all of the pages blank, and “Football” printed on the front, knowing what we know now, how would we tell the story of how to best coach the people who play the game and the environment they need to thrive.

Talking of environment, I was excited to be introduced to the work of Russell Ackoff and his progressive thinking around systems theory. Ten days ago I wouldn’t have had a clue about this, but a 90 minute video from 1993 has made my head spin and think about systems, and the importance of a supportive and nurturing environment. One analogy that sticks in my mind is that of an acorn. You need an acorn to grow an oak, but if you throw the acorn in to the ocean, you won’t get a tree! The meaning behind the story is the importance of the right environment for growth and the fulfilment of potential. Again, what a message this is for the world of coaching and development. Understanding environment, the person in front of you, your practice and yourself as a coach is vital. The relationship between these four is a complex system.

A citation that grabbed my attention this week… “Coaching effectiveness is the consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection and character in specific sporting contexts.” (Cote & Gilbert, 2009, p. 316). Being truly effective as a coach, it’s more than what you coach; it’s how you coach.

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In a paragraph this sums up how I feel about my recent(ish) discovery of Transformational Coaching, the work of Jean Cote and Jennifer Tunnridge. Ultimately the team of researchers have drawn parallels between transformational leadership and effective coaching, defining 11 behaviours that they define as transformational. The powerful bit is that there is a framework that you can use to observe and identify these behaviours in coaches, and then work on a plan to improve the a coaches’ effectiveness in this area.

For me, this work is absolutely significant – we know that you can have a wealth of technical and tactical knowledge, but if you can’t land it well with your players then the knowledge becomes redundant. If you are interested in this timely and important research, you can read an introduction to it here…

If you can inject transformational coaching into your practice, club or organisation, think of the benefits for everyone. At the very least it will do no harm, but think of the possibilities if you give it permission to have wings! The values and principles of the framework move from the way a coach interacts with the players in their care, to the wider and impactful language and culture of an organisation.

Zooming in on the experience of the UEFA A block 3 there were a number of key messages that stuck with me, reinforcing some of my beliefs as a coach, and shining a light on some new avenues to explore. Discussions around representative practice design echoed through the Teams calls, and in a recent conversation with Mark O’Sullivan in Sweden his framework for representative practice again made a complex and often inconsistent task (designing effective practice) clear. Consider this as important factors when designing your practice:

  • Ball – how many are you using, what size are they?
  • Opponent – fully matched, overloaded, underloaded
  • Direction – is there direction to your practice?
  • Consequence – what happens when you lose the ball? Could the other team score?
  • Representative information – what information does your practice give to the players?

This got me reflecting on the practices I design, and the detail required in a Level 4 qualification to ensure that players are able to recognise and interact with the environment and task that is in-front of them. And I think I possibly have more questions than answers now. So put this in an adult football environment, where I am currently coaching at Oxford United. What does using this list mean for my practice design, and how disruptive do I want to be with the players?

  • Ball – Likely they have traditionally used a size 5 ball and only one in a practice environment. What if I change the size and number of balls, what performance problems does this create?
  • Opponent – We work in a range of practice environments, so the players are familiar with being over-loaded and under-loaded, but what if we tipped the scales and made it really challenging 2v6 rather than 3v5?
  • Direction – How far away from the game do we need to take it? If we have multiple directions the practice is less relevant to the game but dials up other challenges; scanning, anticipation, pivoting and movement skills, speed of decision making.
  • Consequence – this is huge, and links to ideas around gameification and metacognition. A real challenge to create meaningful consequence in a practice environment. How do we make the players care about conceding a goal, perhaps this links to self-determination theory, and some of Anson Dorrance’s “Competitive Fire”.
  • Representative Information – now for me this is really interesting. Information will mean different things to different people at different times. A gap between two opponents for some is an invitation to pass, and for others a dare to dribble, so understanding how your players synthesise the pictures your practice presents is key

So much information to take on board, and the more I start to learn about coaching, the more I realise there is to know. One thing is for sure though, as a coach my epistemology or coaching philosophy has travelled a few more miles and I feel that I have a few more skills in my coaching kit bag. Stepping back a little from the X’s and O’s affords an opportunity to find out more about so much “stuff” that when you go full circle, helps you get better at the X’s and O’s.

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