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Coaching counsel: Play the long game

Did you read the title and anticipate an advocate of direct football detailing statistics and evidence that prove it’s the way to play?

Maybe there is a case that could be made, but the reference is about suggesting to coaches to consider dismissing some of the myopic dogma about how top talent flourished and forged to the fore early, leading the marathon route to the finish line from start to finish - flawlessly.

Is expertise in any complex pastime achieved in the short-term and is it achieved without any stumbles or falls?

For every child prodigy like Wayne Rooney there is a late bloomer like Antonio Di Natale (pictured). Similarly, there are also players who are perceived to be child prodigies (Scott Parker & Didier Drogba, for example) but whom, for a range of reasons, don’t really reach prominence until later in their careers.

There is a risk that coaches can make early judgements on players. Early judgements in deciding which ones to select to play more minutes, to be included in ‘select’ environments or to specialise in a single position limiting opportunity to either a few, perceived, ‘gifted’ types or providing a limiting experience to players of only one part of the game.

Spotting exceptional talent

I’ve recently finished reading a book by a guy named George Anders called ‘A Rare Find’, which discusses the task of spotting exceptional talent (from a range of life fields – including sport) before everyone else.

One of the tenets of the book is a phenomenon the author calls ‘The Jagged Resume’. It challenges the belief that the path to excellence is a smooth, upward curve, with the suggestion that those who find hurdles in the road that trip them up, roadblocks that stop their forward path and mechanical issues that leave them parked on the highway for a period of time, develop an ability to pick themselves up and find another way; a way that may take longer, take greater pain with limited initial reward but a way that develops skills (and resilience) which better prepare such people for the rigours of the ride.

I’ll urge you, if I may, to recognise tasks and disciplines into three types – simple, complicated and complex. A simple task is one like a baking a cake – there is a recipe to follow and once you’ve worked out how to follow the recipe, one can follow it repeatedly and the outcome is, largely, the same.

An example of a complicated task could be sending a rocket to the moon. Each mission requires large teams of diversely skilled people, high intelligence (and probably a big budget) to achieve the outcome but, one rocket is much like another and as long as one employs the right technicians and manages the process and the people, success can be repeated.

Playing football, or more relevantly, developing footballers may be considered a complex task. Each player is inherently different – experience of supporting the development of players will undoubtedly help but children and people are rarely the same.

Rural area

They may be from a rural area or have grown up in an urbanised environment; they may be, physically, an early developer or, in their teenage years be the one who shoots late. Further, they may just be born in the early part of the selection year (September currently) against those late August birthdays.

Now, the recipe required to develop one player may be quite different from the ingredients for another.

Any of you coaches out there who have children? Are your children the same? Did the methods utilised to encourage, educate and discipline one child work identically with another? Did they all follow the same growth path, the same behavioural traits at the same stages? Or was it necessary to adapt your parenting skills to best support each child, recognising their unique characteristics?

You might be wondering where this is all going and why football hasn’t been mentioned for a while? Well, the child who shows spark at 8 should be supported and recognised and aided to ignite the spark. But so should the child who doesn’t – their spark might not be evident until 12 or 16 or later – but if we offer a diminished opportunity or diminish opportunity by making early judgements, for example, that the big player (at 9) is a defender, the nippy one a winger, the powerful one plays in midfield and the ineffective one spends most time as a substitute – we may only see what we sow.

It would be an interesting piece of research to take a cross section of all of the players playing on any given Saturday in any top league anywhere in The World and look at their path to their place in the team, in that league. Would all of the players have followed the same path, emerging at the same age, having had the same development experiences and education?

So yes, play the long game, play the short game, play the game quick, play the game slow, fix foundations of fluidity and freedom but ultimately, play the waiting game and see when, with a rounded, full, long term process of development each player blooms.

By Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett is a UEFA A Licence Coach and is Regional Coach Development Manager (East) at The Football Association, having previously worked in player development and coach development roles at Colchester United, Chelsea and Aldershot Town.

With experience of developing players at Club, Centre of Excellence and Senior level, Ben has been fortunate to see several players progress into International Youth squads and currently coaches within The FA's Elite Performance Centre for prospective England U15 Female Internationals.

As a Coach Educator at Level 1, 2, 3, UEFA B and FA Youth Award Modules 1, 2 + 3; coaches often ask for resources, ideas and sessions that can aid their coaching work. This website is a contribution towards this, providing free, accessible and user friendly resources for coaches. Ben played for 15 years in non-league, mostly with Witham Town FC (Ryman League) and latterly with Farnborough (Player Coach) and Hungerford Town.

Ben is also involved with www.integritysoccer.co.uk – a support and resource provider to coaches working across a range of ages and abilities.


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