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Coaching counsel: The League of Gentlemen (and Women)

It’s a controversial, much debated topic – that of the three points for a win in youth football. The main thing that is agreed is that there is disagreement around what’s best.

Both points, often, revolve around policy. Either that there shouldn’t be league tables and recorded results for some ages as it marginalises - encouraging playing to win as a greater prize than performing to improve.

Opposite that view is one that the game (and the world) is inherently competitive and that the league table is what the players want and, hence, should remain.

There are undoubtedly other opinions at varying places between the two highlighted above. I don’t possess a view on policy or league tables; I hold a view on coaches.

A friend last week suggested I was something of a journeyman coach (I’m still not sure it was a compliment!) having coached adult non-league, women’s, youth teams, Centre of Excellence & Academy and charter standard grass roots sides.

I would ask you to afford me a small slice of self-interest to share three of my experiences; not in a narcissistic or conceited way but as a means of explaining my view on coaches (people) over policy.

Lesson learnt?

Coaching a professional clubs under 18’s side we faced high profile opposition in a game that could define who won the league. The game was perfectly poised at 1-1 when off the ball one of the opposition players kicked out at one of my players.

It was unseen by the officials but was seen by the opposition coach. Now, in such a circumstance I would have substituted the player explaining to them why and replaced them with another to seek to show the offender that such behaviour isn’t appropriate.

The opposition coach, morally, went one better. They asked the player to come off the pitch and didn’t replace them demonstrating to the player that such behaviour doesn’t just have an impact on them but on the entire team who had to battle on valiantly with 10.

We subsequently one 2-1 with a late winner and went on to win the league, however, I’ve never forgotten the decision that coach made.

Conversely, we took an under 14’s Centre of Excellence side that I coached to a large, well-respected football club’s Academy to play against their under 13’s in a development game.

They started with their best three players as substitutes and had, at the start of the game, a policy to try to play out from the back.

We pinched two goals in the first period to lead. Subsequently, the coach placed his three substitutes onto the pitch (one who was a very quick and talented forward) and played a more direct approach that led to them going on to win the game 8-4.

Further, I was fortunate, a few years ago, to be involved in spending four weeks coaching a group of 21 teenage boys from the Middle East who had been selected from street-football competitions in Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as part of a promotion from a famous fizzy drink company.

This was a unique experience. The boys spoke little to no English and came from a wide variety of backgrounds, congealed together in a foreign environment.

Over the four weeks, we practised and played a variety of games against local sides and professional clubs in a series of matches, which culminated with a fixture against another top notch Academy side.

Fair for everyone

After the first period the Middle Eastern medley were leading 4-1. The coach from our illustrious opponents asked me to remove four players from our team, justified with the reasoning that ‘they weren’t getting what they wanted from the game’.

Following a relatively lengthy discussion, we relented and removed the players (diminishing their opportunity and experience – I accept) and they took no further part. Ironically (and immaterially), the exhibition game finished 7-4 in our favour.

Now, the common factor in these three experiences was not the competition. The first circumstance was as part of the league; the second two were not as part of a competition. The common factor was the behaviour of the coach – which in each example was different.

The first coach sacrificed the game (and the league) as a process of learning for the players. Behave as the player did in kicking out and there is a consequence for you (whether the officials see it or not) and also for the team.

This coach placed the morals of the game, the learning experiences for the players and the philosophy of their club ahead of the points and place in the table.

I would ask you to consider that in the second and third example it could be suggested that the coaches ego overtook the players.

Perhaps both felt that losing to, depending how you qualify it, inferior opposition was a slight on them and their ability instead of being a learning opportunity.

Interest of the players

Neither game had three points attached to it or progress to the next round or even a score recorded in the local press.

Is the problem then with the competition or is the challenge with the coaches and how they manage the competition? The first Coaching Counsel for Total Football Magazine asked coaches to think about who was at the centre of the process – the players or the coach?

In the first example; the coach put the players first and certainly positively affected the way I manage such circumstances moving forward.

That wasn’t to do with a rule or a policy – it was to do with a coach acting in the interests of the players understanding what is and isn’t acceptable.

Policy may change people and I’m sure there are many examples where it has. Football at every level is about people. Each of us coaches has the opportunity to influence the way our players behave and that of their parents.

We may also do what the inspiring first coach did and influence the way people outside of own environment behave – but if we can’t, be it because of others beliefs or belligerence, should that knock us away from our philosophy, values and behaviours and that which we encourage players to exhibit?

It’s said that gentlemen (and women) are a dying breed. Let’s bring them back.

Your thoughts and experiences on this are welcomed - You can contact me via Twitter: @BenBarts

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 – a support and resource provider to coaches working across a range of ages and abilities.

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