Through the ages

In youth coaching, it’s important to have a plan / philosophy for how you intend to develop young players.

The plan can be used as a template for what is required at each age group and stage of a players development.

The plan does not have to be “set in stone” but it should give you stability to your programme that allows you to adjust to individual players entering your club/academy and their specific needs.

It should also provide clarity to the coaches within the club and therefore, improve session planning and delivery.


“Promote this every single day and at every single step of player development.

You vs Yourself is a journey of self development in order to improve your current level each time you train or play”

“At each stage, there are many categories to consider outside of coaching the game.

For example, each player will need different support from the club as they grow physically, travel through education and mature as people (social needs).

But as this is a coaching blog. I am going to focused solely on ideas to improve “playing the game”. The other factors are hugely important in the process of player development and must not be overlooked inside your club / academy.

See below for my ideas on a “theme” for each stage of player development. 

U6 to U8


The first step in a players journey must be filled with fun and enjoyment of playing the game. The coaches at this age group have a huge responsibility to inspire a love of football. The first coach is therefore, a huge role model for young players.

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The key starting point is to improve the relationship between the player and the ball, this must always come first. Try to inspire a love with the ball and a fascination on wanting to improve.

Then comes the relationship between the player and the game

Lastly, the relationship between the player and the club.

U9 to U11

Develop a technical “Hard drive”

Developing the techniques of

1 – Receiving the ball

2a – Moving with the ball

2b – Releasing the ball

are hugely important to playing the game well.

Good receiving skills are a vital component for all players. After receiving the ball, a player then has the decision to move with the ball (dribbling / RWTB) or to release the ball (passing/shooting).

The training in this age group should focus heavily on individual based development (my next blog posting will go into more detail on this subject) and should be filled with fun practices and small challenges (problems to solve inside the game 1v1, 2v1, 3v2 etc) to promote self improvement and awareness.

U12 to U14

Building the player

Assess the player via a number of questions.

  • What comes natural to the player?
  • What do they enjoy doing?
  • What can they use to impact the game successfully?
  • What do they need to improve to impact the game more?
  • What areas intrigue them?
  • What type of opponents do they have success against?
  • What type of opponents cause them problems?

You should be constantly watching, assessing and re-assessing how the players improve with the training. The focus should be heavily individual based.

This is a key age for gaining new skills and techniques as the players become immersed in the game and also begin to have strong role models within favourite first teams or international teams.

The combination of inspiring, improving technique and gaining new skills to play the game (against opponents) must be constants in the players “football diet”

Coaching sessions should try to improve success in playing the small games (within the bigger 11v11 game). Therefore, teaching players to play 1v1 in all facets of the game, the rules of small overloads such as 2v1, 3v2 etc….. and the awareness of space both vertically and horizontally on the pitch.

U15 to U17

Promote self awareness “identity”

As they progress into the older years in secondary / high school, children begin to form a self awareness of likes, dislikes and beliefs. This is the process of forming their personality as a young person.

I believe that football development should follow the same pathway as education and at this stage we need to help the players become aware of their unique “playing personality” and how they can use this to form a strong footballing identity.

Having an “Identity” is simply an awareness of yourself playing at your best and also the qualities you possess to positively impact on the outcome of the game. From this, the players can then devise a clear training plan/focus. The final step is to successfully integrate your playing identity inside the team.

I believe self awareness of key strengths and how to execute them within the game (in a number of ways) is an area that has been neglected for a number of years within coaching in the UK. We have often focused too heavily on weaknesses in giving feedback and not enough on what the player can do and what makes them unique.

I often see this with young scholarship players, who are leaving school and coming into a professional club on a full time contract at 16 years old.

If you ask these players

“Why are you a top player?” or “Why is the club offering you a full time contract?”

The players are often muted and too shy to tell you why they have arrived at this stage of their development.

In my opinion, this has to be an outcome of how we teach and guide players during their football development journeys.

It is a big negative for anyone working with young people, if the children they are working with don’t have self confidence of what makes them unique. Therefore, this is an area of great concern and something that we must promote more in young people in all walks of life

“A greater Self awareness and Self belief”


Fine tuning and pathway

As the players arrive at senior football and the breakthrough stages of promotion from u18s – Reserve/u23s – First team, there is a real period of uncertainty.

To this point, the next progression in the players development can be relatively smooth as the players move naturally from one age group to the next at the end of each season (u9, 10, 11s etc). However, the jump from u18s to reserve team/u23s can be slower and the jump again to senior first team football can be extremely difficult to navigate for a number of reasons outside of the players direct control.

The reserve/u23s team is one that all players are desperate to rush into, but after a while they soon begin to realise that it is the most difficult team to escape from. This is due to their being no smooth route to the next stage.

“For the 1 in a million (Rooneys, Sterlings, Trent Alexanders) who make the step with little fuss into a PL team, there are the very many that take a lot longer to break through and have to go on various loans to gain experience or even drop into the lower leagues in order to come back up to the highest level over a period of time. Players who fall into this category include Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard, Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford….”

During this period, what you promote as a coach or club is very important.

If you have been promoting the You vs Yourself mentality, then you have a good chance of keeping the player focused on themselves and their personal development. This will enable the player to remain stable and able to make the good decisions on the steps towards reaching their goal.

But.. If you haven’t, then you may find that you have a player (and their parents) unwilling to take a loan to a smaller club or to remain stable mentally due to a sense of “it will come naturally” or “the coach is holding me back” etc. I have experienced this in the past and experience tells me that you will find it very hard to turn this player around in the short term.

My advice is to educate young players on the journey taken by those currently playing in the first team. Seeing how the players arrived at their current position is very interesting and informative for u23 players to absorb.

You can use this evidence as a guide to the type of journey that the player may have to follow.

For example,

  • You will have players that have broke through directly to the first team,
  • You will have players that broke through at a smaller club and were transferred into your club as older and more experienced players.
  • You will have players that went on a series of loans to reach their current position.

So understanding the journey is very important, understanding how to train and develop each day is important, looking sideways for inspiration and not to compare is essential —as each players journey is unique.

A player that can stay focused on fine tuning their playing identity “You vs Yourself” and then have an understanding of how to navigate the pathway to the next stage, will have a good chance of reaching the goals they have set for themselves.

All players within a professional club have TALENT, the coaches can then help to provide some FOCUS towards training, but the coaches should never coach MOTIVATION and its the players duty to have INTEGRITY to do the correct things away from the pitch and live a healthy life.

However, a player must have belief in their PATHWAY to first team football or they will soon begin to take a turn and stagnate in their progression as a player.

This lack of belief in a pathway can effect players in different ways – but over time it will effect integrity (why should i bother?) and motivation (the coach doesn’t play young ones). This will then effect the focus towards training – and as we all know, talent must always be expanding and developing as football doesn’t stand still for anyone.

So belief in your pathway is essential. The coaches being a strong “guide” and the players following a “you vs Yourself” growth mindset is the key!!

Adding – not removing

Each stage must continue into the next one.

For example, “Inspiring” the love of the game must continue at each stage, so must the improvement of the players “Technical Hard Drive” and so on……

These aspects of fun and technical improvement are equally important in my role as a first team coach as they were in my role as a u10s coach at Chelsea FC in 2004.

I will try to expand on each stage in more detail (u6-u8, u9-u11, u12-u14, u15-u17 and u18+) in the coming weeks.




  1. Read a few blogs really interesting help coach at Glasgow boys 2009s am keen on learning even more so from people who have been there an done it keep it up mate it’s class


  2. Really useful as we are trying to write our club philosophy which is based on player development therefore this helps in our thinking as it has always bothered me to what development looks like at each age group. Our kids start at 6 and run up to our adult amateur team. So thanks Michael for helping shape some thoughts for us. Good to see you blogging again.


  3. Thank you very much, Michael!
    It was interesting to read. Absolutely agree about the plan. Im not a coach(work with youth tournaments and stages for coaches,camps fro kids))but its useful information for me!
    Hope to read new ideas and details from you.


  4. We’re very glad to have you at Rangers, Michael. The improvement in our shape and solidity in such a short space of time is remarkable.

    Keep up the good work.


  5. Great insights!! I am falling in love with this blog – Youth football is a passion for me as I have two academy football players u14 and U12.

    Thank you so much!


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