Foundation phase coaching (u6-11) is such an important area of player development. It is the starting point for every child that begins to play the game.
The coaches in this age group are important role models to the children and hugely influential on whether that child falls in love with the game, develops their individual level and also how they “see” the game.
A concern with this age group, is that at the starting point, a large majority of the coaches have little to no experience working with players/children of this age group. The coaching role can be thrust upon them as a parent of a grassroots player that needs a manager (or) as in my case, that I wanted to start a career as a coach and therefore, I needed to begin on the very 1st rung on the ladder and coach young children within soccer schools. In both scenarios, you may quickly gain a coaching qualification(s), but you still need the hard hours of experience in order to be a successful coach.
- How to hold the group with your voice
- How to organise the players
- How to structure a session
- What practices to use
- How to link learning
- How to deal with parents
- How to tie shoelaces!
Were all big learning aspects of my first coaching job.
“Did I have an advantage due to being an ex player that had spent many years playing the game? possibly, but knowledge of football and knowledge of how to coach children to play and learn are two completely different things”
Lack of resources and role models?
The foundation phase has always been an area of coaching that has lacked resources compared to the older age groups. If you want to see a famous coach at work, you can easily subscribe to a professional club website or you can search via google or youtube and you will have multiple options to view famous first team coaches working with their players. But, these practices have very little reference to the sessions or age groups you are going to coach. Its true to say, that the resources for the foundation phase have improved in recent years and the FA’s are now doing a good job with age specific coaching courses that are more creative than the “stop, stand still” approach of years gone by. However, we do still have a lack of role models in this specific age group and the sharing of best practice isn’t always easy to find.
When I started coaching, Simon Clifford and his Brazilian Soccer Schools had recently launched. This programme had a vision of how football should be played (Brazilian national team and its players), it had a concept of SSGs and increased touches (Futebol de salao) and was unique in its focus on the individual. Another big aspect of the programme that i thought was perfect was that it took place inside – away from the distractions of the British weather and in a safe, enclosed learning environment. These conditions were perfect for maximum training and practice time. The programme spoke to me as a “player” rather than a coach. It excited me and gave me a platform to share my ideas on the game within a programme that was really player centred. I was a big follower of Brazilian football and I was also a “greedy” footballer that loved to dribble and learn new things. Football for me was about freedom of expression and the chance to be able to explore with the ball. I purchased a franchise and rented a local church hall to begin my journey as a coach. So I had my role model and structure via three key areas
- My previous playing experiences and how I “see” the game
- My love for exploring with the ball and learning new techniques
- The Brazilian Soccer Schools programme – along with aspects of Coerver Coaching too (which is another fantastic training method for developing young players).
Focus on the individual, not the group
The key to coaching in the foundation age groups is to focus on the individual players and their relationship with the ball. At the start of each session, give each child a ball and allow them freedom to explore. Make them fall in love with the game by teaching them how to use each part of their foot in order to move, protect and release the ball (or) Teach them a new skill they didn’t think they would be able to do – but never fail as a coach by not allowing the children contact time with the ball 1:1
“My advice is to start your session with a ball each & then to end your session with a homework exercise that is again linked to the player spending time at home practicing with the ball 1:1”
Treat each child as your own
The above was a piece of advice given to me at the start of my coaching journey. Its the best advice I could have been given in football and has helped me at each stage of my career so far. Treat each child as your “own” is described in the way you show care, time and effort to each child’s individual development. I am now older and a parent of two boys that go to various sports and after school clubs. I sit back and watch the coaches at work and i am looking for one thing more than anything – The personality of the coach and how they make my child feel during the session – This is the most important thing to me as a parent now. Its similar to when you go into a parents evening at school. You just want to hear how your child is doing, are they happy, what do they like, what areas do they need help in….. you are never worried or concerned about the whole class or age group. You just want your child to be developing and enjoying the time spent playing a sport or learning something new.
A phone conversation with Mr Brian Mustill
Brian Mustill has been a coach and scout at Chelsea FC academy for 20+ years. He is a very close friend and a person that I worked with for many years. We coached together in the foundation phase age groups and used to spend hours planning sessions and debating the game. We were obsessed with our jobs. We both lived around 1hr from the training ground in cobham, so we used to spend our car journeys on the phone to each other and discussing football. Brian has two daughters and at the time his youngest daughter was 8yrs old and we were currently coaching the u9s age group. On this particular evening, Brian made a comment that has stayed with me for many years – “Mick – do you think we ask to much of these young players” – the thought had come to him as the night before he had been helping his daughter with her reading, writing and maths homework. At the time, I wasn’t a father myself but Brian was seeing his daughter learning and developing as a young child and was wondering if we needed to adjust the dial (speed and information) in which we were coaching the players. I love this memory and now as a father i understand exactly what he meant that evening. I have become a much better coach since becoming a dad in 2012, and watching my children grow each day. Im not pushing any of you younger coaches into having children immediately!! – but listen to the “elders” around you and grow wise through somebody else life/coaching experiences. That is key to learning as a coach.
Children believe in miracles and that anything is possible in life. If you ask any group of primary school children what they would like to become in the future – you will hear some fantastic answers such as
- Police officer
The list will be endless and so is the imagination and dreams of young people. For the majority, we tend to lose this belief as we grow into our late teens with the reality of leaving school and entering the big real world. But this shouldn’t be the case for young children in the foundation age groups. We need to use this innocence and keep our players in this mindset for as along as possible. What we need to do is inspire the children’s love for the game and encourage them to be the best they can be (Impress yourself). Focusing and encouraging children on what they are good at will improve their self awareness and also their self belief. This is so important to the development of young people in general and we can use this self awareness and positivity to improve action areas. An example of this would be – a player that dribbles well with his right foot, should be praised and then challenged to continue improving their level but also to add their left foot dribbling to this process and develop their strength into a “super strength”
School holidays and parents!
Its a known fact, that all parents go crazy during the summer school holidays. This is due to their children being out of the normal routine and schedule that school gives them. (This is also the same for adults outside their working days, as we will all be finding out in the next few weeks of isolation and social distancing).
Routine and structure enable people to function at their best. Young children need some guidance/rules and this enables them to learn and improve. In football, our structure comes from each club having a philosophy/framework on how to play the game of football and what areas to develop at each age group. So its important that clubs have a clear idea on player development in the foundation phase and that they give the coaches clarity and guidance on how to implement this within the training sessions. Having this clear way of playing the game will guide the young players learning and also give each child the chance to grow their own playing “personality” (strengths and weaknesses) as a result of this training.
Football training that is suitable
You must plan training that is suitable for the players you are working with – both in terms of age and level of player. We do not need to create the game we see on TV but, we need to keep all the practices simple and without complex rules. Football has two even teams, both attack and defend one goal and play with a single ball. This is perfectly simple and children understand and enjoy this simplicity. As coaches, we can reduce the numbers to improve contact time on the ball and we can reduce/enlarge the size of the areas used to promote evasion skills with and without the ball, the awareness of space, the importance of control and how/where to move. But – we must always think of the session as a learning opportunity (this is the same for u6s and senior players) and therefore, we need to develop each players level at every opportunity. The picture and text below is an example of how your club might structure training for individual learning/development.
Go on a journey with your players
The time spent with young players and watching them developing is hugely rewarding for any coach. Try to immerse yourself into the journey’s that your players are going on and see yourself as a “guide“ that they can ask receive feedback and guidance from. Taking this player-centred approach to development and making your players less dependant on you as a the coach and more independent with every session is what youth development is all about.
Be parent friendly
Lastly – please be parent friendly and communicate regularly with the parents of the children that you coach. Most parents just want to know that their child is ok and is enjoying the training. In my experience, parents want honesty from the coaches about how their child is developing and interacting with other players in the group. For the most part, this is the first time the parents are going through this experience and you are one who can keep their mind at ease and also guide their thoughts on the child’s development. Having this relationship, can help the parent to promote the same messages and ideas you are encouraging in your training sessions. I have always tried to use this approach with all the players i have worked with in the last 18 years coaching at various levels. The relationships I have grown during that time with the various families has made my job worthwhile and by opening the two way communication…. I gained so much knowledge and insight into the child that I could use to structure the development of them as a footballer.
Foundation Phase booklets
For a limited period of time, I have made some coaching booklets available with sessions specific to the Foundation phase age groups u6-11. These booklets were ones that I put together in my role as a foundation phase coach and coach educator.
Please click on the links below to download and save to your computer.