Expert Advice from Gavin Bell, West Coast Eagles Development Coach

SUMMARY: Managing youth has always been a tricky issue. What should you be teaching young players at training as a junior coach? And how should you manage a young player’s transition from junior footy to senior ranks, playing with men. We asked Gavin Bell, Development Coach with the West Coast Eagles for his enlightened advice and were impressed with what he had to say. Includes Gavin’s 3 fundamentals when working with young players, advice on managing training loads and more.

Background

Gavin Bell

Gavin Bell

Gavin Bell played his senior football at the West Perth Falcons in the WAFL and such was his passion for the club, that he eventually took on a coaching role with them upon his retirement.

Bell actually spent 4 years as an assistant senior coach at West Perth and had control of the Reserves before taking charge of the Colts program, where he spent another 4 years. Whilst the holy grail eluded him at Colts level, Bell was still able to build a reputation as a one of the best junior development coaches in the WAFL.

One of his most obvious strength was his ability to teach young players about the game – something he largely attributes to his background as a school teacher. “Coaching is teaching, and my 14 years experience as a teacher has been invaluable to my coaching”, says Bell.

A level 3 accredited coach, Gavin’s hard work and ability was eventually recognised when he landed the position of development coach at the West Coast Eagles, a role he took up at the start of the 2008 season.

Bell’s job is to help develop all the young West Coast Eagles players under 20 – an important task no doubt given West Coast’s current list of young future stars.

At the Eagles, these young players will work on a restricted training program. This group will do part of their training with the main group. They will then do some specialized group training with Bell, separate of the main group, along with individual one-on-one training sessions with Bell as well.

On the cusp of completing his second year with the Eagles, Bell took the time to sit down with Coach AFL and discuss his views and values on the development of young players.

Bell’s 3 Key Fundamentals Of Working With Young Players

So what does Bell focus on when he works with his young players at the Eagles? Well he actually focuses on these 3 key areas.

# 1 – Working on a Player’s Individual Strengths and Weaknesses

The first thing Bell tries to do is individualise his work with a player and look at their individual  strengths and weaknesses. Bell believes it is vital for a young players to continue to work on their strengths because those are the traits that made them a good player in the first place, and assisted them in getting into the WAFL or AFL. So this is normally where Bell starts.

Bell then puts a focus into developing the weaker aspects of the player, which may be a skill aspect, a decision making aspect or a physical aspect such as strength, speed, conditioning or diet.
Bell’s role then entails him to put strategies in place to help the player improve in these areas.

If Bell identifies a skill deficiency, he will video-tape the deficiency at training, and then instructs the player on how he can improve it. As Bell says, “Giving the player plenty of feedback is very important”.

Bell then continues to monitor the player throughout the season to identify improvements and help develop other strategies to assist them, without of course, overloading them at training.

# 2 – Game Day Tactics and Team Roles

The second part of Bells development strategy is to teach young players the game plan of the club and any game day tactics. This needs to be done so that when the player get an opportunity to play at the elite level, he will know his role within the team and how the team plays.

This is done through the video reviews, walk throughs, discussions with the players and exposing them to training scenarios with token pressure.

Bell will also help the players with different strategies that they can take back to their WAFL clubs. This involves helping the players work through different scenarios during games and giving them advice on what they can do in certain circumstances, such as starting positions, how to play in defence or how to win clearances.

# 3 – Skill Training

The last part of Bell’s strategy is giving a young player as much skill training as possible.

Bell will teach players different types of kicks, such as kicking to a lead up player, kicking out in front, and kicking to advantage. Bell adds that “Being proficient on both sides of the body is also important for a young player wanting to play at the elite level, and that this philosophy should apply to handballing as well.”

Bell will also add pressure to some of his skill drills to help improve these skills in a real game environment.

Bell is conscious that he does not overwork the young players as they have conditioning restrictions placed on them so as to avoid overload type injuries.

Like many of the AFL’s other elite development coaches, Bell also agrees that the biggest area of concern today with juniors is their lack of kicking efficiency when they first enter the WAFL and AFL systems.

It has been determined that it takes about 10 thousand hours of practice for a player to be “elite” at different skill executions, so it is important that junior coaches understand this and put the required effort into teaching young players how to kick properly.

Training Loads For Young Players

One of the biggest areas of concern that Bell has identified with young players is that many tend to come into the elite system injured. This is often be due to the fact that kids who move through the development pathway are generally the best players from the junior competitions and have been overloaded in previous seasons.

A young player may be playing Colts football in the WAFL for example, then be pressured into playing community football and school footy with his friends. In this situation, it is not uncommon for a young player to play up to 40 or 50 games in a season.

This is not good for young players long-term and Bell believes some hard decisions need to be made to ensure that the best interests of the player are put first, which admittedly can be hard if the kid is your best player.

As for training loads, Bell indicated that the first year players at the West Coast Eagles are put on restricted programs where they may only do 60 to 70 percent of the total training load when compared to the more seasoned players. This is done because they do not possess the base or background to cope with the total training load.

It was once the done thing to let the older players have more rest and flog the younger players to get the work into them, but it has been identified that young players can be exposed to overload injuries such as Osteitis Pubis if they are not managed correctly.

Bell also thinks this is applicable to community football as well. As Bell told us, “I don’t think you could expect a young player coming up from the colts to do the same workload as a 25 or 26 year old player who may have some WAFL experience.”

This can be managed by simple measures, such as reducing the time on the track of the younger players at different times. Knowing how much football your younger players played in the previous season is also vital to managing their workloads.

Coaching Elite vs Average Players at Youth Levels

Bell’s final words of advice to us was about the amount of time coaches spend with the young elite players in their teams.

According to Bell, coaches of outstanding junior talent sometimes neglect the very good players for the simple fact that they are gun footballers. They can be left to their own devices and left to just play due to their ability at junior level, while the coach spends their time with some of the lesser lights in the team.

The problem is that these good kids are often left behind when they eventually enter senior football ranks and begin to play against older players of equal ability (something I also regularly saw during my time as a Colts coach with Perth in the WAFL).

Bells advice is to simply remember to share the teaching and coaching amongst all your players. Good players, just like the ones who may struggle, need guidance as well if they are to continue to develop.

Conclusion

Today’s juniors are tomorrow’s stars, and as a junior coach, you should be coaching to develop your players for the future, not just to win games of football today.

This includes a strong emphasis on skill development to get your players’ kicking and handballing up to scratch, working on individual strengths and weaknesses, and monitoring workloads to prevent future injury and the dreaded ostietis pubis.

With this in mind, junior coaches certainly have a very important role as custodians of our future game.

So to the junior coaches out there that give up their own time to help develop the footy stars of the future, and of course, the great Gavin Bell for sharing his development expertise with the youth coaches of the world, Coach AFL would like to extend to you a big thanks. Keep up the good work.
Title photo by Michael Coghlan via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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