With Trevor Potts, Reserves Coach of the South Adelaide Football Club and one of the most successful coaches in SANFL history.

SUMMARY: If you’ve ever coached a group young players, you’ll understand the huge opportunities they offer — as well as the massive challenges they sometimes pose.So as a coach, what should you do and how should you respond?

This article outlines some of the issues coaches need to understand when coaching young players. It also provides a number of insightful strategies that coaches can consider to address the issues and get the best out of their players.

Background

It is imperative for those of us who coach young males in football clubs to appreciate some of the factors that are liable to impact upon their lives and their future as footballers, while they are under our care.

Dean Laidley, coach of North Melbourne, put it very succinctly at his first media interview. He observed that his job was about teaching, coaching and nurturing the players that came under his tutelage. Players need to be viewed by the club as the most valuable resource that it possesses. That view then determines the direction the coaching panel will adopt towards developing processes and practices that supports such a stated club philosophy.

Young players moving into football clubs now come with a thinking process that is often at odds with the more traditional view that football clubs support in their coaching staff. These players are taught to be independent thinkers, to show enterprise in their decision-making processes and not to accept instructions, which they may find to be either problematic or questionable. This can place some players at odds with those coaches who still believe in the “blame and shame” methodology of coaching.

To further highlight these changes, at the recent National Coaching Conference held in Melbourne, Neale Daniher, Melbourne’s coach, made these observations about the changing role of the coach in our game:

  • Yesterday’s coach commanded and controlled
  • Today’s coach empowers
  • Yesterdays’ coach was a warrior
  • Today’s coach is a facilitator
  • Yesterday’s coach directed
  • Today’s coach delegates
  • Yesterday’s players took orders
  • Today’s players make decisions

To move with these changes I believe we need to make certain that the structures we put in place to develop our young players, reflect these qualities:

  • That coaching is about teaching capacities that encourage young players to appreciate the benefits of continuous improvement in all aspects of their game;
  • That coaching deals with higher level people management skills, which incorporate case management practices for some individual players who may need our attention;
  • That coaching is about the players enjoying themselves in an environment that is supportive, that pursues excellence and that expects high levels of team and personal discipline;
  • That the individual player contributes to the whole rather than at an individual level – the importance of club and team can not be under estimated.

The single thread that ties these building blocks around a successful coaching outcome is the coach’s ability to use his/her interpersonal skills to communicate effectively with the players. In this case we are talking about the younger players under his/her guidance.

What Do Young Players Bring To Your Club?

Their learning experiences in our schools today reflect an ever-changing programme of how teaching takes place. We need to be aware of this fact because it will impact upon the type of communication we use around young players and the responses we are liable to face:-

  • Be aware that students now have greater control over their learning programme at school, so they are liable to want to get involved with aspects of decision making that could be incorporated in the training schedule or game day processes.
  • Listen to what they have to say. Often they produce some very insightful observations, which informs us about our operation as coaches.
  • They will expect and want a training and playing regime where there are structures that produce a high level of discipline and organisation. Research highlights the fact that young males work far more effectively when their learning environment is structured and directed.
  • If these are established and are seen as being consistent and fair the players will become more involved with the teaching/coaching programme you have established.
  • It is never a factor of trying to be their mate, but a process of mentoring, where they can observe you committing yourself to their needs in building a team structure that values their individuality but is focussed on team outcomes.
  • Treat them with respect, try and avoid singling them out in front of their peers while reprimanding them for being unable to follow instructions. It is without doubt the most counter-productive thing that you can do. Often their self-esteem is directly related to how their peers see them. Follow that method and you threaten that self-esteem.
  • There is no doubt that the social implications attached to playing football with their mates is one of the more compelling factors of why many boys play the game.
  • With that being the case, then enjoying the experience of playing the game in a positive structured environment flows from the mateship principle.

These are some of the issues that surround the young players that come into our football club. In most cases, common sense, a collective appreciation of the game, enjoying the game and gaining some sense of personal achievement will go along way to keeping our young players in the game and the club. They are our future.

As Coaches, How Do We Respond?

Each one of us that takes up coaching, like the players, bring our own set of unique skills and capabilities to the position. I believe that “ love of the game” and “a deep and abiding respect” for the game is what should drive us.

Any sense of personal gain needs to be placed carefully in the context of what the overall purpose of why you have taken up coaching. I have never asked players to “do it for me” as a coach. I believe placing your own personal needs at the centre of the exercise means that you have focussed the player’s efforts on the wrong target.

Therefore two of the most fundamental qualities that we need to coach successfully are trust and respect. I believe this is also true for those of us coaching at a senior level as well.

How we communicate those qualities to our young players is most probably down to individual choice, but I believe these qualities should inform if not direct our practice as coaches.

Young players will certainly trust you in your position as coach if you:

  • Are organised
  • Are able to explain clearly what you hope to achieve
  • Are clear on how you are going to achieve the tasks you have articulated

The players then need to be sure that they are going to be placed in a teaching/learning environment that demonstrates to them that they are valued, that they are in a cycle of improvement, where they are given guidance and positive reinforcement for their efforts.

Out of this will come enjoyment and a desire to try and achieve the goals that you have set them, or you have collectively agreed upon.

From these practices flows the second quality I believe you need as a coach – respect. Players should not have to give you unconditional respect because you happen to be the coach. I believe you have to earn it. The best way for this to happen is making certain you gain their trust through some of the issues highlighted previously.

So how could we best deal with some of these communication issues around these young players?

Let’s return to the experiences that these players bring to the club that I have highlighted previously and how you as a coach might respond to them.

Issue # 1

Be aware that students now have greater control over their learning programme at school, so they are liable to want to get involved with aspects of decision making the could be incorporated in the training schedule or game day processes.

Possible Strategies:

  • Find out what exercises they like at training.
  • Talk about the possibility of the leadership group running part of the practice session.
  • Make certain that you ask “open ended questions” ie questions that require them to think about an answer/response. For example:

– how could have we played the game differently Saturday?
– a training exercise where they have to analyse what they have done either individually or collectively and discuss it
– asking “closed questions” eg “ Do you think we should have played more direct football on Saturday? “ almost certainly supplies them with the answer you want.

These techniques give the players a sense of owner ship over the destiny of the side’s success.

Issue # 2

Listen to what they have to say, often they produce some very insightful observations that inform us about our operation as coaches.

Possible strategies:

  • Organise team meetings that are structured, have a definite agenda and topic and allow the players to talk about issues.
  • Provide opportunities on the track to talk to individuals while training is taking place.
  • Ask for a written response from the players on how they think the team is going.

Issue # 3

They will expect and want a training and playing regime where there are structures that produce a high level of discipline and organisation. The research highlights the fact that young males work far more effectively when their learning environment is structured and directed.

Possible Strategies:

  • Make certain you have a whistle at training, it will certainly help save your voice.
  • Make certain that your directions are clear, specific and are achievable, don’t set players up for failure, confusing them will create circumstances where you may need to resolve levels of conflict.
  • Have your training regime written up and refer to it in front of the players, it demonstrates you have taken time in preparing for the session.
  • Be consistent in your direction and approach to players, young players are often confused and bewildered with wild swings in a coach’s temperament and behaviour.

Issue # 4

If these are established and are seen as being consistent and fair the players will become more involved with the teaching/coaching programme you have established.

Possible Strategies:

  • As previously mentioned, young males in a learning situation respond best when it is consistent and well organised.
  • They will apply themselves more readily to tasks which have clear expectations and they see the exercise fills a purpose.
  • Your ability as a coach to apply these in a fair but disciplined way will give them a greater chance of success.

Issue # 5

It is never a factor of trying to be their mate, but a process of mentoring, where they can observe you committing yourself to their needs in building a team structure that values their individuality but is focussed on team outcomes.

Possible Strategies:

  • Many coaches believe that familiarity with young players builds respect, but it often produces the opposite response – contempt and a lack of respect.
  • Maybe it’s a matter of influencing players, rather than winning friendship.
  • It is also most probably important to remain in character ie. if you are a friendly person by nature, be that person, but don’t become the “blame and shame” coach as soon as things start to go wrong.
  • Always reflect on your own practice and try and link up with some trusted colleague in the club that you can talk to about it.

Issue # 6

Treat them with respect, try and avoid singling them out in front of their peers while reprimanding them for failing to follow instructions. It is without doubt the most counter-productive thing that you can do. Often their self-esteem is directly related to how their peers see them. Follow that method and you threaten that self-esteem.

Possible Strategies:

  • Young males self esteem, their vision of themselves in group situations is an important part of who they are and how they will respond to criticism.
  • Always make certain that if you want to criticise them do it on a one on one basis out of the ear-shoot of others, their response to that form of treatment will nearly always be positive.
  • Respect them as individuals and you will gain their respect.
  • The bad mouthing of a player in front of his peers will almost certainly create a set of circumstances that could have been avoided.
  • As the adult in this situation your inter-personal skills are the critical element

Issue # 7

There is no doubt that the social implications attached to playing football with their mates is one of the more compelling factors of why many boys play the game.

Possible Strategies:

  • Hopefully these are obvious and speak for themselves.

Issue # 8

With that being the case, then enjoying the experience of playing the game in a positive structured environment flows from the mateship principle.

Possible Strategies:

  • This is the greatest game on earth, your love and respect of it, should always be the driving force and principles guiding what you do around young players.

Conclusion

We must all encourage young players to stay in our great game. Our responsibility as coaches should make certain that the game at the junior levels, is not only developmental and instructive, but should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for our junior footballers.

We all have an enormous responsibility in developing and preserving our national game.

About Trevor: Trevor Potts is the Assistant Coach of League and Reserves Coach of the South Adelaide Football Club in the SANFL. He is one of Australia’s most successful coaches having won over 11 Premierships in the 32 years he has been associated with Metropolitan and Country Football Leagues around Australia, along with 4 Premierships from 5 years involved in the Junior Leagues.
Title photo by Port Adelaide 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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