I was at a European tournament in the summer and I was chatting with one of Ajax’s heads of recruitment. He was telling me that the foundation phase players being recruited by the club just weren’t as good as they were 10 years ago. He said that culturally things had changed in Amsterdam and there was a shortage of “real street” players but emphasised that this was not the case all over Europe. The Belgian club Anderlecht was highlighted with a very strong recruitment programme and this was down to a particular reason. He said he had been to Belgium personally and seen the hot beds of talent. These primarily centred around the working class areas and the concrete cages seen in many social housing developments where players played long into the night. This was seen as the advantage Anderlecht now had as they scoured these areas and picked up these playground players!
Opposed Soccer Practice
I have been arguing for a long time that we should make individual possession or technique the priority at the foundation phase. How do we do this? It is obvious to me that we need to create a playground environment for our players. Now this is not just ‘letting them play’ BUT this is letting them play plus plus! By this I mean, I want to construct an environment where players can and will express themselves. Where players can and will fulfil their potential.

We seem to be stuck in a battle in the coaching fraternity amongst some who want a laissez-faire attitude to player development.

A difference between coaches who want to ‘let the game do the work and develop players organically’ and coaches like myself who want to give players freedom to be creative stretching their potential and intervene only when necessary. Coaches and specialists from other disciplines have been attacking technical coaching without actually understanding it! I have often said that there is an information gap regarding technical coaching in England and recent reading in apparent “player development specialist’s” blogs have confirmed this.
The myths around technical coaching
Technical coaching as I see it is not about a static passing drill. I’ve been in Academy football around the foundation phase for over 10 years now, and I haven’t used what you may call a traditional ‘passing drill’ (very static, player passes to another on a cone and then runs) for over 5 years. That’s a long time and whilst I agree that passing the ball is a key technical fundamental, I believe there are much more dynamic and challenging ways to work on this.

When we talk about good technique we talk about players who are masters of the ball, players who can manipulate the ball and deliver at will. More specifically we talk about players who can dominate 1v1 and stay on the ball under pressure.

How do we achieve this? We do it mainly with the use of opposed practices and small sided games (SSGs), 1v1s , 2v2’s, 3v3’s & 4v4’s. These games force players to stay on the ball, force them to make decisions and force them to solve problems.

The breakdown in understanding comes from specialists who link technical coaching to FA level 1 or 2 courses which is a fundamental problem. These courses are designed around kicking the ball and getting rid of it as quickly as possible which is nothing like what I would call technical coaching. The reason for this could be that English football has traditionally been very direct and the coaching courses have always reflected this. I am fortunate that I began my football education abroad so I was never initiated into old modes of FA ‘technical’ coaching using passing drills.

Technical Excellence
My football coaching methodology was borne out of individual possession, expressing yourself and staying on the ball. When I was given my first Academy job at Spurs by Chris Ramsey I was given a very clear remit of developing a playground environment, with technical excellence the priority.

Myself a product of inner city London, I grew up playing in the concrete cages of London where individuality and bravado ruled. An environment where if you couldn’t be on the ball and keep it then you were nothing.

I wanted to replicate this with an Academy group of talented young players. Some players took to this immediately as they were already from such environments. Some players needed support in expressing themselves, knowing it was firstly “OK” to try things and make mistakes. This goes somewhat against the grain of footballing culture in the UK where traditionally players are encouraged to ‘move it quick’ at all times because coaches and parents are results orientated and used to a percentages game.

I demand that players are able to stay on the ball and this is where I believe as coaches at the foundation phase we must make a difference. Yes, I am manipulating the environment but you may ask why? Because all top players need to stay on the ball under pressure and players need to solve the problems themselves. Just as a teacher in school I am developing traits that will support these youngsters later in their careers.

I also believe in the coaching of 1v1 skills, because I have seen first hand how this improves and actually fosters creativity. I was fortunate enough to talk to Sue Cowley recently, (suecowley.co.uk) the FA’s creativity expert and like myself a qualified Primary school teacher, she agreed with me that showing new techniques doesn’t stunt creativity, it can actually help enhance it. Just as when you show children new art techniques such as shading, they can then go on to explore and develop it. It’s not about me being a ‘Lord of technique’ another myth propagated by the misinformed, but by being a facilitator, supporting young players to hopefully go on and become the stars of tomorrow. We do this to support a culture of 1v1 and players who can dominate and stay on the ball under pressure. Let me be clear that there is no perfect technique construct, rather players must be able to execute effectively in all the key technical areas of football. If they are having issues with one or more areas then it may require a coach to step in and support the player.

Another huge misrepresentation of technical coaching is the insinuation that we are imposing techniques on players. No, we are modelling and players choose when and if they want to use them. It’s not about me as the coach! It’s about the players! They are better than me and will develop new skills and techniques of their own. They are always going to develop better ideas and strategies than me.

The coaching of 1v1 skills at a young age is about developing ball control and key movements. Importantly this should be on both sides that the player can then develop, improve on and make their own. Just as when I was as Primary school teacher I must recognise the moment when players need support, when they need challenging and when they just need to be left alone. The goal must be that when players leave the foundation phase they must be technically effective in all core areas.

Circus performers & freestylers
When I worked at Spurs I was fortunate enough to work alongside Ricardo Moniz, regarded within the game as one of the best skills coaches in the world. He used to make the point that we don’t want to produce circus performers, or freestylers! It’s about supporting players who can dominate game situations, players who can do it when it matters. Old forms of team skills training which involved players queuing and dribbling to a cone, performing a ‘trick’ and dribbling back have added fuel to the many who’d like to discredit technical coaching.

This non-dynamic and unchallenging approach won’t improve players and doesn’t qualify as deliberate practice. When we as coaches do ball work (ball mastery & 1v1 skill work) we must take extra care to have a high intensity and challenging environment because it’s unopposed. If it’s too easy or boring we won’t get the desired change from the players. It’s also important we contextualise the skills and give players the opportunity to use them in opposed situations. It’s imperative we have the expectation that players use these skills in games, give them the opportunity and celebrate, even in the event of an unsuccessful attempt.

But why create a playground environment?
Why not just let them play and develop naturally? As previously argued, most sessions should be free play and opposed practices, but in an elite environment we are there to stretch and support especially because some will develop these traits and some won’t! And for me, a player who can’t stay on the ball under pressure is lacking a fundamental skill that will hinder their development. We still need to address the issues in our society with the lack of street football and unstructured play and these two elements must be key factors in any programme. We must recognise also that as specialist coaches we also have an important role, identifying when and how we can stretch players.
We live in a culture where gifted and talented children are identified at a very young age and moved into Academies. Like it or not this is the situation and instead of bemoaning this fact or harping back to yesteryear, let’s see it as an opportunity. To support creativity and help mould individuals who can reach the very top! Let’s create a culture where players are free to express themselves, be creative and learn from their mistakes but also a culture where players are masters of the ball, are able to dominate it and have the personalities to really shine! Let’s coach and improve our players when needed rather than stepping back and hoping for the best!

Saul Isaksson-Hurst

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