The Grass Roots Environment


Much has been commentated on the current state of Grass Roots or Participation Domain (PD) football in recent months from the lack of or poor state of facilities to the expense of National Governing Body Coaching Courses to over zealous coaches and poor parental behaviour.  Some say that the number of Football Association initiatives have made improvements such as welfare officers, charter standard clubs and respect line. I am not aware of any empirical research that supports an improvement such initiatives have made. It might be suggested however that these steps whilst well intentioned have simply tried to resolve the symptoms and not the deep routed problems from which the behaviours originate.  Again I have no supporting evidence other than a library of anecdotal evidence but my personal experience is that the environment within PD is no better today than it was ten years ago.  I may be mistaken, it maybe because I am analysing it more, it may be that I look back with rose tinted glasses, but regardless it does not feel any better in the trenches. 

So with all the schemes and trials why has there not been any real or significant improvements, it is proposed that perhaps it is simply because participation domain coaches are not creating the correct environments and are not being supported by either their clubs or NGB in doing so. 

Surely the first thing a new manager should be doing even before he pulls on his boots or gets her initials on her track suit is to reflect on why they are coaching, what they are wanting to achieve, who they want to work with, what are their core values in other words commit to paper what their coaching philosophy is. Without this constantly evolving raison d’être it will be impossible to create the correct coaching environment.  I come across 100s of coaches and can say without fear of contradiction that only a tiny percentage have a philosophy or have even considered it. 

This is never more easily identifiable than when a coach says something like “I only do it for the kids” or “winning isn’t important” but their coaching behaviours contradict for example only giving some children small amounts of playing time or spending the whole game commentating from the sidelines with non-sensical statements such as “get it out” or my particular favourite “not in there” if your not interested in winning why does it matter if “they do it in there”.

If coaches truly reflected on their reasons for coaching and winning was truly important at least this could be conveyed to both the parents and the children. Why not just be honest and say my philosophy is this and as a result our environment will be based on winning games. That way parents and children can decide if this is the correct place for them to be. Alternatively by understanding your reasons for coaching and if this truth is uncomfortable one can take steps to actively change this philosophy and by use of ongoing reflection this might help. However all too often no philosophy is developed and thus shared and confusion then reigns within teams and clubs which results in the negative behaviours that pervade the PD game. 

How does this work in practice? First of all it is not an overnight success and takes time to both develop a philosophy and can be a painful experience.  Once this has been completed sharing it is a paradox in that it is both daunting and liberating. You will need to share it with everyone whom you are involved with at the club but most certainly your players and parents. Some children and parents may not agree with your philosophy and de-select themselves but better to do this at the beginning that later on, some may be sceptical, some may think you weird or mad as this is not the norm.  Now this is the beauty about sharing your philosophy, by doing this it sets a standard for all behaviour from coaches, parents and players. For example part of our philosophy is player self regulation, we expect children to remember their own drinks, shin guards, jackets but in return we also expect children to be able to make their own decisions.  So the parents get the benefit of not having to remember everything on match day and in return the children get to play without constant instruction from the sidelines. Because our philosophy is clear our environment simply becomes a mirror of this, without a clear philosophy the environment will always be at odds. 

For me the most important philosophy within our coaching is that we truly believe in player development and an athlete centred approach. We do not believe that everything must come from the coach but instead that the players are empowered to make their own decisions on their training and by self reflection they are able to understand both their strengths and areas for development.  The result of this is an environment where the players question, experiment and do not fear mistakes.  Whilst this has been a direct result of the coaching philosophy the team have developed their own philosophy that enjoying the game, trying new things, expressing themselves are more important than winning and the result should be a bye product of good performance. 

It is my experience that each team is a direct reflection of the coach.  If the coach has poor behaviour the players will follow, if the coach commentates during the game so will the parents. If the coach is often negative so will everyone else be.  But all too often the coach will abdicate responsibility with sentences like “I have a bad set of parents” or “the kids don’t do what we do in training” which assumes fault elsewhere. However there is a paradox here as the coach will often accept responsibility for when things go well, this was titled the windows and mirror syndrome by Jim Collins. Poor leaders look out of the window when things go badly but look in the mirror when things go well.  By creating the correct environment there is no consequence of mistakes they will be seen as learning experiences rather than a need to proportion blame.  Similarly the coach does not take responsibility for success this is simply a result of the learning process. 

Where next?

If it is believed that coaching philosophy is indeed critical in shaping behaviour and creating the correct and positive environment it proposed that this would form part of the NGB coaching education courses.  Furthermore, one would expect that all coaches within charter standard clubs would have a defined and committed philosophy that is openly published perhaps even an award that would need awarding every three years similar to Emergency Aid or Child Protection.  At the very least Charter Standard Clubs would be expected to have published philosophies not just stale code of conducts that get brought out once a year and that the behaviours within the clubs should mirror these. 

Please note that this commentary uses generalisations and accepts that there are exceptions. Much of the information contained is based on personal experience and may not be the norm.

We welcome all comments.