It is the start of the Trial Season in Grass Roots


So with the Grass Roots Season nearly over clubs are already starting to look to next season and with this anticipation comes the prospect of the trials.  Due to the many formats in mini soccer and youth football, 5 a side, 7 a side, 9 a side and 11 a side nearly every year clubs need to attract more players and add to their squads.  Some do by joining teams together, some through referrals and some through dare I say it poaching, and some through trials.

Having had a number of parents ask me recently when I am holding my trials for my U10 mini soccer teams I have started to question the use of trials.  The parents have looked at me kind of strange when I state that I don’t hold trials, even though I reason that “what can I learn about my players in a few hours that I don’t already know.”  Anyway it seems I am certainly in the minority on this one so I have started to question myself, perhaps I am missing a trick here?

I have therefore posted on Twitter and Facebook the question who is holding trials and why?  I have had very little answer to this but those that have answered have generally supported my original thoughts in that, it is what we have always done when we need new players.

This got me thinking even more about the trial process and my thoughts on talent identification as a whole.

The top clubs in the world spend millions and millions of Pounds/Euros every year on talent identification attempting to bring the best and most gifted children into their academies.  Whilst there are some success stories I think we can say that as a whole the academy system has not been a raging success in identifying giftedness and nurturing it into talented adult performers.  So with this in mind how can Grass Roots Coaches be expected to perform any better and thus if this is the case are trials of any benefit at all?

In my experience a trial at a grass roots club usually takes 1-3 weeks with coaches watching a number of games.  This is a very small snapshot of performance at a given moment in time.  It neither confirms the players giftedness over a pro-longed period  nor does it give much indication of the opportunity to develop into talent.  In many cases (I would actually say most) it is simply an illustration of that person’s maturity at that given time and thus possibly effectiveness as a player not giftedness.

I am often asked by parents, spectators and other coaches do you have any potential superstars, or who do you think is going to make it. My answer is always the same “I have not got a clue, too difficult to say”. What I would say though is that if I was picking a player who might make it I would not be just looking at their ability today but instead at a number of social and psychological & environmental factors.

Daniel Coyle’s Thoughts:

Looking deeper into the trial process it is clear that lots of clubs use the ‘trial’ as another word for an open day to welcome children to their club and as aforementioned to attract players where there is a deficiency in playing numbers.  If they attract too many they try to accommodate them but all too often there is a finite level of resources, but still help the children find other clubs. But then there are some clubs it appears use the trial in the true sense of the word even as young as U6/7/8.  Every year they start a fresh and each player must trial again for their right to play in the team and children from across the region trial for places in the ‘top clubs’ with promises being made to entice them.

This throws up even more questions, what are they looking for, what are the motives, what are the long term goals, for whose benefit is this?  Research into children’s motives in participating in sport are very clear – enjoyment, fun, learning new skills, being with their friends. So does this trial process support the research findings of why children participate in sport or run contrary to it?

As the trial process is simply a glimpse of performance and as a result of non-linear and fast changing development patterns of children what happens next season when the promising young player may not be so much quicker than his peers, is no longer the strongest player on the park or has hit a growth spurt and lost co-ordination.  Will he lose out in the trial process to the next batch of trialists and can no longer play football with his friends or work with the coach he has built the relationship with? Therefore is the trialing of young children just a conveyor belt where at the beginning of each season the perceived most able children are brought in at the expense of others?

As the result of this process often culminates in positive on field performances it can therefore be seen as a successful way to conduct recruitment of children to Grass Roots Teams. But could this actually be viewed as poor process good result (or poor process good short term result).  There is after all a greater responsibility on coaches other  than to win more games than you lose and this needs to be kept in mind at every step when working with the youngest age groups.

Having thought long and hard about the trial process I have decided against it for me my teams. For me it just does not fit in with my philosophy and the reasons why I coach at the 7-11 age group but I wish all children undergoing trials this summer the best of luck.

As always all comments welcome.

Reflective Practice


The previous Blog was about coaching philosophy and for me reflective practice is what helps you both check your philosophy and helps you develop it as you grow as a coach. Furthermore it is often suggested that in order to be an effective coach one must participate in reflection and also to learn from such experiences.

Let me give you an example, my philosophy is very clear around player development and an athlete centred approach and this this is why this example haunts me. A number of weeks ago during an advanced session I took control of the class because the aims were not being hit as quickly as I had envisaged. For many this might seem the right thing to do, but for me this isn’t as it doesn’t fit with my beliefs. We got some quick fixes and the majority of the children were then performing as I had hoped. However, one child disengaged from the practice and even commented “this is boring” my reply as ashamed as I am to say it was “you are welcome to sit out at any time”. The incident passed, the player got half involved and the majority of the group got the results they had hoped for.

It usually takes me 30-40 minutes to get home after sessions and this is my time for reflection. This incident as soon as I had quiet time hit me like a sledge hammer, why did I behave like that, why did I respond to a simple statement with such negativity, why did I take his comment personally, why didn’t I find out why it was boring and so on?

I needed deeper understanding of why I behaved like that, I wouldn’t normally I would ask why was it boring, I would ask the rest of the group, I would ask how can we improve it, what else could we do, so why didn’t I?

I still haven’t come up with the answers as to why, it could be because I lost my way a little and was using a command style which I am uncomfortable with, it could be because I had wrestled control when normally the children would have it, it could be that I was just tired from a long day. To be totally frank it doesn’t matter why, what matters is that I understood through reflection that it was the wrong thing to do and was not in keeping with my philosophy. I spoke to the child in question a few days later and he apologised for being rude, which made my guilt worse and I apologised for being arrogant we shook hands and played 1v1.

Now this is the key to it all, within 40 minutes of our mutual apology another boy who was being coached in our session albeit by another coach came up to me and said I don’t like this session I want to go home. We’ve been here before so we went to one side had a sit down and we found out it was because his mates were in one group and he’d been split up and just wanted to be with them, easy fix.

But was this just an easy fix, without the previous reflective activity would the original behaviour simply have repeated itself perhaps being framed as poor process but good outcome or if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. But instead through deep understanding of ones own actions, a reflective practitioner looks back at their own practice with objectivity and considers how they can improve. They are not happy to cruise along but instead look for the best possible practices.

This process can sometimes be a painful and difficult one, it is often the case that ones own biggest critic is themselves and the act of looking within can cause much discomfort. But it is also suggested that in order to become the best you can be requires you to remove yourself from your comfort zone.

It is suggested therefore that to become an effective coach firstly a clear and well thought out philosophy is decided and shared, and once this is in place a coach regularly and with objectivity self monitors their practice then if required adjusts and obtains the required tools in order that they may undertake to become what they envisage: an effective coach.

Note: I do not believe myself to be an expert coach but I am simply researching what is believed to become such. I am trying to learn the tools of an effective coach and apply them to my practice. This blog is simply my own opinion shaped by both extensive reading and personal experience and welcome any debate, support or counter argument.

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.