Improving as a coach without coaching?

Having worked in youth development since 2002, I have had many roles with players of all attitudes and abilities. I began coaching for the local council aged 16 as both a lead and assistant coach, initially in my first few weeks doing 4 hours a week but that quickly increased to doing between 8-16 hours a week, then supplementing this by coaching at least 4 hours a week with a grassroots team aswell as coaching Futsal 1-3 hours a week for 9 years.

From 2005, I was doing a minimum of 20 hours a week voluntary with a local grassroots club, and Perth Youth Futsal. I also went to USA to work for company to have an experience outside my comfort zone, to work only as a football coach and to learn from other coaches. I returned hom 6 months later and began coaching with SPL professional club academy at community level but was rapidly promoted through some age bands up to the U17 team which produced several 1st team players. I suppose that you could call this my apprenticeship as I spent 7 years working well over 20 hours per week on the field with players every day.

I then moved to Switzerland to coach with a private academy and in the ACVF league system, before moving in 2013 to my current role in India as an Academy Director & Head of Coach Ed for a club and private company; Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools and Garhwal FC.

All in, I would say that I’ve coached around 6000 hours of sessions and performed around 1200 hours of coach education via theory and practical sessions. Added to this, I’ve been studying football through analysis since 2012, and now have my own TV show on Ten Sports, Asia.

Learning by doing?
There’s an idea that people seem to believe that you learn by doing, which is obvious that you should ‘learn by your mistakes’ or ‘learn by self-evaluation’. We all do it, but where are the real changes in our understanding of how to become a better coach?

I have found that since 2013, I have learned more by educating others and analysing the game, while looking for better ways to improve our academy and the coaches within it.

Why do I feel this way?

When you are a coach, you are in charge of a team – the education of 16 players, 32 parents and your assistant(s). You have a job to coach for around 48 weeks and around 144 sessions. (3×48)
From this, your development view may be skewed by results, parental opinion, club opinion and not necessarily what is best for the development of the individual players, and more focussed towards the development of the team structure to improve week to week.

I’ve seen and heard many coaches structuring training by “what did we do badly at the weekend”.
To me, this is an inefficient approach to take.

Why? You get inconsistent performances in youth players, regardless of ability level. A 2 minute burst of genius by a good player during an otherwise poor performance, bad change made by the opponent or even a simple mistake can change the outcome of a match or your feeling towards it. You’ll normally look for positives to build upon, while looking for things to improve.

As a TD of a club with over 120 coaches, 12 FT coaching staff, and 14 teams in Delhi (we have others I don’t see too regularly in 5 other cities due to commuting time), I have to look deep into the long term development of my coaches, to ensure our players are able to develop to be educated, technical players who at 16-19 are able to become professional footballers.

To do this, I’ve had to develop as a coach; without coaching with the same regularity in my first 11 years of work.
How have I developed more without coaching?

By learning more about what young players need in each stage of their development, by building a profile of what each age group should be able to perform before they move up, I have had to think less about developing 1 group of players for a short space of time; 3 month objectives x 3, instead to a 12 year plan with 3 month objectives for each year. How can we ensure that we are on track to develop good players on an individual basis through various parts of childhood; Developing a love for the game (7-10) puberty and PHV phase (12-14), adolescence and external distractions (15-17).

We need to take into account when players will train less; when they grow +1cm per week, we reduce the training load on that player. During exams in India, many families expect kids to study for 6+ hours a day which forces sport to be missed (which in my opinion is counter-productive) so we have periods of the year we need to monitor for participation, and how much acitivity they do – particularly from u13-u15 – aswell as parts of the life of the players where we need to guide them through making better choices in the later stages of development before they can potentially make football a career, either in Europe, USA on a scholarship, or here in India in a FT residential youth academy, such as with DSK Liverpool where we moved several players onto.

We have the background of things we need to consider, whats next?

From this, we can build a curriculum; focussing on less of the team development and more towards what a player needs to be able to do individually to be able to help the performance of the team. Team-Tactical aspects will obviously be implemented but we develop good players which improve the team. We don’t expect that all of the players from a great team will be footballers, but if the players are good enough, they might have a chance to play at a higher level.

Coach Education within a player development program; good coaches = good players?

From knowing how we want to be able to develop players within the style of play set out, we can then build a coach education program. What do your coaches need to be able to understand to be able to deliver and effective session, so that the players can learn the objective of the session?

Many coaches make a generic session, then manufacture a situation to ‘coach’ the players to show them something that might happen in a game. There are many coaches who will post a session on twitter for example, with a session which needs to be coached. In my opinion, the best sessions are the ones where players are led to the objective without the intervention of the coach. We may have sessions for specific aspects of building our game model where we will have to step in and coach, but the structure of the session should force the players to do what you need them to learn from that session.

For example; build up play in 3 zones; If you want to force the back 3 to play direct from the back so that you can deal with the resultant direct high pass, play 3v3 in the end zone, or 4v3. This means that there is a small overload in the build up team, but if pressed properly, they’ll be likely to go long; your objective being to deal with high/direct passes. By simply forcing the opposition to do what you want – rather than ask them to go long with no need – to do something unnatural (manufacturing the session); we can then look at the specifics of how to force the opponent to go long, how to be in position to deal with it, and how to cover the space to regain possession from the direct pass.

Coaches need to understand how to create sessions where the players need you to coach to improve the performance, and how to create sessions where the players are led to the objective to improve their game understanding more naturally.

The Coach Education planner which is standardized over 1 year to ensure all coaches are given a good level of education via 1 monthly 3 hour workshops, with 12 different topics. These can range from workshops which may have simple sessions which will give the coaches confidence in delivering a session, to throwing something completely new at them that they may not necessarily need to know right now but may need to know in the future.

For example; overload positioning for penetration behind the opposition midfield (4v3)

This is to plant future seeds so that they will contemplate more difficult aspects of coaching while learning how to deliver better sessions while they are in a lower level of ability.

Technical-Tactical Work in Young Players

On twitter, we see a lot of people saying ‘only technique in young players’. I used to completely agree with this until we started an experiment with a group of 7-8 year olds 1 year ago. We decided to try and do a lot of possession based games in our ‘Strikes’ or ‘Receives’ day as set out in the curriculum.

All other groups would practice as normal with similar level players and coaching, but that this one group would use different practices which led more towards learning about Positioning, 3rd man movements, ball movement patterns, aided by unopposed technical work to improve basic receiving and striking abilities

For example, we would work on; Receiving tightly marked, drilled strike to switch play, outside foot receive to attack space, or inside foot receive to play a through ball.

From this, we would move into a 1v1 + 1 with 4 outside (receiving tightly marked), 2v1 with 4 outside (Creating connections and finding the free man centrally), 2v2 + 1 with 4 outside (penetration, blindside movement and positioning), and teach players how to draw the defence narrow to play around, or to open them up to play through, teaching positioning based on opponent defensive position.

The result has been that players have developed technically very well as expected, but their understanding of how to give themselves more time on the ball by adjusting the body shape arly and on the run while scanning, finding space better, and anticipating a space opening up. Another result has been that players give themselves multiple options to retain possession.

My take on football has always been; Give a bad player alot of time and space, they can become a useful player. Give a good player time and space, they can become a great player.

We would never allow an opposition good player time and space to receive, so we need to find ways to provide our young players a way to know how to gain more time and space in possession to make it easier for them to decide to know what to do with the ball when it arrives.

This has given us a clearer way of looking at player development in regards to how we balance technical-tactical training. Once players are able to receive and pass comfortably, we will put them into possession based games with relatively easy decisions and solutions to the problems they are faced with on or off the ball. Once they can master 2v1, we’ll move onto 3v2, 4v3 etc.

Developing a style of play to educate coaches

As a student of the game, I’ve looked deep into the tactics and strategies of the game via analysis, and how to implement what style of play we want to employ, which has underpinned the players curriculum and coach education planner.

The education plan isn’t just the typical level 1 or 2 ‘Coach Education’ (I used the term ‘education’ loosely) as the level 1 should be the most demanding course you are exposed to, to teach you how to be a good coach to be able to educate well at the bottom level of player development, rather than the current format of coach education which seems to be;

‘take some drills and have a level 1’; you’re now allowed to coach a team but with no real information on how to coach kids, how to build a plan for a season, how to evaluate performance or how to improve yourself as a coach.

It’s not effective coach education.

I’ve seen the level 1 in 3 countries, and from my own basis, we need a higher standard of information and more depth of information given to coaches in the basic stages for better long term coach education

How did I design our playing and coaching education program?

No matter where you are in the world, you must adapt. The locals will not adapt to you, so you must do so for them. To educate others, you need to learn about them. Why do they think like that? What is their background? What are their experiences of football, or sport?

You are taking into account the 5’C’s when developing a football and coaching program;

Culture of the people, the climate, the conditions, the coaching level and our ‘community’

Culture dictates how people think and perceive what you are doing
How can you sell or persuade your long term vision?

Climate is obviously the heat, ground conditions, weather and how it impacts the game intensity
How will your style be implemented over time, how can you educate coaches to be able to design sessions for it, and will the players be able to perform well – is a 100mph game – similar to Britain – possible in 37 degree heat?

Conditions; the ground conditions play a part – can you ask for 400 passes a game on a bumby field with no grass? How do your opponents play; is it condusive to getting into a rhythm or will you have to play a different type of game? How will you adapt to ensure you can control the game – how will this impact in coach education and how can they educate their players to ensure they understand different game conditions and how to manage each game according to your own style, and how the opponent approach the game?

Coaching level; what do the coaches know, what do they need to improve upon short term, how will this affect my education program and the adaptations within from week 1 and month 1 to week 156 and the 60th month.

Are we autocratic, guided or a mixture – when to be pushy of ideas, or persuasive? When to ask the players about the session, when to tell them what to do?
How will you improve your own knowledge as a head of coaching, and how will that affect your education program?
You may need to change some of your ideas or beliefs during the course, and how can you continue to inspire your staff to keep working to improve themselves?

Our community relates to where we recruit players and coaches from. Their previous footballing experiences will also have an impact in how they work or play, and how that can be either adapted to work in our program better, or how they abilities of the player can be improved by our system of play and coaching styles.

Things that are done as normal in Britain are not always relevant to the people of a different country. Often people say in Britain ‘do it like this’ – it’s not always the best way for others.

Our Coaching Curriculum

Having spoken to many coaches from across the world, I’ve found a few interesting (and strange) ways of building a cohesive development program to ensure players are ready to peak at youth level aged between 16-18. I wanted to build a structure which allowed players to learn what we would perceive as priorities in each age group


Physical Co-Ordination, Balance, Agility,

Technical Moving with the ball, turning


Physical Co-ordination, Balance, Agility,

Technical Moving with the ball, 1v1s (infront/side), strikes (placed/driven), receives (inside/outside)

Tactical Positioning to connect team mates, body shape adjustment, 2v1s, 3v1s, patterns of play

The focus is on ‘individual play’; ball mastery, moving with the ball and being at complete comfort with it. After this, we are looking for ‘team play’ aspects; Receives, strikes and how to play in a system of play.

The focus is on improving the decision-execution-outcome of the individual.

Obviously, im not going to write here how we do everything, but the basis for everything is around ‘random learning’ and is to give the kids fresh new things which re-appear to give familiarity to allow the development of Myelin via repetition for long term learning.

Random learning v Block Learning / Long-Term learning v Short-Term learning

I’ve spoken to many coaches who have implemented what I would call ‘Block Learning’, which means that they will have a 42 week curriculum, split into 7 x 6week blocks.

This seems strange to me – why would you do 3 sessions a week on passing, for 6 weeks? Why would you put together 18 passing sessions in a row? Would the players not get bored?

If you go into a school, you don’t do Art for a week, then maths, then French; you do them maybe once a day so you get some familiarity and a break between the lessons to process the information you have just been given.

Why is a football curriculum different from what schools do? Kids learn randomly and need time to process information – doing 18 sessions on passing, then 18 sessions on 1v1, 18 sessions on defending, 18 sessions on attacking then 18 on transition – where is the learning for long term?

Doing it this way will produce fantastic short term results but the long term learning in my opinion is debateable at best.

Football should look at the ways school curriculums are designed in Finland to look for a more effective and enjoyable development system.

Coach Recruitment

Often coaches will apply to join BBFS and have it on bold in the CV that they will join with an AFC B Licence, or A licence, and are shocked to find that before we accept them, they are put through our introduction to BBFS workshop. This is mandatory for all coaches. You must know and understand what we expect of you form day 1, and that this will not change for you. You must adapt to how we work to ensure we have a cohesive system in all phases.

Often we find that no matter the level of player of coach, the ones who have worked at a perceived ‘high level’ in India, have an A or B licence, but strangely no learning attitude; maybe this has been removed as the culture in India is that if you are qualified, you can work (even if you are incompetent – the school you went to 10 years ago is more important).

What do we prefer or look for in a new coaches workshop?

We often focus on young coaches with minimal to no experience, but will always look for a good coach with an AFC C Licence with desire to, and potential to improve over an A licence holder with a lazy attitude (these are common in India).
Playing Ability is taken into consideration as we need to be able to demonstrate accurately.

Ex-professionals are given slightly more time to develop as the transition from player to teacher can be tough, but after the initial 9-12 month learning period that everyone is given upon joining, we don’t care if you were the best player in the country or a guy who used to be an engineer; you need to be able to perform the basics of the role well, otherwise your background no longer matters – the learning period afforded to all coaches is there for that exact reason.

Back to the 5 C’s of how I formed the basis for our academy

From these 5 C’s, we can work out our background or how we wish to work, which shapes our education system, and as a result the standard of sessions and the information given within it.

As a coach, do we ask enough of “what are our 12 month objectives?”
What do players need to be able to do at u17, u15, u13 etc, what needs to be in place in each level?
Have clubs made a 12 year curriculum? Kids join at 7 and leave at 19; we need to know what we are looking to do every step of the way to develop the individual to be able to be a ble to perform seamlessly within the team context in the older ages.

How much freedom do coaches have around the curriculum?
Good coaches still need to be kept on track, as often we start to make sessions to challenge ourselves which aren’t needed for that particular group of players.
Are the sessions able to develop the best players, or us it aimed lower – how is it edited to push the higher level players?

Often people look past the simple question of; what makes a good session? Or a good coach?
Once you have a flexible structure to allow this then we can look at building a structure to ensure we have 144 good sessions per year, with development priorities per age group.

This doesn’t mean 144 unique sessions – it could be 18 different sessions repeated 8 times, with learning objectives layered ontop each other within the same scenario or theme.

24 sessions could be dedicated to gaining match experience or giving the coach sessions which need to be developed for their own learning and idea development. This might be 6 sessions layered 4 times, or 4 sessions layered 6 times.

In a curriculum, I like to repeat the same ‘theme’ every 4 weeks (week 1, 5, 9, 13) in a 16 week cycle.
This provides familiarity, and a chance to recognise the patterns and pictures from before, so the players will become better decision makers, taking less time to do so, with more pressure on the quality of action made.
From this, we must look into difficulty (space/time/technical demands)
and complexity (movements, transitions, variables, cognitive work)
And how it will relate to the maturation level of the players.

Often we make a session and the players cannot grasp it in the first go. Then, the coach changes the activity too early without considering exactly why, or being patient enough with it. Sometimes a coach feels they must change it because it makes them look bad – I’ve seen it and done it, im sure many others have done too. There’s nothing worse than having a session go badly with many other coaches watching! So its changed without really considering what needs to be adapted to allow the players time to grasp the idea to improve.

All of the things I have written here, I feel I have learned more about in 3 years as the head of an academy with a clear focus on long term coach education, than as a coach working with various levels of players in different countries.

As the old saying goes ’10 years without reflection, is 1 year repeated 10 times’

In the past 3 years prior to leaving India in summer 2016, having been highly responsible for the development of over 120 coaches and 12 FT staff, i have reflected more to look at how we educate more than in my previous 10 years combined.