Category Archives: coach says..

What a performance

tline concertThe car park is busy. The young players spilling from their parents’ vehicles and away to warm-up. It’s a big day – the grand show – a cup final, of sorts.

The parents follow their off-spring to the arena and just like the players they split into two groups: strings and pianists. Above the noise of the warm-up, snatches of the parents’ conversation are heard:

“Lovely day for it. Wouldn’t mind playing myself.”

“I’d be up there in a flash, if it wasn’t for this elbow.”


“Have you seen what that Nigel Kennedy is up to? It’s a disgrace.”

“It’s all about the money. And these foreign conductors coming over and running our orchestras. Can’t they find a local to wave the baton?”


“If I don’t hear a bit more melody from my lad this afternoon, I’ve told him it’s over. I’m not coming here just to listen to him plonking away again.”


The audience is asked to take their seats. The host reminds everyone that the aim is for the young musicians and their families to have some fun. A few grown-ups in the front row nod earnestly while the majority of parents take a sudden interest in the ceiling or their copy of the programme.

The show begins with a pianist, propped up on cushions to reach the instrument. There’s plenty of sighs and chuckles as the youngster completes her piece, vaults from her seat, grins at the crowd and scuttles off-stage.

Next up is the opening violinist. His first notes are shrill and dissonant. The noise of the instrument is abruptly drowned by a shout from the strings teacher, “Straighten your wrist! Keep it straight!” The boy struggles to the end of his piece. He stands, averting his eyes from those of his family and friends in the audience. His shuffle to the wings is speeded by his teacher, clasping his shoulder, pushing him out of sight.

The two sides continue alternating. Each string performance met with strong applause from one part of the audience; the piano pieces delighting the other. At the changeover, if a boy enters while another exits, they swap threatening looks and shoulder barges.

A pair of cellists take a while to set up their instruments and to get their chairs and music stands aligned. Impatience in one section of the audience escalates from mutters and tapping to a bellow of, “Gerron with it!” A man in another wing of the audience stands up, bristling and pointing, before he’s pulled back into his seat as the cellists begin their piece.

Each pianist to the stage is a new player, some are complete beginners using just a couple of fingers, others showing mastery of tempo and expression. Their teacher stands quietly, one hand on the piano lid, the other holding a stopwatch, monitoring the seconds, ensuring equal playing time, whatever the experience of the youngster or the quality of their play. One of the most talented of the group is forced to abbreviate a Beethoven concerto to keep within her allotted time.

There are fewer string musicians. The handful of newer and less adept players are given a quick run-out each. The teacher whispers each note they’re expected to play, making the sheets on the music-stand redundant. The pupils pay as much attention to the teacher as they do to their instruments. The more skilled violinists are indulged, playing longer pieces and returning to the stage to play duets. Meanwhile their teacher stands close to them, always in the audience’s eyeline, barely managing not to bow when a particularly tuneful rendition comes to an end.

The final performance of the afternoon features a cellist. A burst of loud, arresting notes subsides into a pianissimo passage. As the audience strains to pick up the nuances of the bowing, a shouted encouragement is heard, “C’mon lad, belt it out!”

The cellist stops and shouts back, “Shut it, Dad!” Then returns, brow furrowed, to his cello. Before the reverberations of the last note have reached the back of the hall, the cellist is up and stomps off the stage.


I have seen all of the behaviours described at numerous junior football matches. I’ve seen none at the junior concerts that I have attended.




Filed under coach says.., touchline zoo

What has the FA Coaching Course ever done for us?

trainingAct 1

Scene 1

I turned away from no.2 son’s football practice and headed towards the lean, grey-haired man who was erecting goalposts and nets for the afternoon’s senior matches. Our paths had crossed on Saturday mornings before.

He held the key to the gate into the running track. That’s where the posts are kept between matches and he had let, or at least not stopped, my touchline pal and me onto the track to do laps while our boys practised.

An older man, diligently performing a community function.

“Can I help?” I asked, wanting to thank him and gain his confidence so that future excursions to the running track could be assured.

“No. It’s alright,” he replied.

I stood beside the goal and tried to be sociable. “Which team is it playing here this afternoon?”

The grey-haired man told me. “Oh,” I said redundantly, “not United”, the club my boys play for and whose practice sessions were going on around us.

“No,” he confirmed, “not this rubbish,” and he swept his arm out to indicate the dozens of kids running around on mini pitches. “This isn’t football. None of these kids are going to be footballers. This is just nonsense that comes from the FA.”

“Right. Well, good luck this afternoon,” I wished him, cutting short his rant and heading back to watch no.2 son, apparently, not playing football.

Scene 2

No.1 son and I arrived at our local park for a kick-about. A school friend, also with his Dad, recognised no.1 son and we combined for an impromptu Dads v Lads match.

No.1 son was eight and had three years of junior club football behind him. Contriving defeats when we played each other was becoming easier, but still required concentration to ensure a close finish. His school friend wasn’t a member of a club and was less adroit. His Dad, a well-built, near six-footer, played close to full throttle. He challenged his own son for the ball, barging him over and then blasted the ball past no.1 son’s left ear, claiming a goal and leaving the keeper to trot fifty yards across the park to collect the ball.

On our way home, no.1 son and I speculated that his friend may have reason for being less keen to take up playing football.

Scene 3

Standing on the touch line at the pro-club development centre, I chatted to MarineDad, parent to one of no.2 son’s club team mates who had also been ‘spotted’. We discussed football and it was taking all my social skills to maintain a conversation where I disagreed with 90% of the opinions being expressed to me.

“They teach them these ball skills. Don’t know why they bother. I say to my lad in the garden, ‘take the ball past me’. He tries these fancy moves and all I have to do is stick my foot out to get the ball off him.”

Act 3

Scene 1

No.1 son is going on football tour. To Holland, aged just 12. It’s a team effort from the responsible adults at the club. A team lead by the Dad I first met in the park four years earlier, barging over his son and blasting the ball past my son. He has galvinised the parents and, importantly, the boys into fund-raising. He has consulted parents, reassured anxieties, even anticipated concerns: quietly explaining to me how he plans to ensure that no.1 son, as the sole vegetarian, is well-nourished and won’t subsist on a diet of chips.

The tour, like any adventure for 12 year old boys away from home, is not without incident. But he is instrumental in putting those incidents into perspective, and making the trip a sporting, social and developmental success. He cares about the boys he coaches.

The following year, he is hospitalised. He continues to text us, from his sick-bed, letting us know what’s happening that week for the team. He discharges himself to attend matches, to see how the boys are doing. The only difference is that he is, mercifully, a little quieter.

The team has groups of mates and some lads outside of those groups. He notices and challenges his players to recognise the value those boys bring to the team. He’s an extrovert, doing something difficult, looking out for the introverts.

The boys are now 15 and he knows that they have reached an age when many will be drawn away from playing the game. He is trying to run a team that will continue to be important to as many of these lads as possible.

Scene 2

No.2 son is thriving in his club’s first team. They are amongst the best in the district, playing a fast, passing-brand of football.

To begin with, they lost a lot of games. They kept changing goalkeeper, whereas all the successful teams had one boy in goal every game. The instruction they got from the side-line during matches was briefer, less angry and macho than that received by most of their opponents.

MarineDad is the co-coach and chief organiser. He noticed early on that the boys shook off the defeats faster than the Dads – including himself. He persevered with the style of play and by the end of the first season began to see whole matches, not just flashes, of smooth, cultured football. The keepers, three per game, are still volunteers.

When a game against a particular opponent, for a second time turns ugly, he takes measured sensible action, reassuring parents that he won’t allow a repetition. His one good knee buckles, so he runs training on crutches and even referees a match in a knee brace. When the coach for another of the club’s teams cannot attend training, he helps them out.


What happened to Act 2?

A lot must have happened in the lives of these two dad-coaches between Acts 1 and 3, so much that it would be misleading to ascribe the changes I have seen to a single factor. However, I do know that both attended the FA Coaching Course and I do know that both talked differently about junior football after it. They are both good men, whose potential as coaches has been released by some timely educational input.

What about the lean, grey-haired man?

He still assembles the goals for Saturday afternoon’s senior fixtures by himself. I’ve not seen anyone help him, or try chatting to him. I think I have a solution for him. There’s a course he could attend..




Filed under coach says.., individual development

Not dropped

development centreWhen I was approached by a scout about no.2 son joining his club’s development centre last year, it felt like I was being chatted up. And when his affiliation with that centre was brought to an end last week, it had elements of a relationship break-up.

There was the, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line. Actually, the coaches blamed, at different times, their club and the FA, while emphasising what fine footballers all the boys were. There was also an equivalent to the cheesy, ‘there’ll always be a place for you in my heart’ line. The boys, you see, weren’t dropped, but were still part of the club and at some time in the future might be asked to play again.

I’m making it sound worse than it was. At the end of the session, the two coaches brought all the under eights and their parents together and explained that the club had decided very recently that the centre should be for 5-7 year olds. Their academy squad was one of the strongest in the region and so the focus would be on the younger age groups. The coaches made a genuine attempt to explain and soften the news, which was appreciated.

No.2 son has built into his identity attendance at the development centre over the last 12 months. Him being cut from it was the eventuality we had been bracing ourselves for almost since it started. The experience (described here) of a teammate of his brother, who lost his love for the game when dropped by a professional club, was the warning.

Perhaps because it wasn’t personal, because the club or the FA were alleged to be ‘to blame’, no.2 son has so far taken the news equably. He went to training with his club team the next morning and played with his usual enjoyment and vigour with me in the garden today. He did try to peel the professional club’s sticker off his bedroom door tonight, which seems a proportionate response.

Looking back on the last 12 months, what to make of no.2 son’s experience at the development centre? In the early weeks, in fact months, I thought it was indifferent. Some of the coaching drills seemed poorly designed for the age-group and no.2 son just didn’t seem to be ‘getting it’. The experience, I had felt, had come a year or so too soon for him.

But over the summer, perhaps because I was missing weeks pursuing cricket duties, I saw real changes to his game. The centre’s focus on passing and movement became an effective counterweight to his natural marauding game. He didn’t shy from using his weaker left-foot and when his club season began he set out to use skills in matches. He won several ‘man of training’ awards and was comfortable and confident with the other boys. That ability to establish himself amongst a group of peers could be the most enduring skill he has developed.

As with every part of being a touchline dad, my feelings are mixed. When preoccupied with wanting the very best for my boy, I regret this experience ending. He progressed when working with expert coaches, alongside the stronger players of other clubs in the region. Back at his club, the playing standard is mixed and his age-group coaches are all in their first or second seasons as volunteers and are struggling to run slick training sessions. Will his development stall and his potential be unrealised in this less rarefied atmosphere?

But I don’t feel like ranting that he has been left on the scrapheap at seven. I just need to look at the example of his older brother, whose potential as a junior footballer was unlocked by dropping to a less competitive standard, where he flourished (see ‘Finding his own feet in football‘).

I am also very aware of his good fortune of having had the opportunity of the last twelve months. A year ago, no.2 son was a strong player compared to his teammates but not outstanding. The very cream had already been tapped up by the local premiership club scouting operations. He was one of a group of boys who might have attracted interest, but most did not. Each of them may feel more aggrieved than he should.

Amongst my varied thoughts is the selfish (or family orientated) relief that his time at the development centre is over. It opens up Friday evening once more. It also resolves a great uncertainty about how long no.2 son would keep going there. My only real criticism of the development centre was the failure ever to explain to us what to expect.

I had a quiet word with no.2 son at bedtime a day after his last session at the development centre. “I didn’t think I could really be a footballer,” he said.

“You are a footballer now,” I tried to reassure him.

“No, a real one – a professional.”

He is probably right. But if he does defy the odds and make it all the way, I fully expect he will have to overcome many greater setbacks than being (not) dropped by his first development centre.


Filed under coach says.., individual development, scouted

1, 2, 3, ‘andstand

handstandOpening the door to the gym, I’m aware of the odour of the shoe drawers at the same moment as I hear “1, 2, 3 ‘andstand.”

I have come to collect the 1&onlyD from one of her twice weekly gymnastics classes. The two hour session ends with the handstand contest. Girls on one side of the mat, boys on the other, in direct competition. The first ‘team’ to get ten points wins. A point is won by having one of your gymnasts holding their handstand longest.

The girls win. They always do. They have Katie, who has near perfect upside-down balance. Even if they didn’t have Katie, there are three or four times as many girls as boys, which when only one gymnast can win each round, is a telling advantage. But they do have Katie and she wins all ten of their points.

The unvarying nature of the contest baffles me. The gender division seems crude. The whole thing felt anachronistic, even before I was talking to a Mum on the football touchline who, 25 years ago, was a member of the same gymnastics club, and who confirmed they ended every session with the ‘andstand competition.

Tonight’s contest gets fraught. A couple of the boys, getting their usual whipping, are sharing a joke.

Stop talking, concentrate. No wonder you’re losing. It’s a disgrace behaving like that.

barks the Coach, before initiating round 9 (girls 8, boys 1). That’s another old-fashioned thing about the gym – the coaching, particularly that practised by the boys’ coach. Where coaches learning their craft today are upbeat, interrogative and incontinent with praise and encouragement, this coach is complaining, picky and grudging with positive comment.

Maybe gymnastics, at this level, hasn’t altered in the last forty years, so the same methods can be applied. But young people have changed. There is no concession to this. Motivation, rather than something the coach must nurture, is taken as a given.

Does it sound like the sort of place you would let your nine year old daughter spend four hours each week?

The girls coaching is less abrasive, more sympathetic. The 1&onlyD has never been spoken to harshly, even if she doesn’t receive the near continuous reinforcement I hear from coaches in other sports.

But as notable as I find the communication style of the boys coach with his charges, I am just as surprised by how little it appears to affect those boys. They show him no more or less respect and only a little less affection than my lads pay their football coaches. There’s  no outcry from their parents and attendance seems strong and long-lasting.

So, while it’s not the way I would choose to deal with children I was coaching, I wonder if we make too much of the importance of the coach building rapport. Kids learning sport need safety, supervision and some direction, but once they have that, if they are doing something they enjoy, they are content to continue. And continuing means another round of “1, 2, 3 ‘andstand.”



Filed under coach says..

Skipping a year

photo(4)As a boy, I was good at school and good at school work. Age 7, my family left South London for semi-rural Buckinghamshire. My teacher wished me well and gave me one piece of advice: “Don’t skip a year at school; stay in your own school year.”

This advice, that I never had to act on, came to mind this week.

On Friday night, I was watching no.2 son at the pro-club development centre, talking with a Dad whose son is also at our club about the under 8s season starting the next day.

Mid conversation, I received a text from the under 9s (not under 8s) head coach. He asked me what I thought about no.2 son “occasionally playing a year up in league fixtures” this season, starting as soon as the next morning. I replied that I was fine with that and sure no.2 son would enjoy it. Instructions to the next day’s game followed.

Little was familiar to no.2 son the next day: teammates, coach, format (7-a-side) were all unknown. But a ball is a ball, goals and fields vary but not in their essentials. No.2 son put in a forceful display, scoring a goal, marauding, tackling, passing and showing up well alongside the older kids. He enjoyed himself. And so did I.

Later that day, text from head coach, “Heard he did well!!!” and an invitation to no.2 son to “keep coming along”. I said I would think about it.

And that’s where I am still at. I discussed it with Mrs TL who was cautious. I asked for no.1 son’s views. He was adamant that his brother should stay with his year group. I am probably the most amenable to the idea.

In favour of joining the under 9s is the certainty of weekly 7-a-side matches against other teams. On Saturday, he showed himself ready, physically and emotionally, for that challenge, which would develop his football faster and further than the alternative. With his year group, until Easter, most of the games will be 4 or 5-a-side, within the squad.

I am also conscious that he is in his eleventh month at the development centre. It’s a benefit that could be brought to an end soon, which will upset no.2 son. The status of playing with older boys may be a timely boost to him.

The strongest argument against is that he won’t be playing with his mates. Having his friends as teammates was what restored no.1 son’s enjoyment of football and probably informed his opposition to his brother skipping a year.

I am candid in this blog that I seek and find pleasure following my kids’ sport. So, what’s in it for me? Watching matches, particularly when no.2 son’s game is developing so fast, is more appealing than Saturday practice sessions. But I have a social life, and running with my Touchline Pal, attached to those sessions. I think, therefore, either outcome will meet my self-interest.

We haven’t heard yet from no.2 son. That’s deliberate. I am only prepared to let him know he has options if Mrs TL and I are ready to accede to whichever route he chooses. I strongly suspect it would be to join the under 9s as that would sate his competitive appetite – but might not be in his wider interest.

How have you resolved the question of whether your child should ‘skip a year’ at football, another sport, school or other activity?


Filed under coach says.., Competition, individual development

How to keep the Coach sweet

jnr soccer coach

You played really well tonight, little bro.’

I was driving sons no.1 and 2 back from the latter’s development centre training session. No.1 son and I had kicked a ball around together, then settled down to watch the younger boys’ football and to chat. No.1 son talked about his younger brother’s style of play, how it contrasted with his own and what sort of player he might become (like Kolo Touré). While we watched, we both noted the frequency with which the coach shouted praise at no.2 son.

In the car, the boys’ conversation continued:

“Did you do what I told you to do?”

“I did”.

“Did you do exactly what the coach told you to do?”


“The coaches like that and that helps you get picked,” no.1 son explained.

There’s talk, which I’m not encouraging, that no.2 son could be moved from the development centre to the academy. This must have been their agenda.

“So why don’t all kids do that – do what the coach tells them to?” I enquired of no.1 son.

“We’ll, they do during drills, but when they are in a match after they’ve been practising passing, they might prefer to dribble the ball, even though that’s not what the coach has been working on with them. But if you remember to do what the coach has told you to do he will praise you, you get more confident, you became better and he’s happy that his coaching is working. Everyone’s a winner.”

Now, we know that not everyone will be a winner. But I think I know someone who will be.


Filed under coach says.., young shoulders

End of season presentation

presentationThe junior football season is capped off with a get-together, which fulfils a number of functions: celebrating success, reminding the parents of the club’s ethos, thanking coaches and helpers for their efforts, building a bridge across the four or five weeks until the season restarts. But really, as any junior footballer knows, it’s truly about one thing: bagging a trophy.

My boys’ club rewards every player with a trophy. They often get medals, too, for participating in a tournament. The American writer Gore Vidal observed, “It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail.” Not so, if you’re a junior footballer. There’s no devaluation of the trophy in these lads’ eyes, even if all their teammates pick up one that is identical.


A feature of the presentation evenings that no.1 son has attended for the last five years is that each player receives a dedication from the coach as they make their way to collect the trophy. The tradition began when the head coach was a particularly articulate and charismatic man. His anecdote about one of the boys has stuck in my mind. The lad performed a trick in a match and the coach turned to his opposite number and said knowingly, ‘his mum’s Brazilian’. A few moments later and the boy mis-kicked the ball. ‘But his dad’s Scottish’, he clarified.

Unfortunately, the bar was set too high by the head coach who has moved on. Typical dedications now are along the lines of, “He’s been consistent all season, particularly in the second half of the season when his game’s become really consistent.” There’s also a strain of comment that has the coach ascribing any improvement or achievement of a player directly to a tactical change or word of advice from the coach. The coaches do a fine job of running the team. I wish someone would free them (and us) from the awkwardness of them ad libbing in front of an audience about each player.

No.2 son’s group has a different tradition. The presentation is followed by a Dads v Coaches match. I took the precaution of coming straight from work last year so attended in suit and shoes. This kept me safe from the match in which unexpected levels of pent up frustration were vented – by both teams. The same trick worked for me this year, too.

These events see every player ‘trophied’, but some are ‘trophied’ more equally than others. Once each squad member has received their trophy, the coach announces three special awards; usually ‘most improved’, ‘players’ player’ and ‘coach’s player’. It’s hard not to be drawn into the before-the-event speculation and post-event dissection of these decisions. But in my experience the coaches have selected sensibly and sensitively and everyone has been pleased for the boys chosen.

That’s not the case at every club, as this Mumsnet thread starter shows.

My youngest DS plays for a local football team. They are still very young but as a team they are very good. Many people who’ve seen them play have commented that for their age they are a very talented team.

There are a couple of very good players. Boy 1 is very knowledgable about the game, a great team player and can play in all positions. Boy 2 is very speedy and scores lots of goals.

Next month there is a presentation evening where all the players will receive praise and a trophy. The kids have been asked to vote for their favourite player to receive a special mention and another trophy.

The majority vote has gone to boy 1.

Boy 2’s parents have called a meeting to ask why their son is ‘hated’ by the other boys. They’ve asked if the other kids are jealous of his ‘success’ of if the voting was rigged.

Then they phoned up the coach to ask if there was any other award available that he could receive as they were going to find it very difficult to explain to him that he hasn’t won the award they were fully expecting him to win.

As with most of the things that can go wrong with junior sport, it goes wrong when the parents get (over) involved.


Filed under coach says.., sport gives us..