A successful football program to produce our next Socceroos

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert

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    The sight of kids standing, stagnate, while one of their peers performs an inane and meaningless drill with a coach is all too frequent in Australian sport.

    Good willed parents and carers take up the enormous responsibility of mentoring young athletes and do their level best to foster enjoyment and success for their chargers. Football has never been immune to this.

    Many of my early coaches were dads of fellow players, often enthusiastic migrants whose passion for the game was immense. Some were skilled players, yet few were aware of the finer details of skill development and the necessary drills and repetition required to ingrain good habits in young footballers.

    Later in life, I felt I perpetuated the same failings. As much passion as I had for the teams I support, it didn’t automatically translate into the technical knowledge required to develop players to their full potential. No matter how much one loves football, it doesn’t parlay into successful coaching.

    Throwing a few cones on the ground and asking kids to dribble around them will achieve something – probably the ability to dribble around cones – however, more intense, precise and meaningful strategies are required to see young players given their best chance to grow.

    As the years have passed my drill armoury has increased, and as many coaching lessons have been learnt, I am now quite comfortable dealing with young players up to around 14 or 15 years of age. Beyond that, I will leave it to those working professionally in coaching programs on a full-time basis.

    My club team is at under-14 level, female and an absolute treat to mentor. Having worked in education for many years, the opportunities to coach are myriad. In my current position, it has been a pleasure to step away from coaching and take on more of an administrative role, observing some seasoned pros mould the young footballers at their disposal.

    The program is run at Barker College in Sydney’s north and overseen by Jonathon Sparks. After five years of his stewardship, the coaching and development program in which over 500 boys participate through the winter months has evolved enormously from what it was less than a decade ago.

    In the past, many coaches, including me, performed their duties diligently and enthusiastically. The boys enjoyed their matches, yet training sessions were often simplistic and dull. A few basic drills followed by some crossing and shooting would generally lead to the remainder of the time being spent on a short internal game.

    Sure, the students were kicking a ball, running and developing positive attributes such as teamwork, a healthy work ethic and an improvement in general fitness, yet the limitations were stark. Teams at the elite level of each age group were given excellent instruction and opportunity to develop, yet at the lower levels, the football program lacked significant polish.

    In subsequent years, the evolution has been immense. Strolling across the playing fields from 7.00am on any given weekday presents a stark contrast to days gone by.

    The most striking thing is what I like to call the ‘hum’ that emanates from the entire area. A concoction of that soft thumping sound of boot on ball, players calling out teammates’ names or a coach barking an instruction.

    It’s somewhat loud yet at the same time eerily quiet, as if the concentration levels and intensity required to complete the drills creates something of a muted din.

    As a football fan, it is a beautiful noise (sincere thanks to Neil Diamond). It permeates across the whole area, and when a morning fog lingers or cloud cover hovers above, it adds something even more romantic to the whole scene.

    The photos I have taken of the field prior to the session starting view as something akin to an apocalyptic or moonscape setting. Hundreds of poles, cones and other equipment set up in such precise formations, with bags of footballs lying nearby, as the coaches gather to discuss their own matches and experiences in football from the week just passed.

    Sparks has assembled an impressive array of staff to pass on their considerable knowledge and talents to the football hungry students. Former NSL player Robbie Hooker and ex-Socceroo Troy Halpin share their time between other coaching and managing commitments and the Barker program.

    Coaching mentors, such as Elvis DeMarchi, oversee an age group, working with the team coaches and improving their performance. Coaches must be qualified at C level and many have B-level accreditation. Having elite A-level coaches in the program ensures that the instruction is of unquestionable quality.

    Thirteen coaches are competing at an incredibly high level, with some representing NPL 2 clubs and others embedded in the under-20s system. Some of the mentors are ex-students who bring a unique perspective to the incredible development that has taken place in recent history.

    The drills are precise and intense, with both individual skill levels addressed, as well as more team centred objectives such as defensive structures and formation.

    Watching players take possession under pressure, turn and release a ball with speed and agility is a treat to watch. The coaches drive home key messages about balance, the use of both feet and control.

    Each individual team within an age group has a specific formation. Long gone is the 4-3-3 come hell or high water. At the 16-year-old level, where my involvement lies, the Bs play a 4-2-1-3, whereas the Cs play a 4-1-2-3.

    Seeing quality goalkeeper instruction where the basic skills of footwork, diving and decision making are taught by a qualified mentor is a far cry from the dark old days of shoving a kid with an ill-fitting fluoro shirt in goal for ten minutes while the rest of the team takes pot shots at them.

    The science behind football has finally bled from the elite level all the way down to our grassroots and our players will be tangibly better off.

    The college is an affluent school, well-resourced enough to implement such a program, and it would be foolish to think that these structures are standard across the nation. However, it is something of a model, and while far from perfect, has the potential to shape the planning of other clubs, schools and associations.

    Football in this country has long struggled with the depth of quality in the coaching ranks, and while Barker College will seek to develop this further in the future, their structures and mechanisms are a significant step.

    The teams against which they compete are doing similar things, and the increased level of participation among private school kids is being met with quality instruction.

    I’m sure there is a variety of horror stories springing to mind as many readers reflect on their past experiences in coaching or administration of football clubs and teams.

    Let’s hope that the new and improved professionalism that is becoming increasingly apparent continues and every one of our potential Socceroos or Matildas are given every chance to become just that.

    Stuart Thomas
    Stuart Thomas

    Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @stuartthomas72.

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    The Crowd Says (14)

    • August 2nd 2017 @ 7:27am
      Waz said | August 2nd 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      Nice write up Stuart, and while it’s unfortunate this is being done in a well resourced Private School it is still fortunate it is being done at all (and it’s something being repeated across Brisbane’s elite schools as well but it can’t be allowed to remain there otherwise we will become an elitist, niche sport as Rugby found itself). Not that there’s anything wrong with any school doing this but the professional level of coaching you describe is something that is much needed across our country and not until it becomes ubiquitous will the playing standard in this country lift significantly.

      There’s another important aspect to this which is the evolution of a “football culture” in this country; we are now seeing the emergence of second and third generation footballers remaining active in the code through coaching, administering and volunteering at all levels. The golden age of football in this country will be realised at some point in the future if this potential can be realised and translated into greater activity across all areas of this great game.

    • August 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am
      j,binnie said | August 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      Stuart – Can’t work out in my mind whether this article is a spiel for Barker College or a serious critique of our coaching methods at grassroots level.
      Actually there is a simple test in football coaching that surprisingly, has the same results no matter where you are in the football world.
      If you sit down a group/team of kids and get them comfortable with your presence you can then ask them what it is that they most enjoy about playing football.
      From 6-11 the answer will invariably be “kicking the ball ” or “scoring a goal”.
      If you go through the same procedure with a team of 14 year olds the answers will invariably be, winning the game,winning the league, or winning the cup,note the emphasis on the word “winning”.
      This is not a test that someone just thought up it is the result of an investigation into the psychological development in any group of youngsters in any sport,undertaken in a university in England back in the early 1970’s.
      As a result of that investigation it has come about that coaching of kids has to be tied very much into the age groups being coached.
      Now that is easier said than done for as you rightly say ,in many instances of Australian coaching it is some well meaning parent,with no such knowledge of sports psychology, that is “educating” his or her group of kids.
      It is in this area that the National Curiculum has failed miserably for this is not new knowledge it is nearly 50 years old and 2 top administrations of football in Australia have chosen to ignore that fact of life, the ASF in 1974. and today’s FFA ,who pay “lip service” to the NC’s existence,without pressuring it’s development.
      When the previous National Director of Coaching walked away from the Curriculum, stating it was in the too hard basket, many scoffed, but in fact he was probably much nearer the truth than many realise.
      The psychology of junior coaching can be summed up in two groups and one observation, 5-11 fun,fun,fun, 11-35 theoretical football education.
      There are countless books available on these subjects but believe me most opinions contained therein are based of that investigation 50 years ago. Cheers jb.

      • Columnist

        August 2nd 2017 @ 9:20am
        Stuart Thomas said | August 2nd 2017 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        Hi JB, certainly not meant to be merely shameless promotion, more of a nod to a significant change in the way football is instructed. The improvement in skill level is noticeable and whilst a well funded school can set up and manage the program it really needs to happen across the board. In weekend club football, Academy kids get the same quality yet we know how much parents are slugged for the privilege. The schools are an issue with only the independent, sports or selective schools having the infrastructure in place to build up an effective program. A mighty lot of kids attend under funded state schools and there are future Socceroos in the system. We just need to find them and nurture their talent in a professionally run program.

        • August 2nd 2017 @ 9:47am
          j,binnie said | August 2nd 2017 @ 9:47am | ! Report

          Stuart – I doubt very much if today I get around to as much junior football as I did a few years ago when my grandson was of an age, but what I found then actually frightened me for I was seeing coaching methods used ,based on what we see on TV every game we watch,coaches standing on touch lines shouting out instructions at players to play the game in the manner that they,the coaches ,want it played.
          Last year when driving past a field I stopped, and saw this exact method being used on a squad of under 11 players.
          Stuart ,my worry is that we would not send our kids to schools where the teaching staff were totally unqualified,we DEMAND that our teachers have some sort of qualification in how to teach and yet we send these same kids along to sports clubs where parents are expected to attain the same results as these professionals.
          It is all very well to have a curriculum but who is going to interpret how that curriculum should be used in day to day instruction.
          It may surprise you but before your time ,in 1974, we had a Director of Coaching who set about having a State Director of Coaching in every state whose mandate was to teach laymen how to teach,and to achieve that aim, his State Coaches had to have teaching qualifications. That idea ,and it’s benefits , died a death when the sponsor ,a cigarette company,was forced to withdraw their support from sport (by government decree).Football’s leading body at the time ,the ASF, couldn’t raise another sponsor for kid’s coaching!!!!!!!!
          So Stuart, you will forgive me if I sound a bit cynical about our grass roots coaching and how it is conducted in a nationwide manner. There are good people out there,no doubt, but the magnitude of the task has so far seen some very well qualified men walk away from the job and that worries me a bit more than a little, jb

    • August 2nd 2017 @ 9:07am
      Chopper said | August 2nd 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

      All sports have to have volunteer parents to assist in coaching the youngsters coming through the ranks because of the sheer cost of providing professional coaching. The fact that some of those parents are ex players with experience of playing at a reasonable level can only be a benefit to their involvement in coaching. The next step is to coach the coaches to a higher standard and at minimal or no cost to the coaches. This I believe will begin to happen when all A League Clubs have their own academies but of course this cannot happen while the clubs are starved of funds. FFA in it’s restructure should leave the running of the A League to the clubs and concentrate on badgering governments at both State and Federal level to provide funds for grassroots football’s playing fields and coaching.

    • August 2nd 2017 @ 9:31am
      Buddy said | August 2nd 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      Stuart, unfortunately everything stems back to where it all starts at grassroots level and the world of volunteering. At local grassroots level right down to the mini teams, they have a coach or team leader as well as a manager and that alone requires huge numbers of volunteers and often people who have no idea about the game whatsoever.
      Good news in our local association though. This year it was mandated thaty anyone who wanted to coach a mini roos side must hold at least the basic grassroots certificate… and amazingly the association reached 100% compliance early in the season. It was also mandated that all division 1 coaches had to have undergone the age appropriate qualification or the team could not participate in div 1. Once again, a big tick with full compliance. Whilst that is not a solution for all the inherrent issues it is a good start and it came amidst cries that “you’ll never do it” from all around.
      Well meaning parents that give up their time to coach have held grassroots football together for a long time but they could rarely kick start a playing career for a junior without being fully conversant with at least the nuts and bolts of the game. Aside of rolling out programs for all ages and levels, the next step would be to get coaches to a higher level. That is required everywhere though particularly at academies and the various levels beyond grassroots through to youth league. Far too many people coaching supposedly at higher levels that really shouldn’t be anywhere near developing players.
      When it all unravels though you realise just what an enormous puzzle it is to undo and put together in a fashion that has some good outcomes, contains value for players parents and clubs and doesn’t cost a fortune and therefore make it exclusive.

    • Roar Pro

      August 2nd 2017 @ 9:36am
      Ben Sewell said | August 2nd 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

      There should be no hard and fast rule on formations. Play whatever formation works best for your team. That way these guys are ready to go with whatever formation the future holds for them

      • August 2nd 2017 @ 10:00am
        Nemesis said | August 2nd 2017 @ 10:00am | ! Report

        There is no hard & fast rule on formations, and people who have read the National Curriculum – all 300+ pages – will understand this.

        Even if you haven’t read the Curriculum, if you’ve been watching the National Teams (senior men, senior women, u23, u19, u16, u15) you will know that Australia’s elite footballers at every level do not play to one formation.

        Heck, they don’t even play to one formation during any 60 second period of any match. The team structure is fluid, depending on: who has the ball, where is the ball, where are the opposition players.

        • August 2nd 2017 @ 10:57am
          Waz said | August 2nd 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report

          The NC is probably the most misunderstood concept in football lol

          • August 2nd 2017 @ 2:23pm
            Buddy said | August 2nd 2017 @ 2:23pm | ! Report

            That might just be due to the way it was handed down in tablets of stone……it came here along the lines of “You Will” – which is usually the starting point of any rebellion!

            • August 2nd 2017 @ 2:36pm
              Waz said | August 2nd 2017 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

              I don’t think it was though, if you’re in the ffa development system (very few are) you might feel that way but there’s enough latitude in there for any qualified coach to work with. The best example is the NYL, very much within the ffa system but multiple different styles and flavours. The NC is just misunderstood – it’s available on Line for anyone that wants to read it.

              • Roar Rookie

                August 2nd 2017 @ 8:54pm
                Brendo51 said | August 2nd 2017 @ 8:54pm | ! Report

                The NC is a great document, the implementation of it not so much

              • August 2nd 2017 @ 10:41pm
                Buddy said | August 2nd 2017 @ 10:41pm | ! Report

                I think it may have varied around the various states.what’s that old expression? “It’s the way you tell ’em”

          • August 3rd 2017 @ 2:37pm
            j,binnie said | August 3rd 2017 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

            Waz- Your comment re. the NC was very short and sweet but failed to detail whether ,after 8 years since inception it is still mis-understood.
            When reading the document one is given the impression that the original document was written by Han Berger when in fact it was written by a mentor of Berger, one Robert Baan, who after 2 years of “authorship” retired from the game ,but has since popped up in India doing the same job for the IFF.
            When reading Berger’s comments after the “second edition” was released it is not hard to read between the lines in his comments to realise the original document somehow missed the mark, resulting in Berger having to produce a “second edition” This was released in 2012 ,not long before Berger relinquished his position to move to a club environment in 2014.
            What is not widely reported is that in 2012 Berger had visits from the principals of another worldwide coaching system ,the Coerver Coaching Method, Charlie Cooke and Alfred Galustian, and it was not long after these visits he apparent;y called it a day in his FFA job.
            I have read the document you have mentioned and while I like to think I have a good understanding of football coaching, such is the language and detail used in the document I am not surprised it may have been deposited in the ‘too hard “basket. Cheers jb.

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