My name is Cameron Herbert. Most of my work shared online is in the form of in-depth analysis of some of the best teams in the world. I’ve written on this site frequently about how a team plays, however, I’d actually consider myself a football coach before an analyst. As a matter of fact, most of the football related work I do involves coaching football. Writing about how teams play is a by-product of me wanting to become a better coach! The more I understand how the game is played, the better I can (hopefully) teach it.
In this new section of the Pythagoras in Boots website we will be sharing recurring blog posts from myself and other coaches to give you insight into everything a football coach might do. From discussing stories from our past coaching experiences to our opinions on how the beautiful game should be played; all that and more can be found here.
I’d like to share one of my favourite stories from my (albeit short) time in football coaching. That story is of the first time I began coaching football. I should preface this by saying that I am not a great, or even good football player when compared to some of the people I went to school with, let alone the majority of people in football. I was very aware of my ability, or lack thereof, and decided that in order to make up for being a poor football player, I would have to be really, really, really good at making players better. This should be the goal of all coaches: make players better. However, this was not my goal when I first started.
In the summer of 2016 I left high school and decided that in my free time I would coach recreational football here in Canada. I was (and still am!) young and wanted to try something new. I knew I could never play in the Champions League, but what if I could manage a team that did? While I share this story, let me know how many “red flags” you find during my first time coaching football. I still find a few to this day.
At 18 years-old I volunteered to coach a U16 boys recreational team that played 11v11, with kids who had only ever played recreational football. I was on a mission to win every game possible by playing beautiful football. I had planned for my team to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the #10 being given a “second striker role”. I asked for the players who played in the double-pivot to take turns going forward to attack while the other stayed behind. I encouraged the full-backs to bomb forward when they saw space to do so.
I wanted them to press like mad-men, from the first minute to the last. I even encouraged the goalkeeper (who was 5’5”, bless him) and defenders to play out from the back. I thought that by having so many plans and ideas it made me a “serious coach” and somebody that everyone should take seriously. I wanted to win games and I thought that the more complicated I made things, the more likely it was that we would win.
You’re probably thinking that this is going south before we’ve even started. Believe me, it did. Wait until I tell you about training.
The league I coached this recreational team in allowed for one 60 minute practice and one 60 minute game per week, so, two nights of football. I can promise you now that I did not make the most of the 60 minutes given to me.
I’m cringing as I type this. Perhaps that’s a sign that I’ve learned so much since my earlier coaching days. Buckle up. The players would arrive and I would explain in about five minutes what the objective of the practice was that day. No big deal, I still do this now. After explanation, I had the players “warm-up” by doing a few laps around the field. This took roughly 5-10 minutes.
I let them get some water and we would move on to the drills. Drills roughly took up 30 minutes of our 60 minutes for training.I learned very early on that these players struggled to pass, shoot and receive the ball correctly. To fix this, I had the forwards (or players who pointed out that they preferred to be forwards) practice shooting. Their drills were “stand in a line, have a player pass or cross the ball into the box and shoot it at the goalkeeper.” To work on passing and receiving the ball, I had the remaining players split up into pairs and practice passing the ball back and forth at varying lengths. They did one drill for 30 minutes.
For the last 15 minutes of the practice I would divide the whole team into two separate teams and allow them to play a scrimmage to end the night. I noticed immediately that the players preferred this to anything else. I know why now, but wondered why then.
Most, if not all, of my practices were run this way. The only slight change in plans was that as the season went on, I would start the scrimmages earlier in the practice because that’s what the players had the most fun doing. I should have taken this thought and ran with it. Hindsight is 20/20.
When the season finally began we did not win a single game out of a possible 15; we didn’t even get a draw. In fact, we didn’t score a single goal for five games of our 15 game season. Now, I understand that at some levels results don’t really matter. However, with this age group and their parents, it seemed like that was all that mattered. After three or four games, players began blaming each other for poor results. In games, in practices and even in the parking lot. The players formed their cliques and isolated themselves from their teammates.
It went from being a fun recreational football team to a chore for most of the team. After a few more games, no player wanted to play in the role I had asked them to and the results just got worse. I received dozens of emails on a weekly basis from parents who questioned my coaching ability and sanity. I even had one parent threaten to pull their child out of the team if I didn’t start winning games.
As I said above, we didn’t win a single game. So, eventually, a player left my team despite paying to play in it. If that isn’t kicking someone when they’re already down, I’m not sure what is. This happened around four or five games before the season ended. I cannot even begin to express the negative emotions I felt when this happened. At the time I believed that I may have ruined this player’s summer and perhaps their perspective on football as a whole. I was devastated.
What hurt even more was that I thought I was doing everything right. My whole idea of “coaching” was so poor that someone would rather not play at all than play on my team. Once this happened, something clicked for me. I realized that the practices did not create an environment in which the players could learn something, nor were they fun. I didn’t have fun coaching them and the players only had fun when they scrimmaged.
I had the players practice shooting and passing because I thought practice passing and shooting to get better at passing and shooting. This was a very basic way of looking at player development. I had understood that their lack of ability came from lack of practice. However, their lack of ability came from lack of quality practice. What I should have done is explain to them the best way to strike the ball when shooting and the best way to hit a pass to a standing teammate. Then, after explaining the proper technique we can move into drills that focus on repetition so that the technique can be mastered.
Unfortunately it took a player quitting my team for me to realize how training should be done. What’s worse is that it took until there were only four or five games left in the season, meaning that any changes I did make wouldn’t last very long.
Once the player left I decided that I needed to make the practices as fun as possible. That was the new goal. I no longer placed any focus on the results, formation, “system”, nothing. Just fun. This was a recreational league for 15/16 year old kids who signed up to get onto the football pitch twice a week, not Pep Guardiola’s sextuple winning Barcelona team.
Practice after my epiphany was as follows: I would explain the purpose of the practice. Then, go into a dribbling game in the center circle to warm-up. Players would run around inside the circle and shield their ball while trying to kick their opponents ball “every man for themself” style. This would go on for about 10-15 minutes. I then separated my 21 player team into four teams of five, with an extra player hopping on whatever team needed an extra player and had two five-a-side games going on.
Depending on the energy levels I might have tossed a second ball into a game to make things interesting. These small sided games went on for about 20 minutes. We have now used up roughly 40 minutes of practice time, so the players would get a five minute break to freshen up and then we would hop into a 10v10 + a neutral player game to end the practice.
Now, I didn’t always get every single player to come to practice. So instead of five-a-side games we may have used four-a-side or even three-a-side games. I just made the playing space smaller.
After I made adjustments to my practice I noticed a complete change in player happiness, quality of their play and a sense of “togetherness”. Corny, I know, but the players genuinely looked like they had been playing for years.
With so many small sided games going on at once, more players were able to get more touches, passes and shots than they would have if I had them standing in lines doing drills. On top of this, I was able to pop in and out of the small groups with short pieces of advice as to how they can improve their first touch, passing and other techniques that might make the game easier for them. This is, in my opinion, the best way to coach players. Long winded speeches as to how you should play does not improve a player. Short and simple messages that get the point across are best because it gets the players back to playing as soon as possible. After ten weeks I was finally doing some coaching.
The games that followed my epiphany were all losses. I already told you that; I’m not sure if you expected any different. However, we did score a lot of goals. This was five years ago but I distinctly remember the team scoring 15 goals in the last few games. We talked about them at every practice that followed the games because of how excited the players were. Some of these boys have never scored a goal in their life! Sure we didn’t win any games, but the players were enjoying themselves and I was able to sleep a little easier at night.
I look back on this summer as one of the best and worst of my coaching career. It was abysmal at the start. I had pissed off a dozen sets of parents, the players hated the practices and every game we knew we would lose. My plans were complicated and hard to follow. I was a terrible communicator. I expected way too much from kids who just wanted to play recreational soccer with their friends during summer break. Many lessons were learned and appreciated.
On the other hand, it was great because I learned when I should take things seriously and when not to. I began to understand the reasoning to why a practice is organized the way it is, rather than just finding some drills online and using those aimlessly. That summer taught me how coaching can be really rewarding too. Seeing players enjoy playing football, a game that everyone reading this loves, is beautiful.
Improving players, even slightly, is one of the most rewarding experiences anyone can have. Despite starting poorly, I was still obsessed with football and football coaching. I have dedicated so much time and effort to getting better at coaching so that every practice I put on is one that gives the players an opportunity to improve.
I hope you enjoyed the story of my first time coaching football. It’s a lot more personal than most of the articles I write for Pythagoras in Boots, but perhaps that’s what kept you reading this long. If you have made it this far, feel free to count all the coaching “red flags” I showed you. I’m sure you’ll find plenty.
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