For the whole of December I spent my Saturdays and some of my evenings working towards my Level 1 FA coaching badge. It wasn’t something I actually wanted to do, but after a few gentle shoves from my club, I found myself heading for Huddersfield early on the first day in December. This would be the start of four consecutive Saturdays spent slogging through mornings of various classroom based theory and afternoons of practical sessions. But it would be worth it, right?
I actually qualified as both a Level 1 coach and a referee around twenty years ago as part of my teaching qualification, so, I must admit I felt a little bit put out at the insistence that I do it all again. That said, I suppose it’s obvious that such an old qualification should be considered no use after such a long time and so perhaps, with my team and my club in mind, I should be grateful for the chance to become qualified once more. But, at just after 9am on a Saturday, approaching the place where I’ll be put through my paces, I’m not feeling very grateful at all. Today will last from 9.30 until 5.30 after all – and that’s after having done a week at work. Could it be that I’m just too old for this kind of caper nowadays?
For anyone who doesn’t know, I’ve been coaching one of the Under 10s teams at our local football club for the past year now. I went along as a dad watching his son and ended up being the coach; a common tale from what I can gather. However, given the club’s status as a holder of the FA’s Charter Standard, I’ve been made to get my qualification, despite my misgivings. And I must admit, despite my grumbling, there was a part of me that was actually looking forward to it. I’ve loved football for pretty much my whole life and so the chance to spend even more time indulging myself in it does have a bit of an appeal. And then of course there’s being a bloke and having an ego. I can spend afternoons fluking the odd bit of skill, scoring a few goals and generally kidding myself that I’ve still got it, whatever ‘it’ might have been.
On the first week I checked into the reception of the venue to be greeted by around 15 other reticent faces. Barely anyone looked like they could really be bothered. It wasn’t long however, before we were being ushered out of the reception back out into the cold and pointed in the direction of a hut in the far corner of the complex. This would be our classroom, the magic building where all of us would become the next Klopp, Benitez or in the case of the locals, Wagner. That’s David Wagner, the Huddersfield Town coach, not the pervy looking long-haired Brazilian fella from the X-Factor of years gone by.
Inside the hut we’re welcomed by Norman, an FA coach who will be our mentor and coaching guru for the next month or so. He’s smiley and friendly and seems to know his stuff. And he really gets on our good side by telling us we’ll be running through our practicals on the indoor pitch because it’s bitterly cold outside and he doesn’t fancy standing around in the cold for a few hours! I think I’m going to warm to him, if you’ll pardon the pun.
We spend the next few hours discussing things like the qualities of a good coach, how we treat our players and the FA DNA, which is the blueprint for how the English FA want the game to be approached and the same path that is followed by all coaches, right the way through to Mr Southgate at the top. Our discussions are somewhat hamstrung though, as we battle to get a word in edgeways. We happen to have a ready made expert on the course. You know the kind – no actual qualifications, but more than willing to share his vast experience with us, question the bloke leading the course and ask questions that have just been answered, because of course, he wasn’t listening. He’ll be like this for the next four weeks. Has he mentioned that he coaches 3 teams? Just a bit. Has he told us about the gala that his team entered and won every game? Only a few times. Are we bored of hearing him talk and would we all like him to just shut up? Have a guess. More of him later though.
We also talk ‘invasion games’ which is a new one on me and for a second I’m left wondering how I could’ve missed this concept, given the amount of time I give to football. Turns out though it’s just a bit like attack versus defence. Later, I’m also introduced to other labels for stuff that I already have a name for. After nearly 40 years of watching, playing and coaching football this is a little bit like learning a new language! I’ll probably just stick to using the same terms I always have for the sake of my Under 10s.
Being the social animal that I am I spend lunch time in my car, listening to the radio. If you know me, you’d expect nothing less. On the walk there though, I’m collared by one of the young coaches on the course. I recognise him. He recognises me. It turns out that he’s an ex-pupil, now 22. I’m fully expecting a punch in the face, but he’s nothing but complimentary. He now works in video analysis for a rugby league team and he’s keen to let me know that he got his GCSE in English!
For the afternoon session – as it will be for all of our Saturdays in December – we take to the indoor 3G pitch where we’re either running coaching sessions or taking part in them. Having paired up in the morning we’d designed sessions to run and now it’s time to give them a go. Now, despite a health scare earlier this year, I’d like to think that I’ve kept myself fit, so a few hours running around a pitch holds no fears for me. However, it’s a different story at the end of the warm-up! I’m knackered! We warm up for around 15 minutes, with several short, sharp drills and by the end of it all I can feel my heart hammering inside my chest. As the first pair of coaches set up their drill though, I catch my breath and I’m up and volunteering as they introduce their game.
This is the structure for the afternoon then. Each pair presents their drill and for 10 minutes, those who can still move freely take part. It’s a harsh baptism for this particular 46 year-old! During the first drill I’m not too bad, but in the midst of the second I realise I’m chasing shadows. Experience takes over and I gather myself and start to work smarter. I can’t chase every ball anymore so I start to read the game, cutting off space when I defend and moving into it when I attack, reading what opponents might do and crucially, moving less!
As we stand around afterwards giving feedback, I have a look at my fellow coaches. I’m fairly sure that I’m the oldest. Several of the group are between 17 and 22. In terms of my fitness, I’m out of my depth. I resolve to grow up a bit and realise that I just need to take part. It’s a better alternative than running until I drop! My partner, Nick, is similarly knackered and we’re glad of the rest we’ll get when it comes to both setting up and running our drill.
Our drill is well received and there is no negative feedback. People have obviously enjoyed it, as has the coach running the course and he’s generous in his praise. Even at my age I can’t help but smile. Even at my age it makes me feel proud. It’s a huge positive to find that your peers have loved what you’ve set them to do and I feel like we’re standing out in the best possible way. I jog my way through the rest of the day and after we’ve given peer feedback and written down our homework, it’s time, thank goodness, to head home. I’m exhausted, but have had an undeniably enjoyable day.
My next stop on the coaching journey is another Huddersfield leisure centre. It’s a Wednesday night and we’re set for three hours of fun learning First Aid. I’m genuinely surprised that the main focus of this course seems to be cardiac arrests. I coach 9 & 10 year-olds, but I’m assured that it can happen, so I’m glad of the knowledge gained. Our rather confident and talkative friend is there and proceeds, once again, to do a lot more talking than listening. God help anyone who suffers with anymore than a dead leg at the side of his pitch.
I leave at 9.30pm and drive home praying that at least one chip shop will be open. My prayers aren’t answered though and I’m forced to head to McDonalds insetad. Silver linings? Turns out every cloud is a cloud after all.
The following Saturday I’m put through my paces once again. Same format – classroom based in the morning as the coach battles with the self appointed Special One of the group, who continues to give us the benefit of his experience as often as he can. He coaches three teams you know. He coaches girls. He coaches boys. No doubt he coaches everything in between too. I believe Pep Guardiola started in much the same way, but unlike our fella, he doesn’t like to talk about it.
We’re not even safe from him out on the pitches for the practical sessions either! During the instructions he always has a question and during the feedback there’s always something that he would’ve done different or a nit to pick! By week three, when we all stand in a circle during feedback he’s actually taken to standing in the middle of it, as if he’s the bloke running the course. Worse though, is the fact that he doesn’t get any quieter!
During the afternoon work out I manage to injure myself, which if you’ve ever played football with me in the past, will come as no surprise. I’m delaying an attack by jockeying backwards instead of diving into a tackle – we’ve discussed this in the morning session, so I’m putting my learning into practice in search of Brownie points. However, my tired legs can’t keep up with my brain and I tumble backwards going literally head over heels and narrowly avoiding being stood on by advancing players. I feel something pull in my groin and I know that it’s going to be a long afternoon after that! I’m a big boy and soldier on, but I’m limping quite heavily by the time we leave. Clearly tonight will be spent with my feet up on the settee, recuperating!
On the plus side of things we tweak our successful drill from last week and, if anything it goes even better. People know exactly where they should be and what they should be doing and in the very last seconds a pinpoint cross is headed in spectacularly right in front of Norman, our coach and the FA mentor who has turned up! You couldn’t script this. I go on to use the same drill with my Under 10s in our next training session and again, it goes well. I might actually be learning something! That stuff about old dogs is clearly rubbish!
I have another midweek session, this time only until 8.30 and it’s about Safeguarding. Because of my job I’m familiar with the subject matter so it’s not too draining. The next night I have a Parents’ Evening at work and so by the following Saturday, I’m worn out.
There’s no let up though and to make matters worse Norman has decided that we’ll have a short time to work on our drills before we go to the pitches to run through them. A morning exercise session! We’ll be doing some drills this morning, then some classroom stuff, followed by the remaining drills. I know straight away that my body will seize up once I’ve stopped and so the afternoon session promises to be testing to say the least. I mean, did I mention that I’m 46?
As predicted, as we warm up in the afternoon I can practically hear my joints creaking. My brain is screaming things like ‘sit down’, ‘hot chocolate’, ‘Wurthers Originals, pipe and slippers’, but I have to ignore it and push myself on. We change our drill completely – the only group to do so – and again it works well. So well in fact that the coach tells us that had he been running a similar session he’d have done the exact same drill. With bashful grins we write up our feedback knowing that Nick had taken the drill from the FA website the night before! Turns out there’s no substitute for experience after all! A good day all round and now we’re nearly qualified FA coaches to boot!
With no midweek session, the final Saturday dawns and it promises to be a short one. We’re classroom based today, writing up our journals and discussing football matters with Norman. Sounds great. My feet certainly favour this approach, as does the rest of my aching, middle-aged body.
I was told before starting the course that ‘all you have to do is turn up…you can’t actually fail’. But this has certainly been far harder than that. From what I gather, the course has changed due to the FA’s new ‘DNA’ approach. I’ve had homework, research to do and been faced with a very hands on approach during all of the sessions. It’s certainly not been a case of simply turning up and feigning listening every day. We’ve had to be proactive. We’ve had to think for ourselves. We’ve been put on the spot. And God knows we’ve been tested physically – or is that just me and the other older members of the group? Whichever way I look at it, I feel like I’ve earned my title of Level 1 coach, that’s for sure.
When we’re finished we say our goodbyes and I’m off to my car, tired but happy. There’s lots to do – Christmas is three days away – but as I drive home I realise that the whole thing has definitely been worth it. I’ve certainly improved as a coach. The three training sessions that I’ve put on across the time that I’ve been on the course have been varied, enjoyable and productive. I can see my players improving and they’re enjoying what we do. We haven’t had the chance to put our learning into practice due to games being postponed, but I’m really hopeful that some of the things we’ve worked on will bear fruit on the pitch. Whatever happens, I’m now more creative as a coach and hope that when I’m stood on the touchline trying to resolve some kind of problem or other I’ll be better placed to come up with a solution. Mind you, until the FA come up with a module on tying laces with frozen fingers, there’ll always be something that I can’t solve. Perhaps that’s on the Level 2 course…