The purpose of this blog is to explore the key attributes a coach needs when working with young players. I reflect on some common traits of coaches that I have worked with during my time within the foundation phase (U7 – U12). With the emphasis on this phase being on long term development, a top coach in these age groups isn’t one that gets results on a Saturday. So, what makes a top coach when working with younger players? Here’s my top ten traits needed when coaching young players:

Enthusiasm – as a coach, you are responsible for modelling the type of behaviours that you want from your players. In order to create enthusiastic children that want to learn, you as a coach when working with them in your environment can be instrumental in developing this. So how can I be more enthusiastic? Act more enthusiastic. This is something you’re in control of, I recall a conversation with an academy manager who would routinely when entering the office think about how he would behave to ensure he always appeared positive and open to the staff. Guess what? The person was always easy to approach and continually enthusiastic to every part of his role, particularly when working with players.
Consistency – by being consistent with your players and fellow coaches this will help them to have a better understanding of you. A coach in these age groups that doesn’t act erratically, or who’s behaviour doesn’t change when results aren’t going their way or the session isn’t going to plan is essential. This will help you to be more approachable to your players, parents and other coaches. In addition, being consistent with your messages of your values and beliefs as well as how you work will help the people that you’re working with to have a better understanding of how you work, therefore, making it easier for them to take information on board. By being consistent, people will have a better understanding of who you are and what you want.
Understanding self – in order to get the best out of your players, you need to be able to get the best out of yourself. The best coaches that I have worked with have a clear understanding of their values, beliefs and ultimately who they are and what they stand for. If you haven’t done so already, I would strongly recommend sitting down and documenting your beliefs, values and why you are a coaching. What do you want to get out of coaching? The clearer you become with this, the clearer your messages will be when working with coaches and players.
The relationship coach – the relationship coach is a phrase that I heard towards the beginning of my journey and has stuck in my head ever since. Tom Bates, once spoke in a coaching CPD event I attended about his belief of how important it is that you become the relationship coach. A model that Tom shared with us is The Control Warmth Matrix (see below) which is a great way of developing a better understanding of how to be as a coach.
The authoritative coach, is one that demonstrates knowledge and understanding whilst also showing that they care. This model is one that I’ve always tried to follow which aligns to who I am, my approach is to treat everyone as a person, trying to be open and approachable whilst showing that I am to help them develop as a person as well as a player.
Player Centred Approach – having an approach which is player centred is invaluable when working with young players. Firstly, get to know them. Where do they come from? What school do they go to? Do they have any brothers and sisters? Showing you care and finding out as much as you can about each player will help you connect as well as know how to work with that individual. One of the biggest challenges for coaches is the limited contact time that they have with their players and how to divide that time. If you just focus on football whilst they’re there, that’s fine, but the best coaches I’ve seen work truly connect with their players and are continually having informal conversations showing an interest in that child as a person, not just as a player. The better you do this, the easier it will be for you to plan your session to meet the needs of the individuals within your sessions when trying to develop them.
Patience – the journey for young children through football is not a straight forward one. The coach that understands that success is not going to be straight forward will have a better understanding of development and learning and be ready to support children along the way. The image below perfectly illustrates this:
The journey to success, whatever success may be, for each person will be different and look different. Therefore, as a coach, you must be patient with each player and be supportive as they develop in these early stages. Some children will be able to perform a task or skill with their first attempt, others may need far more time, but that doesn’t mean that won’t get it or be able to deliver it eventually better than most. The best coaches I’ve worked with in the Foundation Phase are fully aware of how children learn in these young age groups and will not judge the children on what they can’t do, but instead have a mindset on helping them.
The learner – to learn is ‘the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught’. The best coaches I have worked with prioritise their players learning as well as their own. They’re continually looking to grow as a person as well as a coach and are trying to be the best version of themselves. It is important to understand that how individuals learn will be different, as well as what they want to learn too. In order to create a positive learning environment, the more you as a coach can place an emphasis on the important of learning as well as educate how learning takes place the better your results will be not only for yourself but also for those that you are working with.
Here’s an example of the learning cycle which may help support the above:
Effective communication – to be able to communicate effectively is to be able to use verbal speech or other methods of relaying information that get a point across. An example of effective communication is when you talk in clear and simple terms. The best coaches I’ve seen working in the Foundation Phase can make children hang of their every single word. Sometimes, they don’t even need to say anything it can just be a look or a thumbs up but it’s the way in which they do it which resonates with me, as I’ve seen how powerful it can be. It’s not about how much you can say, it’s how you say it. Being comfortable with silence and understanding that children need to be able to play and explore to learn is so important with these younger age groups.
Creativity… being willing to take risks – don’t be ordinary, be out of the ordinary. The thirst to find news ways of challenging the players is down to the coach. Encourage children that take risks, but also be willing to try new stuff yourself. One coach I worked with explained to me that he sees this phase (5-11s) as the ‘Creative Lab’ phase and everything he did was there for him and the players to explore creative ways for children to learn and develop. Do not be the limiter on creativity in your sessions, which sometimes means that you may not be at the forefront of your sessions. Guess what? Your players have capacity to be far more creative than you. This diagram gives you some basic ideas on how you can develop creativity in children:
Being adaptable – as you build your experiences as coach, you’ll begin to resize it’s not one size fits all. As you work in different environments and with different coaches and players, a key quality to being a top coach is being adaptable. The best coaches I have worked with have had the experience of working in different environments and continually draw upon these experiences to help them understand how to work. I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of coaches that are able to work across different age group and levels and are able to get the best out of the players. Therefore, be willing as coach to seek out different experiences and get outside of your comfort zone.