Developing a coaching philosophy that puts the player first

Guide All Ages

Former FA national player development coach, John Allpress, shares his thoughts on how he has created and used a coaching philosophy during his career.

Philosophy: the light footprint
My coaching philosophy is to leave as light a footprint on the players as possible as, in my mind, this gives them greater scope to flourish as individual learners and develop as players.

The main part of my approach is to use games and game-like activities to support players whilst they’re learning the skills and tactical understanding required to play football. Understanding the laws, conditions, strategies and tactics of the game all play a key part.

To sustain the games-based approach I’ve developed a three-pronged teaching method to support players’ learning. Founded upon challenges, questions and evaluation, my job is not only to design the right games and activities that help individuals, units and teams to learn, but also to create an accurate and generous environment – one that replicates the game and allows players to learn.

Players learn the game by working it out as they play. This needs to be accompanied with the right encouragement and collaboration over time. Coaches need to help young players understand how stuff works and what they have to do to get better at it.

A young player dribbles with the ball during a training session, whilst, in the background, her teammates do the same.
Players will develop further when they’re put in game-like sessions and can put their learning to the test.

BeliefsI believe in opportunity; because the nature of opportunity is a scary thing. Whilst some of those involved in scouting and selection believe they haven’t missed any talented players, they’re actually selecting from a small pool. Often it is the case that the oldest and the biggest players get selected; leaving out the youngest and the smallest.

Opportunity remains an issue once players join grassroots clubs or development programmes. If the same kids begin the games and the same kids are substitutes every week, what’s the message?

I believe every player needs the experience of starting and coming on as a substitute to learn to affect the game. I also believe that in development football the coach should know their strongest team but develop a strategy that ensures the strongest team never plays together. This allows an opportunity for the less able players to get match-time next to stronger players.

Empowering players is also key, but to implement this approach the coach needs to understand the process that players go through to become empowered. Arai (1997) suggests that in becoming empowered, individuals move through the following four stages.

1. Becoming self-aware

2. Connecting and learning

3. Taking action

4. Contributing to their own learning

By stage four, players will be playing a part in their own learning by dealing with their thinking about football and expanding their understanding of the game. As a result, this will help their ability to solve problems and make good technical and tactical decisions. They will contribute to the vision and goals of the team and of themselves, ask and answer questions, and begin to decide their own destiny.

Three girls sit around their own tactics board in a futsal hall.
Players should be allowed to express their own ideas and to contribute to their own learning.

Powerful learners are determined enough to put in the long hours of training to reach a standard of excellence. Champions are people who have put in the time and hard work, but who did so intelligently.

The coach can help by praising effort and resilience rather than talent or even ‘success’ and they can train young players to have pride in their own commitment. Players also pick up the values of a coach and make them their own. It also helps if coaches model persistence and resilience in their own work with players, creating a team spirit of mutual appreciation and respect for effort. Not wanting to let the others down is a powerful motivator, as is a degree of healthy competition.

BehaviourThe messages you give out to players and parents are very important as they tell people who you are and what you believe in.

When working with players of any age their leaders need stability, evenness and a degree of regularity. Young developing players have a particular need to know where they stand and this is where reliable, steady and consistent behaviour pays dividends.

Learning is what you do when you don’t know what to do – so inevitably things will go wrong in training and on matchdays. The consistent coach understands this and will demonstrate this knowledge by putting it on view for all to see in the words they use, the way they speak and the control of their body language.

In general youngsters like straightforwardness and even-handedness. Truthful, frank and open behaviour will lead to a coach having an honest working relationship with players and parents.

It’s defensible that a coach will not like all the players to the same degree - that’s just human nature. It’s indefensible, however, if all players are not given the same opportunities to develop and improve.

I believe that young players who regularly demonstrate effort and a determination to improve in training and during matches should always play at least 50% of the time during competitive matches. I say this because fortitude, willpower, strength of mind and purposeful resolve – in other words ‘true grit’ – are the elements and building blocks that the coach should encourage our youngsters to cultivate if they’re to develop technically and tactically. Talent is not enough.

A group of Foundation Phase players gather round their coach and a small whiteboard on the pitch.
Clear and consistent communication is key to developing young players.

ValuesA coach is a leader and the measure of leadership is generosity and care. A coach should be generous with time because time is what learners may need. The coach that uses time in a good way will reap enormous benefits going forward.

Care is being bothered with, showing interest in, and paying attention to people. Players quickly work out if the coach can’t be bothered because they start late, or are disorganised and unprepared. But out of all these things, showing interest in people is really important. The coach who takes time to get to know the players and what they do away from training and matches are in a stronger position to help them.

Through generosity and care the coach can build a picture of the person and help form a healthy working rapport, it then becomes much easier to share knowledge and know-how. As young players mature and the sense of collaboration and group effort begin to be cultivated, the coaching experience becomes more effective.

It’s important to be passionate and focussed but it’s also vital to enjoy the whole experience and have fun 

ConclusionThe holistic development of the player is fundamental. The quality of the players’ experience will depend on the beliefs, behaviours and value systems of both themselves and the adults involved.

Coaches and players should be involved in the game because they love it. They should act with honesty, respecting their opponent in victory and defeat and applauding good play. Play with an amateur spirit but learn like a professional.

I believe my role as a coach is to create an environment that cultivates curiosity so that the players feel comfortable making decisions. In that way, they can cope with responsibilities and they can begin to take ownership of their learning.

My philosophy is to create empowered players through a holistic approach, encouraging young people not just to be footballers, but to develop outside interests. I believe coaching is all about trying to develop better people, not just better players. It’s important to be passionate and focussed but it’s also vital to enjoy the whole experience and have fun.


This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in September 2012.


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