View From The Bench – A Coach’s Perspective on Training Young Soccer Players

8277897073_2f0ab25231_zIn our recent case study, we examined the impact that football academies can have on young football players and their parents.

But what about those that work inside the academies? How does the modern Coach perceive the role that football academies can play in the development of young children? And what advice would they give to fellow coaches and to the parents of budding professionals?


Jed is currently working as a CONSULTANT TO THE ESTONIA NATIONAL TEAM MANAGER (MAGNUS PEHRSSON). He has extensive academy coaching experience and has also worked as a coach at OXFORD UNIVERSITY in England.

As well as working as a coach, Jed has also written two highly-rated soccer coaching books: COACHING THE TIKI-TAKA STYLE OF PLAY and THE FOOTBALL PHILOSOPHY: IN THE SHADOWS OF MARCELO BIELSA.

In addition, he is also the co-founder of INSPIRE FOOTBALL COACHING – a UK-based Coaching and Education Company that regularly holds conferences featuring world class thinkers and speakers from within the game.

Interview with Football Coach Jed Davies

Hi Jed, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. To begin with, can you please tell us the age ranges that you have coached during your career, and at what level?

I have taught children from the age of 9 through to adult, and from Category One academy level through to university level.

In your experience, at what age would a child need to start playing to stand a realistic chance of becoming a professional player and why?

Studies have revealed that the large majority of international football players have been involved in academy football since before the age of 12. There are of course many exceptions, but the general consensus is that players should be obsessed with football from an early age to reach those heights.

That isn’t to say they won’t play other sports of have other interests, but they will enjoy football as a passion, or as a subject of mastery at a much earlier age than often expected. Once again, there are many exceptions to the rule.

At what age do technical and tactical skills start to become important?

The general belief is that technical skills are best grasped during the ‘golden years’ – 10-12 years of age – and this has been backed up by a lot of research. The tactical question really depends on how you define tactics.

If tactics include the collective expression of individuals; understanding how to use overloads; how to work together to find a way to break lines; how to exploit space created by receiving the ball between the lines – and therefore drawing defenders out of position; then I would include technical sessions from the earliest of ages.

If however, the definition of tactics is limited to specific strategies to break down a defence, formations and patterns of play, then these come in when the 11v11 format is implemented.

Even then, the principles of penetrating lines; what happens before a penetrating pass – collectively; using movement to exploit space and so on; should be part of a continuation of education.

How many hours a week should a child train or is quality more important than quantity?

COACH 4 RFAFQuality is of course more important than quantity. Then there is also the question of classroom hours being included in the training schedule. Players should have their passion fed and remain stimulated in a development capacity as much as possible. That is not to say we need to have them running around after a ball in a structured training environment every day.

The last academy I worked at would have 3x 1.5 hour sessions followed by a game, as well as a 1-hour classroom session each week. Players who needed additional challenges would participate in further practical sessions with older age groups – providing it met the needs of the individual.

It’s a question of the coach and player understanding one another in terms of when to rest and when to overload a player with information.

It is also important to allocate time for mixed-age and physical free play. I’ve seen a lot of evidence that in West Wales (UK), most academy footballers come from ‘holiday towns,’ where they play in this type of environment, and enjoy the challenge and struggle of fulfilling whatever social role they expect of themselves.

Coach Dan Micciche (England U-18, Tottenham Hotspur, MK Dons) also uses a lot of mixed-age football training, free from certain rules or coaching.

How important is self-esteem and confidence in a players development?

1st team Real Betis TrainingIt’s everything. The role of an academy coach is to promote an environment where players are highly-focused, trusting of themselves and others, and able to grow as leaders. Coaches must also ensure that the passion for football is being fed.

I am a big believer that kids need heroes, not criticism. Whether that hero is Tony Hawkes, who may inspire a lifetime obsession with trickery; or Terry Fox, who showed a higher level of purpose by running across Canada for cancer awareness, kids need heroes. From there we can theorise what makes each hero worthwhile as a role model.

I ran a classroom session series titled better people = better football players, and kids (ages 10-14) chose their own heroes to study and present to the class. Some chose basketball teams or players, one chose Terry Fox, some chose people who are seemingly at a disadvantage but succeed beyond measure.

A lifelong passion is often fuelled by heroes. I still remember my childhood heroes and without a doubt they’ve shaped my adulthood passions, my ways of thinking and much more. For these reasons, I love to celebrate the players who have gone before, and I still get excited when a player scores a goal in the manner of Van Basten or Maradona!

I’ll make a real case for passion – and it truly does excite me to see glimpses of Riquelme or Ronaldinho in a young player! Kids have such good access to the Internet and YouTube these days and they’ll go away and research these guys. A good coach or teacher will always show plenty of curiosity and passion.

Do kids need self-esteem? Yes, even more than that they need to feed and grow their passion into a way of life. They need to be playing football in the clouds alongside Beckham, Batistuta and Baggio. It’s about finding that balance between current superstars and those who’ve turned golden over time. We as players need to place ourselves among these heroes and believe nothing less.

Do training techniques vary greatly in different countries?

Workout 02Absolutely. Culturally, some training methods reflect the way we think – Brazilians and South Americans are considered more free and creative than the Scandinavians or Japanese, for example, who prefer order. This cultural way of thinking is developed in schools, in parenting styles and more.

As a Coach, you may work with people who prefer order and organisation, as well as people who prefer chaos and freedom, and if you’re really connected with the players, you can identify who is who within that spectrum.

For example, Louis Van Gaal uses three groups: the first is creative and free from rules, the second prefers instructions and a clear purpose or role, and the third targets those that adapt to the environment they’re in.

I’ve always believed that these things best determine how a player interprets their role and therefore, how they should express themselves in each position on the field. Do they like to lead, plan and control, or do they prefer to play for the moment and find magic in the now?

From there we can provide role models that interpret roles in a similar way. However, no two people should play in goal, or as a central defender in exactly the same way.

Some coaches like to counter-balance a player’s natural way by providing methods that are opposite to their personality type, and I’ve seen this done successfully. Equally, I’ve seen a Canadian culture – based on schooling, scheduled weeks and doing what is right – thrive in an environment where detail is everything.

How important is discipline in regards to diet and generally leading a responsible and healthy lifestyle?

Sleep and diet are paramount. These days, a lack of real quality sleep is a big issue for young people. The use of blue light electronics such as iPhones and iPads etc. means we’re constantly wired and often get a poorer quality of sleep; which – as many adults have experienced – can have a negative impact on our focus, the way we learn and how we perform in a competitive environment. This in turn, can lead to lower self-esteem and so on.

If there’s one valuable area to educate young players in, it’s the importance of sleep. However, it’s no good just telling them, they need to passionately understand the direct link between the two.

Lifestyle is an area that so many neglect in their youth education. Learning how to deal with suffering, failure and rethinking what success is, also forms a large part of that process.

Is it important that players avoid serious injuries during their youth?

coverWhat’s more important is that the coach never forgets an injured player, and remains connected with their development throughout.

During growth spurts, poorer coaches often mismanage training loads and this can lead to long lasting injuries beyond childhood. During a child’s growth spurt, we should step back from additional training loads and remind players that consistency is not expected of any child – only flashes of brilliance.

Everyone can see themselves showing a flash of brilliance. By painting that picture we can reduce the level of stress that can lead to injury during these periods; where agility, balance and coordination are most affected.

What part does luck play in the career of a professional – is it sometimes about being the right place at the right time?

It’s the job of a coach to remove the idea of luck, and replace it instead with the idea that the moment comes to those that deserve it. The coach should then recognise players’ efforts and improvements when appropriate. Again, this is about knowing the individuals you are working with; some will work harder for it than others, and some don’t enjoy being highlighted in front of groups of people.

You need to create an environment where players have absolute trust that if they do their very best for you, then good things will come to them. All elements of fear and luck should be removed. Even if that really is the case – players can’t believe in that.

Any final advice for coaches and parents regarding what it might take to help a young player become a professional soccer player?

Kids need heroes, not criticism.

You can follow Jed Davies on social media here:

Twitter: @TPiMBW
Facebook: Jed Davies Football Coaching

If you are interested in sending your child to a soccer camp, please call us on Spain (+34) 951 204 061 / USA (+1) 857 208 72 49 / UK (+44) 203 769 94 43 or contact us via email.