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Academy Coach and Children's Author - Paul Barry

Meet Paul Barry, based in Essex, a football coach with academy experience, personal training, and now a published children's author.

Qualifications: BSc (hons) Sport & Exercise Science, UEFA A Licence, FA Advanced Youth Award, UEFA B Licence, FA Generic Tutor Training, Coerver Coaching Youth Diploma, FA Psychology in Soccer, FA Talent ID, Level 3 Personal Trainer, PTLLs Teacher Training Level 3, Assessing in the workplace Level 3, Diploma in writing books for children.

You spent some time working as a personal trainer. In what ways has that benefited your football coaching?

There are plenty of transferrable skills that I have benefited from working as a Gym Instructor, Personal and Group Fitness Trainer into Football coaching. Tailoring programmes to suit individual’s needs and objectives as well as identifying their motivation to achieve their goals is comparable to both gym based and sport orientated settings.

Personal Training is very much a people business and the requirement to connect with your clients is critical in order to develop trust and empathy when building a relationship where you understand each other. PT is coaching, which for me is the ability to connect and communicate effectively so there are certainly parallels when it comes to transference across to football.

Motivation and patience are key attributes needed in PT, particularly when working with clients who feel as if they are a long way off from achieving their main fitness aims. The parallels when working with young people and indeed parents in football coaching, certainly mirrors this in the Foundation Phase, as they too are a long way from their ultimate aspiration of becoming professional footballers.

Of course the training required to become a Personal Trainer (as well as my Sport & Exercise Science degree) has enhanced my knowledge of fitness principles and how to create relevant and personalised training programmes in both gym and sporting environments. My subject knowledge of training adaptations has helped me form strong working relationships with Strength & Conditioning staff at the clubs I’ve worked at and I have indeed taken a vested interest in Sports Science and the important role it plays in long-term player development.

What did you learn from your time as an FA Skills coach?

Working for the Football Association was a brilliant experience and I learnt a lot of truly valuable lessons which I still apply to this day. Session planning was an important part of the role and the attention to detail required when creating curriculums and programmes for Schools, FA Skills Centres and holiday courses.

An important aspect of the job was working with teachers, grassroots coaches and other volunteers. Therefore having to support their learning and take on a mentoring responsibility was both vital for developing my own communication skills as well as being able to deliver a programme of work to children aged between 5-11.

The CPD programme at the FA was first class as we were the first coaches in the country to go through all 3 modules of what was then, the new FA Youth Award. I was indeed the first Skills Coach in the programme to successfully complete Module 3 and the full award. These courses were fantastic and revolutionary at the time, supporting coaches understanding of how to create safe and secure learning environments as well as how to develop age-appropriate practices and the key drivers behind player development in all 4 corners of the FA model.

I came to appreciate the skills needed when managing the behaviours of individuals that are evident when working with groups of children. Ignoring undue attention and instead highlighting excellent behaviour is definitely something I apply to this day. This was highlighted in the FA Youth Award modules and reinforced when I completed the Advanced Youth Award several years later in 2017.

I was also chosen as one of a handful of coaches to complete a research project with Brunel University based around coaching behaviours and styles. The work we did was a pre-cursor to the development of the Future Game document which was released in 2010 and contains a huge amount of detail on the 3 age phases (Foundation, Youth Development, and Professional Development) as well as a vast library of age-appropriate sessions still used by coaches in grassroots and academies to this day.

Can you tell us about your role at Dagenham & Redbridge?

I was a Technical Skills Coach which was a very enjoyable role and involved working with the U10s right up to the U18s at the club. I was tasked with creating a technical syllabus for all the academy coaches to work from and this included development in key technical areas such as ball mastery, receiving and passing, dribbling and finishing.

As well as delivering sessions with the age groups during the evening programme, I also supported the Academy Manager and Head of Coaching with the Youth Team training programme which was a really valuable learning experience of working with older players and understanding their needs and motivation. In addition to this, I also completed the Coerver Coaching Youth Diploma course during my time at the club and the technical knowledge acquired was a fantastic tool to apply when delivering 1-2-1 and small group training with the young players in the programme. It drove home the importance of including repetition in sessions without becoming repetitive and the attention to detail needed when looking to develop technical execution in young players.

When working at Southend, you worked with many different age groups. Which do you prefer?

I enjoyed all aspects of the role and always tried to balance my time between the Pre-Academy (U6s-U8s) and the Academy age groups of U9s-U11s. Each age group brought with it different challenges and required me to develop my skill set in a variety of ways. The Pre-Academy programme for example needed a lot of work from the beginning to structure and organise recruitment, training and their games programme.

As well as this, having to build relationships with parents and promote the club and its vision and values was key as players in these very young age groups, were training at other clubs such as Colchester, Ipswich as well as the big London clubs of West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I truly believe that the U8s age group is one of the most important in any Academy programme as these are the players that will become U9s the following year and become official contracted players at the club. This was a great challenge and one that I really enjoyed being tasked with. Of course, supporting the coaches and players in the 3 main Academy age groups (U9s, U10s & U11s) was also extremely important and so it is therefore very difficult to say which age group I enjoyed working with the most as each one was different in its own specific way.

Across the whole phase, I always tried to emphasise what I call the ABC of player development in that we should strive to develop players that are Accountable, Better decision makers and Courageous. Enhancing a player’s sense of independence and making them more self-aware are vital life skills which have a positive transfer across to sport and football development.

What was it like to become a foundation phase lead?

Being offered a full-time position in 2015 having been part-time since 2012 was a huge achievement. Working in football full-time had always been my main objective and to have had the opportunity to learn and develop in a part-time supporting role, certainly put me in an ideal position to make the move into a permanent full-time role.

Some of the most valuable lessons working as a Foundation Phase Lead were off the pitch and being at a Category 3 club meant that the day to day work was not just about coaching and session planning. Taking kit to be washed, organising the fixture programme, collecting Referee money, driving the mini-bus and cleaning the changing rooms were just a few of the duties I was required to do on a daily basis.

I had to really embrace these challenges and I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the job as it made me appreciate and understand what is required of a full-time coach working at that level.

Of course, on the pitch, I learnt a huge amount as well. Having to manage a number of staff, observe, assess and critique their performance was important and developing these managerial and leadership skills has certainly enhanced my knowledge of coach education. I was fortunate enough to go on many tours throughout Europe, played against some top clubs and had some wonderful tournament experiences.

Was moving to Arsenal a dream come true?

Making the move to Arsenal in 2017, felt like I had finally reached the pinnacle of my profession. I believe that the longest journeys begin with the shortest steps and the role at Arsenal was something that I had built up to over a very long period of time. I had worked for 20 years, from grassroots voluntary coaching, to working in Football in the Community schemes, across the USA, part-time then full-time to at last, become in my eyes, an elite coach at one of the biggest clubs in world football. Growing up as a younger coach, I had suffered so many rejections for jobs and as disappointing as this was, the perseverance and resilience I built up over time definitely helped me develop and improve, and I never gave up trying to reach this ultimate dream.

It took me some time to adjust however as I was so used to having to fulfil all the other duties described earlier and one of the things evident at Arsenal was how many full-time staff there were. The huge scale of the programme was very overwhelming to begin with and I had to work extremely hard to build bonds with lots of different people across many departments such as Strength & Conditioning, Recruitment, Analysis, Safeguarding, Travel, Medical and Education.

In what ways did you have to adapt or grow?

The level of the players was something I had not seen before and this challenged me hugely as a coach. My attention to detail improved dramatically along with my tactical knowledge and appreciation of the pressures experienced by the players themselves and the expectations of the parents for a World-class training programme.

The individual focus was very specific, far more than at Southend. With the number of full-time staff on hand, players had access to Sports science practitioners, psychologists, nutritionists as well as help and support around their educational needs also.

Working for such a huge club also brought with it lots of pressure on us as coaches as well. Every other club, it seemed, were ultra-determined to beat us and the expectation to win, even at the U9s & U10s age groups that I worked with, was very evident. I certainly had to become very thick skinned to deal with the constant pressure and this has made me appreciate what players at the top end have to contend with on a daily basis.

I think that persistence drives us but curiosity guides us. You need to have the determination to reach your goals and realise your dreams, but to progress and develop further, you need to be inquisitive and always have that thirst to learn and find out more to develop your craft. It is vital that in any role, be that coaching or otherwise, that you adapt and grow in order to improve.

What is the most enjoyable thing about working in a top academy environment?

One of the most enjoyable aspects is simply being in a hugely privileged position and one that brings with it such massive responsibility. We are dealing with young children’s dreams and it is our duty to ensure that we do our utmost to help them achieve their goals. Of course, the vast majority of the players will never make it all the way through the academy system, to the first team, but if we can provide an unbelievable, life-changing experience along the way, then we can truly feel that it’s all been worth it.

When you work full-time for a top academy, you’re fortunate in that you get to spend a lot of time with the players you’re responsible for. A huge positive then is that you can help to develop their social and life skills as well as their footballing ability and knowledge. Helping them to overcome difficulties and obstacles is a key factor in academies as most players will often experience more disappointments than they will successes. I particularly like the quote from Tony Benn who said that “sport is one of the greatest classrooms and adversity is probably the greatest teacher”. If as a coach, you’re able to support your players to identify and overcome problems and challenging moments, that truly is one of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of working as an academy coach.

I enjoy contributing towards building safe and enjoyable learning environments and I’m firm in the belief that culture precedes performance and performance precedes results. Getting the environment to be as conducive to learning as possible is something you are able to support when working full-time in academies. Being in a position to watch young people mature, improve socially and flourish on and off the pitch is something that should fill all coaches with huge pride and a sense of achievement.

Find Paul on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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