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Coaching and Teaching - Rob Ellis

Rob is a coach from England, who has a degree in sports sciences, a PGCE in physical education, and a UEFA B license, and works as a football coach and a PE teacher.

In your role as a PE teacher, with football being such a popular sport, how do you drum up interest in other sports?

It is not easy as football is our national sport and is so powerful in mainstream consciousness. I have mainly taught in London but also in Sussex for a year. In both urban and rural settings, I found that football is 99 times out of 100 the most popular sport, particularly for boys but also increasingly for girls. For many years, I oversaw extra-curricular sport and clubs. Having a well-attended and organised extra-curricular club is a great way to get more of a following for less popular sports. I remember I used to get around 100 kids attending a table tennis club but that was because we never cancelled clubs and kept advertising them around the school! I think that if PE staff are motivated and have a genuine in different sports, then they can inspire pupils to give all sports a try.

Many sports have overlap, and ideas or concepts that can be transferred or borrowed. With your qualifications in rugby, handball, volleyball, tennis, gymnastics, and athletics, which one has benefitted your football understanding the most?

Football is classified as an “Invasion Game”, which basically means trying to break into opposition territory with the aim of scoring. Rugby, Basketball, Hockey and Handball are all common sports on the PE curriculum, and they are also invasion games.

I found that when I taught Hockey (and I am far from a Hockey expert)! that the planning and teaching of it had many similarities to football. The concepts of dribbling, running with the ball, passing, shooting, and receiving the ball are like football as are aspects of defensive and attacking play. The player and team movement when in and out of possession in hockey also has many similarities with football.

When I trained as a PE teacher, I had to achieve at least a level 1 coaching qualification in most sports and each one added to my understanding of technical, mental, and physical player development. Even sports like athletics which are very different to football taught me a lot about how to physically develop players in terms of speed, agility, and power.

Which, if any of those sports have you played, and which ones overlap the most?

As a kid, I played a fair bit of cricket and tennis. Not for a club but with friends on the streets. I grew up on a road where the kids were sports mad and playing on the street was an everyday occurrence. We played football most of the time, but we also had long cricket and tennis matches. I grew up in Kentish Town, which is very much a football community, and I didn’t really have anyone pushing me to play other sports for a club.

I don’t think either of these sports have a massive overlap with football, but they taught me a lot about how much practice it takes to develop and master techniques. I was very interested in getting better at sports and so I loved practicing different techniques. I played a bit of Rugby at school, and I can now see that the concepts of breaking opposition lines through clever movement is similar to what happens in football as is the principle of making a defence as compact as possible when out of possession.

What ideas have you taken from football to use when teaching other sports and activities?

I try to make kids play sport at a high intensity and to push themselves physically. When I coach football, I hate to see slow and lethargic play. As you get older and your energy lessens, you realise how much energy kids have and how hard they can potentially work. I like play to be high speed and full of movement. This is something I insist that kids adhere to in all sports. When teams and players are evenly matched, it is the person or team that works harder that will usually win. Effort and determination are the final ingredient that turns good players into excellent players in every sport.

When I coach, I remind players that the player in possession is the key decision maker. The movement of other players and what they do off the ball, has a huge impact on what the player in possession does but the player in possession is the leader. I apply this principle to all ball sports. I remind players that each action they take with the ball is their responsibility. If a player loses possession in any team sport, ultimately the responsibility lies with the player in possession.

At what point did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

That is a good question. I am not sure I ever had a burning desire to be a PE teacher, but it seemed to be something I would be quite good at. I played football seriously through my 20s but as my career entered a less competitive phase and any dreams of playing professionally had long gone, I started to think about what I could do in sport.

A friend of mine had been a PE teacher for many years and thought I would be good at it. Pretty soon after that I applied to do a PGCE and before I knew it, I had qualified. I knew that I had a very strong understanding of sport and an obsessive desire to be around and involved in sport. I knew that PE teaching would allow me to be involved in sport and physical activity every day, so it seemed like it would suit the person I am quite well.

Has teaching improved your coaching?

Yes. I can see how it has more as I get older. Being a good PE teacher is about group control, managing space, equipment and being able to motivate kids. Good PE teachers have a knack of finding the best activity for the circumstances they are faced with, and this has helped me as a coach. I don’t think that there is often enough time or interest from some schoolkids that allows PE teachers to teach techniques in detail. I think I have developed the ability to find ways to teach at a more basic level for those kids that are less interested and at a much higher level for those that are. Lack of interest is less relevant to coaching football players but the idea of differentiation and finding different ways to improve players certainly applies.

I firmly believe that there is no point trying to teach techniques and demonstrate activities if the kids are not well behaved and listening. I have spent thousands of hours going over the basics of good behaviour, discipline, and respect. I think that setting the behaviour bar low is a big mistake, which allows poorly behaved kids to get away with constant low-level disruption.

When I coach, I take the principles of listening to the coach, discipline and focus into my coaching. I find that the players like tight structure and to see a coach that cares about the quality of their behaviour as well as their performance. There is much more on my side when I coach as opposed to teach PE. Firstly, the players I coach are there through choice and really want to get better, the group is smaller, and the ability is higher. This all makes the process of coaching pleasurable and a lot easier as I am not fighting adverse factors in the same way as when I am teaching.

With the similarities between teaching and coaching, what would you say is the most common similarity?

There are so many similarities. I think schoolkids and football players know when the teacher/coach genuinely cares and wants to do a good job. I think you must have a desire to do both jobs. I am now far interested in PE teaching than football coaching and very soon, I hope to transition fully into coaching as I see that as the next phase of my life. If I felt that I had lost my interest in PE totally, I would stop. The job is difficult and if my heart had gone out of it totally, it would be too difficult to do day after day.

In both roles you must set a clear example of how you expect people to conduct themselves and what you will and will not tolerate. You are an authority figure in both capacities and therefore it is important to always behave like a positive role-model. Body language, the way in which you communicate ideas and tone of voice are very important in both jobs and have a big effect on how the kids respond to you. Over a long period of time using communication effectively and proving that you are a positive role-model is important in building a good relationship with school kids and football players.

In both jobs, you are the leader. The information, the content, the ideas, and enthusiasm must come from you. The kids and players respond to what you have planned, and this means that you learn a lot about leading others daily. It can be tiring and daunting but when you get a nice class of schoolkids or group of players to work with, it is also a great honour. In both capacities you need to be knowledgeable and have a variety of activities to suit each group.

Likewise, what would you say is completely different between the two?

The behaviour! I have worked in some difficult schools, and I do not enjoy dealing with poor behaviour anymore. That is not to say I ever did “enjoy” it, but my tolerance is much lower now. It is very rare that players I coach mess around or don’t want to be there so the feeling when doing the job is very different. I often feel that in PE lessons, I only have time to scratch the surface of each sport whereas when I coach, I can look at things in great detail.

In your experience, do you think schools are doing enough to help children sample different sports and activities? And what is being done or can be done to facilitate that?

It varies a lot from school to school. PE teachers are very important figures in schools and have unique working relationships with pupils. If the teacher is an expert, a good role model and enthusiastic then the kids will want to try new sports and challenge themselves. Sadly, I have seen too many PE teachers that have not developed a technical understanding of sports. This shows in the content of PE lessons and means that the kids don’t get expert support.

I used to love school sports fixtures – in every sport. I worked at a school where we had B and C teams just so less talented kids experience sports fixtures. There is a danger that some sports are fading quite badly in state schools due to a lack of emphasis on the PE curriculum and a lack of fixtures. I think lots more must be done for Rugby and Tennis to survive and thrive in state schools. Football and Basketball seem to always thrive, which is great, but I worry some sports are now seen as less fashionable and so kids don’t have the same desire to play them.

I have seen lots of initiatives from sports governing bodies to capture the imagination of schoolkids to varying degrees of success. I sometimes think that the marketing of sports and the attempt to condense sports to the quickest formula possible is flawed and takes the sport away from what attracts people to play it in the first place. Kids and adults will always have sports that they prefer for whatever reason, and this is natural and normal. Changing the ethos and feel of sports to appeal to a mass market takes the tradition and integrity away from some sports in my opinions.

What are some hurdles you have to overcome in regards to engagement and participation within school sport?

It varies greatly from school to school and within each class. There are so many potential barriers but from my experience the most common ones are a lack of parental/family support and encouragement, lack of self-confidence leading to a withdrawal from participation, poor physical fitness which contributes to low self-confidence, lack of awareness about how positive sport and physical education is in all aspects of life i.e. not just for the sake of it and in the last 10 years more than ever the rise of social media and mobile phone use. This seems to take up so much head space and time for some kids and this limits the amount of time available to play sport.

Do schools do enough to foster the development of more talented athletes? Is it their responsibility, or should that be left to clubs and academies?

I think it is hard for PE teachers to develop talent beyond a certain point. The context in which PE teachers work is to serve the educational needs of each school. They are not set up to create elite talent. There are too many kids in each class, not enough time and too much group and behaviour management to go deep into performance development. I think if PE staff want to go the extra mile and set up lots of clubs and fixtures after school then there is more scope for performance development. Today, PE teachers are much more tied up with administrative duties. This is a shame as PE staff don’t have enough time or energy to focus on what they went into the job for in the first place.

I think sports clubs and academies have the advantage of working with kids that have chosen to be there and understand that they are there to improve. The objective of football coaching is to improve player performance. This also applies to PE lessons, but the role of the PE teacher and the aim of each lesson is more complex than simply performance improvement.

Football academies are the right place to prepare players them for high level football. Professional academies and grass roots clubs are generally very well organised and manage to do a great job of creating an environment in which players can reach their potential. Schools and teachers are responsible for academic progress, behaviour management, looking after the emotional and social well-being of pupils as well as preparation for life after school. There are so many areas to support and develop that elite sports performance is unrealistic to aim for.

You have a BSc in sport sciences, a PGCE in physical education, and a UEFA B license. This is the perfect trifecta when it comes to getting jobs abroad in football and in teaching. You’ve had brief stints in Turkey and the USA. Does working abroad appeal to you?

Very much. I am really interested in college/university football coaching in America. It seems to be very professional, and a lot of effort goes into making it an impressive spectacle. I have been to America a few times and I would love to sample it again. I am also greatly interested in Australia and Japan. I regularly coach Japanese players and their work ethic and conduct is exemplary. Their capacity for hard work and desire to improve makes my job so much fun. This approach to football and coaching is something I would love to be more involved in.

How did your time abroad benefit your career?

I think it shows potential employers that you are willing to learn and that you have made a courageous step. Working abroad for any period can be disorientating and it takes time to adjust and settle into a routine. The willingness to go through this process shows a level of humility that I think is valuable. When you work overseas, you evaluate how you have worked before and can identify more clearly what you were doing well and what was less productive. Being exposed to other cultures and approaches broadens the mind and develops a willingness to learn from the new surroundings. I think working abroad reminded me to not get too big for my boots! When you go to a new country you can feel incredibly small and insignificant at first!!

If you had to choose, which of the BSc, PGCE, or UEFA B has helped you develop most as a coach and teacher?

That is a tough question to answer. I feel I have an advantage as a coach from my gaining a BSc in Sports Science and a PGCE in Physical Education. I am glad I didn’t go straight down the coaching route without these previous experiences. The BSc provided me with an academic approach to all sports and made me understand the complexities of coaching and performance.

The PGCE taught me a lot about the importance of being organised and careful planning. I used to spend 3-4 hours each night planning PE lessons during my PGCE. The PGCE was a stressful experience for me, but it taught me that I am not comfortable trying to “wing it” as the phrase goes. Planning can be stressful, but it is less stressful than knowing you are not ready.

The UEFA B was a big eye opener and a big jump from an FA Level 2. There was nothing magical or earth shattering in terms of content, but it made me realise how detailed football planning is in the modern game. Professional clubs are so thorough, and the coaches have to have so much technical and tactical knowledge to succeed.

Which of those courses was toughest to complete and why?

The PGCE. I never felt like I would not pass as the course is designed to get teachers to qualify as much as possible. Doing a PGCE is an intense process. It takes just under a year to complete but it was my sole focus for that year. I couldn’t find a way to spend less than 3-4 hours planning PE lessons each night. At the time, I can’t say it was much fun and being exposed to schoolkids for the first time adds to the stress. There is so much to take on board and I found it an exhausting process.

For those looking to make the jump across into teaching, what advice would you offer to land a role on a PE PGCE?

Try to get as many qualifications and relevant experiences as possible. Doing a degree in a sports related field is a huge advantage when applying to get onto the course because it provides the applicant with a wealth of of sports knowledge. I think that PE teachers need to develop expertise and have a good understanding of all sports. Even without a degree of higher education qualification, sports knowledge can be developed through coaching qualifications and either paid or voluntary work in a sports related capacity. A background in playing sport is also an advantage and applicants should emphasise this in their application. On my Sports Science degree at Brunel University there were several elite level athletes that possibly got onto the course through their athletic prowess.

What is the most rewarding part of being a teacher? And what is the most rewarding part of being a coach?

As a teacher, you get to spend 5 years building the teacher/pupil relationship and this allows the teacher to have a profound influence on their pupils. I think good teachers are remembered by kids and there is a recognition that they can play a role in shaping their future to some degree. It may not necessarily be helping the pupil through the subject they teach – it can be in a pastoral capacity.

As a coach, the results of your work are more obvious as the focus is on performance. There are opportunities to test and assess development through fixtures. I enjoy seeing players improve their technique and applying themselves to be the best player that they can. I enjoy not having to deal with behaviour management and it is refreshing to have slightly less formality that can prevail in schools.

Why do you do both?

I am very much near the end of my PE teaching career. I have done it for 13 years and as all teachers can testify, this takes a lot out of you. I am 44 now and I have less patience with the daily battles that exist in schools. I still teach because I am quite good at it and the interaction with nice pupils can have a positive effect on how you feel day to day.

I coach because I see it as my future. I don’t think it is possible to do a physical job forever and like everyone else there comes a time when you can’t do as much as you would like. I have never had the time to fully commit to football coaching, but that time is close. I feel like I can see an academic challenge in football at a high level and I like working with motivated people that want to achieve excellence.

You have recently written a book. What was the inspiration behind that?

I started writing “The Soccer Coach’s Toolkit” 7 years ago. The process started without the intention of writing a coaching book. Over so many years of coaching I had created hundreds of activities. All of them written down on pieces of paper and filled up drawers all over my house! I wanted to streamline the activities and throw away duplicates of activities that I had written down before, so I began to record each activity on my laptop and then throw away the pieces of paper.

My brother saw what I was doing and suggested that I turn the activities into a book for coaches to use. I had so many activities for players at all levels of football from grass roots to elite. In the end, I recorded 252 activities and started to section them as basic, intermediate, and advanced. I then added structure to my activity and grouped the activities based on their technical and tactical focus.

I managed to gather 10-20 activities for all the main football techniques and another 20 or so tactical/team shape activities. After this, I added information about how to set up the activity and how to manage and progress it. I then added practical coaching information such as what equipment to use and how to use it and a suitable number of players for each activity.

My partner is an illustrator and she volunteered to do the diagrams for each activity. When I saw her work, I was amazed at how accurate they were and how good they looked. The publishers also liked the diagrams and were happy for her to take care of that side of the process. All in all, it was a monumental effort for both of us and I can’t imagine how many 1000s of hours I put into it over the 7 years it took to write the book.

I am delighted with the finished article it and it has had great feedback and reviews from many professional footballers and coaches all over the world. Of course, I am going to recommend it to all coaches, but I really feel that there is a huge amount of helpful coaching content in their for coaches at all levels of football. There are 252 coaching activities, which is enough for a coaching lifetime.

The book is published by Meyer & Meyer who are a giant in sports book publishing, and I am delighted to have secured such an amazing publisher to produce the book. It is available online and is on the brink of appearing in bookshops across the world. Anyone that is interested in the book can find it online and order from numerous outlets including Waterstones and WH Smith in England, Barnes & Noble in America and Amazon for all countries across the globe. The book is also available as an ebook on Kindle for coaches that want to take book outdoors and use on the training field.

I am interested in connecting with coaches across the world and am happy to discuss coaching matters and provide advice and information on any aspect of football coaching. My twitter handle is @rob_coach82 and I have a Youtube channel with some coaching information. Anyone that wants to subscribe to my channel can use the following link:

Finally, thank you so much for interviewing me and providing me with so many though provoking questions. I have really enjoyed thinking about my teaching an coaching career and it has also taken me down memory lane!

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