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Inside Pro Academy Coaching - Adam Balletta

'...I decided to quit University and take the full-time role on the college programs and combined this with development centre coaching at Stevenage FC, giving me a half decent yearly wage'.

Name, age, where you are based?

Adamo Balletta, 32 Years Old, St Albans, England

Current Role:

Foundation Phase Lead Coach (U9/10) at Watford Football Club.

My role is to coach and oversee the staff working within these age groups. The focus being on developing the players and the coach delivery in line with our curriculum, building the individuals within the team environment to be able to compete in the Category 2 & Premier League Games Programme.

I oversee the entire provision for the players aged 8-10 years old within the academy. The role itself is one made up of many aspects, coach delivery, coach development, player development, parental education are just some areas of the role.


I have the UEFA A License which I completed in 2011. Since then I have gone on to complete the FA Youth Award and Advanced Youth Award delivered by The FA at Foundation Phase Level. I also have qualifications in teaching and personal training.

My background in Education is very basic, I completed Upper School here in the UK before attending college and completing the Level 3 BTEC in Sport. During that time at college I started coaching and went on to get my Level 2 in 2007, Level 3 (UEFA B) in 2008 and in 2011 followed on with the UEFA A.

With regards to qualifications in football, they get you through the application process for a role within a club. My advice to any coach wanting to work in the academy system would be that it’s about your delivery and how you make it about the players. Something I see regularly in sessions is that they are delivered to the plan and don’t deviate or adjust for the needs of the players.

Sessions need to develop the players; therefore, the plan is a framework, the players and there understanding and ability to demonstrate will then dictate where the session leads. Getting comfortable with your session not going to plan and being able to adapt is one of the most crucial parts. Your ability to see what the player(s) need is a skill that comes with experience and from watching other coaches. The above was something I was guilty of early in my coaching career and has developed over time.

How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?

After leaving school at 16 I was part of the Stevenage FC Football Programme for two years. This combined my education with playing football full time in a U18 League. It was during my second year during a spell on the sideline through injury that I started to be inquisitive about coaching. I began coaching with the Foundation at Stevenage on a Saturday morning under the guidance of Warren Grieve who now works in Australia and is highly regarded and Stephen Payne who has just become the Head of Coaching at MK Dons.

These sessions on a Saturday were with 3-6-year old’s called Tots Sessions. Money was awful but I loved it, seeing the kids love for the football and how intently they were listening made me fall in love with coaching, plus I could never see myself sitting in an office 9-5 doing something I didn’t really enjoy.

Photo Credit: Stevenage F.C Academy

After completing my time as a student/athlete at Stevenage FC I wasn’t sure where I was going, I took the option to go to University locally and still worked for Stevenage in the evenings on Development Centres and continued the tot’s sessions at the weekends whilst playing and earning just a little more than my weekly travel expenses to get to training and matches. The Stevenage FC Foundation was great for me as I was getting lots of opportunities to coach at various levels in their system.

I had more experienced coaches watching me, and they provided great feedback. Halfway through my first year at University I already knew I would not complete the degree, not through it being to hard, but down to my lack of motivation and love for way of being educated, I wasn’t engaged and I knew that coaching was a pathway I now wanted to pursue.

Following the end of my first-year exams, I had the opportunity to work with AVC Sports Limited who were delivering college programs for Stevenage FC and some other partners. My role was an assistant coach, taking warmups and technical sessions. I worked here with Darren Sarll (Yeovil Town 1st Team Manager), Dave Reddington (Crystal Palace 1st Team Coach) & Craig Rydeheard all of who are A License Coaches and have gone on to achieve good things within football.

After a pre-season period Craig decided to move on which left a spot as a Lead Coach, Darren gave me the opportunity to work with the third-tier group there. I decided to quit University and take the full-time role on the college programs and combined this with development centre coaching at Stevenage FC, giving me a half decent yearly wage. Working with Darren was excellent for my development, gaining feedback on my own sessions, having discussions and then being able to observe him and learn were all fantastic experiences that shaped my own coaching style and knowledge.

I worked on the college programs for 4 seasons, working with 16-18 year old’s, being only 19 myself was challenging, but I think with my personality and my hard work I gained there respect early on and we went on to be relatively successful with players developing extremely well, but more importantly completing their own education programme that would allow them to pursue their own career paths. I had a great assistant at the time as well who is also my best friend, Ieuan Lewis who I have known since the age of 15 (17 Years), our personalities complemented each other and we had a great time over the 4 seasons.

During my second season at AVC I left the Development Centres at Stevenage to join Luton Town FC, here I was given the U9 Academy Side as well as two Talent Identification Programme Sessions (TIPS). Working here this time with Gregg Broughton who is now Academy Director of FK Bodø/Glimt in Norway. Again, these experiences were excellent and there are several players that are now playing professionally that during my 8-year spell at Luton I had the pleasure of working with for short periods. Max Aarons, Cauley Woodrow, Jamal Lewis, James Justin & the Da Silva brothers to name a few.

Photo Credit: Luton Town F.C

How did you enjoy the role at Luton Town and what opportunities did it present?

My time at Luton was amazing, trips abroad, working with the U18’s at times, the number of coaches I had the joy or learning from or with, I was really lucky. Again, these guys have gone on to fantastic things here in England...

Jon Da Souza – Director of Football at Colchester United

Stuart English – Assistant Academy Manager at Birmingham City FC

Scott Smith – Foundation Phase Lead at Norwich City

Jordan McCann – Academy Manager at Lincoln City

James Townsend – Youth Development Phase Lead at Luton Town FC

Wayne Turner – Spells as Academy Manager at Luton Town FC (Ex Pro)

Gregg Broughton – Academy Director at FK Bodø/Glimt

Joe Deeney – Spells as 1st Team Manager at Conference South Clubs

If I have missed anyone from the above list I apologise, but I have been so fortunate to work with some excellent coaches and people. Most of whom I have stayed in contact with.

At Luton there were so many good people there and it was a time where we produced good players as well, those mentioned above plus the likes of Charlie Patino who was sold to Arsenal at the time and it now in the England Team setup, Alex Matos who is at Norwich City, we had a conveyor belt of good talent.

During my second season there I was given a full-time role as the U18 Elite Development Manager. We set up one elite group of U18 players to work underneath the Scholars, these players consisted of some who were in our academy but weren’t offered scholarships and we recruited from London at surrounding areas to make a squad of around 22 players. Again, a fantastic experience to lead a programme and we turned out successful, winning the Football Conference Youth Alliance League twice and coming runners up most other years.

The programme was strong and provided me with valuable experience. Again, it produced players, the most successful currently being Will Wright who went onto Colchester United and is now playing for Dagenham & Redbridge in the National League, but so many of gone on to play a good level of non-league. Kane Smith, Liam Brookes, Lucas Kirkpatrick all made debuts at the age of 17 in senior men’s football.

After 8 years at Luton I found myself needing a new challenge and needed to develop my CV. I must say I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone at Luton Town, wonderful people both on and off the pitch and an amazing place that allowed me to learn and improve daily. Were it not for the opportunities given to me by them I don’t feel as though I would be where I am now professionally or have the experiences, they provided me with.

How did returning to Stevenage F.C give your career what it needed?

When I left Luton to return to Stevenage FC as the Foundation Phase Lead Coach (U8-U12), this was my first full time Academy role and I still had so much to learn. I was not only a coach now, but had to manage other coaches, develop the program and ultimately develop the players. What I found in this role is that it is so hard to coach and be the phase lead at the same time, there is always something that needs tending to, a casual/part time coach who hasn’t quite delivered how you want them to or a meeting that you have to be part of, a parental concern or conversation that has popped up, every day there is something that wasn’t in your plans at the start of the week and over time I have learned to cope with these demands and developed my own leaderships qualities.

Again, some great people here Glenn Quirke, we made Wednesdays our idea day, everyone week for 3 seasons we met and addressed something within the academy. Sometime specific to my phase, other times towards his role as Academy Operations Manager. Ieuan Lewis I mentioned before he is the Youth Development Phase Lead there, but is also my best friend of 17 years, to work with him again every day allowed us to have great honesty within our working relationship, someone I hope I’ll get to work alongside again as he has the potential to be very very good.

His empathy and ability to build relationships is key to his success and his groups of players are continually producing players capable of playing in the Stevenage FC 1st Team in a few years’ time. I’ve mentioned him before, but Stephen Payne was the head of coaching in my time there but found him so approachable & knowledgeable that I often found myself having conversations about sessions, players, coaches and even my own development. He is someone I certainly owe a pint or two for the help he has given me and debt of gratitude for helping me develop both professionally and personally.

I had the opportunity to visit China taking a group of 18 players to compete in Shanghai. A fantastic opportunity culturally to play in such a good tournament, but also to see what could be a different approach to development. While I was there, I asked what must have been a thousand questions, but surprisingly the approach isn’t much different. The president in China is huge on football and wants the countries system to develop. There has been significant investment in so called grass roots football along with schools programmes and obviously the Super League has been spending huge amounts of money to bring top European names to the league to build its fan base and public imagine.

The largest issue from what I could gather in China was that the system didn’t flow. At each level there isn’t a plan of how each seamlessly fits together. This will I am sure be something they look to develop in the coming years. China was an experience like no other, tv interviews for the evening news, conferences, cultural visits/experience, training, matches against various opposition, it was an unreal 2 weeks. Learning quickly how to do a tv interview and adapt to the questions seamlessly is not as easy as one might think. Put on the spot, a million ideas going through your mind, you have to be mindful of what you are about to say and only now do I appreciate how hard it must be as a manager of kind who has to complete press following a game where you have so many emotions whirling around.

How did leaving Stevenage come about?

Following nearly three seasons at Stevenage I applied for a role at Watford FC, a Category 2 academy and a Premier League Club. Growing up it was always a good academy and when a role became available, I could not resist the opportunity. Thankfully I did well within my interview process, and I have now been here for 2 years. Now those that know football will understand the rivalry between Luton Town & Watford, controversial to say the least that I have gone from one to the other, but for my own career progression it has not been a backward step.

Again, some very knowledgeable and highly professional people here that I have the chance to work with...

Barry Quin – Head of Academy and has been a Professional and worked high up at Brentford FC Graham Stack – Ex Professional & Head of Goalkeeping at Watford FC currently 1st Team Goalkeeper coach.

Hayden Mullins – Ex Professional & U23 Coach at Watford FC who is currently with the 1st Team under Nigel Pearson

There are so many more than could be named who within their own roles at the club do an amazing job and give the academy their all.

So, my pathway has been very varied, even now I am gaining new and exciting experiences. We get to travel to the US and work with a Global Imaging Company to develop our brand. Working with kids in the US has been very different, the girls/women’s game over there is amazing and some of the talent they have in the female game is something I’ll be looking out for, as I’m sure some of them may represent the women’s US team at time. Having visited Philadelphia, Kansas, New York, Indianapolis, Chicago & Texas, these are states I would have been unlikely to visit on vacation.

Photo Credit: Watford F.C Academy

What is your training focus with your current teams and players?

The training focus with the young players is to develop Brilliant Basics. I don’t want to delve into this too much as I am sure this topic could be discussed for hours. We have a curriculum that works on both in and out of possession, and I allow staff some autonomy of parts of the sessions. Within the Foundation Phase age groups we want the boys to development a variety in execution of ball manipulation skills so have a menu of skills, turns, manipulations that we work through, but its more pleasing when we see boys developing their own or ones they have seen from TV or YouTube.

A quick overview of the main principles are that in the Foundation Phase its not a win at all cost’s mentality. Of course, we want our boys to win, but whilst adhering and playing to our philosophy and game style. We believe in game realistic sessions as often as possible, ones that they players can see fit into a game but at time we are still using block practices to give repetition and having loads of goes at something. In games-based practices we can’t guarantee a player will get the opportunity to practice what’s on the curriculum. Again, I’m sure this could be debated on its ability to be transferred into the game and therefore football will always be a matter of opinions. Block practices are not something you see lots of anymore I don’t think, but they still have a place in the development of players in my professional opinion.

My passion is still around developing players and over the last few years, developing coaches. My thoughts behind this are always evolving too but as it stands these are the most important aspects which we try to encourage our coaching team to consider.

Adaptability. It is vital to be flexible in your approach to coaching. Having the ability to adapt your trusted methodology to suit a constantly changing landscape is a skill which few possess but those who do will invariably enjoy success.

Positivity... I work every day with Graham Stack, never have I been around someone who can bring a room to life or a group to life so effortlessly. Working with Foundation Phase players, its so important they fall in love with coming to training and we try to create an environment free from fear of failure, but one that allows them to learn from mistakes, ask questions and to experiment.

What’s been the best thing for your personal development thus far?

For me it would be that working across the age groups and I have worked in a variety of different academies. Ones with very little budget and ones with good budgets. I have had varied experiences and I think from experience comes knowledge. I don’t think you can underestimate the value in learning from mistakes and using a black box thinking approach. Don’t shut down to the fact you messed up, own it and try to find a solution and then ways in which you will try to not make the same mistake(s) again.

What things have been challenging in your current or past roles?

Finding coaches who want to commit the time and effort that is needed to be successful in their roles. It takes special people who have a full-time jobs & families to then commit to what can be almost like a full- time job. 3-4 sessions and a game at the weekend, reviews, PMA etc. It’s full on and young coaches need to prepare themselves for this modern way of documenting everything we do.

Its not as simple as scribbling down a session on a piece of paper, delivering it and going home. There are player reviews, Individual Learning Plans, Match Reports, Analysis & Staff Meetings that all takes place on a weekly basis and the roles quickly go from 3 x 90 mins sessions and a game to an additional 3-5 hours outside of the training field.

The future -what’s next for you?

Firstly, it’s to see Watford get out of the battle they are in now at get out of the bottom three in the Premier League. I’ve recently become a father, so am learning to juggle the demands of parenthood and full-time football. Beyond that I’m not 100% sure, head of coaching is an area I have huge interest in and currently speaking to lots of people probing how they do their roles and what advice they may have for me that I can consider.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

One area I know I would like to delve into is the U23 programme. If at some point I want to be a top head of coaching., I know that I must have experience across the entire spectrum, and this is a gap in my knowledge as it stands.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Great question... I suppose its down to my love for the game. I love seeing players develop and when you get to a point where those you have had the chance to work with are stepping out in front of a crowd and making their professional debut, that makes you want to help the next one. I don’t expect them to come and say thank you, but just hope they go on to have long and successful careers.

One person I have been inspired by is my father. Aged 78 he still works 5-6 days a week running his own Italian Restaurant and I guess this is where I gained my work ethic from. I like to get into the building early and get my day started and will regularly do work from home to stay ahead of the workload.

I hope for those that get to read this that it provides an insight into a Lead Phase role and into someone who hasn’t played the game professional and has slowly worked up the ladder to work in the game at a professionally level. For many the dream of becoming a professional football does not materialize, but you can still get to work in the game professionally in a different capacity.

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