Before we get into this, I'm not a fan of grind culture. Put the work in, with solid, concentrated effort, but also make time for switching off, relaxing, and recovery. People have different attributes and different circumstances. A single coach with no dependents, working three hours a day and making enough money to sustain a decent lifestyle will have far more time and energy for self-improvement than a coach who also has to make ends meet via other sources of income, while also supporting a family. One coach may be able to wake up early, another may do their best work at night. Some people switch off by exercising, some people switch off by mindlessly watching TV. We're all different people in different circumstances, so don't fall into the trap of comparing yourself to the Instagram influencers who tell you about their workouts and regimes. You know on a cognitive level that it's all fake and all for show, yet sometimes you can still be fooled by it. Be kind to yourself, and the only comparisons you should be making are against your own past performance.
With that being said, let's look at ways you can continue your growth as a coach. We expect our players to be watching games on TV and getting touches on the ball in their spare time, but what about coaches? How do we stay fresh and improve our abilities? Many of you, especially after the lockdowns, may feel like you have regressed after extensive time off. Just like any other ability, coaching ability can decline if you're not working on it. I've been coaching long enough to have felt a sentiment originally that a bachelor's degree was a huge deal for a coach to possess when I first began. Now it feels like having a master's degree barely raises an eyebrow. Coaching is so competitive. Coaches are driven, hard-working people, so naturally the goal posts will be constantly shifting.
We're all familiar with the formal learning experiences. Coaching courses and university degrees offer lots of learning, while also coming at a large monetary and time cost. Getting on the next licence can be hard, especially due to the backlog caused by the pandemic. There's also the experience v qualification paradox (you can't get the experience without the qualification, you can't get the qualification without the experience). Providing you can afford it, are accepted, and can get the time off, qualifications are very useful. Coaching every day under the guidance of experts, conversing with a group of your peers, and learning from some of the best in the field. What can be better?
Let's look into the more informal learning experiences. These can be done at your own pace, in your own time, and don't cost an arm and a leg to do.
Podcasts and Reading
Coaches are avid readers. Which is why we are compiling a reading list on BFCN. Coaches will likely know many of the books in there, but there may be one or two more in there. We're always looking for recommendations too to add to the list. The best coaches are the best thieves. If you're a fan of audiobooks, these are great to listen to on the long journeys coaches have to make every week. At most points in my career, I'd go through a couple of tanks per week due to all the driving. Podcasts are great too. You can check our podcast list here.
But remember, don't overdo it. Don't punish yourself for not reading every day, or even every week. Don't get upset if your mind is racing before or after games, and you're not in the best state to listen to a podcast. Your brain, like any muscle, needs rest too. Typically after games, all I can think about is the match. Any podcast episode in that moment, regardless of how good, would be completely lost on me. That's when the music goes up loud, and I unwind. Maybe break some speed limits while listening to Led Zeppelin.
Learn a Language
The next thing I would suggest is to learn a language. How many times have you heard adults say they wished they'd paid more attention in school to certain things? For me, it was languages. If my teachers had done a better job of presenting it to me in a way that made sense to me as an individual (something we need to be good at as coaches), for instance, rather than telling me to work on my French because I need to pass an exam, reach me as a student and talk to me about French football and the opportunities knowing French would give me.
We all know about the many apps out there like Duolingo. Don't let the owl pressure you if you don't have it in you today. Nevertheless, technology has made it so easy for us to learn languages. There are podcasts, audiobooks, apps, and even online tutors. So many resources for us at the touch of a button. We can watch TV shows in foreign languages and converse with native speakers without ever having to leave the home.
Travelling the world and coaching in different places is great. It's also becoming more competitive. Whereas before, a job would have taken you as just an English speaker, now they are starting to look for candidates with language skills in the native tongue. Learn the basics (at least) of where you want to go. During interviews, convey the message that you are willing to commit to learning the language.
For football and language learning together, have a look at the Futbol Lingo App. These guys are building something incredible, which will help coaches learn football terminology in their target language. The app will be ready to go soon.
Session Planning Software
My next suggestion is in regard to session planning. Creating a portfolio of sessions is great for interviews, as it shows your competence as a coach. Keeping a record of your own sessions is a great way to aid reflection once training is over. You're able to go back and have a look at what you did, and make notes about the effectiveness of the different elements. And in reality, you don't need to make a new session every week. It's okay to circle back around over topics, and the more complicated the session, the less learning will take place. Use your old sessions. The familiarity helps the players because they won't be having to learn new drills and exercises.
Having a tool like Sport Session Planner allows you to keep a record of your sessions, use them again in the future, make adaptations, add reflections, share with other coaches, and categorise them in a way that makes sense to you. Whether it's for planning whole sessions, just individual exercises, or making tactical displays, you can create pictures and videos, and then export them for the benefit of your players and coaching colleagues.
Filming your games and practices is one of the best ways to improve as a coach. As great as Veo is, it's hardly affordable to the individual coach. Your phone will have enough memory and a good enough camera for most purposes. Tripods are easy to find and are fairly cheap. There's always a parent or a sub around that can move the camera. One of the best purchases I made was a little tripod with bendy legs that grip to things.
You just slot your phone or digital camera in the top and then bend the legs around whatever it is you need to attach the phone to. I've used fences, barriers, and even crossbars and goalposts.
For those coaches who want to cut up clips, there are plenty of great free programmes to download. I use Windows Movie Maker to make highlight videos and trim the fat off full matches. Many of these clips are great for player development and match preparation. With an app like Tactic you can animate your clips, whether it's opposition footage as part of your opposition analysis, or whether it is a reflective analysis of your own teams. Having affordable software that allows you to animate clips is almost too useful to put into words.
Game reflections without footage are often subjective. I'm sure we've all felt one way about a game, and then watched it back, and completely changed our opinions. That's a normal thing to do, and more humans should change their mind when presented with conflicting evidence. Watch your games, if you have the time and facilities, and watch them again to learn from. Occasionally, try to get a session or two as well. Maybe pair up with a coaching colleague and film each other's sessions, and then arrange to meet for reflection and feedback.
Your players will love being able to see themselves back, especially the positives.
An unfortunate by-product of being a coach is the effects of the anti-social hours. Our jobs are rarely anything resembling a typical 9-5, and as such, we can develop some poor habits as a result of hectic schedules. It's no surprise most coaches that move to work in the USA put on 5-10kg as a result of the hours and all the fast food. When you finish late and have to travel a lot, it's easy just to pay a couple quid for the luxury of not having to cook and clean, and the temptation of treating yourself is too strong. That double cheeseburger from the drive-thru on the way home just ticks so many boxes. You're stressed, you have a lot going on, and making and cleaning a proper meal is not something you can contend with right now.
Before you know it, clothes start to be a little tighter. Are you able to prep your meals ahead of time? Making use of tupperware and freezing meals can be a game changer, as is buying refillable bottles and plastic lunchboxes. You can prepare your healthier food and drink ahead of time and take it with you. The stress, pressure, and expectation of coaching can result in self-destructive behaviours, often as a coping mechanism. There are some great apps that come with phones and smart watches that let you keep track of your food intake, as well as the amount of exercise you get. Have a look at your schedule, assess your habits, and see where some meal prep may come in handy. It'll save you a few quid too.
Remember to take care of your body. Over the years, coaching four or five hours a day, six or seven days per week, being upright, standing and walking, meant that I became very stiff. I have since lost the ability to squat, because those muscles were rarely being used. Even just bending over to pick up cones began to cause aches and pains. I was at my fittest ever when I had to do yoga as part of a reflective module for my master's degree. Stretching for fifteen to twenty minutes just three times a week did me the world of good. I have fallen out of that habit and paid the price for it. We may not be the athletes we are coaching, but coaching does exact a different physical toll on the body. Try to strengthen and rest it where you can.
How about a gym membership? As coaches, it feels like we live in tracksuits and football kit. As a result, I'm pretty much dressed in gym appropriate attire 90% of the time. The quick gym session on the way to training, or the bit of cardio to unwind on my way back home makes it very easy to sneak in some gym time. Gyms are everywhere, there are so many good value, affordable places to go, and if you're someone who travels a lot, there are gym chains that let you sign up to multiple locations.
Technology is both a blessing and a curse. It means we're always connected and have so many resources at our finger tips. But it also means it's hard to disconnect. What if there's a discussion going on on Twitter that I am missing? Can I watch another YouTube video to extract more information? There are three good games on TV on Sunday evening, and I want to watch them all. What can I do? We all unwind and disconnect in different ways. And sometimes, we like to kill two birds with one stone. I like a good podcast at the gym while doing cardio. It makes the time fly by. Sometimes I will watch game footage on my phone while riding the bike. I used to love it in the USA when a Premier League game would coincide with a gap in my schedule, and I could go for a run at the gym, while watching it on the TV directly in front of me. No distractions, just me and the game, while burning some calories.
Keeping fit is a good thing to do for health in general. We all know the many health benefits of it. With mind and body connected, the benefits reap benefits in other areas of your life. You can concentrate more, your posture is better, you are less prone to injury, and you can join in training without being concerned you'll be doing some damage to yourself. Is there a gym near you or where you work? Can you leave half an hour early or come home half an hour later to swing by the gym? If you're worried about turning up sweaty and smelly after completing your workout, even the cheapest gyms have showers and changing facilities. Going to the gym is also a great excuse to wear all that coaching kit from previous seasons that is clogging up your wardrobe.
Does your schedule allow you the time to see other coaches and teams at your club? Perhaps you have a home game at 11:00 and another age group plays right before you at 9:00. We can be guilty of falling into echo chambers. Not every coach is like you, which can be both good and bad. Watching another coach at the club, providing you have the same philosophy, can be beneficial to see someone else's spin on the same material you work on. Your curriculum might have you playing out from the back this week. Your ideas may be great. Another coach's ideas may be even better.
Try and see if you can catch some practices. How do other coaches communicate with players? How do they handle discrepancy in ability between players within the same group? How do they handle issues of discipline? The best coaches are very generous with their time and insight. They're happy to talk, share, and answer questions. Is there someone near you that you can pair up with? Or maybe a group of people?
It's great for feedback. And it helps to have someone to empathise with, who knows the struggles that coaches know. I used to spend over an hour talking with one coach in the car park after sessions. The lights would be off, and the site manager would be politely ushering us away. It was so beneficial to listen and to be heard. In Missouri, each Tuesday, a colleague and I would finish at nine and go to the sports bar next to our training pitch. It would be Taco Tuesday, and we'd go in there with the tactics board, magnets, and pens, tearing apart our sessions with forensic analysis and scrutinise what we were doing until closing time. Developing a close relationship like that with another coach is invaluable. Someone who isn't afraid to give you negative feedback, and someone that you respect giving it to you. On formal coaching courses, the assessors only really have a snapshot of your coaching abilities to judge you from. A colleague gets to see you more frequently, in your natural environment. They know you better, and see you coach with players you actually know.
To make your reflections even more effective, use the assessment criteria of a recent coaching course, or the next course you'd like to do. Compare your performance to that which is expected of a coach on that course. It keeps you sharp, and it keeps you consistent. After passing their driving test, many drivers forget to keep their hands at ten and two, maintain a safe braking distance, and many (particularly those who drive German cars) forget to use their indicators altogether. We have similar bad habits as coaches. So what criteria are you using in your reflections to stay sharp and on top of your game?
Mentoring and Webinars
You'll likely be familiar with Ted Talks and the millions of coaching videos and presentations available on YouTube. We are lucky to have such resources available to us at the click of a button. And if you have a bit of cash built up, there are great presentations available to purchase from the United Soccer Coaches conventions held annually in the USA.
If you'd like to be part of a learning cohort, take qualifications in your own times, and have personalised mentoring sessions, check out our friends at Ulearnbly. Run by Gérard Jones, they offer lots of great on demand content that inspire, involve, and inform coaches.
Gérard is an A License coach, and FA Youth Award holder, with experience all around the world, including in the USA, Morocco, and Norway. He offers a bespoke mentoring service that is tailored to the needs of the coach. There's no one-size-fits-all approach here.
What are the benefits of mentorship?
They provide knowledge. First and foremost, mentors are often more knowledgeable and experienced than the mentee. This posits them as a great source of insight and inspiration.
They help you improve. The right mentor has been there and done it. They've been on a similar journey and can help you through yours, knowing how to navigate tricky situations. They can point you in the right direction, knowing where to go for sources that will improve your coaching ability.
They broaden your professional network. They know people and have great connections. They can help introduce you to the right people.
Provide encouragement. Mentors can support and help pick you back up again when things are tough.
They can help advise you. Having someone to talk through decisions with, mentors provide ideas and perspectives that perhaps you yourself haven't considered.
The above options are fairly broad, and can be explored much deeper. Remember, you have to do what is best for you. We are all different, and not everything is applicable to all situations. Don't beat yourself up if you can't do things, or it appears others are doing better than you. Development is not linear. Also remember to take breaks, and prioritise yourself.
Be kind to yourselves and enjoy your coaching.