Thursday, 5 May 2016

Practice penalties kicks. What’s the point?

This blog is not for the upcoming Euro Championship, or for the playoff games. There isn’t £200m at stake, no press will be there and no TV. It’s for youth players. If I stopped 1000 people in the city where it was held I would stake a large amount of money that 1,000 wouldn’t know about it and wouldn’t care. However 999 will know about and 995 will care about the 11th June when England play Russia.

With all the work and investment the FA have made in football development education programs you would think the message would be getting through to parents. I don’t know the exact statistics or even how they would measure the success of this so I can only go on experience. On the whole there is clear improvement to side-line behaviour, but problems still exist. This is based on what I experience and the last week clearly shows there is still work to be done. Personally I feel that a lot of parents and unruly coaches have simply been ‘gagged’. So what we have done is make them feel tremendously guilty for shouting and that ‘on the whole’ is not a bad thing. We’ve done that by means of codes of conducts and parents courses which focus heavily on aggressive touchline behaviour and its affects. Courses are hard to get people to attend, that I know. But I feel maybe if someone went into a club and did a free workshop but focus more on the football development side. Because what I have seen and heard in the last weeks and consistently over the last 20 years is comments from parents where they ‘know best’. That’s the problem with our great sport and its popularity. Were all experts. So rather than just chucking guilt at parents & volunteer unqualified coaches (and unruly qualified coaches), we should maybe come at it more from a technical development perspective. Like a dressed down youth module. Educate them!
For example. We do some work with a club/organisation. (I don’t want to highlight the individuals for obvious reasons). We coach the children on a regular basis once a week. They are U10/U11. As part of that we took them in a tournament and recently they got knocked out of that tournament on penalties. One lad missed. In the days that followed it was commented back to us that parents had ‘complained’, albeit not directly to us, that it was the coaches fault. Because? He had not practiced penalties with the lads the week before. Now anyone that knows anything about football at any age know's this is outrageous. In particular when it comes to children of this age. We of course feel that we need address this but I’m sure it will be met with resistance. It takes me back to my days when I helped out in grass roots football and constantly fighting parents that know better and apparently know who the best players are and know how to win football matches. They think then that because you place development ahead of winning games that you’re a happy clapper and don’t care about winning.
The truth is, we just don’t care about winning as much as they do. Do I want the kids to lose? Of course not. Do I want them to win? Of course I do. I made this clear in my previous blog

Schools and Academies made mistakes in removing the intrinsic natural winning motivation from children in PE and Games. But let’s be reminded why they did. 99.9% of the issues were on the side-lines, not on the pitch. So, I want to win and so does my colleague Kevin Gallen (the most competitive person I know) But, I’m not prepared to sacrifice development to win at all cost and nor will Kevin.

Regarding the penalty situation then. Why don’t we address it. Maybe those individuals involved will read this and perhaps have a rethink about the complaint. I just want them to think about it.

First and foremost, it’s our view that a penalty in a competitive situation is much more a psychological challenge than it is technical. Hence why it’s been proven over the years to be the case that many managers of some of the top teams in the world have not even bothered to practice penalties prior to some of the world’s biggest knock out football matches. Why? Because it’s pointless. If you’re an international football player, hitting an 18 target from 12 yards should be pretty straight forward. On the training ground they would hit it showboating. But put 60,000 people in a stadium, do press conferences leading up to the game with journalist asking “what happens if you lose”? Think about what happens if you hoof it over the bar and years of teasing and torment. Think about all the back pages and the comments from people in the street. Now let an eye drift into the stand and see the fans waving and sticking their fingers up at you. All these dynamics are barriers and obstacles that you zone out from. Top players can do this. Most then that I have spoken to that took penalties in pro football have said to me. They pick a spot before the game and never change their mind. This includes Kevin Gallen who of course took many penalties and said: “on occasions, as a young player, of course, sometimes you did notice the 5000 people behind the goal distracting you with songs, verbal abuse and even miming ways they wanted to kill you”

So, how do you practice that? The only way possible for let’s say elite players, is to go to tournaments that are competitive knock out formats in stadiums that prepare you mentally for such situations. My current academy club have been excellent at this and I even remember at my previous club a great tournament in Oostende where we went on a regular basis with the U14/U15 youth team. One year I recall we done really well. We were in the knockout stages and we had one of the great Moscow teams. It went to penalties. There lad strolled up, thumped the ball on to the spot, never looked anywhere other than the target, steamed up, head down and blasted the ball into the roof of the net. Our lad, looked so nervous I actually from the dugout wondered if his legs would give way on the walk to the ball. It’s in a stadium, there is maybe a thousand people watching. There is a stadium announcer, cameras, cheering. He’s just a kid and it’s all new. Predictably, he missed. That player is maybe the most technically gifted player I had. In training if I held an A4 piece of paper in the goal he would hit it from 25 yards not a problem. So, was the issue, Technical (requires practice) or Psychological? But then that requires practice surely? So, hang on, this event, the feeling, the anxiety, the thoughts, the disappointment. That WAS the practice? Going to the tournament? The experience. Eureka, that was it. We all know that England, let’s say, have a bit of an issue with penalties, so the good thing is, the academies know this and they want the teams to experience a proper competitive knock out experience.

I think about other sports like Darts. There are thousands of excellent ‘pub’ dart players so what the difference? Could it be, elevated on a stage with 5000 people in the room singing and TV cameras could be a distraction for many?

Going back to the original ‘complaint’. The only way to practice this would be to ask every child in the school to come out on to the pitch and stand around shouting and screaming. To perhaps create pressure. In fact thinking about pressure. The very fact that there is a complaint would suggest the pressure in the first place came from the parent. If they are that devastated about losing you can only imagine the conversation in the car on the way. The pressure didn’t come from us. Just the experience, experience that makes you psychologically stronger and better. Experience that made that player in Oostende better and stronger.

To finish, of course, there are technical aspects to taking a penalty. Striking a ball in many different ways is covered by us. If the children apply themselves to training they will get that. But we would not and would never queue up 20 children to practice penalties in a pointless situation sacrificing other learning. We have one hour a week to learn. So I would ask this. In the week leading up to the tournament we had one hour of learning. How many hours that week did the child spend on the PlayStation, in front of the TV or on the computer? Those house could have spent in the garden or the park with two people a ball and a goal practicing penalties.

Tony McCool


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