18 months in senior football: What Lessons did I learn?

Another month, another blog post…..

I had initially typed up this post back in October as a coping mechanism – a way of dealing with my departure from my last position in senior football. I don’t hide my emotions and say I was incredibly angry with how my departure was received at the time, I was disappointed with how my time at the club had gone, felt disrespected by many stakeholders and in truth was incredibly bitter about the whole experience. However, I recently stumbled upon this initial draft post, and realised there was actually some useful messages for young and upcoming coaches behind all the anger and emotion. So after a few weeks rewriting, I have decided to post this as my latest blog post.

Coach Holmshaw ‘in-action’

From my experience, unless you are an ex-professional or semi-professional athlete. Most coaches start their journey within youth football. And after several years if the coach finds that they enjoy the role, they may look to test themselves with a senior (otherwise termed adult) team.

This was the case for me, I started as a grassroots coach at 17. After 6 years with a few academy experiences in 2019 I managed to get my first paid role with a private football academy in England. It was amazing to get to this level, working with players that would go onto professional academies, especially for someone who was a grassroots player himself. The session plans were detailed, with technical & tactical jargon I had not come across before. It was such a high level of football coaching with standards and professionalism and expectations and It was brilliant to be apart of that!

Youth Football should place a focus on development over winning in my opinion

However, the only thing that lacked for me was…… ‘winning’. Anyone who knows me know I don’t deem winning important in youth development. It’s great to win, but I always say to youth coaches ‘its winning at what costs?” – telling the player what to do in every moment of the game, a lack of game time for the weaker players, training 2 and 3 times a week with 10 year olds. For me that’s not right in youth football, and I’ve always believed that. So I knew I had to get involved in senior football. I knew I could get the best out of youngsters and aid in their development, but what about winning? Could I get a senior football team of men or women to win a game of football? This was an unanswered question in my mind.

So – after lockdown I decided to leave youth football behind, leave my paid roles behind, and volunteer within a senior team. Eventually I got offered the chance to take charge of an Amateurs women side in Step 10 of womens football in England, and after a few months moved onto a team in step 8. When I reflect back, these where both good experiences, and I learnt a lot from both. There was a lot of things that I got right, and a lot of things that I got wrong.

So why do I reflect on this now. Well I’ve had a lot of coaches get in touch over the past few months to share my experinces on a blog. I’ve also had a few offers to jump back into the womens game. I’m certainly keen to get back involved in senior football at some point over the next few years, so it seems a good time to revisit the lessons I learnt, and share my reflections on that 18 month period in senior womens football.

7 learning lessons

1) Recognise the context

Context – something I have spoken about so many times on The Sports Coaching Podcast, but when I reflect back I perhaps didn’t use my knowledge of the context in my professional role.

My father often describes our coaching with the phrase ‘The Holmshaw Mentality’. How we were taught to coach – was all about being professional both on and off the pitch and having basic standards (preparation, punctuality, attitude and work ethic). At the time, I would often recite the phrase “just because your working at an amateur setting doesn’t mean you to have to act amateur”. On reflection, perhaps I took this a step too far. In both of my roles I was trying to run the club like a professional club! Look at my staff for example – I brought in a Performance Analyst, an S & C coach, a mental skills coach, hey I even brought in a matchday reporter and a photographer in. I developed a curriculum using my GAME model (something that you only see in professional or academy level football). I educated all my staff on this and gave regular CPD sessions on topics such as ‘representative practice’. I was treating the role as if it was a professional club, but it wasn’t!

I thought the players would buy into it all! That they would love the the higher standard of coaching (my own opinion), the opportunity to spend time with an analyst, a mental coach to turn too if they needed her. In reality, maybe 5 of the team did, and the majority were not interested at all. At the time I couldn’t get my head around this, but when I reflect, why would they be interested – they were amateur players! The work of Dave Collins would suggest that the majority of players took part for the reason of ‘Participation for Personal wellbeing’ (see Collins, 2012 for more information). At amateur level, players take part to play on a Sunday, and if they win its a bonus. From my experience, there is no interest to go through every aspect of their game to win at the highest level, and it was naive of me to not recognise that!

What was the lesson here?

Well, on reflection I should have just coached in a way the players were used to. Without all the GAME model principles and the analysis and the mental skills development and so on, it clearly didn’t meet the needs or wants of the players. Although – this is easier said then done as I talked about in my last blog post on coach motivation.

2) Understand why your players play

Understanding your players reasons for participation! This expands on the work of Dave Collins I referred too earlier. In both teams that I coached, the majority would not have been fussed if a session was working on phases of play, or if they were just having a kick-about. The majority would fit into the bracket of “participation for personal wellbeing” (see diagram below).

In both roles I ran the team initially with high standards and expectations, and the players bought into that, but over time it became obvious that the majority of players did not attend the sessions to improve, they wanted to come for the social aspect. And that’s fine! Everyone has different participation reasons and I knew that. In the first role I ended up just accepting it for what it was and it worked, we eventually started to play better on the pitch. In the second role, I didn’t, and perhaps that was our downfall.

Why do players participate in sport?

From a personal perspective, the difficulty for me was that I found facilitating a session for people to ‘have fun’ very boring. Maybe earlier in my career (when I was 19 or 20 and I worked for kids camps and grassroots teams) I would have enjoyed this, but at 23/24 it didn’t interest me at all. In my experience, you can’t change people, you can’t suddenly get them to buy into serious training sessions if they are not participating for that – you have to accept it for what it is.

What was the lesson here?

The lesson here was – if I want to coach using a GAME model, principles of play and have standards – go coach at a higher level or go back to academy football that has players with these expectations. When I eventually realised this, I did this, and can say I’ve had no such problems since.

3) Never assume a player knows what you think of them

During this 18month period – I really tried to master the art of ‘player management’. I would spend hours of my free time messaging players with the ‘well done today kid you were ace at training’ or ‘keep doing what you were doing’. The players responded so well to this in both roles, and I felt this initially helped me get the best out of them at both training and off the pitch.

After the close season and a bad result on my recent MSc submission at the time, I realised I was spending too much of my free time ‘managing players off the pitch’ instead of focusing on my MSc study. I began to spend less and less time doing this, and then eventually stopped. I thought to myself ‘I don’t need to do that anymore they know what I think of them and their ability’. However, I quickly learnt that players never assume what you think of them. They need that constant communication.

I could tell there wasn’t as much confidence in the players, and the team towards the end of my time at both clubs. Was this because I had reduced the player management? I think so. I always think about Harry Redknapp talking about how he would take turns to praise his players at different times throughout a season, or Arsene Wenger talking to Martin Keown before a game “You are going to win us this game today”. Personally I think its a huge part of the job, and a big part of any future team success.

What was the lesson here?

Balancing time! I’ve always struggled at multi-tasking, but in this case I let a part-time position take over my life. I needed to spend maybe an hour a night on my team, and spend the rest of the day on my other duties. This is something I’ve began to get better at over the last few months.

4) Recognise the area, players backgrounds and their values

All my early coaching and junior management experiences where based in both Sheffield, and Leeds. Both entrust values of hard work, passion and determination. As a kid brought up in Sheffield, coming from a working-class background, those values make up my mentality.

In my last role I asked some stakeholders about the values of the town. Once responded with the word ‘fortunate’. I found this really interesting at the time but over the months It became quickly obvious that the players from the local area did not have the ‘working hard’ mentality at heart. Now I don’t say this to be critical, ‘working hard’ isn’t the only answer to success. My point is that I had different values to the players. I wanted them to work-hard at every session, be determined to be the best and show passion – because that’s what I would have done through my upbringing. Yet, this wasn’t going to happen at this club, and I never really recognised that!

How decisive is this I hear you ask? Well I look at the two best teams in world football (mens) in both Liverpool and Manchester City. Both hard-working class areas, with a lot of passion for the game. In my opinion, both Klopp and Pep have encompassed these values into their teams and their culture. You don’t see players last long at both clubs if they are not prepared to work and give it their all!

What was the lesson here?

I needed to do more research about the area, and the people within it. In this case, perhaps I would have recognised that it was never going to work in the long-run with me at the helm. As my brother Ethan said at the time, we don’t have any “Holmshaw’ players that play with our values.

5) Don’t do favours

When I reflect back, I began to ‘do favours’ for my players at both clubs. I had developed friendships with some of the players. By friendship I mean we had developed a closer relationship that just a manager and a player. At the first club we would often go to the pub for a pint after a game, and as many of the players where the same age, we inevitably got on well! Perhaps in another context we might have became good friends. And it was great, it created a good atmosphere within the squad.

But the issue was, I was the manager. I had to make difficult and tough decisions. I ended up playing players who I had a good relationship with over others. At the time I felt that these players would ‘give more on the pitch’ for me. And I was right, they did. But the problem was when players became out of form, missed training sessions and perhaps didn’t merit a place in the squad, I still played them. I did this because of my respect for them, and my friendship with them above being a manager and player relationship. It very quickly felt like I had no control and couldn’t make those difficult decisions.

I ended up taking a few players with me to the next team, out of friendship more than anything else. Eventually when I ‘stopped doing favours’ and tried to pick on merit and my standards. A few of the players fell out with me and left the club. To them they perhaps couldn’t understand why I didn’t pick them in my team when they didn’t turn up to training for 3 weeks, when I had done before. The problem was I had become too close with some players, and it became difficult to manage them with the standards I wanted to.

What was the lesson here?

Don’t do favours! Simple as. You have to determine your standards, your culture, and pick the players that best abide to this. I went against my standards and picked players because I liked them as individuals, rather than football players. This was my favour to them – my covert contract in which they were not aware of. As soon as the favours stopped, so did the friendships!

6) Learn to trust your gut on the big decisions

I’ve always struggled with big decisions in life in general. In my late teens and early twenties, I would struggle to make a decision for myself, and would often ask my inner circle of friends and family of ‘what they would do’ and take their advice. Each and every time I did this, I never got the desired outcome I wanted, but still, I would always struggle to make the decision I wanted to make, even though I knew it was the right one.

I encountered this problem in my first role. We had a player in the squad that regularly undermined myself and my assistants at training and games. I was much younger then – in mind rather than my chronological age, as where my assistants. Over time it became a problem, and in truth caused me a good amount of depression. In my heart, I knew that it was the wrong decision to sign this player, and that I needed to be honest to her, and ask her to leave the club because she didn’t respect me or how I operated.

Did I? No – instead I asked several stakeholders at the club. The’re advice was to keep this player on, “give her a chance, give her a chance” I was regularly told. So I did, even through in my gut I knew this was the wrong thing to do. The issue was these stakeholders where not experiencing the issue first hand, nor saw the affect on the team. Eventually the issue was resolved, but it was far too late!

What was the lesson here?

I needed to trust my gut instinct. I knew the decision that I needed to make, and I needed to make it.

I got a lot of comfort after this listening to Gary Neville talk about this struggles with players during his time with Valencia, and as he describes ‘going weak on big decisions”. After this period, I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop consulting others on big decisions, and learn to trust my gut. It’s a tough process, but I’m getting better at it.

7) Consistency is key in creating a culture

I leave this lesson last, because I think that it is perhaps the most important and perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt in senior football. Culture is one of those ‘Voodoo’ words in which different people attach different meanings. I recently spoke to Lauren Ammon on The Sports Coaching Podcast and she defined culture as the “accepted actions, attitudes and behaviours “. I found this fascinating and it got me thinking about the culture I created in both of these teams.

On reflection, I think the intended culture I had was right for both groups. But the issue in both teams was that I wasn’t consistent with my culture. Over time, I accepted players training when they wanted to train, I accepted players turning up with poor attitudes at times, I accepted players perhaps saying disrespectful remarks to myself or one of my coaching team. Because I didn’t challenges these attitudes, actions or behaviours, it gave feedback to the players that this was acceptable.

When I would then try to challenge these actions, attitudes and behaviours, it became very difficult. You often hear coaches ‘set there stall out’ with their expectations at the very start. I believe that I did this, but my fault looking back was not sticking to my standards and expecatations. I would give players excuses “oh they are young” or “oh we have been in lockdown for 2 years”. But, over time I began running a regime that was not in my image, the culture didn’t stand for what I wanted it to. Eventually in both clubs, I had to leave because the culture that had been created just didn’t work for me.

What was the lesson here?

Defining a team culture that is shared amongst players and coaches is a difficult thing to do. A team is a team full of people, who all had different opinions, have different ways of doing things, and see the world differently. In my last role I believe that I began to create a shared culture towards the end, but it was too late.

The lesson, is that you need to understand the culture that you want to create, and try to foster the development of a shared culture that you, your staff and your players are all happy with. However, the most important thing after this, is that the coach (and the players) abide by such culture. In both cases for me, I wasn’t consistent enough with the culture that I wanted to create, I didn’t pull players up on standards, expectations enough during my time in both clubs. This was the main lesson I learnt during my time in senior football!

Overall thoughts

Coaching is tough, management is tougher, and when you lack experience you really do learn on the job. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had in the senior womens game, and came out of that 18 month period with a wealth of experience. I like Gary Neville and listen to him a lot, he often says that he lacked the 10,000’s of hours on the grass when he went into Valencia to have a successful career. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. When I was at university I was more focused on getting a good grade than coaching practice, a mistake that I made up for during lockdown with my commitment to gaining more hours in coaching practice.

Initially I was very uncomfortable managing a womens side. All my experience was within youth boys football. I’d never coached adults, nor had any experience in womens/girls football, and it is completely different! I was out of my comfort zone and made many mistakes – but I have learnt from some, and are still learning from others. No experience is a bad experience as my good friend Liam Stoneley would say, and as a coach, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It would be easy for me to have a successful career in youth football where I would rarely be challenged by players, but that’s my comfort zone. I’m looking forward to my next opportunity back in senior football, whenever or wherever that is, and keen to learn from these lessons, and as im sure I will, make more mistakes.

Thanks for reading & feel free to leave any feedback!


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