Coaching a Youth Team

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Steve Teakel
Coaching Development Manager
AFL Victoria

For the past three season’s Dermott Brereton has been coaching the Beaumaris Sharks which is far cry from his AFL days with the Hawks – but it is interesting to hear him talk about his coaching methods and thoughts on what is important in youth football.

There is no doubt that Allan Jeans has had the greatest influence on Dermott and his youth coaching philosophy – the old theory of what to do when the ball is in dispute, when we’ve got it and if they’ve got it. 

He uses this successfully to coach the team on match day and also when planning his training sessions. Each element has a number of focus areas for the players and is embedded in the format of training. It was not just the technical and skill aspects of the game that have rubbed off, but also the way Jeans managed and communicated with his players that has made a significant impact. 

As Dermott explained “Jeans could talk to Robert DiPierdomenico and shout and yell at him and Dipper would go back out and want to tear the world apart. And then he’d see Johnny Platten and he’d calmly talk to him and Johnny would go, ‘yeah yeah right, I’m better than that’. So you manage the personalities within the team”.

From a week to week perspective at training he divides the session into the three elements:

  • We have the ball – run and spread, ball usage, keeping possession
  • They have the ball – defending, pressure, tackling, finding an opponent
  • Ball in Dispute – winning the ball, using your body, assisting a team mate

A fourth element of Dermott’s coaching philosophy is giving each individual the opportunity to develop and improve their game by playing them in a number of positions. It is important as a coach to look at a range of positions for your players and then identify the skill sets required. One of Dermott’s junior coaches also moved him into different positions to experience the game – “I was in the ruck and he changed me in the back line, so even though I ended up being a key forward, I learnt the responsibility of playing against an opponent, so it was very good for me”.

 “I just happened to have one on the weekend - a young boy who plays centre half back, he’s lightning quick and a couple of times he out read his opponent when the ball was coming forward. So I started him up forward and gave him a shot there for half a game and he led to the ball pretty well. He’d always played as a defender as a kid, so I look for little traits in them to try and expand their game”.

“I’ve got a really good talent who runs around in the middle, but doesn’t look for his opponent. He gets plenty of the ball but so does his opponent - he couldn’t’ work out why, for the first four games, I was playing him on a half back flank. Now he’s really well set defensively and using his ball winning ability to create for the team.”

“Each player has their individual characteristics that will help them be a successful player in a team. It is important to encourage the players to do blind turns, side steps and take marks from behind, as long as they don’t get caught out and it’s not an ego trip. And then, at the appropriate times, I encourage them to shore it up, play tight, punch from behind, shepherd, and make a contest”. 

 “As a coach it is crucial that you recognise the efforts and encourage improvement of all your players as they love playing with their mates and deserve equal game time - they’ve paid the same amount of fees. They turn up to training, so when a player does something it’s more exciting because you see he is getting better”. 

The area of reward and recognition is important for encouraging individuals on the path of continuing improvement. “Every one of my boys has won one of them (awards) at some stage and I’ll save them up and wait until that boy does well – this could be for a game, a team act or improvement shown in an area we have been practising. But remember you can’t get away from the fact that kids know, kids are actually a really good gauge of themselves and each other”. 

An important aspect is your players need to receive opportunities as “you can see that there’s limited up-side for a number of them but it doesn’t mean that they can’t be a good player in my team. I’ve got a handful of players who will play local football, be great competitors and have opposition players saying ‘God, I hope I don’t play on him today’, so for me it’s getting them up to speed, dragging them along and providing tips to continually improve”.

Dermott has a number of key team principles to guide his players…..

The first principle is if a player is on, give him the ball. “If there is no support I want to see you exercise your skills to take them on, you show your natural flair and if you take the game on and succeed, we’ll pat you on the back but if you take it on, get tackled and there was a bloke sitting there waiting for the handball, that’s when they need to understand that team is very important. These boys have to learn that team comes first”.

Unless you’re taking a shot at goal or you’re deep in defence, get back off the mark as quickly as possible and roll on to your preferred kicking foot and play on. “This forces people further down the ground to react and run to the position where that ball should be going. If you can use it sideways, great, but anywhere between 30m out from defence and 30m inside your attack, you get back off the mark and you roll off. It is very hard to lead to a static kick, especially for kids”. 

One for the forwards is to learn how to hold their space, working out where the ball is and where it is most likely to go. “Teach them not to get there before the ball arrives. Time their lead, allow their team mate to push back off the mark and, when he is ready to move forward on the kick, then they lead”. 

It’s important they learn the skills of using their body and how to win the ball. The correct technique needs to be trained consistently throughout the season. “A number of small-sided game sense activities (1 v1, 3 v 3, etc.) can be used to practice ball winning technique. Putting pressure on the player with the ball is crucial and there are no excuses for not laying the tackle or chasing to tackle”. 

Teaching ball movement such as switching the ball is important to open up the play. “If we have side on free man, I encourage them to play on and go hard across the ground. Set up your drills to practice this so it becomes a habit for them to look for the switch. If it is not on then we go down the line to a tall target. Some of them think a little bit quicker than others - a couple of kids think like under 18’s and some think like under 12’s”. 

He has experienced a number of challenges coaching this age group...

The art of successful coaching is your ability to communicate and provide feedback – this is often not just to the individual player but also the team. “To the individual it is important to find time to talk to them about their game, to provide an improvement goal for something they can work on, if you have assistants use them to provide the extra practice. Always look for opportunities to reinforce their effort to improve either on the track or match day” 

“Over the season I have given the team a good, solid talking to on occasions only when the effort and enthusiasm have been substandard. I never single out one player, if they are leading the charge I will use them as a positive example for others to follow. You need to understand, every kid wants to play, every kid wants to do well, they are not trying to lose. We have lost games where the effort and enthusiasm has been very good – we were just not good enough on the day and that’s OK”. 

The toughest part of being a coach is maintaining a clear and equitable playing policy by rotating the players not only on the field but also off the field. “As much as they know they’re rotating, kids want to play. It is important to set out your strategy early so that the players understand their role. One strategy is to group your players, including your bench into divisions of forwards, midfield and defenders. This will assist in reducing the confusion that sometimes occurs while the game is in progress. It is important to educate your players about slight positional changes or match ups that may occur based on the changes taking place”.

One challenge is working with your assistant coaches to provide an opportunity for them to learn and be a key contributor to the development of the group. “They are looking at me to be organised - I allocate the roles on a weekly basis after a quick discussion post game or an email to the group. It is about identifying and setting activities that can maximise the number of touches each player has in a session – small groups engaged in game sense activities are ideal”. 

“The injured players are an important group to keep active where possible with their skills – with a leg injury you can develop some hand ball drills amongst three of them they have to touch the ball, and count them in 100’s”.

In any youth team there will be a number of players who participate in other sports and have commitments to training and games. It is important to provide some player management around their participation – how many sessions, what activities they do and being flexible enough allow them to combine two sports. 

“I have a player who plays basketball at school, rep ball and he plays footy with us, he’s got 4 games a week and he trains with us and he trains with basketball so he’s got 6 sessions of physical hard work a week. I am able to manage his work load by limiting the physical work he does and identifying the skill set he needs to develop. For him it is about the warm up, plenty of touch work at ground level and marking, some goal kicking and body work for marking contests”. 

For Dermott his football philosophy is simple – develop the playing group to be the best they can be – the challenge for all youth coaches is to understand who and why we are coaching. A great starting point is to talk to other coaches and share your ideas and thoughts to help grow your coaching philosophy and coaching processes.

Bruce Bennett, 11-11-14 20:09:
This article by Dermott i thought was great . As a junior coach i found it encouraging and reessuring to find a huge amount of similarities between myself and Dermotts philosophys .I find that with this philosophy you open yourself up to criticism from certain parents who want to win all the time ,so theyd prefer you not to kick it to johnny hopeless .This way of coachuing is for longterm improvement which a lot of parents dont see . To avoid confrontation with these parents i organise a meeting with them outlining my philosophy and outcomes and if they have a problem this is the time to bring it up .I have had great success with this .

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