Coaching / Development, Performance | Jul 27, 2016 | 8 min read

Young Lions

Gareth Southgate on developing talent for the England Soccer Team.
John Portch

When training time is limited, coaches must make the most of it. England Under-21s Manager Gareth Southgate is only able to assemble his squad a few times per year despite the pressure on the nation to succeed in international soccer. The situation is compounded by the lack of playing time many of his charges experience at their clubs in the English Premier League.

By John Portch

Southgate passed a recent test with flying colours as England won the prestigious Toulon Tournament in southern France in May. He believes the trick is making sure his players feel the value of joining England training camps. “What is the important thing when a player comes to England? First and foremost, we want them to want to come back again,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll have a squad of 23 but only 18 can get changed, but if the five who didn’t get changed go back to their clubs and say, ‘it was a worthwhile, beneficial experience’ then that is what we’re heading for.”

He tells the Leaders Performance Institute how the Football Association (FA) work to establish clear and engaging development pathways for young professionals despite the lack of club opportunities, as well as the unified sense of purpose that characterises the best teams.

Big Game Experience

The Toulon Tournament-winning squad was drawn from some of the English Premier League’s best teams, including champions Leicester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Yet these young players often lack extensive experience of big games. “Take the Champions League as an example,” says Southgate. “It is a brilliant tournament but each week there’s a maximum of 12 English players playing in it.” The group stages of the 2015/16 Champions League included 59 Spanish players, 42 French, 22 Portuguese and 19 Italians – all figures that dwarf England’s total, which does not include any of Southgate’s current squad.

“Every year the Germans at Bayern Munich, for example, are going through European quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals, knockout games. They’re really under the microscope and coupled with their experience of the German Bundesliga, they’re performing under pressure against the very best players,” the Englishman explains. “The majority of our lads haven’t had that yet.”

Making the Players Want to Come Back

Southgate views himself and his staff as another resource for his players rather than as authoritarian leaders. “I don’t say every football coach will agree with that and it’s clear that different people work in different ways,” he says, “but I see our role as coaches to get the best out of them and to provide them with the resources to help them achieve the best possible performance and I think if they own that and take charge of that then we’ve got the best possible chance of getting the best out of them.”

He says that representing the senior team is a clear goal but that the FA has worked to create a broader vision: “There’s a team goal inasmuch as we want players to play in the biggest matches under pressure. So we want them to qualify for and win European Championships together. It’s about building a team and working together towards success. Can we make you a better player? Enjoyment is a major component but if they feel they’re improving and getting better from this experience then that is fundamental for them wanting to come back.”

Creating Club England

The infrequency of international training camps is a persistent hindrance. “At the end of 2015 we had ten days together in September, then three weeks apart, then the first couple of days after meeting again are spent reflecting and consolidating what we learnt last time, then another ten days, and then we went from November to March with nothing,” Southgate says starkly. It is incumbent upon Southgate and his fellow coaches at the FA’s training headquarters at St George’s Park in Staffordshire to foster an appealing vision and clear performance pathway. It starts with a uniform approach.

The St George’s Park complex, which opened in October 2012, enables England’s age group teams and the senior side to stay on the same site. Players from the different levels mix, which is particularly beneficial for the youngsters. “Now during an international week there are occasions when some of the senior players come in to talk to the younger age groups and some of the younger boys might go to train with the senior team, or their players might come to train with us,” Southgate says. “Inspirationally that’s important and it’s more of a Club England, which we had discussed before but is genuinely happening now.”

The FA is trying to build a unified playing culture that funnels age group players into the senior England team. Says Southgate: “We’re trying to build a method and a culture that isn’t too dissimilar at Under-15s to Under-21s. We understand that they can take more in at Under-21 level, they’re further on in their football learning, so there’s got to be an incremental change in their curriculum all the way through. They’ll play more tournaments but also more teams from around the world and you’re slowly building a piece each year so that if a player comes in at Under-15 and goes all the way through then there’s a logical progression to it.

“We’re trying to build a method and a culture that isn’t too dissimilar at Under-15s to Under-21s. We understand that they can take more in at Under-21 level, they’re further on in their football learning, so there’s got to be an incremental change in their curriculum all the way through.”

“So for us it’s not just about the style of play but the principles of being in the England system and mixing with the players of other teams.” The ultimate goal is for the senior team to be able to call upon players steeped in the same culture who have had years of playing in the same team and becoming accustomed to each other’s qualities, as happens in the youth academies of Premier League clubs.

“In 2015 we had Tottenham midfielder Tom Carroll and his club mate Harry Kane making the runs. They’d been playing with each other since 12 or 13 so the understanding is there. There’s a power in that if you’re in the international set-up so we’re establishing more consistency in our age groups. Even if they’re not playing at their club every week together at least they’ve played with each other for us and gained a better understanding of each other’s game.

Game-Based Learning

To start implementing that culture Southgate and the FA worked to form a suitable learning environment that met the needs of an international soccer team. “We think the players need to be really clear on their roles within the team and we probably need to coach that for a year, honing and tweaking it. Maybe the following season we can look at something different but we don’t think it’s feasible for them to come in and fully understand the system of play within three days.” This idea has shaped his approach to coaching his young athletes.

“We think the players need to be really clear on their roles within the team and we probably need to coach that for a year, honing and tweaking it.”

Every member of Southgate’s Toulon-winning squad was born between 1994 and 1996 and he accepts that the learning styles of young players have altered since his own retirement from playing in 2006. “We believe the days are gone of players standing around for ages twiddling their thumbs, looking elsewhere and not listening while the coach is talking,” he says. “We’re predominantly about game-based learning, games that bring out the types of practices that we want to do. For example, if we feel that a key element of the game is to switch play from one flank to the other we might run a training session where we have six goalposts and the idea is to score in wide areas rather than just being a phase of play that the coach is talking through.

“There’s discovered learning going on and at the beginning and at the end of the session we’ll explain what we’re doing, hold the session, and the practice brings out what you’re trying to achieve rather than stopping and saying ‘switch play’ because to score in the game they’ve got to switch play. So it’s happening naturally.”

Learning Beyond the Pitch

Southgate and his staff curate video footage both before and after games to introduce and consolidate learnings away from the training pitch. “Before training we show them video evidence, either from a match or a training session, which relates to an area of learning that we’re trying to achieve that day. Then they go into a training session that backs that up and we’ll review that session and we’ll ask ourselves as coaching staff: ‘did we think this worked? Can we show that back to the players? Should it be individuals, units or the team?

“The learning is consolidated afterwards rather than by having players stand on the pitch for hours and hours, which players get bored with. We’re continually trying to find the learning style that suits each group and individual player. Some will take it in during the meetings by listening, some will take it in from the video and some will take it in from actually doing it.

“You’ve got to accept that there’s no player in the world that’s going to pick everything up in one session so you’re constantly referring back and checking up. Sometimes as a coach we think something is obvious when it isn’t to a player.”

“You’ve got to accept that there’s no player in the world that’s going to pick everything up in one session so you’re constantly referring back and checking up. Sometimes as a coach we think something is obvious when it isn’t to a player.”

Video is also matched by an increasing array of data and so Southgate and his staff must interpret the data they receive to make it understandable, actionable and compatible. “I think there’s a real danger of information overload for players and it’s important that they’re not swamped,” he says. “Chunking that learning is important if we’re working four days before a game. We would try to give more information early in the week because as players are getting towards match day and the stress level is heightening we feel they are less capable of taking in that depth of information. It’s too close to the game for it to go in and actually stay so we feel it’s about dripping in the information across the week and keeping the final 24 hours before kick-off to a minimum.

“Everyone thinks about inspirational team talks but as a player you can’t take in too much immediately before a game or at half time even, so coaches have to be very clear on the volume of information and how it’s delivered for it to have an impact because there’s so much else going on in a player’s mind at that time.”

Players Need to Contribute to their Own Coaching

As much as Southgate and his staff work to give their players help and advice that they do not already know, they invite input from their athletes, who are more willing to share and take part in England’s culture of knowledge sharing when they are asked what they want. He says: “If something in training needs freshening up we’d like to think that we as coaches would pick up on that but equally important is feedback from the players. If they feel that something isn’t working you’d want them to come and see you.

“An example of player feedback influencing training is the timing of training. The group we had in 2014 and 2015 wanted to train in the afternoons. It worked for us as a staff and we were able to plan the day. As we got towards the end of the season they valued a lie-in in the mornings and a slightly later breakfast, time to work on some of the off-field learning sessions, workshops etc. and the group were comfortable with that.

“This current group prefer to train in the morning so that they can do gym-based work in the afternoon. They just have a different mindset and I think that we as a staff are going to get more out of the players if there is an area that they feel quite strongly about. We don’t lose anything by going with their plan.

“We’re not conceding power or the ultimate decision. We feed back on the other side and could tell them, ‘we’ve listened to what you’ve got to say and we’re still going down this route’.”

England are working to build a culture of success despite the restrictions they face by:

  • Demonstrating the value of being nationally selected at all levels. Even players who do not play will feel the value of joining their peers at England’s national training centre.
  • Creating a uniform performance culture at age group levels that expands up to the Under-21s team.
  • Introducing game-based learning and feedback that engages young athletes and consolidates their learning.
  • Asking young players for their feedback on their training and development to help shape future sessions.

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