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Swansea City Academy Coach Education Session

TW Braga Coach, David Sleator, attended a coach education day provided by Swansea City Academy.  Below is his report and thoughts on the day.  We thank David for sharing his report.

Stormont Pavilion, Belfast - Sunday 3 December 2017.

Sunday saw the return of the now annual Swansea City Academy education event to Belfast’s Stormont Estate, attended by coaches from all over Northern Ireland.  It was a fascinating insight into the philosophy which underpins the Swans Academy setup, from the foundation phase through to U23's. What is clear is the amount of dedication and focus given to ensure that any player entering the Academy has a clear pathway through it, with the same technical and tactical aims.

Swansea City has built a reputation within their 1st team to play from the back utilising the goalkeepers, a key component to their Academy as well, but the 1st team does act independently when required - a fact reflected upon during the session given the current difficulty the team is facing in the Premier League. Adaptability is still a key component to development.

The session today was divided into the following parts;

  • Overview and Introduction to the Swans Academy – Aaron McNeill, Ireland Coordinator & Ollie Jefferies, Foundation Phase Academy Coach.
  • Practical session 1 – ‘Me’ - Roy Thomas, Head of Academy Coaching & Coach Educator & Andrew Sparkes, Head of Academy Goalkeeping.
  • Goalkeeping Focus – Andrew Sparkes, Head of Academy Goalkeeping.
  • Practical session 2 – ‘We’ & ‘Us’ - Roy Thomas, Head of Academy Coaching & Coach Educator & Andrew Sparkes, Head of Academy Goalkeeping.
  • Video and Statistical Analysis – Harry Spratley, Academy Analyst.

 

The “Swansea City Way”

Ollie outlined the key focus areas for the Academy – technical and tactical development, player personalities, coach interactions and target setting. The technical and tactical development is key to the philosophy of the Academy, which is to have players capable of playing out from the back in a typical 1-4-3-3 system. There has been a real shift in modern youth coaching, no longer is it acceptable to just have young players able to ‘get rid’ of the ball into attacking channels, but technically capable players able to not only receive a pass in their own defensive third, but also utilise the goalkeeper and other players in order to play passes in a controlled manner in their own half. The most fascinating part of this was the tactical awareness element which Swansea have incorporated and essential in producing players able to execute their approach to the game. Ollie continued to give an overview of a typical practical session for players in the foundation phase (u7 to u12) – a clear focus on technical aspects at this age, fun orientated sessions which seek to develop skills needed. Even at this phase, goalkeepers are an integral part of all practical sessions (on top of their own goalkeeping sessions) – should it be a possession based drill or focus on one particular aspect, they are utilised. In the example used, a simple 4v4 rondo uses two goalkeepers at each end who face forward at all times, able to play the ball in to their teammates. The idea of this is to get the goalkeepers as much contact time on the ball with their feet in a high pressure situation – how comfortable are they on making a good 1st touch before finding a teammate? Is their body shape correct in order to offer to receive the pass? All of this built nicely into the practical sessions which followed.

Another aspect touched upon was player personality and coach interaction. Swans Academy have player development plans for every player from u7 up to u23. A set template is used which coaches and players themselves feed into. I was really impressed at how Swansea get their youth players to be engaged in their own development – recognising strengths and weaknesses. Along with long term development, these plans are updated weekly and monthly allowing coaches and players to look at certain areas which require focus. The key thing here is getting the players, even at a very young age, to buy into their own development. Although it sounds very rigid, the plans have broad outlines of what the players are working on at any given time, e.g. technical such as first touch, or when the players are older the addition of psychosocial elements such as interaction with teammates or ability to cope with pressure. Further to this, players are asked what their ‘super-strengths’ are – those abilities a player has which they feel is their best attribute. The interesting thing here is that these stronger attributes are not placed to the side in order to concentrate on weaker elements, in fact it’s the opposite. If a player shows really good skill in playing a penetrating pass, focus remains on developing this to the fullest. The explanation is that players are defined by their strongest ability which will become a key aspect of their game, so why abandon the development of this? Of course it’s not to the detriment of improving all aspects of play, but a balanced approach.

While all that sounds quite overwhelming, it is in fact carefully structured. Training sessions are thoughtfully planned with not only focus on group development, but also individual development through goal-setting. The Academy asks captains (rotating weekly) to choose ‘extras’, a clever way of getting the boys to practice certain skills at home which they can record and share. The reason behind this is part of the wider debate in youth football. Young players in the UK are simply not getting as much contact time with the ball as previous generations did though street football and other forms of free form play which is now seen as key to development. This is one way the Swans Academy has sought to address this. Analysis and feedback is performed to each player, the example shown of the coach and parent watching some video footage of training, before the player is asked to note which areas they want to work on. What is great about this is the fact that the player will present back video footage to his coach and parent, identifying what they have learnt by talking through solutions to problems. For example this could be trying to find space to receive a pass in wide areas – how does a player identify space against the positioning of opponents etc. The technical work on the pitch is followed up with insight and review which greatly benefits the players. The degree of learning and player involvement is perhaps a luxury a Premiership Academy can employ, however it is interesting to see how beneficial even the slightest amount of player ownership of learning can be.

Players also share in the mentoring process, so the older boys will take a younger player under their wing and help them review their own development as well as set goals. We got a snapshot of that within the practical sessions where the older goalkeepers worked alongside the younger kids. This takes place as much off the training pitch as on it which is interesting to see. Finally, players are given the opportunity to player up or down a year depending on their particular need at any given time. So a player low on confidence could play a year down to give more touches/passes/shots, whereas players can also be challenged playing a year up to really stretch their abilities. It’s not too dissimilar to bio-banding which also looks at shaping games to fit in with levels of development, however this method continuously monitors the need of the individual player on a regular basis, allowing them that flexibility depending on how they are doing.

 

Practical Session – ‘Me’

With two sessions running in parallel I had the opportunity to see the group of outfield players but choose to take a look at Andrew’s session with the goalkeepers. I’ve always felt goalkeepers are often an afterthought when it comes to training, but it can be difficult to incorporate them at times besides getting them to ‘go in goal’ – I wanted to see how the professionals did it! It was a good call, because as it turned out there was a particular focus on goalkeepers as part of the wider Academy context.

Warmup was a simple 3v1 passing rondo – working on 1st touch and quick passing. Progressing into all 4 keeping the ball up in the air using a ball in the hands to bounce, finally keeping the ball in the air using alternating hands.

With hands and feet warmed up, it was time to work on the goalkeepers playing the ball out wide and receiving passes in return on the back foot. Coaching points on body position to receive as well as footwork all feed in to the idea of getting ‘keepers comfortable receiving the ball and playing out with their feet. Decision making also played a part, with wide players eventually able to move between set cones so goalkeepers had to be fully aware of movement in front of them. This played perfectly into the other practical sessions later on which developed on these skills. It struck me at this point how little the hands had been used, clearly an emphasis was placed on ability with feet and it was reinforced by a comment Andrew made later on. He wants his goalkeepers to be as good in receiving and passing the ball as midfielders in the Academy. My initial surprise to this was put into context by what he pointed out next – a midfielder losing the ball can make a recovery run, have someone behind him to cover. A goalkeeper is last player back – a misjudged touch or poor pass can easily lead to a goal, and so given the way Swansea wish to play it is imperative the boys learn the skills at this foundation phase. We moved onto handling and diving technique and it was really good to see coaching points delivered one on one. Andrew’s main point was driven home as he touched upon something each of the three goalkeepers could improve upon – in one case position of the knee to aid the dive, setting of the hands forward rather than too wide and also setting too early. Giving a generalised overview for all players is not enough – it must be relevant to the individual.

 

Goalkeeping Focus

Back in the Pavilion Andrew presented a look into the goalkeeping pathway at Swansea City. Beginning in the foundation phase players are focusing in on distribution, catching technique etc. with progression onto dealing with crosses and through-balls and finally at the older age groups looking at specific types of saves as well as the tactical aspects of the game. All of this is centred on that one underpinning theme – playing out from the back. We saw examples of Academy goalkeepers make different types of passes, with three key outcomes - maintain possession, switch play or penetrate to by-pass opponents, all three using the short pass, lofted ball or driven pass. If play was congested down one side of the pitch, the goalkeeper could be used to switch play and this relied upon practising the technique of accurate passing. The second practical session would touch upon this. What initially seems as going against the principle of playing out from the back, goalkeepers are encouraged to look for penetrating passes forward should it be on – the application of smart accurate forward passes directly up to the midfielders or forwards is just as key to the way Swansea wish to develop their goalkeepers. Supporting all of this was a certain mind-set the Academy requires of their players – a short video of keepers from u7 all the way to u23 focused on key attributes of bravery, decision making and belief in their technical ability to play from the back. It struck me just how much emphasis is placed on goalkeepers in terms of what the Academy is trying to do. The modern goalkeeper is much more than a shot-stopper or sweeper for any team – the ability to be a part of the game in terms of switching play, or looking to make that penetrating pass more often associated with a deep lying playmaker is essential.

 

Practical session – ‘We’ & ‘Us’

The final practical session looked to build upon the first, beginning with a three station rotation – heading, pattern play with shooting and also variation of passing. The most interesting of the three asked players to make different types of passes – driven, curved and lofted into goals. Both outfield players and goalkeepers took part and something each of them could take into their own game. Roy touched upon the need to repeat the techniques involved. Following on from the first session, the goalkeepers taking part in the pattern play and shooting drill were tested on distribution as well as shot stopping. It was a nice way of working on as much of the skills as possible for all the players involved. Initial passes back to the goalkeeper were varied, so a slower pass really tested their ability to get the ball to a teammate first time before recovering to cover the incoming shot. Variation was added for the outfield players with concentration on decision making. Which player would sit and cover, which would join the ‘number 9’ to attack the goal?

During all of this, coaching was minimal. Roy noted it was a case that after initial demonstration, the players would continue. Minimal input was made, perhaps the odd question asked in order to get players to think about their decisions but overall player-driven. Also briefly mentioned was ‘shadow-coaching’ – Roy explained how although he may lead a session, other coaches may drop in to provide 1on1 advice when appropriate. A three team pressing game was next which was a great test of player anticipation and stamina, but the real insight was the final session with four teams working in two separate areas in the style of a ladder game – team 1 tried to maintain possession and prevent team 2 scoring, the other area have team 3 and 4 competing. As each team scored, they moved up or down the ladder, but what was interesting was the competitive nature of how the session developed. Roy highlighted one of the kids who had sprinted to retrieve the ball after a wayward shot in order to try and get that elusive goal, a trait any coach likes to see in a player and something picked up on even at that young age as a positive point to highlight.

 

Video and Statistical Analysis

The day finished with an overview from Harry on the role he played in stats and video analysis. It’s now vital to the elite clubs to have this data in order to get the maximum of their players, but it was interesting to hear how incorporating even small elements of video analysis can be beneficial to any youth teams. Looking back to the start of the day, the way in which the Swans Academy use video analysis for player reflection and development is hugely beneficial, getting players to get really involved in their own development by analysing decisions made not only in matches but training. It was noted that all games are filmed with the aim of at least one training session per week. Time consuming enough for full-time staff at the Academy, but something I want to look at in the future again.

 

Thoughts

Swansea City along with a number of resurgent clubs in the English game have sought to choose an identity or philosophy which defines them – through the Academy right through to the 1st team they share an overall approach to football meaning that in theory a player can enter their Academies at u7 and learn the skills required to go on and play in the 1st team, with all the technical and tactical skills required. Their coaching staff don’t drastically change the club in their style of play, reflected in who Swansea and other clubs have hired. Bar a few outliers in recent years, Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rogers, Michael Laudrup, Paul Clement - they all fit in with Swansea’s overall style of play. It’s a realisation of these clubs who cannot compete with the likes of the very top teams in terms of financial clout must seek other ways to be self-sufficient that has seen such focus on the development of their Academies. The attention to detail within a clearly defined player pathway is testament to how seriously Swansea is taking this. Having secured Academy category 1 status, the benefits of such an approach is certainly the medium and long term, but one which is fully invested by all of the Academy staff. They are desperate to see Academy players who pass through their ranks make it to the first team, and while the realm of a Premier League Academy may seem to be far sight from the work done in many clubs in our small province, it is clear that many aspects of what Swansea do can be adapted to enhance development. The ‘me’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ which acted as headers for the practical sessions fits into the “Swansea Way” – the foundation phase of ‘me’ and developing skills, ‘we’ in terms incorporating those skills with others, before ‘us’ – the principal identity of a Swansea Academy player who shares the same ethos, from u7 to u23. Player involvement in their own development plan, how to incorporate tactical learning and the benefits of understanding the psychosocial aspects can only be of help to any coach.

Many thanks to Rory and his team for being open on sharing insights into the Academy.

David Sleator