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How to successfully integrate club players into county and national squads

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  • There is a direct correlation between time spent with players and the progress they make.
  • Put a structure in place so you make sure every minute counts.
  • Repetition can minimise information loss between sessions.
  • Consistency of message on every level of the talent pathway is crucial.
  • Don’t underestimate the benefits of social cohesion – factor it into your sessions.

The process of integrating talented young players from a club environment into a county or national set-up is plagued with problems.

Coaches encounter frustrating time constraints, players struggle to retain information between get-togethers, and clashes of tactical and technical knowledge arise as clubs, schools and performance centres push their own conflicting teaching practices.

All are handicaps to serene progress and player development – precisely the things a gifted and talented player is expected to make in a county or national side.

That’s the bad news.

The good news for coaches is that these problems are not insurmountable. 

Bad timing

Let’s kick off with an analogy. In the build-up to every major tournament, it is compulsory for the England football manager to bleat on about the lack of time he has with his charges, and how the bloomin’ heck is he expected to gel the players as a team and lift the World Cup when he hasn’t had enough time to work with them or experiment with their best positions?

It is an issue that has rankled every England boss in the modern era, from Hodgson to Hoddle. Make time for success, they argue, but their exhortations fall on deaf ears.

Time, or rather lack of it, is a major obstacle for regional, national and even international coaches, and it has multiple side effects.

Sara Hilton is Director of the North East Wales Performance Centre, and coaches the North Wales Regional football squads, helping players advance from regional to national level.

‘Every minute with the players has got to count,’ says Hilton, who has just one hour a week with her players at the performance centre. ‘That would be my biggest tip for coaches. Set-up time, drinks breaks, it’s not a case of giving yourself a bit of a break and giving them a rest. Time is valuable.

‘I’m not saying work them every single minute of the session, but it needs to be structured. So simple things like, if you are doing a technical practice and the ball rolls a long way, don’t let the player go and get the ball, have another one ready. It sounds really pedantic, but that 20 or 30 seconds the player is running to get the ball, they might be missing information from you.’

The time between get-togethers, rather than the length of the sessions, is an area of irritation for England Under-18 girls’ hockey coach  Andrew Bradshaw , though he accepts nothing can be done about it.

‘The spaces between times we have with the girls cause us the biggest problems,’ he says.

‘Our programme starts in October when we select a large development squad. It gets narrowed down to a tournament 18 around Easter, then, from July, we play our major tournaments.

‘We will see the girls once, perhaps twice a month from November, December, January, February. We have to drop off a bit at exam times, and then, end of May, June, July, we see them a lot more.

‘There is a stark contrast in how much progress you can make from a team cohesion point of view when you are just seeing them once a month to when you see them more regularly.’

Away-day blues

Bradshaw, who is sports coach UK’s Education Advisor (Talent and Performance) and a UKCC Level 4 coach, adds: ‘Seeing each other regularly enables the players and the coaches to stop doing all the catch-up, the getting to know each other again and what did you do at school talk, and you can get more into what makes people tick. That’s when people start making real friendships, and that is so important.’

The majority of the programme for England’s under-18 squad is centralised at Lilleshall, where they undergo one-day training sessions, with two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon and a two-hour lunch break.

The England Hockey programme is heavily weighted to the post-exam period, and Bradshaw says that is when he sees a lot of gains made within the team, simply because of them spending more time with each other.

‘There is a balance between how to fit everything in, technical and social. When we do have a chance to get together for an overnight camp, you might have an hour’s work on nutrition that evening but then another hour doing a quiz or musical stuff where they can just mix, relax and enjoy being 17-year-old girls.’

Hilton has more quality time with her footballers at regional level than performance centre level (the North East and North West regional squads feed into the Wales national squad). There are two-day camps for the older age-groups, running from 10am to 3pm, and one-day camps for the younger age groups.

But whether she has her players for an hour each week or for full days every month, it is the same old problem that rears its ugly head: information loss.

‘Retaining that information, from a player’s point of view, that is the main issue we’ve found,’ explains the UEFA B Licence coach, who played professionally with Manchester United and captained Wales at under-15 to under-19 level until injury cut her career short at the tender age of 18.

‘You see the players once for an hour, and the next time you see them, you want them to have remembered at least some of the information so you’re not going back to square one all the time.’

To combat this, Hilton holds a question-and-answer session in front of the tactics board in the changing room before the start of the session, and another at the end of the day.

‘It’s about repetition. I will ask them questions they should be able to answer from the last training session they had, to jog their memory,’ she explains.

‘It’s not just about what they can do on a pitch and what they can do with a ball at their feet, it’s can they show a good understanding.’

Sara Hilton

High performance: Sara Hilton is making great strides as a coach at performance centre and regional level after her successful playing career was cut short through injury


But what about conflicting tactical and technical knowledge being passed on by clubs, schools and centres of excellence? Children may have brains like sponges that soak up information a lot better than us golden oldies, but pepper them with mixed messages, and they can be forgiven for getting confused.

No worries there for Hilton, who explains: ‘We are fortunate in that we have consistency within the Welsh Football Trust with regard to our coach education. The information players get might be different, but the way it’s delivered and the terminology used has to have some element of consistency.

‘Within our environment, we have a specific technical programme that is created by the likes of the national women’s team manager alongside performance centre coaches, of which there are six in Wales representing different regions.

‘The strategy is filtered down into the regional squads so technical points will remain consistent, and tactical elements too will remain the same for the most part – though obviously, at national level, the information will become a lot more specific.

‘That’s the same for our performance centres as well. Some of the players are only 10, 11, 12 years old, but we start to introduce different technical points, and also, the terminology we use is very specific too. That’s across the board with all the coaches so when a child does get picked for the regional or national squad, the terminology that’s used by those coaches is consistent, and they understand what’s being asked of them.’

It is a system familiar to Bradshaw too, who states succinctly that the challenge for any sport is to ensure that the tiers below are aware of what the tiers above are trying to do.

‘Hockey has spent a lot of time recently trying to ensure that the key messages we would deliver at age groups, under-16 or under-18, are very similar to what they are doing the next level down the regional tier, and that’s been pretty successful.

‘But the school system is probably our biggest challenge. Any governing body will probably have less control over what the schools coach, how they play and how they use their players. England Hockey can control its own talent pathway, but it is very difficult to try to control what the schools system is doing.’

The challenge then is for coaches to try to get the players to communicate to their school coaches the techniques they have been working on at regional or national level.

‘When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, there’s sometimes a feeling of one step forwards, two steps back,’ says Bradshaw.

‘I imagine that’s the fundamental challenge for a lot of sports within their pathways – how do you ensure consistency of message? That’s one of the factors that typifies an effective talent environment.

‘Are other coaches, or the parents, or the five or six players who sit around a certain player as their support network on task? Do they understand what we are trying to achieve, that sometimes winning a game may not be the priority for us? It may be getting players to play in a certain way.

‘It’s important as a young player will struggle to comprehend all these conflicting messages and might be getting pulled in five or six different directions.’

Buddy marvellous

For both Bradshaw and Hilton, spending time building social cohesion is vital if the players under their instruction are to flourish.

‘It’s important that they all get along well,’ says Hilton. ‘We want to produce a good team, and we want them all to enjoy themselves and get on, but it is about spotting those individuals as well.

‘We look for players who are strong technically, tactically and physically but also now psychologically, socially and emotionally. They must be emotionally capable of dealing with the pressure.’

Bradshaw makes sure that players mix with each other and don’t remain in their own cliques, holding team bonding exercises early in the programme to encourage them to make new and different friends.

‘Whether we are in a national programme or not, we’ve got to ensure players enjoy what they are doing,’ he says. ‘That’s a big part of building a successful team and building better people.

‘We have a huge difference in backgrounds and outlooks, from affluent children who come from private schools to those from state schools. If we can get those children mixing effectively and sharing, it means it will be a much more positive environment.’

Getting that ethos across to 28 16- and 17-year-old girls, many of whom don’t know each other, is not something that will occur naturally. It needs the direction of a good coach.

And the process does not always run smoothly, bearing in mind the nature of high-performance centres, where friendship groups may be torn apart when a coach trims the squad in preparation for summer internationals.

‘On the one hand, we’re telling them to pull together, work hard and support each other, but the girls have quite honestly fed back at times that it’s difficult to build a team bond when, come Easter, we trim the squad from 26 down to 18.

‘There is always that pressure of selection. The message to the players is, if you continue to play for the senior side, that’s the case for them too, and you have to learn to deal with the ups and downs and the disappointments, and yet still support each other. It’s a steep learning curve for some of them.’

Sara Hilton's top tips

  1. Be consistent with your information and terminology
  2. Always ask the players questions off the field as well as on the field to ensure their understanding.
  3. Every minute counts! Prepare your session to the best that you can with regards to equipment - don't waste vital minutes having to change things time and time again.
  4. Coach for every learning style - explain, demonstrate and allow them to do it.
  5. Start a session with key points from the previous session to evaluate the retention of the information.
  6. Always evaluate yourself as a coach as well as the players. If they don't understand, you may need to change your approach.
  7. Variety is the spice of life. Keep a consistent philosophy but vary the way in which you communicate it.

Have you experienced problems integrating club players into regional or national squads? Share your thoughts on the topic by leaving a comment below.

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