Coaching Women and Girls – Keith Boanas

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Keith Boanas is the National Head Coach of Women and Girls football in Estonia. Previously he worked as Assistant Director of Coaching for the David Beckham Academy in London, spent nine years as the head coach of Charlton Athletic Women and Millwall Lionesses. Keith has been involved in grass roots football and academy player development for over 25 years in the UK, Europe, USA and SE Asia and has published coaching manuals for young players. Keith has the UEFA Pro License.

Do you coach women and girls differently from men and boys?

At the grassroots level the coaching would be pretty similar. I’m a coach educator too so I work a lot on this area. For children you can coach them together in the same way – with the fun element, less pressure and thinking heavily about development. You still have to have the capability for girls to train on their own because some prefer that, but if they are happy to train with boys and the boys are happy for them to be there I would encourage it and have done so here.  

As they get older things change. There is more emotional psychology involved in coaching senior women and you need a different approach. Anson Dorrance has made some realistic statements in the past about what you should say in the dressing room, whether you should individualize players or keep your comments to the team as a whole. That’s my experience too – you have to really get to know players before you can take risks on giving them individual criticism in front of other players.

When I coached semi-pro men’s in the Ryman League in England it was very different – it was spit, bite and bollock for want of a better word! Some of the discussions in those changing rooms were quite colorful for the coaches and between the players, and naturally you learn from that environment as you do all coaching situations. I started young and was encouraged to be a teacher so I learnt not to be someone who throws the teacups across the room though. I would have to swear sometimes in the men’s dressing room and I’m not saying I didn’t do it coaching women, but when I did it was under extreme circumstances and I would check myself immediately. As time went on I did it less and less and realized that it wasn’t effective. You have to be positive and precise – players self-analyze and tend to be overly critical of themselves. Your job is to turn it around and pick them up.

I would never discourage a coach from trying to get into the women’s game: I think some are scared because they don’t think they can change. I wouldn’t say I changed drastically but I had to change and I’ve seen other coaches do the same.

How has the women’s game progressed and where do you think it will be in the future?

It’s progressed a long way. My wife played 60 times for England as a goalkeeper and she was my goalkeeper at Charlton. My captain was Casey Stoney who went on to captain England and the Olympic team. She’s still playing at Arsenal. I’ve watched those years as we grew to the WSL in England, and now some of the money figures being banded around compared to when my wife started playing are hugely different. If you call that progress then well done to them. The US have a pro league, Germany and Sweden have strong leagues too, so there are a few ways for women to play and earn money, but it is miniscule compared to the men’s game. It is still not possible to earn a lifetime living from the game, unless they explore other avenues – coaching, physiotherapy, administration or managerial roles outside of the football part of the clubs. So the game has moved forward, but it still has a long way to go.

In England there are a few players who are full time professionals now. The biggest club – Manchester City pumped money into their women’s team for various reasons linked to the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations. The current England captain gets a good wage, with an apartment and a car and so on, but there are maybe 5-7 players in that team who get that kind of money. The England National Team players are on a central contract which is around 16-20,000 pounds per year, which when combined with club money can make players full time. They train on a daily basis too, but not every player on the team, which surely will create a disparity and animosity among the players that would be difficult to manage.

My concern is that it could implode upon itself. When Mohammed Al-Fayed invested heavily in the women’s team at Fulham for a few years they suddenly exploded into the premier league from 2-3 leagues below. The FA made them play through the system, winning games 20-0 at times. They recruited all the good players from other clubs, but spent the money without thought and the FA didn’t buy into promoting the league he stopped investing and the team collapsed. A similar thing happened to my team at Charlton when the men’s team got relegated from the Premiership – they folded the team to save money. There is a lot of responsibility on the clubs and the FA to keep pushing it forward without the bigger audiences and sponsorship interest that it needs. We still only get a few hundred fans to games in England – the only return for the club is good public relations.

How concerned are you about non-contact ACL injuries which are a more significant part of the women’s game. Do you have prevention programs?

Over my career I have seen some great players suffer badly with those injuries. I had a fabulous defender at Charlton called Eartha Pond who had three tears. Even here I have lost two players to it already this year. We know why it happens – people talk about the physical structure of the female body and how it increases the risk of injury. FIFA have launched this 11+ prevention program which is ok but doesn’t solve every problem – we use it on all of our coach education programs. Core training is very important if you can get people to do it, as is stopping people from doing inappropriate training with the younger players. We put advice into our magazines and manuals, we monitor clubs and ask what they are doing, but it still seems to happen. Unfortunately you can’t absolutely guarantee that it isn’t going to happen and it is the biggest fear factor for coaches in the game.

I’ve watched players go down in games and seen the coach go over there and tell them to get up, or spray the magic freeze spray on it and tell her she is ok. It is quite scary when it is the best player and she isn’t going to be the best player for long. We start with coach education and follow that with player education.

What do you do for the Estonian Federation?

I’m head coach of the women’s national teams, which means all age groups down to U15. I’m also technical director and coordinator for the whole of the women’s game here. Basically I have been given the task of developing the whole program here since 2009.

How much involvement do you have in setting standards and curriculum for youth players?

As best as can be done in a culture like this yes. I organize the league programs, grassroots programs, encourage people to develop school programs and we give best practice models but not every coach will take notice, which makes it quite hard work. Estonia has quite a strict licensing system and clubs need that to play in any of the competitions. We set proposals and a committee assesses and approves it for the licensing systems. The clubs then have to prove that they will meet those criteria or they don’t get to play. I’ve worked in various U.S. states at different levels and seen how big it is and how challenging it can be with the political battles going on. By contrast, Estonia is smaller than some of your states: there are only 1.3 million people and culturally it wasn’t a soccer nation. When it broke away from the Soviet Union, soccer was seen as a Russian sport so they moved towards handball and basketball. The women’s game has only really developed here in the last ten years as a result. Without our levels of enforcement the programs would be disorganized so it really is a necessity for us.

Is there a specific Estonian style of play that you are tasked with bringing out in the players?

I was left to my own devices really and have used my own personal style of play that has developed from 35-40 years of coaching. I had success using it in England at different levels and have inbred that into the girl’s and women’s systems here. We have workshops and seminars so that the coaches know the way we’re teaching and we ask them to embrace it. The men’s program is over 100 years old and has a Swedish coach with a different style so they are not combined at the moment. For some coaches that I talk to there is still the ‘win at all costs’ approach and it is difficult to get them to adopt our approach to developing players. It is a slow process but I have seen real development in the last three years in particular. We have a system of play, but as you know sometimes you need to change it to adapt to a particular opponent, so it is important that players are capable of changing their approach when needed.

How does the level compare with what you experienced at Charlton and in England as a whole?

When I first arrived it was oceans apart. My first sessions with the U17 training group here showed that they would have had trouble matching up against the U12-U10 teams at Charlton Athletic. Some of them didn’t start playing until 14-15 so the technical level wasn’t there. The boy’s game was different because they saw a path to money if they could make professional players. Mart Poom is the biggest name to come out of Estonia – he was a goalkeeper for Derby County and Sunderland, but there are others more recently too.  When I got here there were only 500 players on the girl’s and women’s side in the whole country. We’ve more than doubled that and have teams going down to the youngest ages. It’s a massive job though that will take at least another ten years to get them where they should be.

How is your Estonian?

I know the phrase for I’m sorry I don’t speak Estonian well! I can understand the conversations if they speak slowly. I know all of the football relevant terms (numbers, colors, time, turn, pressure and so on) too and basic conversation words, but I can’t hold a full conversation. I’ve tried, but it is one of the hardest languages in the world. There’s an old tale here that says four men sat around a fire and said let’s create a language that no one else can speak! The association used to offer lessons but the previous coaching staff didn’t show up for them so they stopped offering them. Luckily English is the second language and it is taught in all of the schools. I have an assistant who speaks perfect English and teaches me as much as she can. You get spoilt by all the English speaking and you are not forced to learn it, which disappoints me slightly. I would love to be able to converse in it.

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