Alex Trukan started playing in Poland at a local grassroots club – working up to the first team. He then moved to a professional club (Polonia Warsaw), playing for their U17/18 team. At 16 Alex started to coach as well – working with a Dutch football academy, based in Warsaw. He worked with their U14/15 team for two years, then moved to England to take up a position with Nottingham Forest where he currently coaches their U9 players and a U18 college team playing in the Conference Youth Alliance League. He has FA and UEFA coaching licenses and is studying for a degree in Coaching and Sports Science from Nottingham Trent University.
Nick Hornby once said he had no idea whether football is a much simpler or much more complicated game than he believed it to be. Assuming it is more complicated, how do you make it simpler for players to understand?
Whether it is simple or complex depends upon which lens you are looking at it through. For example, if you look at a psychological or physiological perspective it might seem complex. As a coach we are educated people and we might see details within the game that players don’t see. Our role is to help them however we can and part of that is to simplify the game to make it easy for them to understand. The most important part of this is in planning sessions and evaluating what you see in the game. All of that work might come out in one session that you run, or even one phrase that you give the players though.
A common trap is trying to give out all of the knowledge that you have – where your coaching becomes more about your ego than meeting the needs of the players. It is important to hold try to restrain yourself from saying everything and instead try to find the most relevant and simplest information for the players. Doing this is a skill that you obtain over time as you practice your coaching and learn more about the game.
How do you not say too much and avoid trying to tell players everything you know?
At the beginning you will find yourself stopping too much and for too long. Over time you get better at finding ways to present it more efficiently and effectively to players. Sometimes you may have to say a lot for the players to understand it, but at other times it might make sense to them in far less time. A good exercise for coaches at all levels is to time yourself and record yourself on video – set yourself targets and evaluate how well you do at meeting them. You might also try running a training session in one coaching style (e.g. the ‘command’ style) which will give you a feel for how that affects players. Through trial and error you will then find a style that works for you. Coaches need to remember that we are here for coach development as well as player development, so trying things and changing your approach is important for your growth.
How much emphasis do you put on the three (or sometimes four) phases of the game model?
For me personally it is a starting point when I am analyzing the game or planning a training session because it simplifies the game so much. The game revolves around can you attack, can you defend, and can you transition from one to the other? So for us at the club and me personally it is a good place to start. From there you can break it down even further – so for the attack you could look at building up from the back, creating chances, playing through the middle, playing through the final third, and so on. The same for the other phases of the game.
When planning training sessions are you working on a specific objective from within the game? If so, how do you determine which one, or is it part of a season plan?
It depends upon what we have seen in the game and player needs, but also on the club coaching philosophy. We have stages that we work on (e.g. we might spend a couple of weeks working on attack) but within that we select what we want to work on within that phase for specific players. One might need help with dribbling where another needs to work on combination play. So we try to combine both approaches and it is part of the skill of the coach to be able to do that effectively. The syllabus provided by the club is a good framework but we get to show some creativity within it to adjust to the needs of our specific players.
How much oversight do you get from technical directors?
It happens more informally. We have meetings with our lead coach once each week where we discuss the players and upcoming plans. Every couple of weeks the lead coach will join a training session and has a chance to observe what we do.
We heard recently from Ajax where they pair up players with their specific needs rather than with the team as a whole. Do you do anything similar?
On Mondays we have Individual Night, which started this season. Here they work in small groups or individually on technical work. All of our foundation years (9-12) will send out a few players to work with a skills coach. A couple of players might work on different tricks to beat a defender where others are working on a change of pace while dribbling, while others are focusing on ball mastery. Again, who we choose for what depends on their specific needs.
Can you explain how you integrate the STEP Principle when planning activities?
The STEP Principle is a tool for coaches to help them simplify their practice planning to make it more relevant for players. We have to know which aspect of the game we are trying to work on, and which players it is related to, and with the principle that starts with Space – which area of the pitch the problem occurs in. If you are working with strikers on where to press and where to drop you need to be working in the final third. You also need to take into account the dimensions of your space. T stands for Task, which is making sure we understand what the roles and responsibilities are for the players and what we want them to do. E is Equipment, which controls whether you need cones, bibs and other things to facilitate the session, and the last part is the Players who are involved. Maybe we are only working with two strikers on how to press, how to probe defenders, how to cover and support, but then we might also integrate midfielders into that – so how do they support the strikers and what movements do they make in relation to them. Then we need defenders and a goalkeeper to play against them and to play the ball out from the back to get the coaching moments for the strikers.
As the session is running, how do you judge whether it looks realistic and has relevance to your topic?
Before the session starts the planning part is crucial. If we plan well, we minimize the chances of the session not going how we want. The reality is though at some point it is going to go differently to how we intended and coaches shouldn’t be afraid in these moments. Using the STEP Principle they can change the space, the players involved, and other things. Knowing when it has gone wrong can be a challenge though. I would recommend trying to look at the session through the eyes of the player to see whether it looks and feels like the game – would I want to play in the practice?
When do you step in to fix an activity that doesn’t look right or leave it to fix itself?
When you set up every practice, the first few minutes you have to let the players try to understand what is happening and adjust to it. Only after 5-10 minutes can you decide whether it is working as you had intended. Unfortunately most grassroots coaches don’t have the luxury of a lot of time though, so you might see that time getting compressed before a decision is made. If you see the learning process taking place, your job is to leave it and let them solve it by themselves. On the other hand, if the organization is clearly wrong then we need to step in and change it. There is a temptation to try to make it easier for players and I don’t agree with that. As the coach we should try to help players solve the problem, rather than changing the problem itself. Most of the coaching courses I see them trying to make things easier (which simplifies the practice) but by doing that they don’t teach the players to cope with adversity. Yes, it might make the session look better, but is it helping the players as well as it could. There is nothing wrong with having a messy phase early on.
Breaking down the balance of a typical training session – how much of the time are you working on individual/small group activities vs larger group games?
It varies by age group and player needs for sure. As a guide, younger player will need more technical work and focus more on individual and small group activities, but this is not the case all of the time. We might have an entire technical session, but sometimes we might play games for the whole session. There are no rules, because they simplify the process but can restrict development as we do things that they don’t necessarily need. Sometimes we might work in small groups but then try to integrate a game later on in the practice. The next day we might start with a game then try to break it down before finishing with a game (whole–part–whole). It all depends upon the stage of the players’ development and their understanding of the content.
After the session, do you evaluate how it went?
It is crucial to evaluate your session. Recently the Football Association recommended spending an equal amount of time on planning a session, running it, and evaluating it. The reality is for grassroots and even professional coaches can’t afford to spend all of that time because they have other responsibilities or jobs. We have an informal evaluation process where we talk to fellow coaches in our age group about went well, what players we affected, what objectives were achieved and so on. Then we have a more formal process where we log every session into a special system which was designed for all Premier League and Football League clubs. This includes all individual and team challenges and the sessions we have used. It lists players who struggled and strived in the sessions, and other information. Based on this information we begin to plan the next practice.
How many training sessions do you get between each game? Is this set by the club/Football Association?
At the moment we have three training sessions during the week and a game at the weekend. There is ratio set by anyone though and it varies throughout the year. We might play a friendly during the week or an internal game. More important is understanding what stage the players are at and balancing the part practices (training sessions) and the whole practices (games). These are both important tools in the development process and in increasing of certain topics.
We don’t have league tables or points as the games are treated purely for development. We are increasing the number of games we play now as part of our teaching approach. Previously we tried to train more and play fewer games but the shift is going back the other way now. I think there is no golden ratio that we must follow for everyone though as it probably varies by a number of player and situational factors.
How much time is spent at training preparing for specific opponents at the different ages? What would be examples of the work done in that area?
With U9’s we don’t spend any time on it. For the older age groups and the college team we try to analyze the opponent and integrate 1-2 sessions purely focused on the tactical preparations for the game. We might prepare our game plan or we might set ourselves up to deal with a specific opponent. As the college team is semi-professional we don’t do it as much as the professional teams but there is time set aside for it. The danger though is focusing too much on the opponent rather than trying to dictate our own style of play.