Nick Levett is the National Development Manager for the Football Association of England. Nick is responsible for the development of youth football in England for 5-18 year olds. He has a major influence in how the game looks in the future for children. However one of the biggest challenges facing Nick is to start influencing and changing the mindset of adults involved in the sport.
I recently heard an interview with Nick where he said that “Coaching is about the difference we make to young people’s lives”. This brought me back to a blog I did around the theme of “Building Social Capital”.
I felt that this would be a very good central theme for an interview with Nick Levett.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Increased social and economic pressures on families, weakening and disappearance of community institutions mean that more is expected of today’s sports clubs. This means that the role of the coach can be quite complex and multidimensional. In your opinion what are the priorities of the modern grassroots coach?
NICK LEVETT: When you put it in those terms, the role just got a lot more important! I think the days of the ‘field coach’ are steadily moving away, certainly for those that now coach in a full-time capacity for sure. The modern grassroots coach is often the one role model in a young person’s life where they can have some consistency, especially if they are experiencing lots of turbulence in other places such as school and home life.
Therefore, there is even more reliance on the coach to be a figure that offers support for more than just football matters. It is about supporting them to be better people as well as better players. That means we have to provide frequent, unconditional, repetitive, positive and consistent interactions – we can’t behave in one way with one child and in a different way with another because they might be ‘the favourite’. Children need this to help them develop routine in their life, create habits and develop skills that will support themselves for the future.
FOOTBLOGBALL: The impression left by adults is an essential ingredient in influencing the characters that will determine our society in the future. Our educational, extra-curricular and sporting institutions all help to build, develop and eventually depend on social capital. Do you feel that there needs to be a tighter communications network between these institutions to help develop a sense of positive wellbeing with our youth?
NICK LEVETT: Absolutely. In many cases, these organisations need to work together and communicate for the benefit of young people. This could be when managing cases of potential abuse to managing the workload of talented young athletes. Equally, like the above question, they need some consistency in their life. They need to understand they can’t get away with anything they want at home and have the same parameters at school or a sports club.
Young people are a product of the environment we create, largely created for them by adults in this modern, structured and formal learning world they explore. It is also suggested the way that adults talk to children in their formative years can stay with them until their mid-20’s so it’s important when they come to sports clubs they are helped to be better athletes in their chosen sport and also better people. Helping them learn about working with other people, respecting those from different communities, developing listening and communication skills are all essential outcomes from playing sport to help young people in the wider aspects of their life.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Is there anything in the FA player development plans to address this?
NICK LEVETT: The FA Youth Awards have taken a very strong step towards helping coaches understand the young person themselves before they can start to worry about the football part. It helps them understand managing the psychological and social development, delving into aspects such as self-esteem and motivation, to really help the coach with more than just the technical and physical development.
FOOTBLOGBALL:. People in general will only learn to do well what they practice doing (or allowed to practice). This is true not only for sport but in general social interaction. How do you as a coach inspire both learning and positive social interaction on the training ground?
NICK LEVETT:The biggest thing for me is about the players taking ownership of their own learning. Not only do you get hugely positive outcomes in terms of player development, with players more willing to engage in critical thinking and communication when they understand it’s about them as individuals, but the rewards from a holistic development perspective are huge.
The focus simply has to be on their learning, more so than just our teaching. We have a habit of lumping ‘teaching and learning’ into one bracket but find more coaches being concerned about their own teaching than the learning that is taking places. This needs a slight shift in perspective to view that as the most important outcome. As players understand the focus is on learning, I tend to find they become greater risk takers in games, more willing to try new things and approach challenges with a different level of creativity.
Match day is simply viewed as an extension of learning, not an entity in itself. It is the chance to put into place what we have been working on during the week and if we get the coaching right, when it comes to match day we can largely step back and allow the kids to play without fear of recrimination for trying something new. It also means you see less adults standing on the touchline barking instructions at the kids telling them what to do!
FOOTBLOGBALL: In an age of the virtual social network, the Sports club is one of the last extra-curricular institutions where our youth experience genuine regular face to face contact and interaction with each other. Do you feel that this is undervalued by current UK government policy?
NICK LEVETT: I think this is undervalued by many sources, not just at national level. One of the greatest things for me about being involved in youth team sports is meeting and interacting with people from different areas and backgrounds that you would never otherwise have met.
For example, in my team I have one kid that lives in inner city London in a big block of flats. Fear for him isn’t going to play Arsenal but getting stabbed on the way home. I have another player who lives in the suburbs, very wealthy and over Christmas they went skiing and took the family chef! And the greatest thing about football is their two worlds have collided. Now, they will go on their own journeys but to have an appreciation and understanding of other people makes the society they grow up in a slightly better place.
FOOTBLOGBALL: “Nature decrees that children should be children before they become adults. If we try to alter this natural order, they will reach adulthood prematurely but with neither substance nor strength”. Jean Jacques Rousseau.
I think of this quote when I see coaches forcing the adult game on children.
NICK LEVETT: Adults need to understand what it was like to be a child again, to feel the exhilaration of playing a game, taking part in sport with your mates and meeting new people. That’s what the game is about and why they take part. They don’t like adult’s over-emphasis on winning!
We need to encourage the development of play, where child can explore, be creative, learn about taking risks and going through the process themselves. We can’t shortcut this. Of course, there are different challenges in the modern society we need to be aware of and it isn’t about just letting the kids go off and do whatever they like. But it’s also about allowing the beauty of the unstructured to help children develop their imagination.
One of the biggest things modern business say they want is creative thinkers that are problem solvers and decision makers – the beauty of sport is we can help foster these skills as long as the coach doesn’t solve all the problems for them!