Premier Skills: A Step towards Coaching

 In Game, Grassroots

Journeys, at least for me, are hard to predict. I’m one of those people who, as the saying goes, follow the wind. Ten years ago, if someone had to ask me if I saw myself as a football coach, I’d have laughed. Not that I didn’t harbor dreams of being in the dugout coaching a team or winning the Champions League, but realistically, with my limited football skills, I thought I’d have a better chance at standing for president.

The strange and wonderful thing about life is that it sometimes takes you places that you just dream about. And luckily for me, it took me to the Premier Skills Phase 1 coaching program. What is this coaching program you ask? Well, Premier Skills is the British Council’s international partnership with the Premier League operating in 25 countries across Asia, Africa, and the Americas from Afghanistan to Zambia. This means that the Premier League sends grassroots coaches from its member clubs across countries to develop coaches and get more people involved in football. Thanks to its tie-up with the AIFF and ISL, I got a chance to represent my home club FC Goa along with four of our grassroots coaches.

I was smothered with a mix of trepidation and excitement on the day of the program. There were so many doubts hurtling through my mind. Would I get through the program? Would my lack of technical expertise haul me down? Would I pass my test to get my coaching license? The fear dissipated once I got onto the turf at Father Agnel Sports Complex. As soon as you stepped onto the pitch you felt a strange sort of comfort level. It was like we were all in a common space that we all knew intimately and spent time at. We had instructors from West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City FC as well as Indian coach instructors from Goa, Kerala, and Calcutta. The football banter came through thick and fast and I knew this was where I was meant to be.

The program was divided into two halves; with practical coaching sessions on the field, the whole morning followed by the classroom sessions in the afternoon. The morning sessions were pretty intense. So much of information to grasp, pushing this 30-year-old, play football once a year body through rigorous training drills, and spending hours under the unforgiving Bombay sun. It was hard, but the instructors also ensured it was a whole lot of fun.

The classrooms sessions were relatively relaxed, with the emphasis not on memorizing what the coach instructors were saying, but participating and being actively involved in discussions. Every activity involved you being in a group and sharing the knowledge you had. Every session focussed on different aspects of coaching, from preparing a training session, to why and how coaches should be role models for the kids. There were also constant calls to reflect daily on our learning’s and on other themes.

One of the themes we were constantly told to reflect on during our Premier Skills Coaching Program, was our journey to the program and why we were there. There was an insistence that we remember what our coaching purpose was. The chance for each of us to reflect on this was important because the batch of October 2017 had 55 coaches from various ages and backgrounds. The youngest was a 17-year-old female coach from FC Pune City and the oldest was a 55-year-old coach from the new boys, Jamshedpur FC. There were coaches from ISL clubs and NGO’s. There were coaches who’ve been developing players for decades, and there were a few coaches like me, who until then, hadn’t delivered a coaching session in their life!

It was important for us to reflect because as the coach educators pointed out, as grassroots coaches we have to put all club or affiliated loyalties aside and work towards one goal, and that is to develop kids and get them to love the game. Our main objective and focus should be to share knowledge and best practices so that children around the country have equal opportunity to get involved in the game.

When the ISL started, there was a lot of apprehensions over the league. A lot of football fans were worried that the league promoted glitz over substance and it will drag Indian Football even further down the murky depths it was floundering in. Being part of this program showed that the ISL isn’t just talking about grassroots to gain brownie points with fans but is actually putting money where its mouth is and is investing heavily into developing coaches who can, in turn, develop kids.

To see so many young people who are just out of college already working for ISL clubs and taking this course is heartening. It shows that there are now genuine opportunities for young people to make a career in football. It also shows that behind all the glitz and glamour of big-name signings and celebrity owners, the ISL is actually putting effort into developing football and making it into an industry that can employ people in various roles.

At the program, one entire session was dedicated to how football can transform the community and all of us were told to make posters highlighting the work our clubs or NGO’s are doing for the community. Looking at the wall that held the posters the next day, I was astounded. The ISL has been around for a little over three years, but the kind of work clubs have put in during that short period was pretty remarkable.

So many festivals, tournaments, and centers where kids could get trained by passionate professionals and not just weekend volunteers. I’ve been following and moderately involved with Indian football for about a decade and I’ve never seen football development scale up so fast. Looking at those posters, I felt proud of the work the clubs were doing and I felt proud that I was involved with the work FC Goa was doing. To be able to make a difference in your community through your local football club just wasn’t an option available to people a few years ago.

Another aspect of the program that stood out was the emphasis in the course put on child safety. The first parameter of the S.M.I.L.E ( Safety, Maximum Participation, Inclusive, Learning, Enjoyment) process for creating a training session, focussed on child safety. There was also a whole classroom session dedicated to keeping children safe. We were given activities so that we could understand and identify symptoms of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in children. Based on feedback after that session, I could tell that this wasn’t something most coaches thought about it made us realize that our influence and impact as coaches went way beyond just football.

The course’s ability to use football as the core subject to bring all the coaches together and then take the agenda forward on a host of other important issues was commendable. There was so much to pick up and learn not just from the instructors but also from fellow coaches. Subtle motivational tricks on the field, the ability to adapt immediately to adverse situations, the power of positivity and encouragement, the list could go on. We came out of this not just as licensed grassroots coaches, but as leaders who want to make a change within their community.

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