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FA coach Pete Sturgess shares coaching insights with Foundation Phase lead Mike Hall

20 September 2021

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Lead Foundation Phase Coach Mike Hall recently sat down and spoke to FA Foundation Phase Technical Lead Pete Sturgess about the importance of lower age groups in the national setup.

Sturgess – who has spent time both in academies and at the Football Association over the last ten years including roles as the FA Futsal Lead and as a County Coach Developer – delivers on the Advanced Youth Award as he develops material for the England DNA in the Foundation Phase.

As he coaches the young players in the FA and England setups, he helps demonstrate the key elements of this through ‘DNA Roadshows’ across the country for both grassroots and academies and Pete believes that promoting this will help promote more skilful and adaptable players. 

On this, Pete had this to say: “The England DNA was designed to promote more skilful players that are more adaptable based on the context of what they see. For this reason, coaching practices around the England DNA promote decision making and the randomness that could happen throughout games.  

“If we accept booting the ball away, we’re accepting minimum operating standards, when actually we don’t know what they’re capable of, nor are we giving them the opportunity to show us if we ask them to avoid brave solutions to problems.” 

He then went on to mention that the brain operates at different levels whilst training and the coaches at the FA try to work through the tough stages, which are the ‘Amber’ and ‘Red’ zones, and coach them into the learning phase, which is classed as the ‘Green’ zone as this will benefit the player's overall growth and stature in the game. 

“The brain works in ways to protect itself, so if there is a perceived threat the brain will detect this as a threat and the emotional part of the brain takes over and learning is hijacked until this perceived threat is not there,” Sturgess added. 

“We think of it as being in the ‘Green Zone’ of the brain, where the executive functioning skills are found, this area is where learning, development, and problem solving takes place.  

“If players are in the ‘Amber’ or ‘Red’ zones, they have dysregulated, have perceived a threat and learning will stop. The supporting environment that we create through our mannerisms and support is therefore vitally important to keeping players in the ‘Green’ zone for learning.” 

In order to promote positive learning and to help the children reach the ‘Green’ zones of their brains, they use the form of Multi-Sport, as well as format variety, gives clubs and academies the chance to see the players in a different light. 

For example, a player who struggles to communicate in football does so more in a different sport he is also good at, and vice-versa that a boy who is ‘excelling’ in football meets lots of challenges. 

Pete said: “I’m a big advocate of multi-sport experiences because of the transferable skills it can provide. There are lots of relevant games/sports that can really support the children when they return to football like tag rugby, which includes disguised movements/deception, movement to receive, releasing the pass at the right time and more.  

“We’re also giving them lots of ‘equipment to put in their backpack’ to take with them into the other phases as they get older so that they become more adaptable to the demands of the game.” 

As the players grow and learn through these forms, they then rise up the age groups and reach the stages where they all start to receive individual learning points as they aim to progress even further. These styles of coaching then become a key focus for the players as they know what to work on and Pete explains this even further here:

“Match day coaching is dependent on individual players. It’s important to recognise that if we ‘rescue’ players all the time, they won’t make decisions themselves and will look elsewhere for answers. Match days are an opportunity to assess understanding from the lessons taught throughout the training week. 

“It’s not always effective to give too much information to players during matches as the player is trying to cope with a good opponent, which is hard enough to deal with. You might target players during breaks to see if they need support or if they want to try to solve any problems the opponent is causing them. If they do the latter, it’s important to pick it up with them at various stages to see how successful they were.”

You may need to impose some coaching in terms of positional play at the Foundation Phase as this helps expose them to different areas of the pitch for specific challenges. This is player centred, where the focus might be the quality of the opposition, as an additional position may overload them. 

Pete had this to say on those coaching styles; “An approach on matchday might be to not say very much during the first 15 minutes so I can assess the boys’ level of understanding around what we have been working on across the week. 

“We must understand that even for those players who may struggle with the positional rotation, we will have to cajole them at some stage to support their adaptability and long-term development. This might firstly be done in training before moving to the rotation of positions against selected opponents where the challenge might be appropriate. 

“We can then look to see what individual players may need. This might also be linked to psychologically how they’ve been across the week. The key is certainly around the boys making their own decisions.” 

A question posed to Pete during this interview was based around what advice you could give to each player that would influence them to always work their hardest and he replied by saying that it’s built into the English way of playing, to work hard and intelligently.

“Our culture is to move everything quickly! At times this is the right thing to do but there are times when we need players to control the tempo of the game for specific reasons – do we help players understand this and be capable of doing it? I’m not sure, but if you look at the top players in possession at EURO 2020 for example (Jorginho and Sergio Busquets), they do this extremely well.”

Finally, Mike asked Pete about how he would manage emotional needs for each individual to maximise the physical potential within players and he stated that both physical and psychological needs have to be met in order to get the most out of players and this should be part of every coaches programmes.

“Psychologically, the children need to feel safe and supported to produce their best work. Sometimes that’s by giving them a visual, such as a plan of the night/match day, or what their pre-match routine looks like, to really allow them to focus on the tasks and learning objectives within the framework that you’ve laid out for them. 

“From a physical perspective in the Foundation Phase, the boys need to master their bodies not via ‘strength’ as this will occur at different periods for different boys, but through fundamental movement patterns such as balance, coordination, and agility to provide a solid base to work from as they grow.”

The club would like to thank Pete Sturgess for the chat and insight on the Foundation Phase will look forward to future links. To learn more from Pete, you can get your questions answering by sending them to his Twitter page, which is @sturge_p.

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