The ’alternative’ coach: A child centred approach, the future.

It is often that spark of difference that makes someone stand out of the crowd and in Motala AIF U19 coach Pierre Walfridsson is someone who exudes pride in consistently raising his hand high towards Swedish youth football’s current status quo. Personable, passionate and duty bound in his professional conviction Pierre can be confidently heralded as one of Sweden’s ‘new world’ player educators. A coach determined to shine the light on a new pathway for Swedish youth football development.

“Some players are lucky to have good coaches and others not so good, even at Elite level. Though when the players come to my sessions, they know they are arriving to an environment full of genuine respect, care and attention in which they are most importantly learning to become better versions of themselves.”

Having met Pierre in Borås during the Summer of 2017 (Study visit to JM at IFE) and adding only five more minutes of conversation it was clear to see that his attitude towards coaching youth and sports performance lie in the wider potential of humanitarianism. Currently a UEFA A license coach Pierre had already enjoyed some good experiences spanning over only 6 years, though you could very quickly tell that his personal mantra towards life has clearly defined his working standards and expectations.

“You can run a thousand times but if your attitude is wrong it is not the behaviour we want here. It is clear though that we must accept that this attitude is often displayed from outside of the club and we must respect that to the degree in which we get to know the players as people first and foremost. Beyond this it is down to our players to define the environment in which they participate, leading as a group to decide how they want to act and play overall. We as coaches just facilitate and guide them towards quality learning opportunities.”

It’s an approach that has clearly seen dividends both on and off the pitch. As the performance results suggest the team have been consistently good but it was in meeting Motala’s U19 squad prior to training that the real successes were profoundly tangible. On my introduction to the players I found nothing but a strong attitude for openness and respect by which Pierre’s reckoning is all down to the desire of the squad itself in  determining  the right set of behaviours for the benefitting potential of all involved. The great Swedish social cause redefined by those studiously living in a modern and global age.

“I worked with the first team in 2018 but when I took the chance to observe the U19 I knew that this was the team that I wanted to coach. This is a once in a life time group, it has never been about status for me. They work hard for each other, fight for each other. They argue also, there are ego’s! The dynamic is set to allow each of them to explore the world on an individual but co-dependent, social level. Decisions are made in our environment that become lessons that will stay with them forever and will help them lead a fulfilled life. That aspect is the true mark and potential for world class coaching”

For those who would like to be enlightened (?!) the city of Motala sits on the north eastern coast of Sweden’s second largest Lake, Lake Vättern. Like most Swedish communities Motala has a growing youth and immigrant population that has a strong and positive influence on the social culture of regional sport. It is an associative dynamic that is well supported by Pierre’s coaching philosophy – The human first.

“Knowing the person behind the player is critical. With all children understanding where they are coming from provides you with a clear opportunity to define how you support where they are going, not just in football but in life also. For example, some children of immigrant origin have a different set of social rules which a determined by a variety of factors. In one specific case I was once working with a 12-year-old who was solely in charge of the finances at home. So much responsibility purely because his parents could not speak Swedish or understood the system. In a positive way this is a great opportunity to learn how to take care of something so important but because he was also aware of the economic circumstances at home, he was often negatively affected by the financial pressures that arose. From our perspective when it came to him playing football, we needed to understand his situation to allow us to set the best environment according to his values, his needs and the needs of others around him. Beyond this we engaged his maturity and skills developed from this whilst also taking the intuitive steps to always assess his state of mind. Is this a chance to challenge his development further or do we leave him to use play as an escape from other external forces?”

The sports facilities within Motala in like most Swedish kommunen are an extraordinary tribute to the infrastructure set within Swedish Sport. All opportunities for world class sporting practice are easily accessible at the Motala Arena.

“We (U19) train 4 times a week and have developed a periodised process for growth since they we 13 years old. We focus our training to accommodate many different topics over short periods of time so that the squad can experience a range of contextual, game related factors. Ultimately the players are the ones determining the style and philosophy of play from week to week, not the coaches, and they are largely focused on playing a fluidic high pressure, high possession, high territory style of football. Very much like current Liverpool FC team. With this mandate the challenge comes to me and the coaching team to facilitate this through philosophy, through preparation and training and it for sure it isn’t easy, but its real fun to work this way”

The evaluation of players across several areas is clearly important to Pierre’s work with the U19 Squad.

“After the season is finished, we sit down with all our players to discuss how are they willing to understand themselves and the environment around them, how to follow instructions, the impact of Body language, how we speak to each other and how they want to move forward. This is done twice a year in conjunction with the day to day chat”

In addition to personal evaluation Pierre uses VEO’s Video analysis platform as another opportunity to indicate his dedication to the role of coach to the U19. This in his mind has allowed him to not only present and support learning opportunities to the squad but also further enhance his understanding of the game.

“Previously as a coach (Starting in in 2012) I was like most other coaches fixed in a 1-4-4-2 ideology, playing more defensive and with two strikers to counter. But now I work very much on a 1-4-3-3 approach in which I enjoy encouraging player to attack, get in the box not just with 1 player but multiple players joining to score. We as a squad work heavily on players exploring spaces, changing positions and daring to support the attack as a whole team at once. If we can try can we create opportunities to play forward through the opposition and can we do this as high up the pitch as possible? This inevitably defines our ability to defend through ‘Gegenpressing’ locking the opposition within their own half for us to win the ball back quickly closer to their goal and further away from ours. We can objectively see this via Veo. Through observing positive performance behaviours, we must take the step to be brave, confident in ourselves and our team mates so that we can trust each other in the highest moments of pressure in and out of possession. If we do get caught in transition (losing the ball) and must defend deeper can we successfully recover and shift the position of ball quickly to either counter attack or create spaces through overloading key areas. Beyond this we must also attempt to foster other alternatives to influence and manage the game in our favour. For example, we sometimes ask the players if it is actually better to give the ball away at certain moments and in certain spaces on the pitch?”

From the perspective above Pierre is very much set in an emerging minority of coaches who respect the necessity for a more chaotic, player centred approach to football coaching. Considering this I was interested in how many coaches he has met in Sweden that share the same philosophy?

“There is no one here (in Motala) who works this way apart from the U19 players and coaches of course! I meet a lot of coaches from other clubs who often take the position in promoting a vision for youth development but then struggle to get truly implement it. The youth game is not ours (Adults) to determine, as the individuals that need the platform the most are the players, the children.”

17:00 arrives and my observation of training action quickly picks up a steady and respectful flow of peer led influence. Pierre’s calmness present in all questioning, his methods for drawing the squads principled conclusions highlights a confidence in his interpretation of the game and at what stage his young cohort are at regarding their learning journey. The session itself started and finished with a ball rolling with the ‘in possession’ aspect of the game heavily influenced by the expecting but freely determined presence of performance intensity and pressure. The players clearly enjoyed the opportunities that came from the ‘activity’ process, consistent and focused on investing their time in quality competition. No shouting or instructions required, no false identification as ‘finished products’ but just a consistent eye on the greater opportunity for fulfilment and learning through playing the ‘beautiful game’.

“We are very proud of the players and at this moment we have two who have joined elite clubs plus more of the team joining with the first team here in Motala. Though we at Motala are proud to see players moving on it can be a little frustrating as we know that they won’t necessarily receive the same level of support as they currently get here. In this case it’s about continuing to build a foundation which encourages players to stay for as long as possible, offering a platform at Division 2 that accommodates opportunity whilst supporting aspiration”

After a satisfying evening of educating investigation and a rather large after session pizza (!), the remit of my conclusions during the long drive home circled around the notion of continued career opportunities in Sweden for coaches like Pierre. Having mentored and tutored many coaches in Sweden and the UK the question has always remained the same in most cases – How can wonderful individuals such as Pierre with so much to give to the youth development ‘cause’ take positions in which they can maximise their influence without experiencing the notion of unbalanced sacrifice or reprisal? What can be done to help unleash the potential of these people so that the next generation can continue to bask and prosper in caring glow of education through Sport and how can this be done so they can support themselves. In simple terms the answer is investment. Ideally a range of educational program’s dedicated to the short and long-term identification of world class influencers that will have the competency to induce way more than mere winners of youth matches. This will inevitably propel Swedish football into a new era.

As I stated at the start, through his own motivation Pierre is a coach determined to shine the light on a new pathway for Swedish youth football development and through the details of care and progression Pierre will without a doubt continue to lead many young people towards more wonderful experiences within football and life. Watch this space.

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