At the recent UEFA Course for Coach Educators, there was a small but significant innovation. Hitherto, linguistic ties had governed the formation of discussion groups. At Coverciano, the emphasis was on composing groups of national associations with the same challenges rather than the same language. So Packie Bonner, technical director in the Republic of Ireland, found himself chairing debates involving representatives from other, what could be called, medium category countries.
"On Europe's coach education map," said the man who kept goal 483 times for Celtic FC and 80 times for the Republic of Ireland, "France, Spain, Germany and England are regarded as the front line. We are typical of a number of national associations that are small in terms of club football yet equipped to compete at international level. We have players in the top flight – many of them in England – but not clubs. In other words, we're a country that operates on two levels."
As Bonner was quick to point out, in these circumstances "it becomes imperative to dedicate resources to our age-limit teams, because that is where they're going to get their international experience, and to coaching standards at the youth levels of clubs."
"Over the last decade," he explained, "we've restructured our coach education, established a new philosophy and created a proper learning environment. In the past, ex-players have been a bit scared of coaching courses. But UEFA's licensing scheme has been a great boost and I think that former players realise that, without your coaching course, you are short on organisation, planning, player management and basic factors such as structured, controlled training programmes. Even though I was fortunate enough to do my coaching course while still playing in Scotland, I soon realised these are not easy skills to acquire.
"By the way," he went on, "I've had a special interest in helping UEFA establish criteria for the specialised goalkeeper-coach modules. I'm excited about this because some areas are really different – not least the psychology of being between the sticks with nobody to help you. In fact, the higher the level, the higher the psychological component.
"Going back to coach education in general," he added, "I've realised how important it is to establish close relationships with other sectors in the association. In the Republic, that means our technical department and high performance unit. We've been very enthusiastic about moving towards a more reality-based coach education programme with greater cooperation with the clubs. In fact, by the end of the year, we may have gone far enough along this road to be able to offer valuable feedback to other associations.
"This is where UEFA has a job to do – and is doing it fantastically well," he maintained. "It's crucial to meet at the conferences and workshops to interchange knowledge, practical experience and ideas. I'm sure the Republic is not the only association to appreciate this. For example, I've seen how some of the eastern European countries which faced serious challenges in designing and implementing coach education programmes have successfully developed new methods, new attitudes and new philosophies."
Asked to offer best-practice advice to a would-be coach, Bonner did not hesitate. "Start small," he said, "preferably making an early start at a club when you're still active as a player. And then go for a reality-based coaching course because, even though playing experience helps, coaching skills can't be sucked out of the air. You've got to go through the courses and steadily build up for the big day, the big job and the big pressures."
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