Steve Stone, from the military to the FA

This week’s exclusive interview of Ash’s Sports Talk presents the Army FA Football and Coaching Development Officer, Mr Steve Stone. Steve has served the football industry for over 25 years with roles including academy coach at Portsmouth FC’s, non-league coaching and management, FA Tutor and Football Development Officer at the Army FA, all roles which utilise the medium of football to impact communities and our beautiful game positively.

Q1) How did your career in Sport begin?

A: Initially in the Armed Forces; Sport is a major part of military ethos, and I had the opportunity to graduate from playing to coaching.  The FA had a pathway for coach education which interested me, so I completed the necessary coaching qualifications and became a tutor. At the time there was no specific pathway, an opportunity arose, and I took it on.  

On leaving the Royal Navy another opportunity arose with the Army FA to be a Football Development Officer, a new role supported by The FA which included delivering the FA coach education plan. For the last 18 years, this is what I’ve been doing!

Q2) Would you mind sharing any transferable learning experiences you’ve taken away from the military and applying into your role as a football and coaching development officer?

A: When I started in this role, it was entirely new. At the Army FA HQ, I walked into a room with a load of tables and chairs and was told this is your office. Over the years we have changed environments until now where we have a purpose- built Football Development Centre to deliver education to coaches and players.

During this 18-year journey, lots of changes have occurred with the FA coaching strategies, course content, numbers of days, format of courses, levels for courses, and links to the national educational framework. The process has required organisation skills and planning to move with the changes; I have to motivate myself to keep upskilling and learning to enable me to deliver new FA initiatives and meet any new requirements for tutors, adaptability is a trait you have to develop in the military.

At the Army FA, my main priority is participation, ensuring opportunities for all levels of players to play. One strategy I employ involves utilising different methods and formats for delivering Football. It has been a challenge at times to initiate change, but having experience of the military mindset has helped me to deliver.

Q3) I can see you have been at The FA for over 18 years, what have been the critical learning curves throughout this period?

A: If you want to stay in a job you have to evolve with it, I started coaching when I was young, so I have seen a vast amount of changes. Coaching has migrated towards teaching especially in utilising educational theory for delivery, so at times it has been a steep learning curve assimilating new theory and applying it in the practical delivery of courses.

When I started as a County FA Coach for Royal Navy FA, there were around 15 people employed at Lancaster Gate the FA HQ and a few, predominantly, volunteers at each County FA. Whereas now, there are 1000’s of people working fulltime at Wembley, Saint Georges Park, County FA HQ’s as well as FA County Coach Developers, Mentors, Education staff, University and Colleges nationwide.

Q4) How have you dealt with the changes across The FA?

A: Key initiatives have changed over the years, coach education was the main focus for years, now women’s and girl’s football, youth football, equality and inclusion, Futsal, disability, educational institutes, safeguarding have all become key performance indicators for the FA. The coaching courses have evolved from a summative assessment to a formative assessment profile which is includes project-based assessments and work place visits making each learner’s coaching journey individual to them. It has been a complicated journey; Tutors could get away with understanding just being able to play the game at a decent level to deliver educationally, now this is no longer the case. The Tutors must be students of the game themselves by gaining further qualifications and understanding best practice in teaching.

I’ve experienced some repetition of themes, ideas, and regurgitation of concepts under different guises throughout my career; variations of the requirement to teach on courses has rotated through must be an ex pro to must be an educationalist, I think a balance has been reached.

Q5) As a football and coaching development officer, what does your day-to-day role involve?

A: It varies, the focus is always on the FA directives and performance indicators as the governing body provide the funding for my job. There are also areas unique to the Army environment, currently due to the CO19 virus, I’m working from home, reflecting on course plans and coaching schemes that I can deliver and improve on, plus trying to maintain contact with learners, coaches and staff. Usually I would invest my time in delivering coach education, mentoring other tutors and coaches within my County FA, supporting the women’s game, completing paperwork for Charter standard applications, attending meetings, and all the other areas that require support, attention and direction. I also need to remain concurrent myself, so I must adopt a holistic approach to my own development and attend CPD opportunities to improve my performance in my role. I also observe players and coaches working and for those with a specific talent, or skill set, I try to direct them onto the Army FA player or coaching pathways. Each day, there is a spectrum of similar activities, but they don’t always occur in a consecutive order.

Q6) How has COVID19 impacted your role, and how have you adapted at the FA?

A: We’ve taken to social media to maintain contact with learners, coaches, facilitators, admin staff, players and managers. We have also used social media to set our learners tasks to keep them engaged with The FA course programme while they wait for the resumption of face to face course; we can’t have them getting bored! The FA has announced there will not be any face to face courses until at least January, so I anticipate new CPD, training and course opportunities will continue online and may become the norm. The COVID19 crisis has prompted people to become more competent in the use of information technology and communications and with the growth and accessibility of technology I think it is inevitable that online courses will play a big part in the future of coach education.

Q7) Do you think these adaptations by The FA will benefit their operations long-term?

A: Yes, it is more cost-effective; this was always going to happen. You need to remain concurrent with the latest ideas in the game and technology. Technology provides quick and easy access to new ideas, educational concepts, plans, teaching methodology, systems, strategies, tactics and points of view, learners no longer need to wait to attend a course of training. On line, working provides more flexibility for those who take our courses as they can be in an environment where they would naturally feel more comfortable to access the theory work. Essentially, this crisis has just accelerated the direction The FA have probably wanted to take in utilising technology.

Q8) Taking your learning materials online, has this impacted on the ease of learning for your audience?

A: Some of the FA courses have always been online, and most have some area of learning that require access to the web to download or upload information. Young people appear to prefer to learn in a platform- based style, gaining rewards or credit, some courses are, and I am sure will be in the future, set up in this interactive video based format to ensure learners are engaged.

The next generation of coaches will expect a platform-based scenario that reflects the virtual reality game scenarios they play. Therefore, I can see coach education and teaching transitioning into platform game- based learning, which is a motivation to learn.

Q9) While working at Portsmouth FC compared to The FA, what have been the notable differences from a workforce standpoint?

A: I worked in the academy at Portsmouth FC part-time while I was at The FA. The way academies work has changed over the years especially with the introduction of the EPPP,  I completed the FA Academy Mangers Licence and 3 years later a refresher course which was completely different in content to the original course, lots of work on data gathering and player analysis. Statistics and data being utilised to provide more individual training programmes for young players. The Premier League, The FA and Academies have all evolved by experimenting with different ways of teaching and coaching the game based on these analytical outcomes.

Q10) Have you experienced contrasts in personality types between Portsmouth FC and The FA?

A: I have indeed. Academies tended to have ex-pro’s that may not see the relevance that academic approaches to coaching and the use of analysis, and individual programmes because they didn’t experience it themselves as players. The approach was more aggressive and tended to include a lot of drill base coaching and talking. Often there was a desire to develop players as quickly as possible, which can be detrimental to the player’s long-term development.  The FA has a more player-centred approach trying to teach coaches to develop individuals and plan for a players individual age and stage of development rather than a one size fits all approach. I think now, academies have evolved to a point where they have compromised to a way of developing players through education and more data-enhanced training regimes.

Q11) When it comes to pursuing a career in sports development, you certainly seem like the man to go to, on that note, what have been the fundamental values that have helped you sustain a successful career?

A: The FA are big on their value-based teaching and reflection. Despite taking on a PGCE in Education many years ago, I didn’t see the value of reflection at the time. I think personal values will affect the way you behave and hence your coaching and teaching style, that is important to understand. In the early days of my coaching experiences, we were delivering to a fixed script, where there wasn’t much room for flexibility or variation. Now, the tutors and coaches will reflect on their work as it has become integrated into the national course mantra of, PLAN-DO-REVIEW. Also, it’s essential to deliver to the needs of your players which will change as they develop physically, technically, psychologically and socially. There’s always room for improving how things are done, and I am sure the FA will carry on developing and adapting to the needs of the game. Things have moved on for the better, and I have seen a vast improvement on what I experienced in my early days of coaching.

Q12) Football is a 24/7 industry, have you viewed the industry as a career path?  

A: In my environment within the Army FA, there is no real career path, I am a one-man band!! Sometimes with the constant changes and demands, it feels more like surviving than working. You don’t come into the Football industry to socialise and have fun, you enter the industry and persist especially at the higher levels of the game. Many people will be trying to take your place, which can be stressful, so it’s essential to be aware of that and never get complacent.  

Q13) Has there been any practices you’ve applied to deal with the high-pressured demands in Football?

A: Reflection certainly, in the early years, due to my role I was quite isolated with little interaction with other tutors. When the FA produced its new generation of courses, I began working more with other staff members. It took some time to adjust to delivering as a pair, but it is enjoyable and indeed more useful for my own development where I can bounce ideas off other people and get instant feedback. Having more support has undoubtedly helped me reduce the workload and allow time for personal growth and reflection thus decreasing the stress associated with the demands of the role.

Q14) Sport is becoming more outcome-focused by the day. For National Governing Bodies, it is no longer about just increasing participation, but using Sport to change lives. How have you applied this in your position?

A: The FA message on the courses is about fun, enjoyment and participation, getting players into the game and keeping them in some format from child to adult on to veteran. Long term health and fitness is hopefully a by-product of that initiative. The original course content would tend to focus on technical/tactical development to teach coaches how to progress players up the ladder quickly. Whereas now, we are much more focused on motivating players to love and stay in the game, to develop at their own pace and to reach their full potential. Ideally, their love and enjoyment of the game will keep them in the sport, rather than feeling that they have failed because they did not achieve elite status. The concept is that we want more players to get into coaching, work in the industry and promote football beyond their playing days.

The FA also attempt to keep their practice inclusive, a “football for all” ideology, hence why there is a provision for a variety of Football opportunities alongside the 11 a side game. Formats such as just play initiatives, walking football, futsal, 9v9 and other SSG formats, more focus on developing women’s participation, disability, diversity and inclusion. At the Army FA, as well as the traditional 11-a-side games, which is well utilised in the men’s game we are trying to develop other formats to allow more participation especially in the women’s game where there are fewer female players at units to make up 11-a-side teams.

Q15) You’ve been open about the challenges you’ve experienced while working under The FA, could you share any other adversities you have conquered?

A: Facility access has been a challenge in the past. When I started working at the Army FA, we had a field and a tent to deliver courses. Whereas now, we have 3G pitches, indoor sports hall, purpose-built development centre which has seen the development of football “the Soldiers game” accelerate proportionally with the environment provided.

On numerous occasions, when attending observation visits to coaches, I have witnessed coaches trying to deliver sessions, in an environment that isn’t conducive to learning. This affects the player’s attitude, focus and their individual learning experience, which ultimately compromised their motivation to return. The FA coach education programme is trying to encourage proactive thinking around how coaches can make the most of their learning environments. Coaching is no longer about setting up some cones and kicking a ball around; it is about reflective-based practice and planning and delivering sessions based on players needs, not the coaches.

When England lost to Iceland 2-1 in Euro 2016, it was decided that one of the reasons for the result was that we didn’t have enough qualified coaches in relation to other countries. Whereas the real reason was the lack of sufficient facilities for the training and development of grassroots players. Putting this into perspective, on a 3G pitch with lights you can facilitate about 80 hours a week of training and games, whereas on a grass pitch you can get about 20 hours if you are lucky with the weather and pitch maintenance.

I think The FA does a great job at working with the other key partners in Football to support players the best way we can. Moving forward, I would I think Football can play a significant part in developing young players social attitude about health, behaviour, personal responsibility, working in a team, confidence, personal administration, and learning about life. It is more than a pathway to elite Sport and the riches associated with that.

Q16) What advice could you pass on to someone passionate to build a career in football development?

A: When I came into the industry, there wasn’t a clear pathway, and the avenues were mainly into the pro game. This is no longer the case. There are now clear structured and diverse pathways into the game in lots of different roles. Relevant educational qualifications and transferable skills are clearly highlighted as part of the application process.

One pathway, titled football development, has many facets to its organisation. Job roles and responsibilities will vary within the FA infrastructure and from County to County. They are all linked to key Government and FA initiatives linked to funding. Target areas could be development of young players, disability groups, youth clubs, adult clubs, Women’s and Girl’s football, individual formats of the game, safeguarding, medical courses, coaching courses, facilities, funding initiatives, veterans football, administration, leagues, Cup tournaments, charter standard, refereeing, mentoring, education, schools and colleges and a myriad of other areas of influence. The point being, have a good working knowledge of what Football Development is about and deciding if you’re passionate about a specific area is important. Be clear on what it is you want to do and the role you will perform in the overall development plan. Find out what the key priorities are for your county FA as each county will have different priorities due to their environment being either urban or rural and the demographics and facilities being different. Ensure your experience and qualification evolves as the demands of the game do by constantly seeking new learning opportunities. 

Steve has shared some of the more authentic lessons in the football industry from his experiences at The Army FA. He has witnessed the evolution of the game and how the roles and responsibilities of the people involved in the industry have changed. This has made Football more inclusive, individually-focused, and adaptable to change.

We hope you were inspired by Steve’s sports industry journey if so, leave a like, comment and subscribe for more inspirational sports content!

Published by Ash

I'm a First-Class Graduate in Sports Business Management who has worked across Local Government, Sport and the Third Sector. Throughout my career, I've developed a thriving passion to promote sport being used as a tool to bring positivity to the world we live in. This ethos has inspired me to create a website which champions this value through comprehensive online content for you to gain value from. Join me on this journey of discovering what sport can do to enhance society.

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