Coaching Insights

Matt Wells on his development as a coach

By Adrian Clarke 2 Dec 2022
Matt Wells, AFC Bournemouth

Adrian Clarke speaks to the coach on his career, highs and lows, and learning from other coaches

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At the age of 34, Matt Wells has already achieved an incredible amount of success.

Working as Scott Parker’s trusted assistant, the former Tottenham Hotspur Academy midfielder has helped to inspire twin promotions to the Premier League, at Fulham and AFC Bournemouth.

Discovering a passion for coaching at the age of 20, when his own playing ambitions were ended by injury, the passionate and studious coach has since embarked on a remarkable journey.

A four-month spell in the USA kicked off his adventure, before he enjoyed spells at the Stevenage Academy, the Nike Academy and at Tottenham where he worked with the Under-23s and was head coach of the Under-18s.

Inspired by building strong bonds with John McDermott, Justin Cochrane, Jimmy Gilligan, Chris Ramsey, Alex Inglethorpe and Kieran McKenna, a first-class reputation as a coach, player developer and tactician marks Wells out as a special talent in the field.

Here, Wells, the grandson of Spurs legend Cliff Jones, breaks down what he has learnt since making the transition from academy football to first team level…

Taking an individualised approach

"There are so many things I learnt from my time working for John McDermott at Spurs, but my biggest takeaway was the importance of player development and how an individual-based philosophy can help footballers thrive," he says.

"When I was planning sessions for the Under-18s or Under-23s I was taught the value of asking yourself, 'Who is training today?' and 'What do our most-valued players need?' The priority was to build on the strengths and rectify the weaknesses of those players we felt could make the transition to Mauricio Pochettino’s first team.

Matt Wells, Spurs

"I didn't realise how much of that I would then be able to apply in the first-team environment where I've quickly learnt that one of the best ways to build a rapport with senior players is to work individually with them.

"Once they see that there's a real purity to what you're doing, that there's no agenda and this coach really wants me to be the best version of myself, I think very quickly you build a special connection. That becomes the foundation for your coaching with that player, and gives you the power to convince them of your tactical ideas for the team.

The value of analysis experience

"John McDermott set up a new Academy department at Tottenham with the vision that myself and Kieran McKenna [now Ipswich Town manager] would be 'video coaches' who mixed analysis work with actual coaching on the grass. It was an incredible job and so beneficial to both of us.

"Essentially, one of my roles as assistant manager at my last two clubs has been to manage the analysis departments and it really helps being able to talk the language and use the systems.

"My own tactical development - and I think Kieran would say the same - went through the roof because our day job was to watch so many games from elite world football and feed back to the young players at Tottenham. That was fantastic."

Delivering analysis

"More and more coaches are buying in to data and video analysis, and that bespoke feedback you get now as a young player is incredible compared to when I was coming through in 2005.

"Probably because of our [Wells & Scott Parker's] backgrounds in youth development it is something we use very heavily in our first-team environment, because we've seen the benefits. We create space within our weekly programme to deliver detailed individual, unit and team feedback.

"Some players will be naturally receptive and want more, others may need less, so the challenge and skill of the coach is to really know the individual.

"My advice is to get to know them, and then you can tailor your feedback and deliver your messages in a way that's going to be positively received."

Personal development

"At Spurs I had weekly sessions studying off a communication model called motivational interviewing, designed by psychologist, Steven Rollnick. It was a programme originally designed for addiction and behavioural change but I found a lot of the strategies he uses were applicable in the sporting environment.

"Essentially, you are trying to change performance. How do you do that? And how do you convince a player to come on that journey with you?

"I'd fully recommend outside learning like that, but in terms of development there’s no substitute for reviewing your own performance on a daily basis – essentially, ensuring you are learning on the job.

"As long as you're open-minded and brave enough to admit when you've made mistakes or could have done things differently to attain better results, you'll develop.

Jumping from Academy to first team

"I loved my job leading the Under-18s at Tottenham but when Scott Parker asked me to assist him as a caretaker manager at Fulham, I had to take the opportunity.

"Initially there were no assurances beyond the 10 games left in that season, so I saw it as doing a short term 'degree' in Premier League football, where we would test ourselves against top coaches, top teams, and top players.

"I thought if this apprenticeship only lasts until the end of the season, I would go back to youth development as a better coach for the experience.

"Fortunately, we did well enough to get the job full-time."

Feeling ready

"I was only 30 but had been coaching for 10 years at a high level, working with top calibre young players and coaching a number of established first team players within the Under-23s at Tottenham at different times, so in some respects I felt over-prepared for that job at Fulham, which was a nice feeling going in there.

"I was so invested in each match, how we set the team up and how we were going to improve individual and team performance that I didn’t have time to look around and realise I was on the touchline in the Premier League, even though it was what I’d aspired to do for so long.”

Session design

"The main distinction between sessions I put on for Academy and first team players comes in the structure of the overall training week with more time dedicated towards the specific tactical approach to the next opponent.

"Session design is something I’ve always been passionate about, and no matter what level I have worked at I always like each practice to be dressed differently but with consistent outcomes. I don’t want any day to be the same and hopefully this increases the engagement level of the player.

"There should always be clear principles linked to your game model. In some practices those principles might be more hidden, so the players are picking up the philosophy as they go without necessarily realising."

Balancing development with results

"There's no denying there’s a big difference once you go into that first-team environment, the result and the outcome on Saturday becomes a lot more important and rightly so.

"I've always taken the approach, and maybe it is because I've come through youth development, that surely if I'm improving the functions of the individuals within our tactical framework, then that's going to help the results of the team, and it's going to increase player motivation.

Working with Scott Parker

"The balance of my work at first-team level with Scott is similar to how we managed together at the Spurs Academy when I assisted him in the Under-18s.

"I mainly take care of the coaching session delivery, freeing him up to then assess and improve the performance of individuals and the team, to plan the meetings and work out how to transmit his messages effectively on and off the pitch. He is brilliant. I could talk for hours about Scott’s qualities as a leader.

"He empowers his staff to work with freedom but is also very clear on his philosophy. If you work for him, you're under no illusions as to what he wants, how he sees the game, and how you need to deliver in your role.

Taking responsibility

"Scott is very good at understanding the strengths and weaknesses of people who work for him and tapping into that.

"My strong suit is the strategical side of the game, the tactical preparation so a lot of my work is done prior to matchday.

Matt Wells, Scott Parker

"On matchday pre-game, the team concepts have already been implemented so my main goal in the changing room is to give individual reminders using video, or possibly show some niche footage that we might have deliberately left out of the training week.

"In-game, my main job is to pick up on the tactical flow of the game, to recognise how to increase our tactical advantage over the opposition and provide solutions to the problems we might be facing then communicate that with the manager.”

Preparing for half-time

"I'm hooked up on the radio to our analyst in the stands, who is responsible for compiling the footage we use at half time. Scott is big on using video to complement his own messages.

"Throughout the first half I will be suggesting clips, and then on the 40-minute mark I will call the analyst and at this point I'll tell them exactly what messages the manager wants to get across and what instances will best help illustrate this.

"Once in the manager's room it's just a case of us shortening that footage before presenting to the group in the dressing room.

Knowing your role

"There is so much importance in having total clarity around what everyone's role is. To function well as a staff, we must understand exactly what our job entails.

"For instance, I can't get so invested in the match that I forget on 40 minutes to speak to the analyst. If I don’t have that discussion, we’re going in at half-time with far too many clips and too little time to organise effectively. This will then negatively impact the quality of message we give to the players.

Promotion memories…

"In our 2020 playoff final win with Fulham against Brentford we tweaked a fair bit tactically because they had got the better of us in the league games. The changes we made to our pressing strategy and positional play with the ball largely worked, so we were really pleased with the evening from a coaching perspective.

"That said it had been such a physically and emotionally draining season playing behind closed doors during the pandemic that it felt more of a relief than anything.

"At AFC Bournemouth it came down to a one match shootout against an in-form Nottingham Forest at The Vitality, and to win it 1-0 in front of our own fans gave us an incredible feeling.

"That night was different in that we stayed consistent to our tactical framework as we had done all season. We believed in our own principles, so it was a case of asking them to execute our identity to the highest degree possible.

"It was a very satisfying win, and another good experience personally for how to cope with such a high-stakes game and the pressure that is attached to it.”

Reacting to a dismissal

"Since experiencing the hurt of losing my job at AFC Bournemouth I have been on a crusade of personal development. I have visited seven clubs so far, connecting with new people who have different ideas on the game and can challenge my thoughts. I see it as a unique opportunity to better myself.

"I was working flat-out on my coaching performance and was in delivery mode for so long, so this change of pace is a good test of my own beliefs and the perfect window to reflect and improve. It is important that I turn this disappointment into a positive that sets me up for the next opportunity where I can hopefully be a better coach."

The future

"The passion I have for coaching is huge and there is a real desire to replicate the success I have had in the past, and ultimately to improve on it. I love working with players, making them strive to be better versions of themselves and helping them achieve their own ambitions.

"The challenge of convincing a group of players to believe in our philosophy and then teaching all of the concepts and behaviours that underpin it just constantly excites me. The tactical side of the game has always fascinated me, and it has been incredible to see over the last 10 years how this side of the game has developed throughout all the English divisions and continues to do so.

"It's a really exciting period to be involved with first-team football so hopefully that next chapter and experience isn’t too far around the corner. Until then, my desire is to maximise the period away from the grass by seeking every opportunity to learn and improve my coaching."

Also in this series

Part 1: How Man City changed to accommodate Haaland
Part 2: 'The Elite Heads Of Coaching programme is a game-changer'
Part 3: Potter's flexible formations will pay dividends

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