Coaching Insights

Academy coaches enjoy study trip to FC Nordsjaelland

By Adrian Clarke 18 Jun 2023

Adrian Clarke spoke to Bruce Suraci and Harrison Gilkes about their experiences in Denmark

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As part of their ongoing development, the Premier League recently took a select group of coaches to Denmark for a six-day study trip.  

Welcomed with open arms by Danish Superliga runners-up FC Nordsjaelland and their technical director Flemming Pedersen, they were provided with outstanding access to the club’s coaching set-up, from Academy level up to the first team.  

Academy head of coaching & development at AFC Bournemouth, Bruce Suraci, who is also part of the EHOC (Elite Heads of Coaching) programme, was a member of the visiting party.  

So too were a quartet of young coaches from the Premier League’s Professional Player to Coach Scheme (PPCS) - a joint programme funded by the Premier League, the PFA Charity and the EFL aimed at increasing the numbers of Black and Asian players who transition into full-time coaching roles in the professional game.

Reading Under-16s head coach Harrison Gilkes was one of those who made the flight, and he joined Bruce and Adrian Clarke to discuss this valuable experience.

Let’s start with you Harrison, what were the most thought-provoking elements of this study trip? 

Harrison Gilkes: “Within academies we're very individual focused here in the UK, so going to Denmark and seeing how it was the opposite, with the emphasis around the group, I did come away contemplating, ‘Which way is right? What's more effective?’

“FC Nordsjaelland’s coaches built their sessions and practice design from the group down. The game model dictates what they work on, and they build around that. From there, they then look to find opportunities for individuals to practice and improve within a group-based session.

“Here it's more a case of individual development first, before we build towards the group. There is no better method, but the difference in outlook opened my eyes, and got me thinking.”

Was there anything from a tactical standpoint that stood out?

Gilkes: “FC Nordsjaelland’s game model is very structured.

“When you watch their teams play from Under-13s to 15s to 17s to 19s and to the first team, they all know what they're doing, and they all play in a very similar way. They have the same tactical and coaching reference points, and it's cohesive.

"There is absolute clarity in how they want to play the game, and that is based upon what they believe in and what their values are.

“The technical director, Flemming Pedersen, used a really good term. He said, ‘you can't improvise improvisation,’ which I liked. Here, we’re not always improvising either, but we don’t have the same structure behind it that we saw in Denmark.

“Is it better to have an academy where your teams play differently based on the players they have, or to work in this more uniform way? Again, it was thought provoking.”

What other useful things did you pick up watching their sessions?

Gilkes: “I noticed they want to focus a lot on cognitive load and cognition. At FC Nordsjaelland, they place a high value on their players being intelligent, so quite a lot of their training forces players to make a lot of quick decisions.

“They also used an interesting constraint, asking them to play ‘one-and-a-half touches’. Basically, if one player made a pass first time, the next would take a maximum of two touches, and the next would then play one touch. That’s where the one-and-a-half came from, and I thought it was clever. It got the players to sharpen up their thinking.

“Another key thing I saw was how the players are taught what to read, and what to focus on. A large part of their tactical model is about controlling spaces both in and out of possession, so the players are coached that in exceptional detail, and from there they have a choice of decisions to make.”

Bruce, as a head of coaching you will have had looked at FC Nordsjaelland from a different perspective. What were your biggest learnings?

Bruce Suraci: “I learned a lot about cultural architecture and how effectively constraints can allow certain behaviours to emerge. In Denmark I wrote down over 30 differing cultural constraints that were used to create a healthy coaching environment.

“The standout takeaway was their emphasis on togetherness and openness, and this created so many benefits. From psychological safety to a feeling of inclusion, so much of what I saw was really powerful.”

Let’s talk specifics…

Suraci: “So many aspects of what they do fosters a one-club feel.

“I saw the Under-15s play a game on the first-team match pitch, with the first-team manager and technical director both in attendance. I saw the women’s team and the Under-19s work on that pitch too.

“The sporting director sat in on a CPD workshop I delivered, some of their staff live on site which was interesting, and Emiliano Marcondes, who plays for AFC Bournemouth and is there on loan, sat in with us and did a talk too.

"With all of these things, the implicit message they send out to people is that we're all equal and we all matter"

Bruce Suraci

“With all of these things, the implicit message they send out to people is that we're all equal and we all matter. A sense of togetherness was created, which leads to a host of benefits.”

Can that realistically be replicated at a Premier League club, like AFC Bournemouth for example?

Suraci: “It’s worth considering Danish society; Denmark has been measured as the second happiest country in the world. They have high tax rates, but universities and health care are free, nursery fees are heavily discounted etc.

"There are so many things in their system that create a feeling of equality, so it is in part a cultural thing.

“Could any of our clubs shift to the left, a little bit? Probably. And we are already having conversations in our Academy to talk about what we can do differently in this regard.

“A great example in our own Academy environment is that we've got a new office and every day we now sit and have lunch together. That's organically happened, but from that it creates people talking about their lives, and from that better relationships are formed, and from that it creates better wellbeing, and possibly better performance.

“This is what I mean by a cultural constraint. So now a member of staff will say, ‘right, 1 o’clock lunch?’, and we’re all there.”

Did your conversations with technical director Flemming Pedersen, give you a fresh perspective on how you operate day-to-day as head of coaching?

Suraci: “Flemming and I discussed what his approach is in a lot of depth, especially how he goes about giving feedback.

“On that topic I have made one major change to the way I approach our weekly values meetings in the coaching department.  

“Flemming spoke a lot about how he addresses problems with a member of staff publicly, and previously I’d always felt that style may result in shaming people, so I didn’t want to do it that way.

“But I reflected on his reasoning, which was that it stops people talking about each other behind their backs, so I brought it to the table.

“I told the coaches that unless it's something desperately personal, I'll bring up an issue to you in our one-on-one, but then it's either my or your responsibility to take it to the values meeting in front of the others too.

“I believe it's been successful. To give you an example, we had a coach who did something that was possibly outside of our values and told me about it. We brought it to the meeting and as a group discussed the rights and wrongs.

"We were essentially debating what we think the correct way to behave is, which has to be healthy.

“That was a powerful takeaway for me and something we implemented straight away that we'll keep going with.” 

This trip was arranged by the Professional Player to Coach Scheme that you are part of Harrison, tell us more…

Gilkes: “Our manager, Dave Regis, is a brilliant leader for this scheme because he encourages us to push down and attack these barriers that we sometimes come across.

'He’s a driving force behind us and has done great work along with Garth Crooks and Iffy Onoura to make sure that the programme happened.

“We're coming to the end of this 23-month programme now and the person, not just the coach, but the person I was compared to who I am now, is completely different.

'I want to send a massive 'thank you' to Dave, but also the Premier League and PFA for seeing value in what we have to offer the game.”

Finally, how do you both reflect on this shared study trip experience?

Gilkes: “I went on a study visit last year as part of the Professional Player to Coach Scheme to Charleston, South Carolina, where I learned what they do around individual player development. It was fantastic, but that study visit was on my own.

“So the contrast between that one and this one, where I've gone with Bruce, Dave and four other ex-pros, is massive.

"You finish a 10-hour day at the club and you've got all these thoughts and questions swirling around in your head and sometimes you just need to offload it, share it and chew the fat with someone who's having their own thoughts about what they’ve seen too. Chatting to one another, helped to refine our thoughts.

“I personally want to say a big 'thank you' to Flemming and FC Nordsjaelland for being so open with us. Without their co-operation it wouldn’t have been the very special study visit it was.”

Suraci: “I had never met Harrison, Dave Regis, Jon-Paul Pitman (coach, Brentford), Courtney Pitt (head of coaching, Burton Albion), or Taff Rahman (coach developer, the FA) before, but all of them are such good human beings. It was a pleasure to spend time with them.

 “I’ve got to say Flemming is one of the best people I’ve met in elite football. He was so open with his dialogue, letting us walk around the offices, watch first team training and their planning for a game, giving us so many insights on their sessions, models, analysis and more.

"I also want to thank the Premier League for making these great schemes available to us, like the EHOC programme that I am a part of. I’m also grateful to AFC Bournemouth for letting me have six days away to educate myself with a view to educating others.”

Also in this series

Part 2: Hinckson: I love the challenge of coaching players this age

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