Tore Andre Flo is best remembered as a striker with Chelsea and Norway, a talented but tough centre-forward. But the 42-year-old, who is now an academy coach at Chelsea, admits his resilience was tested to the limit during a military expedition as part of the Premier League’s Elite Coaching Apprentice Scheme (ECAS).
In January’s weekend at Brecon Beacons, 16 elite young coaches were invited to gain an understanding of the military approach to leadership, teamwork and communication, making them better equipped to fulfil the remit of developing more elite home-grown players that is the core part of the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
“The weekend was very challenging but very enjoyable – especially when it was finished,” the Chelsea Under-14s academy coach said. “It was very tough - very tiring, very cold – but it was good to be stretched physically and mentally.
"There are aspects I can take back into my coaching because they are also very important in football. A theme throughout the weekend was leadership. Mentally it was very tough."
“Overnight, I was outside in a sleeping bag. It was -1C and there was wind, snow, rain and then clear skies. We had all weathers in one night. In our rucksacks, we had tiny mats underneath our sleeping bags but we basically slept on the muddy ground.
“We were soldiers in a war situation. We used paintball bullets but the guns looked real enough. Sometimes we had to go into mountains and rescue a pilot who had crash-landed.
“For one part, we were in a medical team and had to carry off the wounded on stretchers. Then we were in a hostage situation and had to negotiate. We cooked our military rations on a tiny stove. I did not sleep at all on the first night.”
The coaches were given a range of military tasks and rotated in the different roles. They were looking to understand and apply effective leadership skills, to function as part of a high-performance team, to deal with tasks effectively and to use the communication skills needed within the team.
Operating in the most testing conditions meant that the coaches had to deal with external factors; and acting in an appropriate manner during the suffering of colleagues brought internal challenges.
“We learned a lot about how important it is to communicate in situations like that and to take decisions very clearly,” Flo said.
“These are aspects I can take back into my coaching because they are also very important in football. That was a theme throughout the weekend, leadership. Mentally it was very tough.”
Sixteen Category One clubs, the best academies in the country as part of the EPPP, were each invited to put forward their most promising young coach for this two-year qualification.
Through a series of assignments and challenges ranging from learning from the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, to gleaning communication skills off Alistair Campbell, a former spokesman for the Prime Minister, the coaches work towards their ECAS certificate.
Flo and Ben Petty, the Aston Villa Under-18s manager, are among the second cohort due to graduate this summer. They each work with a series of mentors to towards goals for self-improvement.
“The mission of youth development is geared towards developing more elite home-grown players,” Simone Lewis, the Premier League’s lead co-ordinator of ECAS, said. “A big part of that strategy is getting an increased flow of better coaches and developing them as people as well as coaches.
Petty said: “We are in the business of developing young players and thinking about how they develop,” he said. “But ECAS has given us a bit of a different slant.
“The biggest thing for myself to bring away is I’m not just working with players but with other staff; considering the lines of communication. Academies are getting bigger all the time. Last week we had to dig deep and communicate well, through radio communication, working as a team, et cetera.
“Much of their ability to do their jobs well and make a positive impact on their players is maximising their decision-making, communication and ability to deal with stress.
“Having worked with their mentors on what steps are going to make a difference for them, the idea with the military weekend is to test these skills under pressure.
“For example, if some coaches are working on improving their communication, we’ll stress-test it under ridiculously extreme conditions in crazy pressure, when the coaches are sleep-deprived, tired and cold and see how it drops.
“We want to create pressure and fatigue to test their professional skills. The idea is not to make them fail; but to push them to the limits and expose the weaknesses they want to keep working on.
“One guy from last week’s event felt he didn’t make good decisions or communicate well, so learning with him has been mainly on how he could have dealt with things better. The coaches continue to work with their mentors for another two years after this summer.”
“I’ve already told my players at Villa about the experience, being organised, on task, ready and focused. We would be given little tasks and we always had to be on our ‘A Game’.
“The most testing point for myself was when I was on command during the night when we were all tired and it was very cold and we had no tent, just tarpaulins.
“The guys are trying to sleep, and we’re all conditioned to getting some, but it was my turn not to get any! Other tasks were being thrown at us during the night and I had to make decisions when fatigued.
“I can take a lot of things back for my players. For coaches, to trust the players, to allow them to have a sense of responsibility, a sense of respect for where we’re going.
“Recently we had a good game at Crystal Palace but the biggest thing for the club was not a good win, but the letter that we received on the Monday from Palace praising the way our players had behaved and respected their environment, cleaning up after themselves. That’s as important for us, developing these lads as young men, as well as young footballers.”
After his experience Flo is wondering whether a similar test would be good for his charges.
“We could maybe take our U14s on a weekend away like this, if less extreme,” he said. “Sometimes perhaps we should test them a bit more mentally.
“It’s good to make them aware that, if they are to get anywhere as footballers, they will have to work very hard for it.”
Pete Lansley (@PeteLansley), a freelance football reporter for the Sunday Times and the Guardian, is a Level 2/Youth Module 3 coach working with Derby County Community Trust and an FA Coach Mentor.