It’s Saturday morning in Kirkwall. The sun isn’t quite shining, and the birds seem to be having a morning off, as I make my way up the hill to the high school. 

But I’m not here to visit any classrooms – instead, I’m headed for the astroturf outside, where a small group is already gathered for a Scottish Football Association (SFA) coaching session. The attendees, however, aren’t children, but rather parents, because today is all about teaching adults how to coach the beautiful game. 

The event is being run by Michael Mackenzie and Graeme Sutherland who have travelled here from their respective bases in Inverness and Forres. It might seem to some like a long way to come for a relatively brief event, but this is the first face-to-face session they’ve been able to put on here since the Covid pandemic. 

The programme actually started with online learning sessions, but while getting out on the grass - or the stuff standing in for grass - obviously matters for a football coach, these ones also see the value in meeting people where they are instead of always expecting them to travel elsewhere. 

“We get better buy in because we’re willing to put the miles in,” Michael says. 

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The attendees, I soon learn, aren’t here to go over finer points of counter-pressing and inverted full backs, or to debate the pros and cons of this or that formation. It’s not about coaching to win, or even to improve; it’s coaching for inclusion. They’re learning how to coach in a way that simply encourages young people – all young people – to play. 

“This is all about activity that facilitates practice,” Graeme tells me as the first drills get going. “It’s about participation and making football accessible.” 

That certainly fits the overall SFA philosophy, which aims to keep football “trophy free” until children reach secondary school age. Indeed, the whole young football player pathway is built around participation, not competition, with gradually changing rules on game formats, ball size, and the application of rules like offside and pass back. 

A lot of the people on courses like this one, Graeme explains, aren’t looking to progress through the ranks or make football coaching their whole life – they just want to make sure that their daughter or son can have the chance to play the game and enjoy it. In the urban and suburban centres down south, parents are more likely to be able to access existing clubs and services, but in places like Orkney it is often down to individuals to take on the responsibility and bring something valuable to their community. 

The sessions are clearly intended to get people laughing and smiling more than sweating: there’s a 1-on-1 game where the object is to touch your opponent’s knee; after that, teams of four link hands and then have to keep rotating left and right to prevent a fifth participant from tagging a targeted member of their circle.

Gradually, things become a bit more recognisable as football training, with ‘chest and pass’ drills following by a comparatively complex ‘call and response’ type task where a coach gives quick and constantly changing instructions (“header, chest, header”; “left volley, chest, right volley”) to the individual they’re working with. 

The conversations that are happening throughout are also a world away from the old-fashioned approach of motivating people with little more than volume. People are talking about failing not just being OK but necessary, and it’s the first time I’ve heard someone use properly the word ‘differentiation’ (a teaching approach in which different tasks can be provided for students with different levels of ability, or which builds allowances for different levels into expected outcomes) outside of a classroom. 

As I stand and watch it all I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. I was never going to be a professional footballer, or any other type of athlete, but I love the game and have only recently, in my mid-30s, starting playing it at all. Maybe if training looked and felt like this when I was a boy, I’d have been much more active through my adolescence and much healthier today? 

Michael certainly thinks so. He was, he accepts, one of the kids for whom the old approach seemed to work just fine, but doesn’t subscribe to the “it didn’t do me any harm” school of thought. 

“I was always competitive,” he laughs. “Always wanted to win. So it suited me. But it doesn’t suit a lot of people.”