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Training Ground Guru | Scotland becomes first country to pilot UEFA’s new Fitness Licence

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Written by Simon Austin — May 24, 2024

This July, 11 students from the Scottish Football Association will become the first in the world to graduate with UEFA’s new Fitness Licence.

Among them will be Scotland Women’s goalkeeper Lee Gibson, who has juggled studies alongside playing for her national team and Glasgow City.

The process has been overseen by UEFA’s Fitness4Football Advisory Group, which is headed up by Paul Balsom, the former Sweden Head of Performance. Balsom, who was also Head of Performance Innovation for Leicester City, agrees that these qualifications are long overdue.

“There hasn’t been a formal fitness coaching qualification for football before,” he told TGG. “Obviously, this isn’t desirable. If you think about it, it’s dangerous too.

“Players can be worth millions of pounds and they are putting their trust in someone who could potentially do a lot of damage to them. The UEFA A and B Fitness Licences will be recognised specialist coaching qualifications and in future clubs will be required to have a UEFA-accredited fitness coach on the bench for European competitions.”

In 2020, early on in the Covid pandemic, UEFA sent questionnaires out to all of their member Associations to assess the level of training and education being provided for fitness practitioners.

“Just short of half of them already had a national fitness coach diploma,” explained Balsom, “so there will be a transition period in which they can transition to the new UEFA diploma.

“We have worked closely with the National Associations, so we’re not rewriting what they’re already doing. We are saying, ‘These are the boxes you need to tick, this is the framework’ and we work from there. The Associations have to demonstrate they are dealing with both the men’s and women’s game.

“To do either the A or B Licence, you will need a Bachelor’s Degree level of knowledge of sport science. We are not demanding a sport science degree, because some of the big National Associations have said they have some very good fitness coaches who do not have the University degree.

“If they can demonstrate a level of knowledge equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree through an aptitude evaluation then they can be accepted.”

They will also need to have gained their UEFA C coaching licence to gain a place.

After sending out the questionnaires, UEFA consulted with the countries that already had some provision (about 30) and started to build a syllabus of minimum content for both the A and B Licence.

National Associations were asked to apply to provide the pilot schemes and six were chosen. Of these, the Scottish FA will be the first to complete a pilot.

Their Head of Coach Education is Greig Paterson. He told TGG: “We started the pilot February this year. We learnt a lot during the pandemic in terms of online learning, so we’ve put all the theoretical work for the fitness diploma online.

“This means that when people get out on the pitch they’ve already got the theory and background in their heads and have been able to test it at their clubs. The framework from UEFA was very good, built in the same way the regular A and B Licence, talking about the coach, the environment, the player and the team, and the match.”

Along with SFA Performance Director Graeme Jones, Paterson put together a team of three experts who could deliver the course.

“We were able to hire consultants and I think that got us over the line,” Patterson explained. “One is a full-time sport scientist working at the Hampden Sports Clinic, one is full-time at a club and one is an academic.

“They each have those different niches, which I think is important. You can take that syllabus off the shelf and people like myself are familiar with the structure and what’s required, but then you need those subject-matter experts to actually deliver the course.”

The three are:

  • Graeme Henderson (Head of Performance at Falkirk).
  • Seamus McCafferty (Head of Sport Science at Stenhousemuir and Sport Scientist at the Hampden Sports Clinic).
  • Michael King (Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and Sport Scientist with Scotland’s U19 and U21 squads).

Paterson admitted there was some initial scepticism about the UEFA qualifications.

“We had 40 or 50 expressions of interest and only got 11 on the course, which was reasonably disappointing,” he said, “but it’s new and people don’t really know why they need to do it yet.

“They’ll say, ‘Greig, I already have my Bachelor’s degree, my BASES accreditation, why do I need to do this? And I say, ‘Yes, but the guy in France might not have.’

“It’s about UEFA regulating the industry and being fair and ensuring they have competition structures under their jurisdiction. After all, there is a huge responsibility for fitness coaches. You could be responsible for someone who is on £100k a week in the top leagues.

“This is new from UEFA and will be mandated in time. If that sport scientist, fitness coach, Head of Performance wants to sit on the bench in UEFA competitions in future then they will have to have this accreditation, just like the manager and goalkeeper coach do.

“And we talk about fitness all the time, but the courses also cover health and wellbeing, which are such an important part of the role.”

The UEFA Fitness B Diploma involves 120 hours of learning, with a variety of online, pitch-based practical and assessments; the A Licence is 180 hours. Candidates have to do a period of working as a fitness coach in between doing their B and A Diploma.

The B is aimed at coaches working with youth and senior amateur players and focuses on health, fitness and wellbeing, while the A looks in more detail at the professional game.

Paterson said there had been a very positive response to the course from both participants and mentors from UEFA’s Football4Fitness Advisory Group.

“You get assigned a mentor from the group, like Chris Barnes and Stacey Emmonds, and we were in regular contact,” Paterson said. “There is also a UEFA Share Programme, where 10 to 12 European countries come together to discuss the Fitness Licences in a peer group.

“We got regular feedback on our curriculum and it came to life.”

The SFA’s next cohort are due to start in August and Paterson said there would be changes based on the feedback from the pilot.

“We did the theoretical work in Scotland and the candidates came together face-to-face in Scotland twice, for two days each time, and they really enjoyed that time together and found it valuable, so we will expand it next time,” he explained.

“We will have eight days online and two blocks of four days together next time.”

The current cohort are now coming toward the end of their studies.

“Most of them are going through their final assessments now, so the three guys are visiting them in their clubs in their own environments,” Paterson said. “Some will send videos in if they’re abroad.

“The final submission date is May 30th for all their assessments. They have a portfolio of their coursework to complete alongside that practical session. It’s a big body of work.

“We would graduate the majority of that group six to eight weeks later and they will be the first to graduate anywhere.”

Another of the candidates is Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, who won 102 caps for Iceland and is now working as a Fitness Coach for the national team.

She said: “We’ve had online sessions since January and we had in-person learning in March in Scotland and I was then back in Edinburgh again for the practical sessions at the end of April. I would highly recommend the course.

“It’s a big learning experience and you get to know a number of people who are working in the same field as you. It’s fantastic.”

There will be a full roll-out of the Licences across Europe this Autumn and the SFA begin their next course in August. Those interested can email Catherine Sharp at catherine.sharp@scottishfa.co.uk

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