Lee Waddington of First Team Football: “Goal Setting”

Goal Setting: For me personally it’s not been goal setting but more progress (goal) setting. As coaches we think that every goal we set for our athlete is going to be achieved. In reality this is not the case. A body of quality, in-depth work can only be created once the coach knows and understands […]

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Goal Setting: For me personally it’s not been goal setting but more progress (goal) setting. As coaches we think that every goal we set for our athlete is going to be achieved. In reality this is not the case. A body of quality, in-depth work can only be created once the coach knows and understands the athletes he/she is working with. Prior to this level of personal understanding the work can only be generic in its delivery. How can it not be if a coach does know not each member of the audience? Starter / taster practices can obviously challenge a group but the detail is in the coach observation of each athlete during the practices, which then starts the process of progress planning.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingLee Waddington.

Lee Waddington is one of the highest qualified and respected youth academy football coaches in England. He holds a UEFA A License and FA Advanced Youth Award and a Masters Degree in Sports Psychology. Lee has held various key positions from Scout to Head of Recruitment and Phase Lead Coach at clubs such as Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and most recently with the Burnley Academy where he developed and coached countless professional players.

Lee has just founded a new global coaching business called 1st Team Football who will be opening up Player Learning Centres in America, Australia, South Africa, India and China in the coming year. Through this new global venture he’ll be pioneering the latest professional development techniques underpinned by the science of childhood learning.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in Stockport, UK in 1969. Two years later my sister was born, and with my Mum and Dad that was the Waddington family structure. I was your average kid; running everywhere, playing games and making things up as I went along. From the earliest age I was obsessed with football; playing it on the street with my mates and going to Maine Road to watch my team, Manchester City. Luckily I went to a high school that had a very good football team, a sports teacher that supported us to be our best, and because of this we won everything possible year after year. My dream from early on was always to follow in my Dad’s footsteps and be a professional footballer, and aged sixteen I achieved the first step of my dream by signing as an apprentice professional footballer for Bolton Wanderers FC. This was the start of my career in the game.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I suppose my main inspiration was my Dad as he’d been a footballer, and it was him who first introduced me to the game, took me out to play and practice. Without this initial introduction, which sparked my curiosity and left me open mouthed with excitement I don’t know if I’d have ever started the journey, never mind stick at it for over 25 years. He encouraged me from the outset, was my coach, chauffeur and shoulder to cry on when things didn’t quite go right. There was never a moment where he wasn’t there to watch and cheer me on.

Apart from my Dad the other idol in my young life was Manchester City striker, Dennis Tueart. He was the main goal scorer for City when I was first going to watch live football, and to see him score and perform his goal celebration was something I looked forward to every home game.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Walter Joyce signed me for Bolton Wanderers, which gave me a start in the game. He was the assistant first team manager but also scouted the older age groups for the club. He was always positive about me and how I played, even in games where I hadn’t performed that well.

Years later when he was the Chief Scout at Manchester United we met again at the side of a Salford Boys game, and he invited me to join the biggest club in the World. I took him up on his offer, worked there for six years, and never looked back. I have a lot to thank Walter for.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

To be honest I can’t really remember a mistake that I made that would warrant a funny story. I suppose the one that does spring to mind wasn’t really a mistake but more an uninformed judgment call. In the initial stages of my role with Blackburn Rovers FC I decided to implement a development centre in Burnley, the home of the club’s biggest rivals. Not being from the area I didn’t fully understand how big the rivalry was until on the opening night of the centre all the Dads of the players wore Burnley shirts, and scowled at me whenever I looked over. It was at that point that it dawned on me. The take home message from this is, always fully understand your market before you make a big decision.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Without wishing to be formulaic I would advise anyone wanting to enter the professional football world to find the thing they love, are most passionate about and to really go for it despite what anyone may say. Love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I have found this saying to be so true, having been so blessed to work within an industry that is creative, multi-faceted and truly exciting on many levels. To observe a child-athlete develop into a successful, elite performer is so gratifying, and worth the countless unsociable hours it takes to help them get there. Human development is at the core of everything I do, it’s what gets me up every morning and is on my mind long after I should have been asleep most nights.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It was a book and a research paper that combined resonated with me. The book; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. This changed the way I coached back in 2007.

The paper; An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviours used by youth soccer coaches during practice by Paul Ford. This research paper really affirmed my philosophy on using a game-based approach to player development.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

C. S. Lewis

This is a life lesson I repeat to young athletes all the time. It’s my way of saying, don’t worry about the last game or the mistake you just made as you’ll always have another opportunity to put it right. This applies to everyone, in every walk of life.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

The main project I’m involved with right now is 1st Team Football, which is a global organization delivering a world-class soccer learning experience to children aged 5–17 by putting each and every child at the centre of their own development as a player.

1st Team Soccer methods have delivered success repeatedly at the highest levels of professional football. We focus on the learning needed by each and every individual and provide a positive, creative environment for children to explore and nurture their own potential. 1st Team Soccer has a unique development methodology, blending the cultural and football characteristics of each country in which 1TFG operates, with a professional development system underpinned by the science of childhood learning.

We are really excited by the prospect of opening our Player Learning Centres in countries such as USA, China, India, South Africa, Australia and the UAE.

Another 1st Team project that will be implemented post-Covid restrictions will be the implementation of an Athlete Research Centre based in Los Angeles in collaboration with UCLA Bjork Learning Lab team members. This exciting project will afford researchers the opportunity and time to research key elements of how players best learn to play soccer within a ‘live’ environment. We are hopeful that research from this centre will help shape how soccer is coached in the future.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Firstly, habits are a choice we make, and are underpinned by the behaviours we promote in our daily lives. Whether you’re an office worker or a professional athlete, the habits you choose to live by shape the life you wish to live. For example; a person wishing to lose weight must try to eat a healthy diet combined with some form of regular exercise if they are to successfully achieve the required outcome. Sounds easy but we all know it’s not. Barriers appear at every turn when you try to instill new, positive habits, such as a friend arriving with cakes just as you are about to start a new healthy eating habit.

Creating good habits for young athletes is something I’ve promoted for years. Positive habits formed at a young age do support athletes as they progress through the different stages of their career. I have always promoted healthy diet, hydration and sleep as a way of fully preparing to perform, whether that’s during the weekly training program or into competition. Fulfilling this habit does give athletes the very best chance to perform at their best as it ensures they are correctly fueled, rested and at optimal fitness levels.

Psychologically, having good habits to lean on is powerful as it affords an individual a support mechanism that is always present and readily available whatever the occasion. In sport this could be prior to an important game or when form has ebbed away.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Good, positive habits have definitely played a significant role in my career. From the outset of my playing career I always looked to achieve ten hours of sleep, especially prior to a game. As I’ve gotten older I have tried to eat a healthy diet and nearly ten years ago became vegetarian and recently vegan. I do follow a couple of outstanding well-being practitioners, Rich Roll and Darin Olien, and they have armed me with the information from which I have formed better habits.

Other positive habits that I use regularly are regular forms of exercise, I try to run three or four times a week, and reading books that inspire me to learn different things. I love to be inspired, for my curiosity to be sparked and this only happens when I put myself out there to read or try different things.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

In my experience developing good habits comes from having knowledge, and then using that knowledge day to day to best effect your life. Continuity is key in forming good habits, as it allows you to keep the good in, and the not so good, out. My life example would be in me becoming vegan. I was already a vegetarian, so I decided to find out what it would take to become vegan. Once I was armed with the knowledge it was a case of making a decision that I thought would be best for me and my life. The final hurdle was making it happen; buying the food/ingredients, leaving out the non-vegan food sources and learning how to cook a new way. Bad habits shouldn’t be stopped, instead replaced with good habits. Working this way allows people to make the better choices for their life.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus.

Wellness — Mindfulness:

An act of being present and mindful of oneself. This could be the link between self-care and well-being for everyone. So instead of just having a lazy weekend or shopping spree, it maybe that a person thinks about themselves, what they need, and what action to take. Therefore, the action is the same but the result of doing it is more fulfilling, and has a positive effect on well-being.

So, how do we practice self-care?

  • Practice good hygiene. Good hygiene is important for social, medical, and psychological reasons in that it not only reduces the risk of illness, but it also improves the way others view you and how you view yourself.
  • See friends to build your sense of belonging. Consider joining a support group to make new friends.
  • Try to do something you enjoy every day. That might mean dancing, watching a favorite TV show, working in the garden, painting or reading.

Performance — Hydration:

Athletes must be hydrated when they land on the field or court as dehydration can have a debilitating effect on performance. The framework we engage athletes in utilizes science very effectively with regards to hydration, as we time the sessions using a 12+3mins system, whereby athletes practice/play for 12 minutes, and then have a 3 minute break to rehydrate, communicate with teammates and recalibrate their concentration span.

Focus: Positive Imagery

Elite performers utilize a number of psychological skills, including mental imagery, to enhance their self-confidence and protect against the potential debilitating interpretations of competitive anxiety symptoms. Top athletes use imagery extensively to build on their strengths and help eliminate their weaknesses. Imagery not only helps athletes to regulate the anxiety they experience during competitions, but also helps athletes to stay confident, focused and mentally tough.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation, and there are several very good Apps that can be used to achieve a calm mind. As already noted, doing things you love with others can be very rewarding and enjoyable.

Hydration can be successfully achieved quite simply by setting a progress target for the amount of water/other to be consumed each day. Purchasing a good water bottle with clear markings on it does help to support this target. I bought one with AM and PM drinking targets marked on it and this helped me to stay hydrated every day.

Working with athletes with regards to positive imagery I often ask them to think about their ‘best ever game’; what it felt like, why was it so good, what did they do etc. The same process can be used in everyday life if you ask yourself, what’s my best ever day?

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.


Connectivity, the state of being connected or interconnected. However, we are at a point in history when even though we should be more connected than ever before due to the technology we have access to, we are in fact more disconnected than ever. A good way to form positive habits is to connect with others in a face-to-face environment. Communication is a key skill and a very good habit to build upon with teammates and colleagues.

Goal Setting:

For me personally it’s not been goal setting but more progress (goal) setting. As coaches we think that every goal we set for our athlete is going to be achieved. In reality this is not the case. A body of quality, in-depth work can only be created once the coach knows and understands the athletes he/she is working with. Prior to this level of personal understanding the work can only be generic in its delivery. How can it not be if a coach does know not each member of the audience? Starter / taster practices can obviously challenge a group but the detail is in the coach observation of each athlete during the practices, which then starts the process of progress planning.


As part of my work with professional athletes I have formed a habit of always reviewing the work that I have carried out. This allows me to critique myself in detail; what went well, what didn’t and what would I do differently next time? My aim has consistently been to be better next time, and I have passed this ethos onto my athletes. Anyone in any type of employment can utilize this process by simply sitting for a few minutes, asking those simple questions and journaling the answers.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?


To connect with people whether at work or in a sporting environment is simple once you form a common thread idea. This could be to develop a new club or fundraising ideas. Connecting with people is a good habit to form and develops all kinds of benefits from building confidence to communication skills.

Goal Setting:

Start with the end result in mind and work backwards from there in small steps. Write them down, use sticker notes to remind yourself what the daily goal is and put them in prominent places in your house, at work etc. The small steps are the goals, not the end result. Doing it this way keeps people motivated and on track.


At the end of the day or after a training session journal your thoughts around key questions such as, ‘what went well or didn’t, and what would I do differently next time?’

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Individual Progress Planning:

Optimal focus or concentration as it’s termed in soccer is something that I work on with many of the players. One of the primary causes of player off-task behaviour is work that is beyond their instructional range, so I ensure that players not only understand their progress plan but feel it is achievable with correct practice. Once a player is comfortable with the body of work to come it is easier to keep them on task and development starts to take place. A good habit for both coach and athlete to undertake is the development of an individual progress plan that underpins the athlete’s long-term development.

Role Modeling:

Peer to peer learning and development is a very powerful resource, and one that coaches should utilize more often, especially amongst children. Utilizing the good learners as role models in the group to work with those who need help to concentrate can greatly improve the concentration skills of those who need it.


Research from UCLA states that the use of time and how elements are spaced can greatly improve learning and the concentration needed to put development in place. When young people are developing the length of their concentration span has a maximum timescale of approximately 12 minutes. By using breaks in the practice it allows the concentration span to recalibrate before they restart, which improves motivation and improves concentration.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

In practice I utilize several interventions to support an athlete’s concentration, such as:

Sometimes athletes who have difficulty completing tasks can be motivated through ‘beat the clock’ strategies where they are given a set time to complete a task:

• 45 seconds to get on the ball (receive it)

• 5 second fury (win it back)

• Reduce larger timescales as the player starts to concentrate more or increase if not achieving

Bring an athlete out during a practice to discuss the key points and what further help he/she needs:

• Letting the session keep going whilst speaking with an individual player is a good way to check understanding and offer further help

• It is also an opportunity to set little / additional challenges or decrease the challenge to support his learning

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

I believe that be in a state of flow you must be completely engaged and submerged in the task at hand. Flow is an imbalance in one’s life, and not something that happens purely by chance. To engage with flow more often you must be involved and submerged in something that you are obsessed or in love with. This is not a hobby-type scenario, this is a life altering situation. Love is at the core of it.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

For children to fall in love with their chosen sport, deeper and for the long-term coaches must allow them the time and space to play the game, experiment without barriers, be curious and enjoy the experience at its base level. There is no such thing as an elite U12 athlete. At that age they are purely potential and for potential to be maximized they must be free of prescribed coaching that blocks that pathway.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Tom Brady or Mr. 199 as I call him. The greatest QB of all time, was aged 22 when he was drafted 199th pick, not 14 or 18, and the scouts still missed his true, long-term potential. All along he had the mental agility and toughness to be world-class, even when others didn’t see it in him. He stuck on the path, worked tirelessly on himself and achieved the outcomes he wanted. Role model of all role models!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website: www.1stteamfootball.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/1stteamfootballgroup/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/1stteamsoccerusa

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lee-waddington-msc-0b1679192/

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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