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Time and patience are essential ingredients in youth development

This article was first published in 2013, after the release of my book ‘Play the 1v1 Way!’ It is still as valid as ever.

Let’s face it: soccer at all levels is obsessed with short-term
results. The history of the game has provided us with several different ways to play. Fans have seen Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal side of the 1930’s (with its classic “W M” Formation), the total football played by Ajax in the 1970s, the Milan pressing game in the late-1980s and now the Barcelona tiki-taka style of play that we have been fortunate to enjoy during the last few years.

But Barca’s success especially has been the result of rejecting short-term gains in favour of long-term development. The reality is that the “seeds” for the current Barcelona philosophy and style of play were planted 25 years ago by Johan Cruyff.

 A recent article by Paul Grech called Exporting the Barca method argued that the real secret of Barcelona’s recent success has been time. I would have to agree with Paul Grech that for lasting player development success, the hard part is not changing or putting in place a new way of doing things but giving those changes and the system time to mature. An entire club must breath and move in the same way.

Enrigue Duran Diaz has spent a decade absorbing the Barcelona philosophy and is currently trying to plant the seed of that distinctive playing style at the South African club Mamelodi Sundown. He argues that for a system like Barcelona’s to be copied then everyone involved must believe in it both in terms of the on-field game, and the core values that surround a club. He also argues that setting up the structure takes time and requires many seasons, which may be contested without success as measured by standings and goals. It is his belief that the Barca model cannot be successful if others are looking to copy it simply to achieve short-term results.

In my coaching work I have aimed to establish a new philosophy and one that challenges the current norm in Canada for elite soccer development. Our players are encouraged to play across multiple age-groups, play different positions and challenge themselves to get outside their comfort zone to master technical, tactical, physical and psychological strategies that are new to North American players. We know this will take time but we are willing to sacrifice the short-term results in our weekend games to develop better players and people who can go on to achieve their soccer goals and be successful in life. We demand respect for our staff, the game officials, the opposition and in the way our players interact with each other. The rules and spirit of the game must be upheld and the parents must be appreciated for giving up so much to support their children.

We encourage our players to do the best they can be at school, and to be good people away from the field. We want to play attractive football, keep possession as a starting point and take the attacking initiative to our opponents. We want to encourage our players to take opponents on, try things and to be comfortable with failing. When we lose the ball we want to win it back quickly so we can attack again. (At Barca, players are challenged to win the ball back within 6 seconds of losing possession!)

We want our players to be comfortable on the ball technically, to be capable of making good decisions on the field, to work together and help each other both on and off the field and to learn at each practice and at each game. We want to allow our players to make mistakes, take responsibility for errors, work on learning from these errors and be open to seeking and taking advice to improve. As our philosophy is different, we come across many problems every day that hinder our progress and what we are trying to do. Change can be difficult and the short-term and immediate results focus within football (soccer) will always add significant pressure. We understand that!

However, through education and patience our players and their families are finding the ability to change their mind-sets for the benefit of the players we train. And we ask that those players and families trust us when we ask them in turn to do things they might find challenging like playing at an unfamiliar position, or playing in an age group not their own.

The bottom line is that, like Enrique Duran Diaz, I am challenged by focusing only on the things that I have direct responsibility for. The short-term set-backs and frustrations have to be set-aside so that we can successfully continue along our pathway of developing better and better players and more and more of them.

Time and patience are the essential ingredients along the way.

FC Porto Academy – Trip Observations

On March 9th eight players from the 1v1 Soccer FC Masters program learn more travelled to Portugal to train at the FC Porto youth academy. The objective of the trip was to provide our young players with the opportunity to train at one of Europe’s top youth academies.

By travelling to Europe, or young players are immersed in the culture of a leading football (soccer) nation. They are able to train with some of Europe’s top coaches, assess their own abilities by training alongside European academy players and receive feedback on performance improvements.

FC Porto’s playing philosophy is highlighted by retaining possession through playing the ball on the ground and using rapid sequences of short passes to create goal scoring opportunities. The club have dedicated staff at the academy to specifically focus on technical development and out players benefited from daily morning sessions that were focused on individual player technical development. In the evenings the players joined in FC Porto academy players in a series of small-sided game activities, designed to improve decision-making and game understanding.

 

 

Our players were praised for their dedication to improving and their physical attributes. The areas to improve upon are consistent with feedback we have received from other European academies. North American players need to improve their technical ability. They also need to understand the game better and not always be impatient to play forward all the time.

FC Porto – Club Background

FC Porto was founded on 28 September 1893. It is one of the top three clubs in Portugal – alongside Lisbon-based rivals Benfica and Sporting CP. They are nicknamed Dragões (Dragons), for the mythical creature atop the club’s crest, and Azuis e brancos (Blue-and-whites), for the shirt colours. Since 2003, Porto have played their home matches at the Estádio do Dragão, which replaced the previous 52-year-old ground, the Estádio das Antas.

Porto is the second most successful Portuguese team, with a total of 74 official trophies. This includes 27 league titles and they are the only team in Portuguese league history to have won two titles without losing a game – the 2010–11 and 2012–13 seasons.

At the international level, Porto have won seven trophies – the European Cup/UEFA Champions League in 1987 and 2004, the UEFA Cup/Europa League in 2003 and 2011, the UEFA Super Cup in 1987, and the Intercontinental Cup in 1987 and 2004. FC Porto is the only Portuguese club to have won the UEFA Cup/Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup, and to have achieved a continental treble of domestic league, domestic cup and European titles (2002–03 and 2010–11). Together with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Porto have the most appearances in the UEFA Champions League group stage (21).

FC Porto Youth Academy

FC Porto is recognized for having one of the top youth academies in Europe. The club has invested in renovating their former stadium, the Campo da Constituição, into a brand new training centre dedicated to their youth academy. The stadium, which served as home to FC Porto from 1913 to 1952 was converted in 2008 to a training complex – named the “Vitalis Park”. This youth centre serves as anchor for the club’s project “Dragon Force”, a youth development project based on football schools and trials for children aged from 4 to 14 years old. It is designed to help produce players for the first team, by exposing young players to the club identity, developing the players playing ability and developing life skills.

The ultra-modern Vitalis Park consequently also comprises a synthetic turf 11-a-side pitch and a covered synthetic 7-a-side pitch, both of FIFA 2 star rank for football turf fields. This provides their young players with a playing surface that offers safe and predictable conditions for player development. This helps optimize the players’ tactical and technical skills development, so that they can come up with better solutions to every game-related situation. It also helps facilitate more complete and creative players, who are trained to produce a very technical style of football.

Observations of our 1st Visit to Wolves in 2012

Background: 1v1 Soccer FC’s Partnership with Wolves FC Academy

In March 2012, 1v1 Soccer FC entered a partnership agreement with Wolves FC academy. Wolves FC have successfully attained the highest level of Academy status in the UK (Category 1) and share this distinction with only 19 other professional clubs in England. Their Academy has successfully developed world-class players such as Robbie Keane (transferred for total fees of $150 million) and current Manchester City and England international Joleon Lescott.

A greater percentage of their 1st team players every year are being developed within their own academy system. Currently, 25 % of their young players within their U18 and U21 academy teams have received 1st team opportunities and the goal is to increase this to 40 %.

Wolves Are you NextThe Wolves North American Academy partnership program has been established to develop development programs in North America that can share Wolves FC coaching methodology and provides opportunities for our young soccer players in Canada to fully realize their potential. This is achieved by following the “Wolves Way” player development model and providing our players with training experiences similar to the young players in England. This training includes technical, tactical, coordination, speed and physiological training preparation.

Academy staff coaches from Wolves FC travel to Canada on an annual basis to evaluate and provide feedback to the players on their progress towards a possible career in professional soccer. In July, 2012, 16 of our players were identified by Wolves FC academy staff at an ID camp in Ancaster and invited to attend additional training at the Wolves FC academy in England in spring 2013.

1v1 Soccer FC is the first organization in Canada to secure this type of relationship with Wolves FC and this represents a clear pathway for both our male and female players to play soccer at the professional level.

Trip Observations to Wolves FC – November 2012
Training GroundIn late November we were invited to visit the Wolves FC academy to observe training, learn more about their development model and view the facilities that the selected 1v1 Soccer FC players will be training at during their academy experience trip in spring 2013.
Our trip confirmed that Wolves FC are operating one of the most successful academies in the UK. The recent changes to the academy system at the professional clubs has dramatically increased the contact time with the players. This training is all supported by comprehensive education, sports science and performance analysis resources so that players achieve optimal performance and achieve a balanced lifestyle.
We were fortunate in being able to observe the training preparation of players from U7 all the way up to the 1st team. Their academy is operated out of one facility which means that the 1st team and academy players use the same facility on a daily basis. This provides the young academy players with direct access to professional players as role models. It also creates a very distinctive and consistent training and development culture at the club based on their philosophy.

Wolves FC – Academy Vision and Strategy

Wolves academy playerYouth development in professional football (soccer) in England is extremely competitive and includes 12,067 players. There are 40 professional club academies and 51 centres of Excellence, which is a scaled down version of a full academy model. Professional clubs typically start to identify and train young players as young as U7 age-group but cannot sign them until they are U9 (aged 8). Between the ages of U7-U9, several players will train at multiple clubs and then make final decisions on which club academy to attend at U9.

The main objective of professional club academies in England is to deliver an environment that promotes excellence, nurtures talent and systematically converts this talent into professional players capable of playing 1st team football.

Wolves FC consider themselves as a Premiership club, even though they suffered relegation to the second highest league (Football League Championship) at the end of last season. Traditionally, they have been one of the top club’s in England and are a founding member of the football league. They were formed in 1877 and have won the First Division Championship (Forerunner of Premiership) 3 times, the FA Cup 4 times and the League Cup 3 times. Therefore, their aim at the academy level is to develop young players capable of playing at the Premiership Level, rather than the Football League.

The club opened the Sir Jack Hayward Training Ground, which we attended, in 2005. It cost £4.6 million and features five high-quality under-soil heated training pitches, eleven changing rooms, a fully equipped gymnasium, and a hydrotherapy pool -one of only a handful of English clubs to own such equipment. The training ground’s medical and physiotherapy facilities made it the first (and so far only) British sports club to establish a fully accredited professional sports laboratory, based on AC Milan’s Milanello model

New training centreIn July 2011, plans were announced for a redevelopment of the Compton Park area, situated in the green belt, where the training ground is currently located that will enable Wolves to build a new indoor pitch and improve facilities to create a ‘Category 1? Premier League football academy.

The £50 million project involves the football club, the University of Wolverhampton , St. Edmund’s Catholi School, the Archdiocese of Birmingham and Redrow. the construction company founded by Wolves owner Steve Morgan. The club is making significant investment in it’s youth academy and the goal is to develop technically excellent players who are tactically astute, independent decision-makers and fully equipped for a successful career as a professional footballer.

They also aim to develop educationally rounded people through a holistic approach. It is commonly acknowledged that to become top professional footballer, young players must be capable of learning quickly and making quick and correct decisions. Clubs such as Wolves FC are placing a great emphasis on the academic education of the player and have a full-time staff member solely responsible for the academy player’s education development. They have also developed close working relationships with two schools directly opposite their training ground.

Summary

To achieve success at the academy levels, Wolves FC, like the other category 1 clubs such as Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United seek to implement the following characteristics within their Elite and Multi-Disciplinary Training Environment:

  • An elite environment where players have the necessary time and space to develop
  • An environment where all aspects of the program are challenging, developmental (not based on winning until later ages 16+) and inspirational
  • The program is supported by outstanding coaches at every phase of the performance pathway
  • The coaching program is supported by education, sports science and medicine and a playing games opportunities (30 max/year)
  • A multi-disciplinary approach that successfully develops all four aspects of talent development: Technical/Tactical, Physical, Psychological and Social
  • The development of educationally rounded graduates who are independent thinkers, both on and off the field.
  • An environment that consistently produces professional players at the appropriate levels of the game for each club’s academy status, for Wolves FC this means players that are equipped to be successful at the English Premiership level

This story ran in 2011, we continue to place talented players overseas 

You’ve probably never heard of the Cape Verde Islands. No surprise. It’s a largely unknown tiny cluster of islands just off the west coast of Africa which is home to barely half a million people.

Canada’s soccer-playing population is five times that. Yet with all those players and all our resources, we remain buried on FIFA’s world rankings, 80th overall, just ahead of places like Mali, Benin and Jordan. And yes, behind Cape Verde.

Ian McClurg would love see this change. All of it.

The new assistant coach with the junior team for Toronto FC’s elite soccer academy says there’s no reason Canada has to continue languishing in mediocrity or worse. Which is why he thinks some recent changes in the way the game is overseen will pay big dividends down the road. Maybe rather quickly.

If you are a young soccer star in this country, getting spotted at a young age has long been a crapshoot at best. You’ll need luck and probably some connections to be discovered. By the time a talented kid is identified as such, he may have lost a number of years of prime instructional and development time which puts him way behind players from other countries that are finding their top prospects early – age seven or eight in some European countries – and giving them the resources to become elite.

Further, few Canadian kids dream of a career in the pro game because they have no idea how to achieve such a thing. Hockey has a clearly defined hierarchy and path unlike soccer whose ladder remains a mystery to most.

“I believe firmly Canada hasn’t maximized (its talent),” the Ancaster resident says.

Hence our terrible international record in men’s competition over the past few decades. Throwing young men into games against opponents who have had top training since they were boys usually isn’t a fair fight.

McClurg knows a little about being on the other side. Growing up in Belfast until his family came to Canada in 1981, he was raised in a soccer culture. He later earned a tryout with a British team but he says he always felt he had a coach’s mindset more than that of a player.

“I definitely challenged coaches when I played,” he chuckles. “I would ask questions about why we would play in a certain way.”

He simply couldn’t figure out why some things were done the way they were. Still doesn’t. When he drives around town and sees practices going on, he occasionally finds his blood pressure rising as he watches drills he believes are rather unhelpful.

Coaching allowed him to fix that. With the kids he instructs, anyway. He ran a provincial team for a few years and for the past decade has run a soccer school that stresses building technique and skills ahead of winning games. Last fall, he was asked to help with TFC’s academy.

The idea behind the program is to scour the country for top kids, bring them to Toronto and train them effectively. Get kids as young as 14 and start getting them ready not only for a career in the pros but also to take on the rest of the world. McClurg, who recently got his top-level coaching licence in Europe, explains the kids don’t pay to come, so economics don’t weed out some of the best talent.

“This is the first time in my lifetime a young player in Canada can see a pathway to the pros,” he says.

Already it’s bringing some results. Canada’s Under-17 men’s team just qualified for that age group’s World Cup with 14 of the players on the roster coming from Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps’ academies. Last year, the Montreal Impact started its own academy, suggesting the number of elite players could continue to grow.

Further, McClurg says with Vancouver joining the MLS – the top level of professional soccer in the country – this year and Montreal in 2012, there will be more pro jobs for Canadians which will also help develop talent.

So, with all this effort being made to shore up the foundation of the sport here, is there really a possibility Canada could get back to the World Cup one of these years for the first time since 1986? McClurg doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh definitely,” he says. “Maybe not this time, but the one after.”

Maybe climb the FIFA rankings past the Verde Islands, too.

sradley@thespec.com

905-526-2440