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Monday, August 24, 2015

Why Players Struggle After Big Moves

And Why Some Players Are Better Off At Smaller Clubs

When Juventus signed Brazilian striker Amauri from Palermo in 2008 in a deal worth over €22 million, the feeling was that despite the fee this was going to be a great deal for them.  Juventus were still struggling to recover from their forced demotion to the Serie B a few years earlier so this was a statement of intent of their willingness to spend big to return to their former glory.

More than that, Amauri was an experienced player who had excelled at Palermo scoring twenty three goals in just over fifty games.  He had strength, technique and a willingness to work hard; all of which hinted that a move to a big club - where theoretically he would be surrounded by better players - would elevate him to one of the finest strikers in Europe.

It didn't happen that way.  Amauri did reasonably well in his first year at Juventus, scoring eleven times.  Those, however, came mainly in the first part of the season.  From then on scoring seemed to become an alien concept for him as he flailed about in an attempt to make the transition.  Nothing seemed to work and in the end Juventus had to give him away in order to get rid of him.

There is no top club that, in the last decade alone, hasn't gone through a similar experience.  For Liverpool there was Andy Carroll, Anderson at Manchester United, Mohamed Salah at Chelsea, Roberto Soldado for Tottenham and Lukas Podolski at Arsenal.  You could name whole league sides out of players who joined Real Madrid and Barcelona only to quickly find that they didn't fit.

In most cases, football typically comes up with one of two explanations.  The first is that the player simply wasn't good enough; that whilst he had the talent to occasionally shine for a smaller club he didn't have it in him to play on those levels on a regular basis which is what is expected when you're at a certain level.

The second reason is that the new club simply wasn’t suited for him.  There will always be some sympathy for Carroll at Liverpool for instance because the club’s attacking focus wasn’t based on looping balls in for him, which is where he excelled.

Equally, some of these transfer disasters are easily predictable - again Carroll is a case in point - whilst others, like the highly talented Nani's inability to become a regular at United, baffle.

That all this happens, however, shouldn't come as too much of a shock, at least not if you look at research which has been done and which came up with the Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Syndrome.

This research, which has focused overwhelmingly on academic students, found that an individual who attended a high-ability (in the sense of a school where high achievers tend to go) school had a greater possibility of lower academic self-concepts than another individual who went to a low-ability school.

Or, to put it in another way, when you put someone in an environment that is geared (and expects) high achievement there is the tendency that such an individual shrinks away rather than rising to the challenge. They end up either failing or else coming towards the bottom of their classes.  

At the same time, if someone who is equally talented goes to a less demanding school but one where he can build on the confidence that he is among the better students then such an individual tends to excel.

Indeed, as far back as 1966, American sociologist James A Davis was warning parents against sending their children to those that are typically considered as the better colleges if there was the chance that they would be towards to lower end of the graduating class.

This, clearly, has deep implications on football.   How many parents, for instance, are blinded by the glamour of the big clubs when they come calling?  How many have uprooted promising young footballers from a smaller academy because a bigger club offered them the opportunity only to see that, rather than improve, their son actually does worse?

That is not to say that such parents are willingly sabotaging their children's career.  For a start, the probability of making it as a professional footballer is extremely low wherever you are playing.  Also, there is the question of facilities that are available to the academies of the bigger clubs.  It is hard to blame a parent for thinking that their child could do better in an institution that provides him with all weather facilities, indoor pitches, an impressive array of physios and ultra-qualified coaches.

Even so, if the academic research is to be transposed to football it would appear that the benefits are not as huge.  There are a lot of theories as to why this happens but, often, when an individual - let alone a young teen with the changes and insecurities that age brings with it - feels that he is among the best in his team he will act in that way.  He will be more willing to rely on his ability, take risks and stand out.

Placed in a team where he is one of many - talent wise - there is the chance that he loses that edge.  He might doubt himself and pass the ball whereas previously he might have taken a shot or beaten his man, for instance.  Rather than improving, he stagnates.

There are reasons for this.  Mindsets, about which Carol Dweck has written and spoken extensively are probably at the forefront.  Individuals with a fixed mindset – that is, who feel that their talent is fixed and cannot improve – wither when placed in a demanding environment.

There is no direct research on this, however. What researchers have clearly identified as a prime differentiator is intrinsic motivation: those individuals who find the drive to improve within themselves, rather than needing external motivation, tend to do better.  

In football terms, a player who moves to a club because he feels the pressure to accept the deal of a bigger club as others would perceive him as ‘crazy’ to pass up such an opportunity, rather than because he feels it within himself that he has to try this challenge is clearly making the move for the wrong reasons.

If any proof were needed, this surely should provide people with a reason to take a step backwards and think about a move that should further their career but could ultimately kill it off.

For more information on the Big Fish Small Pond effect, look up the work of Professor W. Marsh who is the main expert in this field.

Blueprint for Football is giving away copies of Blueprint According To...Volume III, the e-book that features interviews with six coaches on their football philosophies and how these were developed.  For details of how to get your copy, go here.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thoughts On Pre-Season

Craig Easton

Although league football is now back in most countries, we felt that Craig Easton's thoughts on pre-season (first published on his own site and reproduced with his kind permission) make for interesting reading.

Ok, call me a weirdo, but I loved pre-season. Anyone who has played alongside me over the years knows it and if they’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance a lot them are thinking, ‘Yeah, and you were a busy bastard as well.’ I heard that a lot throughout my career, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot of players more than happy to see the back of these last few weeks of hard graft.

See, I don’t really understand that and I never did back then. Getting back to playing football, feeling as fit as you can possibly be in the anticipation of a new season and all that may bring – what’s not to love? My friend and ex-Dundee United teammate, Gary Bollan, wasn’t so much of a fan of those four to six weeks prior to the start of the new campaign. He still carries the mental scars from some of his pre-seasons, especially those inflicted under the management of Jim McLean and Paul Sturrock. He’s now a manager in his own right at Airdrieonians and when we met recently to catch up and chat about how he was putting his team through their paces, it was inevitable that we got talking about the beastings we took back then.

Bobo wasn’t the worst runner, but it’s fair to say that his robust frame meant that it didn’t come easy to him. With a shake of the head he ‘fondly’ recalls a particularly gruelling experience that’s still fresh in both our memories. One of the standard destinations during the first week of pre-season at Dundee United was Monikie Country Park; a punishing forest run followed by a figure of eight around two fairly large reservoirs that you had to complete in under 20 minutes. The wind almost blew you into the water as you ran exposed to the elements (Scotland in July is unpredictable at best) along the raised bank. He remembers emerging from the trees and lifting his head to see where everyone was… he could only just make out my group in the distance. We were halfway through our run around the second body of water and heading for the finish line. I think his quote to explain his feelings at that time was ‘mentally gone’, as he tried to get his head around the fact that he was just about to begin the loop around the first loch. I was in my element.

Dundee United always had fit teams and were notorious for having tough pre-seasons. It almost felt like the managers, coaches and experienced players steeped in the history of the club, like Billy Kirkwood, Paul Hegarty, Maurice Malpas, Paul Sturrock, Dave Bowman and Gordon Wallace thought it was their duty to carry on from where wee Jim had left off. ‘Heggy’ was a machine and led most of the runs even though he must have been easily touching 40 at the time. I remember legendary, veteran defender, Maurice Malpas giving me a wee bit of advice on my first day as I jovially lifted the pace to go past him during one of the many 20 minute fatlecks. ‘Easty’ he growled, ‘Run by me again and I’ll fucking hook ye!’. A few years later I remember goalkeeper Sieb Dijkstra struggling on what he thought was the first tough run of the day and having to stop to get his breath back; we were only in the warm-up!

Back then, pre-season for me was a time to really push myself to my limits, both physically and mentally (without getting injured) and in the process doing enough to ensure I was in the starting eleven on the opening day of the season. That’s all that mattered. I’m very lucky that I’m naturally fit, and it certainly helped in those early years where a fitness coach was a novelty, never mind a sports scientist. However, I struggle to understand professional footballers who moan and groan about hating pre-season, especially nowadays in the era where sports science and the physical needs of the individual is a priority. Players should embrace it. It’s a time to really drill down into your craft and work not only on your fitness, but also details of your game, without the pressure of a competitive match to prepare for.

It was probably my favourite time of the season and for many reasons. It wasn’t just because the physical challenges were something I could excel in. The close season got boring. Don’t get me wrong I love spending quality time with my wife (in case she’s reading) and I enjoy a bit of sun on my back and everything  else that goes along with a few weeks rest, but I could never totally switch off. So, by the time that first day back came around, I was quite literally ready to hit the ground running, filled with the renewed sense of hope and purpose that the anticipation of a new season imbues in players and fans alike.

You almost feel invincible. Seriously. Yes there’s the spell where you don’t think there’s a hope in hell of getting your legs moving again for an afternoon session without a can of WD40 and those evenings twitching in and out of sleep listening to the soothing sound of Wimbledon on the TV (pre-Sharapova obviously). But once you get through that first week, it’s genuinely the best feeling in the world. You’re eating healthily, getting ripped and starting to feel sharp, a level of physical wellbeing you don’t get to feel anywhere close to throughout the season as there’s always a knock or a niggle to deal with.

The whole approach to pre-season training has certainly changed and undoubtedly for the better. I feel fortunate to have straddled eras that saw the transition into the model that many clubs use today and I can now use these experiences as a coach.

Certainly in the latter part of my career the conditioning work became more progressive, and the ball used as it should be (we are footballers after all) from day one with the real tough sessions being intense possession based exercises or small sided games. Unbelievably, I actually remember myself and a few of the other older players at Leyton Orient complaining that we didn’t think we had worked hard enough because we didn’t feel that aching soreness in our legs before the start of the next day’s session. However, that period is probably the fittest I’ve been over a whole season.

I’m not saying I’d be adverse to a Monikie type run as a coach, but it wouldn’t be to measure fitness in the guise that I’ve been accustomed to. It could be thrown in to test attitude or even used  at a lower intensity as part of a recovery session to allow the players to enjoy a different environment. I watched a couple of Gary Bollan’s early pre-season sessions with Airdrieonians and apart from a fatleck run as part of the warm-up, it was very much a session that you would see mid season. The intensity was greater and the work/rest ratios very structured, but most of the hard work was done with the ball and in a realistic context, as it should be.

I’ve also studied a few of Bayern Munich’s early pre-season sessions on Youtube and apart from the facilities, the golf buggy for water breaks, the army of support staff, and the slightly better standard of play (sorry Bobo) the principles were the same. In fact I think Gary’s task is way tougher as his lads are part-time. He’s got the extremely difficult job of balancing and structuring the conditioning, technical and tactical work into two or three sessions a week with most of his squad also working their 9 to 5’s.

There are different things to consider in football at every level. For example, while Gary works out the most effective way to get his side operating at peak physical fitness as well as embedding the style of play he wants them to adopt after a four to six week break, I wonder if clubs at the top of the game even need to give the players a pre-season in the traditional sense?

For instance how much conditioning does Arturo Vidal need to be ready for the start of the Bundesliga in two weeks time. His club football lasted as long as it could have with Juventus going all the way to the Champions League Final and then his involvement with Chile – winning the Copa America – has meant that he’s had three weeks rest at most before joining up with Pep at Bayern.

World Cups, European Championships and 50+ game domestic seasons ensure that elite players certainly don’t need a Dundee Unitedesque pre-season of old, but it would be fun to see how they’d get on. It’s probably no surprise that I’m pretty jealous of the lads getting put through their paces at this time of year. I might not be able to replicate the football sessions I loved so much, but I actually quite fancy a wee run around Monikie for old time’s sake. I wonder if Bobo would be up for it?

Craig Easton played football professionally for over 18 years, counting Dundee United, Livingston, Leyton Orient, Swindon Town, Southend United, Dunfermline Athletic and Torquay United FC among his clubs as well as the Scottish Under 21 side.  He is a UEFA A licensed coach and has been coaching in the Youth Development and Professional Development phases of professional football for the last couple of years.  He is also a BA (Hons) Professional Sports Writing & Broadcasting graduate.

This article originally appeared on Craig's own site, East On.  Connect to Craig on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Blueprint for Football Extra Digest: Issue 27

Nick Littlehales: the man who showed Cristiano Ronaldo how to sleep
A couple of months back, we did a feature on Blueprint for Football on the importance of sleep for players' performance so it is nice to see that other outlets are now starting to cover this subject as well.

Early Specialisation in Goalkeepers
A lot has been written about early specialisation but usually it is from the angle of football vs other sports.  This piece looks at whether kids should be specialising in the goalkeeper role from an early age.

Fitness coach Raymond Verheijen on why Chelsea are better prepared than Manchester United or Arsenal
"The problem in the Premier League is that football and training is hijacked by sports science – clubs spend millions on it and think they are very professional but in reality it is very amateur because most sports scientists don’t have a deep understanding of football and as a result they are doing a lot of non-specific football training with players."

Raymond Verheijen, as always, doesn't pull any punches.

This weekly digest is sent to subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra every Monday evening.  Join the list (for free!) so that you don't miss out.  Details here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"It Is Important That There Is A Level Of Respect Between Parent And Coach"

Have you got your free copy of Blueprint According To...Volume 3 yet?  No?  Here are the details to fix that.

Any coach will face challenges throughout their career; be it unresponsive players, lack of facilities or difficulties getting opportunities.   Tim Palmer is like any other coach with the exception that in his case the challenge is a bit more specific and unique: he was born profoundly deaf.

It is about how he has gone about facing this challenge and how it has impacted the development of his blueprint that we spoke in this interview.

Blueprint for Football: What got you into coaching?
Tim Palmer: Like many, I originally grew up with the dream of being a professional footballer.  However, around the age of 16 I had the sudden and not particularly enjoyable realisation that I would not make it to the highest level.  Thankfully though, this realisation was quickly followed with the question, "what else can I do to work at the highest level of football?".  The answer, inevitably, was coaching.

I'd actually always thought if I didn't make it as a player, I could fall back on a career of writing.  I did a lot of writing as a teenager in high school, starting my own blog as well as doing bits and pieces for others on the Internet.  At 16, I'd actually already been lucky enough to be doing freelance work with FourFourTwo by this time, but a week's work experience at the Daily Telegraph (an Australian newspaper) made me realise that although I loved football writing, I didn't necessarily love journalism.  I'd realised there's a great joy in being able to teach, learn and bond with others.  You just don't get in journalism, but you do in coaching, and even at the age of 16 I knew that was the path for me.

Since then, I've looked to immerse myself as much as I can in a learning process of coaching; doing as many courses as I can, observing as many sessions as I can, reading and talking as much as I can.  Nothing quite beats actually working with a team, though, and at the moment I'm working with a team at St Joseph's College (a private school in Sydney) as well as with a regional team in Sydney.

BfF: Have you had any mentors?
TP: While I haven't had a mentor in the strictest sense of the word, I've been fortunate enough to have guidance and experience from a number of excellent coaches, as well as teachers and friends.  Furthermore, as I'm still playing at a competitive level at present, I'm able to observe and discuss coaching practices with the coaches of my current teams.  

One of them is Robbie Stanton, who's just been appointed Sydney FC's new youth coach.  He is my coach for the Australian Deaf football team and he's been an absolute inspiration in terms of his approach to the game, and particularly in structuring training sessions.

I'm also lucky enough to be currently working as an assistant coach under Alex Zimbounellis, who gives me some much-needed direction in not only how I coach, but in also many aspects of life.  He is the closest thing I have to a mentor, though I learn something from all those that I meet.

BfF: You are also a performance analyst for Prozone.  What is that about?
TP: Prozone came out of the blue last year.  I'm friendly on Twitter with a fellow called Grant James who works in Prozone's South Africa office, and when discussions began at the company about starting a division in Australia he was kind enough to put my name forward.  The Australian based guys, who had been working exclusively with the NRL (National Rugby League), approached me and asked if I would be interested in creating and establishing Prozone's football office in Australia.  I was only 19 at the time so it was hugely flattering that they would consider me for such a role, but it's been nothing but a positive.

My role, at present, involves working with the A-League clubs and Socceroos to provide performance analysis services.  This includes pre- and post-match reporting, statistical analysis, video analysis, opposition analysis and much more.  It's a wide-ranging role where I'm working with lots of different clubs, but the challenge is fantastic and the opportunities it offers me to work with some of the top people in the game here in Australia is unbelievable.

BfF: Does that aspect help in your coaching?  If yes, how?
TP: Absolutely.  Analysis is obviously a massive part of the game today and working in this area has given me lots of skills and ideas for my coaching.  Even something as routine as opposition analysis; the more I do it as part of my Prozone work, the better I become at it, and the better that is then able to serve me as a coach.  By virtue of Prozone I'm able to talk many highly knowledgeable, experienced people in the game, as well as observe and work with A-League clubs, look at their practice and then apply that to my own coaching.  

Another example I can give is video - like I would, say, for a national team who is a Prozone client, I clip and categorise the footage of the team I coach: the players are able to access that via a private website, and they can view their game footage.

The relationship also works the other way round, too - there are things I learn as a coach that I then use with my analysis work.  It's a fantastic gig, one I'm very lucky to have.

BfF: What is your learning process like?  In which setting do you feel that you learn most?
TP: As I have quite a history in writing thanks to my blog, I actually learn quite a lot from simply reading - I like soaking up information from books and articles and just reading for hours on end.  But I learn in lots of different ways: for example, as a player I've always understood what coaches want from me through visual tools like whiteboards or video; as a coach, I learn best when I'm actually out on the training ground, actually coaching.  That's the setting where I learn the most, where I'm able to experiment with my practice and approach and find what works best for me.  I learn so, so much from just being out there, working with teams, and it's the environment I try to put myself in as much as possible.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
TP: I agree with the likes of Ray Power in that I think the word 'philosophy' can be a little broad or generic, although I do have a very clear vision of not only how I want my teams to play, but also what I want my players to become, and how I want to be seen as a coach.

The dominant playing style many coaches today endorse is what we might call the 'Barcelona' approach: one founded upon possession and an emphasis on technical play.  That is certainly how I might summarise my preferred playing style and certainly here in Australia there is great work being done by the Football Federation Australia to promote this proactive style of play in coaching courses.  

Personally I like to break the game down into four components - possession, opposition possession and the two transition moments - and develop a clear set of principles for each of these moments in each third of the pitch.  Therefore, for example, one component of my Team Model is that when we have possession in the back third, I want my teams to 'build up play in a structured manner to progress the ball with control into the middle third'.  

With that statement - an objective, if you like - I can then articulate team tasks and player tasks which I can communicate to my players in training sessions so we can bring the playing style to life.  Of course, given that the four moments in a game are interconnected and interrelated, there are several principles, team tasks and player tasks which my players must learn - but the Team Model is clear, consistent and logical, and I have a clear style of play which I can call my own as a coach.

As I mentioned before, though, I think philosophy extends beyond that.  How do I teach the players this Team Model? What methods do I use? How do I foster leadership skills in players? What human qualities do I want my players to have? How do I teach them to have the same love of learning I am lucky enough to possess? These are all important questions which I can answer and that encapsulate my philosophy.  

There is so much to coaching that I would find it impossible to write it all down, and developing a coaching philosophy is an enormously tough but incredibly joyful and rewarding process.

BfF: You have cochlear implants: what exactly does this mean?  And how does it impact your coaching?
TP: I was born profoundly deaf; which means the only thing I would've heard as a baby was a jumbo jet if I was sitting next to it when it took off.  I was implanted at the age of 2 which gave me the incredible gift of hearing.  I received a second cochlear implant at the age of 14, giving me hearing in both ears for the first time.

While the cochlear implant (an Australian invention, something I'm quite patriotic about!) gives me incredible hearing that would not otherwise be possible, it's not perfect.  As a result, I don't hear everything, I find it very difficult to hear over large distances or in crowded areas, and because there was such a long time gap between implants (12 years), one has developed far more effectively than the other.  The result is I essentially can still only hear out of one ear.

Thankfully, this doesn't impact my coaching as much you might think.  I'm not much of a shouter anyway, and I prefer to talk via quiet conversation with my players.  When they're together in a large group it can be difficult to facilitate discussion as a result of my hearing.  These are minor things, however, and the kids I've worked with in my career to date have all been very good in terms of any difficulties we might have.

BfF: How do you communicate with players?
TP: The same as any coach, to be honest: through language, naturally, something which does come naturally to me as a result of my writing.  Communication is a two-way street, of course, so I always need to ensure I listen carefully to what my players say and ensure every interaction we have is a positive one that contributes to their learning and development.

I like using video and whiteboards, too, when I can, and I'm always looking for new ways to communicate my ideas across to players.  The private website I mentioned earlier is a nice tool as well.  Along those lines, I think it's important too that we embrace the technology we have available today, so that means looking at things like Facebook and Twitter as ways of communicating with players (although there are obvious privacy issues here).  I'm still learning as a coach, and finding new, appropriate and the best ways to communicate with players is an ongoing challenge.

BfF: What is your relationship with players' parents?
TP: I think it's important that there is a level of respect in the relationship between parent and coach; I think there needs to be an acknowledgement from both parties that ultimately we both want what is the best for the player, and that that sometimes requires certain boundaries so that the coach and the parent can work effectively.

It should never be a negative relationship, though, and I always look to reach out to parents, be friendly, honest and sincere with them and to communicate to them as well what my aims are as a coach.  I think sometimes coaches can forget that players don't always tell their parents everything about their sport, or sometimes the message from player to parent can be disjointed, and hence, it's important that the parent understands what the coach is doing and why they are doing it.  Things like mid-season meetings and informational documents you can give to the parents are simple ways of strengthening that relationship.

BfF: And the kids themselves?
TP: I want it to be open.  I'm still young myself and I'm still learning, and there's so much my players can teach me that it would be foolish to have a relationship where I am firmly a 'dictator' coach.  Instead, I aim to be open and honest with players - making my expectations clear, but emphasising how they can improve and better themselves as players and people, hopefully with me as their guide along some of the way.  

I love unlocking that little door where players realise they can and want to be the best they can possibly be, and can achieve that if they are hungry for it, work hard and never give up.  I was lucky enough to have that door opened for me, and if I can open as many of those doors for others, too,, that will be the most rewarding part of being a coach.

BfF: What are your plans for the future?  What do you want to achieve?
TP: In the future, I plan to continue my current development - doing courses, learning from others, working on the training ground to develop my coaching practice.  Ultimately I want to be working professionally as a coach, whether that be in the A-League, Asia or beyond.  I am ambitious, and I'd like to think there'll never be a point where I can look back and say 'yes, I have achieved everything'.  The further I can go, and the better a coach I am, the happier I'll be.

Monday, August 3, 2015

“I Am So Proud of How Much Progress We've Made”

As the club’s technical director, Victor Satei has had a very direct role in shaping the philosophy of Gulu United, the Uganda based club that is  trying to foster a project that educates and, at the same time, prepares players for top level football.  In this interview he talks of the process he went through in joining the club and what he has learned from the experience.

Blueprint for Football: How did you get to know of the Gulu United project? 
Victor Satei: I received a message from Adrian Bradbury (Gulu United's International and Academy Director) who wanted to discuss a possible project he was looking to pursue at the time.  We sat down for coffee and he described his story and what he had in mind, I was in from the moment he started describing it.

BfF: What is your role?  
VS: As the clubs techincal director, my company and I are responsible for the technical development of the coaches and players.  We worked hard alongside Adrian to lay out a plan that was simple enough to execute and effective enough to put us on the right path.

BfF: What differences and similarities do you see with kids you normally encounter in Canadian youth clubs?  
VS: At the end of the day both parts of the world have their advantages and disadvantages.
 In Northern Uganda you have children that are fearless, super athletic and love to play football but lack any type of elite structured environment.  

In Canada you have an amazingly multicultural country with children that are eager, super athletic and passionate about football but they are drowned with overly structured environments from too young an age, often gaining bad habits that later become too difficult to be undone.  

At Gulu United players are housed in a full-time program offering both education and football.  We have recruited the region’s top young talent and we're developing them as top level footballers who are educated.

BfF: Were you afraid to go to a country with the reputation of Uganda?
VS: No, Adrian filled me in on what to expect so I was not worried.

BfF: How has this experience helped you develop as a coach? 
VS: I'd say the most developmental part of the journey up to now is how far it challenges your adaptability.  You face different scenarios on a daily basis that cannot be planned for, you have to be ready to change things and adapt on the spot.  

As the first full-time professional football academy in Uganda, we've worked hard to shift the culture and beliefs surrounding youth player development making discipline and hard work our two main focal points followed by a commitment to excellency.  

I look back and am so proud of how much progress we've made, there has been great support from everyone back home in Canada and our staff can't wait to reach our goals.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest: Issue 26

Have you got your free copy of Blueprint According To...Volume 3 yet?  No?  Here are the details to fix that.

Why Dictatorial Coaches Are Extinct (Or Should Be)
Football, specifically youth football, was once the domain of coaches who felt the urge to act as disciplinarians first and foremost with no on being able to questions their dictates.  They might have done it for the right reasons but they were wrong.  This piece explains why.

Developing Self-Learners through Game-calls and Game-Based Coaching
"By underpinning our coaching methods with innovative methods of communication (Future Game, 2010) such as Game-calls, we will see an increased level of team cohesion, understanding, skill and unity towards the ‘transcendence’ stage of knowledge whereby the decisions players make become more autonomous (instinctive) with each other."

Five key attributes of the mentally tough athlete
I have been reading a lot about mentality and mental strengths of top performers so am now of the view that it is very difficult to distil what is needed into a list.  That said, the advice in this piece is a good primer that any coach and player should be aware of and trying to adopt to their circumstance.

Development first, winning second. How some youth coaches stunt player growth
It might be common attitude now not to push children - especially younger ones - to win at the cost of everything else.  That said, it is important to note that winning is second, not nowhere.

Quote of the Week
"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it" Winston Churchill displaying aspects of mentality - self belief and determination - that are needed to succeed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Using Football To Go Beyond Charity in Africa

When Pele said that an African country would win the World Cup by the year 2000, it was a bold prediction yet one that wasn’t met with the ridicule that it would have elicited just a few years earlier.  More and more African players were arriving into European football and establishing themselves among the best.  Given the continent’s size, its love for the game and the seemingly endless talent supply it seemed only a matter of time before African nations were challenging the world’s elite.

Six World Cups have later, however, African teams have yet to threaten the status quo.  Indeed, no African country has ever progressed past the quarter finals (although fate hasn’t always been kind on them).  Although they’re no longer the whipping boys they once were and there is an abundance of talent no country has really made its mark.

There are a lot of theories as to why progress has stalled but perhaps one of the most solid is that put forward by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Soccernomics.    One of the four factors that they identified as vital for international success is the financial situation of a country, specifically their GDP per capita (the other factors are home advantage, historical soccer experience and population).

In a chapter titled “The Curse of Poverty: Why Poor Countries Are Poor at Sports” they explain that in countries facing a difficult economic situation there are knock-on effects on population such as malnutrition and inadequate administration.

Given the chaos that surrounded Ghana’s participation in that last World Cup – where $3M had to be flown in to pay players’ bonuses and avert a threatened strike – it is hard to refute this latter fact.  Indeed, there are numerous examples of deficient administrations across the whole continent.  And if the national associations – who benefit from FIFA’s financing – struggle so much it is difficult to imagine that matters can be much better at grassroots level.

Developing countries have been all but shut out of the lucrative business of football, despite a passionate culture of the game, peaceful and emerging economies and a growing population of determined youth.”   That is blunt and hard-hitting opinion of Adrian Bunbury who has been working in Uganda for the past ten years. 

Some of the best youth are making it to Europe and the Middle East, but are forced to
leave home to pursue these opportunities due to a lack of quality local training, competition and club sophistication. Foreign, well-funded, academies are poaching youth players, reaping the economic benefits and not reinvesting locally.

This is a brawn, brain and economic drain that must change. The current structure, at most, educates and enriches only a few individuals.

It is a problem that can only be solved with local partnerships, investment, training and education.

This is where the organisation that Adrian works for – Football for Good – steps in.

The goal is to step beyond charity. Charity is finite. We're aiming to build something that's sustainable. The question we continue to ask is that if the power and value of football comes from the grassroots, why does so little value return there?

What we want to do is lead and seed football academies that unlock the competitive advantages of war-recovering and developing regions. We want to develop talent to build sustainable local clubs and academies through participation in the multi-billion dollar global business of player transfers.

This is “Fair Trade Football” that educates, trains and mentors disadvantaged youth, leads social change and provides financial returns to the communities it serves.

Gulu United Football Club, based in war-recovering northern Uganda, is the first partner academy for Football for Good and the only full-time youth football academy and scholarship program in the entire country.

We are starting in northern Uganda, already have a partner in Zimbabwe and aim to grow across sub-Saharan Africa building academies and communities the right way.

That the choice to kick off this project in Uganda, where there has been so much war and strife in the past, isn’t coincidental.

Founded in 1990, the club folded after suffering through over two decades of civil war and unspeakable violence. However, northern Uganda is no longer a dark and dangerous place. There is an entrenched football culture and the youth of this isolated region of over six million compete with a disciplined desperation that clearly communicates this opportunity.

This is a generation who know nothing but war. They are starting over here in the north, but there is incredible progress, energy and 'community'.  It is not a question of if we will be successful, but when.

Football can play an important role in that process.

There are numerous organizations here focused on a myriad of health and social issues. At the same time, there is incredible ingenuity in the areas of health, mobile, etc. and we see football in this region in the same way. This is not charity in the traditional sense. There is a community building and entrepreneurial opportunity here through football.

And Adrian has staked more than his personal effort in making this a successful project.

In January of 2015, I moved my family to Uganda to launch the Gulu United youth academy.

Most people see this region and the current landscape, as an ongoing and unending catastrophe. Football for Good however, sees an opportunity, a clear competitive advantage and a grassroots social business innovation.

Whilst most people might balk at the ‘business’ element of the venture, the focus is very
much on the social.  “All of our  youth players are full-time students on academic scholarship,” Adrian explains. “Sure, every youth player will be training (and aiming) to become a world- class professional, but only our very best will make it.  However, all youth who participate, or even come in contact with the program, will benefit.” 

Football for Good will deliver local scholarships and international education opportunities, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, leadership and community building skills that go well beyond the game of football.  Our success will mean a sustainable football club and academy, in turn creating an ongoing investment in youth, local entrepreneurs, ingenuity and community development.

Inevitably, given the lofty ambitions, selection of players was a thorough process.

The program opened with 50 full-time youth (who are also on academic scholarships). This group was selected after a 6-month identification phase where close to 1,000 of the region’s top young footballers were evaluated.” 

And that is just the start.  “Going forward, we will travelling throughout northern Uganda to identify the best U14 and younger players to join us and grow our group in 2016.

Apart from the educational opportunities that getting selected offers to the children of the Gulu United academy, there is the additional benefit of top level football coaching that they receive.

We have eight full-time local coaches, who are led by our UEFA A licensed technical director Victor Satei.” 

We have our own philosophy of 'positive possession & brain-based' football with a real focus on free flowing attacking football.  There is an evolving training program that continues to improve (but not without it's bumps along the way). I'm here full-time and also coach, while Victor has been here for two 6-week stints in 2015 to work with the players and continue to train and develop our staff.

Our focus, however, is on the player.  We are aiming to develop fast – physically strong and quick – slow –smart and opportunistic – head turning footballers.

All of this sounds very European in its philosophy and execution.  The main difference, however, lies in the facilities which for most European academies might seem quite Spartan.

We have two full-sized "grass" pitches – in truth they are very much dirt pitches- and all of the balls, cones and bibs we need.” 

Boots continue to be a problem, with the fields here doing plenty of damage to our footwear. I'm also a big believer in hanging 'just enough' when it comes to facilities. We are not here to pamper our kids, we here to help them grow in a demanding environment with an opportunity go abroad.

Whilst few have attempted academies of this kind, Europeans coming to Africa to set up academies with the aim of selling as many young players to European clubs as possible is not exactly unheard of.  It is for this reason that it is important to reinforce the care that Gulu United take of their players.

For one thing, they will not be sold to any club that comes along.  “This is a work in progress but we will be providing the initial links and guidance for the players.  We need the right environment for our boys and be certain that the support is there for them to have success.

This ideology doesn’t apply to those players who do get to move abroad.  “Once a Football For Good or Gulu United player, always one of our players,” he emphasizes.  “We won’t just follow them, we’ll be with them every step of the way.  This is our family and these are our kids.

Inevitably, there has been interest from European clubs in this project.  But whilst Adrian says that at the moment they’re thinking over the process, he has words of praise for Brentford.  “They have been a great friend of Gulu United and Football For Good.

The club has hosted us, sent coaches to Uganda and helped guide our academy development program.   We hope to deepen that relationship in the months and years to come.  This is a club that may seem like a minnow to outsiders, who has real ambitions and understands ‘value’ and youth development.

Ambition is certainly an adjective that applies to Football For Good, and Adrian himself.  “Along with an established academy program here in Gulu, we also aim to have Football For Good be a global leader in sub-Saharan Africa in providing academy development, targeted consultancy, player identification and the nurturing of world-class youth soccer talent that leads to new market and transfer opportunities, economic sustainability and community building,” he says.

Nor does he lack confidence.  “In five years I will hit 50 in the month of April. My birthday is going to be spent sitting in the stands somewhere in Europe watching a Gulu United youth academy product play first team football.

And from there, anything is possible.

Special thanks to Victor Satei for bringing this excellent project to Blueprint for Football.

To learn more, people can visit:
Football for Good:
Gulu United FC:

Four Four Gulu: