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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Blueprint According To...Ally Bain

Whereas as a rule British footballers seem to shy away from playing overseas - indeed many prefer going to the lower leagues and even into semi-professional football rather than going abroad - a completely different mentality seems to govern coaches.   Indeed it is the opposite where many actively look for what opportunities there might be in other countries.

There are many reasons for this.    Undeniably,  one relates to the lack of (paying) opportunities that there exist in England where many coaches are expected to work either for free or else on a part-time basis.

However it isn't just that.   Increasingly coaches are feeling the need to experience different cultures and mentalities to help them grow.

Ally Bain is one such coach.   Having started out coaching in community schemes, he chose to pursue a role in America that provides him with a greater scope to grow.   Indeed, it has helped shape his philosophy in a way that would have been impossible if he had stayed back home.

Blueprint for Football: How did you take up in coaching?
Ally Bain: I started coaching purely by chance.  I stumbled upon a level 1 coaching course through the Scottish FA when I was 15, as part of a PE class that I was taking at high school.  Part of the course was to develop teaching methods in real life environments, so to supplement the content we were placed in local primary schools to gain on field experience.  From this I started an Under 11 football team at my old primary school, which strangely enough I had been playing in 4 years earlier!

BfF: What, do you feel, is the most important skill for a coach to have?
AB: I feel the most important skill to have is an ability to connect with your players and communicate information effectively.  Our role is to facilitate information to those we are leading, which somewhat renders the knowledge we have accrued meaningless if we are unable to pass it on with accuracy.  

In coaching schools there is a heavy emphasis on “tactical understanding” and “skill development games”.   However often these miss the point unless we are able to explain why these factors relate to a specific group of individuals.

BfF: Have you had any mentors who have helped develop your way of thinking and of coaching?
AB: My first mentor in the game is current Annan FC manager Jim Chapman.  Jim actually co-ordinated the level 1 course that got me started in coaching, back when I was 15.  During that time I was thirsty to learn and even more eager to see him operate 1st hand.  

What struck me was his ability to use words to assist players understanding of the mechanics of their role.  He could speak through a scenario and it would allow the player to be completely clear on what he was asking of them.  

I was of course extremely impressed by this, and to this day strive to emulate what I saw in those 1st few years in the game.  Lately I have started working with a professional in the psychology world named Jeff Irving.  He does not have a back ground in football, however he has completely transformed my ability to handle my own emotions and thought process before articulating key information to the players.

BfF: Talking about thinking, what is your philosophy?
AB: Many view philosophy as a rigid, concrete or solidified concept.  I tend to challenge this view point and see philosophy as a more transient commodity, one that must adapt to its surroundings and live inherently in the present.  For example, part of my role within GPS Portland Phoenix is to manage our youth academy.  

Our philosophy within that department is based heavily upon skill development, which will allow players to move fluently across the field.  Ultimately this department is in it for the long haul, so we have more time to exercise this philosophy.  

Our men's team which operates in the USL PDL, the Non League equivalent of US Soccer, is a different beast all together as our philosophy predicates maximizing our preparation for the next match.  Our playing style is much more protective and counter attacking based, mainly because we have 90 minutes each week to validate our team development.

BfF: How did you develop it?  
AB: I developed my understanding of this transient philosophy when studying how youth academies are viewed within the time continuum of a professional football club.  Ultimately academies are facilitators of development, therefore the coaches who operate within that world must use thought processes that stretch over a decade.  

I currently coach our Under13 boys in addition to the men's team, and I would argue that this group are far more tactically developed than our men's team - comparatively speaking - simply because I have had longer to work with them.  While our men's team are still a strong group collectively, this unity has been brought about through applying principles and initiating guide lines that we must all adhere to.  If we therefore evaluate the two, as is the case in almost every club out there, our academy Philosophy is completely removed from that of the 1st team.

BfF: Do you find yourself adding to it along the way?  And if so, how does that process typically occur?
AB: My outlook on philosophy will undoubtedly continue to develop and progress as my career continues.  I personally gain more from listening and watching others, than actually doing it on my own.  In the last twelve months my club has formed a partnership with FC Bayern Munich, and as part of the exchange we have had access to their head academy staff.  Sitting back and listening to them speak about their methods and approaches toward certain aspects of their program has been absolutely spectacular.  Often in football we are so caught up in what we are doing, we forget there is a world out there doing what we are.  I would encourage any coach to use those clubs around them as a learning tool, it has definitely altered my mindset toward philosophy and development.

BfF: How do you communicate?  Both your thoughts for a particular session and, in general, for getting across your philosophy which typically takes longer to put across.
AB: With our youth players a lot of my communication is guided discovery.  I want to ask them as many questions as I can, which will therefore bring about a new level of understanding, that allows them to become self sufficient in times of need.  By employing such a transient and fluid plying style amongst our players, they need to be able to problem solve effectively and brain power certainly plays into that.  

With our men’s team I utilize video as my main component of transferring information.  This key visual aid provides the players with a clear understanding of what I want from a certain situation, but also affords them a learning opportunity to see what went wrong first hand.

BfF: You've worked with Watford and Crystal Palace in the past.   What roles were those?
AB: My route into football came like many through the grass roots football in the community programs.  I worked as a football development officer at both of these clubs, and was charged with developing specific programs within a designated geographical area.  Many of the children I worked with during this time were mere beginners, those who were trying the game for the 1st time - 3 and 4 year olds - and those who simply used football as an after school activity, a vehicle if you like to socialize with their friends.  

Another element of both programs was the development centre concept.  Both Watford and Crystal Palace are clubs based in extremely densely populated areas, so with only one academy team per age group, there was a requirement for a conduit program that would prepare players for the next level.  

We formed a development centre concept that allowed higher level players from local boys clubs to train once per week together and often take part in friendly games against the academy team of their age group.  While this is a fairly common practice in 2015, at the time it was still fairly novel idea and increased the clubs ability to reach more high level players.

BfF: What exactly is your current role and what led you to taking it up?
AB: My official title within GPS Portland Phoenix is General Manager.  I wear many hats at the club, which sees my coverage spread across both football and business aspects of our operation.  Prior to joining the club I had spent time previously in the US, working for a small operation in New Jersey.  In 2009 I was made aware that a new club was forming in Maine, so I contacted the owners and interviewed with them in London.  

At the time the club didn’t exist, so we were purely conceptualizing what we would like the program to become and what we could envisage.  I was fortunate enough that the owner felt I was the person to lead the charge…fast forward six years and we’re still going strong.

BfF: Did you have worries that going outside the UK coaching system might hinder your career?
AB: Not in the slightest.  In the UK there is a gulf between those who operate at the professional level and those who are starting out in the game; therefore I actually felt leaving the UK would enhance my learning experience and prepare me for a longer career in the game.

BfF: As a coach, what is the biggest change that you've had to face since going to America?  And how did you handle it?
AB: As coaches our ability to communicate is key, therefore we require terminology that is inextricably understood by our players.  Coming to the US presented me with a huge problem initially, as almost all of my learned terminology was useless.  

As with any part of the world, the people here have formed their own “Football Dictionary” so to speak, but there is some natural cross over.  Ultimately I had to approach things with an open mind and reach a common ground with participants that allowed us both to be fully aware of what each other wanted.

BfF: Do you think it is important for coaches to experience different countries and places to work?
AB: I think it has definitely benefitted both my career and development as a coach; however it is not for everyone.  Some individuals struggle to adjust socially to new surroundings, which in turn takes the focus off developing their skill sets.

BfF: How do you find that the kids you coach look at you since you're a foreigner?
AB: Initially it can be awkward for players, especially as they need to listen hard to process my west central Scotland accent!  But once the novelty wears off they simply connect me as “the soccer guy” and from there on in it’s up to me to make it a positive experience.  One aspect my younger players still struggle to grasp is the amount of games per weekend I watch on TV.  

The American youth culture isn’t really geared toward watching sports, as much as it is playing them, so It’s still a hard concept for them to grasp that I find time to watch over 10 games a weekend on TV!

BfF: What are the biggest difference between English players and American ones (if there is a difference)?
AB: Ultimately there truly isn’t a difference between English and American players.  Youth football in the US operates a very similar calendar, so the two countries afford players the opportunity to play competitively all year round.  If there was to be a differentiation it would have to be the structure afforded to adult players in the US.  With 94 professional clubs spread across 55 million in England and only 42 professional clubs spread across 318 million in the USA, you can quickly establish that the progression afforded to US players begins to diminish their ability to fulfil their potential.  This begins to manifest itself into deficiencies that in the adult game become clearer to the eye; stunt in game awareness, tactical nous and the technical skills to open up a game.

BfF: And, finally, what do you want to achieve to be satisfied with your career as a coach?
AB: What I will continue to strive for is an ability to help players develop their game.  If this remains in the youth development world or indeed I am afforded an opportunity to operate at the professional level, my goal will be to continue serving those I work with.  Players are the very core of the game, so to be privileged enough to form a small piece in the cog that helps the game turn, I will continue to work hard to improve and hopefully that rubs off on others around me.

Blueprint According To...Volume III will be published soon and will contain the finest of our recent interviews with football coaches.  Subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra will not only be the first to get their hands on this e-book, they will do so for free.  So join, here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Are You Curious Enough To Be A Great Coach?

In his own inimitable (and, occasionally, slightly obnoxious) way, the Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen likes to label coaches who have not adopted more modern ways of training as dinosaurs; creatures from a bygone era where the physical demands on players were less taxing and whose coaching has not evolved to handle a game that requires a more enlightened approach.

It is very much a blunt statement that is at least in part made to generate publicity and get people talking about his own theories for the physical conditioning of players.  Yet, undeniably, there is also an element of truth to it.

Football is a highly conservative game – just look at the continued resistance to the introduction of video technology to aid referees - and so it is hardly surprising that those who work in it tend to be conservative as well.  None more so than experienced managers who hold on to ingrained opinions on how to achieve success and who refuse to look at ideas that challenge those opinions.

It is for this reason that there are managers who still do not fully trust the benefits of a healthy nutrition regime, of proper training or of the use of statistics to help shape tactics.  They believe only in what has worked for them in the past and only obvious success elsewhere can get them to consider anything that differs from that. 

There is little doubt that the majority of these managers possess a huge wealth of knowledge about the game of football.  Most of them have spent their whole adult life working within the game and in all probability know little else apart from football.

And therein lies the problem; there is a point at which the laser focus on the game at the exclusion of everything else hinders rather than helps.  Their lack of curiosity about anything other than football leaves them with a poor frame of reference with which to look at any new idea that they come across.  Or, to put it another way, they aren’t equipped to absorb and learn new ideas.

As we grow older we tend to become less active explorers of our mental environment, relying on what we’ve learned so far to see us through the rest of the journey.”  So writes Ian Leslie in Curious, a book that deals about curiosity and the role this plays in our lives.

If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure.  You will be less likely to achieve your potential.

Sound familiar?  It should especially if you’ve heard ‘traditional’ managers talk dismissively about the value of statistics in football or negatively on the notion of rotation in managing the squad’s fitness levels.

Curious for Curiousity’s Sake?
That is not to argue that coaches should be curious for curiosity’s sake. Indeed that kind of curiosity – diversive curiosity – often results in wasted effort.  What people should be trying to foster is what Leslie terms as epistemic curiosity, which is a more structured and deeper form of curiosity that can ignite the desire to learn and attempt to do things that one would not normally consider.

For coaches, such curiosity is vital if they want to grow and innovate.  

Yet identifying what they should be curious about is a bit difficult.  The truth is that we never know what knowledge might come in useful in the future; what might help one make connections that others aren’t able to see.

Whilst I’m not overly fond of examples that are based on Steve Jobs – there is a great deal of revisionism whenever he is put forward as a test case - this point is best explained by one element of his success at Apple.  

Despite having dropped out of Reed College, Jobs still took a class in calligraphy which had nothing to do with what he had been studying or was planning to work at: he undertook those lessons because it was a subject that intrigued him.  Undoubtedly for many that would be considered a frivolous waste of time that should have been spent working on something that might have directly impacted his future.

Yet, years later, when he was part of the team developing the first Mac those apparently frivolous lessons kicked in to help him come up with the idea of having different typefaces and fonts.  It was a minor innovation but it revolutionised the world of personal computing and beyond.

As Leslie puts it, “the more we know, the better we are at thinking”.

Broader View
Does this mean that football coaches should be taking random courses in the hope that something that they come across there might come in useful in the future?  Of course not.

Yet there is much that coaches can learn by being curious at what is happening in other sport, to come up with one obvious example.  There is much to admire and think about if you spend some time looking at the ideas that underpin the success of the All Black rugby side, for instance.  Or by examining the path that Sir Clive Woodward took to leading England to winning the World Cup.  

And that is only rugby.  The same can be said of other team sports like basketball or hockey.  Even individual sports like cycling and rowing have a richness of information and ideas.  Seeing what these do probably won’t provide immediate answers by they act as a fertiliser for the brain so that when you come across a challenge it will be primed to look beyond the boundaries of football for possible solutions.

Will all that can be found in such examinations be immediately useful for coaches?  Probably not, but they will sow seeds that will blossom when their time comes.

Steve Johnson, author of “Where Ideas Come From” calls this the slow hunch.  “Rather than coming out of the blue, we believe that the best ideas are the result of hours, days, sometimes even years, of digging into a subject and pursuing the hunches that slowly emerge as a result,” he says. 

Instead of focusing on the creation of ideas and trying to force them into being, one is better off focusing on understanding the relevant phenomenon in depth. Then it simply becomes a matter of being open to the ideas when they show up – be it in casual conversation, intense data crunching or, as sometimes in Mozart’s case, on a sleepless night.

The great thing, of course, is that today it is easier than ever before to get such information.
 Thanks to the internet there is a treasure trove of information that is easily accessible and available to everyone.  It doesn’t beat actually talking to individuals and learning from them or seeing them execute their strategies, but it is undoubtedly a great start.

And, indeed, if you want to make those individual connections the internet facilitates matters more than ever before.

Twitter, for instance, can be powerful tool for football coaches.  Through it they can make connections like never before and talk to fellow coaches who have different experiences to them.

This is a kind of curiosity that Leslie identified in Leondardo da Vinci, one of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind, who was a very social person talking to other experts to learn off them.  “People who are deeply curious are more likely to be good at collaboration,” Leslie writes.  “They seek new acquaintances and allies in the process of building their stock of cultural knowledge.

But it isn’t just renaissance Italian thinkers who acted in this manner.  Look at most of the top managers in the history of the game – particularly over the past three decades – and you will find that they spent some time travelling to see how top teams prepare.  Many will tell you that this was a valuable part of their education, as it provided them with insights and ideas that they would eventually use to develop their own philosophy.

The willingness to make such trips – or at least a determined and sustained desire to see what is happening elsewhere - is vital.  When we think of great people, those who have made the biggest breakthroughs in science, we immediately assumed that what made them different is their intelligence.  That, however, is partly correct.  Because, whilst intelligence does play a vital role it is not an exclusive factor.

Indeed, there have undoubtedly been more intelligent people who haven’t managed to make such contributions.  A hungry mind, one which eagerly looks for information, is vital.  This was determined by Sophie von Stumm, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmitshs University, who through a series of studies, proved that intellectual curiosity – “the tendency to seek out, engage in and pursue opportunities for effortful cognitive activity” – is as important as intelligence.

And if Pep Guardiola felt that he needed to see how Marcelo Bielsa worked before launching his own project at Barcelona, why should anyone else hold back from fostering and expressing such curiosity?

This article was largely inspired by Ian Leslie’s book ‘Curious’ and by discussions with the author himself who kindly agreed to be a beta-reader.  A second part of this article will focus on the need for coaches to foster curiosity among their players.  

For full disclosure purposes it is noted that a copy of Curious was provided by the books’ publisher. Also, a small fraction of any book purchased by following the links in this piece make their way back to Blueprint for Football.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: Let’s Talk Soccer by Gerard Jones

Often what distinguishes a good coach from one that isn’t as capable isn’t their knowledge of the game – most tend to go to the same courses and have access to the same information – but their ability to put their message across.  Because ultimately it isn’t important how knowledgeable each individual coach is, what is important is how much of that knowledge he can transfer to the players in his charge.

Yet that step in the coaching process often tends to be forgotten or overlooked.  Indeed it is often assumed that a coach will be able to deliver his sessions in an effective manner.  To be fair, this isn’t something that happens only in football: in corporate culture, for instance, it isn’t uncommon to see people who were very good at their job getting a promotion only to then fail miserably because they weren’t capable of delegating work to others or explaining what needed to be done.

It is why there is a whole industry that provides leadership seminars.

Not in football, however, where the problem tends to be ignored.

It is for such reasons that books like Let’s Talk Soccer by Gerard Jones are important.  It provides coaches with a set of ideas and templates for how to communicate during their sessions that will help them look at what they are currently doing and then identify what they could be doing better.

Some of what Jones says might appear obvious - for instance, the starting point for every coach is to determine what his ideas are so that he can better frame the messages he wants to put out – yet that does not mean that such practices are common place.  Often, coaches have a rough idea of how they would like their team to play but not really a solid overall view that incorporates different scenarios and talent level.  Without such a clear idea, it is difficult for the message to be anything other than confused.

In general, however, this book is bursting with intelligent and practical ideas.  The cornerstone of Jones communicating philosophy is game calls – calls by players to tell those around them what they should do – and this is explained in thorough detail as is how it should be implemented.  There is also a look at a number of other ideas like the non-verbal communication of a coach, how a message is delivered and how best to solicit feedback from the players.

In other words, it provides coaches with a wide range of ideas about communication in the game, ideas that will get them thinking and, hopefully, improving how they talk with their players.

If you want to read more on the subject of communication in football, check out our interview with Gerard Jones here.

A review copy of this book was provided by the author.  If you purchase the book by following the links in this article, a tiny fraction of the overall price will be given to Blueprint for Football, thus helping in the running of this site.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way – Comparing AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord

By Kevin Graham

This is the final in a three part series with the first parts – dealing with AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord – can be found here and here respectively.

The two clubs were different in many ways, particularly so on the following:

The amount of football, and training in particular, the kids get at the two clubs differs greatly due largely to Verheijen's influence and physical periodisation methods at Feyenoord.

Feyenoord believe in 11v11 team development from a young age whilst AZ only work on that intently in the latter stages of the players' journey through the academy.

AZ take a more holistic approach to development and utilise a more comprehensive and innovative range of methods to support each player's journey.

Feyenoord place more value on experienced coaches most of whom have played professionally.  They also embrace young players with challenging characters and difficult behaviour whereas AZ appear to recruit more responsible, well behaved and conventional kids.

The environments and communities that form the backdrop to the two clubs are very different - Rotterdam's more industrial and gritty profile contrasts greatly with the relatively privileged and sleepy feel of Alkmaar, and this was reflected in the two clubs' academy environments.

Despite getting the clear contrasts evident there were a number of similarities between the two clubs:

The recognition that talent alone is not sufficient for a player to develop into what he is capable of becoming, and that players must recognise the value of hard work from a young age.

Both clubs recognised the need to supply the first team with a steady stream of academy graduates and that some of those would be sold to ensure the long term financial viability of the whole club.

Neither club wrapped the players in cotton wool and key criteria for measuring development focussed on the player’s ability to make independent decisions on and off the pitch.

Both clubs invest heavily in the relationships with local amateur clubs.

Relationships with the players' school seemed to be very joined up with the school
supporting the players’ football development and the clubs supporting their education (one first team squad member at Feyenoord was once told by the club not to attend football activities until his grades improved sufficiently - a year later!).

Both academies took a long term view when it came to developing players - they are patient with players and staff, which leads to a very stable environment compared to many UK academies.

Regardless of the development focus, results matter at all age groups!

How do they compare with the English approach?
The general consensus from those in the travelling party who work in the professional game was that there was nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary in the coaching methods or football development agenda. I think the differences between what we saw in Holland and what we see in UK academies lies largely in the environments and cultures of the two respective countries.

As with any observation exercise, there are ideas and concepts from the trip that we as coaches can all reflect on. For me, the benefits of team development driving individual development in an 11v11 context were clear to see at Feyenoord - because of the small sided game preference driven by the FA, it is something that has largely been frowned upon in England, considered by many to be an aged concept. 

Similarly, the value placed on winning games, even at a young age, in Holland would probably be frowned upon in England but it feels to me like the Dutch strike the right balance between development and winning and perhaps we have gone too far in our attempt to impress the point that winning is not the be all and end all. 

I also found it quite interesting that neither club placed much emphasis on the use of overloads in training sessions, something we see a lot of in the UK, and again this stems from their belief that everything should be considered in an 11v11 context to replicate the challenges in a competitive match.

I would add that the FA's 4 corner model and it's reflection throughout coaching ideology in England seems to be more engrained than it is in Holland - AZ's approach is viewed as quite revolutionary but it doesn't appear to be any more advanced than the methods deployed in much of the English Academy system. 

It's also important to note that there is no Dutch equivalent to the EPPP - the respective clubs are not constrained by compliance and so can progress with a model much more of their own design. That explained the reason for some of the differences between the two clubs and it just felt right to me. I’m sure many English Academy coaches suffering with writer's cramp will agree!

The Dutch Eredivisie is not nearly as strong in commercial terms as the English Premier League. There is an acceptance that players will leave Dutch football for financial reasons but rather than be bitter and twisted about that, the Dutch clubs use that to invest in their own development. The fact that the Dutch league is not so competitive in terms of finance and commercial might means that patience, stability and a long term view on the development of both players and clubs alike are the order of the day.

I think placing the Academy at the heart of a football club's vision and values works in Holland. I also think it can work in England for all but the elite - by that I mean the Champions' League contenders. That said, while English football clubs continue to be courted by potential owners with vast financial resources, it's unlikely that we'll see a massive cultural shift. 

Regardless, what we saw was a sustainable business model built on the back of academies that know how to develop young players. It was more pragmatic, less creative and less free spirited than I expected it to be, and you could even argue some of the methods were old school. But crucially, it is working.

Final Words
Travelling with this group of coaches proved to be a fantastic opportunity in itself - sharing ideas and experiences with coaches from all sorts of different backgrounds was a great learning experience in itself.  Euro Football Tours and Events who organised this trip are on Twitter.

If you're interested in Kevin's views on football and coaching, he was one of those featured in our e-book Blueprint According To...Volume 1 (US version here).

Monday, June 1, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way – A Trip to Feyenoord

Feyenoord is a feeling 
By Kevin Graham

This is the second in a three part series with the first part – dealing with AZ Alkmaar – can be found here.  Next week, Kevin Graham will compare the two academies.

After a low key evening spent talking football with the rest of the party, we headed to Rotterdam early the next day for a 9am start at Varkenoord, Feyenoord’s large training complex which stands in the shadows of the club's De Kuip Stadium.

Melvin Boel, a former U18 lead coach who now fulfils the role of International Development Coach, gave us an introduction before we headed out to see some sessions.  Boel's role was created as a direct consequence of Feyenoord’s model becoming so well recognised globally, due in no small part to the fact that 10 of the players in the Dutch squad at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were Varkenoord graduates.  Impressive stuff, and to underline just how well regarded the club’s academy is, they have won the Rinus Michels award for the last 5 years.

It became clear very quickly that Feyenoord's approach was different to AZ's, despite the fact that their academy success was also born out of financial necessity after financial difficulties at the club in 2009.  The influence of Raymond Verheijen has had a considerable effect on the academy's approach to development.  

Verheijen's belief in physical periodisation has led to the club's academy recruits only training 4 times a week and training for shorter, but more focussed, periods.  This combined with an enhanced focus on physical conditioning using specialist staff has led to less injuries and better performance when compared to other clubs’ players towards the end of the season when tired players start to burn out and performance levels drop.

In terms of football philosophy, the belief in replicating 11v11 wherever possible influences Dutch football in general, but even more so at Feyenoord.  Such is the belief in that approach that Feyenoord have refused to follow the rest of Dutch football (and Ajax appear to be the thought leading influence there) in playing 8 a side football at the ages of 11/12 and instead enter their U11/12 teams in 11 a side leagues against U13 sides from amateur clubs.  At Feyenoord, player development occurs as a consequence of team development.  Boel suggested that “playing together” is the preference over individual development exercises.

The environment at Feyenoord felt very different to the one we experienced at AZ - Rotterdam is a harsher, more industrial community.  The kids that Feyenoord recruit are often from more deprived backgrounds and football can be the ticket out of poverty for some.  As such, some of the boys are more challenging and less inclined to conform, but this is something the club embraces.  

Jan Gosgens, the academy's U18 lead coach, explained that the street footballer with a challenging behaviour is often the profile the club looks for.  One such example is Robin van Persie, as Gosgens explained.  A challenging kid who had his share of issues, Gosgens recalled that Van Persie attributes the environment at Varkenoord where he enjoyed his football as much as anywhere in his career, as the reason he has developed both into a successful player and person.  

Gosgens also suggested that the club's policy for recruiting coaching staff has a major part to play in the way they handle tougher kids, and that their preference is for older coaches with plenty of coaching and playing experience.  Gosgens has been with the club's academy for 7 years - stability for players and coaches alike is evident.  The club's integration with amateur football also shone through - and the importance of Feyenoord staff influencing grass roots football in Rotterdam was stated very clearly.

There was plenty going on across the huge training complex, and we observed a mix of sessions including an U12s session which seemed to have rather more players waiting in line on a technical practice than many of our party were accustomed to, an U17s/U18s training game which included some triallists from Guatemala, and U16s session that formed part of one of the coaches' UEFA A Youth award assessment and, perhaps most entertaining, an U19s session on shooting run by former Bayern Munich and Feyenoord striker Roy Makaay.  

Gosgens and Boel had explained the club's philosophy on football - primarily 4-3-3 with quick tempo and lots of movement - but had underlined that each coach has a blank canvas when it comes to session planning and the content in their training periodisation.  The decision making freedom and empowering coaching style Boel referred to wasn't as evident as I'd expected but perhaps the sessions on this day simply weren’t an accurate reflection of the overall syllabus.  Regardless, the football coaching agenda seemed to be more basic, old school almost, than you would see in English academies these days.

Boel made one comment that stuck in my mind - “Feyenoord is a feeling”.  He was describing the culture that affects a multitude of aspects of the club, but the bearing on the academy was important.  The club's fans are very important - working class people who are fervent in their support.  Feyenoord players need to recognise their responsibility to the club.  Talent alone is not enough - the willingness to work hard for the team over yourself is absolutely vital.  Team development over individual development could be a mantra at Varkenoord - and yet it produces outstanding individuals all the same.

Feyenoord's academy is just as important as the first team - this is clear.  Whilst the previous first team manager Ronald Koeman worked well with the academy staff, the inference was that the current manager Fred Rutten does not.  Rutten is leaving the club this summer to be replaced by a famous Varkenoord graduate, Gio van Bronckhurst.  Go figure!

More information about the structure at the Feyenoord academy can be found here.  Kevin Graham can be found talking about football on Twitter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Blueprint for Football Digest [Issue 22]

This is just a snippet of the digest that subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive every Monday evening.  If you too want to receive the all links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

"Players Want to Play not Listen to Coaches Talking!"
Whilst football academies like to think that they do everything possible to source the best young players, the sad truth is that there are certain areas – those which are considered as bad neighbourhoods – which often tend to be ignored.  For all their professionalism,  they ultimately rely on a strong family background – to provide them with the right nutrition, for instance - and at least one parent who is willing to regularly drive them to and from training.  Inherently, in doing so they are ruling out children from backgrounds that do not conform with this.

In truth, it also takes a special kind of coach in order to know how to put the message across to children from such backgrounds.  Tony McCool is one such coach.  He is a strong advocate of the need for clubs to truly look everywhere for talent and has the experience needed in dealing with those that others would term as problematic.

In this insightful interview, he talks about his experience and his views are bound to help any coach looking for new ideas on the art of coaching.

The grass is my office…
Goalkeepers are different.  So wrote Brian Glanville and, as always, the wise man of football writing was right.

You have to be different to be a goalkeeper.  Your basic function – that of stopping goals from being scored – means that you are the only one allowed to break one of the most basic rules of the game, that of playing with your hand rather than your feet.  

If everyone is in agreement that goalkeepers are different, then, it follows that the coaching they receive has to be different as well.  Yet that wasn’t always the case and it is only over the past two decades that we have been seeing not only first teams put in place specialised goalkeeping coaches but also youth teams.

David Coles is someone who has witnessed this change, first as a player himself and now as a coach.  In this interview he talks about his work – including why he asks his goalkeepers to study DVD of players they are about to face – and how the grass is his office.

England’s Special One
I don’t know about you but, as this season draws to a close I’m already looking forward to next August when most of the major leagues kick off once again.  I have to admit that I am particularly intrigued to see how Bournemouth will do in the Premier League next season having heard so much about them during recent weeks.

In particular, I’m intrigued by their manager Eddie Howe.  At thirty seven, his career has already been packed with achievements and his studious nature augurs well for the future.  

Quote of the Week
If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you'll never enjoy the sunshine” Morris West

Monday, May 25, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way: A Coach's Trip to AZ Alkmaar

Make the Dream Come True
By Kevin Graham

Ever since the phrase “Total Football” football was coined in the 1960s and 70s, the rest of the footballing world has put Holland on a pedestal as a prolific producer of talented young players.  Whilst the style of player produced has probably become slightly more pragmatic these days, there is no doubt that the opportunity to visit two top academies from Eredivisie clubs is one not to be missed.

The former Brentford, Grimsby and Exeter striker Murray Jones has developed a fantastic model to provide coaches with just that opportunity.  Jones - who also coaches at QPR’s Academy - developed his company Euro Football Tours and Events to do this and working with their partner in Holland, Total Soccer Tours, provided 40 coaches with 2 fantastic days visiting AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord.

I have to confess that as I made my way down the M1 to Luton Airport, I had some preconceived ideas and expectations about what I was about to see.  I had visions of a production line of young players being given a ball and a largely “go play” mandate from the academies, a bohemian kind of football I’d envisaged that focussed almost solely on technical creativity and expression, with a light sprinkling of tactical freedom to go where they felt necessary in the context of a game situation.  

I was largely wrong, and what I found was two very different ways of producing and developing talent - and they are without doubt producing the goods on that score - but using a range of methods, some of which have been dismissed by the English game as antiquated or of little benefit.  It challenged our way of working on a number of levels.

The visiting party arrived at AZ Alkmaar’s Academy complex less than a mile from the club’s AZ Stadium and we were immediately met by the club’s Head of Performance and Development, Marijn Beuker.  AZ are a small club in comparison with the traditional giants of the Dutch game but have experienced success fairly recently, due largely to the funds provided by one man in the 1990s and 2000s.  

When that one man went bankrupt, the club had to face some harsh financial realities and as a result, the last 5 years have largely been about restructuring a club and developing a model that is sustainable - the club's reliance on the academy being absolutely critical - underlined by the fact that 10 of the current first team squad are homegrown.

Beuker gave us a great presentation on the club’s philosophy and goals.  Working with the end in mind was a theme that ran through everything they do, whether that’s as a club, a team or as an individual player or coach.  Given the air of financial austerity, AZ look to distinguish themselves with knowledge and content because they can’t do so with finance.  The fact that the club has hired Billy Bean - he of “Moneyball” fame - as an advisor gives you some insight into their strategy.

In terms of player development, AZ look to produce independent thinkers who take responsibility for their own development and who, crucially, really understand the game.  Tactical awareness and decision making on the pitch are key.  As such, the coaching style is very much an empowering one - there is no shouting and very little instruction.  Challenges are made to the players but coaches welcome their feedback and encourage them to find their own solutions to a problem they encounter.  Reflection on performance is important and consequences must be acknowledged.  The output is measured using a range of materials and methods - players cannot argue with the facts and must take ownership to address problems.

The support the players and coaches receive is considerable - the use of advanced football analytics, sports science and psychological/social support structures means that there are no excuses, but the players must often engage proactively to get what they need.  For example, a player struggling with a recurring injury is encouraged to seek support from a range of different resources to help address the issue and the appointments must be organised by him, not the coaches.

These resources also help the coaches to manage talent effectively.  The players’ progress is very closely monitored and issues like biological age are considered very important.  Late developers are cherished and patience is applied - many top players have late birth dates in the school year and the fact that they don’t appear on the radar of top Dutch and English clubs’ scouts due to physical limitations is a benefit to a club looking to develop and profit from their talent production line.

The players train 8 times a week, with a competitive games schedule in addition - and the latest league tables are displayed around the training ground for all to see.  Whilst the club is patient and development over a longer period is accepted, results on a weekend remain at the forefront of their mind at all times.

In terms of style, the club's de facto set up is 4-3-3, keeping possession is critical but playing forward at speed if at all possible, and they look to press high with intensity to regain possession.  Transition and the recognition of transition is key - I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that before so no major surprises, particularly given the Dutch preference for 4-3-3.

Academy Director Aloys Wijnker gave us a very good insight into what is clearly a very stable model and one they truly believe in.  Many of the coaches at the Academy have been there for years, and Wijnker recognised the importance of developing coaches just as much as players.  

Caspar Dekker, the club’s U17 Coach, put on a defensive session for us to observe and then later, once we’d had the opportunity to quiz him on the session and his methods, explained his journey as a coach.  As someone who had been recruited from Amateur football, he recognised that his style has completely changed during his 8 years at the club.  From a ball focussed shouter to a patient, reflective and guiding influence, it was clear that his passion was for developing young players.  This was underlined when he stated his ambition was not to become 1st team manager but Academy Director.  

Wijnker was keen to stress that whilst they were very open and transparent about their approach, the difference between good and great development is in the personal touch, the relationships and the guidance his coaches provide the players.

Another key factor for AZ is their focus on developing strong links with local amateur clubs - they recognise the importance of working with and sometimes within these clubs to get the right recruitment culture and to ensure that these clubs form an extension of the academy with the same vision and approach.  

This is even more important when you consider that players only come into the academy at the age of 11.  The relationship with the players' school is also a priority for the AZ academy and it's clear that they manage the environment well to maximise the players’ opportunity to develop.

The sessions that we saw (U17s and U12s) were both really well structured but nothing particularly ground breaking in terms of content.  The responsibility and maturity of the players was very evident, as was their will to win.  

The U12s play with a lighter size 5 ball and next year will play twin games in an 8 a side format against other clubs before moving up to 11 a side the year after.  Position specific responsibility is not really impressed until the age of 15 though they encourage the natural development of a player as positional awareness develops and the process naturally makes positional preferences clear.  

Whilst AZ are not a rich club, they seem to get the best out of their resources and the vision is one that everyone at the academy clearly buys into.  The walls inside are adorned with pictures of successful AZ teams and the motto ‘Maak je drommen waar' - make the dream come true.  With 30 AZ based internationals between the current U15 to U21 national age groups, it is clear that the model is well established and has been working for some time.  

There was nothing particularly ground breaking, though I would argue that the sum of the parts, and the belief in the approach, felt quite refreshing.  The quiet assurance and confidence in knowing that the Academy is just as important, if not more important, than the 1st team is evident.  

There is a nice balance between being demanding with players and being patient enough to allow them to develop over a longer period of time.  There was precious little arrogance or ego on show, the welcome was very warm and open but you left feeling that this place was going to continue to produce Dutch internationals for years to come.

Barely a week after visiting the club, AZ were awarded with the prestigious Rinus Michels award for the best academy in Dutch football for the first time, underlining just what a privilege it had been to be there.

This is the first in a three part series.  Next week, Kevin Graham will talk about his visit to Feyenoord.  If you're interested in Kevin's views on football and coaching, he was one of those featured in our e-book Blueprint According To...Volume 1 (US version here).