Monday, August 20, 2012
Ever since Blueprint for Football was launched, we've been surprised by the level of support that we've found. Not just in terms of hits - which have at times exceeded our wildest expectations - but also in people willing to help out.
Through Blueprint for Football we've also made a good number of friends. One of these is Craig Easton, the former Dundee United, Leyton Orient, Swindon and Scotland Under 21 midfielder who is currently at Torquay. Craig is someone with a huge interest in youth football and when we published our article looking at the secrets of Kenyan distance runners and trying to apply them to football, he sent us an e-mail congratulating us on the piece.
But it was more than a simple e-mail: it was an analysis of what we'd written viewed from the eyes of someone who has really experience football. As such, we felt compelled to share it with you (naturally, with his blessing). Here then, are Craig Easton's views on whether the secrets of Kenyan running can be applied to football:
I think you highlight a lot of interesting factors which are part of the make-up of a Kenyan distance runner that could be helpful in a lot of sports and why not football?
I totally agree about the part about Active Childhood. I think that can definitely play a part in a player’s base fitness. I'm very lucky that I have a high level of 'natural fitness' and I'm sure that's in large part due to the amount of running about I did as a kid. I was never off the streets playing football and used to run to school - I even ran home for my lunch every day! I'm sure the Kenyan kids run a little bit further than I used to but the principles are similar.
There are cases where the motivation is similar also. For some kids who live in poverty in Britain, they might see professional football as their only chance of getting out of a bad area or helping their family but you're right, that's the case for the majority of Kenyans so I agree that the motivation is there for most of their athletes from a young age.
The thing I find hard to draw comparisons with between individual sports/events is work rate. For one there is a certain skill level needed to play football even at a basic level so even if you work really hard at improving there is probably a certain level each individual can get to within in their own realm of natural ability. I think in individual sports where the athlete is often getting one on one coaching, they can improve more and in many sports it's more about the determination and dedication to training which will do this.
I find that in football, you could blag it more and natural ability will carry you a lot further. Players who work harder are not necessarily rewarded especially in a team sport where a lot of the control is out of their hands. Sometimes I wish I did an individual sport as I know that the level of my work rate would be more proportionately linked to my success or failure which I could handle better, rather than it being in the hands of managers or even worse chairmen who haven't got a clue. I'm thinking about doing a future piece on this linked to the fact that a lot of footballers haven't got a clue about what proper hard work is.
Saying that, I think we're becoming more professional in our approach. When I was in the youth team at Dundee United, I remember getting stick from teammates for wanting to stay behind to do extra or going to the gym in the afternoon! That attitude seems to be changing but players need help from coaches that encourage this but in the end, it's a personal attitude to improve and more players need to have this. It's second nature for these Olympic athletes.
Once again Paul, very thought provoking stuff and I like the way you link in the Barcelona approach to coaching young players to take risks from an early age which I think you highlight brilliantly in the fact that this becomes second nature to them. When I was youth team age (under-18's) it was guaranteed that I would get the shout "Easty don't run with the ball" at least once a game - ridiculous now that I think back on it!
Monday, August 13, 2012
This article by John Sinnott originally appeared in Issue Three of football quarterly The Blizzard. All Issues of The Blizzard are available to download on a pay-what-you-like basis in a variety of formats from The Blizzard (www.theblizzard.co.uk)
Football, Johan Cruyff said, is a game you play with your brain. Michel Bruyninckx takes that claim more seriously than most. Terms like pedagogy, didactical principles, cognitive readiness and differential learning trip off the Belgian coach’s tongue as easily as catenaccio as he explains his "brain centred learning" approach to training young players. “When you make use of difficult words people feel resentment,” said the Standard Liège* academy director, who is arguably the first football coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain’s performance. “But when you see the training you can see it works.”
Bruyninckx is talking in his office in the €18million state-of-the-art Academie Robert Louis-Dreyfus, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe. Located in the Saint-Jean forest just up the road from the club's Stade de Sclessin, the academy has a futuristic feel, particularly when set aganst the fading industry of Liège. It is an appropriate setting for a coach who is as comfortable talking about neuroscience as he is about football tactics.
The idea behind his approach is simple — to make players think as quickly with their brains as they kick the ball with their feet. “We need to develop an engram — a neurological track — in the brain,” said Bruyninckx, who aims for his players to be in a state of “conscious” learning at all times when they are training and playing. It is about creating new connections in the brain’s circuitry and hard wiring them in. Key to this is the part played by myelin, an insulating material that forms a layer — the myelin sheath — usually around only the axon of a neuron and which gets thicker when the nerve is repeatedly stimulated. “What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire. That's what makes them different from the rest of us," George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at UCLA, told Daniel Coyle of the New York Times in 2007.
The attraction of developing more intelligent players would seem obvious for any self-respecting football coach, but the high drop-out rate — “In England we’ve judged players by the time they are 17 or 18,” said the Southampton scout David Webb — suggests the world of youth development in Britain could do with a little more blue sky thinking. And why are they being rejected at such an early age when the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25?
But it’s not just the high wastage rate. In the 2008-09 season 57% of players at Premier League academies were born between September and December, while 14% had their birthday between May and August. That suggests that the more physically mature children in any given school year are being selected by clubs, which in turn means an English Lionel Messi (born June) or Andrès Iniesta (born May) is unlikely to be turning up any time soon. “We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain,” said Bruyninckx, warming to his theme. “Think of what Real Madrid experienced during el Clásico when they were beaten 5-0 by Barcelona last season. This requires high concentration and creativeness, which is only possible if you bring the brain into a conscious process of performing. A new way of training — actually synaptogenesis — creating new brain connections.”
Bruyninckx is not the only coach advocating more intelligent and innovative approaches to training. “I think that coaches either forget, or don't even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin. “We've got to develop the players' brains as well as their bodies but it's much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player's physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”
The worry for McGreskin, who delivers workshops to professional clubs, is that for too long England has been coaching players in “pretty much the same way, but expecting the end product to be different and thinking somehow talent will magically appear.”
The drills Bruyninckx uses — “in five years I don't think I've used the same drills three times” — start off simply but grow in complexity to foster concentration and touch. This idea of “overload” ensures that the players are more actively involved during an exercise even when they are not on the ball. The pre-eminence of the team over the individual is key for Bruyninckx — “we have to do it together” is one of his mantras — and as he shows a video of players performing various training routines he jokes that what they are is doing is football’s equivalent of social media networking.
“Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision,” said Bruyninckx. “Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match.”
The idea of overload is as key for McGreskin as it is for Bruyninckx. While the Belgian might get his players to speak in four different languages when they are doing strength and conditioning work, the Scot has devised one exercise in which players have to throw a tennis ball and call out colours while they are passing a football in sequence. “We are not providing kids with the challenges that they need to meet the demands of the modern game,” said McGreskin, who has recently started a project working with the Partick Thistle first team. “Overload exercises help the player speed up the feet and the thought process.”
McGreskin argues the decision making of too many players is not quick enough, a weakness that is caused by their inability to scan the pitch when they are without the ball. It is a view supported by research carried out by Professor Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Using Sky Sports' PlayerCam function, Jordet examined 55 Premier League midfielders’ head movements and found that the more these players scanned their surroundings, the statistically more successful they were with their passes. “The visually most active third of the players completed almost twice as many forward passes as the least active players,” said Jordet.
McGreskin added, “Don’t forget almost 98% of the game is played off the ball. Even in a basic passing drill I force the players to work on perception, scanning skills, technique, adjustability, concentration, attention focus and attention bandwidth. It's quite amazing the effect it can have on players.”
Bruyninckx is the first to admit that he is a bit of an outsider — "when Darwin was talking about evolution people thought he was crazy” — but this summer the Belgian got a foot firmly inside the football establishment's door when he was appointed head of Standard’s youth academy. His growing reputation has led to a couple of meetings with Real Madrid, including one with José Mourinho, an interesting development given the way the Madrid club have lagged behind Barça in the development of young players. “Mourinho immediately understood what I’m trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions,” said Bruyninckx. "He also noticed that the organisation of the drills requires a greater team involvement, more concentration, attention, a continuous inciting of perception and that intelligent playing could grow a lot. I was most of all surprised by the fact he could instantly see how several technical details would be in favour of his players and the straight coupling of the contents of several drills to his players' individual characteristics was striking. He was not talking about a general programme but processed directly the new insights to his daily training and coaching. He cares a lot about his players."
Before his appointment at Liège, Bruyninckx was coaching youngsters between the age of 12 and 19 who were affiliated to first and second division Belgian clubs such as Mechelen, Westerlo, Anderlecht, Sint-Truiden, OHL Leuven, Vise and KVK Tienen. The youngsters, both boys and girls, had been selected by the Belgian football federation and studied at Redingenhof secondary school near Brussels. Now Bruyninckx is at an institution which has a very different raison d’être — to produce football players who will help Standard win the Jupiler League before they are — more than likely — snapped up by other European clubs.
With five grass pitches as well as an 800-seater stadium, an artificial pitch, a covered training area and a luxury hotel with 30 rooms, the Liège academy, which opened in 2007, is much in demand. Since arriving at Liège, Bruyninckx has received approaches from hundreds of young players from all over the world wanting to come and train with the Belgian club. For weekend matches it is not unusual for 40 agents to be watching games.
Bruyninckx’s appointment at Liège followed the arrival of the club’s new coach José Riga, another advocate of brain training, who used it when he was coach of the second division club CS Vise. "It's such an intelligent way to learn," said Riga of his academy director’s approach. "The exercises are always based on geometrical figures such as rectangles or diamonds. They start off simply but increase in complexity. You have to be running at the same time and looking to see your partners' rhythm. You need to think about putting the ball at a certain angle and you have to think about rhythm, synchronisation and movement. It's not repetition without reflection.”
Bruyninckx emphasises that each drill makes use of “tracing” which forces players to reposition themselves as they would in a game. “My organisation is always referring to the reality of a game,” he said. He insists that the work he does as a coach incorporates many other aspects — kinesiology, psychology, biomechanics — while his players also train with the rhythmic ball — a small net with room for a football that is then held by the hand to ensure that the ball always stays close to a player — to maximise the number of touches.
Geoff Noonan, who is Fulham academy co-ordinator for the Under-7 to Under-11 age groups, decided to order 150 of the balls for his players after meeting Bruyninckx at a conference in May. “The rhythmic ball helps to open the hips, and is good for passes across your body, side-on volleys as well as helping a player’s weaker foot,” said Noonan. “It also allows kids to practise at home and helps them to balance both the left and right sides. The idea of home practice is really useful — we've lost that culture of kids playing impromptu games on their own and the rhythmic ball provides a way of replacing that.”
Barcelona players’ high technical level and non-stop movement provide the benchmark for Bruyninckx, but Noonan argues that Barça’s recent success as well as Spain’s Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs are linked to the number of games Spanish youngsters play. “Having visited Spain the way the game is learned over there is not by drills, because that doesn't teach game sense,” said Noonan. “In Spain they learn through a games-based approach to help develop and understand time and space. They might play 80-120 games a year, with lots of matches at tournaments and festivals. Playing so many games helps young players to see images in similar situations over and over again. What we need to do is give the kids a good game sense — understanding time and space — and develop good technique. We need lots of games and lots of different types of games — 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 7 v 6 etc — with lots of different tactics.”
Noonan has brought in the consultant and author Mick Critchell, who in the past has coached Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Southampton’s Adam Lallana, and has carried out research in the way the brain works. Critchell is an advocate of this approach based on small-sided games — in essence a way of replicating street football — and provides a scientific explanation to support his argument. During a two-hour exploration of the brain’s workings and its development from birth until it has fully formed, encompassing an in-depth look at its reptilian, limbic, neo-cortex and corpus callosum structures, Critchell explains that while the left side provides logical and rational skills, the right side is the resource for more emotional and intuitive skills.
He argues that the game in England has been taught through the left brain, which is too slow for a fast-moving game like football, and that players develop best when the right and left brain are working together: the technique and the decision making. “It is essential to activate the right brain and analogous vision by continually putting players in unpredictable situations,” said Critchell, who walked out on an in-service evening when he saw the Cruyff turn broken down into 13 different parts. “We therefore need to teach small-sided games which are appropriate for the age and ability of each child.”
The 68-year-old Critchell references a piece of research by John Moores University that found that more than 50% of time in English academies is spent on fitness training or unopposed practices and less than 20% on playing small-sided games. “Not only are we developing poor technical players, said Critchell, “we are also creating poor decision makers. We need players who have the ability to play in the future — a vision to know what to do before receiving the ball. This won’t change unless we get rid of the drills.”
A former secondary-school teacher, Critchell talks of the importance of the brain’s place and grid cells — “space-mapping neurons linked to a memory-forming region in the brain called the hippocampus” — which allow players, indeed all humans, to map space. “In roughly 10 seconds, Paul Scholes will see a hundred alternatives and then make choices that will draw on his place and grid cells,” said Critchell. The grid cells “act as though the playing surface has got triangles marked out all over it,” he added. That makes the playing of small-sided games like 3 v 3 so important “as it allows players to understand that shape better”.
Listening to Critchell’s advice, Fulham have also introduced a movement programme for all their age groups. He points out that many African and South American children grow up in societies in which dance is a major part of culture. In dances like the samba and salsa, the brain has to coordinate eight or nine different body parts at the same time, which is great for balance, rhythm and body control. Noonan heard Bruyninckx speak at a conference organised by Bacons College academy, a secondary school in Docklands, the day before Barcelona's victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final in May. Over the last few years the former USSR international Sergei Baltacha has established a thriving football academy at Bacons College — a number of his players also train with London Premier League clubs — and has developed a close relationship with Bruyninckx.
The Belgian insists that his players be as committed to their education — “If I can affect your concentration and attention during my training you will take it to school” — as they are to their football development, a belief shared by Baltacha. “Keeping the athlete grounded will stop us from creating ‘Tin Sporting Gods’ who in their late teens or early twenties fail to reach their potential in and out of sport,” said Tom Eisenhuth, who works closely with Baltacha at Bacons College. “This model is the lifeblood of Sergei’s philosophy.”
Bruyninckx estimates 25% of the 100 or so players that he coached before joining Standard have turned professional or are in the women's national squads. The former Standard Liège midfielder Steven Defour, now at Porto, and the PSV Eindhoven attacking midfielder Dries Mertens are the two most high-profile players with whom the Belgian coach has worked. Another player Bruyninckx coached is the Belgium midfielder Faris Haroun, who joined Middlesbrough in the summer from Germinal Beerschot, scoring on his debut in the 3-1 win over Birmingham. On a trip to Belgium to meet Bruyninckx earlier this year, Haroun joined his mentor for lunch and happily sat through a two-hour Powerpoint presentation that included a hefty dollop of neuroscience. Haroun’s concentrated demeanour was noticeable.
Perhaps what really differentiates Bruyninckx from other coaches is that he is not only interested in creating better football players, but also wants to create better human beings so that if they do not make the grade professionally they will be capable of going on to have fulfilling lives. “It's all about having communication with your athletes and finding out how your players are organised,” said Bruyninckx. “It is important not to impose your ideas immediately. If a child has a recently divorced family, that child is not emotionally available to learn something. We all see present-day problems and that sometimes the social behaviour of players is not correct. We have to do it together.”
Talking to a number of interviewees who have had experience of youth development both in the UK and abroad, what is striking is the sense that European clubs have a more rigorous and analytical approach to coaching young players. Villarreal have 76 coaches working in their academy, all of whom have physical education and child development qualifications, while up to the age of 12 their players would be deployed in at least three different positions during a game. "In Europe there is a real understanding of a child's emotional development and where the kids have come from,” said Webb, who is currently studying for an MSc in Sports Psychology while scouting for Southampton, and has been a frequent visitor to Bayer Leverkusen’s academy. "I noticed there is more human and cultural understanding with foreign coaches. And there is a real understanding of the type of coaching kids need at certain ages. It's a very systematic and analytical approach to development.”
Over the last few years the exploration of how talent is best developed has seen a proliferation of books on the subject, notably Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, John Ratey’s and Eric Hagerman’s Spark and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. As Critchell notes, “Everybody is searching for the Holy Grail.” Given the millions that are at stake in developing players the search is only likely to intensify. Bruyninckx’s theories may seem strange now, but as that quest goes on they could become standard practice.
* Editorial note: Since this article was written, Michel Bruyninckx has moved toQatar to work with Aspire as part of WC 2022 preparations.
Blueprint for Football would like to thank everyone at The Blizzard magazine for allowing us to reproduce this article. Equally, we would like to encourage everyone to check out The Blizzard magazine as well as to follow John Sinnott on Twitter.
All issues of The Blizzard are available to download for PC/Mac, Kindle and iPad on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats. The Blizzard is a 190-page quarterly publication edited by Jonathan Wilson that allows writers the opportunity to write about the football stories that matter to them, with no limits and no editorial bias.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Ever since Wilson Kiprugut burst onto the scene to win a bronze medal in the 800m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1962, middle and long distance running has increasingly been the dominium of the Kenyans. Of the top twenty male and female runners from last years' World Marathon Majors rankings, thirteen were Kenyan. Such is their reputation that there is now no marathon worthy of that name that doesn't see at least a couple of Kenyan runners at the start line. Invariably, at the finish those same athletes tend to be among the winners.
It is a similar story at the Olympics. Kenyan runners won fourteen medals - six of which gold - in the twelve middle and long distance events held in Beijing. In the 3000m steeplechase, they won five of the six medals available. A similar haul is expected in London.
There are few instances in sport where one nation has so consistently produced champion athletes at all levels. Inevitably, such sustained success leads to questions as to what is at the heart of it. Key in the words "Kenyan Long Distance Running" into a search engine and you will be faced by tens of articles trying to answer that question.
Adharanand Finn is one of those who have made such an attempt, spending a year in Kenya which he subsequently chronicled in the excellent book Running with Kenyans.
For Finn and for many others those queries are borne of the desire to replicate such success in the field of athletics. Yet it would be foolhardy to believe that a system that has produced so much talent doesn't have traits that could be replicated by other sports.
And, although what parallels exist aren't always immediately obvious, there is plenty to learn for football.
A High Degree of Motivation
Adharanand's Thoughts: "When I hit the wall in a marathon, or even tire in a hard training session, part of me knows that ultimately it doesn’t matter. It is just a hobby. I like running fast, and I like running best times, but it won’t change my life. But for a Kenyan, particularly early in their career, winning even a small race can change everything – instead of a life of hard work and poverty, it can mean enough money to live comfortably, and bring status and respect from the community."
"Of course, when we talk about the very elite level, the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe, the motivation to succeed, to win world titles etc is the same for everyone. But in Kenya, even those further down the ladder of success are training and racing with an intense focus and determination."
The Blueprint Interpretation: When it comes to choosing between two individuals with roughly the same amount of talent, ultimately it is the one who wants it most who will win out. That desire to achieve, when translated to hard work and single-mindedness, is an absolutely vital ingredient for any successful athlete.
Similarly, any manager needs to ensure that his players are hungry for that success. Quite simply there can be no success without the right level of motivation.
For the Kenyans, that desire to do whatever is needed to succeed is forced upon them by the harshness of their environment. Winning in athletics, even modest sums, can literally transform their lives from struggling to make ends meet to a level of comparative richness. With such a potential reward, the hard work put in is a very small price to pay.
That is equally true in football but to a much lesser extent. A child growing up in England knows that he could become rich if he were to get to the top level of the game but, at the same time, he's also aware that he'll be pretty well off even if he doesn't make it in the game. The incentive is there, but it isn't quite as pronounced and the downside of failure isn't as sharp.
The 'secret': keep the children motivated and hungry to improve.
An Active childhood
Adharanand's Thoughts: "The truth is that even if say one family decided to give their children an active childhood, living without a TV, car etc, the chances of them becoming runners would still be very remote. In order for the active-childhood-effect to influence the number of top runners in a country, everybody needs to be doing it. And that is never going to happen in the west."
The Blueprint Interpretation: In Kenya, particularly in the Rift valley where most of the top runners come from, only a select few have commodities like family cars, televisions or game consoles. This means that everywhere they go has to be by foot and that recreation often takes the form of games that involve a lot of running about. The contrast with the west, where children are faced with every possible distraction aimed at getting them to permanently occupy their chairs, couldn't be starker.
Therefore, a lot of the stamina and athleticism that used to come naturally to players because they spent their childhood running about now has to be fostered through specialised training programmes.
The 'secret': introduce a training program that isn't just about football but which gives the children a good degree of aerobic flexibility.
Plenty of Role Models
Adharanand's Thoughts: "The abundance of role models is a huge factor in the continued success of the area. It encourages people to take up running seriously, and gives them the belief – expectation almost – that they too can be a great runner."
The Blueprint Interpretation: Kenya has produced so many fantastic long distance runners, and there are so many about, that it is only natural for those growing up to try and emulate them. Seeing those succesful athletes about makes them think "well, if they can do it then so can ""
It is the same in football. Cesc Fabregas came through the Barca system dreaming of taking Pep Guardiola's place in the team. No doubt, there is a whole generation who is looking to do better than Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernanez. At Ajax, a number of the club's former stars are employed with the youth teams giving the kids coming through constant reminders of what the Ajax system has produced and, at the same time, reinforcing their belief that they too will make it.
The 'secret': ensure that there are plenty of role models. Highlight success stories of players who have succeeded.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "When a Kenyan stands on the start line of a race in Europe and sees a sea of white faces, he already feels that he has a good chance of winning, and this mentality can only help him. Likewise, the European runners look at the Kenyan runner and most think, “Oh, God, I don’t have a hope” – which doesn’t help their cause."
The Blueprint Interpretation: There are countless examples across the world of sport (and beyond) that highlight the importance of confidence in any success; where that bit of added belief helps in making the right move at the right moment. There are just of many examples where that lack of confidence can kill any momentum from growing.
The years of long-distance dominance tells the Kenyans that they are good so they approach any race feeling that they can win. It makes a huge difference to performance.
Often, confidence is seen as a pretty individual state of being. Which is true but which does not mean that there is nothing that can be done about it. Most of Britain's highly successful track cycling team talk of the importance of Dr Steve Peters and how he helped them get over any non-pyhsical performance issues they had.
It is the same on a team basis. Barcelona make passing the ball around teams look so easy but, obviously, it isn't. There is a lot of skill involved but there is also confidence: in their own ability and in that of those around them. There is a huge risk in passing the ball around midfield with defenders also pushing high up the pitch yet there is a belief that this is the way to play the game and what will deliver the best results.
That belief filters down the system. Players at Barcelona's youth academy are taught to look for the pass and trained to deliver that passing with huge precision. Fundamentally there is a culture that encourages players to make a pass; to take a risk. It would be impossible for Barcelona's system to work if their players were instilled with a sense of fear; of not wanting to make a mistake.
The 'secret': foster an attitude that breeds and generates confidence. Mistakes are to be tollerated - not berated - as long as lessons are learned.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "The toughest races in the world – at some distances at least – are the local Kenyan races. So if you can come through those, beating hundreds of other Kenyans, the races in the west hold little fear."
The Blueprint Interpretation: Competition is sometimes seen as a dirty word in so far as youth sport is concerned. But whilst that might be true up till a certain age, eventually they have to learn that in order to win you have to compete. It is through such competition that you really get a sense of what a player is capable of achieving and how they fare not only in the skill department but also how they handle the mental side of the game.
Yet to really do that the competition must be against teams who are either as good or better than you. And the competition must be varied. Playing against teams that all adopt the same system doesn't allow you learn how to vary your approach something which is also a critical skill.
The 'secret': challenge your players with tough competition.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "The camps provide an intensely focussed environment for running – there are no distractions, not even family. Everything is about running and nothing else. It also provides a group of people to train with, which makes the training easier but also more fun, which is important, The athletes generally have fun in the camps and running is not a chore, but just a part of daily life which they all do without a single word of complaint – not even in jest."
"Young athletes don’t generally enter the camps until they’re at least 18, although there are a few camps for junior athletes that run during the school holidays. The importance of running in Kenya’s Rift Valley is such, however, that some schools are almost like running camps for the talented young athletes, with school teams often training daily."
The Blueprint Interpretation: Although there are a number of similar examples in the world of football - Clairefontaine and La Masia being the prime ones - the real take-away from the Kenyan running camps is that it is important for the athletes to be focused and they are able to train without distractions. Such an environment is easier to achieve if it is completely controlled.
The 'secret': do whatever possible to ensure that your players are focused and can train without distractions.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "(Apart from ugali) they also eat a like of rice, beans and vegetables. It is a high carbohydrate diet with very little fat. While not perfect, it is a good diet for athletes. What is key, though, is that this is the diet eaten by everyone, not just the athletes. It means you have an entire population raised on an athlete’s diet – which means fewer talented athletes wasting their talent due to bad diet. It also means the athletes don’t feel bad or deprived because they are eating like this, it is just normal food to them."
The Blueprint Interpretation: A lot of focus of those who look at the Kenyans to determine why they do so well is based on the food that they eat: ugali. This is a dish of maize flour cooked with water to a porridge like consistency. There is nothing special about it but this hasn't stopped people testing it in order to determine whether in it lies the secret of the Kenyans.
It's secret, if you can call it that, is that it is a high carbs foodstuff that provides plenty of energy. The same can be said to the rest of the Kenyan diet. Meaning that the athletes don't have to change their eating habits - with all the struggle that might bring with it, draining away energy that should be focused elsewhere - when they get to focus their attention on their sport.
The 'secret': ensure that your players appreciate the value of proper nutrition and make sure that they are provided with it.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "Learning skills from an early age certainly helps, in most fields of life, and this (barefoot running) is one skill advantage the Kenyans have over virtually everyone in the west."
The Blueprint Interpretation: There has been a lot of attention to the fact that for most of their childhood, Kenyans don't wear shoes and this too has been seen as their 'secret'. So much that a whole sub-industry seems to be growing round the barefoot running phenomenon.
What studies there have been, however, show that this moving about barefoot helps in developing a more efficient - from a posture point of view - way of running. So much that even when they do get shoes, such a running style is already ingrained in the athletes and they do not alter it.
Naturally, for football you would not expect any player to play barefoot. But there is still a lesson here, which is that some skills have to be learned at a very early age. Those same skills used to come naturally to those who spent their early childhood playing football in the streets but the increase in traffic means that this is no longer possible.
That is why clubs like Manchester United have initiated a program where their youngest age groups train in a way that mimics street football so that these basics are learned in a natural way rather than coached into the players. It is the same with training sessions delivered using a smaller ball where the aim is, ultimately, to get those practicing to learn tricks that they will never forget because they become like a second nature.
The 'secret': focus on fundamentals and giving players the right basics in as natural a way as possible.
Adharanand's Thoughts: "It is a big advantage, yes, and impossible to replicate – unless you also happen to live at altitude. Kenya is not the only high altitude area in the world! Ryan Hall, for example, the top western-born marathon runner right now, hails from a high altitude area in the US. And where are all the marathon runners from the Andes, the Himalayas etc etc? Altitude is only one factor."
The Blueprint Interpretation: Of all the factors that contribute to the Kenyan running success, this is the most difficult to find a football equivalent. What can be said is to find what environmental characteristics are unique to your situation and see whether they can be turned into an advantage.
The Lesson: make the most of what you've got.
And finally...the secret
If there is a question that the legendary Irish coach Brother Colm O'Connell, who has trained and developed some of finest runners, is asked over and over it deals with "the secret" of Kenyan running. Those who put forward that query are often met with a surprising reply "there is no secret".
The Kenyan success isn't down to one factor but, as we have seen, to a combination of factors. Take away one element and the results wouldn't be so impressive. Equally - and importantly - they aren't the only elements that can contribute to success. There is, for instance, practically no attention given to sports science or psychology that are considered fundamental elsewhere.
So, while it is important to look at what is successful elsewhere - including other sports - and learn from it,ultimately it is down to looking at what elements could contribute to your own success and bringing them together. Any attempt at like for like copying will deliver only one result: failure.
Special thanks to Adharanand Finn for his patience and help in writing this article. If you like sport - and you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't - his book Running with Kenyans is a must read.
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