Google+ Blueprint for Football: September 2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

Academy Challenges

There have been a lot of opinions expressed about the Being: Liverpool documentary with one of the most common view being that it largely takes a superficial look at what goes on at a club of that size.

That might be the case - after all the documentary is aimed largely at American audiences who might not be familiar with the club or the game - but that does not mean that there aren't moments that provide insight.

One such instance came in the second episode where Steven Gerrard talks about the challenges faced by the players at the academy.

"The kids at the academy have massive challenges ahead of them because they don't only have to be the best in the academy and the best in the country, they have to be as good as the best players around the world," he said.

"So when you're breaking through and you're close, you've got to be better then whoever is in your position in the first team and that is a massive challenge."

"I've been in their situation and I realise how difficult it is to play for Liverpool FC, the standards you have to set day are tough."

There are those who believe that the step between reserves and first team is an easy one to make.  Clearly, however, it isn't particularly at the highest level.  Players don't simply have to be good but they have to be exceptional to get an opportunity.

Gerrard also touched on another important matter which is the expectations that are place on these young players' shoulders.  They are labelled  stars before they make the step up and are expected to perform as such when they do.

"The difference between when I was at the academy from now is that the fans already know about the kids at the academy, they watch them on the TV whereas when I was coming through no one knew anything about me, it was a surprise.  Which helped as there was no pressure, there's more pressure on the kids now as people are already aware of them before they get close to the first team. It is even more difficult now to get close to the first team."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bursting the Specialisation Myth

There is something terribly saddening in the way fans tend to talk of young players at their clubs.  The finality with which verdicts are delivered, and their brutality, is often of an incredible harshness especially considering that it involves individuals who are still in their teens.  It leaves you in no doubt that even at this level most fans see that success as the only objective.  Anything else is rubbish.

What is even worse is that some clubs act in the same manner.  Education delivered to the players is minimal with little care being given to whether enough attention is being given.  There is little empathy when players are released or an attempt to help them sort their future.  All that matters is whether that player will make it at the club and, if not, whether he is good enough to be sold on to someone else.  That is what defines success for them.

Yet that shouldn’t be the case says Dr. Martin Toms, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham.  “It is my firm belief that we should measure success not by the number of kids who make it to a high level from the club, but that it should be done on a basis of legacy and enthusiasm.”

“The best argument for success is around numbers of kids from all levels who want to be involved, have fun and play the game, so the best indication of success is that these kids are involved the next year.”

“Clubs (at whatever level) have a moral obligation to act as safe, nurturing environments for all levels, talent and participation.”

First of all can you explain what your area of expertise involves?
As a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching in the world renowned School of Sport & Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, I look at the development of talent from a socio-cultural perspective across many sports. For example, whilst we know that there are biological and psychological characteristics in sporting talent, we often forget that what underpins all of this is the social. Where you live, what sports you play as a youngster, what your family background is, what sports they play(ed) are all massively influential on both participation and also the development of talent. Getting a better understanding of this is crucial – as there are interventions we can use to help support talented young players. One of the greatest things we can do is look more at the number of sports young people play at various ages. We’ve just completed a study of 1,000 sports people and identified that the longer you play a number of sports (i.e. sample), the more chance you have of being successful at an older age. This suggests that specialising in one sport at a young age is actually detrimental to success – and this seems to go across all sports in the UK.

It’s an interesting dilemma with the Olympic legacy where they want children to be enthused and participate in a particular sport – whereas it could be argued that they would be better playing many sports!

What you're saying goes against the popular belief of the 10,000 hour rule. Is there any truth in this rule? And does that mean that one can take up any sport and excel in it even without long years of training?
I think the best thing to say about the 10,000 hour rule is that it is a popular ‘belief’ (as is Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy!). Yes, there is a lot of common sense in the notion that it takes a long time to gain the skills to become an elite performer, but the idea of it taking 10,000 hours is fundamentally flawed. At this juncture it is worth pointing out an excellent blog written about this issue - - and also highlighting that the main research behind the 10,000 hour rule is in music (difficult to argue that expertise in a repetitive skill is the same as that in a dynamic skill). It also ignores the biological, psychological and social aspects of development – can ANYONE who does 10,000 hours of work become elite? Quite clearly it is much more complicated than that! The problem we have with the 10,000 hour rule in sport is that some people have taken it far too literally – I just love the idea of the clock ticking on from 9,999 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds and then ‘bingo’....... I’m now an expert!! Now, in a closed skill (like juggling), then the more you practice the better you get, but in an open skill it is clearly very different.

On the second point, the answer to that is not that simple. Yes, it is possible (but not easy) to excel in a sport without 10,000 hours of training – but this very much depends upon what your sporting background is!  Take many of the people who are involved now in talent transfer (from one similar activity to another), have they actually worked at the second sport for 10,000 hours? Rebecca Romero is an interesting example, she went from an elite rower to an elite cyclist in less than 2 years, which begs the question what do we mean by the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice needed? More importantly, what do we mean by deliberate practice and how does that work in a dynamic and open skill like sport. Quite clearly, going from a zero to hero in sport depends much more on the individual and their bio-psycho-social background than anything, but it also depends upon the competition they come up against as well. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer here!

You've worked a lot with golf. Are there any lessons there that can be exported to other sports like football?
My background is actually in both cricket (my PhD is in socialisation of young people into club sport) and golf, and there are probably more lessons from cricket that can come in here because of the club environment and structured organisation/training that is so important as young people start playing the game. The biggest thing I would advocate (and a lesson I have learnt) is that we need to allow young people to focus upon sampling sports as much as we can. Regardless of that, the key lessons are actually now NOT to just play football, but to play lots of other sports as well (until at least 16-17).

Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to focus research on over 1,000 PGA golf Pros, and the biggest finding we have had is the commonality of certain other sports being played at certain ages which really seems to help future performance (I’ll not mention them here, but the evidence is over-whelming). On top of that, we know over half of those who have played at the highest level by the age of 18 were late specialisers in the game. (On a slight tangent and most remarkably, the data also suggests that to have the best chance of being a top player you need to be the youngest of at least 2 siblings – and have an older sister!). It is this social profiling that we need to do more in sport, as we now have the answer to what (we think) are the best sports for future golfers to do and at what age they should do them...........

What sort of responsibility do football clubs have to the community and the kids they train?  And does this change across the levels / divisions?
They have a huge responsibility to the community and the kids. Grass roots clubs should all act as they would a surrogate family – they offer opportunities for kids to socialise, learn emotional and social skills, interact with adults and are a ‘safe’ environment. The only danger is that the focus tend to be on the better players – and the old adage that “the skilful excel but the mediocre become disillusioned with the game” comes to the fore, and often these kids are the ones who are indirectly pushed away from sport. The most exciting clubs I have come upon are ones who are now doing multi-sports in one place, so the kids can have smooth transition to try other activities. One of the problems we have in the UK is often the fragmented structure of clubs, and the fact that they do not link across sports. As coaches, it can be too easy for us to forget that the key thing is the child not the sport. In a small town near me there are 5 entirely independent clubs (football, cricket, rugby, hockey and tennis) all vying for the same kids, and there are stories of them ‘stealing’ kids from each other – what an absolutely crazy situation!

So clubs (at whatever level) have a moral obligation to act as safe, nurturing environments for all levels, talent and participation – especially at grass roots. Even better, if they can ALSO provide links to other clubs (and/or offer other sports) then they will be massively successful. With the likely cuts to sports funding post 2012 then this is going to be important – and the idea of a “family club” becomes vital in every way.

It strikes me as odd that so called 'minor sports' do not work harder to attract youths who won't make it to the top in football.  Isn't this a waste of talent?
Absolutely! It is such a huge pity that very often people who do not make it to a high level drop out and live off their dreams. I’ve been lucky enough spending time talking to players who almost made it to a Pro contract, and once dropped from the system some never play again. Oddly, they almost refer to it as a bereavement (the loss of their dreams if you like), and give up. All that is needed (and this is beginning to happen more now) is careful counselling and the opportunity to ‘talent transfer’ to another sport.

The other crazy thing is that the odds on making it to a Pro level in soccer are so small (statistically less than 0.15%) then there are 99.85% of these fit, healthy young players who can make a huge difference in others sports.......... (which goes back to my earlier point about multi-sports). I will always remember a young player who was ‘released’ (an interesting word to use when you think about it – he referred to it as being a 19 year old “thrown on the scrap heap”) who was very bitter about the club/academy he played in. He said that he had been institutionalised in football with no opportunity to play other sports (because of the risk of injury) so felt he was 8 years behind his mates in sports like cricket, rugby and basketball. All this at the age of 19!

On a similar but slightly different point, has there been any study on the impact on players once they are released from a football club's academy or youth system?
Not yet (that I am aware of), and it is a problem with most research in sport. We only focus on those who did make it (because they are easy to find and access) rather than those who leave/are released. Yet these are the key people to understand what they can do beyond this. I’d love more clubs/academies to link up with other sports and offer ‘tasters’ in other activities. For those sports most of the hard work is done already – all they have to do is focus upon developing the technical and tactical of that sport in particular. The only issue here is that these young players may not have had the experience of that sport in the first place (which brings me back to my earlier point on multi-sports clubs!).

If you think about it, soccer clubs/academies put all of their effort into the (potential) 0.15% who will make it – rather than the 99.85% who will have a damn good try, but might be released and have a future in other sports.

Often, club's success is measured by the number of players they produce.  Should this be the case?
Absolutely not! I do worry quite what club’s are trying to do when they do this - is it advertise their ‘indirect’ success or use it as a marketing/money making tool. When you think about it, there are no doubt clubs who have excellent coaching and facilities who will produce good players – but is it that simple? If there is a good young player, and there is a club with a good coaching reputation nearby then they are more likely to go there – so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I doubt there is much difference here, apart from ‘luck’ playing a part (and luck can be mediated in your favour – better schools, coaching can be influenced, but genetics can’t!). It would be interesting to measure them more on the basis of the enjoyment and success of ALL of the players who went there, but sadly this is not feasible. One way of looking at it is that these clubs are “custodians of talent” as the good players go through them and to better things, but that is not the be all and end all.

Some people say that talented kids are lucky to be in good clubs – I say that good clubs are lucky to have talented kids. Measurement on success is difficult and participation at junior level does not link to participation at adult level. Take the England Under 17 UEFA football squads from 2002-2004, only 4 of the 54 have played at full International level, and only 9 played in the Premiership last season. So to actually base your success on the number of players you happen to produce (or who happen to have played through the club’s systems) is not necessarily the best measurement.

What is the most important metric by which clubs' development programs should be measured?
It “ought to be” measured through the number of those who go on to play the game at EVERY level once they have left the club, i.e. it should focus on the 99.85% as much as the 0.15% who make it. We’re currently working with the FA on beginning to look at this (as well as other projects) at Birmingham and my firm (and altruistic belief) is that we should measure success NOT by the number of kids who make it to a high level from the club, but that it should be done on a basis of legacy and enthusiasm. The best argument for success is around numbers of kids from all levels who want to be involved, have fun and play the game, so the best indication of success is that these kids are involved the next year.

Clubs, especially those at the higher level, are bringing foreign youths into their academies.  First of all, what kind of message does this send to the local community?
First up, this is a huge problem for developing our own ‘in house’ soccer talent, but it is a relatively cheap way for clubs to explore talent from elsewhere. Whilst I am more than happy for competition it does make it harder for very good British youths to get into the academy sides, and as we have seen before the correlation between age and ability vary greatly. I think the overall problem is that as youths grow and develop, their sporting ability changes, so many ‘good’ players at 16 are dropped because they are not as good as others at the same age, but may develop into far better players at 18 (by then they are on the scrap heap). The rules on the number of home player per squad are important, and in order to develop this we need top clubs to stick to it – unfortunately the top level clubs will currently not reflect this because of the pressures of top level competition and competitive success. We need a generation of young players to come through the ranks before we can make much difference here.

Secondly, what should clubs be doing to ensure that these players don't suffer from a culture shock?
I don’t think there is anything that can really be done about this, apart from some very clear advice and support structures for those coming to the UK from abroad. Education (formal, informal and advisory) is very important for these young players. In other words: formal education to help stretch them mentally and academically (more than just language lessons if they need them!); informal education to help with practical issues, and advice (such as mentoring and support) to help them professionally.  The best practice I have ever come across is to provide them with support by placing them in a supportive family environment/home where there is another young player. It’s never easy moving country or culture, so the best way to nurture these young players is carefully and through a number of different approaches – all based around the sport and sporting environment.

Thanks to Dr Martin Toms for his time in carrying out this interview.  Anyone who would like to discuss the items touched upon in this interview with him can get in touch on his Twitter page.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Making Second Chances Work Better Than The First

Those of Paul McCallum, Quade Taylor and Michael Chambers might not be the most familiar of names apart from, perhaps, to the more avid among West Ham and Crystal Palace fans.  Simeon Jackson and George Elekobi might be more widely known but, even so, they're not exactly household names.

For the people at A.S.P.I.R.E. however, every one of those names signifies a success story; a player whose career they managed to kick-start.

A.S.P.I.R.E (Academic and Sporting Inspired Routes to Excellence) is a football and education programme for 16 -18 year old males which is based in London (and, as such, is not to be confused with the Qatar foundation that bears the same name). The programme was set up in July 2002 to enable young people to pursue their dream of playing professional football whilst also enjoying the advantages of furthering their education whether that is in a vocational or academic capacity.

"Ten years ago I felt that young players were being overlooked once they had gone past the age of sixteen and not in the professional academy system," Gavin Rose, a man behind a lot of what goes on at A.S.P.I.R.E., explains as he talk about what led to the academy's existemce.

Despite enjoying a very sucessfull schoolboy career, by his own admission he felt that he struggled with the physical strength to play at professional level.  So started a career at non-league level that saw him go among others to Gravesend and Northfleet (later renamed Ebbsfleet), Bromley, Dover and Dulwich Hamlet.

Meanwhile he had also started coaching, an activity that he found soothed the disappointment of not making it as a professional.  It was also at this time that he began feeling the need a for a way to get back into the game those players dropped by professional clubs.

"Well before we set up A.S.P.I.R.E  up it was proven that there are late developers who come into professional football and in that era Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand were the biggest ambassadors for this," he explains. "The feeling myself and Junior Kadi [co-founder at the academy along with Rob Mapp] had was if these young kids were given more time to work on their game understanding, technique, fitness there could be a lot more making the grade."

"From the outset, the area where we predominantly recruited players was from my local area in Peckham, where I had a group of players I had coached for six years who had all represented their district and county sides respectively."

"Along the way a few gained professional scholarships and, in Anton Ferdinand, eventually a  professional. But we still had a surplus of at least 14 quality players without clubs and not much direction of alternative vocation or career path, so those guys along with another 10 strong players in the surrounding area made up the first years intake. We now recruit all over London."

That recruitment process is a very focused and specialised one where the aim isn't necessarily to pick those who are the best players for the simple reason that such players often opt to go somewhere higher up the scale.

"We may see something in a player that others may not have picked up on," Gavin explains. "Some players have excellent ability, but maybe lack the personality to show it so we would see that as a worthwhile challenge. Enthusiasm at a young age is always something that we look for, as well as a will to listen and learn. Technique and movement on and off the ball are also key aspects to what we look for."

Often such players come from professional clubs; players who are cast aside from the system.  Some are disillusioned by how they've been treated and many come with shattered confidence.  Meaning that it can be hugely difficult to get them to a point where they can perform to the best of their abilities.

"When players have been released by bigger clubs the issue of our humble surroundings is the first thing the boys need to acclimatize to. It often helps when our former players such as George Elokobi come down and train with them in the summer to show them he is not to big to train with them."

"Confidence is a bigger problem, many clubs release players with terrible feedback about why they are not being taken on by the clubs. Boys are being left with the reality of not only them being released and out of the pro game but with the parting shots of "your not big enough" or " your too soft to become a footballer". So you can imagine these young lads are quite deflated by the time we get to work with them.  Whilst we empathise with their feeling of rejection, we don't endorse a "feel sorry for me" mentality. Instead we try to fire the boys up into reverse these negative comments into positive ones with hard work."

Having dealt with so many kids who have been 'burnt' by the academy system, one would expect Rose to be critical of it.  Yet this isn't the case.  "It's easy to criticise on the outside looking in, because you are not privy to the constraints or fortunes of each academy up and down the country."

"I've noticed there seems to become changes happening in terms of quality assurance and producing more top talent for the highest level of the game, so it will be interesting to see how that develops. I've noticed at academy level in the main coaches are encouraging young players to express themselves and pass the ball in tight areas and so on."

"The problem is the transition into the first team.  I don't feel young players are getting their chance and we lose a lot of promising talent to lower league football where, largely, the emphasis is not as much on the technical side of the game thus making it harder for these talents to make their mark."

Pleasingly, Rose states that his coaching philosophy "is to try to play attacking attractive football, with players who are comfortable taking the ball in tight areas and able to express themselves. I like players to back their ability and not to fear making mistakes. Of course this message is not easy to convey when trying to chase points in big games, but I believe if your players stick to their principles they stand more chance of being successful."

What makes the project a success, however, is the holistic view that it adopts, where the focus isn't exclusively on football.  "We try to build the young men as well rounded people on and off the field, and place a high level of importance on their academic progress via our partnering education provider."

"There are different levels of success for each young man who is apart of our academy.  Of course, to become a professional is the highest on the list for them all, but we try to make them aware of the different exit routes that can be achieved in and out of the game such as non league football, coaching, education (university). We try to fuel their ambition to be successful people."

There is also a practical aspect of such an approach.  "We have noticed the boys who have gone onto professional football from our academy were either very intelligent academically or very diligent academically. So we believe it's places great significance to young players development."

That desire to give their graduates as many opportunities as possible saw them look to partner with a senior club with the decision ultimately falling onto Dulwich Hamlet.

"The relationship first started 10 years ago when we first started the project," Rose explains.  "After 3 years we moved onto Fisher Athletic at a time we probably felt we needed more of a challenge in that I could manage the team there, even though I was only 28 at the time."

"I was offered the chance to manage Dulwich Hamlet three seasons ago and it was a perfect fit to re-establish our old partnership with the club."

Naturally, as the manager, Rose's main aim is to ensure the on pitch success of Dulwich Hamlet, something that he has done to a degree with two play-off final defeats in the Isthmian League Division One South.  "Honestly the Football Club have benefitted from our Academy in a big way because with such a tight budget, we are able to blood young promising players who don't come at a great expense and balance the budget quite nicely. Also we have managed to sell three of our academy products in the past 18 months from which both parties have benefitted financially. The partnership offers young players coming in at 15 with the clear vision of a pathway to some sort of achievement."

"If a young player continues to excel in the academy set up I believe they should be rewarded to keep them motivated to continue challenging themselves and how far they can go. I will introduce tho train with the senior team to see how they cope and take from there really. If you're good enough you're old enough."

All of this bears testament to the success of the A.S.P.I.R.E. system.  Yet despite that success, sadly it is still something of a struggle to ensure the academy's financial well-being.  "The academy was financed by Southwark Council for the first three years of its existence. Due to funding cuts, however, the council were unable to sustain its support."

"This coincided with an approach from then Ryman Premier League side Fisher Athletic for A.S.P.I.R.E to give the club an academy set up from 10 years old up to 18 year olds. This lasted for two years with many of the academy players going on to represent Fisher in the Conference South league."

"Unfortunately Fisher came into hard times and the whole club had to be folded, with the senior side relegated three leagues.  For the following years Rob Mapp, Junior Kadi and myself paid for the running costs out of our own pockets with no return."

"In recent times we have been funded by our education providers formerly London Nautical and our current partners Sedgehill school in Sydenhamcome."

"We have also come under the umbrella of the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, an initiative which is still in its infancy to help young children in inner city backgrounds  to access various Sports, Arts and Crafts, Music, Media and so on.  Having grown up with Rio we always discussed the issues we encountered as youths and how easy it would have been for us to turn to crime, as the wider opportunities to develop a career away from an academic background was somewhat non existent. The love and passion to chase a football career was enough to keep us at bay, but we were naturally gifted so there was no real input given to us."

At the moment, there are 46 players at the academy "as we just started an under 16 age group as well" Rose says.  The potential is there, however, to serve three times as many kids. "With the correct facility and funding we could easily look after 150 players from a wider range of age groups, as we have many promising coaches to call on who have come through the academy over the years and taken their badges."

Inevitably, expanding the academy's reach is one of Rose's main hopes.  "I would love the academy to be able to expand in numbers as I mentioned earlier, as well as having a permanent facility of which the boys can develop and hone their skills. I'm 100% certain that if we had these luxuries we would be producing a lot higher number of players performing in the premiership. Having said we feel scouts have missed out on some top talent worth developing over the 10 years we have existed."

"Personally I would like to challenge myself to working at the highest level in the game as my ability will take me, as manager and a coach. I place no limit to what can be achieved with hard work and continued personal development."

The Success Stories not necessarily measure success by the number of players  for whom they manage to get a professional playing contract, but even so, they're very good at it.  Here are some of the success stories:

George Elokobi
Elokobi joined  A.S.P.I.R.E.  after arriving in England from Cameroon in 2002, where he was a valued member of a successful youth team before stepping up to league football with Colchester United in 2004 after being spotted by scouts whilst representing us in a Kent Youth League fixture.  He eventually moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers making it to the Premier League.  The defender maintains regular contact with the staff at  A.S.P.I.R.E. and attends training sessions with the academy's young graduates.

Paul McCallum
McCallum was playing Sunday league football well into his teens before being given a chance at Dulwich Hamlet.  He scored eleven goals as Dulwich made it to the Third Round of the FA Youth Cup in the 2010-11 season which attracted a host of clubs, as did his scoring record in the Ryman League Division One.  Eventually he opted to move to West Ham for a figure of £40,000, disappointing the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal who were also interested.

Simeon Jackson
Born in Kingston, Jamaica but raised in Ontario, Jackson moved to England as a fifteen year old and immediately caught the attention of  A.S.P.I.R.E.  From there he was able to land a successful trial and Rushden and Diamonds before moving to Gillingham and, eventually, Norwich for who he has scored in the Premier League.

Michael Chambers
As with many players on  A.S.P.I.R.E. and Dulwich Hanmlet's roll call, Chambers was released by a league club - in his case Reading - and told he had no future in the game before he had even turned sixteen.  The staff at  A.S.P.I.R.E.  saw that he had talent, however, and nurtured it up to the point that eighteen months later the defender moved to Crystal Palace having even caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

Quade Taylor
On Fulham's books from the age of eight, Taylor was realeased at fourteen and could have drifted out of football if he hadn't joined Dulwich Hamlet through  A.S.P.I.R.E. There he impressed with the ease with which he played either in defence and in midfield.  Both West Ham and Crystal Palace invited him for a trial and eventually he opted for the latter despite the late interest of Stoke City.

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