Google+ Blueprint for Football: February 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Education Holds the Key

A few weeks back, following the piece on what African football needs in order to develop, I received a nice e-mail from Casey Prince who is one of a team of coaches who is working on a football academy in South Africa.  My feeling was that his insights were too good to keep for myself which is why this issue's editorial is a slightly abridged version of that e-mail

I'm an American running the Ubuntu Football Academy in Cape Town.  We've been here three and a half years now and you are pretty spot on with the issues that exist here.  South Africa is likely more organized than other areas around the continent and we still really struggle with the things you are saying.  Lots of kids are playing in the streets and dirt fields, but as you say, there is little happening to take it further.  Some of the other issues plaguing the sport in South Africa are:

1. U10s playing full sided games on a full field

2. Coaches, even in the better clubs/academies, valuing the big, fast, strong kid at the younger ages rather than the ones that could one day be could players.

3. A vast number of kids in the black communities and clubs (South Africa has 3 very distinct communities: black, white, and coloured) are playing out of their true age group.  For example we had two kids come to trial this year that were supposed to be 12 years old.  Turns out they were 14.  They are playing against younger kids and thus not improving as fast as they can.  But because they look good they are picked for the better coaching environments, which means you have less talented kids getting the better coaching.

So that's a few problems along with just not having enough good coaching and development happening.  There are certainly other factors.

Here is how we are trying to solve that problem.

Ubuntu Football has a  grassroots program in our local townships called Football Forward.  This is for 7-12 year olds and combines some good technical coaching, a life skill lesson, and lots of small sided games.  This program happens twice a week.  This will hopefully create a hotbed of talent for future Academy kids.

The Academy brings in 8-10 boys the year they are U13.  Our mission is actually beyond football.  We aim to nurture and develop the next great leaders in Africa.  So our holistic vision means we do things a bit differently.  First, we take the football really seriously.  They train 4 days a week and play in the most competitive league on the weekend.  Our goal is to grow to being the best football development program on the continent.  A huge goal that continually pushes us to grow.

One of the other factors that keeps African football down is the communities they come from.  Because of that we spend loads of time on mentorship.  We also remove the boys from their communities for the majority of the day because we send them to a local private school.  It's an expensive investment - school fees are about R45,000/year/student - but it is the thing that will help us to develop significant leaders.  A top education here will allow these boys to accomplish loads of things beyond football, but also help them to manage their future football success.  A few boys are from further afield in our city, so they live with host families, but the majority are from our small local area.

In January 2013 our third group started, so we are now working with 1998s, 99s, and 2000s.  Into the third year with these 31 boys we feel like we've got some talented kids that are learning the work ethic that it takes to make it further.  We work hard on technical and tactical development and it's fun to hear them now coaching each other.  We seem to be making an impression on public consciousness as people are very complimentary of the way we play.  This past year our U13s twice beat Ajax Cape Town (connected to Ajax Amsterdam).  They have 16 Academy kids from throughout the city.  At the U13 age group we only have 8 Academy kids mixed with regular club players from our partner club.  They won our league, and to beat them home and away was a nice accomplishment considering their vast resources.

The most rewarding thing, though, is the men they are becoming.  They, and the boys that come after them, will change South Africa.  We are confident of that.

In the next few years we plan to launch one or more similar academies in Zimbabwe after being invited there.

We recently launched Ubuntu Teammates where we're trying to generate 500 Teammates this year to cover our school expenses.  Our teammates are people from all over the world who have joined us in our mission – to mentor, educate and develop Africa’s next great men, leaders and society changers through the world’s favorite game – soccer.

There is a common thread in most of the success stories I've encountered over the past eighteen months which is the importance of education.  Not only is this essential to give the players a fall back if they fail to make it as professionals but also because it generally leads to them becoming better players.

That makes the cass of Ubuntu Football Academy all the more relevant and I'll be looking to look into greater detail at the way they work in the future.  If you know of any other similar initiatives, or are involved in something yourself, why not drop me an e-mail with details of what is going on?

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Too Much, Too Soon

When Michael Johnson first stepped up to Manchester City's senior squad, he was projected in some quarters as the poster boy for the 'new' academy system.  Here was a player with technical abilities as exceptional as those being developed anywhere in Europe but with the desire to physically dominate the midfield area seen typical of British players.

That poster boy image remains but the product he's seen as advertising has shifted dramatically.  Johnson is no longer being pushed as the representative of the future of English football but rather as the epitome of a wasted talent and a career that appears over at just 24.

Yet Johnson probably was neither of those two extremes.  Instead he was a talented young player who got promoted to the first team far too early without having the mental fortitude required to handle the adulation that came with it.

Is it that surprising that, having been praised so much - and Johnson was publicly labelled as better than Steven Gerrard - he struggled when injuries started limiting his progress?  Is it any surprise that he found motivation difficult when the early attention died away?

If Johnson is to be held up as an example, it should be to fans who quickly rush to hail any promising player.  There is nothing as exciting as seeing a young player grab any opportunity that comes his way to make a mark on the senior side.  Yet some attention should be given to the praise that follows such early success.

Players have to be shielded from that praise as strongly as they are from criticism.  Because if from an early age they start measuring their self worth by the positive comments they get or put in the work depending on the reviews that come their way, then their careers could be ruined before they get a chance to really develop.

This piece was originally published in Issue 3 of Blueprint for Football's free bi-weekly e-zine that was sent out on the 2nd of February. For exclusive content, snippets of future articles and links to the best football articles around, subscribe here.