Google+ Blueprint for Football: April 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

AC Milan And The Desire To Keep Learning

He might not be the first name on most people minds when it comes to recalling the great AC Milan sides of the late eighties and early nineties but for thirteen years Filippo Galli was a key figure for the team that dominated both at home and in Europe. Nominally a right back but used all across the defence when and where required, Galli eventually ended up with 5 Serie A titles, 3 European Cups and 2 Intercontinental Cups to his name.

This not only shows that he wasn't a bad player (indeed, he was actually quite a good one although those who remember him from his season at Watford might disagree) but also that he knows quite a fair bit about football.  Which is probably why AC Milan gave him the role of director of their youth system.

With ever tightening financial purse strings, bringing players through is becoming increasingly more important for AC Milan.  Which is why Galli has spent the past few weeks touring some of the finest academies in Europe; with trips to Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich looking at how they work.

"We're looking to see what we can apply," he explained. "There are a lot of things that can be adapted and introduced in our youth system. Looking abroad to see how we can improve is the right thing to do."

And that is the crucial point.  If someone who has won all there is to win like Filippo Galli is eager to look at what others are doing in order to learn off them, how is it possible that other coaches whose CV's are far less impressive feel that they can get by with what they know?

Looking for ideas to adopt, whatever the source, is a necessity for any coach.  Football can be pretty insular - look how long it took for people to start appreciating the potential of statistics, for instance - but there is much to learn both from what is done elsewhere and what other sports are doing.  Those who understand and act on this are those who will excel.

The above article was first published in Blueprint for Football's bonus bi-weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Search of Game Intelligence

When Johann Cruyff set about rebuilding the whole set up at Barcelona, using the Dutch blueprint he had grown up with at Ajax, inadvertently he was also reshaping the footballing philosophy of the whole nation.  The link between the modern all-conquering Spanish tiki-taka and the Dutch total-football is too obvious not to notice.

Less noticeable is the German influence on the Spanish game.  That comes through Horst Wein, a German "coach of coaches" whose work has influenced thousands of coaches and whose book "Developing Youth Football Players" is the official textbook of The Spanish Football Federation.

Wein is truly an impressive man.  Not simply because of his CV - even though that contains working with some of the world's top clubs and federations as well as authoring 34 sports text books - but also because he talks the language of someone who has thought deeply about his work and come up with a level of insight that few can match.

"Who is the best coach in the world?" he asks before promptly replying "we have no doubt, it is the game of football itself".  The message is very clear: coaches are there to facilitate and not act as the main actors.

Not that he doesn't appreciate the value of coaches. “When you do what you have done always, you will never reach any further,” he says, underlining his belief in innovation.

His journey, however, didn't start on a football field but rather in hockey spurred by the questions of his young son.

How did you start formulating your theories?
When he was 7 years old my son (who 15 years later became World Champion) questioned my coaching even though at the time I was one of the leading  hockey coaches.  So, in order to answer his doubts, I became also interested in youth development.

You're a big proponent of making football fun. How do you achieve that and why is it so important?
Especially for kids initiating their career in football from the ages of 7-9, it is very important that they fall in love with the game. When this happens and football become their healthiest drug then they continue to play the game for a lifetime. Through my webpage  we offer a very unique game format, 3v3 on four goals called FUNino which will lead to play even at 8 or 9 years “The Beautiful Game” as the best teams of the world are demonstrating it. .

Similarly you say that the best coach in the world is the game of football itself: what do you mean by that?
In times gone by, Street Football helped to develop naturally skillful and creative players, simply because the games were simplified, with few players around and what’s important with no interference from any coach. I have studied the way kids play and then have captured the same essence and added some structure in the development of these games without  the overuse of drills which is still very prominent in many football academies around the world. Instead of listening the players to the constant instructions, any academy coach should use guided discovery questions to encourage the kids to discover the problems inherent in the game in an interactive way.

What did street football teach children that has been lost today?
Street football was a natural environment for children to explore the game of football the natural way. Children played almost daily for many hours around the corner, they didn’t need any transport nor specific sport equipment, no registration at a federation which today treat all children like adults, who with their too complex competitions limit the natural development of our youth in football.

You were one of the first to argue in favour of small sided games for young children. Is it pleasing to see so many people now agreeing with you? And why is it so important?
Yes, thankfully the idea of small sided games (I prefer my term of simplified games) has become widespread in  the last decades.  However, I would personally still prefer if the competitions kids are asked to play world-wide were age-appropriate i.e. 3 v 3 for 7-9 years; 5 v 5 for 10 years; 7 v 7 for 11 and 12 years and 8 v 8 for 13 years, before, eventually playing 11 v 11 at 14 years of age. None of the FIFA member countries has yet applied an optimal structure for their youth competitions! So imagine if there would be countries which would implant my optimal, age-appropriate competitions (which as I said above are the best teacher) how much space there would be for improving the playing capacities.

A lot in youth development is still to be discovered by almost all football clubs in the world. Football will soon improve considerably as other ball games like hockey, volleyball and basketball have done. Football is still an undeveloped sport and  far behind others, especially in developing young football players.

At what age should competitive leagues start?
Experiences have shown 12 years is about right, as the kids will probably demand that.

Are kids over-coached?
Most definitely, many coaches today still regard young players as “empty vessels” that have to be filled, instead of young people with amazing potential and intelligence to be stimulated and tapped into. Imagine, FIFA is still using the term “instructor” which is a term from the last century which should only be used at Military Services!

What is a coach's role? Is it that of a teacher?
When we say “the game is the teacher,” we mean that quite literally. Coaches should facilitate the stimulation of game intelligence and creativity through the use of simplified games in which  children should discover for themselves as often as possible all secrets of the game. The coach’s role is to create an environment where the young players flourish naturally.

What is the most important skill in a young player?
Today most players have good technique and physical preparation so what separates the very best players is their level on game intelligence. It has to be considered the most important ability on the football field. Therefore young players have to be systematically exposed to games like Funino which unlocks and stimulates their creativity and game intelligence from 7/8 years onwards.

Do you, as a coach, give any importance to physical attributes like height or strength in a young player?
The strongest, fastest player without game intelligence will waste most of his potential, but the smallest intelligent player can overcome any opponent.

What is game intelligence? And how do you coach creativity and intelligence, if that is at all possible?
Game Intelligence is that ability to “read the game” and make good decisions as quickly as possible. The game of football is a constant flow of changing game situations and becomes very complex when playing the adult game of 11 v 11. From the earliest ages, players must be exposed to game situations in ever-increasing complexity, but starting with simple games first. In Funino, 3v3 with two goals out wide at each end, there is always options available, as one goal is usually less defended than the other. This facilitates greater perception, understanding and decision-making. In subsequent games in our development model, the game situations become more complex.

Also using the guided discovery coaching method helps to develop greater understanding and retention of game situations and ultimately better decision-making.

Playing games rather than isolated drills is another key factor in developing “game intelligence,”

You've worked in many countries and influenced a lot of people but it takes time for new ideas to be absorbed. How long does it normally take to change mentality of people?
In some countries people are ready for new ideas, especially the “newer” soccer countries where there is no tradition. In others it may take many years. Usually it takes 10 years for changes to take place. Thankfully through the internet, knowledge spreads much nowadays more quickly than in previous decades.

And finally, what is next for you?
My method is more or less used in all Spanish Football clubs since the Spanish Federation published my text books more than 20 years ago. Actually they are all sold out … and probably a new edition is on the way for 2014 with the newest updates.

For more information about Horst Wein and his ideas, visit his website

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Special thanks to Antonio Mantero who helped in the formulation of some of the questions above.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Working from a Template

When people talk of the most famous football academies in the world, typically either that of Ajax or the one at Barcelona, and what makes them so successful one of the first reasons that gets mentioned is the common tactical approach to games adopted from the highest to the lowest level.

And indeed that is a significant factor.  What is it, however, that makes it so important that everyone wants to do the same?

The most often cited benefit, and indeed the most obvious one, is that if those players get to the senior side they can fit straight in.  That, of course, is true albeit partially.  Because at the highest level you also want players who are flexible and at least understand the nuances of playing in other ways: for one thing that allows them to know what to do when opposing teams shape up in different ways.

Indeed, the best players are those whose appreciation of tactics and thinking capacity allows them to change the way they are playing in order to exploit any weaknesses in the others' approach.  And, just as players are encouraged to play in different positions so that they get an understanding of those roles, they learn about different tactics by experiencing them.

Therefore, while these teams have a very clear imprint in the way that they play, it is reductive to assume that they only have one approach.

There is another lesser heralded benefit that comes from having a philosophy throughout a club and it lies in the recruitment of players.  That clear identity tells you what kind of players you need to look for and what kind of attributes are needed for each position.

When I interviewed the Catalan journalist Marti Perarnau, who has written extensively about the Barcelona youth system, he said that "technique, tactical intelligence and mental speed. These three traits are the ones that matter...Barca does not care about the size of the player. The three parameters I mentioned are the only ones that matter."  Those are the kind of player they need and those are the kind of players they look for.

In the same way, if the system that you adopt requires full-backs who are good at supporting the attack it is of no use taking on a player whose main strength lies in defending and who does not possess the speed required to get back quickly into position if an attack were to break down.

A well defined system allows you to build a template with what characteristics to look out for in each position.  That way, when the players do join they get to play in a way that suits their natural strengths.

The above article was first published in Blueprint for Football's bonus bi-weekly newsletter.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Blueprint According To...Chuck Bales

According to his bio on the Moraine Valley Community College website, Bales has been involved in soccer for more than 25 years as player and coach. He has an advanced national coaching diploma from the National Soccer Coaching Association of America, and is a Certified Periodization Planning Specialist through the Tudor Bompa Training Systems.

The reason I chose Chuck to kick this feature off, however, doesn't lie in his achievements but rather in his Twitter updates.  You see, Chuck fires out links to a whole range of articles which might not all be directly about football but which all contain significant pointers for anyone looking to help others reach their potential.

Here then, is his blueprint...

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what got you into coaching and how long was that?
Chuck Bales: I started coaching in 1994 as an assistant coach at the college I still coach and teach at, Moraine Valley Community College.  In 2000, I took over as the head coach and have been head coach ever since.  I have done a bit of coaching at local soccer clubs, but my college schedule greatly hampers the amount of time I can devote to this.

I got into coaching as a frustrated player that had seen my playing days come and go.  I was always a keen observer of pro soccer from the continent, watching German and English soccer while I was growing up in Miami, so I was always interested in styles of play and how the game "should be played".  I was also just starting as a college instructor and saw coaching as a way to stay active and be involved with extra-curricular college activities.  As I started to study soccer and coaching, in general, I found that there is great depth to the field, from the tactical, technical, physical, and mental side, and also saw direct parallels to what goes on inside the classroom and vice versa.

BfF: What project are you working on at the moment?
CB: I found out early on that you will never know all there is to soccer coaching and a coach must be in constant learning mode to keep pace.  There is so much tactically, technical, physically, and psychologically to understand and apply that it is truly a never-ending task.

I currently am trying to get my head around tactical periodization and defining and developing a style of play which will act as the basis from which a complete playing and training curriculum can be developed.  I see glimpses of a Grand Unification Theory in this approach and I am trying to get all the pieces laid out so that I can start assembling them in order to begin to implement it at the start of the next season in August.

I am very interested in optimizing the training experience for the players.  What tactical, technical, and physical elements are required in a training plan in order to play in a certain style?  What is the frequency, dosage, progression, and order for each element?  What are the "best" exercises in order to imprint the desired playing style in the team?  What is the most efficient and effective method to achieve the objectives?  It is the same questions I ask myself in the classroom when I am preparing to teach a course or am preparing a new curriculum.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
CB: My philosophy has always been developmental and technical, focused on quick tempo passing on the ground, using width and speed, high pressure defending or defending in blocks (zone).  As an early supporter of Ajax, I always liked their philosophy of playing an entertaining game that is fast and free-flowing but technically strong.

I have always focused on passing and control and we traditionally spend a great deal of time in various passing drills at the college.  My experience and ability to develop a tactical style is constantly growing and getting more complex, detailed and nuanced.

BfF: You tweet a lot of links to articles that are from various areas - including management - and not just football.  In what way does it help a coach to look outside his direct circle of reference?
CB: First of all, training and coaching a soccer team, at any level, is, at its foundation, about teaching and managing groups of (young) people.  By broadening our scope of understanding, reading, and influence, we can open our eyes to new ways of seeing problems and issues that we are confronted with in our own specific areas of concern.  We can see things from a different light or from a different angle that provide new ideas and spark periods of creativity.  By making analogous connections to other fields we can discover solutions to problems that confounded us before.

If we broaden our scope of experience, we can increase our knowledge and understanding in our specific field, enabling us to think "outside of the box" more easily and in a much more purposely and productive manner.  I find great insight from studying business management, engineering, academic teaching, and other types of training including musical.  This increases my depth of understanding for coaching soccer.  It makes me a better soccer coach.  It improves my ability to teach and train my team, which, in turn, benefits my players.

It also keeps me thinking, learning, and looking for the next new idea or concept that is going to help me to improve my players.  Perfection is something you should always pursue, but will never attain.  Once you give up and say "That's good enough" then you are done and should quit coaching.  Instead, after every training session, and every season, you should say "That wasn't good enough" and dissect everything you did in order to rebuild for next season.  This dissection and rebuilding process is only possible through a constant and continuous search for answers.

BfF: What do you prefer: a talented player who doesn't value work or a hard-working but not as talented player?
CB: Nihil sine labore (Nothing without work) - Sign over Sir Alex Ferguson's office door.

I want nothing to do with anyone who doesn't value work.  The person that doesn't value work will never progress.  Never get better.  Never overcome obstacles.

I would always take a hard-working but not as talented player because they will learn, improve, and progress.  They will also be a valued influential member of a team.

BfF: If you could change one thing about football in your country, what would that be?
CB: The proper development of soccer players will only occur if there is incentive to do so.  This will only occur if we have more teams in MLS and the players earn more money.  This will only happen when the population starts to watch more soccer on TV, thus increasing league and team revenue.

So, if I could only change one thing about football in the US, it would be to make more people watch and love the game.

The Blueprint According To... is a monthly feature looking at youth football coaches and the philosophies that drive them.  Read more on the Blueprint for Football newsletter.