Google+ Blueprint for Football: June 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

Are You Curious Enough To Be A Great Coach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: Let’s Talk Soccer by Gerard Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 8, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way – Comparing AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord

By Kevin Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 1, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way – A Trip to Feyenoord

Feyenoord is a feeling 
By Kevin Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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