Google+ Blueprint for Football: February 2016

Monday, February 22, 2016

Solutions For The Academy System in Scotland

Stephen Fraser

The first part of this series of articles on the academy system in Scotland discussed the issues and problems with the academy system in Scotland. In particular it focused on the environment which the system in Scotland creates and the challenges this brings to developing high level young footballers.  It can be read here

The Club Academy Scotland system can be regarded as a highly pressurised, cut throat environment. Players are discarded by clubs left, right and centre with limited opportunity to develop and fulfill their potential. We need to provide kids with a more developmentally focused environment which is conducive to unlocking potential. In reality, it is very difficult to progress to become a professional footballer. 

Rather than focusing solely on developing football players, we should look to develop all-round athletes that can transfer to other sports and can be good citizens. In the long run a system such as this will provide a bigger pool of all-round athletes, which will make better use of our small population. This is in direct contrast to the all or nothing scenario which exists in football at present. 

Players and parents become so focused on their kids making it as a professional footballer. This can be regarded as counter-productive to development. We would develop players of a higher level if we produced an inclusive, developmental environment which creates healthy, multi-functional athletes who are socially confident.

This article will explore the potential solutions to the current problems which exist in the Scottish academy system.
Solution 1: Don’t Over coach
Perhaps the biggest issue faced within the academies is the coaching methods used to develop players. Too many coaches speak for too long and do not allow opportunities for young players to develop through actually performing the necessary skills and techniques in scenarios and situations which occur in the game. 
Players are not afforded the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. Good coaching allows kids the freedom to play a variety of games where the constraints lead to different skills and techniques being developed. The game alone is not the teacher, as suggested by a number of people. The coach needs to guide the learner through observation, analysis, questioning and then providing corrections or alternatives. It is important players are exposed to game-like scenarios where they are building up their contextual knowledge and understanding. 
More 1 vs 1 games, 2 vs 2 games, 2 vs 1 games, 3 vs 2 games, 3 vs 3 games, 4 vs 3 games and 4 vs 4 games with different outcomes are required to develop contextual knowledge. Repeated exposure to different scenarios leads to the brain acquiring a wealth of knowledge on how to produce solutions to different problems faced in a game.

Solution 2: Not Just Football
Kids should be encouraged to play a range of sports and take part in school sport. At present, many clubs ban their young players from it. We should be providing hundreds of sporting opportunities from school sport, to club sport, to specialist sessions where the children are allowed to lead their own games. Child-led sessions allow the players to develop ownership of their performance and progress.

Clubs need to be more integrated into communities where there is cooperation with other sports. This would provide greater opportunities for children and young people to play a range of sports. This would ensure there is less chance of players burning out and allow us to produce more all-around athletes. 

We can have pro clubs work with other sports clubs and provide players the opportunity to take part in other sports rather than just go to football training 3 or 4 times a week. This will contribute to creating athletes with better agility, balance and co-ordination which can only help sports such as football when coaches are looking to develop sports specific skills and techniques.

Solution 3: Winning Comes Later
Games need to be seen as a development tool up until age of 16. Then you can teach about how to win games and more about game management. We have it the wrong way around at present. We teach players to win games without teaching basics which would increase the probability of actually winning games. 

There is too much focus on winning or simply not losing games. Coaches focus on team shape, tactics and set-pieces for a significant duration of training. Aspects such as set-pieces are irrelevant in the development of young footballers. They are team-orientated and focused around winning the actual game and not developing the young players. Time should not be wasted on telling players where to stand for a set-piece as often clubs have very little time to work with young players. Instead, time would be better spent focussing on developing player’s skill, game awareness and decision-making. 
It is very evident how competitive the game becomes as soon as kids move to 11 aside football. We want to encourage kids to individually strive to win and do their best to improve but not emphasize team winning and scoreboard winning. That is not saying just participating is fine, it is saying we want kids to strive and seek to be the best they can be, get the better of their opponents and out think their opponents. 

Kids are naturally competitive so we don’t need to put pressure on them to not make mistakes to ensure their team do not lose. If you put a ball down and pick two teams the game will be naturally competitive, so we do not need adults shouting and screaming when kids fail to score a chance or let a goal in by making a mistake. 

Instead ask them what they could have done better to ensure every scenario and situation is used as a learning experience. That is where the skilled coach comes in- they are there to guide the players and they have the knowledge to guide players in the correct direction. Simply just leaving players to play without any guidance will not produce players. 

Solution 4: Teach Decision Making Skills
It is important we focus on developing the correct tools required to produce intelligent and creative players as opposed to creating winning teams at under 14. Kids do not need to be taught how to play 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 formations. They need to be taught how to create space, how to angle for a pass, how to provide width, how to provide penetration, how to provide depth, how to time movements & runs, how to read opponents body shape & movements, how to close spaces to ensure they can’t be bypassed, how to make the correct decisions like when to pass-when to dribble- where to pass- where to dribble. 

Formations are tools used for adult teams to win games, they do not have any real relevance to developing players until they are older. If players are technically good, intelligent, make good decisions and are quick and athletic then they are more likely to win games. 

Rather than coaching a team how to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, we should be focusing on developing player’s brains to ensure they make good decisions, quickly and frequently. Formations are a starting point to balance out the space on the field and provide a bit of structure to a team. We do not need to coach players on the nuances of the 4-3-3 formation at a young age.
Solutions 5: Relaxed Approach
Another potential solution may be controversial with some members of the footballing community. Over the years we have become so focused on creating teams at professional clubs starting from a very young age. This leads to early specialisation for many of the players where they only play football and have a very focused regime from a young age. 

This can lead to burnout very quickly and does not provide kids with the freedom to develop as kids. To counter this problem we could have training groups up until the age of 13 where players train a couple of times a week with a pro club but do not play competitive games. 

They can play friendly/festival games with the club but do not play in focused matches every single week. This would allow players to play with boys club and play a range of other sports throughout the week. This approach is less cut throat and more relaxed. They would still have plenty of access to games with friendlies and playing for boys clubs. 

Players can then be taught the necessary skills, techniques, decision-making and game understanding without being put in team shape and coaches coaching to win games as opposed to developing players. Pro coaches could also take sessions with boys clubs in their local community to ensure all kids are provided with access to good coaching, not just the ones that mature early or show early promise.

Solution 6: Pay For Coaches
It is time we treat coaching as a profession like any other and pay for full-time coaches to work with kids at young ages. Instead of spending thousands of pounds a week for mediocre professional players, pay a few thousand a year for a highly skilled, qualified and experienced coach to develop players. 

This in turn will make the club more sustainable and will provide a good product on park. It is feasible to get 2/3 players through to 1st team every year with the correct investment, correct environment and clubs providing more opportunities to young players. If we keep wages lower in general then clubs will not need to panic about being relegated and there would be less pressure on managers. This would create more stability at clubs and allow managers to gradually develop the club and the team. 
At present, mediocre players are being paid unbelievable salaries compared to doctors, nurses and other normal jobs. It is a waste of money to pay vast salaries to players who are not top level. It can also de-motivate players and stop them from working as hard to improve and fulfil their potential. With lower salaries players may become more focused on reaching the next level and they would still be able to live very comfortable lives with lower salaries. Rather than paying players £40/50k a year, clubs could halve that amount to allow them to pay a full-time youth coach £20/25k a year. This would ensure clubs have more full-time professional coaches at the younger ages with the correct skills, experience and qualifications.

Solutions 7: Age Suitable Game Formats
At present the Scottish FA have adapted the format of the game to suit the age and development of players but this could be developed further. It is important we use incremental steps which fit in with way kids learn and the number of solutions and scenarios their brains can process. 

Moving to a full size pitch and playing 11 vs 11 too early can be detrimental to development. At present the SFA are suggesting kids play 4V4 up to under 8. This is a great step and exactly what should be used at very young ages. The next step in the development pathway sees players play 7v7 from 9-12 years of age. 

Rather than move straight to 7v7 we could let the kids play 5V5 at under 9,  6V6 at under 10 and then 7v7 for under 11 to under 13. This aligns better with child development and the way the brain and body develops. Moving too quickly to 11v11 and introducing too many variables too quickly can confuse players and can be overwhelming to some. This can cause a lack of creativity, as players are so confused with the amount of variables they cannot make a decision when in possession. 

The immediate reaction is to think of why it couldn’t or wouldn’t work in terms of pitches and logistics. Perhaps we need to start thinking about how we could make it work. We could use small goals and cones for pitch markings. It does not have to be all official at a very young age. As long as there is a ball, two goals and two teams then it is a competitive game when children are playing. 

With this new format kids would play 11v11 either halfway through under 13 or at under 14. A potential step of 9v9 could be introduced between 7v7 to bridge the gap. This could be feasible but would require portable goals to ensure the pitches were made smaller length wise. Professional clubs may be able to do this but boys clubs playing in local parks may find it a bit tricky. However, if the collective will is there then a lot can be achieved to change the game for the better.
Solutions 8: Collaboration
Pro clubs work with each other and with boys clubs and don’t be so ‘us against them’. It will benefit everyone, as there will be more & better players to choose from. Players naturally find their level in time. Clubs do not need to go around poaching players from other teams. 

Instead, their time would be better spent if they worked with the players they had to make them as good as they possibly could be. The better players would eventually gravitate to the better teams in time. Clubs could also work together more to learn from each other rather than compete against each other. They could do in-service events where other clubs came to watch their coach’s work with their teams. 

This would hopefully ensure we can develop a best practice model throughout the country. Also, if a kid wants to leave a club then clubs should let them leave rather than stop them playing football and making life difficult for them. Surely, we want kids to be happy in the long run. An approach such as this also provides an opportunity for other players to come into the club and develop.

The potential solutions highlighted in the article are designed to provoke thought and generate ideas. They are not aimed at being definitive answers to the problems faced in Scottish youth football. It is important action is taken going forward to try to come up with solutions to the problems we currently face. We need to produce more skilful, intelligent and creative footballers to allow us to reach a major finals for the first time since 1998. If there is a collective will and desire to work together then who knows what can be achieved in the future. One thing is for certain, if we continue with the same methods then we will drift further into footballing oblivion.

Stephen Fraser is a qualified football coach who was worked in Scotland with St Mirren and America with Seacoast United.  His blueprint for football can be found here and he can be contacted on Twitter.

Our highly regarded Blueprint According To... interviews are collected into three Volumes of e-books that are available from Amazon (US Versions here).  To receive a free copy of the third book in the series, get in touch on Twitter.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Examining The Academy System in Scotland

Stephen Fraser

This is the first in a two part series. The second part of will look at potential solutions to the issues we face in Scottish youth football.

There has been lot of debate recently regarding the academy system within Scotland and whether it is actually working. The national team manager Gordon Strachan has suggested clubs should scrap the academy system and replicate the past where players were developed in boy’s clubs and in schools. Although there is merit in such a set-up, life has changed and there are too many distractions for kids now. We need to find the balance between the old ways and the modern advancements in coaching and player development. A system which replicates play scenarios similar to street and park play can provide many benefits. However, it is crucial players are provided with guidance to unlock their potential. 

Many pundits and coaches have stated their opinions with a number in favour of scrapping the pro youth system all together. They are fully justified in questioning the system as we have failed to produce enough top level players for a number of years. However, being a high level ex-pro or adult coach doesn’t mean you know how children learn and develop.  Nor does it automatically mean that you know how to teach kids from a young age through to adulthood.  The same way as being a primary school teacher doesn’t qualify you to be a secondary teacher; being a good doctor doesn’t mean you are a good paediatrician or being a criminal lawyer doesn’t mean you are a good immigration lawyer.  

Although the subject or sport is the same, the audience, the methods, skills and knowledge required are vastly different. We should be questioning the academy system and looking for ways to improve it. However, it would be a monumental mistake to scrap youth academies in Scotland altogether. This would lead to far fewer players being produced and would leave the game in Scotland in dire straits. The actual system of academy football is not the problem, it is the environment we create which is the problem.
The academy environment within Scotland is highly competitive. Clubs need to understand they are working with kids and not mini adults. Players are not allowed to make mistakes and are not afforded opportunities to just act as kids. We need to let them have fun, be curious and work out their own solutions with guidance from qualified, experienced and skilled coaches. We need to work with players with a development focus in mind, rather than releasing players when they appear to be struggling. Usually clubs get rid of players because they are not winning games so they correlate that with not having the correct players in their system. 

However, this is often not the case. It may just be the players are not as quick learners as players from other teams. Talent identification needs to be better to ensure more suitable players are signed by clubs in the first place. Clubs need to get away from focusing on players who make the biggest impact in games. This is usually down to early physical and psychological maturation and has very little relevance to future potential. Similarly, clubs need to place more emphasis on movement mechanics and the mind-set of young players. We need to focus on creating more all-around athletes which will produce a bigger pool of players to choose from. 

If players are well balanced, co-ordinated and can move explosively in multiple directions then it is easier for coaches to teach them the required skills and techniques in football. It is also crucial players have a growth focused mind-set and are able to embrace mistakes and learn from them.

It is ludicrous to suggest you are born with specific ‘talents’ or genes for football. Genetic attributes like fast twitch and slow twitch fibres are significant in developing physically and do play a part in player development. However, we learn to walk, talk and run through imitation and trial and error. In reality it is a mixture of environment mixed with initial physical traits. Without the correct environment then you cannot make use of physiology. 
In his recent book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explores in depth the way major industries and professions have progressed through the years. The main tenet of the book is related to making mistakes and learning from them. He highlights potent examples such as the medical profession, aviation and the criminal justice system. 

In particular he discusses how, often a culture exists within particular industries, where they are so ingrained in doing things a particular way because it has always been done this way. Syed highlights, many so-called leading experts do things in a particular way even although it leads to poor results. The positive examples he discusses highlight how making mistakes is crucial to learning for individuals and industries but only if they analyse them and learn from them. He uses the aviation industry as a prime example, as they have learned from a number of aviation mistakes to ensure the safety record is of the highest standard. 

This example is very pertinent to the system within Scottish youth football for two reasons. Firstly, the way players are developed is usually based on the previous experience of coaches and practioners and not on evidence based coaching. Clubs tend to coach in a particular way because they think it is the correct way to develop skill but in reality a lot of the work is counter-productive. 

The second reason the issues highlighted in Black Box Thinking are pertinent to Scottish football is concerned with allowing kids the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The environment within Scottish football is very negative and making mistakes is seen as a criminal offence. Young children are often lambasted for making mistakes, when in reality, making mistakes is the only way they will learn. 
Syed concludes, many of the great developments within top industries and professions are made through trial and error. Therefore, we need to let players make mistakes, analyse them then come up with better solutions next time. The only way they are going to learn is if we give them the freedom to make mistakes and discover solutions via guidance from coaches. This way of teaching, is the polar opposite from instructing them what to do all the time. 

The debate around the academies in Scotland has mainly centred on players being over-coached in highly structured academies. It is very difficult to argue with this point, as a lot of the development work focuses on telling the players what to do all the time rather than let them discover the solutions themselves. However, one can argue with the issue regarding academies being too structured and this being a negative. Clubs such as Barcelona, Ajax & Southampton have very structured academies where players are highly coached. Southampton in particular look upon themselves as teachers of football and look towards improvement as the key aspect of their club. 

It is extremely difficult to argue with the proven track record of these academies. They have consistently produced high level players who have played in their first team and those of other top clubs around the world. It would be a challenge for anyone to say that is incorrect. I would argue, it is the type of environment and coaching which needs to be improved, not the structured environment which academies produce.
Nations such as Holland and Iceland are very much ‘coaching nations’ where they believe good coaching will improve players. They coach players correctly, with the correct type of interventions and the correct types of practices. Over the years Holland has produced top coaches and top players. Recently, Iceland has risen to the Elite of European football by qualifying for Euro 2016. By all accounts, they have achieved this through good coaching by well-educated and qualified coaches. Iceland has a population of nearly 330,000, which is considerably lower than Scotland. This example gives hope to smaller nations and proves that the correct coaching environment with well-educated coaches can lead to significant progress in player development. 

Stephen Fraser is a qualified football coach who was worked in Scotland with St Mirren and America with Seacoast United.  His blueprint for football can be found here and he can be contacted on Twitter.

Our highly regarded Blueprint According To... interviews are collected into three Volumes of e-books that are available from Amazon (US Versions here).  To receive a free copy of the third book in the series, get in touch on Twitter.