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.
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