Taking the fun out of it

The business of selling dreams is a lucrative one, especially with gullible parents and kids with stars in their eyes in abundant supply. This is no more apparent than with youth development in football where a tumultuous relationship has developed between various parties and their agendas.

The underlying problem is that the motivation today is wayward. Things have evolved in a way that too many people around a talented young player benefit. Children are now aiming to become superstars and make football a job, youth coaches try to cash in on this dream by offering their magic formulas to becoming the next Messi, parents desperate for Little Johnny to be the next big thing spend ridiculous amounts funding this pursuit. This deliberately obtuse industry often promises to turn turnips into truffles.

Fame and riches should be a happy byproduct of learning the game and developing technique for the pure joy of being better. Most of the players at the elite level got their first and foremost because of themselves and their own drive to do what they love at the best level they could. Secondly, with the support and encouragement of their family and friends they could watch their heroes before them and try to replicate those moves in the park, schoolyard, or backyard.

Australia’s Harry Kewell told The Sun-Herald in 2003, “I learnt the most by playing in the backyard or at the local park with my brother Rod and my mates.

“Hitting a ball up against a wall for hours on end with different parts of my foot, juggling a soft drink can up against the backyard fence, that is what it’s all about.

“The things I learnt while at the NSW Academy were things that players like Pele and George Best were doing for years.

“No one owns the moves. They are things kids all round the world do for fun.”

One of the greatest players of all time, Pele, learnt his rudimentary skills “by¬†kicking a rolled-up sock stuffed with rags around the streets of Bauru.”

Maradona was given a ball at the age of three and he took it everywhere even sleeping with it. He was then ‘discovered’ at the age of nine after becoming extremely proficient at using that round ball which gave him more light and warmth in his impoverished world than even the sun.

The word discovered is important too because many of the ‘great developers’ of youth are nothing more than really good scouts. Scouting is the real key to building a reputation in youth football. If you have an eye to spot the next big thing then that’s as important a commodity as you need. Clubs spend a lot of time and resources searching for those special talents they can then ‘develop’.

These supremely talented individuals mentioned above used whatever means available to them, coupled with their love for the game to develop to a point which made clubs take notice. Their biggest influences as stated earlier were their family and friends who by just being there and supporting directly or indirectly their passion for football helped mould a champion.

The famed Ajax academy, which was ranked fourth for clubs represented at the 2014 World Cup by club-trained players (7 players), employs up to 55 scouts locally and internationally taking in almost 200 players a year into their youth academy. They spend around six million Euros annually with the goal of producing three players every two years for their first team. That’s a goal of having approximately 0.75% of their youth players go on to represent their senior side. More than that are sold on to other clubs before they reach the Ajax senior squad and even go on to have distinguished careers, such as our own Jason Culina. Many more though just end up telling their kids that they used to play for Ajax youth back in the day.

In almost any other industry you’d look at that conversion rate and think that something isn’t working. That’s because it isn’t an exact science, especially with the unpredictability of human beings which is magnified when you’re dealing with the physical, emotional, and mental changes children and youths go through.

The Ajax example is what coaches, academies, and clubs can and many do do to help young players. They can foster that love for the game and provide the access to the facilities where they can express themselves. By the time the players get to them they can start working on the tactical side of the game, the physical side, and the mental toughness that comes with competition.

At the elite level this relationship is mutually beneficial and a lot more honest than what we see with younger kids at a grassroots level. Being in an environment where a talented individual can focus on football full time and test themselves against high caliber opposition is of great benefit. Technique can be developed just as much by kids themselves as by a coach. As the examples above have shown, most top players start young before they reach a coach by teaching themselves by doing and doing and doing using the examples of their heroes or what they have experienced works in games with friends.

Here is what Rodolfo Borrell had to say on being Messi’s first coach at Barcelona’s famous La Masia:

I had the pleasure to be his first coach at Barcelona when he arrived in the 2000/2001 season, where I was the Under-14 coach at the club.
I have to say that he was already magnificent back then. He is a player who is born to play this sport.

We always say that we can improve a player, from a technical side, in terms of discipline. Right now, I wish I can sit down here and say that I helped Messi become this good but this was not how it is – he was born to play football. The club makes him better in some ways.

When you have people peddling philosophies or systems that should immediately set off as many alarm bells as a “learn how to predict the lotto numbers” ad. Philosophies and systems when packaged commercially are rigid, simplistic, and usually designed to be ambiguous. Despite what they say they’re the antipathy to creativity and development.

There are even private academies and coaches who have aligned themselves with clubs so they can send their ‘clients’ there for trials and get the occasional one signed all to raise their own prestige. The agendas and conflicts of interests are not always easy to spot for parents blinded by their and their child’s ambitions.

In Australia we have invested a great deal in the footballing equivalent of Amway. The whole system is reliant on getting everyone to buy into it and shutTing out those who don’t. It is a system devoid of accountability and one that covers up a lack of substance and reality with impressive buzzwords, jargon, useless data and empty promises.

Sure we have more accreditation, more organisation and more uniformity than ever before and that is important. However, what we lack is; innovation, allowances for alternatives, pressure on our coaches, and anything unique to our environmment. We have unnecessarily lost a lot of what has helped us to be competitive on the international stage at youth level. This has been justified as being important for teaching the next generation how the senior national team will play. A reasonable argument.

However, you don’t pick players from a Center Of Excellence to play for a national team. You pick players who excel at their clubs in a high level competition. Youth development should be about getting our players in the position to play for these clubs that can help them take the next step. The youth World Cups are and always have been a showpiece for players to get spotted. Whether 9 years old or 19 years old you have to let young players be themselves and nurture that without the burden of one particular doctrine or philosophy.

There are a lot of coaches and groups out there who recognize and preach this enjoyment of football ahead of any magic formula. The key for parents is to educate themselves and their kids before putting faith in any system, just like they would before choosing a primary school. Everyone can benefit by players, coaches, and even parents reverting back and being true to that very first moment they fell in love with the game.

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