Monday, February 28, 2011

English youth soccer system may lack, but still tops ours

From the Evansville Courier Press, February 27, 2011

On a recent trip to England, I found some radical differences between how we develop our young players here in the United States.

Evansville Soccer Club president Jim King and I spent a couple of days at the Manchester City Football Club youth academy, where we watched some of their youth teams train and met with their academy staff.

Here were some unique items that stood out with the young academy players, teams and coaches:

n Frequency of training: Even at the under-8 level, the players practice regularly. The average under-8 teams in the English Premier League academies get together three times a week, twice for practices, and once for a game.

n Players taken out of their comfort zone: As early as u-8, teams play against older opposition. We watched Manchester City's under-8 team play against Stockport County's under-9. While there were certainly times where they were overmatched physically, you could see them growing in confidence from competing against opposition that was stronger and faster. My guess is that those experiences translate pretty well when they return to play teams their own age.

n Score: I was very impressed by the focus of the youth academy coaches on the process (teaching and coaching how to play), opposed to a focus on the outcome (too much emphasis on winning). I can't recall any of the spectators or players referencing the score at any time. The standard of how the teams were trying to play was very high, and without the fear of failure seemed to develop confidence in the young players.

n Referees: I was very surprised that there were no referees for the match. Coaches would stop the game if a foul was committed, but there might have been three fouls in the entire game.You could see that players were physical while playing the game the right way — tackling with a minimal amount of fouling. Players never complained or looked to an official for help; when a player was knocked off the ball, he immediately bounced up and recovered in transition.

n Parents: What most shocked me was how the parents behaved. Parents only applauded after a goal was scored or at the end of a period, and never addressed their children at any time during the game. When asked why, one of the parents told King that "we aren't allowed to say anything to kids." I was amazed to see how much buy-in the parents had in this process, and what kind of compromise that they were able to make to have their children play in an English Premier League academy with aspirations of someday becoming a professional.

While on our trip, I read a newspaper column by Henry Winter of The Telegraph about how the English Academy system was behind in youth development from the likes of the Barcelona academy I wrote about weeks ago. Winter wrote that England was painfully behind other nations in youth development; Barcelona's team of all the talents visited Arsenal recently with up to seven home-grown products, such as Xavi and AndrĂ©s Iniesta, in their starting lineup. Arsenal is as gifted a team as there is in the EPL and has only had 2 players — Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott — that have come out of the EPL academy system.

The primary focus of Winter's article was on the number of hours that young academy players train in England in comparison to the top soccer nations of the world. On average, a young player in Spain will have enjoyed 4,880 hours of contact time with an elite club such as Barcelona from the ages of 9 to 21. Holland and France pour even more time into coaching youngsters, 5,940 hours and 5,740 hours respectively. An English tyro will have only 3,760.

Under the FA's Charter for Quality introduced in 1997, Premier League clubs are permitted three hours' contact a week with 9- to 11 year-olds (excluding games), which tends to be the golden years of learning.

In the 12-16 age group, English contenders are limited to five hours a week (excluding games) while those at Ajax (Holland) have 10 to 12. Wonder why England is perceived to struggle in comparison? Do the math.

The Premier League is taking inspiration from the world of music and dance. At the Menuhin music school, each budding virtuoso has 10,840 hours of contact time in their development years, three times the football figure. Pupils at the Royal Ballet receive 10,000 hours' tuition.

What I couldn't get over was that as deficient as Winter described the English academy system, it was still significantly ahead of where we are in the United States. Our young players play a similar number of hours a week as our English counterparts, but even they are saying that it's not enough.

If we could find a way to get more hours for our players to play and learn (without stifling interest and enthusiasm), we can certainly catch up to the other top soccer nations of the world.

Mike Jacobs is soccer coach at the University of Evansville.

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