Relearn Long Term Player Development – A conversation with Dave Clarke

mark sub
Dave is one of the premiere college coaches in the NCAA’s highest division, head coach for women’s soccer at Quinnipiac University, a licensed Instructor for the United States Soccer Federation and also works with the US Soccer National Training Centre. Dave first appeared in Footblogball in November 2013- (see here)

Dave and I have remained in contact since and last week we had a very interesting conversation that we both decided would be interesting and challenging material for a blog post.

“We know that every system in the universe resists change to maintain a status-quo” – Andy Kirkland (Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence)

Footblogball: In a recent discussion you said to me that sport wastes a lot of time trying to convince people we are developing players when we are not? I can sympathise with this point of view. Here is my take. For any future player development, it is important that we look to the past, knowledge of environment, individual constraints, history of movement opportunities. Our society has become very affected by compartmentalism and reductionism and this is very evident in many development programmes that are selling in fake fundamentals as learning. Also, the cult of the individual coach in soccer selling in individual technique training (with little or no empirical foundation) to pre-pubescent kids as a business has done very little in my opinion. The erroneous assumption that there is a typical or ‘normal’ way of performing an action. Early competitive pressure driven by feeling of falling behind if you don’t practice enough drives the start age down and the training volume up in early years. In the race to the bottom the toxic word of talent regularly takes centre stage far too often and far too early.  Al Smith summed this up in one of our conversations when he said that “the biggest enemy of progress is an environment that allows any kid (or their parent) to define themselves as a ‘high performer’ – that’s just status anxiety masquerading as development”.

To quote Richard Bailey from an interview I did with him in November 2014 – “There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate.  Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions”.

If we took apart our present child/youth sports structures and began from zero building a development culture on the physical and emotional needs of children first, it would look a lot different than it does now
Dave Clarke: Player Development and especially the word development has become a dirty concept for me. It is a phrase thrown out there by clubs and coaches, but what does it mean? I understand what coaches want it to mean, but perception and reality are two totally different things.

Soccer in the US is a big business as it is in many countries around the world. Clubs promise players and their parents that they will develop their players. Do they? Do the clubs share their Best Practices? Their methodology? What is Player Development for a 10-year-old joining a club for the first time versus a player who is 16-17? How does this development take place? What does it look like? What is the evaluation process or review that takes place to ensure development occurs?

We use the term Development and no one ever seems to question whether or not we are truly developing players. Chelsea and Man City are facing each other in the English FA Youth Cup Final. The two clubs have spent millions on their Academies, on this crop of players, and used the term Player Development throughout and yet how many will play for either first team? How many will go on to accomplish great things in the game? Sure, some will go down the leagues and play lower level EPL or make a decent living, but I am sure those players all felt they were going to make the big time in their respective first teams.

The more I read about Player Development the more it seems we are not really bringing through the players in the manner we had hoped. By we, I mean Coaching as an industry. What are the real percentages? If we were a town school system being audited by the Department of Education we would be given a failing grade for the lack of progress of the majority of our students.

Clubs and coaches get by and develop reputations when one of their players makes it as a pro, reaches the national team, gets a scholarship, etc, but what about the other 99%? What happened to their development? We would not let a high school teacher away with helping his/her best student to get into the college of his choice to the detriment or lack of progress of the rest of the class. So why do we accept it in sport in general and soccer in particular?

We also accept clubs and coaches at their word when they say they developed players. Of course, they mean the one who makes it, but did they truly develop the player. Victor Wanyama is one of the best defensive midfield players in the Premier League as he is proving this season. Does the Spurs coaching staff get the credit for his development or should it go to Celtic who put him on the European stage in the Champions League? What then of the roles of Southampton or Beerschot or his four youth clubs in his development? Did his family or friends play a role? His teachers? Who develops a player such as Wanyama? Or is a process like school, the Kindergarten teacher every bit as a important to the Ivy league student’s educational process as his thesis advisor?

Footblogball: Another topic that stayed with me from our conversation was – Pro clubs should just set up leagues from U12-U16, let players play, no parents, no instruction, and it would still help bring players through at the same rate as the clubs and their Academies. I find this very interesting.

Recently I read an interview with an Elite NGB coach in response to criticism directed at National elite selection training camps for young teenagers. His response was something like how many elite players must come through our system before people understand that it works? Without reflection, this may seem quite impressive and indeed be interpreted as evidence that the system works (if that is how we evaluate a system). Every system will produce an output. On deeper analysis and reflection, we can also argue that there are many shortcomings. The system being referred to is now more or less the only system available. I have previously analysed this system in the article Survival of the fittest or survival of talent (see here). Has this system wrestled away other systems that used to emerge naturally to become the only lens through which talent is identified? The system seemingly both physically and emotionally is only meeting the needs of those that satisfy a certain criterion at a certain point in time. Just like Dr Martin Toms said, I too predict that if we colour every child’s hair green then in the future we will have green haired professional footballers.
Dave Clarke: I look back on my own playing career and how I was influenced by some coaches with great reputations for developing players. And yet, I feel that my most of my technical and tactical development was from street soccer, summer 7v7 events (playing up 2-3 years), and playing on my own. Yes, I received some good coaching, but most of my early development and later development as a player came from watching the game, watching other players, playing in free environments.

I think clubs and coaches have tried to replace free individual development with structured practices and the question must to be asked, has it worked? It hasn’t worked in Ireland or Scotland because there is a lack of technically skilful gifted players coming through compared to 20 years ago. And it doesn’t seem to be working in many other countries either.

Maybe clubs have to rethink their process and instead of forcing development allow it to happen organically.  One idea I would play about with is a 7v7, 9v9 or 11v11 version of the Dutch Street Soccer. Let the games replace training sessions. No coaching during the game – only coaching points before, at half time and after the final whistle. Instruction would be limited to telling players to try things – concepts like dribble until they lose it, take players on, score by dribbling around the keeper, can you chip him form the half-way line, take risks, don’t be afraid to give away the ball, turn in your own area, etc, etc, etc. – all the things players do in an unstructured environment which ultimately helps them become the players we pay to watch.

I would not let the parents attend the games – keep them in the club house, an idea I saw in practice at PSV Eindhoven. This way players will not be afraid to make mistakes, they won’t get yelled at to do things and will problem solves as they figure things out for themselves rather than be told what to do.?

At 16 or 17 the clubs can then take the best players from the leagues and start to coach them or teach them in the philosophy of the club. In terms of pure numbers it can’t be any worse than what is already in place.

Footblogball: Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids – As many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible.


12 thoughts on “Relearn Long Term Player Development – A conversation with Dave Clarke

  1. I support both the sentiments of this article and the comment above about confirmation bias.

    This raises so many issues for me, especially the role of coaches as educators of young learners as opposed to being the managers of young players.

    Following points I would like to make;

    1. That most youth development programs are evidence free environments is agreed, but what evidence exists that they don’t work?

    2. A light-touch to coaching is not the same as no coaching or minimal coaching. To my mind this is a vital point that risks being the baby in the bathwater during ‘The game as coach’ style developments.

    3. I absolutely disagree with the idea of restricting parent access to the players training and matches. Parents need to be treated as, and equipped to be, co-educators of the youngsters not the ‘qualified experts’ enemy.

    4. Al Smiths’ comment has a fundamental flaw (imo). It is only valid if we are not, or are unable to, accurately monitor progress. To me the issue is not progress but the way that progress is defined, valued and perceived by those involved. All three of which are open to influence.

    As ever thanks for putting your brilliant work and thoughts out there for us to learn from.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read the article
      1. There is plenty of evidence questioning the validation and worth of certain systems ( Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259)
      2.With regard to parent access I think it is worth knowing that I live in Sweden and Dave in USA. We are also discussing across cultures and reflecting on our own experiences. I do parent education for clubs as I (and have stated in other articles that parents are partners.
      3. I think that you may have not got what Al was saying. He would probably agree with you on how progress is defined, valued and perceived.
      Really appreciate that you take the time to read and share your thoughts.

      • thanks.

        I will check that ref out.

        Re parents. Apologies if I implied you agreed with banning parents. I know your work and know you don’t. I intended to comment only on what was said above, specifically about PSV.

        As far as Al is concerned I probably have missed it, in the rush to make my point that the environment he described is a result of coaches / clubs not owning the definition of progress first and often.

  2. Great article, the point that adult ambitions ‘trump’ the needs of the child is valid on so many levels. There is plenty of evidence this is occurring even at the most rudimentary club levels. Removing the ‘ego’ of coaches and the ‘income’ of administrators and allowing organic development is an absolute necessity for a happy, healthy youngster… I wonder in this ‘techno age’ if Dave’s wise words apply to ‘all’ aspects of learning ?

  3. Dear Mark, John Kessel turned me on to your site a while back. My field is tennis… and it’s the same story. Systematic training and the promise of linear development fills the coaches pockets. The truth… that we REALLY don’t know who’s gonna get good. That development is anything but linear. And that progression based drilling doesn’t work. Just isn’t a sexy enough story. And by the time people figure it out… it’s often too late. We hand off so many players to “higher level” coaches whose methodolgies are deeply rooted not in science, but in how they were coached. Their rationale: If it worked for them, it’ll work for… well, you already know. And then we watch those promising players die on the vine. When I feel like strangling someone I come by here and am reminded that the coaching world is changing. A little too slowly for my tastes… but it is changing. Thanks for all your efforts!

  4. Dave Clarke emailed me this and asked me to put it in the comments section
    Great comments from all involved.
    The discussion I had with Mark which was the basis for his Q&A was just two coaches trading ideas on an earlier article. My replies were based on experience, anecdotal evidence and professional observations and not on empirical evidence. However, I believe there is research out there to support some of the points raised.
    In the early 90s the School of Excellence system in England did not allow parents to attend games. Games were 3×30 minutes, with changes in formation, coaching in between the thirds and results were not kept nor posted. It was a similar idea in Holland at PSV and one that is worth further exploration. Did the rules work? Are they only practical at a professional level? I for one would be love to find out.
    We don’t allow parents into the classroom to scream at their kids to ‘answer the question’, ‘solve the problem’, ‘what does 5+5=?’, ‘tell the teacher your answer’, etc, so why do we allow them to watch a game and scream or yell? I know we can never fully restrict parental access, but is there a happy medium that might aid in the development of players?
    I think football is an under researched sport and in terms of Long Term Athlete Development needs further detailed research. I look forward to Mark delving into this area of study in the coming years.

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