Children Compete, Adults Compare


Screenshot 2020-04-19 at 17.16.39

The 2nd guest discussion on our Learning in Development podcast shone a light on various aspects of child-youth sport. We discussed some aspects that need to be amplified and others that need to be dampened.

It is important to understand that this is not a discussion about how coaches design their sessions. It is  about the culturally pervasive beliefs in child youth football that influence how it is structured , how learning in development is viewed and understood; and how this apparent inertia can be investigated and challenged?

Bastiaan Riemersma (twitter),Head of Youth Development at Dutch premier league club Willem II, (most known for fostering Virgil van Dijk and Frankie DeJong) shared his views on learning in development for young football players and gave some insights in to the present discussions in and around Dutch youth soccer.

Michiel de Hoog (twitter) is a journalist. In recent years being investigating culture and practice in youth sport around the world, with a particular focus on youth football. Michiel shared some revealing insights from his work. His investigations in to youth sport can be viewed in De Correspondent

You can listen to the discussion here:



While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will all leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).

It should be noted that the title Children compete, adults compare is something that I borrowed from Jamie Williams(twitter)


Insights from the discussion

As Willem II is not such a big club with a lot of financial resources they have to do things differently when it comes to player development. The club focuses on serving the local community and does not take in young players that live more than 25 kilometers away. Having patience and a sense of culture is so important. The culture is reflected in the daily behaviours of the coaches, the parents and the players. It is important that this is consistent.

Willem II try to keep their system open as long as possible for as many as possible. The club carries out a selection at 13 but the idea is to try and keep the group as big as possible until 16.

Buying young players is not developing players. Budgets available in certain big clubs means that they can buy the best young players in the country or even Europe. This is not developing your own players. There is a big difference between developing players and identifying players

A national or district football associations competitive structure can hinder clubs that are looking to implement evidence-based approaches underpinned by empirical and experiential knowledge. This may be in conflict with the club’s philosophy.


Select the coaches

Select coaches that believe in the idea of learning in development. If you have coaches that believe in the idea of talent then it will be difficult to change the system.

We have a way of playing and training that focusses on the idea that it is fun to play our way.

A good youth coach can work with all players not just the players who are the best performers just now

Work with the culture- You can influence the culture by how you react to winning or losing, how a you react when someone makes a mistake

We can talk all we want about to how we play and train, our methodology. You can find a lot of this information on the internet, that is not a secret anymore. How do we deal with set-backs? How do coaches speak to each other? How do coaches speak to the children? How do you speak to the parents?

Wellbeing of children is one of the main aims at Willem II. Each of our players can chose a coach at the club to become their mentor. This is not specifically for football reasons but to have someone to reach out to, and talk to about ‘life’.

While our mandate may be to develop players, our duty of care is towards developing people.


We don’t cover the weather, we cover the climate (De Correspondentmotto)

Many present systems, models and ideas in youth football are seemingly promoting certain expectations with parents, coaches and clubs regarding what child youth football is, how it should be structured and what learning in development looks like. This limiting their ability to think critically, act differentlybreak routines and try new ways

It’s hard to change even the smallest of assumptions in youth football, even the idea of not seeing it as just a miniature version of the adult game.

There are growing and influential voices in Dutch football that are thinking critically and questioning the status quo. Some discussions that would never even be considered a few years back are now surfacing.

The assumption that early performance is an indicator of late performance is being challenged. However, there is a tendency towards ‘survivorship bias’ (see here) when arguments are presented in favour of the early selection and deselection of children.

Screenshot 2020-04-19 at 16.12.49

KNVB (Dutch Football Association) are listening. For instance, the RAE (Relative Age Effect) has played a big influence on player development in Dutch football and this is something that KNVB are looking in to.

This quote by Laura Finnegan (twitter) from her excellent report on the Relative Age Effect in UEFA u17 Championships 2019 (read more here) is worth reflecting on.

“The Netherlands displayed one of the largest recorded percentages of quarter 1 births seen in youth football research, with 62% of their players being born in the first 3 months of the year”.


Clubs act out of fear. “If we don’t do it, someone else will do it..” – Aloys Wijnker

There are some interesting developments happening in the Netherlands.

Aloys Wijnker who will soon become the new head of talent development at KNVB was recently interviewed by Michiel (see here).One of the things Wijnker questions about football is the idea that adult men can earn their money by evaluating the football ability of seven- and eight-year-old’s.

This issue is further highlighted by AZ Alkmaar youth talent developerBart Heuvingh (Heuvingh on Twitter.),who spoke from experience and in reference to his own research work: “The predictive value of performance at that age (7 years old) is next to nothing”- 

The message is clear from Wijnker – “Forget about scouting that small group of youngest children; pay more attention to a larger group of children; and only invest in the best when they are older”.

In stark contrast: There was an open talent day at Ajax in Novermber 2019 where 3-year old kids were being evaluated by professional scouts.

The KNVB (Dutch football federation) have received criticism from some of the bigger clubs and commercial media for opening up a discussion around these issues. For example, not publishing league tables in children’s football was met with the argument that Dutch football is in danger of surrendering the will to win and lose in children’s football. Kids compete, adults compare.


 Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie DeJong

 They were not the best players when they were younger. Virgil van Dijk was regularly on the bench until he was 13. Frenkie De Jong was a small child.

Bastiaan mentioned that he had some games of Frenkie playing for Willem II against PSV U16 and Frenkie only touched the ball twice in one half”

There is a document at Willem on the development of Virgil van Dyke when he was a 12-year-old. The document refers to an evaluation and forecast on van Dykes future. The coach said that he could maybe reach the 2nd team of Willem II. This document can be shown to young players at the club now as it says a lot

They both loved playing on the street. They played for hours with their friends. The reason why Frenkie DeJong chose to stay with Willem II for so long (until 17), and not go to a bigger academy club, was to play with his friends.

We cannot predict the future, so instead of talking about the future, keep the system open. It is difficult. There is a game on Saturday and we are back to comparing children.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s