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.