Saturday, 5 May 2012

Relative Age Effect - Real Research not just Numbers?

I have read a number of articles on the Relative Age Effect (RAE) in youth football.  Most of this research uses the quantitative approach, a numbers game.  It looks at what has happened rather than what could happen.  It is well documented that players in representative international teams and professional clubs have higher numbers born in the first quartile of the year.  This could be September to December for schools in England and January to March for countries that date age groups by calendar rather than school years. It is common for scouts, coaches and teachers to recognise that the older players are more advanced (across the four corners) than their fourth quartile contemporaries.  Not surprising really when there can be anything up to a year in age difference and subsequently short term advancement in levels of development.  Short term is the key word here.  The problem is that we may never know the impact of this short term difference in development as over the longer term at the moment, those born in the latter part of the year are the players most likely to 'drop out' of football (and other team based sports) because of a perceived weakness in skill, strength, size, speed or other areas of development.

The FA attempted to look at the affects of 'birth bias' in it's recent review of youth football.  This appears to have been a step too far for some and the proposals have been dropped from the overall review process.  The idea was to have schools and grassroots youth football with two intake dates, September to August (the current system) and January to December as a way of  shifting and spreading the RAE more evenly.  It would have been interesting to see what happened because of this shift.  Would it simply move the problem?  Would it actually prove that a large number of footballers born between July and September have been neglected and cast aside simply because they have missed out on nine months of practice?  Does this result in always playing catch up and subsequently being lost to the game?  For now we will not know and I for one am disappointed as I feel it is an area that needs a more pragmatic, practical research approach.

So what can be practically done?  It would be intriguing to be involved in a practical approach at some point in the future, but, until then I thought I would share what this approach may look like.

1. Using existing recruitment practice, take a group of Under 9 footballers and commit to developing them over a period (preferably through a defined physical maturation period) using a consistent methodology, a consistent group of coaching and sports science staff and have this group act as a 'control' group.  It would then be interesting to see the birth bias in this group.  Are the majority of players in the September to December birth range?

2. At the same time, identify a group of players who are playing in the grassroots game but are considered not to be ready for recruitment into an Academy Under 9 team.  Ideally, these players would be in the third and fourth quartiles (April to end of August) and would act as the 'experimental' group.  Again, commitment to development using the same methodology and same coaching and sports science staff through the same time period for those in the 'control' group.

This may be seen as simplistic but has it ever been tried?  It would be difficult for any club to take this on as a proposal because of the obvious financial, practical and logistical difficulties but surely somebody with the will and the way could have a go?

I for one would be intrigued by the outcome.  Would the bias disappear over the period in question? Would one group be identified as being more advanced than the other at the end of the period in time?

What I know for sure is that instead of having a group of around 16 players who have developed together using a consistent methodology you would have another 16 who have done the same thing without being considered not 'good enough' and therefore lost to the game for nothing more than the month of the year they happened to be born in.  From a practical and some might say selfish point of view, the club in question would then have a group of 32 to make their final decision on with regard to moving into the later stages of the youth development phase and into the professional development phase.  You never know, the majority of them may come from the 'experimental' group.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Grassroots Football Challenge

This is a simple method of recording for developmental purposes the progress of your players.  If you don't do this, why not give it a go. Results and league tables are there for all to see, as are the top goalscorers but what about the individual development needs of your players, and those that are not in the goal scoring category.
Can you evidence the progress of your players?  More importantly are you aware of those who may be struggling to progress?  Even if you find it difficult to formally record data, maybe use it as a method of setting goals for players, get some of the parents involved or set up your own system.

The challenge is in 10 parts, have a look, add your own information and see how it goes.

  1. How many times your goalkeeper can distribute the ball from their hands or feet to the centre backs or full backs and start the play from the back third of the pitch.
  2. How can your centre backs or full backs create space for each other to allow your goalkeeper to pass the ball short and start the play.
  3. After receiving the ball from the goalkeeper, how many times can your centre backs overload to gain advantage in numbers into the midfield and attacking thirds.
  4. How many times can your full backs move forward with the ball and combine with central or wide midfield players.
  5. How many times your defenders can, after tackling or intercepting an opponents pass can they keep possession of the ball and dribble or combine with a team mate.
  6. Can your central midfielder players complete five one v one's and three successful passes for a striker to shoot.  You can of course set these targets higher or lower to suit.
  7. Challenge your wide midfield players to complete as many one v one attempts as possible and 4 successful crosses into, for example, the penalty area.
  8. Challenge the forward players to look, check, receive, turn and go one v one with defenders and go for 4 shots on target.
  9. Ask one of your players who is not on the pitch to record or set some more challenges and then get them on to the pitch!
  10. Talk to your players before and after the game about the challenges.  Do you need to make them harder or easier and decide if you need to set new ones for the future.

As with all challenges, it's up to you and the players to decide if they are appropriate but hopefully it will place the emphasis on the development side of the game.  League tables and goalscorers are recorded for you so why not record something for all of the players?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Talent Identification in Germany

This post is on the DFB's approach to scouting, talent identification and the six criterion used for this process.  It is effectively their equivalent of the 'four corner' model when working with young footballers.

The German FA use a mandatory range of criteria for initial review.  This takes into account that, although a player may fulfil such criteria now, it is by no means a guarantee or predictor of talent for the future.  Other factors such as maturation, social influences and other complex factors will inevitably present themselves over a number of years.  The first task is to identify a broad range of football playing children, those being the most 'talented'.  The following criteria is then used as a guide:

Criterion 1

  • Play and Game activity
    • Ability to identify many elements of surprise in the game
    • "Play along" in any situation - close to and far away from the ball
    • Rapid detection of the game situation
    • Advanced detection of situations (anticipation)
    • Fast switching
Criterion 2
  • Personality
    • Ownership
    • Self-confidence
    • Risk-taking
    • Positive body language
    • Help/motivating players - team orientation
    • Positive aggressiveness/assertiveness
    • Self-criticism and constant willingness to learn
    • Discipline/concentration
Criterion 3
  • Playing Versatility
    • Light and fluid motion
    • Agility: quick change of direction and skilful
    • Skilfully balancing the body/balance
    • Light-footed, and with variable movements on the ball
    • Game Overview - look for the situation
    • Creative problem solvers
Criterion 4
  • Basic Techniques
    • Both feet!
    • Safety on the ball - few turnovers even at speed and under pressure
    • High quality dribbling
    • Precise and variable passing over short/long distances
    • Variations of shooting on goal with accuracy
    • Positive in carrying the ball forward
    • Repertoire of feints
    • Head tennis/ball game
Criterion 5
  • Tactical Fundamentals
    • 1v1 Attacking - Positive, successful in keeping possession & "difficult to separate from the ball"
    • 1v1 Defensive - (position game to make it difficult/block opponents)
    • Breaking away from markers/opponents
    • Working together (awareness of time and space)
    • Good positional game sense
    • Variations in scoring
Criterion 6
  • Fitness/Physical Attributes
    • Response Speed (awareness/switched on)
    • Speed over various distances
    • Movement Skill
    • Intensive activity over sustained period (endurance)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

FA and DFB - Very Similar Systems?

This blog covers a specific comment that was made by the FA's Head of National Game during an interview on grassroots football When this subject is discussed by the national media there is a tendency to go 'off topic' and the debate on Five Live jumped around between referees, respect, parents, coaching, the class system in football versus rugby amongst other things.

One thing that did stand out during the debate was the contribution by Rafael Honigstein (Guardian German Football Reporter).  He described the German FA's (DFB) approach to young player development which I have covered in a previous blog.  When asked about this, Kelly Simmons said that the FA have looked at the German structure a number of times and that we have 'very similar systems' in place in the form of Academies, Centres of Excellence and Skills Programmes.  This is where I would ask, similar in what way?  The DFB specifically changed their youth development model as they professed that at the time (after France 1998 and Euro 2000) the recruitment system for the German national team was something akin to a "lottery", with professional clubs running their Academy systems as individual entities.  This, I would argue is where we are similar to the DFB, the problem is this is where we are now in 2011.  Also, crucially, the DFB implemented the new system, not the Bundesliga meaning the clubs had to conform to their national associations plan.  This meant a vision and philosophy was set by the DFB and communicated through the German youth development structure.

Also, another fundamental difference is the structure.  The DFB have a four pillar system where we have one - the Professional Academy/Centre of Excellence system.  The DFB opened 366 regional bases, where professional, salaried coaches now work with some 14,000 young players between the ages of 11 and 14 in addition to the training done at their respective clubs.  We certainly don't have FA Support Bases, FA Regional Centres or Elite School Programmes, and, crucially if we do move to having an additional pillar in the Elite School Programme, these will be under the jurisdiction of the Premier League, not the Football Association.

The key and fundamental difference between the FA and DFB is the control and governance of youth development.  Cautious of the potential bureaucracy the proposals may have triggered, in particular the issues of finance and staffing- the DFB simply established and implemented a new youth development structure, meaning that the clubs had to conform.

Gareth Southgate has said himself when interviewed alongside Steve Parish that the preferred model for youth development would be a regionally based structure under the FA's responsibility.  I recall his words were something along the lines that this would not be possible now because of the passage of time since the Charter for Quality and introduction of the Academies and Centres of Excellence structure.  The Government have certainly recognised this when saying - "that although the FA govern the game, with rules that take precedence over those of the leagues it sanctions, the FA has subsequently ceded considerable authority to the Premier League"

This is the reason for my blog, do you see the similarities between the two systems?  The Elite Player Performance Plan is seen as a fundamental shift in youth development (akin to the shift in Germany post Euro 2000) but crucially it is under the financial and philosophical control of the Premier League, not the FA.  The DFB's view that the professional clubs running the Academies as 'individual entities' was part of the problem.  For me, the EPPP, although having the aim of increased contact time, more coaches, more links with full time education and the overall improvement of youth development, will it improve English players for the England National Team in the same way the DFB's changes have changed the German National Team?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Every Two Years - The Media & Youth Coaching

It was somewhat of a surprise when Stan Collymore asked the question - 'The definitive debate on coaching football in the UK..Tell us what's happening' I thought fair play to him.  This is a subject that is often ignored when we are in the throes of the domestic football season.

Stan went on to outline his views on the subject and they can be found here He raised a number of points that rarely get 'airtime' and subsequently went on to debate the topic on talksport on Monday 14th November.  I decided to email the programme and I have shown this below.

Whenever the profile of coaching and youth football is raised I always think maybe this is going to be a regular source of debate.  Personally I think it should be.  Unfortunately, other news, the domestic league programme and red top headlines tend to push it on to the back burner ready to be resurrected bi-annually after european championships or world cup tournaments.  

Unfortunately, Stan has gone a little quiet on the subject, partly due to Sepp Blatter's latest gaff I assume.  On a positive note, the EPPP and the FA's changes to youth football seem to have raised the profile and it is being discussed on a more regular basis than I recall in the past.

For those interested, this was my response to Stan Collymore and Talksport:

1. The junior game should not try to be a mirror image of the premier league if we want to prioritise the development of young english footballers.  I see grasroots coaches using hurdles, poles, ladders - normally with 15 to 20 kids waiting in a line without a football in sight.  This also happens in warm ups where kids are doing jogging, stretching and the obligatory line of kids waiting to take a shot at the goalkeeper with the coach serving.  Kids should be placed in positions where they are actually playing the game, with as little input as possible from adults.  If they are in a coached environment, fine, add a bit more detail at the right times, but they are not going to learn how to be independent thinking footballers with too much overbearing adult influence.

2. Schools football.  If possible a greater emphasis should be placed on the national sport in the primary & secondary sector.  This needs to be by consensus with the schools & pupils so we shouldn't force all to participate but realign the pe curriculum so that children get targeted coaching in priority sports from regulated external coaches if necessary.

3. Junior Football - coaching is still considered a volunatry activity & if the FA and Sports Coach UK want to place a greater emphasis on the professionalisation of coaching then the culture needs to change so that paid coaching activity is encouraged.  This could be, for example a Director of Coaching position at large junior clubs (charter standard community clubs) who could then put in place a playing vision & coaching strategy for that club or a group of clubs offering coaching advice & mentoring for new coaches.

4. Opportunities for coaches who have chosen to progress (& pay for coach education) The FA's report back in 2008 widely reported that we had under 2,000 B Licence coaches (think it's around 2,500 or 3,000 now) compared to France - 15,000 & Germany - 28,000.  These coaches could be deployed in the schools or junior football sector if it was co-ordinated & paid for by for example - implementing the government recommendations on the FA's financial surplus which is currently split 50% to the professional game & 50% to the National/Grassroots game.

5. Premier League look at interpretation of "net" when distributing fully 30% of their "net broadcasting income" to the grassroots.  The English Cricket Board simply distribute 30% from their broadcast income whereas the Premier League are allowed to net off players salaries as an operating cost.  Either this or a levy on player transfer fees or agents fees to be re-directed to youth development including grassroots football.

So, to summarise, it's always positive when the profile of youth football and youth coaching is raised.  I just hope I don't need to keep using a quote I found which tends to sum up the media mentality to international football 'failure' and the way it is always inextricably linked to coaching and youth development:

'Hyper expectation, dawning realisation, bitter recrimination, inquest, forget, repeat again in two years.' - (Unknown European Journalist)

Friday, 4 November 2011

Coaching - Tradition or Modernisation

This is a short post and is taken directly from a coaching journal - Learning a new method: Teaching Games for Understanding in the coaches’ eyes.  Amongst the various books, journals and other sources of information I have read, some just seem to make more sense to me than others and this article is one of those that just stands out and connects with my own thoughts and views on coaching.  I have highlighted the points that 'stood out' for me. 

Extract from Article
Coaches’ knowledge and actions are both the product and manifestation of a personally
experienced involvement with the coaching process; they are linked to the coach’s
history and both are attributable to how they were learned (Cushion 2006). Coach learning,and therefore knowledge and practice, remains largely based on experiences and the interpretation of those experiences (Cushion, Armour, and Jones 2003; Cushion 2006;
Gilbert and Trudel 2006). This is despite the implementation and availability of formal
coach education programmes. Indeed, formal coach education remains largely ad hoc
and low impact in comparison to coaches’ wider experiences and subsequent collective
understandings (Nelson et al. 2006; Gilbert and Trudel 2006). Consequently, coaches’
resulting practice is ‘guided primarily by tradition, circumstance and external authority’
(Tinning 1988, 82; see also Williams and Hodges 2004). Indeed, coaching has established
a ‘traditional’ pedagogy or practice that is characterised by being highly directive or autocratic, and prescriptive in nature (Williams and Hodges 2004; Potrac and Cassidy 2006).  This perspective is supported by behavioural research that has tended to find ‘instruction’ as the largest behaviour utilised across a range of sports including soccer (e.g. Miller 1992; Millard 1996; Kahan 1999; Cushion and Jones 2001; Potrac, Jones, and Cushion 2007). In addition, coaches’ practice tends to be underpinned by a linear, process-product approach to learning, where ‘skills’ are to be mastered first and form the basis for games play (Cassidy,Jones, and Potrac 2009).

This has been brought into stark relief in a recent study of elite youth soccer players.
Williams, Yates, and Ford (2007) studied 27 youth coaches, working at three different
levels of performance from elite academies to competitive clubs. The research looked at
81 different practice sessions with players aged between U9 and U16. While there were
differences in practice activities between performance levels, across the entire sample
almost 50% of practice time was spent in physiological training (i.e. warm-up, cooldown,
conditioning, stretching activities) and technical practice (i.e. repetitive drills and
grid work focused simply on technical development under no pressure). In contrast, a relatively small proportion of time was spent in practicing skills under pressure in possession,and small-sided games.

Changing established coaching practice can be problematic particularly as, not unlike
physical education (Cushion, Armour, and Jones 2003), coaching lacks a critical tradition,
and coaches are more likely to be seen sticking with ‘safer’, ‘tried and tested’, traditional methods that prove their knowledge and expertise (Potrac, Jones, and Armour 2002; Coakley 2004; Jones, Armour, and Potrac 2004; Cushion, Armour, and Jones 2006;
Cushion and Jones 2006; Potrac, Jones, and Cushion 2007; Cushion 2007, 2008, 2009).
‘The consequence of such action is that athletes are, in turn, increasingly socialized into
expecting instructional behaviours from coaches, and thus resist other coaching methods’
(Potrac, Jones, and Cushion 2007, 40) as these are deemed consciously, or subconsciously,
to be associated with performance accomplishment. Thus, practice becomes an historical and traditional thread where experiences are a powerful, long lasting, and continual influence over pedagogical perspectives, practices, beliefs and behaviours (Cushion 2008,2009). The main driver for practice therefore becomes tradition or uncritical inertia (Fernandez-Balboa 1997; Cushion, Armour, and Jones 2003).

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Tribalism or Community in English Youth Football

A few months ago I posted some comments on twitter regarding local junior football and the number of individual clubs there were in just a small 3 to 4 mile radius.  This is in a city of over 300,000 people.

There are 5 clubs in a 3 to 4 mile radius with 43 teams from Under 8's through Under 16's.  This is something that would probably be seen as strange in continental europe.  What about creating 1 large community club for this area?  Pool the financial and other resources, improve the development structure across the age groups and probably, more importantly, have one consistent philosophy on youth development and coach education. Ultimately there could be economies of scale with finances, less competition and greater co-ordination of grant funding, more money to use on facilities, education, kit and equipment and all involved would be singing from the same song sheet.  Many people talk about the loss of 'community' in England, well maybe this could provide a relatively simple answer to the problem.  Personally, to make it stand out and be that bit different I would not limit the idea to this type of community club being football based alone.  Football could be it's starting point and at it's core but it could easily be expanded to incorporate other sports and other community activities.  The 'Big Society' in action.  The problem, of course could actually be the opposite, inaction and unwillingness to become involved, and of course government intransigence.

Some may say what about teams to play against?  Well, first of all, in the area referred to above there are approximately 75 other clubs with around 355 teams in the whole city.  Relevant opposition would be maintained but what about the potential for internal games across age groups (sometimes playing up or down a year) and doing something different?  The flexible formats the FA have referred to in it's review of junior football would fit ideally into a more community focussed football club rather than maintaining these disparate local clubs.  Arguably it would put the focus firmly on youth football development rather than the traditional us against them, league tables and mini-mourinho's prowling the touchline with socks tucked in tracksuit bottoms.

The problem at the moment seems to be the culture of rivalry, bordering on tribalism that is engrained in English culture and is yet another example of the wish to have a league structure that mirrors the adult professional game.  Now, of course it can enrich the experience of professional football, rivalries such as Liverpool v United, Arsenal v Spurs, even North v South.  But a Local Team Under 8's v another local team Under 8's?    
Other signs of inward looking and selfishness can be seen in the perennial arguments over clubs releasing players for England international duty, the tripartite bun fights of the FA, Premier League and Football League about the governance, co-ordination and control of the game.

Sometimes junior teams split and set up on their own as a result of internal politicking, sometimes because of genuine concerns on how the team is run (usually players not getting games because of the 'win at all costs mentality') but, sadly, it seems to me some just have the need to have control and power of these little empires.

Just to put into context the difference between local junior football here and in Holland (probably the best example I have seen) I thought I would use a few examples I have read about recently in Chris Green's book.

Dave Parnaby at Middlesbrough recalled that during a visit to Vitesse Arnham FC in Holland he asked a coach how they were doing .  'Very nicely, thank you,' was the reply. What Dave meant was to ask how the club was doing; the coach assumed that he was talking about the Dutch football system.  'He spoke in a national sense rather than about his own club,' said Parnaby.  'That is how they see the technical aspects of their programme - in a national framework.  That is why Holland has one of the best reputations for youth development in Europe.

Now whenever another country is mentioned with regard to youth development, many say, to some extent, quite rightly that we should have our own identity, our own playing style, do things our way using the strengths of our own culture and not try to copy Barcelona or Ajax or their national youth structure.  However, I don't believe this means we should simply ignore something that just simply seems to be good practice.  The Dutch community based football system just seems to be so logical.  Of course we could adapt it to local needs and local systems but at least try something different.

Another example was given about this very system of community football in a small village in Holland and I challenge anybody to say this wouldn't be a good idea to at least try, even if it were a 'pilot' project:

To understand the difference between English and Dutch football let's have a look at Heijman's (Dutch coach working in England) home-town team, OJC Rosmalen.  The club is based in Rosmalen, a small town with a population of 35,000 in the southern province of North Brabant.....The club has nine pitches, including five match pitches, two with floodlights and four floodlit training pitches.  In total it has 22 sets of dressing rooms, 1,600 club members and 976 youth players.  An amazing 100 teams play at 11-a-side, 7- and 4-a-side matches from Under 5's to over-50s, including girls and women's teams each weekend.  The whole operation is run by 400 volunteers mostly made up of the club's 2,000 parents, who are described as the 'engine of the club'........The club is an intrinsic part of the local community and is linked to the national football programme.

Is the fact that we are tribal and less community focussed part of our culture? Do we actually quite like it that way?  Is it going to be the reason why we don't see a change in the junior football structure in this country?  Ironically, is the wish to be different, the desire to have our own identity going to result in inaction and ultimately stay as we are and not change anything even if the example from another country does seem to offer such a logical solution.  Are we going to be 'Little Englander's' or be a little bit creative?