Youth Soccer Training


 

 

 

US Youth Training Systems vs. England

 


youth soccer coach
Does the US Youth soccer system and England's differ greatly?

You bet they do. We found this article on the web and thought it was one of the best describing the birth of English Academies and how they differ from US youth programs. 

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT IN PRE-ACADEMY TIMES

The English Premier League was launched in 1992 and was basically a restructuring of

the professional game in England to allow the top clubs to benefit financially from the

increasingly lucrative television rights income.

At the same time, the English game was suffering from three serious problems:

hooliganism, ground safety issues and dwindling success at the international level. The

1980’s are remembered in England as the decade of stadium disasters, hooliganism, and

disappointing national team performances in major competitions. A government report

concluded that the stadiums at the top tier must be converted to all-seating, installed with

close caption TV’s to monitor hooligan elements, and modernized in many other ways to

improve fan safety. Government funding from lotteries plus the new television money,

which was going to be massive, were earmarked to help pay for all these new

requirements

Meanwhile, The FA, the governing body for soccer in England, realized that the

professional clubs must do a better job of developing players to stop the slide of the

national team into mediocrity. In the 1990’s, The FA went ahead and created a new

blueprint for player development which mandated that every Premiership club must have

a Youth Academy with specific requirements for staff qualifications and licensing,

facilities, training, games, player ages, and supporting educational opportunities for the

players. Hence, the birth of the modern Academies occurred in the late 1990’s.

The situation for women’s soccer wasn’t very healthy in those days. Up until the 1990’s,

women’s soccer did not get much funding or priority in England, as in most of the world.

Only in the USA was women’s and girls’ soccer taken seriously, due to Title IX

implementation. Girl’s soccer in England finally got a boost in the 1990’s. The FA felt

obliged for moral and political reasons to support women’s soccer and started to promote

girls’ leagues and player development schemes. Many of the professional men’s clubs

started to support a women’s team and some funded the teams within a semi-professional

scope. Fulham FC even fielded a fully professional women’s team for a few years. But

the lack of revenue from TV or attendance in the female game kept the top level of the

women’s game in a semi-pro or amateur status. Nevertheless, women soccer in England

is slowly progressing and most Premier League clubs run girls’ academies in addition to

the boys. More on that later.

If the youth academies were only started in the late 1990’s, what was the player

development structure before that?

Prior to the academies, the professional clubs were only allowed to sign players starting

at the age of 15. Players younger than 15 could train at Centers of Excellence run by the

professional clubs, but the clubs could not really ‘own’ them. The players were free to

train at as many centers as they wished, since they didn’t belong to any one club.

 

 

Since the Centers of Excellence were just for training, the actual youth leagues were

organized, managed, and coached by volunteers, just like in the USA. There were city

leagues, district leagues, and various knock-out cup competitions and tournaments, just

like in America. School soccer was also huge in scope and profile, and was well

organized. Volunteer teachers coached the school teams in regional and national

competition and, in fact, the U-15 National Team was selected from school teams.

In pre-academy days, a typical youth player played for his local youth team, coached by a

volunteer parent coach, and would also play for his school team. The best players would

also be invited to train at the Centers of Excellence. Once players reached 15, the very

best would be signed by the professional clubs, which is where the serious training

started, under professional youth coaches.

This meant that the important formative years of development between the ages of 6-14

were in the hands of volunteers and school teachers. This environment resembled very

much the youth soccer environment here in America, and spawned the same problems we

encounter here today, namely: too many games; emphasis on competition, teamwork and

winning trophies at a young age; size, fitness and work rate valued over skill

development; kick and run soccer; coaches fighting over the best players; schools and

various youth leagues competing for the players’ time; and a general lack of a systematic,

progressive, centrally directed player development plan. Sounds familiar?

The professional clubs lamented the lack of skill of the players entering their youth teams

but were not willing to invest time and money on younger players if they weren’t allowed

to own them until 15. It must be said that the system did produce many players for the

professional teams and the English league was always competitive and exciting to watch

and English clubs did well in European competition. But the player development system

with its volunteer driven culture was over-structured, over-coached, and did not

encourage individualism or creativity. The system did not have any room for the truly

gifted individualist to emerge. English soccer simply was not set up to produce

magicians the like of Ronaldinho, Zidane, Totti, Henry, Kaka or Berkamp and the

national team suffered as a result. Of course, success is a relative term. For England,

elimination at the quarter final stage of a World Cup is considered a failure, since

England expects to win every tournament they enter. For the USA, getting to the quarter

finals stage is considered a huge success.

The English governing body has finally acknowledged this problem and that’s why the

academy concept was born in the 1990’s. Starting in the late 1990’s, the professional

clubs were allowed to sign players as young as 8 into their academies. But to qualify as

an Academy, clubs had to follow a set of criteria. The FA set out the Academy criteria

and mandated that every Premier League club must abide by these criteria.

It’s too early to gauge the success of the Premiership Academies, since they have been in

existence less than a decade. Most of the current generation of players in the English

leagues grew up in the old system of volunteer coaches and School soccer. Beckham

played his youth soccer for a team coached by his own dad. The bulk of the English

 

National Team that played in the 2006 World Cup grew up in the old system. It will take

another 5-10 years before we can evaluate their academy system. But judging from the

performance of the Liverpool U-18 team that came to Atlanta in the past two years and

from the emergence of young players like Wayne Rooney, it looks like the academies are

producing more creative players who are technically more versatile.

The game in England has also been greatly influenced by foreign coaches and players

over the past 10-15 years and the impact has trickled all the way down to the youth

academies.

THE ENGLISH ACADEMY SYSTEM

The Boys Academies

Structure

Every Premier League club must have an Academy operating according to strict

guidelines. The objective of the guidelines is to ensure that players do not just possess

high technical level, but are also schooled in proper self care, nutrition, character, and

social skills. The goal is to produce intelligent, skillful players who behave as

professionals, can take care of themselves outside the soccer field and who can

seamlessly adjust to normal productive life after retiring from playing.

The academies are fully funded by the pro clubs. The players do not pay a cent. West

Ham, for example, spends $3 Million per year on the academy operations, maintenance,

players and staff. The pay back is theoretically in the form of players developed for the

first team or players sold to other clubs. Since the cost of an average Premiership player

is currently around $3M to $5M, all it takes to keep the academy financially viable is

produce one quality player per year or one exceptional player every couple of years.

The academies start at U-9 and teams are formed in one year increments all the way

through U-16 and then into a two year group of U-17/U-18 players. The soccer year is

from September to August, to coincide with the school year. Clubs can sign up to 30

players in each age group, but most sign 12-16 players per group. Players are signed for

one year at a time until U-12, making it a one year commitment from both sides. At the

end of each year, the club decides which players to retain and who to release. Players are

free to leave the club at the end of the year, even if the club wants to keep them, but if

they go to another club, the new club must pay the old club a transfer fee to compensate

for the time and effort invested into the player. If the two clubs cannot agree on a fee, the

transfer fee is determined by a tribunal.

At the U-13 age group, clubs can sign players for either a two year period or a four year

period. This longer term commitment is good for the players, but in turn, protects the

club from losing the player for the next four years. At U-15, again the clubs sign players

for a two year period unless they are already on a four-year deal. At U-17, the players

 

 

who are good enough leave school to sign on a two year apprenticeship, where they start

earning a living as full-time professionals. After the two year apprenticeship, at U-19,

players are either signed on a normal professional contract or released.

The U-9 through U-12 age groups train 3 times per week and play one game per week, on

the weekend. The training frequency increases gradually after that and by U-17, the

players train twice a day Monday to Friday and play once on the weekend. Of the ten

sessions for the apprentice professional players (U-17/U-18), three of them are required

to be educational sessions to prepare them for a career outside of soccer should they not

make the grade as professional players.

Scouting

All clubs have a wide and sophisticated scouting network. The scouting is arguably the

most crucial component of the youth academy since it tracks down and identifies the best

players outside the club who are the candidates for replacing the released players each

year. Until U-12, the academy rules restrict clubs to signing players who live within a

one hour commute from the training site. After that, the geographical limit is expanded

to 90 minute commute and from U-16 onwards, clubs have no geographical limits for

getting players. These commuting limits are obviously designed to force clubs to

concentrate on developing their own local players and to prevent young players from

spending excessive time traveling to sessions and games.

The most important stage for scouting is at the pre-academy ages, U-6, U-7, and U-8.

For these young ages, most clubs create satellite centers and invite players to train, so

they can evaluate them and sell the club to the most promising players and their parents.

Since clubs are not allowed to sign them before U-9, the best 6-8 year olds can train

every night at a different club and test the waters until decision time arrives at U-9. The

pro clubs fight over the best players just like here, but once a player signs for a club he

can only transfer for a fee. This way, the clubs’ investment is protected while players

retain their right to move at the end of the year.

The English Academy Philosophy

The success of an academy program is measured by the number of players they produce

for the first team. This is definitely a long term perspective, in stark contrast to how

success is measured here by our youth clubs. In England, academy teams don’t have to

win games, just produce players. The focus is on developing top players by the time they

turn twenty, whereas here, the focus is much shorter term since youth coaches are on a

race to develop winning teams to win State Cup at U-13.

In England, game results at the academy games are not important. In fact, academy

games in England are all friendly games, just like our U-10/U-12 ‘Academy’ games,

except that in England the games are friendly all the way to U-16. The Premiership

academy teams play only against other Premier Team’s academies, so there are no

promotion-relegations to worry about. There are no standings and no championships

 

until the U-17/U-18 bracket. Since promotion-relegation is based on the results of the

professional team, the youth team’s destiny is out of their control and they can just focus

on development and let the professional players worry about results.

Academy teams play 8v8 from U-9 to U-11 and play 11v11 from U-12 onwards. The

games are split into either four quarters or three thirds, to allow the coaches to bring the

players in for instruction or adjustments. The philosophy of many of the academy

coaches is to let the players make their own decisions in the game, and use the intervals

for any instruction. They especially refrain from coaching the player on the ball and limit

coaching from the sidelines for off-the-ball positioning or team shape and even that is

done sparingly.

The training is repetition based to develop technique, but using activities that replicate

game conditions. The goal is to breed good habits by taking care of the little details via

repetitions and corrections. The corrections must be positive with coaches careful not to

embarrass the players in front of their teammates.

By the time players reach 14, they should be technically proficient, so that tactical

training can be accomplished. But work on technique is never neglected, even at the first

team level.

Academy players are not allowed to play more than 30 games per year. This cap on

games was implemented to prevent player burn-out, which was a real problem in England

prior to the academy system, and is a huge problem in our youth game. Once a player

signs for an academy, his playing time is monitored and recorded to make sure he gets

sufficient playing time without exceeding the maximum number of games. Academy

players are not allowed to play for another youth team and most academies do not allow

their players to play even for the school team. The player’s annual schedule is closely

supervised to maintain the optimum balance between development and recovery.

Furthermore, when a player signs up with an Academy, he is guaranteed to play at least

24 games per year. This mandatory playing time is applicable to all the academy teams

at all the academy ages. It’s quite a paradox when profit driven, multi-million dollar

clubs operating in the cut-throat business of the professional game treat their youth

players with such sensitivity while some of our own youth coaches fail to do the same,

even though most of our youth clubs are supposed to be community based, non-profit,

volunteer run organizations.

According to Steve Heighway, the Liverpool Academy Director, anytime a player is

released, his club helps him find another team at a lower level of the pro game. Parents

get a progress report twice a year from the coaching staff, and the player’s school gets a

copy of the report as well. The coaching staff works with the schools to monitor the

players’ academic progress. The academies are very much in tune with the needs and

welfare of young players and do their best to look after them. All academies must

employ not just fully qualified coaches, but also medical staff and educational and

welfare officers who look after the off-the-field needs and education of the players.

 

Parents are kept informed via progress reports and periodic communications, but they are

not allowed to get involved in the same way parents are involved in the USA. In

England’s academies, parents are prohibited from coaching from the sidelines and are

generally kept at bay. During training, parents are not allowed near the fields and are

usually confined to the club lounge or behind field barriers, where they can watch the

session from afar, or relax and socialize. Some academies, such as the West Ham

academy, ask parents to sign a Code of Conduct that outlines the dos and don’ts.

Steve Heighway emphasized in his presentations that the academy coaching staff goes to

great pains educating the parents on the relatively low rate of academy graduates who

actually become professional players. Steve stresses how competitive it is, and that

parents have to prepare their son emotionally and practically for the possibility of getting

released by the club. According to Steve Heighway, one of the toughest parts of the job

is managing parent’s expectations and releasing players and shattering their dreams. The

players in Liverpool’s academy are all technically strong, so the ones who do make it are

those with the right mental strength and character that can deal with the stresses and the

ups and downs.

In his presentation, Tony Carr, the West Ham Academy Director, outlined his academies’

philosophy on player development as follows:

- Open attacking style predominantly 1 & 2 touch movement.

- Player led philosophy.

- Let the players express themselves and let them make the decisions.

- Enjoyable learning environment. Serious but fun.

- Repetition based program.

- Technique based training, breeding good habits.

- Development of the player, not the team. The end product is what matters,

not results.

Tony Carr emphasized that the goal is to develop players rather than teams. Game results

are not important. West Ham do not emphasize conditioning/strength until U-15 but hire

an expert to work on balance, left-right stability and coordination with the younger

players.

The Girls Academies

Most of the Premier League clubs run academies for girls that serve as the feeder system

into their women’s team, but the girls academies are not as developed or well funded as

the boys. In most cases, the girls have to pay for their own kit, facilities and travel.

Arsenal is one of the few clubs that funds a residential academy for girls.

It all starts at the school levels. The girls’ academy coaching staff conducts free clinics at

local schools in order to promote women’s soccer and identify the most promising

 

players. These clinics are for girls between the ages 6 to 16. The best talent is then

invited to train in Development Centers. These centers do not play organized league

games and only train. From there, the very best players are invited to join the club’s

Center of Excellence at the U-10, U-12, U-14 and U-16 age groups. These teams play

friendly games against other club’s where no standings are kept.

Players are signed for one year intervals until U-16. At that point, the best players are

signed into the U-18 Academy team and can progress from there into the reserve team

and finally to the senior women’s first team.

Since women’s soccer in England is not professional, many of the top English players

aspire to come to the USA and play college soccer. Many American college coaches

travel frequently to European countries such as England to scout for talent and focus

mainly on the European national team level players. Overall, the level of the women’s

game in the USA is superior to that found in England, but the gap is slowly closing.

WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN FROM ENGLAND

The English player development system has undergone drastic changes in the last decade.

The irony is that, while The FA has been for many decades a recognized world leader in

coaching education and has exported its soccer educational curriculum all over the globe,

its player development was steadily falling behind the leading soccer nations such as

Holland, France, Italy, Brazil and Argentina. Cultural and historical traditions and a

somewhat insular approach had to be overcome in England in order to embrace the

methods of some of these leading soccer nations. But now, the ‘Europeanization’ process

in England is in full swing.

So, the first lesson we can learn from England is that we must also adopt an open mind

and learn from everyone and not fall into an insular mind set of ‘this is America and we

do things differently here’. We might be in America, but in soccer, we are competing

with the rest of the world and can ignore it at our own peril. Our current youth soccer

environment has very similar problems to those that existed in England prior to the

academy system and we need to address them just as they had to address them.

Those of us who had the privilege to watch the Liverpool U-18 teams train and play

against our ODP team would agree that technically, we are still behind the top youth

players from abroad. Our players are still prone to giving the ball way needlessly due to

poor control or misplaced passing and the lesson is clearly that our coaches need to spend

more time on developing technique in the formative ages of 6-14. When the game is

faster, our players’ technique breaks down too easily.

The other lessons we can learn from England is in the area of child welfare and risk

management. The Premiership academies’ commitment to a sensitive treatment of the

players is impressive. Even though it’s a business, they are clearly committed to a childcentered

approach that puts the best interest of the individual player first. They are

stridently monitoring player abuse, both mental and physical, ensure enough playing time

for each player to build confidence and skill, and invest considerable resources and

money to develop rounded human beings rather than just soccer players.

It’s an eye opener to see how the English academies are protecting the players as one

would protect a fragile and valuable treasure. For example, restricting the number of

games to 30 per year. In the USA, elite players play between 50-100 games per year,

which is not only excessive and counterproductive, but a form of player abuse. The

Liverpool U-18 team that visited Atlanta in May spent 10 days in America, but only

played a total of 3 games. When our teams travel, they play multiple games per day,

which is ridiculous. Our players’ experience should be about quality, not quantity.

The academies are also very careful to educate and protect the players from any risky

behavior, such as unhealthy life style, poor nutrition, lack of supervision, or any potential

dangerous situations when traveling. Our clubs could learn a lot from their approach and

high regard for players’ well being. Players’ code of conduct, as well as parents’ and

coaches’ code, as well as policies addressing safety for team travel, practice and game

days would be a good start.

The English academies see their youth program as an investment for the future. In

contrast, American youth soccer is regarded as a revenue producer, a profit center. The

day will have to come when the MLS clubs will take over the development of our elite

players and do it along a similar philosophy to the English academies. Until that

happens, our youth clubs should monitor the behavior of our coaches and educate the

parents to ensure that our players are protected from trophy hunting mentality, burnout,

and a misplaced emphasis on winning at younger ages. We must follow the English

example and do a better job of protecting the players’ safety, while promoting the

technical and creative aspects of the game over team building.

 

 

 

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