Doha, 9 October 2019. The third and final day of the 5th “Aspire Academy Global Summit” on Football Performance and Science in Doha started with a very intriguing panel discussion on the third main topic of the event – “Understanding the game: Key to developing our players” – featuring many interesting insights of experts from all over the world.
“This topic makes me think a lot about the future of the game,” says Pedro Dias Marques, Technical Director at SL Benfica. “Today’s players are very different, as they grow up in a different environment compared to, for example, ten years ago and they are more exposed to things like media, technology, gambling. However, the problems of the game are simple and connect us coming from all over the world. It’s about scoring a goal – no matter if it’s in the final of the UEFA Champions League or in a game of street football. We spend a lot of time thinking about solving problems for our players, but in the end they are the ones, who have to solve them on the pitch. It’s up to us at the academies and clubs to give them the right tools.”
Edorta Murua, Technical Director of Aspire Academy’s Football Department, agrees that it’s important to remember the essence of football. “It started with kids playing in the streets without rules and out of joy. Thereby they learnt the basics of the game. It’s very important for us to train children according to their experience and their environment. Teaching football in an academy is a process. We need to think about the educational aspect and we have to be prepared to cover new developments, because our job is very complex. We cannot improve players only by reading books in the office, we need to be on the pitch to identify the needs of every individual player in order to deal with every weakness properly.”
Looking at the development of youth football players as a process, is a thesis that Jose Tavares, Technical Director at FC Porto, fully supports. “We don’t want ten-year-old players to become professionals right away. At this age they have the time to make experiences. Like we said before, the ultimate goal for every player is to win and you win games by scoring goals. So how can we teach them to score goals? What about defenders and goalkeepers? Is it also their intention to score goals? So coaches need to be clever and they need to be able to apply their knowledge in practice. We need to create a pathway for kids to be ready to play the game. The tools we use all around the world may be different, but in the end it’s about players trying to score goals.”
Marques stresses the importance that coaches focus on their players, since coaches are not there to coach for themselves. “Many times we feel that coaches constrain players in a bad way and take away their freedom. We have to make sure to use our time in the most effective way and avoid exercises that don’t benefit our players. When kids joined clubs ten years ago they came with the experience of spending a lot of time playing football in the streets, but this has dramatically changed and the we have to take this into account.”
“I’ve worked on three continents, in Europe, South America and Asia and in each place I found different styles, different philosophies and different kinds of pressure for players,” says Edorta Murua. “Nonetheless, the goal always remains the same, which is to develop the children for the professional level. And when you come to a different place you have to come up with a methodology that fits the needs of the players. Players at this age are eager to learn and improve. So we have to be clever to come up with exercises that improve their weaknesses and at the same time we should never forget to deal with them as individuals," Murua added.
"Coaches have to make understanding the game of football simple. I fear that as coaches we complicate this part of what we are trying to achieve by playing this game. For me understanding the game starts with working out the aim of the game, then get onto what you seek to accomplish and how you will go about it. When we break down the game to its core and make the players especially -young ones, understand that they are playing to enjoy and have fun first we lay the foundation of building on their development as footballers. We should constantly check our definition of understanding the game and how we are interpreting that in our programs," said Fred Lipka, Technical Director of the North American MLS.
For Alexandre Nizelik, Assistant Coach of FC Zenit St Petersburg's first team, this topic asks more questions than it gives answers. "l think sometimes coaches overthink methodologies and programs. We have a situation where U-16s and U-17s players have huge expectations put on them from parents, clubs, coaches and the players themselves to make it to professional level. The element of enjoying the game and the simple things that make up football tend to be sacrificed in the process. There is a need to get frequent feedback from the players on what they are doing in training and matches, and l believe this helps coaches define what is required to understand the game and as a result assist to develop the players."
To Jorge Raffo, Academy Director at FC Shakhtar Donetsk, it's important to remember that young players are developing all the time with or without a coach in whatever environment they play football. "l see the coaches’ role as that of teaching players to make the right decisions along their development as a player. The player comes with an understanding of the game and it would not be wise to neglect to involve this and listen to the player’s understanding. Of course through discussion and trial and error both coach and player develop further from experiences and encounters from their time in football. We need to accept that understanding the game is not a destination but is dynamic and therefore be prepared to reflect new developments and thinking in football. We need to adapt and factor new ideas to improve players beyond what has been defined as the norm in football."