In 2016 I travelled to Italy to spend time at the Chievo Verona Academy. The trip provided me with an opportunity to observe a youth development program in Italy and expand upon my previous trips to Sevilla FC in Spain and our partner club Wolverhampton Wanderers in England.
What I have learnt from these experiences is that European professional club academies do a much better job at supporting the development of the individual player, rather than developing great teams. My experiences in North America are that we spend too much time selecting young players for immediate team success (bigger, faster, stronger) rather than identify the young players who learn quickest and have the growth mindset (learn more)to evolve and progress to be the most talented players in the future. In North America, we still have a culture where young players move from team to team on a frequent basis as they try to ensure they are on the “next big team” coming through. It simply does not work – North America has yet to develop a truly world class outfield player! (Learn more)
In contrast, the training activities that I observed in Italy where predominately based on individual technique – tactics is only introduced at the U15 levels!
Young players travelling from North America to Europe typically perform at a high level when training with or playing against young players from Europe up until the U12 age-group. Technically, we have some outstanding players. After that a gap occurs due to the increased contact time, the lower ability of coaching in North America and the fixation with short-term success versus long term development.
“At the youth levels we focus on improving the individual player. If we coach the team, then all we do is hide deficiencies” (Chievo Verona Coach)
Our young players can improve in their training mentality and decision-making abilities. Every minute counts on Europe and players maximize their time. They are prepared for training with proper diet, sleep and hydration. They are prepared to commit to “deep learning” (learn more) where they face challenging training activities and are prepared to embrace the targets set, make adjustments and achieve them. In North America, we are still fixated with immediate outcomes, rather than embracing youth player development as a long-term process.
Chievo Verona have a very unique technical program that is very challenging. A large majority of their ball mastery work is completed in the air. I estimated that their young players “failed” over 60 % of the time in their training activities. However, they worked tirelessly to figure things out, make adjustments and overcome the challenge. Chievo’s methodology is based on the fact that if young players can master the ball in the air – then they can easily master the ball on the ground. Their teams frequently play 4v4 games “in the air” where the ball cannot hit the ground.
Decision-making by young players in Europe is much more advanced than our young players in North America. This can perhaps be attributed to soccer not being the main sport in North America. Young players in North America are surrounded by parents and coaches who have never played the game. They have limited options to watch top players live and there is a “naivety” around what it takes to play soccer at a professional level. Young academy players in England have a 1 % chance of graduating to play at the professional level (learn more).
What are the chances for the young North American player? Soccer is a very, very competitive sport at the highest levels and I see a tremendous gap between young player’s goals and aspirations……and the amount of sacrifice that they are prepared to make to truly play at the highest levels.
My own philosophy is that the game is a sport to be enjoyed. Develop your passion for it, be the best you can be and take advantage of the best learning experiences available. If you do have aspirations for playing at the highest levels…then be fully prepared to dedicate your life to the sport day in day out and understand that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees for the young players that I observed I Italy and they are part of a professional club’s development system. What are our young players prepared to do that will push them ahead of these players and what can we do as coaches to help them?
Decision-making I believe can be improved in North America by establishing more positive learning environments. Young players should not be receiving as much information from coaches and parents on the sidelines. They should be allowed to assess situations, make decisions, review their own outcomes….and learn! We must help them with that. They should be encouraged to try things and make mistakes, if we wish to develop truly creative players. (Learn More)
What are some of the changes that we can make in North America to accelerate our youth development success in North America?
Challenge our players more technically on a daily basis – introduce “deep learning” to training activities
Help young players increase ownership of their own development
Educate parents and players that young development is a long-term process, patience and persistence is required