Can the Continental Style of Football Coaching Save the England National Team?
Fresh from another disappointing World Cup Finals, England have made a promising start to their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. However, we are yet to see any significant signs that suggest a significant piece of silverware is headed for the FA’s trophy cabinet any time soon. Should we accept that the country with the world’s richest domestic league championship must accept a future in the second tier of the international game? Or is it time to pursue the continental approach to football from the grassroots level to the upper echelons of the professional game?
Many English football fans, pundits and journalists believe that to have anyone other than an Englishman at the help of England’s national football team is nothing short of sacrilege, yet Roy Hodgson could be considered a European coach in all but nationality.
Having managed in five different countries, the current England boss made his name overseas. His approach to the game mirrors the continental approach in many ways – which can cause problems for England’s players at times. But his cerebral, holistic approach to player development and nurturing could be just what the England team needs right now. Although it may not deliver a major trophy in Hodgson’s lifetime, it could mean a brighter future for the country that gave the world the beautiful game.
The days of jumpers for goalposts are gone
English football has gone through several stages in recent years. Go back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and kids were playing football in the streets, against walls and on waste ground. Far from being deprived, children were able to spend entire days with a ball at their feet, and they learned the basics of control and touch at a very early age. As a result, England created world class players on a generational basis, and everything in the garden was relatively rosy.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and young children have far fewer options. So, when they are spotted and handed the opportunity to develop, it’s important that they are given the environment and the coaching they need to develop touch and skill on the training pitch. Unfortunately, our youngsters have been coached to win at all costs. Moreover, the influence – and very often aggression – of pushy parents has been detrimental to the development of young English players during those crucial years between seven and 14.
Take a trip to the Netherlands or Spain, however, and the attitude towards winning is very different indeed. Both Ajax and Barcelona place a far greater emphasis on learning – even if that means some difficult losses have to be endured. The continental approach to coaching youngsters involves giving them the freedom to work on their touch and control in pressurised situations – despite the fact that doing so could result in lost possession. Only by making mistakes can young players learn from them.
Coaching the Dutch way
Any footballer of a certain age in England will remember that long and very boring cross country sessions were part and parcel of pre-season training. However, the coaches at both Ajax and Barcelona favour a more rounded approach to strength, fitness and conditioning. Children are given the opportunity to play other sports such as basketball and dodgeball. Not only does this approach develop muscles and skills that basic football training rarely addresses, it gives kids a more interesting training schedule – and far fewer lose interest during the early stages of their career as a result.
Rene Wormhoudt is a fitness coach at the Dutch football association (KNVB), and he believes that the youngsters he trains – including hundreds during his decade at Ajax – should spend around 45 percent of their training time taking part in sports and activities other than football. The highly experienced coach also claims that children who enjoy the likes of judo, basketball and gym work are four times less likely to pick up an injury than kids who play only football.
It also seems that English coaches have been far too quick to pigeon-hole our young players in the past. They are pointed in the direction of a particular style or position according to their height, size and natural ability, yet the continental way involves giving children up to the age of 16 the opportunity to play in every position. Watch a Barcelona youth training session, and you will see goalkeepers playing as strikers and central defenders playing as midfielders on a regular basis. This develops an empathy and understanding of the part every player plays in the success or failure of a team.
Ajax has pioneered the holistic approach to player development, and it has allowed the Dutch team to punch well above its weight for decades. Youngsters are given the opportunity to dine with teammates, take part in team-building activities and attend school lessons between training sessions. Diet is managed from an early age, and parents are warned to be respectful to coaches – or risk being expelled from club events. And perhaps most importantly, children are taught that developing touch and control is far more important than winning – at least until the age of 16.
The FA and the decision-makers at St. George’s Park claim to have already implemented huge changes in the approach to youth coaching. However, it’s important that the message gets through to local clubs throughout the country. A combination of the FA’s affiliation process, the FA’s Respect campaign and the FA Charter Standard initiative should be used to facilitate a root and branch revolution in English youth football. If this doesn’t happen, England fans can all look forward to another 50 years of hurt.
Malcolm Cox is a copywriter and sports journalist from Newcastle, England. He writes for newspapers, sports websites and corporate clients on a daily basis. He is also responsible for content at leading Internet sports retailer www.thesoccerstore.co.uk.