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Calvin’s investigations always hone in on the iniquities within the system. In the case of soccer, the attrition rate of young talent is infamously high, and though steps are being taken to improve and systematise youth development in England, it can still be an unscrupulous and chaotic environment.
But it is not an entirely bleak picture. Take Manchester City, who are trying to take a conscientious approach to developing the 400 or so youngsters at their academy. The author was granted exclusive access to the 80-acre £200 million City Football Academy [CFA] where the club works to produce the next Kevin de Bruyne or Sergio Agüero while recognising that these talented players are still children.
For all the CFA’s opulence, it adheres to a duty of care towards its youngsters, as Grant Downie, its Head of Performance, tells Calvin: ‘If all we did was concentrate on bells and whistles, we would be wrong. We’ve got to ensure that scholars coming into it appreciate it for what it is, and maximise it for their benefit, because many will not be here in the longer term. Hopefully this will not only be the catalyst for their football career, but for their life.’ It is a worthy aim, and the Leaders Performance Institute takes a look at five ways City seek to deliver for their kids.
1. A programme of ‘supported trauma’
As Calvin points out, Sir Dave Brailsford led British Cycling to Olympic greatness with a programme underpinned by ‘compassionate ruthlessness’. City echo this approach through a programme of ‘supported trauma’ for their youngsters. ‘I’ve often described this environment as X Factor every day,’ said Downie. ‘Big Brother is watching everything you do, and monitoring it. We are trying to provide a pathway that is challenging at every opportunity, but supportive. We have two full-time psychologists in the academy, plus additional support where we need it, so therefore there’s a sense-check.’
He continues: ‘Some lads, at times, are going to hit lows, but what you can’t do is put so much bubble wrap on them they can’t cope. Here things get done for you as you go further up the chain, but we use self-education, empowerment. Take soft-tissue massage as an example. We give them foam rollers, so they can learn how to do it themselves. Ultimately, when you’re in front of sixty thousand people, and you’ve got to make what appears to you and I in the crowd to be a simple ten-yard pass, you rely on yourself. The difference between doing that in a match and in training is pressure. What we’ve got to learn is when to exert that pressure.’
2. Teaching life skills and a sense of perspective
What life skills do you look to impart in your athletes? Calvin explains that City’s academy kids are taught to cook and are put through the bronze and silver levels of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which is aimed at youths aged 16-19 and involves community work. ‘A sense of perspective is gained through serving at a soup kitchen, or playing on crutches and losing heavily to the club’s amputee team,’ he observes. Further down: ‘Younger groups are let loose on an adventure playground alongside the main building three times a week. The aim is to recreate the organic pleasures of climbing, the accumulated resilience of falling. Play offers a natural sense of balance but, above all, offers a cooling-down period in a hothouse environment.
3. Contextualised learning
At the Leaders Sport Performance summit in LA in March 2017, Green Bay Packers Quarterbacks Coach Alex Van Pelt told the audience that he readily refers to the greats of the game when working with young quarterbacks. “You’ve got to go back and talk about the history of the play and the origin of the quarterback’s footwork,” he said. “I’d tell them that Joe Montana did this or that.” Contextualised learning makes the details stick and demonstrates the viability of the path.
With youngsters in Manchester, a video montage of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo heading the ball at set pieces is enough to have the same effect. ‘On average the boys leaped 20 per cent higher when the images of the icon were fresh,’ reports Calvin. ‘They couldn’t explain why, but evidently understood the point, since it was not a training routine conducted in isolation.’
The same goes for nutritional messages. ‘It is about context, so we talk about refuelling the body through food as topping up the battery on your cell phone,’ explains Downie. The discussion soon turns to a conversation he had with a 12-year-old player over lunch in the early stage of rehabilitation following the dislocation of his kneecap.
‘CJ, do you ever eat fruit or vegetables?’ Downie asked the boy. ‘No, I don’t really like them,’ said the youngster. City’s Head of Performance already had his response lined up: ‘What if I told you that if you ate that little pot of fruit every day you might get back five days earlier?’ The boy went to the food counter and took two pots.
4. Building trust with youngsters
Coaches on both sides of the Atlantic can attest to working with young players from difficult backgrounds and City welcomes a number of troubled youngsters through the gates of the CFA. ‘I spent twenty-five years working with senior players, and I thought I was pretty knowledgeable,’ says Downie. ‘But my learning curve, working with this generation over the past five years, has been… boom.
‘We’ve had boys from really difficult backgrounds. To try to influence them, you’ve got to understand them first. If they don’t trust anyone it’s probably because every time they’ve run out of an elevator in their block of flats they know a guy might be there, waiting with a knife. So how are they suddenly going to trust me? They aren’t going to trust anyone. They can’t – they can only trust themselves.’
Downie goes on: ‘Trust is not a word, it’s an action. You know a boy is comfortable with you when he can cry in front of you. You don’t judge him for that – because how many times have we cried in our lives? – but we have a private place, close to the main medical area, where we can take them aside. What a boy tells me there is completely different to what he tells me in front of his peers.’
Calvin describes an incident where a boy snapped after Downie continually reminded him that his laces were undone; he allowed the boy five minutes to calm down before the boy apologised and explained that his best friend had just committed suicide and his auntie had passed away. ‘That’s a person we expect to play under pressure,’ says Downie of the incident. ‘That’s why I tell my staff that their principal role involves the welfare of people. Every one of them is a safeguard officer.’ Bullying can also be an issue: ‘[Bullying situations] are creeping in earlier, and I’m sure the money streaming into the game is the reason for it. That will not influence the younger boys but maybe it influences families. Has bullying ever occurred here? There’s always going to be a certain form, but I think we’re pretty good at seeing it, and arresting it. All we can do is try and be available.’
5. Providing first-rate education
Since September 2011, City also register up to 70 players per year at the nearby St Bede’s College, an independent Roman Catholic school where annual fees are £10,785 per child; the club guarantees to underwrite their education, whether or not the youngster remains on their full-time programme until they take their GCSE exams at the age of 16. Only the most promising players are offered a place and students must first pass an entrance exam.
The Headmaster, Dr Richard Robson, tells Calvin of the values that attracted City’s owners. ‘We want grounded children that are courageous; not just in their faith, but in finding out what they are good at, what they need to work harder at,’ he explains. ‘We want them to be courageous in being the best friend they can be, courageous in their kindness, self-discipline, self-motivation and self-moderation.’
While at St Bede’s players must attend in full uniform and are forbidden to wear club-branded coats. ‘Their school week is divided into twenty-two hours of lessons, nine hours of football and three hours of physical activity,’ writes Calvin. ‘They spend one day exclusively at St Bede’s, another exclusively at the CFA. Teachers shuttle between venues.’
Dr Robson sees the parallels between the pastoral care St Bede’s provides and City’s approach. ‘City’s terminology involves their growth mindset,’ he observes. ‘We have a similar philosophy. We want our children to grow step by step, target by target. We’re giving them an opportunity to realise the importance of how you behave, how you talk, how you present yourself, how sometimes your voice is not more important than another voice.’
City’s former Academy Director Mark Allen has the last word on the matter. ‘We try to bring as much reality and normality to these boys’ lives as possible,’ he says while also accepting that, ‘ultimately we know that not everybody is going to go on and have a glorious professional career.’
The blow may still be severe when it comes for most of these youngsters, but what Calvin calls City’s humane exit strategy is certainly a step in the right direction in the ‘frontier environment’ of English soccer.
To learn more about Manchester City and a variety of approaches to youth development in English soccer read No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream. Widely available from Century.