Coaching & Development, Performance | Sep 23, 2021
Views from Southampton, AZ Alkmaar and beyond.

Where is the optimal balance in talent development between challenge and support?

By John Portch

None of the sports or teams that make up the Leaders Performance Institute would claim to have struck that balance, but there are some in the world of European football who have made efforts to address the question in recent times.

Here, we deliver a selection of approaches, as told to the Leaders Performance Institute in recent times.

Feedback: less is sometimes more

Research shows that self-sufficient athletes are better learners. Moreover, involving athletes in the design and evaluation of your training sessions is likely to make those sessions more enjoyable.

‘Providing feedback after every practice attempt can create a dependency on coach-directed feedback and place too little emphasis on problem-solving,’ said David Anderson, a scientist at San Francisco State University, in Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore’s The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made. Anderson added that when athletes become overly dependent on feedback, ‘performance will suffer when the feedback is no longer available during competition.’

Feedback can also be used to promote implicit learning, as is the case at Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar, from the academy to the first team. “Our programme doesn’t tell players what to do, it only tells them what has to be done at the end,” AZ’s Sport Development Director Marijn Beuker told the Leaders Performance Institute in 2020.

This approach to in-house talent development has enabled AZ to compete with the Netherlands’ big city cartel of clubs. “The programme forces you to think all the time, to reflect; we have brilliant coaches working with the boys, asking them questions, letting them self-reflect. It can have great impact because our goal is not to get the best out of people, our goal is to make sure the players get the maximum out of themselves.”

‘As athletes become more skilled, their ability to detect and correct mistakes improves,’ write Williams and Wigmore. ‘For coaches, the challenge is to accelerate the error detection and correction process by fading out feedback over time. To expedite the process, coaches can provide summary feedback after a number of practice attempts, rather than after each one, use a question-and-answer approach, and ask athletes to identify what went wrong before giving feedback.’

More efficient skill acquisition may carry the benefit of sustained motivation and there are also ‘psycho-social’ signs of player development that Kate Baker, Head of Player Insights at the Football Association, looks for with her team.

“There are some easier ones around physical development and maturation,” Baker, speaking in 2019, told the Leaders Performance Institute of the signs of player maturation. “I think technical is probably easier than tactical. In technical terms, we’d be looking for signs around the degree to which they fit the player profile we’re looking for at each age and stage of development.

“But the core indicators of talent and potential that don’t change are psycho-social. Is the player showing signs of drive and commitment? Are they showing conscientiousness around their self-management, on and off the pitch? Are they showing signs of confidence; to what extent are they committed to what they’re trying to do? We know those are the things that are going to get you through the good times and the bad times on the way to the top.”

Taking a constructivist approach

Earlier this year, Jayne Ludlow, the former Head Coach of the Wales women’s senior, under-17s and under-19s teams, spoke of her belief in the strengths-based, social-constructivist coaching model that served her well during her tenure.

“There’s lots of collaboration between staff and players or between the players themselves,” she said. “There was a focus within our national team camps to make sure the players could check their understanding with each other and our thought processes.”

Often, this was easier for the younger players coming into the national setup. “I’m not sure if this is because we were working with them as youngsters and we had a specific style and way of working,” said Ludlow. “If I think about the group of 17, 18 year olds I had with the seniors, in the last few camps, they’re growth mindset players. They want to step on the pitch and learn. It is OK if they make a mistake, they’ll adapt and they’ll learn from it.”

Why was it different for some of the older players? “That’s to do with is the environments they’ve been in. Over how over many years and generations we weren’t coached that way. I hardly had any feedback and they were similar, whether they were in pro or semi-pro clubs. There are pro clubs right now that don’t do any analysis work – and they’re full-time players. Then suddenly you were bringing them into our environment and every day they’d have a development area.

“You’d notice in presentations. The majority of our younger ones are very different in their approach. They look at training and games as a learning opportunity, whereas the older ones were still defensive in learning moments.”

How can you lower those defences? “My general approach to feedback is: goal, then highlight what you’ve done well, then highlight what the next step is to develop it. There’s the positive aspect but then there’s a development moment. With some players, I’d take a slightly different approach. It’s a bit of sandwich approach at times so there’s more positives than development; but then you’ve always got to be careful, do they actually take the development information from you?”

Developing a playbook

At English Premier League club Southampton, Director of Football Operations Matt Crocker worked with his colleagues during the first UK lockdown to develop a digital playbook for its academy prospects and B team players. The idea is that graduates to the men’s senior team will have the ability and necessary familiarity to slot into the game models of Head Coach Ralph Hasenhüttl.

Playbooks are not uncommon in senior sport but few have a thread that links age-group players right the way through to senior level. Crocker, when speaking at Virtual Leaders Meet: Total High Performance in November 2020, said: “It is our philosophy of play from the first team into the B team. We were able to use that time to work together with the coaches, the analysts, the IT department to put together an online resource for our coaches that really details our style of play.”

“All the coaches in the academy, they get the playbook, they get the teaching,” Hasenhüttl told Sky Sports. “Everything should be a maximum of three or four mouse-clicks before you see what you want to see. I was pushing this because I have seen how important it is to have the same vocabulary, the same principles, the same work in training and on the pitch, because only then do you have the guarantee that you are going to go in the direction that you want to go.”

As Crocker said: “This is our style of play, our position-specific profiles for the players, how we train, the types of training sessions, when we do them; the first team and the B team are absolutely aligned with those. And there are days when the first team and the B team train together pitch by pitch where we can share players. Then there’s also days where we adjust the schedule for the first team to maybe train in the afternoon and the B team to train in the morning to enable the coaches of the first team to go out and work with the young players.”

The playbook’s creation was part of a wider drive that saw a restructure of the academy and the under-23s. “One of the things that was identified early on through conversations with lots of coaches, players and the wider team was the need for alignment between what’s classed as the Under-23s team with the first team. Historically, our Under-23s team has sat within the academy. We made the decision to take the 23s out of the academy 3and align it with the first team and create this B team concept.

“There’s some innovative work going on around mapping player progress from the B team to the first team. So it’s almost like the concept of ‘keeping your shirt and chasing the one ahead of you’. The datasets that are now available to those B team players, which say this is where you are tactically, this is where you are physically, and this is where the player who’s got your shirt in the first team is; and for that to form the basis for their IDP and their individual work, which is absolutely paramount.

“When those young players do have the opportunity to step up with the first team and play, the language is the same, the types of session are the same and the players feel as if they’re confident and have the toolkit to be successful when they step up rather than feel like it’s a totally different experience. It’s still early in its concept, it’s still in its first season, but we’ve seen already a couple of debuts. There were three players from the B team on the bench on Friday night; there are signs that we’re continuing to develop in that way, which is good.”

Exit strategies

While coaches at all levels and academy managers hope to increase the numbers of young players that make it in football, most will inevitably fall out of the game. Martin Diggle, the Head Coach of Development at Liverpool, told the Leaders Performance Institute in March that he felt it was incumbent on clubs and coaches to give their youth team players skills that go beyond the pitch.

“The reality is that a lot of these young players won’t have careers in football, the evidence tells us that. So our responsibility is to ensure that we develop players on and off the pitch and develop skills that transfer to their wider lives,” he said. “I think the most talented, experienced coaches have always understood this and maybe didn’t get the recognition they deserve.”

Download Performance 23

Our latest Performance journal has landed, with Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of the England men’s football team leading the way with his reflections on defining and developing resilience. Elsewhere we spoke to the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball, as well as the world-renowned New Zealand Rugby, and British Wheelchair Basketball, who runs some of the finest programmes in the sport. Edd Vahid of Premier League club Southampton FC also penned a column focusing on talent pathways.

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