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Technical and tactical proficiency under pressure and finely-tuned decision-making at key moments can open innumerable possibilities, and while no NFL coach is going to require their left-tackle to switch with their quarterback, a multi-skilled QB can enable the enterprising head coach to expand their playbook in pursuit of the play-offs. What are the steps you and your staff can take to upskill your athletes? Can and should you start it early? We dip into the Leaders Performance Institute vaults to bring you the take from coaches across, European soccer, PGA Tour golf, and Australian sport.
Develop a unique athlete profile
Across Europe it starts with the kids. Some of the finest work is being done at soccer teams in countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium or Portugal, where resources are limited in comparison to the riches of the English Premier League, La Liga, or the German Bundesliga. Take AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eredivisie, a team that regularly punches above its weight to compete with the nation’s wealthiest teams – clubs who themselves struggle to match their peers in those aforementioned leagues. AZ hope for their academy to be seen as a beacon, a hub for producing multi-skilled players. Marijin Beuker, AZ’s Director of Performance & Development, suggests that mid-market teams develop clear player profiles distinct from their rivals. He tells Leaders: “if we were to scout and develop in the same way as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax or PSV then we’re always going to come second, third or fourth because of the advantage their larger budgets afford them. So we can make ourselves ‘little’ by thinking in monetary terms or we can make ourselves big by thinking about vision, programmes, intelligence and people, with the view of developing a unique type of player; a player that is more capable of cognitive skills and game intelligence. Together we call them the ‘vision’ of the game.”
Promote solution-focused thinking in your athletes
Beuker is also hot on deliberate practice, which he believes promotes more efficient learning. He says: “It’s also important that you provide tools. I call it ‘motoric learning’; it comes together with implicit learning and an important component is what we call ‘external focus’. For example, when we do an exercise such as passing or receiving the ball, I can tell you exactly what to do; but we don’t do that. We make them aware of what they need to achieve at the end. When we do that, it triggers more creative and solution-focused thinking. So we’ll say that you have to pass the ball and figure it out for yourself; the only important thing is that your teammate receives the ball in this way so that he can move towards the goal and score. We’re always asking a lot of questions of players; but instead of saying ‘that’s not a good choice’ we’ll ask ‘why did you choose that?’ or ‘what was a better option?’; ‘how can we create a two against one in this situation?’ We like to empower young players because it makes the work more fun to do.”
Take athletes out of their comfort zones
Allowing players to be comfortable being uncomfortable is another feature of the AZ system, which ensures that their players are biologically banded for at least two sessions a week, while over in Iceland, who became the smallest nation to ever qualify for the men’s World Cup when they reached Russia 2018, promotes the establishment of two-year age groups at youth level.
Sigurður ‘Siggi’ Eyjólfsson, who served as Technical Director and Coach Education Director of the Football Association of Iceland (KSÍ) between 2002 and 2014, explained that two-year age groups expose younger, smaller children to greater levels of discomfort in a bid to stimulate talent development. “This means that for half of your youth career you’re playing and training with people who are a year older than you and I think that benefits the players,” he says. “When you play against older, faster, stronger players, you have to think more quickly and you have to be tougher in duels and you have to take fewer touches otherwise you’ll get caught on the ball. Half the youth players in Iceland are playing with the year above; and if you become very good you’re soon playing with players who are two or three years older than you.”
Find the right coaching language
Coaches need to find the right language of the game if children are to become fluent. The late Johan Cruyff’s influence stretches far and wide across soccer, with Barcelona perhaps being the most obvious example outside of his native Netherlands. Cruyff served Barça as both a player and coach and one of the players who came under his wing during the latter was his captain, the now widely revered Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. In Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, author Martí Perarnau touched upon the importance of the right words when it comes to educating players. Perarnau says that language, as employed by Guardiola with senior players to this day, is: ‘the culmination of a training regime which uses a range of systems, exercises and moves to reinforce understanding and mastery of basic concepts.’ He adds that: ‘They learn the specific details of this unique and precise language. By the end they will have mastered this particular brand of football so that by the time a player has made it into the first team he will have accumulated more than 10,000 hours of practice and training in this single playing model. As such, he has become a fluent speaker of the language.’
Use stats, but only to make valid points
Guardiola extols the virtues of a coaching language spoken from a young age but that won’t necessarily cut the mustard with experienced pros who were schooled elsewhere. When it comes to professionals, they may already be great at what they do but it is incumbent upon responsible coaches to ensure their continued development. Numbers may provide an answer for those athletes who think they already know it all. Switching from soccer and to golf, Blake Wooster, the Co-Founder and CEO of The 15th Club, explained how you can persuade seasoned golfers to adapt their game with sound stats-based reasoning. “It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, you won’t get far if you can’t convince end users of its value,” he begins. “Without evidence-based reasons for altering their methods, golfers are understandably reluctant to embrace change in a sport that relies so heavily on finely calibrated processes. To convince them otherwise, it’s essential to speak to their primary motivations.
“Broadly speaking, golfers are motivated by their love of the game, desire to win, financial reward, or a combination of the three. As long as a player is motivated to perform there is surely no right or wrong way for them to excite that competitive impulse. Speaking to that instinct by demonstrating the value in our approach can be challenging, but by crunching the numbers we discovered that a 0.5 shot per round improvement increases a golfer’s earnings potential by 73%. That’s a pretty compelling business case in any line of work and tends to get a golfer’s attention.
“Once a player is convinced (or at least curious), the conversation can then move from ‘Why?’ to ‘How?’”
Find ways to bring ‘joy’ to your athletes
At a professional level there are numerous sports where athletes are earning life-changing sums, but Terry Condon, an elite sports consultant, explains in another Leaders exclusive, that teams need to be armed with more than cash to ensure the continued development and the retention of their top stars. Money need not clash with mastery as long as teams are providing fulfilment, contentment and opportunities for ongoing development – enabling athletes to find joy in their work. Of joy, Condon says it is: “about doing it in a way that delights you. Money and flow are easy enough to experience for someone with highly developed athletic talent; few pro’s struggle to pay the bills, and because only those with uncommon ability make it to the top, most elite athletes are doing the thing they are born to do. Joy on the other hand can be harder to come by.
“Doing work you’re good at is only pleasing if you are able to do it in a way that delights you. The brilliant chef coerced to cook a bland menu set by ‘suits’ is seldom satisfied. The star athlete forced to adapt their preferred approach to preparation and practice to suit the likings of others is no different. Most programmes expect their athletes to adapt to the organisation, rather than have the programme adapt to them. In these programmes ‘buy in’ actually means compliance.”
Therefore: “By working to design and deliver a programme truly centred around each athlete, their unique needs and preferences, organisations and their leaders show athletes they are important, valued and respected. These actions lead to a sense of pride. This simple strategy sets off a virtuous cycle of success that builds on itself and perpetuates success and credibility. This is how championship teams are born, and become dynasties.
“Pride experienced from customised conditions breeds commitment, and commitment creates loyalty.”