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It was a question Marijn Beuker regularly posed to coaches after sessions he observed at clubs across Europe, but he never received a satisfactory response.
“Coaches would merely tell me the session gave the players and the coach himself a good feeling,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute, “or they’d say ‘everything I planned was done correctly’. But most of the times a trainer would say, ‘look how the boys improved during this training session’. But that could be false progression.”
Why false? “Because these training sessions did not provide the path to good retention,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute, warming to his theme. “It means you are focusing on that good feeling, which is short-term, or simply noting improved performance during the course of that session – neither points towards good retention. We know how to effect changes in the muscles through training and recovery, but how can you change the brain in the process of training and have an effect for the long-term?”
Ultimately Beuker, who serves as the Sport Development Director at the Dutch Eredivisie side, felt that a lot of training sessions in sport do not adequately promote a clear learning effect or players who retained that learning; and they did not necessarily spark the desired changes in the muscles or the brain.
Some people tried to tell him that he was asking coaches – known throughout the Netherlands as ‘trainers’ – to define the impossible. “At that suggestion I was fully triggered.”
Beuker had long since conducted research into the brain that saw him speak to a wealth of neuroscience experts across the globe and take a course in 2019 where the syllabus explored the relationship between neuroscience and football training.
It ultimately led him to the conclusion that AZ would be best served if they further developed their training programmes at every level of the club, from the academy to the first team.
‘We want to be the best talent developers’
Restructuring training programmes together with a retinue of coaches is easier said than done, even at a club of AZ’s relatively modest size and innovative character.
AZ – Alkmaar Zaanstreek to give them their full name – habitually interrupt the nation’s big city cartel of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord despite a comparative lack of resources.
“We don’t buy success – we create it,” as Beuker once memorably told the Leaders Performance Institute during a conversation about football’s ‘whispering talents’, those who do not necessarily stick out at age-group level but, with the right development, are able to develop ability beyond peers who are more akin to ‘shouting talents’. At one point, we discuss the Netherlands’ triumph at the 2019 Uefa European Under-17 Championship in Ireland. Beuker is enthusiastic but also cautious about making a prediction for future success based on this result.
“I look at that squad and I see also a lot of shouting talents,” he observes. “It’s risky to think that we are ‘back’ because the men’s national team has qualified for Euro 2020 and the U17s won. It might also be an example of false progression and serve to maintain the status quo.”
“We know how to effect changes in the muscles through training and recovery, but how can you change the brain in the process of training and have an effect for the long-term?”
Beuker decided at just 14 years old that his future in football was rather in a technical director-type role than as a player in his own right. “That’s probably thanks to Football Manager!” he jokes. He went to clubs like AS Roma, Espanyol and OGC Nice to gain some experience in the mid-2000s and was already working at AZ when he graduated from the Barcelona-based Johan Cruyff Institute with a bachelors degree in sports management, economics and change management in 2009.
“I started at AZ in 2006 and the club told me two things,” he continues, “they said ‘we want to be champions of Holland but we also want to be the best talent developers.’ The first goal is relatively easy to achieve because it takes a short period to achieve something just once. We won the championship under Louis Van Gaal in 2008/2009. The second is not so easy.”
Not easy perhaps, but AZ’s ability to identify and develop talent in crowded Dutch and European markets has been a cornerstone of its success and stands testament to the fine work of the club’s trainers. AZ academy graduates include club captain Teun Koopmeiners, a 22-year-old midfielder coveted across Europe, and the promising forward duo of the 21-year-old Calvin Stengs and 19-year-old Myron Boadu.
In fact, during the past five years, over 45 per cent of all in-game minutes at AZ were played by home-grown players on average. Across Europe, only Athletic Club in Spain’s La Liga boast similarly impressive statistics. These players were found by the club at an average age of 11.8 years and, as Beuker admits, it is incredibly problematic to take a child and predict what they might achieve ten years down the line.
“If someone comes into our academy, we have to have a clear understanding that he has the building blocks of the ‘right’ talent,” he explains, returning to a theme he has touched on in the past. “It has to be somebody with the quick working cognitive skill who can make decisions at the highest pace and is quick with his feet. But finding the ‘right’ type of talent gets you halfway there. Once you are part of the academy, we fully focus on growing and developing them further in every aspect of the game. And good training with lots of quality repetitions is key.”
Those quality repetitions bring Beuker back to his quest for a greater understanding of training the brain. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic to lend him an inadvertent hand.
Much of the discourse across sports performance in recent months has focused on the opportunities presented by the enforced global shutdown of sport at the end of March. By early April, the Royal Dutch Football Association had ended the 2019/2020 domestic season, with AZ sitting in shared first place in the Eredivisie and still in the hunt for both a first national championship in 11 years and automatic qualification for the Uefa Champions League.
Frustrated though the club were, Beuker had been presented with an opportunity. “We were not allowed to train for ten weeks and, for the first time in my career at AZ, all the trainers were available at the same time to focus on the further development of our training sessions and methodology. Together with the support staff we discussed about the facts of neuroscience and learning retention within all the different age categories and, more importantly, how training can be calibrated in all details on the field to increase the learning effect and to create the desired changes in the brain.”
Learning = reading + planning + executing
Beuker explains that the sport industry standard is serial or blocked repetition in training, a form of interleaved training where particular exercises succeed each other – AZ were no different in this regard.
Now, the club advocates a randomised approached to interleaving. He says: “The biggest mistake that people make nowadays is that they think repetition is key. What we discovered is that you have to vary smart repetitions to use the perception-action process and to avoid autopilot.”
“The perception-action process is a consequence of effective ‘reading’, ‘planning’ and ‘doing’,” he continues. “You orientate, interpret information, and then you send a signal to your muscle. If, however, you keep doing the same repetition under the same conditions the learning effect goes as you drift into execution-mode only. You are only ‘doing’ and erasing the ‘reading’ and ‘planning’ parts. So every small set of repetitions we have to change something to make sure we read and plan before we do. Only then we connect all the related stimuli that occur in a game real situation to the motor pattern. It’s important to understand we don’t learn from repetitions – we learn through variation in repetitions. We as coaches have to provide these variations within training sessions.
“The biggest mistake that people make nowadays is that they think repetition is key. What we discovered is that you have to vary smart repetitions to use the perception-action process and to avoid autopilot.”
“But not only do we have to make sure there is variation in the execution, to force players re-read and re-plan, we also have to make sure the experience pattern sticks. The problem with merely repeating the same tasks over and over again is that the player will switch to autopilot.
“For example, we could train a seven versus seven position game for three minutes followed by a coaching intervention. We could then discuss what can be improved next time and say ‘okay. Run it again.’
“The second attempt is perfect. The players execute all the discussed improvements. But of course they did: the players are on autopilot. We are getting more successful in that task, but it’s another example of false progression. Our perceived performance goes up, but retention will suffer.”
The rationale for randomised training is that the best time to practise a skill is when an athlete begins to forget it; the brain works harder to recall the skill and, in doing so, the athlete forges a more durable neural pathway. The challenging thing to do is to make sure in every exercise that the players have to solve the problem again and again, without being guided by the way they did before. In essence: in order to learn, we have to forget a little first.
AZ’s trainers no longer talk of having a good feeling about training sessions, as Beuker openly admits. “They are leaving the pitch feeling great discomfort because they don’t have the feeling anymore that it was a nice session; it is very chaotic and they can’t see the success – yet.”
On the other hand, “the players are constantly sharp, focused, and you can see there is a high energy, they are learning. I know that it will result in better quality of training and training repetitions. By the same token, they also gain more time for physical and mental recovery, which also has a big impact on learning.”
How do the players feel about the changes? “The players don’t feel a lot of difference,” insists Beuker, “but we see that they are positively challenged in the training session because they have to be switched on all the time, they cannot switch themselves off. They cannot be in autopilot because then we are changing things again.
“There’s a lot going on and I say: ‘this is exactly how it was back in the day in street soccer where it was chaotic; first you were dribbling, then you shot the ball, there was lots of variation in your moves and that’s exactly what you need to do in order to have big learning effect’.”
Observers have said that traits such as resilience and intuition are more readily formed in the unstructured play of the streets than in Europe’s gleaming academies. They cite the likes of France men’s 2018 Fifa World Cup winners, who drew eight of their squad from the nation’s banlieues, including Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté.
“A lot of modern footballers lack spontaneity because modern training sessions lack spontaneity.”
“A lot of modern footballers lack spontaneity because modern training sessions lack spontaneity. If you train isolated control within 100 repetitions, it’s not good. You don’t create spontaneous actions anymore; but if you do a couple of repetitions, do something else, then do something else again, then come back to the original and do a couple of repetitions, that’s basically street soccer. It is also the way by how we learn best.
“In order to get the most out of our practice, we have to create spontaneous, unpredictable training sessions, so players are engaged in learning and have to keep their brain on their toes all training long. I have huge respect for the work of our trainers. How they are busy, in discomfort for themselves, to create the learning possibilities for the players.”
At each stage, AZ seek to promote implicit learning. “The most important thing here,” says Beuker, “is that the coaching during the session itself is being done by the exercise, not through the voice of the coach. That means that the training environment is designed in such a way that the training goal is enforced. Shapes and rules are manipulated in such a way that playing from the principles of the game is forced and rewarded. And when the trainer makes sure the players have the right external focus, the organisation is set to let the players learn.”
It is another topic he has discussed at length with the Leaders Performance Institute. “The programme doesn’t tell you what to do, it only tells you what has to be done at the end,” he said. “The programme forces them 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.”
Employing an improved methodology
The sequencing implemented by the trainers at AZ is not entirely random, drawing as it does upon theories of spaced repetition in learning, where material is reviewed over increasingly large periods. The idea is to flatten the players’ ‘forgetting curve’ – a mathematical formula that describes the rate at which something is forgotten after it is initially learned. “If you teach something related to understanding the game, within one day there is 50 per cent loss of information and then after a week there’s not much left; after one month, there’s almost no retention of what you’ve been taught.
“If you repeat a game principle the day after there’s still a loss of information but it’s lesser than before. But if you do a delayed repetition, it’s essentially lodged in there forever. This can be applied to football periodisation.
“The football periodisation we use is something our coaches designed themselves. It’s gives some guidelines to help in forming an ideal organisation that includes every aspect we think is important, but also gives a lot of freedom and autonomy for our training staff to make challenging training sessions related to our game principles. In a global way, it’s the same for every age group, but there are some minor differences depending on the stage in the player pathway.
“First of all, you have the younger age groups – U11s, 12s and 13s – the basic skills are the most important. We teach them how to play football in general, with or without a goal, two verses two or four versus four; the basics of football are the same. Our emphasis is in forming a large amount of relevant movement patterns to make sure the feet and the brain is connected in the most diverse way possible.”
“Lengthy sessions all but ensure a player’s efforts and intensity will be lower and if that is the neural pathway they create, with that specific low intensity, after a couple of weeks that becomes the player’s standard.”
Beuker takes a brief detour into podology to explain that at that stage, a large amount of training sessions will feature players training barefoot. “Shoes limit the connections your feet are making with obstacles and therefore foot development,” he explains. “This is an age when it is more important to develop the ‘soft’ feet and dribbling skills than passing.”
Players will also train on surfaces including grass, artificial turf and concrete. The AZ programme has mapped out exactly how much time needs to be allocated to each.
Beyond the youngest players are those at U14, U15 and U16. “Here the focus is on ‘how to play’,” says Beuker. “It’s about understanding the game of football, game intelligence. We teach them how to play in and against other spaces and other combinations of players while still recognising the ‘why’ of the football.
“In the elder age groups – U17, U18, the second team, the first team – we call it ‘from how to win to having to win’. This means they are working with match-specific scenarios with increasing regularity. One could be your team has 10 men, it’s the Champions League final, you have five minutes to play.
“From the age groups U14 up, it’s important to look at football from the total content of the game. After the basic movement patterns are formed in the early ages, it’s not smart to isolate moments to only focus on the technical ability of a single movement, because in a game you always combine a motor movement with others sensory, auditory, proprioceptive and visual information from your surroundings.”
AZ also recommended that training sessions be halved from two and a half hours to 90 minutes. “It is a common practice across Europe,” Beuker says of those longer sessions, “but people place too much emphasis on quantity. Lengthy sessions all but ensure a player’s efforts and intensity will be lower and if that is the neural pathway they create, with that specific low intensity, after a couple of weeks that becomes the player’s standard.
“You can adapt your brain and that’s exactly the point. We said to the trainers ‘you can train for a maximum of 90 minutes from now on; you have to have intensity equal to the game in everything you do. If you cannot train with that intensity, stop training, do something else or plan a second session if that’s possible.’ Of course, we create lots of physical and cognitive overload, but we do that related to quality of repetitions and not the quantity.”
Beuker says it is regrettable that the subject of neuroscience does not play a more important role in coach education courses. “False progression is a big problem if you are working in talent development in sports and also in schools,” he observes. “A good performance cannot be the result of a good training session, rather, good training is an indicator of long-term improvement. So bottom line is that we waste a lot of training hours because we don’t have the quality of hours and we have a strong focus on quantity, which can lead to endless repetition – and we already complain about the quality of repetitions that has decreased over the years for our kids.”
Beuker and AZ have decided to take a different path in training, and the implications for athlete learning and skill retention could yet prove to be another game changer.
Looking for more performance insight?
Performance 21 is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.