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The earnest and eager adolescents gathered in north London on the first Tuesday in July to be put through their paces in combine-style drills as part of the new NFL Academy UK’s final tryout for its first intake.
The Academy, the first of its kind outside of the United States, opens its doors in September on the campus at Barnet and Southgate College with the aim of giving students aged 16-18 the potentially life-changing opportunity to combine their education with life skills and intensive football training under full-time professional coaches.
Keeping a watchful eye over proceedings on a warm summer’s day in Tottenham was Will Bryce, NFL UK Head of Football Development, who later spoke to the Leaders Performance Institute about its aims and aspirations.
Will, what were some of the major considerations when opening the first overseas NFL Academy?
WB: We want to make the game as international as possible. The most important thing is establishing more roots and a legacy that allows us to be more present in the UK market all year around rather than in just October and November when we have the games on and the teams over. We want to try to make more of an impact on the sporting landscape. To go along with that, I think it helps to have an outlet for a younger generation to access the game. It does remove some of the barriers such as paying for equipment of travelling long journeys to practise at the weekend because it’s still just a club sport. That’s important; and it’s key really with the success we’ve had with players like Efe Obada, Alex Gray, and Christian Wade; you can prove that they can achieve making it into the NFL at least at a later age; there’s so much promise and possibilities for kids to access this sport at a younger age.
What were essential components brought over from the US and what needed to adapt in your UK model?
WB: You always find yourself explaining this model to British people and British parents and you have to explain the same thing back to American parents in a different way. It cannot be just ‘plug and play’. The biggest thing is sport and education, the two go hand in hand; it’s more of an American model where to become a professional you go to high school, you play in university, and then you get drafted into your various sports leagues like baseball, basketball, or American football, which isn’t the case here. We’re really emphasising the educational component; it’s a huge plus for everybody that kids have to succeed in the classroom in order to succeed in their sport. I think that’s certainly the first thing that comes to mind. I think the biggest thing we’ve had to adapt to this market and what we’ve learnt from other sports in the UK as well as the model in the US is the importance of a life skill component, really trying to engage, connect and support these young men as they go through this journey at a very impressionable moment in their lives. We have a dedicated Student Welfare Officer on hand every day working with them and monitoring them, the coaches, the teachers, providing guidance when needed. We want these kids to leave the Academy knowing how to function and how to contribute to society in a positive way.
As an overview, what does the programme look like for a student-athlete in terms of content and duration?
WB: At the moment we practice three times a week, meeting three times a week, sometimes more, depending on what our timetables end up looking at once the kids have enrolled, and then looking at access to the weight room, there’s access for them to work every day with strength coaches and to schedule time depending on their needs and individual strengths and needs, whether that’s working on basic things like their flexibility and how they move, their competency and balance or coordination; it could also be being in a weight room and getting bigger, stronger, faster. You’ve got to have measured approach to that component because kids are going to come from all sorts of different experience level and, of course, different age groups. A student that’s coming in at 16 and has never lifted weights in their life is going to be very different from your rugby player who has just finished their A-Levels – you can’t train them the same way, especially with the different body types that American football possesses; you have some really big guys and you can have some smaller, more agile players and their needs are going to be different as well. It’s really looking at providing as much variety and individualised attention as possible.
How is their progress and development measured?
WB: There will be daily communication on how the kids are progressing, coping with the rigours that they are being put through, whether that’s communication between the coaching staff and school teachers to the Student Welfare Officer. Then you’d have more sort of structured meetings and reports on their progression and achievement of goals that they would identify in conjunction with their coaches at the outset of the year; and then over that you would have more of your wellbeing and sports science type of monitoring so that we can really understand what impact we’re having – good and bad – on the kid and how they’re feeling because it’s not something they’ve done before, certainly not on this level. If we’re monitoring their wellness, for example, and it could be around exam time, they’re feeling a bit more stressed than normal, they’ve been having a bit less sleep, then that’s going to help our coaches to understand how to modify and monitor them and modify practice because education comes first, and there’s no point creating more stress and a really hard training environment around exam times because that’s going to be a very conflicting situation to put on a young man. What we’re trying to prioritise is that we’re always doing the right thing for these students.
What are some of the preferred learning styles for student athletes these days? Is it visual? Is it classroom?
WB: It’s very much visual. They need to see exactly what we’re asking them to do and, more importantly, why they’re doing it. A lot of kids these days are happy to challenge why they’re doing something; you ask them to do something and hopefully they feel empowered enough to ask why rather than doing it because they’ve been told to do it. The classroom work is always going to come before onfield practice, that’s just the way our sport works. You go through what you want to do in practice, in a meeting you’ll show visual clips, draw up certain plays, tell them, explain what we’re doing and a lot of kids can then buy into that and replicate it. It’s also using phones, social media, YouTube. We have a position coach for each position so each group is going to develop differently, with different individuals; at the end of the day, on a team, people are going to learn at their own pace. And we’re fortunate to be in a position where there are kids in the academy who have played American football before and they can almost go first in certain practice situations and hopefully give a good example for the novices to follow.
To what extent can skillsets be brought over from other sports?
WB: They can certainly find a place in football. If you look at the background of kids who have come through and tried out, we’ve had judo, taekwondo, water polo, cricket; if you play in the field in cricket you’ve got great hand to eye coordination, you’re catching a smaller ball, a harder ball, it’s coming at you at a completely different angle and you’ve probably got a very strong arm to throw that back to the wicketkeeper. You might not associate the two but from a movement and skill standpoint, the two match up pretty well.
What are your hopes and expectations for the NFL Academy?
WB: To learn a lot, that’s number one. Also, that we positively impact every single one of the kids that are onboard but also the coaches and support staff, teachers. I think everyone is going to play a huge role in this and making it a success. And for those older kids that may only be in the school for a year, can we give them the opportunity to progress their football, if that’s a possibility for them, if their education checks out. Whether that’s to a UK university or giving opportunities with our partners or other areas to become more employable, whether it’s a scholarship to an American college to play football in the US. I think we’ve got the talent that might be able to achieve the latter; I’d love nothing more than this time next year to have kids going in all sorts of directions and successful pathways for whatever is the absolute ceiling for them. I’d hate kids to not be pushing themselves to achieve everything that they could. Finally, to establish the culture and who we are and for kids to say I need to be a part of this.
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