Marijn Beuker has worked for Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar for almost ten years. He spent six seasons as Director of Performance & Development at the AZ Academy before graduating to Director of Performance & Development in June 2013. At AZ, the coaching staff work for immediate results, while Beuker, Max Huiberts (Technical Director) and Paul Brandenburg (Academy Director) are tasked with facilitating the development of the club over the next ten years.
By Marijn Beuker
AZ are not traditionally one of the top 25 teams in European soccer but that is where Beuker wants to see the club positioned in future decades. The increasing riches of leagues such as the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and the German Bundesliga, have equipped their teams with greater resources than AZ, who require a unique approach to talent identification and development if they are to compete with better funded clubs. In a Leaders Performance Institute exclusive, Beuker discusses the work of AZ to create a unique profile of player based on highly developed cognitive skills and game intelligence.
Developing a unique player profile
We like to think out of the box when it comes to identifying and developing young talent. As part of this we have worked to develop a unique player profile. The reasons are clear: 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.
We’ll continue to develop our understanding of the physical aspects of sport, but over the course of the next ten years I think the most important progress will happen with regards to cognitive skills and game intelligence. With this in mind, we want to develop a different kind of player who is capable of seeing spaces and opportunities independently of his position or the team’s tactical plan or the opponents’. In our academy, we vary our styles and don’t have a standard formation. It’s important for trainers to take the players out of their comfort zone every week; so they’ll play in and against different styles, not only the formation but also high and low pressure, left pressure, right pressure; and that creates an understanding in their brain that is different to how most players are developed.
When we consider exercises and drills in training, we have to challenge players; we need to stretch them and expose them to a level of stress. At the same time, exercises have to be complicated but they must be relevant to a soccer-playing context; we can’t say ‘always pass the ball ten metres to the next player’ because that’s not soccer-real. We make it complex, we make it hard, keep changing the situation so that when the boys adapt you immediately raise the bar again; a new context, a new situation.
We’ll continue to develop our understanding of the physical aspects of sport, but over the course of the next ten years I think the most important progress will happen with regards to cognitive skills and game intelligence.
We’re trying to develop implicit learning, where a player unconsciously trains themselves; it’s the difference between telling a player what exercise to do, which is based on explicit learning, to telling them what the result needs to be and allowing them to find the solution for themselves. There are multiple ways to achieve a result on the pitch but if the player only knows one way then they’re going to be at a disadvantage. So we make the players more aware of their situation; the players are developing the connections in their brain, which can only come from experience. In addition, we’ve also been able to develop a computer programme together with a couple of universities, which enables players, via two half-hour sessions a week, to train their soccer brain at home.
It is clear that players learn more efficiently and effectively, and develop those brain connections, through deliberate practice, but 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.
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.
Biological age vs. calendar age
We host our nine, ten and 11-year-olds in regional soccer schools because we’d rather have the best 200 players in the province than merely the best 20 in an age group. The kids will come to train at these regional soccer schools once or twice a week; they’ll train in AZ’s intelligence/cognitive skills project, then two or three times a week they will train with their amateur clubs. The under-12s through to the under-19s are hosted at the AZ Youth Training Centre in Alkmaar, where every age-group team consists of 16 to 18 players.
If a player is better than expected, they may be asked to train and play with an older group, either for the whole season or perhaps only on Mondays and Tuesdays. Another thing we do at AZ is have players train within their biological age group twice a week. Players develop at different ages; some boys of 12 already have the bodies of 14-year-olds, while some people of 16 are very late; there can be as much as four years’ difference based on players’ calendar age. So if someone has a calendar age of 12 but is biologically 14 then it makes more sense for them to be playing against players of the same biological profile. Traditionally, we compare players of the same age but a better question is to ask how a young player compares to his age mates. Is he still the strongest or the fastest?
Asking the right questions… all the time
Even with these features in place, to stay ahead in high performance we must continue to ask questions. In soccer we use lots of metrics and measurements but it always comes down to several fundamental questions: what is necessary in order to win? What conditions are necessary to make the ultimate performance possible? We want to be champions of Holland, Dutch cup winners, and a European top 25 club; so we have to ask ourselves what does winning that medal look like, even if it’s in ten years? It clearly involves the development of players and it’s my responsibility to oversee the development of the plans that will enable us to answer all those questions together with the Technical Director, with the input of the trainers and the Head of Scouting and Academy Director. And it’s OK to have that on paper but it needs to happen on the field. Are we doing what we said we wanted to do? Are we developing the talent to take us forward and are the coaches coaching as we want them to?
There will be numerous informal meetings that occur out on the field when I’m observing either a training session or a game. I could be on the bench at an under-14s match and I’m asking myself if I am seeing the club’s vision out on the pitch; does the coach ask the right questions; I might then approach the coach for an informal discussion. Beyond that, we’ll have more official meetings with the Technical Director, the coaching team and other support staff to ask what the next step needs to be for the club and how can they be delivered. We see development as a holistic thing so it’s important that we can all offer input and communicate with each other about different aspects of developing and performing, but everyone needs to be self-critical first and foremost.