Winning vs Development…why not both?

That winning feeling

It is one of the hottest topics within the coaching community…how much emphasis if any can/should you put on winning when developing players.

After a long day of coaching this summer I had a very interesting conversation on this topic with a group my fellow professionals, and it was clear that while everyone had their own valid opinion on the matter – one could agree on it!!

Here are some of my thoughts.

Purpose or Protection…?

As coaches we spend hours upon hours planning sessions and activities. These activities are more often then not based around a theme and a series of outcomes we aim to guide our players towards. Underpinning this the environment we create as coaches should help both the players and coaches reach those outcomes.

But is the environment correct? Is having an environment where making mistakes is ok and acceptable? Are we hiding something from our players? Are we being too over protective and wrapping them in cotton wool as they develop?

Winning isn’t everything – but wanting to is 

– Vince Lombardi Jr.

Vince Lombardi is regarded as one of American Football’s greatest ever coaches, most famous for leading the Green Bay Packers to three straight league championships, and five titles in seven years during the 1960’s. This also included winning the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. The NFL Super Bowl Trophy is named in his honor. 

I believe the late great Mr. Lombardi is on to something and it was after coming across the above quote that got me thinking…

Why can’t we “coach” kids how to win? After all the purpose of our job as a coach is to make them better, to provide them with the tools necessary to play, enjoy and thrive…so why leave out the tool of winning?

Taking inspiration from Vince Lombardi there is no reason that whilst winning should not be of the upmost importance in your youth/junior training sessions I believe that creating activities and an environment that makes kids want to win can be a powerful learning tool.

Competition is key

Think back to when you played football in the streets with your friends, or down at the park or during break time at school…all of these games were unstructured, with limited rules and free from coaching. What was missing was no one guided us to try this, or to think about that – in those environments you held the key to solving your own problems. However there was one element that was always apparent, one thing that drove everyone to play or take part…and that was to win!

Since having that late night discussion with my fellow coaches it was clear that the majority of us did agree on one aspect of our coaching and the environment we create for our players – every activity we facilitate and every task we set the players must be driven by competition. Competition provides pressure, and it is under these pressures that players must practice, make and execute decisions.

While competition may lead to frustration and disappointment if managed skillfully can also provide the fuel to drive a player to remain focused on learning and improving. If players are training and playing in an environment were they are not being constantly tested, put under pressure and never face failure then we are leaving them short changed.

Conclusion

Football is full of failures, failure happens every second of the game; a bad touch, an intercepted pass, a missed opportunity to score. Remember that the in game actions we coach players to learning and perform are to aid them and the group to succeed; having the best touch, making the most passes and scoring the most goals…win? The winning of a game, activity, 1v1 or the success of an individual action is the reward of learning and developing.

Winning should not be an obsession…but the balance of learning how to win vs wanting to win should be!

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“To B or not to B…is it worth the question”?

The youth development system in England is not right, in my belief. “There is plenty of effort and talks to get it right but, in my opinion, it is not. The reserve-team league is not competitive and doesn’t serve the progression of talent coming through. The gap between the reserve team and the first team is immense here.

Barcelona B play in the equivalent of the Championship and if that European model was applied in England, it could be tested. Feeder clubs might be a solution but there would be more of a cultural identity if it’s called a B team. [If the reserves competed as Chelsea B] it would be the same name, the same environment.

If it’s a feeder club, I couldn’t call a player up to my first team until the transfer window opens. What happens in Barcelona B is a good model in terms of competitions. They promote talent. That’s the main difference I see. Maybe the English model is working, though not in our case. I always felt like that.

These were the words from current Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas in a recent interview that was published by The Guardian Sport. Mr. Villas-Boas believes that the F.A should look at adopting a similar system to those in countries such as Spain where elite clubs have their own “B Team” competing in the lower tier of domestic football. Taking the focus away from a single club or teams per say, what I would like to look at is; Could this system work in England? What would the benefits be? Does it really help the development of players? These are some of the questions I aim to dissect and discuss.

Player Development

It has been a much discussed subject in England in recent years that the pathways and structures currently in place for the countries next best talent is inconsistent and lacking the necessary support systems for players to grow and move up the footballing ladder. With the pressures of elite clubs and the modern day manager higher then ever, one still has the right to question; when, where and how are we going to see more young, talented and England’s next potential international players given more opportunities at the highest level.

Phil Jones has become a Premier League regular in a short space of time

There have been some obvious examples in the past couple of Barclay’s Premier League Seasons, most noticeably Manchester Utd who this season have fielded (when injury free) the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Danny Wellbeck, whilst In the capital we have seen the likes of Daniel Sturridge at Chelsea and Jack Wilshire at Arsenal become key figures in their respective sides over the past seasons. However why has it taken this long? Why is there a lack of confidence from the “elite” managers to promote from within the players they have been grooming for years?

A great example of this is in the current transfer window just passed where QPR made the £2.5 million signing of Nedum Onuoha from Manchester City. Even with Roberto Mancini bemoaning the injury crisis, the recent suspension of Vincent Kompany and questions surrounding the quality of summer signing Stefan Savic there was still no room for Onuoha? Despite his past Premier League experience (Sunderland) and International Caps at England youth level (U21) this was still not enough for Mancini to trust in him – where is the opportunity? where is the investment in youth?

All of these issues dovetail nicely into the problems Mr. André Villas-Boas highlights about the current youth development system in England…is it that England’s next best are simply not ready for the rigors/demands of Premier League Football? are they not good enough? and if so why not?

The B Team Benefits

In Spain many of the La Liga sides (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Valencia) house their own B Team that plays its football in the lower tiers of Spanish Football. These B teams have a firm tie within the framework of the club and give young players a middle growing ground between youth and senior football to hone their talents. In the casing point of Barcelona their B team plays in the Segunda Division, which is the equivalent to The Championship in England and has a very impressive history of players who have passed through its ranks to the senior team; Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdez and Lionel Messi to name but a few.

The benefits of the B team are simple – they give a clubs next best talented youngster the opportunity to play senior competitive meaningful football whilst still developing under the guidance and philosophy of the club and its coaching staff. This almost symbiotic relationship between the teams allows clubs to better monitor their players and see first hand their development and progress, whilst still shaping their progress.

If we look at England’s next best talent we find most have passed through the loan system (Wellbeck, Sturridge, Wilshire, McEachran) and more often then not to more then one club. From a development point of view they are gaining regular football experience by being loaned out but the consistency of their development can be hindered, with a different coach who may have a different approach, philosophy and expectation of the player both tactically and positionally and upon the players return to his “home club” he may of not developed as they would’ve liked. The argument by many is that the loan system works and does give players that opportunity, but looking closer does it? The loan system is all about giving players opportunities, experience and game time but if we compare some of England’s next generation with that of Spain’s B Team system the numbers are interesting indeed.

Below is a table comparing the experience, honours and senior appearances of some of England and Spain’s “next generation” that are playing in their respective top-flight league and elite club. These players also represented their countries at the 2011 U21 European Championships last summer;

More senior football opportunities in Spain...?

All of the above players are current integral members of their club side and are also now part of their National Team setup or knocking on the door. Also all of the players both in England and Spain have passed through their respective National Youth setups …but why is there still such a huge gap when it comes to their overall senior football experience? Its clear to see that in Spain’s La Liga the opportunities for younger players to flourish are greater along with the emphasis at national youth level.

Pedro came through the ranks at Barcelona & Spanish National Team by the age of 23

As you can see from the Spanish players list all of them have been involved with a B Team side in some shape or form, and have then been promoted to their senior side. In the cases of Juan Mata (Real Madrid B) and Javi Martinez (Osasuna B) they were  signed from another club’s “B side” after only one season. All of the Spanish based players have played in excess of 100 senior football games compared to only Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge who have passed that figure. The numbers may seems fairly close and the difference minimal but the difference is mostly 30+ games which is almost a full season…and from a development point of view a difference which will be hard to make up at the very top.

If you were to check out some other spanish based youngsters who have come through the B team system in Spain (Pedro 274 apps Barca C & B & Full | Diego Capel 151 apps Sevilla B & Full | Ander Herrera 104 apps Zaragoza B & Full) you will find a large majority have not only passed through their club youth ranks into their senior side but all of them have played in excess of 100 games before reaching 23 years of age in both “The Championship” and “Premier League” equivalent being Liga Adelante & La Liga respectively.

So its not just the amount of games they are playing, but the quality games they are facing week in week out inside the framework and philosophy of their own club. The progression into the first team is a natural one and the expectations of these players from a tactical and philosophical point of view are already ingrained.

The B Team Negatives…In England

The obvious first negative that comes with introducing the B Team system into the English game would be the headache the football league association would have introducing these sides into what is one of the biggest footballing pyramids in the world. The second issue would be what clubs would A) be eligible to have a “B Team” and B) in what division would these teams begin? So as well as the logistical problems there would also be some likely resistance from the lower league sides to deal with, who would question the “Fabric” of lower league football being torn apart and the history of such clubs being disrespected and forgotten.

However as with any new law, system or ruling put into place would time be a healer so to speak?

Lets remember that these B Team clubs are not allowed to compete in the same division as their respective senior teams (Barcelona B would not be able to win promotion into La Liga) but are able to be relegated. If say “Liverpool B” finished 2nd in The Championship their automatic promotion place would be taken by the team lying 3rd, and so on. These B teams like any other in the division must register a playing squad with the FA at the start of the season and in addition only under-23 players, or under-25 players with a professional contract can switch between senior and reserve teams. The B teams no longer compete in Spain’s Copa Del Rey. They are in essence their own entity and are self sufficient within the football league.

The reaction of many lower league teams in Spain was at first one of resistance but now the B Teams are fully integrated within the Spanish Football Federation. Many of the teams have competed very well where as others have yo-yo-ed between divisions. The players, teams and fans of lower league sides relish the challenge and excitement of playing against these B Teams associated with the “elite” clubs of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Valencia and it provides a great stage to see some of the countries next best talent.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that for sheer development of players and creating more consistent opportunities for England’s next best talent the B Team system would be beneficial from a Premier League and England National Team point of view – the numbers, fact and figures in Spain alone, matched with their European and Domestic triumphs in recent years proves this. However the B team theory is based on a philosophy which all clubs, coaches at youth level and league associations in Spain believe in. It is for the benefit of the “bigger picture” and allows a breeding ground for Spain to produce more and more talented youngsters at the top level.

Would the B Team system ever happen in England…? I think not unless philosophies and mind sets change. England has one of if not the biggest registered professional footballing pyramids, is one of the oldest and established footballing associations, and the Premier League is arguably the best and highest profile league in world football…yet the National Team continues to under perform on the international stage and the failure to produce a consistent crop of young talent at the top level year in year out is a problem.

Without consistent opportunities to play quality meaningful football England’s next best talent can/will and has been lost in the masses. Is the loan system more about clearing squad space and wage bills? and make weights in transfer dealings? or is it really a valid system to help develop players? in some cases yes but in most no.

“To B (better) or not to B (better)…that is the question”?