A style of play, or a style of player?

There is a strong focus on a style of play in many youth academies, but should this be focused on a style of player instead?

As youth football becomes increasingly more professionalised, there is a greater emphasis now placed on the curriculum and program design of academies.

It is now common practice for clubs to clearly articulate a ‘vision’ for their youth development; often delivered via an over-arching game model. In Australia, this was developed as part of the National Curriculum overhaul in 2009, which as part of a wider talent development and identification strategy, incorporated a playing style statement supported by key principles that described a generally agreed ‘way of playing’.

This is, of course, fairly common practice across European football. Ajax and Barcelona are two of the more famous practitioners, having developed a clear identity across all their teams (youth and senior) in terms of how they play.

It’s fairly well known by now that City’s youth teams are taught to play in the same style as the first team…whether it’s goalkeeper Cieran Slicker’s determination to play the ball out from even the tightest areas or Rico Lewis tucking into midfield from full-back

Sam Lee, The Athletic

A common theme emerging is that clubs & governing bodies will often define a clear style of play as part of their youth development program.

However, a wider shift is also occuring in broader coaching circles. The predominant focus is now on ‘athlete-centred coaching‘, a theory that emphasises the empowerment and development of individuals.

This also aligns with some broader historical trends emphasising positive sporting experiences for young people, and the role football clubs can play in supporting the development of healthy, holistic individuals.

This is especially pertinent when considering the oft-touted statistics around the ‘success’ of sporting pathways, where 1% or less of players in academy systems will actually progress to a professional contract.

Accordingly, it is perhaps relevant that there is a gradual, and important, shift towards a ‘style of player’. Rather than defining how their teams should play, it appears clubs are increasingly more aware of defining the values and attributes they want to develop in their players.

Interestingly, while the examples highlight an emphasis on developing specific technical & tactical attributes, there is also clearly an emphasis on broader, holistic values & behaviours. Things like ‘respect’ obviously aren’t quite as tangible on a soccer field as, say, being able to finish off both feet – but they’re being given equal emphasis in many academy programs.

A good example of this is Arsenal’s ‘Strong Young Gunners’ vision, which is supported by four pillars: lifelong learners, effective team player, champion mentality & efficient movers. This podcast gives good insight into this process.

Another example is the ‘England DNA’, a framework developed by the FA to support clubs & development programs across the country – which does mention a style of play, but also places great emphasis on the characteristics of the model England player.

What does this do, though is add a layer of intrigue. It may become disingenius for clubs/governing bodies to pre-define or determine exactly what sort of ‘person’ an individual can be. However, it should be acknowledged that there are going to be some common characteristics shared by world class players that academies can aim to develop at a youth level. The challenge will be to allow individual players to develop their own personal characteristics and identity, while also supporting and encouraging the development of skills & attributes that are more likely to make them successful across the talent pathway.

This is something we are conscious of in my own current environment, North West Sydney Football. Our ‘DNA’ is based off six key words (smart, skilful, athletic, ruthless, resilient & tribal), which we aim to develop across three key areas: the people, the environments & the game. This can be conceptualised as below:

Our specific focus on developing a ‘style of player’ has also indicated a need to develop coaches who are acutely aware of what these values/attributes may be, and how they can support the development of these in individuals. That requires a sophisticated level of knowledge and understanding, not only of the unique characteristics of children and adolescents, but also, of the pedagogy and practice that can enhance this process.

That speaks to a wider skillset perhaps required in youth coaches in these academies where the emphasis is on developing a ‘style of player’ – that there becomes a clear need to hire coaches who are specialised in the specific challenges and contexts of young people.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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