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Thursday 13 June 2013

Youth Focus: Plans in place to improve competition

In focus on Youth Development, we look at how Premier League clubs are promoting teenagers

West Ham and Man City's U14s had the chance to learn through a trip to Barcelona

This week, is focusing on youth development. After three years of consultation and development the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) came into force a year ago, seeking to create more and better homegrown players who are properly equipped to succeed at the highest levels of the Premier League.

While the EPPP is geared towards the long term, with clubs putting in £320m over the first four years, we look at what changes have been made in its first 12 months and how they provide the groundwork to achieve the plan’s goals.

To meet the changing priorities of the player as they develop a Performance Pathway was structured in three phases: Foundation (U9-U11); Youth development (U12-U16) and Professional Development (U17-U21). Here we look at youth development, where children learn to compete.

The Youth Development Phase is when children’s football undergoes a transition from small-sided games to 11 v 11. Under the EPPP, youngsters aged between 12 and 16 receive increased contact time with clubs, with the aim of giving players more opportunity to assemble the tools they will need to be successful as a professional player. For the U12s this comprises 10 hours a week coaching, rising to 12 hours for the U16s.

Also over the past year, as Chris Casper, the Premier League’s Club Support Manager at the Youth Development Phase, explains, there has been a difference in how the evolution of players in this age group is managed. From last season, a greater degree of analysis and accountability has been introduced in mapping a boy’s progress, respecting the aspect of team play and team goals, but also looking at how individuals are progressing.

Off the pitch at youth tournaments, players learn how to benefit from video analysis

“One of the biggest things this season has been the individual player plans for lads,” Casper said. “Players are working not just as a group but also working and focusing on individual objectives.

“This works through six-weekly reviews, where the players’ progress is compared to their learning objectives. The work is grouped but within those training sessions there are these individual plans, too.

“This identification of what a young player needs is very important especially at the youth development phases where the relative impacts of age are massive. A 14-year-old can be 6ft 1in, another can be just started maturity at 5ft 3in. Mentally, they are the same age but physically they are miles apart. So such players need different approaches and the clubs have recognised that and have put together individual work at Category 1 and Category 2 levels.”

"Boys of 14 can be the same age mentally but physically they are miles apart"
Chris Casper

As coaches at clubs are being given these greater responsibilities so the Premier League has sought this season to help them develop in their professions. Through a set of Leadership Journey events across the season, those responsible for moulding the game’s future have been given the opportunity to develop their own ideas about how to guide their talent on the performance pathway.

These events, staged for the first time this season, aim to inspire the coaches with ideas that can be implemented when they return to their clubs. These ideas have been about identifying and understanding the mindset of the elite sportsperson, understanding how to create effective leadership.While coaching philosophies of clubs, at home and abroad, have been demonstrated to broaden coaches’ horizons.

At one event, the approaches of Southampton and Barcelona – two clubs who have succeeded in promoting players through their ranks to the first team – were presented at length, and for some coaches, such as Sunderland academy director Ged McNamee, such forums proved reassuring.

The Leadership Journey events have helped to inspire youth coaches

"Everybody knows about Barcelona and the success they've had, but I found the Southampton presentation very interesting because we're doing some of the same things at Sunderland so it reinforces that some of the things we're trying to do other clubs are trying to integrate and introduce as well,” McNamee said.  “At these events you're exposed to new ideas, new ways of doing things; you take them away and discuss them with your staff and re-evaluate what you're doing.”

As well as the new events that have been introduced over the past season, players and coaches at the Youth Development phase have continued to enjoy elements that have served them and their predecessors well over the years, such as the national and international tournaments organised as part of the Premier League Games Programme.

"As coaches, it was fantastic to swap ideas with our counterparts from the other clubs"
Mark Phillips

These events help the boys to improve with more game time against other players with similar skills in England and abroad. One key objective is to ensure that the first time an English boy plays against a foreign player is not in the Barclays Premier League.

Manchester City and West Ham United, the top two clubs from the National U14s Tournament, in which all 20 Premier League academies competed against each other, had the opportunity to broaden their experience with a trip to Barcelona. West Ham holding the heralded Barcelona team to a draw was the highlight of valuable weekend for them.

“It was an unbelievable experience for the youngsters and coaches,” West Ham United Academy youth development coach Mark Phillips said. “We also went for a tour of the Nou Camp and enjoyed meals with the other clubs involved.

"As coaches, it was fantastic to swap ideas with our counterparts from the other clubs and they were complimentary to us about our style of play."

The annual Christmas Truce Tournament has educated boys on and off the field

Academies and coaches can also enjoy such broadening of their philosophy and culture at home through the Premier League’s international tournaments. Clubs from abroad are invited to participate, regularly at the FA’s impressive facilities at St George’s Park.

A recent event impressed Peter van der Hengst, the coach of Ajax U11s, who took part in a two-week tournament at St George’s Park. “With the Premier League tournaments the facilities are always excellent: you have multiple pitches, restaurants, lots of people organising and lots of spectators to give it atmosphere,” Van der Hengst said. “I want to bring my teams to England not just because it's a good thing to play abroad because you get your mindset challenged with a new experience but also because everything is fantastically well organised.”

The importance of the cultural exchange that Van der Hengst emphasises is as true for the English club coaches and players at all levels as it was for him and his U11s.

“It's great that my players are there mixing with the boys from the other clubs,” he said. “Culture is an experience you can't learn, you need to go through it. For us as trainers it's fantastic too to speak with the other trainers.

"I want to bring my teams to England because everything is fantastically well organised"
Peter van der Hengst

"I had an interesting time speaking to Chelsea and we now have the opportunity to pick up the phone with them and talk about playing each other. It's great for your contacts book because everybody is knowing what they are doing to make the players more professional. It's about the steps you take to make them professional players and every little piece of what you're missing you get that from another club and you think, ‘I can use that to make my team better'.’"

As well as learning on the pitch in these tournaments, the Premier League ensures that the boys are getting an education off it. At the tournaments at St George’s Park, the players from all clubs are taught about how to use video analysis to improve their play and also receive practical experience on media skills and how to deal with TV interviews.

Another example of educating players through football is the Premier League’s annual Christmas Truce Youth Tournament where, last year, U12 teams from Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion went to Flanders to play teams from Belgium, Germany and France and learn about the sacrifice made by previous generations of footballers in the First World War.

With just a year of the new practices of the EPPP being implemented it is still early for a sea change in the development of young English players at clubs to be clearly visible, but the foundations are in place for the emerging talent to be given their best chance to flourish.

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Key Points

  • We look at the U12-U16 Youth Development Phase in a week devoted to Youth Development
  • Premier League clubs have put in place individual plans to chart player progress
  • Premier League looking to assist coaches as well as players in their development