If you haven’t noticed the World Cup is in full swing right now. I’m sure the only people who don’t know the Cup is going on are living in cardboard boxes under bridges because we seem to get bombarded with highlights from it every two minutes of the day on all 8 ESPN channels. Anyway, the NY Times had an interesting article on the famous Dutch Youth Soccer Academy, AJAX. It’s a long article but it gives great insight in the pros of the European model of athlete developement against some of the cons of the American model of sport, that we don’t actually have.
The academy doesn’t accept external applicants to their program. They send out coaches who scout the top talent in the area and through strict screening and selection process invite only the highest level athletes to join their developmental program. Athletes start at the age of 7 and usually train through their late teens if they continually advance through the program. This is something that is completely foreign to the American style of sporting development.
I thought that I’d point out a few of the highlights of the article.
Athletes and parents don’t pay to be part of the multi-year developmental academy. They are by invite only and the academy picks up the bill for everything that goes into the process. AJAX has hopes of developing each one into a top world athlete and their payment comes from teams signing them away from AJAX. Of course this happens very infrequently, but when it does, payments over $10 million can be the norm.
The actual training of the athletes is done without overplaying them. To put this in perspective it isn’t unusual for American kids in select baseball to play 10-20 games on any given weekend. Athletes at AJAX, especially the younger ones, are not overplayed. They generally have only one competition throughout the week and that falls on the weekend if at all. Training is only done three days per week with sessions being short in time. In the article one of the coaches stated what they consider a training session is often a warmup for American children. For younger athletes especially, playing at home with friends is just as important as any of the training that takes place. There is importance in letting a child play on his own without coaches and parents hovering over them telling them what to do.
Only the highest level coaches are part of the academies staff. This is how it is in European models of sport development, especially with soccer. Youth levels require the best coaches. In America anyone it seems can coach and ruin athletes.
The entire system is based on DEVELOPMENT, not competition. They change and create more effective motor patterns in their athletes instead of having them compete day in and day out at a young age resulting in burn out. By the age of fifteen, training steps up to five days a week, but competition is still put on the back-burner. They are developing skills and mention repeating motor patterns over and over.
In one section they talk about utilizing heart rate monitors for any type of “conditioning” work. The real emphasis of their training though lies in acceleration over 5-10 meters, which I was happy to see. They stated this is the most important ability for a soccer athlete to possess as it occurs over and over and over in a match. Having great initial acceleration is what separates athletes on the pitch.
One other major point I took away from this article is they aren’t in the fantasy business. In America anybody can pay to play. Athletes at the academy either have it or they don’t. They have to be invited back each year based on their progression, ability, and development. They aren’t there to give a false reality about an athlete’s talent or lack thereof to keep athletes in the program.
The article does a good job of pointing out the advantages of their system of training athletes. There are some negatives along with this but I feel it is far and away above the system that we have in the U.S.