Youth Football in the Netherlands

During my exchange semester in the Netherlands I visited different clubs and talked to people with different backgrounds regarding Football. I will illustrate the experiences I made during this time, in the following lines. If you are interested in more information and impressions, you can find different articles about games, talents and Development Models

There are many different approaches and it is impossible to see everything during one semester. I will spotlight a few different Clubs and Organizations for you to get an idea about Football in the Netherlands. I want to know how they work, their philosophy, their main target and their football culture. 

Grassroots

Everyone I talked with had a clear idea of how to play, how to train and their aim. Chronically my first station was the club Helpman VV. Helpman is a Grassroots Team, whose main focus is Youth Development, in terms of football as well as in terms of social behaviour. The coaches and the Youth coordinators for their age groups, were aware about the club’s philosophy and how they changed it. The importance of this change was a big topic. It went from a game near exercise circuit to more stable phases under the same coach. Now they have three stages, coordination ability with a ladder, shooting and a small sided Game. Not only did the style of training change, the Club also had to “train” the new coaches.

A Youth Coordinator, you could call him a “coaches’ coach”, was responsible for a specific age group, their coaches and ultimately the work on the pitch. Helpman decides the general focus during training sessions, but to put that on the pitch is in the responsibility of the Youth Coordinator and his coaches. His work with the kids as well as with the coaches’ is crucial and will decide the outcome.
Already, the first station showed the importance and advantage of having a clear idea. In a coherent manner, from the directive over the coordinators to the coaches, it helps everyone and it is the best for the children’s development. If everyone is pushing in the same direction you can finally gain a better outcome. It is crucial to have a good communication and discussion culture, and if someone isn’t convinced of the idea to talk with them to improve it.

Social Development in Grassroots

Football cannot be separated from social behaviour. The Regional Voetbal Academie (RVA) has started the idea of Football being an important teacher for social skills. RVA wants to combine Sportive Development with Self Awareness. Jan Douwe van der Wal, Founder of RVA, told me: “Now we are teaching the trainers, who are working with us, how to pay attention on cooperation [between the kids] for example, how you can coach this. How to ask children the right questions. That they will reflect their performances. Because usually coaches want to tell the children what they have to do. How you have to play and stuff like this.  So we actually try to teach trainers to sort of step back and ask more questions. When something isn’t working out very well, ask them why it isn’t working good and what can we do to improve it. And what your own role [as a player] is in this.“ 

Holistic Training

If you are training football skills, you can connect that with self-awareness and social skills. It is great to see the combination of both. It isn’t possible to seperate these two aspects. “Different situations ask for different behaviour” says Douwe Jan, he stresses out that in Football you cannot separate Skills from Situations on the field. It proves already a challenge to teach kids not older than 13 years lessons about self awareness, but to combine that with an all-around training approach is a lot harder.

There are possibilities thanks to a holistic approach, “You have to make sure the environment pushes them to do the right thing. That is usually better, then if a coach is telling them what to do. Through the environment it starts to be intuitive. And with the explanation from the coach it is more cognitive. When you’re under pressure playing the game it is much more difficult to think about what you have learned. And if it is intuitive you can apply it in the game as well“. It shows that Football is in every part an all-around game, it isn’t only about skills nor fitness, it is about working together, being a social individual within a group. It combines mind and muscles. 

Influence of the KNVB

The Federation is happy with their look on the different grassroots clubs, they are satisfied with the amount of educated coaches and the range of their information’s. Peter van Dort from the KNVB, is happy about the structure, which is, thanks to all the different education levels, able to reach different people. It starts with guiding the process; for that are “four things very important. To structure, to stimulate, to give individual attention and to help the players to do it themselves”. The Coaches have to understand how to create appropriate situations.

A “Safe environment” in where the players can intuitively play and find own solutions. Without the distraction of the coaches’ advice, their could be a better outcome. „Maybe just by playing, but perhaps also by playing outside the club, the players acquire the necessary skills and personality traits that allow them to join into the academy”. In the second Level of the Coaches Education they add Football specific context, while the main focus still remains on creating a good learning environment. In general, “in the grassroots level, we learn football by playing football, in small sided games, in an environment who is safe, where you can make mistakes, where you learn to have respect for your teammates and the environment” says Peter van Dort.

Professional Youth Academies

As a professional youth academy, it is important to know your own strengths and weaknesses to survive in the League and to develop an identity. The North of the Netherlands has less people, and with that comes a smaller amount of talented players. How can a team like FC Groningen compete against the bigger clubs, or compete for the title in the U19 League? They need to find a unique approach to have a chance.

FC Groningen focuses on improving their players athletic ability. Since years they have focussed on that and thanks to their now acquired expertise, they got a good rate of own youth players in the first team. But you have to work on your weaknesses too. It is impossible to play Football on a high level if you only work on your athleticism. Which approach can help eliminate the „weakness“ of getting less talented players?

Boele Terpstra, the Assistant Coach of the U13 Team from FC Groningen, told me that he believes in the implicit ways of learning. They provide a lot of possibilities for the Players to develop their skills and their overall understanding of football. To strengthen their ball technique, they developed a small session before their normal training session: “Everyone has a bottle and, on the bottle, they have their own skill that they want to improve. So they create an exercise, a situation to improve that skill. For example, if they want to improve their dribble, their bottle says: What do you want to improve? My Dribbling in a small area with my left foot. They thought about it before the training, they create an exercise and we check if this is the right thing to do“. 

Unique Selling Point

With a good staff they developed their strength into a superpower. To bring players from the own academy to the first team. They try to build exercises who develop athleticism and technique. Combinations of the right sprint duration and football specific movements, such as passing and receiving. It is only possible to create an advantage if you really try to get to the bottom of it, to have an in-depth understanding of the Movements. They have Sport Scientists, Strength and Conditioning Coaches and Football Coaches that work together to develop the right training, to gain an advantage.

The combination between Theory and Practice on the pitch is important. In the end, the Coach and the work with and for the Players on the Pitch decides their future. The Club has to have the will to understand football specific Movements in-depth and in the context. As a smaller Club you have to go your own way. It is impossible to compete with bigger clubs with more money and ressources while still using the same approach to teaching football as them. 

Federation

For the Federation it is important to have different identity’s and sportive philosophies in the academies, to some extent. „Every academy has their way, based on the culture. That philosophy is based on culture and on experiences of some people within the academy (…). But you could say in general 80-85% of all academies are the same and the remaining 15% is the colour of the club.“, says Peter van Dort. It isn’t only the culture that decides this colour. It is, as well, the will to win. You have different Ressources, you have different Positions. But the core of every Youth Academy should be similar, the will to win. The Dutch Way of Attacking, having Position and free Movement. That is the general culture of the country, as well as looking for something new and being creative or even „offending“ with your skills. 

The KNVB Philosophy is based on the Action Theory. Peter van Dort explains it as “the actions of players are always related to the objective and the context.”. It is the way, they see, understand and explain Football. Everything is related to the actions on the pitch. You have to connect everything with the players and organize it for the players. So that they always have the connection to the pitch and the ball.  For the KNVB the fundamental of that question is Street Soccer or nowadays implicit learning, “every football action is related to positioning, the moment and timing”. To experience everything in context is important because “there is no ideal way of doing [a] movement”. The Focus is external, on the aim. It’s not about how you accomplish it, it is about whether you accomplish it or not (passing, shooting, whatsoever). 

Science in Football

In the last years, the scientific approach was introduced in Football, but still remains a controversial topic. There are countless uses of Science in Sport. From the classic Medicine Part, to Analytics to Fan behaviour. On the Sportive side there are mainly two parts inside the Health oriented Science. Prevention and Regeneration, especially Sleep, Diet, Nutrition and Stress. The Data from Regeneration and Prevention allows the formulation of useful advice.

The KNVB sees a risk that Analysts provide only Data and not Information. They can understand if Analysts get frustrated because their work doesn’t get appreciated, but the amount of data is too big to be practicable. If the Questions would come from the coach, it could help to provide something needed and valuable. “The limitation is not the data. The limitation is about the amount of data and information the coach can use. And also, the player can use” says Peter van Dort.

Probably a common language, could be a solution. As well as the coaches understanding more about data. In my opinion, it should be the other way around, teaching the Analysts Football to provide something needed. That they can show up with information from a different angle and with new perspectives, as described in David Sumpter’s Soccermatics. As you can see in different Clubs, many have an Assistant Analysing Coach, per less this coach should have the skills to communicate on both levels. That could be a potential superpower for a club.

Educational Program

The Coaches’ Education Program is open for everyone, but professional players have an advantage. If you play professional football for over ten years, and you get great education in a Youth Academy, you will have a great vision and understanding of the game. There are Coaches with another background that learned this or got it at an early age. But you can’t expect of everyone who teaches and engages with football to have this in-depth understanding. It is normal, that the majority of leading staff in the Dutch Football are ex professional players.

At the end it is about the decision makers, what kind of people and philosophy they have. But it is good, if the system is open for different people with different background. You need the Ex Player, you need someone with a great understanding of Teaching, etc. Peter van Dort thinks “it should be the combination. (…) people in football without a football background look mostly for people without a background and people with background in football look for people with background in football.” That could be a problem, because every background brings specific skills to a club.

Sport for Social Development

Football is always a social construct, there isn’t Football without the interaction of people of every background. For the Federation it isn’t an especially important part, but it is always part of the game, “we believe in our philosophy that learning to play a game like football is also to learn the games rules. First understand the rules, then play according to the rules.”, says Peter van Dort. Sport has to be in a safe environment, not only during training and for your players, but also for the opponents and the referee. The game cannot be played without them. He sums it up, that “football itself is integration, when you play football you will meet people out of other cultures and environments. Football itself is social. Part of being a youth coach is to be a role model and in his [the players] nurture.”

The Cruyff Foundation

Niels Meijers from the Cruyff Foundation has a similar view of the situation: “In my opinion it [the social task of football] is pretty big. Fortunately, I see governments, political parties, they become more aware of the power of football, of sports. (…) We have some researches now who are showing that if you’ve been active during your school time, you will perform better at school. For me it is huge. Companies now introduce time and equipment for their employee’s activities, so that they can be more active. Because they had a lot of burn outs. I’m sure that it will become bigger in the future.” He points out that Sport can be a bigger part than “only” the social interaction between people. It is a popular topic and it will contribute his part. 

Albert Jan works with the kids on the Cruyff Courts (A Cruyff Foundation Facility), his main goal is to be a good example and to use Sport as an example. He told me how the kids live in a closed environment where it can be normal to bring a hot dog as lunch and drink energy drinks to hydrate themselves, or to include a swearword in every sentence. For them it is important to see a positive Lifestyle. So his main goal is not about sports, it’s about being a Rolemodel as a Social Worker. Sport is the tool to teach the kids social skills. Conscience for useful skills and a positive, healthy lifestyle. Conscience for Movement. And Football, from Grassroots to Professional, can make all the difference for these kids. In the Social Part, the Sportive Part and the Cognitive Part. 

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