Monday, 30 January 2012

Development Football - Proposals for Making The Young Grass Greener

Many a late-night Twitter debate has raged about the state of English football, from the political to the unsightly and lack-lustre displays delivered on the hallowed Wembley turf.
It is quite clear that a complete overhaul of the footballing system for young English players is required. If they are to even come close to playing the sort of game danced out by on-fire Spain, changes have to be made from the moment they take part in footballing activities and the people who run them are the ones responsible. In theory, 20 years could pass and young English players end-up being part of a cohesive unit displaying the type of play that fans and experts alike so long to see. But where would you even begin? This could become a thesis but here is a quick-look focus on school football.
Pre-School Football: 0-4 years
This lies purely in the hands of the discerning parent, relative or responsible adult; there is no provision for football in early years state education. Some parents take toddlers to footballing activities as part of their weekly timetable whilst others seek out the best groups possible to get their offspring on the path to earning them a tidy retirement sum. Either way, at this age it should be about an enjoyable and natural introduction to football. In the South East, Soca Tots is a brilliant scheme for 3-4 year olds, each session running for 45 minutes with each activity simple to understand, access and execute, even for 3 year olds. The mini-games played between adult and child involve using every part of the foot, dribbling, passing, stopping, close control and so on. It is amazing to see such small people performing these simple tasks on a platform where competition doesn't even exist, it really is all about enjoyment and interaction.
Primary School: 4-11 years
As more people are thrown into the equation things become more complicated. How football is accessed in primary schools is very much in the hands of the headteacher and any staff with sporting inclinations. A 100% verifiable source mentioned in passing that the headteacher of a South East London primary school absolutely 'hates' football, believing it breeds aggression and unhealthy competition. As a result, this school does not have a team, football shirts are not allowed to be worn on own clothes day, balls don't feature in the playground and allocation on the curriculum is minimal. The only access children at this school have is through all-ages after school sessions bought in from local clubs, they don't get to play competitive matches. Children should not miss out if football doesn't float the proverbial adult boat; from international stardom to armchair pundit or Sunday league battler, there are Mount Everest-sized portions of enjoyment to be devoured from the beautiful game.
One trend that quickly emerges in Primary and under 12's club football is how crucial the star player is to the success of any team, a strong build and good height rank high on the box ticking list too. Complete Spanish-style team play is not always top of the agenda. This way of selection is ingrained into the collective psyche of PE teachers and coaches from years of 'teaching the teachers' the wrong way and attitudes developed from watching and playing the game themselves. Another verifiable sources cited experience of being a student on a Physical Education and Sport degree at Greenwich University in 2002. Most of the 60 or so students expressed an interest in becoming teachers or full-time coaches. During the course of year one, football was offered as a token option for women and only took a minimal place on the agenda. What was taught barely scratched the surface of basic drills (all of which should be assumed as learned before reaching further education) with implementation of 4-4-2 and the sweeper system into team play. More time was spent on chalkboards than in practice, despite the more than adequate facilities on offer. That may well have changed and greatly varies from university to university but the products of said teachers in training are now playing at U19/20 level (if at all).
Secondary School 11-16
This is where the pressure really kicks in and school/club football starts to mould the player's destiny on the field. One trap some parents fall into is becoming involved with the running of the club instead of focusing on how to grow their child's potential. How a player develops at this age depends very much on what connections a school/club has with professional organisations. Going back to 2001/02, the same student on the  sports degree course worked at a South East London school where football was served as dish of the day for the PE staff without blade of grass in sight and the department ran on a shoestring budget. However, their connections with a Premier League club were so strong that any player worth a light went on trial and a few signed by age 14. That old saying of 'it's who you know' rings true in all walks of life. This same school only entertained girls football with a token after-school kickabout in the gym.
Choices on which club to play for are important in the early years, how 'connected' the adults in charge are can make a big difference to how the player moves up the ladder, some parents are well aware of this and act upon it but some young people are in the sad position of not having any credible adults to fight their corner. This makes their journey ten times tougher, despite determination through adversity, everyone needs support and nurture, not to mention new boots, subscriptions, lifts to training and so on.
If a young person clearly has talent and shows willing, nurture it, push it but be careful not to asphyxiate it. If they obviously have less ability but possess enthusiasm levels to match that of a Labrador puppy destroying a pair of slippers, celebrate it and find the best possible way for them to access the game at the appropriate level.
There is a huge disparity in the level of how coaches and teachers are trained from area to area and how a young footballer develops depends on a well-balanced system between families-schools-clubs-social circles. There will always be exceptional individuals who go the extra mile in their quest for knowledge and brilliance but for the masses, the system needs to provide the goods when teaching. In the UK and Ireland the weather is variable, for most working and stay-at-home parents life is based on mortgages and getting by, streets are often too busy to kick about (i.e. ball not always at feet as in the coveted South American way) and children might not be able to take part in regular footballing activities until they are old enough to spend time in the park without adult supervision. That's not to say there isn't anything wrong with making them stay outside the backdoor doing kick-ups in the rain until dinner is ready!
Suggestions for Solutions and Progress
To centralise and stabilise the development of youth football, government and FA financing could be allocated to professional clubs in each borough/district. They will then be responsible for developing an administration and coaching system that picks players up at 5 and carries them right through to school-leaving age, selecting and guiding them through school-club-county-national level. The clubs acting as representatives of the FA distribute players of all abilities, shapes and sizes through the right channels; a 'holistic' approach. By localising (clubs to boroughs/districts and schools) and centralising (clubs to FA) this will give nationwide connectivity in developing players and help regulate, ground and raise the level in coaching and development. In the short-term it may be costly in terms of training and implementation but the long-term benefits would be immense. Professional clubs are already setup with professionally qualified coaches; schools depend on the interest and ability levels of staff. Having club coaches taking a proactive role in the footballing curriculum in schools would help the game grow faster and in the right direction. For those who don't have the adult backing to take them through the club football, schools are where the talent discovery buck stops.
There are organisations that deal with funding applications for youth football; the Football Foundation and Sport England are a couple where independent applications can be made for clubs and new ventures, we all know funding is the key to success. Look at the state of play in the USA; sport is big business, college sports are played at such a high level there are televised and draw huge crowds. If talent is there, the stateside school system knows how to nurture it.
If Spain/France/Germany are the benchmark countries for footballing style and success then make those systems a foundation for training the adults in charge of youth football. In the democratic FA voting system there has to be a 75% swing for any changes to be passed. Draw up a manifesto based on the philosophies of successful and admirable countries then fight tooth and nail to make it so. Making changes means kicking out the old ways that don't work, keeping the ones that do and working hard to make-way for new systems that will change the game for better.
Other issues raised are that City-dwelling children are more likely to achieve success at football than those in rural areas. By localising and centralising the development model through the leagues and the FA a club would be obliged to attend schools to scout and develop talent. In the case where a school is so rural with a small intake that a club may not expend resources to monitor it, a member of staff could be appointed as the first port of call in talent scouting and make a referral.

Every school in this country should have a member of staff who can identify talent to refer into the bigger system. Basic training should be provided; this doesn't necessarily need to involve expensive training courses but can include reading and being educated by video footage, the internet is an incredible source for footballing education these days. It would cost very little to prepare a digital training pack for football representatives. This age-old notion of being discovered needs to be dispelled; there is so much talent in the schools, staff should be able to contact a local-central system and push the talent on them, clubs should have a policy of assessing the player if requested, again this can be done by video if budget and time is an issue.

The diagram below places schools at the start of the excellence food chain, this is where all the talent is, day in, day out. There would be nothing wrong with integrating football clubs into the curriculum and developing talent within PE lessons, for those who display great ability at a young age they should be treated differently and accelerated through the sports system, what good is it for them playing football with a class where (for example) half are unfit/unhealthy and not interested or very good at football. Elitism is fine in small doses. At any stage in the road to excellence a player may not make the grade, he could then remain at club level but would be playing to the best of his abilities as a result of a thorough early years training experience.

Leave no stone unturned in our quest for footballing brilliance.


Saturday, 28 January 2012

New Hot Scores Video Blog - Clint Dempsey, Dion Dublin Retrospective

Are Liverpool missing Luis Suarez, predictions for some of the next premier league games and a look at Clint Dempsey and Dion Dublin.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Hot Scores Video Blog - Palace Prank, Ajax Fans, Worst Players Ever

In this week's video blog I take a look at some of the best fans in Europe, some of the worst players ever and the Crystal Palace F.C kit man prank, amongst the usual football chat.

Interview With Alex Manos - Head Physio at Crystal Palace F.C

No prizes for guessing which one Alex is
A few weeks back, I met with Alex Manos, head physiotherapist at Crystal Palace F.C. Alex afforded me the pleasure of being my debutant interviewee at a secret location in South East London. He suggested we conduct the interview on a yes or no answer basis, which would have been great fun for us but not for you lovely readers, so we decided to go down the good old fashioned route of conversation. Thank you Alex for giving up 2 hours of your time!
Tell me about your education and work background?
I trained initially at King’s College, London, doing a degree in physiotherapy. My first job was at Crystal Palace, as the academy physio. I worked there for 3 years and then left for Australia to do my masters in sports and muscular-skeletal physiotherapy. I came back to London and worked in a sports medicine clinic in the City, treating Saturday and Sunday league footballers, weekend warriors, marathon runners, triathletes, swimmers - all sorts of sports participants.
Compared to professionals, do Sunday league/amateur footballers present different types of injury?
The injuries are normally the same but the recovery times are different - mostly because they don’t have the same intensive treatment schedule as professionals. Do you think lower league players pick up injuries more frequently? You’ll probably find that in the lower leagues injuries are less frequently documented. Players aren’t often aware they have an injury; some will plod along for a year with a sore hamstring, whereas at a higher level, the medical staff will pick it up straight away. Someone could come to me in a clinic and say, “I’ve got a groin strain”, I’ll ask how long they’ve been suffering and it could be 6 months! Often with amateurs, they will only seek advice when they have to stop playing because they can’t get beyond an injury.
Do playing surfaces and boot choices have an impact on frequency and types of injuries sustained?
There was a time when the school of thought was that blades might have caused more injuries and I can see the argument for that, although I’m not sure there is any hard evidence to support it. I think there has been a bit of a reversal to a more traditional type of boot - using smaller blades or studs. Theoretically if you have a big blade, this could get stuck in the grass and cause injury. It’s very much players personal choice, although I would prefer them to wear a more traditional type of boot.
When you’re in the dugout are you specifically tracking players who have just returned from the treatment room?
Yes, definitely. I tend to look at things close-up, so when someone jumps or lands or goes in for a tackle I’m watching how their body is working. If someone is sprinting for a ball, I’ll be looking how the body reacts, it’s a natural part of being a physio.
Is there ever any pressure on you to bring a player back from injury quickly?
Generally no. All of the managers I have worked with allow the medical staff to take full charge of a player’s recovery. A general assumption could be that as soon as a player is injured it is up to the medical staff to get him back on the field as quickly as possible. Years ago, somebody would pick up an injury and the expectation would be to get them back in action ASAP. Nowadays there is a much greater understanding of the treatment required. Of course there are times when you may have to try and speed up a player’s return to the field, say when the squad is depleted, it then becomes a risk analysis. Generally we try to minimise the risk of re-injury. For example, if somebody has potentially a 6 week injury, it’s much better to give them a 7 week recovery time to ensure optimum fitness.
What kind of work do you have to do with a player recovering from a virus?
The problem with illness is that a player is often completely incapacitated. With injury, conditioning and strength work can be continued. The general consensus is that after 2 weeks of inactivity a considerable degree of fitness is lost, then it goes down daily. The problem is when you’re ill, the body gets really tired and dehydrated. It’s really about monitoring their weight and hydration when they return. If it’s a case of 3 or 4 days, players will often get thrown straight back into training.
Some managers request players have the flu [vaccination] jabs, I’ve never had to deal with a player who had suffered with a long viral illness. I suppose when players have children they pick up more illnesses? Yes they do, they definitely do! Often it’s minor illnesses like vomiting and diarrhoea, which are easily spread throughout the squad. For the benefit of the team we’re pretty strict about players not coming in until they are completely symptom free.
Let’s talk about injuries that are more challenging to treat
Touch wood, I’ve had nothing on the pitch that required emergency medical skills to date, no terrible breaks or concussions that weren’t resolved quickly. I’ve had some long-term injuries that haven’t responded as well to treatment as I’d hoped but that’s the nature of medicine.
Cartilage damage can be one of the most challenging injuries to deal with. For example, it is well documented that Ledley King can’t do a lot of impact work which makes training so difficult. The treatment for cartilage injuries is not advanced enough to allow for a full recovery. The cartilage doesn’t regenerate and is difficult to treat because it is a part of the body that just doesn’t heal or repair to its original state. The surgical options are improving all the time and the possibility of gene therapy in the future may aid this process.
Do players with long term injuries often work with the club psychologist to aid recovery?
Some do, it depends on the assessment from the medical team. Potentially any long term injury, say over 6 months, may have an effect on the player. For instance, a cruciate ligament injury, which takes an average of 6-9 months can be a difficult time. Although we set milestones for recovery, you can run into difficulties and the injury may drag on longer than expected. At this stage we might introduce the psychotherapist. Long-term injury can be a very bad thing for a player to go through, it’s so hard for them to sit there, watch games, watch training, and be stuck in the gym all the time. Would you refer a player for therapy if he continuously picked up minor injuries? Sometimes, yes. The crucial thing to establish is why the injury keeps reccurring. It’s worth thinking about what you’re asking the body to do, day in, day out - the human body isn’t naturally designed to be a footballer! It could just be bad luck, picking up niggling injuries or it could be due to the training that they are doing. We aim to look at every aspect of their life, training, nutrition, rehab , recovery to try and identify what could be the problem.
Over the course of your career have you seen a change in the type of injuries presented?
I wouldn’t say the types of injuries sustained have changed over my 9 years on the job, but I’d say we see a greater variety of injuries because they are picked up earlier and we have a greater understanding of them. A typical example of this is with the groin; the pain you might suffer and think is a groin strain, might not necessarily be. Even as recently as 10 years ago, a lot of pain in that region would simply be labelled as a groin strain, be treated for a couple of weeks and then he’d be sent back into training and keep on breaking down. Now with more research and understanding, we look at other aspects of the body which may be contributory factors in groin problems. Typically in football you’ll always have your hamstrings, ankle sprains and cruciate ligaments though.
As elite fitness is achieved, does the incidence of injury increase?
Not really, it is often the opposite. However, as you become fitter you have more [fitness] to lose if you get injured. If a finely tuned athlete has a week or two off that will affect their health far greater than a semi-pro or part-time amateur.
Does having a nutritionist on hand help facilitate speedier recovery from injury? [Twitter tells us how much some players love going to Nando’s, all that salt can’t be good for them!] Do you try to keep them on the straight and narrow when it comes to nutrition?
Yes, definitely. We do as much as we can at the club, providing breakfast and lunch and giving them nutritional advice to use at home - although some of the younger players who live alone don’t follow it as well the older or married ones as they often can’t cook [won’t cook?] as well!
Do you hear of players having dental trouble from excessive consumption of energy drinks?
You see them on the telly endorsing these products but most choose water - we try and encourage water for hydration. Water is what you really need but a lot of players use sports drinks as well which is fine. Training sessions are quite short within season so as long as you stay hydrated that’s most important. A lot of clubs use hydration testing to analyse the players hydration levels. It is something that we are currently looking into and would think about in the future. It basically involves a player’s urine being analysed to score their hydration level and gives a good indication on how much fluid the player has taken on board. We believe that the risk of injury when you are dehydrated is much greater so any analysis available would help. It would also provide a good test to keep the players on their toes and disciplined with their fluid intake.
Are there any modern treatments or pieces of equipment you are particularly excited about?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist, there are all of these mod-cons and pieces of equipment but my training was very hands on. I think that your hands are your best tools. There are some pieces of electrical equipment we use, predominantly an ice compression machine, the Game Ready, where we pack different body components with ice and water and it flushes the ice for compression. [I find] electrical medical equipment is sometimes used just for the sake of exhibiting technology when hands on methods are far more effective. With a lot of these things there isn’t always hard evidence to say it will definitely work, a lot of it is harmless, but you don’t always know. Personally, I’m not a big machine fan. I would always look at traditional techniques, maybe use acupuncture to aid the healing process. The oxygen chamber is one you hear about, I haven’t used it this year but it is something I would consider. The rehab and ‘pre-hab’ are the most important things. We try to keep the players as occupied as possible for as long as possible, and being active is the best way rather than being stuck on a machine for hours.
I am a fan of using sand for rehab. It acts as a great medium between water and hard surface rehab training. [Buckets and spades at the ready boys]!
What are your thoughts on the congested English fixture schedule?
Fortunately, we haven’t been hit hard by injuries of late but I would prefer there to be a two week break around the Christmas period. Ideally we would have shorter breaks, more often - this would help reduce injury risk.
Finally, let’s warm down by talking stretches.
Stretching is still a slightly contentious issue in sport and football. Traditionally it used to be all static stretching however recent science would suggest that prolonged static stretching might decrease your power output. Although in football you aren't always working at your maximal output, we want to conserve muscular power for activities such as sprinting and jumping which have explosive elements. The mood has definitely turned towards dynamic stretching as opposed to prolonged stretching but it’s also very much players preferences. Some players like to do a static stretching workout before a game, if it’s part of their routine and they’ve been doing it for say 15 years, they aren’t likely to change that because of a scientific paper the physio has just read! It’s important to listen to the players and their individual routines as well as use scientific research and our input.