By Adrian von Wurzbach Managing Director Look Local Newspaper
I recently went on a 4 day coaching observation trip to Benfica football academy in Portugal. I made good friends with a coach from Leeds who has written the following summary of the visit. If you feel anything here is useful (I think a lot is very relevant) or if there is a way of sharing with other coaches or the outside world please let me know.
A once in a lifetime trip to visit and observe Benfica Academy certainly didn't disappoint.
Stocksbridge Park Steels juniors spent 4 days in Lisbon at Benfica's Caixa Futebol Campus and we have learnt so much from one of the worlds most respected youth football academies.
As much as it was nice to spend some time watching football in a sunny climate, the main reason we did this was to help us improve as coaches so our players are continuously getting the very best football training and we, as an organisation, are not standing still in the ever-changing junior football environment.
So, what did we learn?
Portuguese parents have the same concerns as UK parents
Children's fascination with tablets, Xbox and Fortnite isn't exclusive to UK kids. I saw a lot of children doing the 'Floss' dance and many others with phones or tablets in their hands whenever we out and about in the city.
This is something that the Benfica coaches are clearly concerned with when it comes to the development of the children in their teams.
And they look to have addressed it with...
SAQ Training at the coaching sessions
One thing that was a constant at the junior football sessions was SAQ training (speed, agility, quickness).
Ladders, hurdles, agility hoops and even skipping ropes were used throughout the academy training with the main aim being to help the players move better and faster.
Children simply are not moving as much as kids from 10-15 years ago and it is affecting their ability in sport and, generally, in every day life.
We were even told that Man United had 8 academy players out injured last season with broken arms because kids don't play out as much anymore. This means they don't know how to 'fall properly' because they haven't been exposed to the ruff and tumble of climbing trees, playing football in the street etc. etc.
When you think about that it makes so much sense.
Benfica address this with the SAQ training and it looks to have had a positive impact.
We made great friends in Foot-Tech football academy in Leeds. If you'd like your children to have this sort of training please click here to be taken to our speed training page.
Emphasis on just letting them play
A big thing that struck me was how much the players seemed to enjoy their sessions. I think this was down to a number of reasons:
You'd be forgiven for thinking, as an academy, the sessions were going to be more military in nature but that couldn't have been more wrong.
Many grassroots coaches would benefit from thinking about the above.
It could be a British thing but too many times we see managers of junior teams making things more about themselves rather than the players. At Benfica it was the opposite.
They didn't feel the need to step in every 5 minutes to stop the whole session and have a discussion about what was or wasn't working. If football was meant to be coached like that we'd do it in a classroom.
The Benfica coaches took a back-seat and simply observed, helped and praised good effort.
The drills were simple, game-related and it was the drills that did the coaching. The coaches just hammered home the good things the players did or individually spoke to a player who might have needed some help.
No set positions for the players
This is a big annoyance for us at Steels! How on earth a coach can tell a primary school child what their position is is beyond me.
We hear it all the time - 'yeah, my son/daughter plays defence for XYZ Football Club'. Utter nonsense!
Benfica do not give their players set positions until well into high school.
So each player learns the game better. Again, that makes so much sense.
If a young player has chance to play in a variety of positions they will understand more about space, positioning, the runs to make and they will appreciate the work their teammates in other positions will be doing when it comes time for them to nail down a set position in the future.
In the end, their game intelligence is increased.
This is something that its severely lacking in the English game at the grassroots level.
It isn't easy for grassroots coaches as they need to balance the needs of the players, parents and club. Mixing positions may mean less games won and then parents aren't going to be happy.
Education/communication is needed to address this. At the younger level, development over winning needs to be the mantra and everyone at a club should buy into that.
Play to win...but development is the main thing
Benfica coaches were quick to point out that the individual players' development is the main thing but they also need to learn that winning is important.
They wholeheartedly focus on making each player better from a physical and mental point of view and fully embrace fun.
But they also make sure that each player knows that winning is important and that is, in the end, what they should be striving for.
They teach them how to win, why they should want to win but also that losing is part of the game.
They teach them to want to win but how to use losing in a constructive manner so they can learn what to do better next time.
At the academy they have invested heavily in sports science and data analysis.
Interestingly this isn't just to do with the physical side of the players.
It seemed they are also massively concerned with the players' mental health and have a number of psychologists working at the club.
They know everything about each player so the coaches know when to put an arm round someone or when to leave them alone.
It was really interesting stuff and shows you how seriously the game is taken at the highest level.
Most of the older players we observed had release clauses in their contracts of up to £30m so it is understandable that the club will do whatever it takes to make sure they are firing on all cylinders from a physical and mental point of view.