June 03, 2010

"In the U.S., we think of money as corrupting sport, especially youth sport. At Ajax, it is clarifying.": As a prelude to the World Cup, Michael Sokolove takes an in-depth look at the Dutch giant's academy, where seven-year-olds are coached towards success on the world stage. It also discusses why the growing ranks of young players in the US hasn't yet translated into top-level success, blaming an overemphasis on competitive play and the ill-fitting role of the college sports system.

posted by etagloh to soccer at 03:07 AM - 3 comments

Whoa, thanks for that. A lot to process. It's weird to think of the US approach to anything being the dreamy, friendly, non-business way which only complicates my feelings around the idea that the NCAA/ college athletics approach is bad for developing great players in a (team?) sport. Apologies for some big pull quotes, but it's a long article . . .

I asked [an Ajax youth player] if some of what he learned at Ajax focus, perseverance, the ability to perform under pressure might benefit him no matter what he ends up doing. "No," he said, shaking his head. "We're training for football, not for anything else."
I was back-and-forth on whether that could be a healthy environment for an eight-year old until that. He's just 15, so what does he know about his future, but he's clearly a bright kid and it feels like the academy is just a little too cut-throat for him, even though he's survived in it for half his life. Like other high-stress occupations, it sounds like introspection and high intelligence probably don't correlate with success here.
Jennings said that his scouts, in response to the "unsuitability of the indigenous population of Britain" children who are too sedentary and spend their time with video games were increasingly focused "on the inner city of London, among Africans, Eastern Europeans and Caribbeans." . . . "It's a little ugly talking about the financial terms," Jennings said. "I don't like to do it. It feels not too far off from the slave trade."
I don't know what to say about that except what the author concludes,
How much does it matter for the U.S. to ascend to the top rung of worldwide soccer and become a serious threat to win a World Cup? The effort itself would bring some welcome changes. Players whose training was paid for by professional clubs, rather than by their parents, would likely be treated as investments and therefore developed with more intelligence and care for their physical well-being . . . But club-financed training is the entry level to a rough-and-tumble, often merciless worldwide soccer economy. Elements of it clash with American sensibilities. What Ajax pioneered, and still executes at a high level, can look uncomfortably like the trafficking of child athletes.
It's hard to gain perspective here. While I have my own ideas about what childhood should look like, they're based on my own life, which happens to be occurring in a hell of a time to be a child (for the well-off in the First World). For 99% of human history, no special treatment was accorded to kids, from being chased by leopards to British public schools, you either learned to fight or died. And it's still true for the vast majority of children in the world. So it's hard to say these kids are getting screwed over: they're from relatively rich families and have a say in whether to continue or not. But no kid can accurately weigh up the costs and benefits of joining the academy, whether he's 8 or 16. And parents are easily blinded by the possibilities of a lottery ticket and the prestige of Ajax. Then again, sending your kid off to prep school at age 8 with the best of intentions won't necessarily lead to a happy life either.

posted by yerfatma at 10:00 AM on June 03, 2010

"I asked [an Ajax youth player] if some of what he learned at Ajax focus, perseverance, the ability to perform under pressure might benefit him no matter what he ends up doing. "No," he said, shaking his head. "We're training for football, not for anything else."

This actually doesn't jive with a documentary I saw about "The Future", which made a point to focus on the training the kids receive for a life beyond the field. Firstly there was a focus on school grades, with a large number of tutors at the facility to ensure classed missed at school are covered and players can be "suspended" from games if their academics slip.

Then there was a section about "media-handling training" with players in their mid-teens taken through courses on how to deal with attention from newspapers and television if you do make it and then there was a section on the efforts the club makes to support former attendees through things like obtaining their UEFA Coaching badges, courses in sports physiotherapy etc, anything that will give them a career if they don't make the cut for Ajax.

Of course, this was in 2000/2001-ish, so it's possible that the academy has moved on since then and it's also possible that that type of support is offered only to those cut at a very late stage, (while younger players released are considered to have time to find their own way), but the impression I got was of a club who knew that only a minority of those seven year olds would turn into Wesley Sneijder and it was important for both Ajax and the player that support and options were available for a life outside of football.

It would be a shame if they've moved away from that.

posted by Mr Bismarck at 10:36 AM on June 03, 2010

No, the article does touch on how they focus on the kids getting an education and not over-doing the amount of training time when they're young, which is one of the reasons I'm torn about the approach.

posted by yerfatma at 11:28 AM on June 03, 2010

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