The world’s most popular sports tournament, the FIFA Soccer World Cup, kicked off over the weekend, and with it a flood of soccer coverage in all media. At least one article should be of interest to competitive swimmers and coaches.
Michael Sokolove (who also wrote a profile of Michael Phelps prior to the 2004 Olympics) published How a Soccer Star is Made in the June 6 edition of New York Times Magazine. It contrasted the player development approach at Ajax Academy, the leading youth soccer program in the Netherlands, with how soccer players are developed in the U.S. Below I’ve included several excerpts, between which I inserted in bold questions about swim coaching, mostly in reference to youth coaching but many of these questions could apply equally to those who coach adult swimmers.
The Netherlands, with about 6% the population of the US, produce an outsize percentage of the world’s best soccer players. What do their player development methods tell us?
“One man, Ronald de Jong, said: ‘I am never looking for a result — which boy is scoring the most goals or who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice if a boy runs on his forefeet, lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he really love the game? These things predict how he’ll be when he is older.’”
Do swim coaches more often pay attention to the fastest athletes (and consequently slower swimmers receive less coaching)? How commonly do they take more notice of the details of each swimmer’s style?
“One element of the academy’s success is that the boys are not overplayed. Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend. By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. Training consists of drills in which players move quickly and kick the ball to each other at close range. In the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cellphone. At Ajax, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. “
How often and why do swim coaches, like soccer coaches, seem disinterested in what’s happening in the pool?
“Drawn from a nation of fewer than 17 million, the Dutch national team relies on players who know what they want to do with the ball before it reaches them and can move it on without stopping it. David Winner calls this ‘physical chess.’ Watching the U.S. national team play the Dutch . . . the Dutch zipped the ball from player to player and from side to side of the field, while the Americans ran and ran, chasing the ball but rarely gaining control. When the Americans did get the ball, their passes too often flew beyond reach or out of bounds. The Dutch style demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizardlike ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.”
“How the U.S. develops young players is not just different from what the Netherlands and most elite soccer nations do — it is diametrically opposed. Even at the Pee-Wee level, Americans put together teams built to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat.”
“The balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world . . . a teenager in the U.S. can play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training . . . our best players tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. “
How much of swim practice is typically devoted to targeted skill development, and how much to swimmers simply racing each other repeatedly?
“I watched for 30 minutes as a coach tutored Florian Josefzoon. Bryan Roy, a former member of the Dutch national team, demonstrated a series of stutter-steps and pirouettes, then kicked the ball to Josefzoon, on the right wing, who trapped it and tried to match Roy’s moves. It was as if Roy were teaching him a dance. When Josefzoon mastered one set of steps, Roy showed him something new. “
Is it common for swim coaches to introduce a new, more advanced skill, as soon as a simpler one has been mastered?
“Ruben Jongkind, who mainly works with track athletes, was altering the posture and gait of a 15-year-old. Jongkind told me that while the boy was actually quite fast, he ‘was running like a duck, shuffling,’ Jongkind said. ‘That takes more energy, which is why we have to change his motor patterns, so he can be as fast at the end of a game as the beginning.’”
Which is more common: Trying to improve swimmers’ end-of-race speed by improving their motor patterns to increase energy-efficiency? Or with more conditioning?
“Jongkind said the player had progressed to ‘consciously able but not subconsciously able’ to run with the desired form, meaning that in the heat of competition, he reverted to his old form. I pointed out that a fast but flawed runner in the United States would likely be left alone. ‘Everything can be trained,’ Jongkind said. ‘You should always try to make an improvement if it’s possible.’”
Is it common for swimming coaches to follow a plan for improving everything in a swimmer’s makeup—stroke, turns, sense-of-pace, savvy? Or mainly their fitness?