Ajax: A Model for Development?

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2010.

In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, Michael Sokolove wrote “How a Soccer Star is Made” in the New York Times about Ajax, a club team in Amsterdam famous for its Total Football style of play and the development of young soccer stars, including several who played for the Netherlands in South Africa. Despite its small size and population, the soccer world looks to the Netherlands, and specifically to Ajax, for its methods of developing youth soccer talent.

Despite its international success in numerous sports, the United States lacks a definitive development system. In most team sports, players bounce from recreation leagues to club teams to school teams with little to no coordination, progression or consistency between leagues, clubs, schools, teams and coaches.

In effect, the system creates a “survival of the fittest” process, as the biggest, strongest athletes receive more playing time and are selected for teams as children get older and the competitive stream narrows.

In Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I categorize four athlete types: Recreational, Developmental, Competitive and Elite. When I was young, children progressed through the first three types gradually and at one’s own pace.

I played on soccer and baseball teams when I was seven-years-old, but there was no performance pressure. These teams were about having fun and making new friends. Eventually I started to play basketball and quickly decided that I wanted to be a good player, so I practiced on my own and attended camps. I played on teams focused more on teaching fundamentals and preparing players to make high school teams than winning games.

When I reached high school, tryouts for teams grew very competitive, and those who made the team competed for league, area and state championships. The better players sought more developmental experiences to expand their games and their athleticism to prepare for college sports or professional careers.

Now, many children completely ignore the recreational and developmental steps, as teams quickly turn competitive. Youth teams focus on winning games and tournaments and play far more than they train. Youth teams often practice once or twice per week and play in weekend tournaments with three to five games.

The Ajax system largely skips the recreational step as well. Ajax uses scouts who scour the countryside for potential professional footballers as young as five-years-old. Those invited to the the academy enter into a prolonged developmental stage. “The boys are not overplayed…Through age 12, they train only three times per week and play one game on the weekend” (Sokolove).

The academy focuses on the process, not the results. The goal is to move players from the developmental programs quickly through a competitive period in their late teens and on to the elite (professional) level at a young age (late teens/early twenties).

Youth sport is a billion-dollar business in the United States, and the entrepreneurialism affects the environment in which youth players develop. Likewise, the Ajax academy is very much a business, and its approach to business influences its approach to youth development.

In the U.S., a youth athlete is a commodity. Coaches, instructors, facilities, leagues and clubs profit immediately from participation and increase revenue by increasing quantities. More tournaments with more teams and more players per team mean more revenue for the businessmen (coaches/tournament operators).

Ajax treats youth athletes like an investment or asset, and it profits by maximizing the asset’s talent and selling the asset to a bigger, richer club as the asset matures. Wesley Sneijder, the star of the Dutch National team and Serie A (Italy’s top league) champion Inter Milan, started with Ajax when he was seven, and Real Madrid bought his contract for 27 million euros when he was 23.

The different business approaches create different positives and negatives. For a player entering the Ajax system, he receives professional coaching throughout his childhood and every possible resource to maximize his talent. Ajax’s style of play “demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizard-like 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.”

Rather than engage in common drills, “training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line-up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range…these exercises [are] designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball.”

While teams in the U.S. compete to win games, even at the youngest ages, the Ajax academy is more concerned with developing players. Once the players develop their individual technical and tactical skills and move to higher levels of competitions, Ajax cares more about the results. However, at the young ages, the process of developing the player supersedes any result.

U.S. teams often pigeon-hole players into positions and concentrate solely on position-specific skills. Rather than concentrate on important skills like field vision and a player’s first touch, fullbacks are taught to boot the ball out of trouble and midfielders send low-percentage through balls to strikers whose role is to shoot on goal. Teams concentrate on winning the next game, not developing skills for the long term.

Most differently, a child selected to train at Ajax incurs no fees except a nominal insurance charge. The academy pays for its professional staff as an investment – the business’s research and development budget. In the U.S., players pay to play, and more competitive teams or clubs with better coaching typically cost more than local or recreational leagues.

The negative side of Ajax’s investment is that when it becomes apparent that a player lacks the requisite talent or skill to develop into a professional player, the academy dismisses him.

These players, and there are many as only so many players reach the professional side each season, suffer emotionally and socially. One unnamed youth player said, “My best friend left [was cut] two years ago…I don’t speak to him anymore. He thought that I was not in touch enough, that I was not supporting him. He was furious. I realized he was just a football friend and that you can’t have real friends at Ajax” (Sokolove).

While the U.S. system may not provide the professional coaching like a European club’s academy, many youth players develop life-long friends through youth sports. My best friends are guys who I played against in middle school who became my high school teammates.

Our coaches were parent volunteers and while they may not have been baseball, soccer or basketball experts, they insured a safe environment where we had fun and made friends (several friends did earn college scholarships or play professionally).

Beyond the social aspects are academic and other non-soccer pursuits. Another player said, “I would feel very bad if I’m not one of them [professional player]. I have tried everything I can do to make it. I haven’t done as much in school as I could. I would feel like I’ve been wasting my time all these years. I would get very depressed” (Sokolove).

Many youths in the States pursue college or professional careers and manage to excel academically and in other pursuits. When their competitive careers end, they transfer the athletic lessons like determination or work ethic to new pursuits in academia, coaching, business, parenting and other areas of their lives. When asked if he might have learned something at Ajax which would benefit him in a non-football life, this boy answered, “No. We’re training for football, not for anything else.”

Unfortunately, youth development in the U.S. appears to be adopting some of the negative consequences of the Ajax’s academy without incorporating the positives. While many coaches remain volunteers and the progression between age groups, leagues and teams remains disjointed, more and more youth athletes feel a pressure to reach a certain goal – usually a college scholarship – to feel like their athletic endeavors had a purpose. Without the scholarship, they feel they wasted their time.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the Sawyer Effect: practices that can either turn play into work or turn work into play. Many children no longer play sports; they train or work at sports, even from a young age. When this work fails to result in the end-goal or a pay-off for the effort, they feel like a failure. They do not remember the fun of playing a game, learning new things or challenging oneself. Instead, they view the time spent pursuing an unrealized goal as time lost.

There is a fine line between the benefits of a professional development system like Ajax and the ruination of children’s games and play for the sake of playing. While a more balanced approach to training and competition and better organized practices may enhance a child’s experience and his talent development, is it worth the possibility that he views sports as work rather than play? Is it so bad if some players squander some of their athletic talent because they pursue multiple sports or act in plays or start a band?

Should the business of youth sports cater to the development of professional athletes or promote healthy living and life-long activity? I certainly advocate for changes to the way that we develop youth athletes in the United States, but part of the change must be a return to play for the sake of playing.

“Recreational” should not be viewed as a bad word or a dumbed-down program for the uncompetitive. Young athletes need a healthy progression from recreational to developmental to competitive to elite (if good enough) based on their own interests and motivations. Playing sports should be fun, not work, and nobody should view their youth sports experience as time wasted regardless of the outcome.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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