When competition and development are linked, young footballers perform at their best. Without competition, there is no mental or physical challenge. Training and playing gets boring. A player needs to be challenged both physically and mentally.
Challenge begets development, and consequently enjoyment, as the young player becomes more competent and proficient in playing the game well.
After spending three weeks as a guest of the Serie A clubs Fiorentina and Empoli observing their youth programmes I was very impressed with the attitudes of the young Italian players.
The Italian players first and foremost competed against themselves, as opposed to other players in the group. They had a fantastic work ethic, a competitive mindset and a wonderful attitude of always wanting to improve.
So how did they develop these qualities?
The answer is a combination of setting clear goals and constantly evaluating performance en route to achieving those goals.
By choosing small goals to achieve when practicing, players make improvement a day-to-day habit. Self-improvement becomes something hard-wired into the player’s approach.
By learning this habit, Italians have an attitude of always looking for the next success, always searching for areas of improvement and refinement. The players I watched, demonstrated they were hungry to get better and better 365 days of the year.
I was also very impressed with the way that young players took personal responsibility for their own development.
The coach was essential to creating a challenging, motivating training session but players certainly didn’t wait around for the coach to start the practice. Before training officially started, players warmed up with a variety of technical and agility drills on their own. They also needed little encouragement to compete at the highest intensity whilst training. Everything was done with maximum effort and concentration.
The outcome of these elements is a strong mindset focused on ongoing growth.
This mindset allows players to deal with the selective and highly competitive nature of the Italian youth system, whilst equipping them with the ability to bounce back from adversity. At the same time, it creates a situation where young players really enjoy themselves, as they are constantly being challenged. Mirko Mazzantini, the Fiorentina U14 Head Coach and founding partner of Soccer Italian Style, told me that whlist he may, on occasion, repeat themes or topics from one week to the next, he will do it using different drills and activities so as to avoid boredom and repetition among the players, whilst also challenging them mentally.
New Zealand needs to increase the level of competition, and competitiveness, among our top young footballers to be successful internationally. If young Kiwi players can develop the traits of their Italian peers in regards to work ethic, self motivation and a competitive mindset, I believe we can develop some very talented footballers in this country.
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