What are the Europeans doing differently than us in Canada in terms of player development? How do they produce such high quality athletes? Are the players in these countries born soccer players? These are but a few questions asked many times by the Canadian soccer community. The answer to these questions is very simple according to the top European clubs. Atmosphere, educated coaches, and young kids with a devoted passion for the game.
In 2003 while attaining a Masters of Science degree in Sport Management in Athens, Greece I earned a job with Olympiacos C.F.P of Greece as a youth development coach in the U-14-15 age group and as a management associate within the youth development structure. I had entered the atmosphere of a prestigious European club. The following is a brief overview of the organization of the Olympiacos youth football academy.
Olympiacos C.F.P's youth academy is of the highest stature in Greece and has successfully produced players over the past two seasons to the first team of the club, and to many European clubs. This success was achieved via a common philosophy set forth by the technical director. The technical director is the leader of this sector of the club and has complete control when dealing with on and off the field issues pertaining to each teams training and performance. The job of the director is to assist every single team and coach throughout the season in order to reach the goals of the club.
The youth club structure is comprised of children from the age of 6 to 20. This structure is split into two groups, non-competitive and competitive. The non-competitive group is comprised of children between the ages of 6-10. In this group all children are welcome to register with the club for training. At each age group the coaches select 11 of the most promising kids which then train as a separate group from the rest of the boys. The main goal in these ages is for the children to learn basic technical characteristics of the sport along with giving them the freedom to enhance their motor capabilities via a variety of games and exercises which may be soccer or non soccer related. The competitive teams begin at the age of 11. There are 4 competitive teams in the youth system with each team comprised of 2 age groups and roughly 12-13 players per age group. Each team has a staff of two coaches, a therapist and an equipment manger.
The youth academy model used by Olympiacos requires an extensive scouting plan as each season a team will have to add 12-13 players to their squad. This is accomplished via three main sources. The first is to select internally from the lower aged youth team. This is the most common source as these children are already quite knowledgeable of the club’s philosophy. The second source is to select players from the open tryouts held twice per season by each team and which attract 50-100 players. Trial players are taken through a variety of training modules while all coaches of the youth system observe and decide on 15-20 players who pass the first cut. This group is then asked to return in order to bring the number down to 5 players. These five players are then given the opportunity to train with the Olympiacos teams once a week for over a two month period to prove their capabilities to the coaches and technical director. The third source of acquiring players is by selecting from one of 10 youth academies across the whole of Greece which Olympiacos cooperates with in matters of technical support, coaching development, and management assistance. The academies are visited once per month by the technical director or management of the club who are briefed on player development and technical issues. The top level players from the academies are brought to Athens upon request to train with the youth teams and prove their abilities in this competitive environment.
The coaching staff at the club is comprised of a mix of coaches from the two important backgrounds required for success in an academy- by former professional players of Olympiacos who have received a national or UEFA license and graduates of the Sport University of Greece in who graduate with a concentration in Soccer. The coaching staff at the department must attend weekly seminars which are conducted by the technical director and deal with all types of concepts and theories related to all ages of coaching. This is to ensure that coaches are well educated in all aspects of player development, and do not solely focus on the age group they are responsible for. To further enforce this, he coaches of the younger groups also engage in opponent team scouting for the highest aged youth team preparation for their upcoming matches.
The Academy philosophy of play for the competitive teams is based on the 3-4-3 system which emphasizes the situation of 1v1 at every position, and creates the ability for the players to play an attacking style with ease and less physical strain. The general philosophy is for the players to learn to play soccer at a high technical standard by emphasizing possession soccer towards the goal with the ball circulation on the ground the vast majority of play. Olympiacos requires their players to be comfortable with the ball at all times and under all circumstances. The boys must be accustomed to pressure situations in order to think, react creatively and further learn to avoid these situations.
The atmosphere created by the training conditions, coaching staff and the children’s desire to succeed is what makes the academy function with success. The daily meetings with the technical director on subjects pertaining to the weekend match or training is vital to the education of coaches and the maintenance of the club philosophy.
An important success factor which is emphasized by the club is the practice to game ratio at these levels. The oldest youth team is the only one which plays a large number of games during the season as they must become accustomed to the professional schedule as it is their next step. All the other teams play a league schedule of 14-16 matches over the season. Exhibition matches with top teams from the country will comprise another 10-15 matches along with two to three international tournaments per season. This comprises approximately 30-40 matches over a ten month season. Training occurs three times a week for ages up to 12 and four to five times per week for the three older youth teams. Training sessions have duration of approximately 90 minutes and the training regimens of the teams are approved by the team coaches and technical director on a weekly basis. There is a big emphasis on weekly and monthly planning for the teams as this is deemed a superior means of planning training as adjustments to problems and development can be made. The yearly plan for the team is an outline of what the players must accomplish over the season and the variety of technical/tactical aspects which they must learn to proceed to the next level.
Training occurs at the Olympiacos "Rendi" training center. It is a state of the art complex which was opened in the fall of 2003 after a two year renovation and remodeling of the existing facility. This gave the youth a permanent home alongside the professional club. The youth department has its own separate structure and training fields which overlook the professional squads training pitches and center which is a means of giving the youth the daily incentive of where they may be in the years to come.
The prime objective of the academy is to create footballers, which leaves actual match results of lesser importance. With proper training and education the boys will win the matches, but only under the playing philosophy of the club. The children are taught how to conduct themselves on and off of the pitch in an educational process of an athlete. The boys learn to respect their own body, their coaches and opponents and conduct themselves as professionals at all times. This is the ATMOSHERE and ENVIRONMENT needed for success whether in Greece, Canada, Holland, or a remote country, because footballers can be developed anywhere in the world if the proper conditions exist.
As a former youth player in Ontario growing through all the ranks and all the leagues of the youth setup I feel it is important and my responsibility to use the knowledge gained from this time period in Europe to bring fresh new ideas to the youth setup currently in Canada. It is the role of the coaches to provide the environment for development of the children. The coaches must give the children a dream and vision as to what soccer may provide for them in the future. Every child can reach their goal with hard work, desire, and dedication. If the youth soccer players are able to recognize this aspect then the coaches and management of soccer will be responsible for the proper development. In Europe the clubs, organization and coaches create this environment. This is the only path to success.
Bobby Smyrniotis (B.A., M.Sc)
Former Olympiacos Youth Football coach