Throughout a majority of soccer clubs, the unspoken balancing act to determine who a coach is for a team is based on how long a coach can keep the parents happy. If the parents are happy, then everything is OK. Right?
We don’t believe so.
This approach leaves out the most important pieces of the equation — the players and their development.
Instead of asking ‘are the parents happy?,’ we believe that the measuring stick needs to be constantly asking: What is working at the top academies around the world? What are the best practices for developing players in the 21st century?
The residual answer we found, and implemented in the 2016/17 season, is the Phase Model.
The Start of the Phase Model
In 2012, The Premier League along with the English Football League launched the ‘Elite Player Performance Plan’ (EPPP) with the aim of developing more and better homegrown players.
The plan focused greatly on the development of players between 5 and 16 years old from the local region. (While not the structure in the US, these academies pave the way to promotion-relegation. With youth clubs receiving monetary support for developing top players that compete in The Premier League.)
Within the EPPP, there was a call to restructure academies to put all players into ‘Phases’ based on their age. The plan promotes the empowerment of each individual player through a player-led approach with each phase having its own team of coaches.
Adapting the EPPP to fit our leagues/players, we group our phases as:
- Foundation Phase (FP): U8-U12 – TRAIN TO LOVE THE GAME.
- Create the foundation of skills, style, expectations, mindset.
- Create a love for the game, then train for the love of the game.
- Create a functional body that can move multi directions – 7v7 through to 9v9
- Youth Development Phase (YDP): U13-U14 – TRAIN TO UNDERSTAND THE GAME
- Focus: This is where the game becomes 11v11 so we shift the training to the game itself. Foundational understanding and skills should be in place, now we start to dig into the tactical development a bit more.
- College Prep/Performance Phase (CPP/PP): U15-U19 – TRAIN TO WIN THE GAME
- Focus: Training to win the game is about developing to win games. What can we understand about the team and ourselves that will enable us to win games to move on to a higher level?
As with anything though, we only know what we know. And the Phase Model isn’t what American sports know. Here are the top 3 views embedded in US youth soccer culture that pin the Phase Model vs the Traditional Model that we encounter:
One Coach the Full Way Through vs Team of Coaches Per Phase
So often a strong coach is thought to have a winning record. In professional sports, you see coaching changes made entirely on a winning record. But we’re not yet to professional competition levels. Regardless of the traditional or phase model, at the academy level, these are still youth athletes being developed.
The reality of one coach coaching with a team through all of their years is that they become the coaches mini-me’s. Those players develop in one style of play and learn to respond to one style of coaching. When the team faces competition that can break down that style or upturn a certain element, the team struggles.
Then, fast forward to the player moving on to college or higher-level teams, individual players struggle to get the same ‘top’ results as they did with the previous coach based on a different coaching style that they never learned how to respond to.
In response, the Phase Model looks to expand players’ opportunities.
With players playing for multiple coaches, while a unified club style, each coach still has unique tendencies that are taught/focused on with the team. This exposes players to a greater number of teaching styles and ways to interpret/navigate decisions.
Consistency of Coaches vs Changing Coaches
The reality of the traditional model of one coach the whole way through is that it’s a roll of the dice.
Not all players on a team will respond to the coach’s style. This is true even with our Phase Model. The problem with the traditional approach is they’re stuck with that coach if they want to continue to play. And all too often, their ‘love of the game’ starts to diminish and their development often halted.
Looking even bigger at the club aspect, only certain players/age groups get the ‘best’ coach. This leaves many players with a coach that isn’t as great a fit for them. This isn’t to say that coach isn’t a great coach, but they might not be as developed based on that specific age or type of player’s needs.
With the Phase Model, you start to see consistency with a club identity/style of play. As players work and respond to a variety of coaches they develop their own unique style.
Coaches then are able to specialize in the focus of development and the age/maturity of their players. Certain personalities are good for certain age groups. This concept is most widely proven with the school system. As a child develops, they move to a new teacher. When teachers are in university, they study based on age groupings. You may have loved your child’s kindergarten teacher, but that doesn’t mean that the same teacher would get the same love teaching them calculus.
Full Pathway and Club Identity
When it comes to finding the ‘best’ club, it’s difficult for a club to develop the journey for the player or a style of play when the big picture isn’t clear. When one coach is taking a team the full way through, each coach isn’t able to adjust and improve based on their experiences of the year/season before as they are moved directly into an entirely new experience each year. Which leaves the full pathway for the players less clearly defined.
With the Phase Model, coaches are able to improve and tweak season-over-season as the group of players respond and develop within the model. A clear pathway is able to be provided to players and parents.
The focus shifts from a few winning age groups being the club’s identity to all teams having an identifiable style and brand and pathway.
How the Phase Model Coaching Structure Works
With our adaption of the Phase Model, we have a designated Phase Leader for each Phase. They oversee the curriculum working closely with all Phase Leaders in the club to ensure a clubwide pathway.
They work directly with their staff coaches and lead coaches to ensure there are constant tweaks and evaluations on what each group of players specifically needs.
In an ideal world, we’d have players begin with team play at 7-8 years old, so when they leave the Foundation Phase, our Youth Development Phase Coaches know exactly what the players are entering the phase with. We know that’s not the reality. So, each Phase Leader customizes what’s needed per age group to maintain the style of play, play to each player’s strengths, and continue each individual’s development.
Each year since it’s implementation, we’ve tweaked and adjusted our model. We constantly ask ourselves, what is going to improve player development? What can we do to help our players compete at the highest levels?
When we look at what is working at the top academies around the world and what are the best practices for developing players in the 21st century — The Phase Model is the resounding answer.