Benny Sip
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Youth Football Development From Caterpillar To Butterfly

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
— Buckminster Fuller (Inventor and Author)
Ryan Thomas displays butterfly mode in 2018 World Cup qualifier playoff, New Zealand vs. Peru (11/11/2017). Photo courtesy of Cameron McIntosh  @photomac

Ryan Thomas displays butterfly mode in 2018 World Cup qualifier playoff, New Zealand vs. Peru (11/11/2017). Photo courtesy of Cameron McIntosh @photomac

If our young footballers were butterflies, we expect them to be flying as caterpillars.

Let me explain.

We expect too much too soon from our young athletes. We fail to acknowledge that experts do not fly to the so called “mountain tops” of their respective fields. They crawl there. We must remember that at one point or another, masters of their craft, somewhat resembled the creepy crawling, wingless, larvae called caterpillars. Metaphorically speaking of course.

More than ever, the expectation for instantaneous results cripples the development of our future butterflies.

John O'Sullivan portraits this brilliantly in his recent article The Tipping Point In Youth Sports. He writes, "We see adult expectations rise too fast. We want instant success, abundant victories, and perfection on every play. We want focus on long-term goals, instead of the moment... Pretty soon, we reach the youth sports tipping point, where all of a sudden our expectations for our children’s success and playing ability surpasses our patience and understanding of development... That’s when it all starts to get a little nutty."

Things have gotten a bit nutty in the 21st century. Our desire for instantaneous gratification, marshmallows galore, is ravenous. How do I know? When's the last time your web browser did not load at light speed? Expectations are high. Irrationally so. We could at least allow an extra second for a tiny dish on Earth to communicate with a geostationary satellite orbiting 22,300 miles above Earth's equator. Sensible, of course, though unlikely. I digress.

The thought of waiting 15, 20, 25 years for a child to fully develop his or her football wings, forget it!

In response, we attempt to accelerate everything. Fast track this. Speed up that. Bulk up every little bit we can, even when they are not ready. The last thing I expedited was my passport. It arrived on time. So why is it that Johnny and his teammates can't keep the soccer ball? We practiced passing all season!

They forget that development is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.
— John O'Sullivan

The only thing we don’t seem to be accelerating is taking the necessary steps to do “right” by the children under our guidance. We forget that learning is not the same as a broadband connection. Children are not robots. Our understanding of how learning occurs is insufficient. We are not nearly the effective teachers we think we are, yet. Whatever the case: political roadblocks, impatience, winning, pressures of the job, lack of knowledge, the inability to filter information, parents, pure ego: we are not allowing athletes the time and patience (the two most powerful warriors) they need to fully develop wings capable of flying them to their potential.

Caterpillar version of Tyler Lissette   (2010). Team Wellington (ASB Premiership) age 19. Photo Courtesy of  Dave Lintott  Photography

Caterpillar version of Tyler Lissette (2010). Team Wellington (ASB Premiership) age 19. Photo Courtesy of Dave Lintott Photography

So what do we get?

Half developed caterpillar - butterfly hybrids ill-equipped to take flight on the World stage. It is no wonder that so few academy players take flight and become butterflies in top flight football.

So how do we get there?

We must better understand the youth football development chrysalis.

Huh?!

Yes, the chrysalis. The critical lifecycle stage between caterpillar and butterfly devoted entirely to development. An environment where the perfect conditions are in place for fundamental transformation to occur - from crawling in the dirt to flying through the clouds .i.e. From Wellington's Central League to Sweden's Superettan (Tyler Lissette), From Te Puke, New Zealand to Lima, Peru (Ryan Thomas).

Butterfly version of Tyler Lissette   (2017), IFK Värnamo (Swedish Superettan) age 26. In 2017, Lissette (AKA Yogi Bear) made 29 appearances for the club, leading the team to a top 6 finish, and has been offered a 3 - year contract extension. Other notable Olé Football Academy alumni and New Zealand Internationals to play in Sweden's top professional leagues include Dan Keat (Falkenberg, GAIS) and Craig Henderson (Mjällby, GAIS). 

Butterfly version of Tyler Lissette (2017), IFK Värnamo (Swedish Superettan) age 26. In 2017, Lissette (AKA Yogi Bear) made 29 appearances for the club, leading the team to a top 6 finish, and has been offered a 3 - year contract extension. Other notable Olé Football Academy alumni and New Zealand Internationals to play in Sweden's top professional leagues include Dan Keat (Falkenberg, GAIS) and Craig Henderson (Mjällby, GAIS). 

These are the big questions on everyone's mind. How to best go about developing the modern 21st century footballer? How to build an environment around learning and competition? What does the football development chrysalis look like? Of course the answers are not cookie cutter. Human development is not so simple as the incubation period of a worm. However, there is much to be learned from the caterpillar - chrysalis - butterfly analogy.

If anything it is taking into consideration the critical role that environment plays in development and re-assessing viewpoints on traditional coaching roles, methodologies and philosophies. Perhaps the butterfly metaphor can offer a start to answering some questions. Lead researcher Mark Upton and the team @myfastestmile have a unique take on development and are beginning to put evidence-based principles into practical pedagogical frameworks for teachers, mentors, and trainers - people that want to help others reach their full potentials. Their view on the modern coach is noteworthy, "the primary role of the coach is to shape the dynamics of the learning environment in order to provide an engaging balance of challenge and support to the developing performer." Simply put, effective learning environments are far and few between when it comes to youth football development. We are falling incredibly, inexcusably short. But this can change and we can be better.

Are you “coaching” or are you creating a chrysalis?

@RT_30 in caterpillar mode at The Olé Football academy chrysalis.

Ben Sippola