After over a decade of planning and preparation the English Football Association’s £120 million National Football Centre has opened at St George’s Park near Burton-on -Trent in the East Midlands. This development has been seen for a number of years as the missing link in the development of a successful England football team. For years the FA has looked enviously at the National centres in France, Spain and the Netherlands, thinking that one of the reasons for the lack of success for the England National team is the absence of the right environment and facilities for the National team and age-group squads. I read with interest Phil McNulty’s blog on the BBC website .
Having recently toured the facility Phil McNulty spends some time outlining some of the facilities on the site that include a full-sized replica of the Wembley pitch and an environmental chamber. Now there is no questioning that these facilities do provide a training home for English football and provide all that is required for an elite athlete to finely tune their performance. There is though one problem. Such great facilities will not really help in developing the next generation of players. This facility is an extension of many that now exist for English Premier League teams. Which begs the question, why build it at all?
The FA could have used the facilities provided by a number of premier league teams as, lets face it, the National team will use these facilities very infrequently. Also, the real development of the next generation of players will take place in the Premier league Academies following recent changes to the academy structure. So, with these bases already covered the FA could have looked to invest this £120 million elsewhere in the sport to increase the likelihood that the nation will develop more world-class players. This could be achieved in a number of different ways. First the FA could invest in further enhancing the quality and number of excellent coaches at younger age groups. In particular at local school and district level (the coaches in the Academies are already of an excellent quality). In a number of sports the view exists that the best coaches should be coaching at the younger age groups to develop the right skills and attitudes early on. This is particularly important as habits (whether skills or behaviours) are very difficult to change once embedded. Greeting the players when they enter St George’s Park is a quote from the late great Sir Bobby Robson that simply states that ‘practice makes permanent’. With this in mind we should be aiming for ‘perfect practice’ to develop the right habits. Otherwise through non-optimal coaching at the beginner levels potential future stars might be handicapped by poor skills and behaviours. This in turn reduces the size and quality of the pool that the football academies have to choose from.
But where else could this money have been spent? Well, having the best coaches with the younger age groups would be a positive step in the right direction, but also identifying the right talent is crucial. Football has a well established scouting and talent development programme, but the focus appears to be on the wrong things. Scouts and coaches are often blinded by the skill levels of players and performance outcomes. Recent research in the area of talent identification has highlighted that the most important factors in determining whether someone will ultimately be a success in sport are psychological. You can be the most skilful player in the world, but without the right mentality you will never make it. Motivation and resilience are crucial aspects. Young players need to be willing to put in the long hours of practice in to perfect their skills, and also have the resilience to deal with setbacks if they are going to succeed. Maybe then some of this money could have been spent in developing an effective talent identification and development system for these key psychological traits.
I am sure St George’s Park will look fantastic, but I can’t help thinking that in 15 years time the FA might look back and rue not investing the money in the most important coaches (the first ones) and in identifying those players who mentally have what it takes to be a success in the future.