New Zealand Football, through the implementation of the National Player Development Programme, has created new approaches to developing talent.
Our goal is to provide more players with more opportunities to play the game and develop their skills in both formal environments (i.e. coached in specific football programmes and club environments) and informal environments (i.e. non-coached, recreational play in school fields, beaches and backyards).
To create an effective talent development system that best suits New Zealand’s national conditions, the following challenges have been addressed:
Challenge 1: No clearly defined vision or style for how football should be played
Research conducted in 2010 across six of the world’s high performing countries (Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Switzerland and Australia) at both youth and senior (male and female) level revealed a clear vision for the player development.
For example the DNA of Dutch and German football is clearly defined by their respective Associations. The ability to adopt a possession-based game, using quality passing and support, is fundamental to their playing style, while at the same time developing players who can play quickly and decisively when it comes to transition.
Challenge 2: Available talent pool - depth and quality
Football is the most popular participation sport in New Zealand but participation is relatively low compared to many of the countries we compete against on the world stage.
This means our talent pool for professional football players is smaller. However, other countries with similar low populations, such as Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Uruguay, have shown that a good football structure might be sufficient to move us closer to world-class level.
New Zealand cannot produce a significant number of world-class footballers until it is world-class in developing technical skills that persist under pressure. As a football nation, we therefore need to place more focus on developing technical skills earlier in the development process and to augment the opportunities for players to spend more time practising football techniques.
Challenge 3: Football structure
Leading football countries such as Spain, Germany or the Netherlands, and even smaller countries such as Denmark or Switzerland, have a structure that allows football participation over the majority of the year (minimum 10-month seasons). New Zealand players do not receive the same quality and quantity of football experience.
There is a need to review existing competition structures to ensure that the right balance is achieved between training and competition at the different age groups. The most talented players between the ages 12-16 years are exposed to too many games and not enough coordinated training, which leaves them technically and tactically ill-equipped to play the game at the highest level. To move forward, a coordinated effort between New Zealand Football, federations, clubs and schools is required.
Challenge 4: Accumulation of football hours
The pathway to elite performance in football is driven by the accumulation of football hours from an early age. “Football hours” is a term used to describe the total amount of hours accumulated through individual, team practice and competition.
Research suggests that to become outstanding adult footballer generally takes at least 10 years of sustained, deliberate practice, from a young age (Erikson 1993), which translates to 10,000 practice hours. The vast majority of development occurs in training and practice – not in competition.
Typically, the bulk of training occurs during personal and informal practice, without professional supervision. Some researchers have suggested that up to 3,000 hours are accumulated in these informal contexts (Williams et al 2008).
In a country with a rugby and netball dominant sporting tradition, and where children are encouraged from a young age to access a wide variety of sports, the task of accumulating the hours required to reach elite level football and to stay in touch with their international counterparts becomes problematic for any Kiwi kid.
Challenge 5: Programme accessibility
We currently lose talent due to the financial barriers surrounding participation in existing talent development programmes either at federation or national level. The costs associated with attending these programmes can be challenging for many players and their families in current financial climate.
Sometimes this is exacerbated by distance from the main football centres and the sheer cost of transport to and from training and games.
The “user pays” concept, which centres on players paying for talent development, may be acceptable for sports that target high to middle socio-economic groups, but football in New Zealand may need to challenge this ideology in order to create more opportunities for more players.
It is the responsibility of the football community to reduce this barrier and make football accessible for every child so that players regardless of their financial situation can fulfil their potential.
Challenge 6: Talent identification and the relative age effect
Talent Identification (TI) and Talent Development (TD) need to be considered as combined processes to emphasise direction and development, rather than the traditional approach of identification and elimination.
The “coach driven” method to choose gifted players is made on personal taste, knowledge and expertise. However, such an approach is highly subjective and can lead to repetitive misconceptions in talent evaluation.
Ensuring that coaches develop the requisite knowledge and understanding of the processes underpinning talent development and the key markers that can be used to identify potential in players, will lead to better detection, identification and selection of players.
In addition the Relative Age Effect (REA) where players born earlier in a football calendar year usually the first four to six months (January to June) are more likely than players born later in the year to receive opportunities to access talent development programmes.
Individuals born earliest within certain age groups tend to have size, speed, coordination, mental and emotional advantages over those born later in the same age group, even when they have the same innate potential. As a consequence, many players with real potential are exlcluded from development opportunities and drop out of the talent pool.
New Zealand Football must ensure the talent programme provides opportunity for those who fall outside of the typical world cup cycle age brackets to continue their journey towards elite level football and being the best they can be.
Challenge 7: Player development expertise
New Zealand coaches available for elite youth development and for federation and national competition teams have less relevant experience and consequently less expertise than their counterparts in top football countries.
New Zealand has some good coaches but it can boast very few world-class coaches comparable to those in the best football nations, particularly at the junior and youth age groups. The best coaches tend to gravitate towards senior football due to lack of financial reward or personal recognition at junior levels.
New Zealand Football aims to develop a new infrastructure of expert youth developers, who will receive the training and support to reach world-class levels in their field.
This infrastructure is dependent on making youth development an attractive profession for potential coaches and therefore ensuring the best coaches are recognised for their commitment to developing the next generation of players.
Challenge 8: Lack of world class players
As a result of all the above factors, New Zealand cannot produce enough world-class players, starting from the national U-17 teams to the All Whites and the Football Ferns.
New Zealand Football requires more professionals playing in the highest professional leagues for males and females, training with the best players and coaches, day in and day out. Only then will our international teams have the potential to achieve sustained success on the world stage.
The talent framework will therefore address the challenges identified, and set out solutions, with the aim of raising standards from the base to the top.