The Development of Footballers - Player Pathways
I am sometimes asked how a young aspiring footballer in Hong Kong can progress from being a beginner to a fulltime professional. Actually there is no short cut, even for the most talented players.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes around 10,000 hours of purposeful practice over say 15 years (equivalent to 13 hours a week) to develop a world-class footballer. For a number of reasons it is difficult to achieve that level in Hong Kong. That is why it is problematic for us to be competitive with other countries. Through Project Phoenix we are trying to implement change and simultaneously improve every aspect of football development to give all players the best chance of success. We must ensure that the systems, structures, facilities and resources are put in place to allow footballers to practice longer, harder and smarter. We need both quantity and quality of opportunity for training and competition. There are undoubtedly a lot of talented footballers in Hong Kong. Unfortunately talent alone is not enough; it needs to be blended with opportunity and relentless hard work. So aspiring footballers must be dedicated as well as talented.
Our new Strategic Plan Aiming High – Together has been written to make it as easy as possible to develop footballers. We are introducing a systematic and coordinated player development continuum where every footballer is given the chance to participate and progress to their level of competence and where the most talented footballers within each age group are identified at an early age and given more and better quality training and conditioning. Aspiring footballers should be able to negotiate seamlessly along this continuum and the pathways must be well sign-posted and accessible. This new system is illustrated in the diagram below.
The Football Development Continuum (Pyramid and Pathways) in Summary
Children need to be introduced to physical activity and basic ball skills at a very young age. This will need to be done by parents, helpers, kindergartens and nursery schools. In some cases children will attend football classes when they are toddlers. The HKFA does not envisage getting directly involved with children at this age but will encourage early years participation and provide information on how and when to introduce basic skills.
Initially players will be introduced to ‘grassroots’ football (age 6 to 12) either through a HKFA programme, an amateur club, the schools system or a Commercial Soccer School. Their progress through the grassroots stage must be monitored. They must be given every opportunity to develop their natural talent. Once they are 13 the children interested in football should be able to continue to participate through HKFA Youth Development programmes but also at a commercial soccer scheme, amateur club or though the school sport programme. Those children involved in HKFA programmes will join District training programmes/leagues or be talent spotted by one of the professional Clubs. If their talent and ambition is confirmed by a qualified coach, there should be pathways to the next level so that their potential can be developed. This would mean attending additional training sessions at one of six HKFA Regional Centres of Excellence. The children that are not of the requisite quality should still receive expert training at the District level in recognition that some children are ‘late developers’.
A major pathway particularly for talented players will be for them to join a professional Club that has an accredited Academy but it is recognized that many of the Clubs will take some time to develop these Academies. In view of this and until the Club Academy system is fully developed, the HKFA has established centralized Academies for the most talented players. These players will therefore receive additional and higher level coaching in age group squads.
After the age of 17 or 18 Players will either be ‘signed on’ by a Professional Club, where they will be eligible to play for one of the Hong Kong senior teams e.g. U20. If they are not good enough to play professional and representative football then there should be pathways to amateur football, coaching, refereeing or football administration. Retaining people in the sport is important regardless of playing ability.
It is the aim of the HKFA to ‘scout’ talented players that possess the hallmarks of a professional player (technique, tactical awareness, intelligence, physical conditioning and mental strength) and ensure that the pathways and systems are available to nurture that talent and propel them to success.
The new HKFA Strategic Plan, Aiming High – Together has been written to focus on the major changes that will make a difference to football in Hong Kong. It is deliberately ‘player-centric’ and in essence it is all about player development through a systematic approach. There are some fundamentals that need to change. These are summarized below:
- Hong Kong Style of Play and National Curriculum: Devising, adopting and implementing the Hong Kong ‘shape and style’ of play consistently and comprehensively across Hong Kong will result in better player development. This should be articulated in a National Curriculum so everyone knows what needs to be done, why and how. The curriculum will cover all aspects of football development from the grassroots up to the elite level and include modules on men’s and boy’s, women’s and girl’s football and futsal.
- Integrated Player Pathways: As mentioned above, there should be a structured and systematic progression from beginner to elite international footballer. Pathways and progressions should be clearly ‘sign-posted’ so that every player has equal opportunity to reach their potential. The HKFA should have an overview of all football development activity in Hong Kong (not just its own activities and programmes) to facilitate effective talent identification.
- Grassroots Football: It is imperative that effective coaching of footballers starts as soon as possible. The HKFA and other providers should adopt a small-sided games approach from the age of 6. Techniques, skills and game awareness should be taught in a fun, safe and progressive way.
- Youth Development: From the age of 13 children should progress to play 11 v 11. Again the emphasis should be on player development rather than ‘win at all cost’. Good playing habits should be reinforced and between 13 and 18 time on the pitch should be maximised to give the players as much opportunity to hit 10,000 hours by the time they are 18. The pillars of development (technique, tactics, conditioning and mental strength) should be developed in a holistic way.
- Talent Identification: Better players should be selected for additional training and coaching during their formative years whether this be in a Regional Centre of Excellence, Club Academy or HKFA ‘high performance’ squad. These ‘stars of the future’ should be given every assistance and should play against other talented players based on the ‘best v the best’ philosophy. Their performance should be constantly monitored to ensure that they continue to improve.
- High Performance: Hong Kong must develop effective systems for and an engrained culture of high performance football. Once elite players are in the system they must be given every opportunity to become full time professional footballers if that is what they want. This means sports science and medical support, analysis and evaluation and the best coaching available. Top quality competition must be arranged as well.
- Professional Football: Football must become a worthwhile career option. The top tier of football in Hong Kong must become more economically viable if it is to encourage young people to aspire to become fulltime. This means raising the standard of play on the pitch so more people watch and more commercial revenue is generated. This will provide the resources to make playing football more lucrative.
- Player Education and Welfare: A way must be found to make sure that academic achievement and football prowess are not mutually exclusive. This will mean schemes to link Education with Football Development through academies, scholarships, bursaries etc and on-going vocational education of footballers to give them second-career opportunities. A further safety net for footballers could be provided through a Professional Footballers Association that would be responsible for the welfare of players if they are injured or in dispute with their Clubs.
- Mindset: As a generalization, at the moment youth coaches are more concerned with winning than player development. Attitudes will need to change.
- Inclusivity: All of the football stakeholders in Hong Kong should be encouraged to ‘buy-into’ this strategy including adopting the Hong Kong playing style and National Curriculum, the grassroots small-sided games approach and player development systems and pathways. No child should be disadvantaged or slip through the net.
This new approach to football development must be underpinned by other strategic considerations. These are summarized below.
Coaching and Coach Education
It is impossible to produce good footballers without good coaches. The HKFA intends to train more coaches to a higher level and maintain their knowledge through regular re-training. The quality of coaching sessions needs to be constantly evaluated. It is critical that our coach education syllabus reflects the Hong Kong playing style and National Curriculum. The level and competence of coaches should be commensurate with the level of football being played. Minimum standards will be set so for example, those involved in coaching high performance football will have an ‘A’ Licence as a prerequisite.
Refereeing and Officials
Similarly, the standard of refereeing must reflect the standard of football. Additional referees will be identified and trained to the requisite standard. Referees will be monitored and assessed continuously to ensure on-going improvement.
Perhaps the biggest problem with football in Hong Kong is the inadequate supply of good quality football facilities. This is a difficult problem to solve but there is a need to re-assess priorities and the current quota system. The strategic plan suggests a hierarchy of facilities from the grassroots through to the professional Clubs through to the elite international level. Again minimum standards are set on a District, Regional and national level. At the top of the hierarchy is the provision of a Hong Kong Football Training Centre. This long overdue facility is now critical to the development of football.
Integrity and Equality
It is important that football is ‘clean’ and seen to be ‘clean’. This means being transparent in terms of governance and ensuring that all football stakeholders uphold the highest standards of personal, management and financial probity. Systems will be put in place to monitor match-manipulation and there will be a zero-tolerance adopted to those that fail to comply with a new code of conduct. The HKFA will abide by the principles contained in Article 3 of the FIFA Regulations on equal opportunities and anti-discrimination.
The Hong Kong Football Association as the Governing Body for football in Hong Kong and the FIFA Member Association must lead the development of football in Hong Kong. It is recognized however that it can’t do everything itself. The title of the new Strategic Plan, Aiming High – Together reflects the fact that many stakeholders and partners must buy-into the plan and work collaboratively in its adoption and execution.
The delivery of the recommendations contained within the strategic plan will require additional resources especially money. Public sector grants and charitable donations will need to ‘pump prime’ the work of the HKFA and ensure that the organization remains financially sustainable. It will take time before this financial catalyst results in more commercial revenue streams from gate receipts, broadcasting and sponsorship. Football contributes significantly to the health and well-being of Hong Kong at the individual, community and societal level.
If all of these ‘game-changers’ are addressed in the next few years it should be much easier for young players to identify the pathway to becoming a professional footballer as well as much for rewarding for those that eventually make the grade.
足球運動員的發展 – 球員之路