In an interview with Xavi Hernandez, star of Spain’s World Cup Championship and F.C. Barcelona, Xavi explains development and the reasons for the current dominance of Spanish (and specifically Barca’s) midfielders:
‘Other teams look for young players who are tall, big and strong. There are teams here in Catalunya who at the under 10s level will beat Barca’s under 10s.
‘But from that Barca under 10s team you will end up getting three footballers and from the under 10s of the other team not even one will make it. They are already thinking about winning instead of unearthing the technically gifted players which is Barcelona’s priority.
‘You spot a youngster who can lift his head and play a first-time pass and you think, “He’s worth something, let’s have him come and train with us”.’
Recently, Geno Auriemma criticized personal trainers because players don’t know how to play the game. He easily could have criticized the entire system with the same comment as Xavi’s. In the U.S., youth coaches look for the tallest, strongest, most physical players because these players win at the youth levels. However, many of the best youth teams do not develop these players into future college or professional players. They win early and that’s it. They have a Peak by Friday approach: winning now is the only thing that matters, and often this stunts the development of players who need time and space to explore, make mistakes and learn.
‘Here they make you think from day one. The first thing you do when you join this club is rondo (the passing drill with one player trying to win the ball back and three or four players passing one-touch between themselves). It’s think, think, think, and it teaches you the responsibility of keeping the ball and the shame of losing it.
‘You lift your head before you receive the ball, you look to see if you are in space, and who else is in space, and you play the ball first time. Modern football is so quick that two touches means too slow.’
Youth basketball coaches eliminate the thinking. Players start in individual, block practice drills. Coaches use set plays designed to get certain players certain shots – the coaches attempt to substitute their intelligence for their players’ lack of awareness, but this substitution also eliminates the learning experiences for the players. They simply follow directions. The Barca approach incorporates high levels of contextual interference from the start.
‘I spend the entire 90 minutes looking for space on the pitch. I’m always between the opposition’s two holding midfielders and thinking, “The defence is here so I get the ball and I go there to where the space is”.’
This is the type of mindset that is not developed, and which I think drew Auriemma’s ire. Players do not develop with this general understanding of spacing and anticipation. Instead, they develop running plays and thinking about the next action in the play sequence. Their attention shifts from finding space or an open teammate to staying in sequence, and consequently, players miss open teammates or driving lanes. Daniel Simons calls this inattentional blindness: players are focused on one thing so intently that they miss something or someone so obviously open seemingly within their view.
The inattentional blindness results from the same Peak by Friday mentality that places wins ahead of development. I know that as a youth coach, I could put in presses, defenses and set plays that would give my team a huge opportunity to win. However, would these defenses, presses and plays develop better players? At the youth level, are wins or development more important? As a coach, do your actions reflect your philosophy? As a parent, do your words reflect your philosophy?
The long-term approach obviously works: Barca, Spain and Xavi are kings of the soccer world. Enjoy what Xavi has learned and perfected: