By Mike Woitalla
Ajax Amsterdam, having produced players from Johan Cruyff to Wesley Sneijder, is considered by legions of American youth coaches as a model for youth development.
Much of what happens at Ajax would be impossible for a U.S. program to replicate. Ajax has the pick of the best young players from a soccer-rich nation. That it consistently promotes players to the senior level is to be expected. Lots of coaches -- and their clubs -- would look quite good if they only had to coach their country’s top youngsters.
Ajax covers all costs, so the academy isn’t limited to those who can afford it.
Still, checking out how top clubs around the world approach player development can provide some ideas on how we coach American children.
Last season, Ajax won its first Dutch league title in seven years, prompting Andy Murray of the British magazine FourFourTwo to visit the Ajax academy, which is called De Toekomst (The Future).
One of his impressions: “There’s no screaming coaches, pushy parents or berating of officials.”
“It’s not a crime to lose nor is it about being champions in your age group, but being in the first team, and winning trophies there. To be a star you must overcome disappointment,” Ajax general manager David Endt told FourFourTwo.
Jan Olde Riekerink, Ajax’s Head of Youth Development, said, “We always look for [soccer players] first, but to stay up with the modern game we must develop athletes to compete at the top international level. But enjoyment must come first. That’s the basis for all our coaching: if they don’t have fun, we don’t do it. We don’t make them run in mud just because it’ll make them stronger.”
Also quoted is 19-year-old Dane Christian Eriksen, a star on the current Eredivisie championship team: “[Soccer] is about more than running. Everyone here wants the ball.”
It needs be noted that Eriksen arrived at De Toekomst at age 16 when he was already a star on the Danish U-17 national team and was also being courted by several of Europe's top clubs, and that Ajax reportedly paid Odense BK more than $1 million for him.
Last year, Michael Sokolove wrote an in-depth article for New York Times Magazine on De Toekomst. He quoted youth coach Ronald de Jong:
“I am never looking for a result — for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”
Sokolove reported that through age 12, players train three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cell phone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises -- designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball -- are the main event.”
About 200 boys, from ages 7 to 19, train at De Toekomst. Some players at each age group are cut each year. They are said, writes Sokolove, to have been “sent away” -- and new prospects take their place.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)