Kristjaan Speakman has been involved in player development for almost two decades. He is leading a program at Birmingham City FC Academy where he emphasises the value of having an incredibly strong team and focusing the curriculum around a safe and open environment. As a result of that, he and his team are producing players. In his interview with Kristjaan, PDP’s Dave Wright goes in depth into how Birmingham City FC Academy operates and discusses the success of a program which has produced Demarai Gray, Jack Butland and Nathan Redmond.

Kristjaan Speakman is a passionate player developer who has always had a love for football. Despite the unique spelling of his name – his mother has Estonian heritage – his roots lie in the Midlands. Born and raised in Derby to parents both with a teaching background, he grew up watching Derby County FC and remains a fan, following the team when he can around work commitments.

Growing up, he would regularly play football in the park or on a little bit of grass between two housing estates every night after school. Football wasn’t his sole sporting focus as a child, however, as he also was a keen cricketer. But it is the memories of attending Derby County matches that have stayed with him: “I remember standing on old milk crates in the Normanton End so I really was in and around football from an early age,” he says.

Kristjaan describes his younger years with fondness: “I was fortunate to just catch the last years of a culture within school where sport was prominent and wide-ranging, there were lots of opportunities to play different sports.”

This gets him thinking about the ongoing specialisation debate. “These days that kind of experience leads to massive debate around kids not having these opportunities.” He continues, “I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all argument, but we are perhaps missing a trick not having a multi-sports ethos as much as we could in football development. At early ages I feel there is no issue playing a range of sports. Socially and from a problem-solving, critical thinking and cognitive development point of view it’s of massive benefit.” Speakman cites Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland as an example: “His pathway was heavily influenced by rugby and cricket until age 14 so football was probably third in line, but he’s gone on to be England’s youngest goalkeeper.”

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Kristjaan found himself involved in football coaching from a young age, and puts this early involvement down to luck, “which,” he says, “I think everyone needs.” Fortune struck one day while Kristjaan sat in the sixth form common room at school, when the head of sport entered and offered some work experience with a coaching company during the approaching school holiday. “One or two of us put our hands up and we had a go at it,” he remembers. “The company offered multi-sport projects for disadvantaged kids in and around the Shaftsbury Sports Centre [a council operated venture]. The guys who ran it were great, I got along with them well and ended up getting a bit more involved by helping with their Saturday morning football program, so that’s where it all began. They put me through the old level two award and I was able to make a bit of money delivering sessions.”

Like so many other aspiring coaches on the developmental and qualification pathway, Kristjaan entered the game young and worked his way into academy football after working with a number of clubs and local companies via his hometown club, Derby County. “I managed to get into Derby County after seeing an advert for scouts at the club,” he says. “I wasn’t a scout by any means but was working with lots players and thought I could recommend the better ones. After about a year, Derby County kept their academy open during the summer so there was an opportunity to get involved during the off-season as a coach. Terry Westley [now Academy Manager at West Ham United] had just started at Derby County and I managed to get a position part-time. The landscape back then was very different, there were very few full-time academy staff and maybe only 3 or 4 of those were coaches.”

The value in having a strong mentor early on clearly played a part in Speakman’s progression as a young coach. This reflects the fact that having senior support seems to be a common trait found in some of the best young coaches we have interviewed at Player Development Project. “Going into Derby full-time meant taking a pay cut but with Terry asking me to come in it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.” Kristjaan continues, “When Terry then moved to Birmingham City he asked me to come over with him as Assistant Academy Manager and I developed a lot in that role. When Terry moved on to the Premier League I was offered the chance to become the Academy Manager here and have been doing this role for the last five years.”

Now that Kristjaan is a long time established in player development, he has had plenty of time to analyse Birmingham City’s philosophy: “From a club perspective it’s a vision about trying to provide an environment for elite footballers in the Birmingham area. About 93% of our players originate within one hour of the training ground – we want Birmingham kids involved and we have a rich history in the last six or seven years in terms of the quality of players coming through to first-team level, which is pleasing.” He continues, “From an academy perspective our philosophy is to develop a program that caters for every individual. The reality of development is we don’t know who is going to break through. We believe in player development being completely non-linear. The boy at 4th or 5th in your group at age 12 might be your best player by 15.”

The club promotes a style of play which Kristjaan describes as, “trying to play progressive football through the thirds with fluidity and maintaining a focus on developing critical decision makers.”

Organisational culture is something that we reflect on a lot at Player Development Project, so I’m intrigued to know what kind of values, principles and environment Kristjaan and his staff are promoting. He explains, “We’ve got some core values in the academy. Hard work, commitment and honesty form part of our culture statement. We have an open, safe and secure environment but that has to be stimulating, personal and challenging to each individual.”

Personally, I am a huge fan of the ideas that cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek promotes in his books and TED Talks. When it comes to creating a safe and trusting environment, ideas promoted by Sinek, Kristjaan is clearly on the same page: “Within our learning environment model ‘open, safe and secure’ are right at the core of it along with culture and purpose,” he says. “Our purpose is to produce players for the first team. We have to provide the vehicle for players to be able to try and do that. It has to be open, safe and secure first, but it has to be challenging, stimulating and personal on top of that.”

He continues, “Above that, players have to get to a point where they have ownership of their personal program. You have to provide an environment within which they can experiment. In a broader sense, whether it’s the coaching program, the games program, or any other departments within our organisation, to make it work effectively it has to be an open, safe and secure environment.”

As Kristjaan discusses these ideas I can’t help but find it refreshing. Still so often we see fear being promoted as a tool in player development, stifling creativity and narrowing focus, but it appears Birmingham are promoting positive psychology at the forefront of their program. Keen to know more, I enquire as to what emphasis the club is putting into this area.

“We’re in the process of making some wholesale changes to that part of our program where we want to implement a model to support the staff. We call it F.T.D – ‘Feeling, Thinking, Doing’,” replies Kristjaan. “I think the word ‘psychology’ can be daunting for coaches, so we need an environment where coaches are able to deliver the concepts and integrate them into the training and games. We have developed a model to raise awareness of the triggers that can affect players’ emotions which ultimately project into a behaviour. Through greater awareness we aim for our team to be more conscious about the way they interact with the players and the likely emotional impact. Ultimately, we want to improve performance, and consider how coaches can create positive triggers and develop relationships with the players to maximise the learning opportunity. The other side of the coin is working with the players to develop coping strategies to emotions that may be detrimental to their development or performance.

The coaches are best placed to positively affect the players and we underpin this with experts to try and provide a support mechanism for them. Ideas like teamwork, resilience and dealing with pressure are key and these will help the players to operate independently, a skill they will need to be successful. Our F.T.D program will be delivered through three strands.

  1. Knowing strengths/Using strengths
  2. Feeling positive/Being positive
  3. Accountability/Responsibility

Beneath the three strands you can almost fit every psychological descriptor.”

The clarity with which Kristjaan speaks in this area is impressive. He is clearly someone in tune with the needs of young players. So whilst on the topic of innovating around important ideas, I bring the discussion back to relative age effect, a phenomenon often being discussed in player development, including Issue 10 & 11 of this magazine. What is Birmingham doing to deal with this challenge? Kristjaan answers quickly, “I’m not 100% sure why we need to keep innovating around this. I find it a very simple thing – there will always be difference in the group, so it comes down to how you manage difference. You’re going to manage difference in all sorts of ways.”

“To me it’s more about knowing the player and what they need.”

He continues, “Is the fact that we are prepared to play an undeveloped 16-year-old in our U18 team innovative or is it living our philosophy? You can produce the statistics and run the tests to show some of your younger players in the group may be less physically or psychologically advanced, we understand that, but to me it’s more about knowing the player and what they need. Know what you’ve got, try not to apply a positive or negative bias to it and understand where they are in the program. I think this ends up boiling down to games and results. Is it innovative to just play your games, play the kids where they need to be (in terms of age groups and positions) and review at how competitive you were in each fixture? It’s only a problem if you let it become a problem and you have to live your philosophy.”

Kristjaan lists Demarai Gray, a Premier League winner with Leicester City, as a perfect example of a player whose individual developmental needs were catered for at Birmingham City. “When Demarai was an U16 within the U18 group, in U18 league games, we played him in centre-midfield,” he explains. “He was a less physically developed player and if we were to look at results point of view, having him there would’ve hindered our chance of getting a result but we had to play him in there for him to gain a greater understanding of defensive responsibility and team shape. Has that contributed to his development and helped him become a more reliable player at Premier League level? I think it has. Does it matter we lost 2–1 on the day – no it doesn’t. It all comes down to perception.”

Kristjaan has already mentioned purpose a number of times, so what is his passion and purpose? Why does he love coaching?

“Young players will always surprise people with what they can do, but when managers give players a chance across any of the leagues, we often see them do amazing things.”

“Like anybody involved in player development, seeing young boys progress through a system and come out and play at the very highest level is the ultimate. Money can’t buy that. When you speak to the players down the line, they are always grateful for the involvement you and other staff have had on their development. That’s something every member of staff can be proud of. Ultimately it will always be down to the players to drive themselves to attain that level but they do need help and guidance on the way.” He summarises by saying, “Personally, I am passionate about giving opportunity for young players. Young players will always surprise people with what they can do, but when managers give players a chance across any of the leagues, we often see them do amazing things. Unfortunately now at first team level it’s immensely difficult in this day and age for managers to do this as the view is often so short-term philosophy around results.”

Given Kristjaan has been working in academy football for so long, I am keen to know how he thinks things are improving given there are often so many critics?

He replies, “This discussion almost comes up at every Academy Managers meeting! It’s certainly moved towards a more player-centered approach. We have greater depth of expertise across all of the major disciplines and in my experience that is geared towards getting the kids out on the grass more and playing.”

And is the player development pathway under the current system on the right track? “Well, from a negative perspective, some elements have become a tick box exercise, which is not dissimilar to how teaching has gone in recent years. I think you need some structure in your curriculum or approach but the coaches have to have freedom to deliver what the players need and be accountable for this. I don’t like the idea or agenda of minimum standards. Why are we not talking about maximum standards? What’s the best you can do? A minimum standard develops a competency based approach which means we can all say ‘we’re a 5 out of 10. I’m not interested in five out of ten, I am interested in 8, 9 or 10 out of 10. That applies to staff and players. Who is the best? And who can be the best?”

This kind of reflection on the organisational culture with which we are currently working in at all levels is exactly the kind of concept that needs to be considered in coaching all of the time. Challenging the status quo is essential. So does Kristjaan believe that English football is producing a new breed of player in the current climate?

He’s considered in his response, saying, “I don’t know what a stereotypical English player is. I think England has always had variation but perhaps as a nation, we have opted a bit for safety. We have always gone for the safe players who we know what we’ll get out of them as opposed to the player who may be a bit less reliable but has more flair. I think we’re developing a higher percentage of players who have multiple solutions to problems. It’s refreshing to see that the key question is how we integrate these new problem solvers into first team environments (or whether they make it there!) I also still think that U18-21 is a massive issue in this country.”

Despite obviously believing things are moving in right direction, Kristjaan doesn’t think the system is promoting opportunities for young players, saying “Overall, I don’t think we’ve got the model right. If you look at the amount of investment going into it and the amount of players playing the game, what you’ve got is a very, very poor return on investment. When I say investment I don’t just mean the money either, I mean the time, energy, players, Mum and Dad being taxi drivers. The model isn’t right yet.”

“Something has to be done to bridge the gap to first team level or encourage managers to pick more players from the system. I am not a fan of quotas, I’m not a fan of placing restrictions on first team managers to pick players – we need to try and meet in the middle. We have to produce players that can displace senior players, and also ensure managers can see the benefits in picking young players. We’re lucky that we have a manager who is very keen on playing young players. For example, a young player from our program emerged last season, Viv Solomon-Otabor who made 24 appearances. We felt he had potential to break into senior team and the manager structured an integration over the season because he felt Viv could be a long-term player for the club. What we didn’t want to do was loan a player from another club to do exactly the same job, which would restrict Viv’s involvement in training and games at that level. The manager understands this perspective and the 24 appearances in our environment around our manager and his staff is so valuable for his development. This year, he should be a significant contributor of our 20-man squad.”

Clearly the support of the first team is a key ingredient in the black hole that can be the U18-U21 age group. Birmingham are doing what they can to plug the gap and have the support of the manager. Winning can sometimes be seen as something of a swear word in player development, but Kristjaan believes there is a role for the word and that the players themselves will often place an emphasis on results.

“We always encourage the kids to win, but I think they are always encouraging themselves to win,” he says. “We underestimate players already having that desire in their psyche. It has to be in context, for example with the U16s, U18s and U23s program, you never know who you’re playing against. You have to be mindful that you may play an U18 game with a full strength group of second year scholars against a group who are all 16 and 17-year-old first years, win 4–0 and then think you’ve cracked it. In context that is a game we would expect to win comfortably because of the make up of the teams. We will often play players up to stretch them and give them a development challenge aligned to their personal program.”

The key, he believes, is to be careful of when and where a winning mentality is allowed to be a priority. “To manage the winning element, we try to categorise our games and have some clarity around which games we look at and think ‘we really want to be winning this!’ In terms of coach development this is so important too. All of a sudden you will see a massive change in coach behaviour when the context is changed to ‘we need to win’. We don’t help coaches of the future by just having development all the time. We have experienced less than satisfactory coaching at times because the coaches aren’t used to the objective of winning and how you do this within the philosophy.”

I explain to Kristjaan that one of our philosophies at Player Development Project is ‘Who we are is how we play’. Does he believe the environment he and his staff set reflects in the way his players perform?

“I think that comes back to the learning environment. For us, our culture would be a balance between stress and challenge that is encompassed in support. By that I mean, we want to develop players with the intent to do the right thing, to be able to recognise scenarios and come up with solutions to become successful. The environment being open, safe and secure means we have to embrace mistakes and coaches recognise what mistakes they are observing. Are they high stakes mistakes, are they stretch mistakes? Players and coaches have got to understand we need to set environments that enables players to take risks with no worries.”

Given Leicester City’s success and given the team featured Birmingham City Academy graduate Demarai Gray, arguably the most high-profile player to emerge in recent times, I ask Kristjaan to tell us about his development and what the key ingredients that got him to the highest level.

He replies, “The first thing I would say is to take into consideration the personality and character of the player. As a boy who joined us at U10 he had a really, really positive attitude and good character. He has a good understanding of the environment – emotional intelligence, if you like – and was able to listen and interact with the staff. This is demonstrated when he plays for Leicester’s first team and is able to fit in to the defensive shape. He’s a player that embraces challenge and I would say throughout his pathway he was often what we call a ‘silver medalist’. He was never the top player but there were always players who were a bit stronger, a bit bigger than him so he had a daily challenge. At U16, U17 and U18 he was always just outside the England squad and that provided a massive challenge to him to prove people wrong. As an U20 player I think he was the first of that group to move up to the U21 group.”

Adversity and challenge or embracing a growth mindset have clearly been factors in Gray reaching the current point in his career. Kristjaan’s answer links nicely into the difficult topic of talent identification. Does the experience of seeing the silver medalist get to where he has illustrate to Kristjaan the amount of patience required in recruitment?

He is firm in his reply, explaining, “You’ve definitely got to be patient! I do see players getting released in various programs because other players in the group are doing better, but you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You must be some kind of seriously skilled talent developer to see an U11 is not going to make it. You have to be very, very careful when making that decision. We try at Birmingham to give every player the opportunity to develop. Unfortunately, you can’t keep everyone but we try to be as patient as possible within the framework.”

“Unless you know the players, get to know them as people, you shouldn’t pass judgement.”

So what elements does he believe equate to a player cracking the system that academies are currently forced to operate within? Kristjaan explains, “The ability to embrace challenge is always important. I remember Jack Butland playing at 16 for England and exchanging texts with him whilst he was on camp. He had been in a really positive mindset but was then really disappointed because he was wearing the #13 shirt. The challenge then became, ‘OK, now I have to get #1!’ I think there’s a lot to be said for players who love the challenge and take ownership of the solutions. From a coaching perspective, to find out the real information you have to spend time with the players. From a social perspective, using Demarai as an example, I probably took him to 6–8 different England youth games. What I was really trying to do by taking him was to spend time with him to find out what he was about. You can judge players from afar but generally it will be nowhere near good enough. Unless you know the players, get to know them as people, you shouldn’t pass judgement.”

As our time chatting draws to a close I ask Kristjaan to describe his own coaching style.

“My coaching style is always developing,” he replies. “I think it’s a case of trying to endorse all of your key learning environment ingredients (which in our case are open, safe, secure, stimulating and personal) into it. I try and design sessions that mean there is very little need for intervention and ensure the topic comes out. Maximising the time on the grass in a fun stimulating way is something I always strive for.” He continues, “I have been very fortunate that I spent a lot of time on the grass between age 20 to my mid-30s because I started young but perhaps at the moment due to my current role I’m on somewhat of a sabbatical!”

So what does Kristjaan see in his own future, does he have further ambitions?

“Long term I am keen to continue to develop my leadership skills and support what I believe to be a very strong group of staff that we have here. I couldn’t do my job without them. I believe we have an extraordinarily talented group of staff working at this club. I consider them a strong, highly qualified and expert group. There is no way I could do my job without their input, it’s a massive operation, so if I can improve my leadership and management techniques to have a greater impact on my staff then hopefully this will lead to other opportunities at leadership level. Most of all I hope I get to spend some more time on the grass!”

As we end our discussion I can’t help but reflect on the environment being created at Birmingham. To a few lucky players, this is their day-to-day and they are being afforded opportunities only some can dream of. To others this might sound like a utopian fantasy where coaches empower players, encourage critical thinking and create decision-makers. In hearing Kristjaan speak with such passion and commitment I can’t help but think there may well be a few more graduates coming out of the blues in the years to come.

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