The Feyenoord Academy, or Varkenoord as it is known in Holland as one of the premier developmental environments in the country. With famed graduates such as Robin Van Persie, Royston Drenthe, Jordie Clasie & Leroy Fer (to name a few) the club has won the Rinus Michels Award for best academy in the country multiple times.
Player Development Project was interested to know more about just what goes on at Feyenoord so we caught up with foundation phase coach and brain behaviour and learning researcher, Glenn van der Kraan.
Glenn is a young man forming a strong reputation in player development with Feyenoord. So how did he start his football journey? Glenn explains, “I played football from the age of 4 or 5. I’ve got two older brothers as well and we played for our village football club. When I was 13 I started coaching youth teams at the village club and my brother was coaching the U19s at the same club.” He continues, “Football was very much part of our family, my father was a sports journalist so we were always watching or talking football and I was brought up on the game.”
Having had a taste of coaching at a very young age, Glenn began his qualifications whilst still at school, explaining, “When I got to the age of 16 I started to do my first qualifications in coaching and really enjoyed the courses. I got my first UEFA badge at 18 just as I finished college. From there, I decided I would stop playing football at about 19 and went off to University in Brussells.”
So although Glenn is involved now works for Feyenoord his journey began at Anderlecht, a club he describes as, “one of the best academies in the world who have always produced talent.” Ironically it was whilst at Anderlecht that Stanley Brard, Head of Academy at Feyenoord saw Glenn coaching and offered him the chance to work at the Rotterdam club. He explains, “I had moved back to Holland because I wanted to continue my study there but stayed involved at Anderlecht. Luckily for me I took an Anderlecht team in a tournament against Feyenoord and Stanley saw me coaching in French with a Belgian accent and some Dutch and thought, ‘what the hell is this?”’ He continues, “We had a conversation and he invited me to work with Feyenoord. Working with someone like Stanley has been phenomenal, he has been a huge influence in my development as a coach.”
Glenn’s research around human behaviour caught our attention so we were interested to understand more about his work and how Feyenoord are implementing it. Glenn explains, “I studied human movement sciences but my focus was on talent development. I started reading several books about the brain during my study and this really captured my attention. I did some research in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam and University of Tilburg working alongside neuroscientists who specialised in research on the brain and intelligence and I wanted to apply this to the football pitch.”
“The conclusion of this research was that players with better developed executive functioning skills in these areas have a better chance of succeeding as a football player.”
So what elements of football did Glenn focus on? He elaborates, “The focus of my research was on decision making on the pitch. Firstly, I wanted to look at what attributes a young, talented football player has that would allow them to make it in to the first team above other players in an academy environment. Research around the pre-frontal lobe (the front side of the brain) has certain executive functions. This means they have certain executive skills that are better developed than other players. For example, an executive function or skill could be flexible thinking, coping with feedback, handling pressure or stress and short-term memory. Of course all of these things apply in football, particularly around decision making, thinking under stress and dealing with your coach. The conclusion of this research was that players with better developed executive functioning skills in these areas have a better chance of succeeding as a football player.”
Fascinating work indeed, so how is Feyenoord using it to enhance their program and help players maximise their potential and can does this research indicate that these abilities can be developed?
“The perception before the action is so important.
Glenn explains, “The brain research was one part of it but the other focus was around decision making and this is something that is exceptionally important at Feyenoord. We focus on perception, thinking and action or ‘PTA’. The research has shown that the best decision-making players look around thirty times per minute, right left, right left and so on, always scanning and checking.” He continues, “The perception before the action is so important. Players have to look and make decisions in a fraction of second, there really is no time. The more we can help players perceive things the better their decision-making will be.”
So does the club implement this through game based learning? Glenn continues, “Yes, we do some interesting things with the players to challenge and test this. We may run 3 vs. 3 games with no bibs or 4 vs. 4 or dribbling session with the coach holding up colours so they are checking what’s around them.”
And what element does free play have in the clubs philosophy? Glenn explains, “We have found that the loss of street football and kids playing freely outside and being stuck behind computers or on iPads means that we are now need to find a solution. As a result, we are building a Feyenoord playground where the kids will arrive an hour before the session and just play without coaches. That free play is a our way of recreating street football.”
Without doubt the club is aiming to develop decision-makers and they are even embracing some of the most advanced sports technology to do it. Glenn explains, “We are engaged in the use of eye tracking technology using eye tracking glasses. This means we can see what players are seeing during the game. The biggest challenge with this is that the glasses are very expensive so if the ball hits them it’s a big problem!”
I ask Glenn if there is an emphasis on football movement or any other key sports science components in their curriculum? He elaborates, saying, “We do have a focus on football coordination like agility and quick feet, exercises that we might not have done ten years ago because it wasn’t necessary due to the players always being outside playing, but now we have to make up for some of that.”
The subject of Talent ID and recruitment is one that is constantly polarises opinion in player development. Feyenoord appear to have some very clear ideas about the work that needs to be done with young players and when to get them involved. Glenn explains, “We like to get the players in as early as possible because we believe in the concept of talent creating talent. Players will come in to us as young as the age of 3 or 4 years old. We feel the quicker we get them, the more we can help them develop as football players, arming them with technical, tactical and physical skills as well as the ability to play together. Other clubs in Holland tend to focus more on the individual, whereas we tend to focus more on the team. We believe in this because your decisions are not based on what you do alone, they are based on what’s going on around you and what options you have. If you only have players for the ages of 10-18 (for example), we don’t think 8 years is enough time to learn everything you need to in order to become a top footballer, this is why we start with the U5s – U7s and this allows them to get 12 years of development. Start as young as possible, play with the best players and work with the best coaches.”
We get on to the idea of ‘coachable players’ or ‘teachability’. I ask Glenn, does he believe this is innate or are there ways that coaches can enhance their players ability to take on information? He responds, “Every player learns differently. Some learn from talking with the coach, some from video, some from just playing. As a coach you have to figure out what the best style of learning is with each player. At Anderlecht I remember players who were constantly distracted in between sessions or while coaches were talking but as soon as they got on the pitch and played, they were amazing. For coaches, it’s interesting to find out how their players learn and crucial to do so. As a coach, you’re at times a psychologist more than anything!”
When it comes to session design what does Glenn believe is the best approach in terms of the volume of information on offer for young players? Is there a balance when it comes to information overload?
“Don’t give them all the answers and information and let them make the wrong decisions.”
He explains, “A lot of coaches I see try to improve too many things during one training session. Its important to build your session around one or two key ideas, development takes time. It might take 6 years to just get a player to understand their positional play. If you want to help decision-making, let the players make decisions!” He continues, “Don’t give them all the answers and information and let them make the wrong decisions. For a player to understand they have to make the wrong decision.”
Using the very young players as an example Glenn continues, “Every year, without fail our U7s will lose their first game of the year, they only run forward and they only want to score goals. As coaches, we don’t say anything, but the parents are all looking at each other asking, ‘Why is this happening? This is Feyenoord!’ He goes on, “The thing is the kids have to understand why they need to defend. If we put a player in there and say, ‘go and be a defender’, he may not learn to be an attacker. Let the kids make the wrong decisions and then perhaps ask (not tell) him what he could do better? Asking the right questions like why did you make that decision and what could you have done better you will improve their decision-making and perception.”
Glenn credits Wim Jansen as being one of the most impressive coaches he has worked with or observed in his time as a coach. He refers to him as a “Professor of Football” a man with an exceptional background having played with the late, great Johan Cruyff at the 1974 & 1978 World Cups. Glenn says, “In my view, he knows everything about football. Wim is very open, he is creative and has so much experience having played at World Cups. Despite his experience he is always challenging himself to think about better ways to develop players and coaches. His point of difference is that he has written everything down! He has a bible on everything, training, sessions, running a club, running an academy. He looks at details and is seeing things so far beyond what I do. He sees technical and tactical decisions like no one else I know and I think he’s the best in the world.”
This is a glowing reference and Wim is clearly a valuable mentor to be working around. I ask Glenn about what differentiates the club from the rest of the Dutch academies?
He considers his response and says, “Our biggest difference is the age we work with players and our team focus. We do develop the individual but that emphasis in the philosophy is working with the team. It’s a big challenge to hold on to your philosophy and back yourself, I feel you have to allow ten years to see a result.” He continues, “Because the research is new and innovative, that can mean new approaches are difficult to sell to coaches who are more traditional. But as long as we can justify why we do it, how we do it, then we can build it in to the program. The players of the U6s at times play with the players of U12s. The kids create the talent, if a kid of 6 years old train with kids of 12 years old, the U12 kid is a great example to the U6 kid. The U12 kid then learns leadership qualities and has to help the U6 kid by explaining what and why he is doing what he is doing. This helps everybody learn, both the coaches and players.”
We start talking creativity and I ask Glenn about whether he believes personally that this can be coached, and what it means to him in a football context?
“Creativity to me is doing the right thing at the right time and making the right decisions. Your perception before you receive the ball can be trained. Character is born in my view, but creativity is the ability to come up with the right solution. Some players are more creative than others but I believe it can be trained.”
“We are always critiquing ourselves and trying to make things better.”
Finally we get on to the broader, Dutch style. The Dutch have often been innovators in the game of football, from Rinus Michels, to Johan Cruyff & Denis Bergkamp, there is no doubt that the Netherlands has a history of footballing genius. What does Glenn believe defines the Dutch style? He replies, “We are never satisfied. For example, when you go to the USA players tend to just do what they are told (in my experience). You could say to the players ‘we are going to run for three hours!’ The players would do it. If I said that to my players in Holland to run, the first thing they would say is ‘why?’ He continues, “Everyone is Holland has an opinion about what to do better or different. We have a meeting every three weeks at Feyenoord on training methods, the way we play and constantly try to improve what we are doing in playing and coaching. We are always critiquing ourselves and trying to make things better. The Dutch are unique in that way and we love to moan! When the Dutch team made it to the final of the World Cup recently, we were really happy but the players were obviously devastated to not win that match, to go one better. We are a small country without the resource of a country like England. We have to be creative and innovate. In my eyes, players like Van Persie and Sneijder define the Dutch way in more recent times.”
Feyenoord is a club with a phenomenal history and is clearly on the cutting edge of the latest research and have a unique approach which they are unashamedly backing, a true testament to what a philosophy should be. The club are living and breathing what they believe to be the formula for success in player development. We will no doubt watch with anticipation to see which top players emerge from this innovative and historical Rotterdam club.