John Van’t Schip is a Dutch coach who developed as both a player and a coach under the guidance of the legendary Johan Cruyff. Van’t Schip has worked as first-team coach for both Ajax and the Netherlands. He now finds himself at the heart of FFA Cup Winners, Melbourne City FC in Australia’s A League. In this exclusive interview with PDP Editor, Dave Wright, we hear about John’s journey and what advice he has for developing coaches.

Given his deep connections to Dutch football, it is somewhat surprising to learn that John Van’t Schip spent the early years of his life in Canada as an avid ice hockey fan. It is a unique beginning for a man who went on to have an 11-year career at Ajax and four years at Genoa in Italy following that. It was only at the age of seven that he first went to a soccer practice with an English schoolmate – but it was the moment that started John’s lifelong relationship with the sport.

The following year the Van’t Schip family moved to Holland – his family’s home country – and initially moved in with John’s grandparents. He suddenly found himself in a football-mad household; his three uncles (who were still at home at the time) were all avid Ajax and Feyenoord fans. Van’t Schip explains the moment where he really fell in love with football. “Only three weeks into our return to Holland I was lucky enough to go and watch Ajax vs. Inter Milan in the European Cup Final,” he says. “It was 1972. Johan Cruyff scored two goals, Ajax won 2–0 and Cruyff was man of the match. From that moment on I was a Cruyff and Ajax fan.”

After that first exposure to the game that many modern football fans or coaches could only dream of, Van’t Schip found himself immersed in football and eventually made his way into the legendary Jong Ajax Youth Academy. He arrived at Ajax at about 11 or 12 years old and spent a few years in the youth system before making his first team debut.

John recalls, “Ajax was very advanced in the approach to training at that time. We trained four times a week and played a game on the weekend. It wasn’t as organised as it is these days with things like the club providing transport, organising school, special classes for players in the program. You simply had to be at training and games on time and get yourself there.”

“Everything we did was on the ball in small-sided and positional games in 8 v 8 or occasionally 11 v 11 work.”

This was an era where the club had revolutionized the game, under the guidance of Rinus Michels, with legends like Cruyff and Kaizer demonstrating Total Football on the pitch. At that time, John says, the club’s methodology placed a big emphasis on competition, which he says helped him improve “enormously” as a player. He continues, “Training with a lot of top players of my age and playing against them helped me. At 14 I made the Dutch National U15 team, and getting to that level higher, training with even more top players and going to tournaments abroad helped me develop. I had a real focus on my dream to become a professional footballer.”

In terms of an obvious style or philosophy at the club during his developmental years, John recalls a focus on small-sided games and ball work, saying, “We always played in a 4-3-3 throughout the club so the training sessions were all based around that shape with a real focus on wide play. We also spent a lot of time working on the ball – everything we did was on the ball in small-sided and positional games in 8 v 8 or occasionally 11 v 11 work.” The only time training did not involve the ball was during pre-season or in the weekly conditioning sessions.

“As a child, I would go outside and play and pretend to be Johan.”

After his first exposure to Johan Cruyff in that European Cup Final as a youngster, John incredibly went on to both play alongside and be coached by the Dutch legend. He is quick to pay tribute to Johan’s impact on his footballing development: “He had a massive influence on me from a little boy through to me being a player. Seeing him play for the first time when I was eight years old made me start dreaming. As a child, I would go outside and play and pretend to be Johan. Of course as I made my way through the academy I got to meet him.”

As Van’t Schip grew from an Ajax youngster pretending to be Cruyff into a young man, he found himself with the opportunity to train with the man himself. He recalls the time when, aged 16 or 17, he was picked out by his hero: “Johan was preparing his comeback to Ajax, I think he was 34 and the time. He couldn’t train with the first team [due to being in between contracts after his time in the USA] so he trained with the second team where I was playing. He saw me play in the second team and decided I could play the game. So when he made his comeback to the first team, he told the coach to pick me on the bench and that’s when I made my first, first-team appearance – in Johan’s comeback game. It was an incredible occasion. That was the start of my career as a professional player.”

What followed was a 15-year career as a player that included 273 games for Ajax, 107 more for Genoa and 41 international caps for the Netherlands. After he retired from his distinguished playing career due to back problems at only 32 years old, John made the progression from player to coach. “I found that hard,” he explains. “As I stepped in to coaching I still felt like a player.”

After retiring from playing, he undertook a a one-year course through the Dutch federation and began working in the academy at Ajax with the U12 & U16 age groups. “Initially I struggled with the change,” he says, “but once I got involved with those teams I really got into it. I was doing 7 sessions a week, two games at the weekend and did that for two years in a row. I learned a lot from the other coaches in the academy and then after that initial two-year period I moved up to the U18s. In my fourth year at the club, I was promoted to assistant coach of the first team. Those four years of transforming from player to trainer were crucial in my transition in coaching.”

A question we like to pose in a lot of our interviews at Player Development Project is around the mentors. Van’t Schip obviously had an affinity with Cruyff. But was he the only influence on John?

“In regard to mentors, I always go back to Johan,” he says. “He was the biggest influence on me, perhaps because I played with him.”

“I was lucky to have other great mentors like Rinus Michels & Louis Van Gaal, but I think Johan was the one that really affected me. Almost everything he said stuck with me, both as a young player playing alongside him and then as a player under his guidance when he became the first-team coach. I took those lessons as a player and paid close attention to the example he set in coaching, which has helped me.”

The Cruyff legacy lives on strongly in Van’t Schip and he has clearly had an inspiring and fortunate journey in his career, crossing paths with some of the best to ever play and coach football. So with such a wealth of experience and exposure to some of the top figures in the sport, we had to ask what John believes makes an effective or top quality coach?

As you may expect, John is clear in his reply, explaining, “You have to know the qualities of your players. Each player is different and has different attributes, and you need to be able to fit those elements into a team. It’s not always easy – you may have a player who is more talented, but then you might have a player who is better for the team. These decisions are difficult so you have to be able to make the call for what’s best with the team. From there, it’s about how you communicate your message or style to the players and it’s very important to ensure the players are part of that process.”

“You have to give players confidence and freedom to make mistakes.”

John goes on to explain the importance of building a culture of trust within a team: “You have to give players confidence and freedom to make mistakes. You need to find the balance between them doing the things you ask them and giving them a competitive environment where they feel there is opportunity to make mistakes or play without fear. You don’t want players fearing a mistake will affect their future opportunities in the team.”

This is excellent advice for coaches aspiring to build a better environment for their players. But coaches need to be able to apply this to the individuals within the collective. The importance of communication is something that John is quick to highlight.

He says, “The players’ performance will dictate who plays in the team, and they have to be able to compete to earn their place. Therefore, your communication skills are also critical, you need to be able to talk to your players, and be honest with them. Of course, which players respond to that and which don’t is something you should be able to identify. Some players don’t always need a talk. Every player is different, you need to be able to identify their needs and then coach that individual.”

John has a strong view of what the environment looks like. The current environment in which he finds himself is Australia; Melbourne City FC to be precise. Speaking of the “fundamental differences” between the playing and coaching cultures, he highlights that developing Dutch players get many more hours and more competition by the time they get to age 16.

Other challenges are dictated simply by the huge size of the country compared with Holland: “It is so spread out,” says John. “In Holland you could go into a national training camp and everybody could get there easily. In Australia it’s logistically difficult to bring the players together and scout them effectively.”

“There are no doubt a lot of good players in Australia who don’t get discovered at an early age. In Holland, clubs will be aware of a highly talented player from six years old.”

No doubt these are issues that the FFA are looking to address and we understand good progress is being made in the Australian football landscape. Closer to home, of course, John is in a position to facilitate change at club level at Melbourne City. And he has plans which clearly echo back to his early influence in Holland.

“We want to play beautiful football”, he explains. “This is the slogan of the City Group. I guess what beautiful football is, is subjective: defending well can be seen as beautiful in the eyes of some. However, at Melbourne City we define it as having more possession than the opponent, by playing in their half, being aggressive when we lose the ball and wanting to win it back quickly. We also have to entertain the people.”

The City Group obviously has a huge reach in global football now, owning Manchester City, New York City and Melbourne City. With that global reach and group mentality, there is a chance for a common culture to develop. John is keen to point out that the culture both within the club and wider City Group is “still evolving”, adding: “Melbourne City is a young club so we are trying to get our feet on the ground in Melbourne. Last year we really put ourselves out there, scored the most goals and had some entertaining games. We are in direct competition with Melbourne Victory and of course want to try and grow our fan base.”

In order to “get their feet on the ground” of their local community, and to help engage potential supporters, the club do a lot of working with schools, the homeless, and community football groups around Melbourne. Fan meetings are held after games, and the club regularly sends coaches in to schools. “We have some great people working in those areas,” says John.

Australia is a country much like many other nations which has strong ties to the UK and has been influenced in the past by English football culture. Yet John believes the playing style he sees around him reflects a shift towards other influences.

“Everybody talks about the fighting spirit of Australians, that they have to be beaten three times as they will keep coming back,” he says. “However, I feel there has also been a turning point in terms of the style of play. The English perhaps traditionally influenced the style of play in Australia but in recent years there is perhaps a more Continental approach to the game.”

He continues, “This perhaps conflicts with the psyche of the players at times. Some players will want to get into a battle or play more directly, but with the focus on positional games and that kind of approach to coaching, we are getting more success with that. The Socceroos [Australian Men’s Team] are certainly showing they can play that way and are having good success building up play and approaching the game with a possession-based approach.”

This is reflected in what John believes in a general change of playing style across the A League in the time he has spent there, which has made the competition “stronger”. He cites the continued good performances of Australian teams in the Asian Champions League, following Western Sydney’s win, as evidence that the A League is improving. They are able now, he says, “to compete with the big, wealthy teams in Asia.”

“The most important thing is to remember it’s not about you, it’s always about the players first.”

As always, we are keen to know what advice John would give to developing coaches and what attributes does he think are the characteristics to be successful.

He answers: “It’s important to have your own philosophy, vision and beliefs around how you want to play, to develop your own style. However, the most important thing is to remember it’s not about you, it’s always about the players first. You have to give the players the right education to become the good player they want to be in the future. You shouldn’t be a coach who is only out there to get results and the players come second.”

“Be passionate and be adaptable. If you can combine these things but always keep the players first, alongside your technical and tactical vision, then you’re on the right path. When they are young these elements count the most, and as they get older the mental and physical parts of the game become more prevalent.”

Some brilliant advice and excellent ideas to take away. Removing our own ego and putting the players development first has to paramount in positive player development. We ask John about his own coaching style how he adapts it to the environments he works in.

He explains, “It probably adapts between working with youth players and first-team environments. With youth it’s about development; they need to become best friends with the ball, work on the ball all the time.”

“At first team level it’s about playing within a system, being disciplined, tactically aware and fitting into that system. However even at this level, football has to be fun! You start playing football because you like it, because it’s fun. I try to ensure the sessions are fun and within that you can account for the physcial, mental, technical and tactical elements and people can enjoy the environment you create.”

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