As Bayern Munich scrap academy teams – is it a positive move for youth sport of not?

GORDON MACLELLAND, FOUNDER OF WORKING WITH PARENTS IN SPORT, OFFERS A BALANCED PERSPECTIVE.

Bayern Munich Football Club recently announced that over the next couple of seasons they will be phasing out the under 9 and under 10 teams from their football academy.

Athletic director at the Campus Holger Seitz said, “FC Bayern is aware of its social responsibility particularly for very young soccer players in the Munich area and the neighbouring regions. With this step, it should be possible for the children to develop longer in the familiar setting of their home club without the pressure to perform and without additional time commitment.”

Seitz said the club wants children to have the free time to try out other sports and enjoy other experiences that might “have a positive influence on their footballing capabilities.”

Bayern will compensate for gifted players in the region by allowing local clubs to have special training sessions at the U7 and U8 level at the FC Bayern Campus beginning in 2020/21.

This news has triggered a variety of responses from the sporting world from clubs, coaches and parents and we would like to try and offer a balanced perspective of the news. The anti-academy brigade has been out in full force whether they have any direct experience of these environments or not whilst others have tried to defend the academy environments but perhaps not in the most productive way.

For many of you who follow WWPIS on a regular basis or have seen us in a live workshop you will know how we advocate multi-sport participation and how we help parents understand the long-term nature of sporting development.

As part of that and in helping support our young people, parents need to understand what our children’s motivations are for playing and how the relative age effect can impact their sporting experience both positively and negatively.

We also need to ensure that we manage our own expectations of our children’s sporting journey and not an opportunity for us to fuel our own failed sporting ambitions.

All of these things will have been weighed up and based on scientific evidence the move taken by Bayern Munich is an extremely positive one for the youth sporting landscape as a whole. They are following the lead taken by a number of other sports in recent years who using the evidence have made decisions that have put the children at the heart of the sporting experience. For example, the recent work of England Rugby in this area whilst initially met with some resistance is proving extremely fruitful for all parties.

The move may well act as a template for many sports to look at their offerings, particularly at a younger age and see if more can be done to make it a better environment for younger people perhaps leading to a much healthier, longer term relationship with the sport and hopefully a life time participation in sport and physical activity.

However, things may not be this straightforward. There would certainly need to be a blanket approach across all clubs otherwise parents would naturally seek out the opportunities provided by those clubs who continue to operate in this way, believing that they are giving their children the best chance of being successful.

Independent academies would then spring up more and more, charging larger fees and providing some of the opportunities that academies do now. Groups based on ability, top class coaching, access to good facilities and competitive games against other like for like organisations.

This is where the whole thing becomes more complex than just saying that academies have been getting this wrong for years and using this as an opportunity to slate some of the excellent work that goes on in the vast majority of them.

As someone who has a child in an academy and who works with several around the country, at no point in these early years have we been asked to pick one sport. Many of these academies are even providing access to a wider range of sports during the early years of their programme. My own child plays a myriad of sports and is encouraged to do so by the football club.

Is his life dominated by football? No – he trains twice a week and plays a match on a Sunday, there is plenty of time for other things.

Is it a positive experience? Yes – massively so. He has lots of friends, can’t wait to go training and play matches. He is well coached in outstanding facilities and is cared about by everybody who knows and has coached him. He has also had many great experiences and is developing holistically as an individual.

I am aware that this may not be everybody’s experience or perception of the system, but I know there are many clubs, coaches and parents who are doing a fantastic job and there is some great practise going on out there.

So – do I think he will make it? No – there is more chance of me being hit by a meteor and that sits easy with me based on the evidence, so we are making the most of what the experience offers.

Do academies need to make parents more aware of the realities of the system and make sure they are not mis-selling the dream? Do they need to ensure that parents really understand the complexities of the sporting journey?

Yes, they probably do to ensure that we do not have a generation of players who are negatively affected by the impact of the academy system, particularly when the time comes that their dreams may be over. As parents all the way through the process we need to ensure that the individuals that we have at home along with the support of academies is in creating multi-faceted individuals who will thrive in whichever walk of life they finally end up in.

Travelling can be testing at times but most games are comfortably within two hours and all home games are very close which is half the season. I agree we want less travel time and I am certainly an advocate of that particularly at younger ages. My big concern in attacking the whole system is that many provide high quality coaching in fun and challenging environments. The standard of coaching is extremely high, and the facilities are first class, meaning few games are lost due to the weather.

Surely that is what we want for all children. If we start making these moves, then we need high quality coaching and top-class facilities everywhere and with experienced and high-quality sports leaders co-ordinating many of the programmes ensuring an amazing experience for all stakeholders.

Facilities and high-quality coach education are key to the sporting experience being a really fruitful and productive one for all parties if we want to achieve ‘as many as possible, for as long as possible in the best environments possible.’

This is what we all aspire to and academies and independent organisations are often providing a better service to what is available at grassroots level, hence parents seek them out. Before we launch into attacking them, we need to take a wider look at the whole system and if they are not providing this are we providing some great opportunities everywhere for young people to participate in.

On a personal level, I can tell you that my own children have tried and given up a number of sports and this was based on their experience and enjoyment of the sessions that were being provided. This lack of enjoyment came from too many children for the level of the coach to effectively control, too much standing around and a lack of encouragement and feedback to feel that the whole experience was fun and worthwhile.
We need to ensure that we have as many of these bases covered as possible.

In summary
Is pre puberty a good time for talent Id? No definitely not unless we are in early specialisation sports such as gymnastics.

Do the best 9- and 10-year olds all become top professionals? No and it is the same in other sports. The highest ranked 11-year-old tennis players are often nowhere to be seen at 18 and in athletics many junior world champions struggle to make it as senior athletes.

This means it is the selection process that can often be flawed so people working within the current framework have to pick the best players at that time within those parameters.

Bayern Munich have made an excellent decision here as there are so many positive and scientific reasons for why have made this decision.

However, academy life is not all bad and provides a wonderful opportunity to many whether they make it or not! Perhaps it is the parents who can get carried away the most and see the world differently. I think a 9 and 10-year-old are simply going out and enjoying playing in this environment – but that is a story for another day.

Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit www.parentsinsport.co.uk.