We can’t be our best until you’re the best (Part 1)

By October 8, 2023 Articles

I was reading an article by Mark Upton on Medium about/called ‘Constraints & Player Development in Football’ (click here) and came across another of his articles called ‘We can’t be our best until you’re the best’ (click here). It was at that point I thought, “I’m naming the article that, but I’m going to do it in more than one part’.

I was generally intrigued by the title ‘Constraints & Player Development in Football’, but also found it an interesting read. The article discusses the complex factors that influence the development of young football players. It begins with various examples from different countries, highlighting how diverse experiences and constraints that shape a player’s development journey. That interests me, because I’m also going to draw contrasts. But, the article emphasizes that player development is not a linear process, with peaks, troughs, and plateaus along the way.

The article introduces concepts from Dynamical Systems Theory and Complexity Theory, specifically nonlinearity and constraints, which help explain the unpredictable nature of talent development. Constraints can be environmental, task-related, or personal factors that impact a player’s development journey. A lot which would affect players from the Africa. It stresses the importance of a “Constraints-Led Approach” and “Nonlinear Pedagogy” in coaching and practice session design.

In the short term, coaches can manipulate task constraints to create specific learning experiences for players. This approach promotes player-centred learning and encourages players to explore different possibilities within boundaries. The article acknowledges that this approach may require more effort in planning practice activities.

Looking at long-term player development, the article considers the broader context beyond coaching sessions and matches. It explores the impact of various constraints, such as the type of experiences players have, their physical attributes, and socio-cultural influences. It suggests that a player’s development is influenced by a combination of structured coaching, unstructured play, and cultural values. This is great, because I think investment generally is needed, and I’ll highlight this below with the comparisons. But harnessing what we currently have within the confines socio-cultural influences, etc., and things like Jama’s are important.

Socio-cultural constraints are influential in shaping a player’s skills and attitudes. The article suggests that creating a club environment with a positive socio-cultural climate is crucial for player development. It emphasizes that player development is a complex process and offers key questions for reflection rather than providing definitive answers.

Concluding or surmising, the article encourages coaches and those involved in player development to embrace a holistic view of the learning process and to consider the multifaceted nature of constraints that influence young players. It promotes ongoing reflection and learning to navigate the complexity of player development successfully.

But with that, I wanted to highlight the constraints clubs in Africa face several constraints when it comes to player development. These constraints can vary by region and specific club, but some common challenges include:

  1. Limited Financial Resources: Many African clubs operate on tight budgets, which can restrict their ability to invest in youth development programs, coaching staff, and facilities.
  2. Inadequate Infrastructure: Clubs often lack modern training facilities, stadiums, and equipment, which are essential for nurturing young talent.
  3. Lack of Qualified Coaches: Finding and retaining qualified and experienced coaches can be a challenge, leading to suboptimal coaching and development processes.
  4. Competition and Exposure: The level of competition in domestic leagues may be lower compared to top European leagues, limiting the exposure and experience young players receive.
  5. Educational Support: Balancing education with football development can be difficult for many young players in Africa, and clubs may not always provide adequate educational support.
  6. Welfare and Social Challenges: Some players face social and economic challenges that affect their development, including issues related to nutrition, health, and living conditions.
  7. Scouting and Recruitment: Clubs may have limited scouting networks and resources, making it challenging to identify and recruit talent from a wide geographical area.
  8. Player Pathways: Well-defined player development pathways, from youth teams to the senior squad, are often lacking, making it difficult for young players to progress to the top level.
  9. Administrative and Regulatory Hurdles: Complex administrative procedures, such as player contracts and transfers, can create obstacles for clubs looking to develop and retain talent.
  10. Youth Development Structures: Many African clubs lack comprehensive youth development systems and academies, which are critical for nurturing talent from a young age.
  11. Player Migration: Young players may be tempted to move to Europe at an early age in search of better opportunities, which can hinder their development in their home countries.
  12. Political and Economic Instability: Some African regions and countries experience political and economic instability, which can disrupt club operations and hinder player development.

Clubs in Africa face different sets of constraints when it comes to player development as oppose to clubs in Europe. These constraints can significantly impact the development and progression of young talents in both regions. Here are some of the key differences in the constraints faced by clubs in Africa compared to Europe, and why South America has differed:

  1. Infrastructure and Facilities: European clubs generally have access to better facilities, including state-of-the-art training grounds, stadiums, and sports science resources. African clubs often struggle with inadequate infrastructure and facilities, which can hinder player development. While in South America, some clubs do face challenges with infrastructure and facilities similar to those in Africa, there is a notable difference in certain regions. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, larger clubs often have access to relatively better training grounds and stadiums, yet there remains a considerable gap when compared to European counterparts.
  2. Financial Resources: European clubs, especially in the top leagues, typically have greater financial resources to invest in youth development programs, coaching staff, and scouting networks. In contrast, many African clubs operate on tight budgets, limiting their ability to provide top-notch training and support for young players. Whereas in South America, clubs vary significantly in their financial capabilities, with some of the top clubs in countries like Brazil and Argentina boasting relatively higher budgets, allowing them to invest more in youth development compared to smaller clubs. However, the overall financial gap between South American and European clubs is still substantial.
  3. Coaching and Development Expertise: Europe boasts a well-established coaching system with a large pool of qualified and experienced coaches. African clubs may face challenges in finding and retaining top-tier coaching talent, which can affect the quality of player development. In South America, there’s a rich history of producing top football talent, and the region does have a pool of experienced coaches. However, there can still be challenges in retaining top-tier coaching talent due to financial constraints, leading to disparities in coaching expertise among clubs.
  4. Competition and Exposure: European clubs participate in highly competitive leagues and competitions, providing young players with valuable experience and exposure to top-level football. African leagues often have less exposure and may not offer the same level of competition, making it harder for young talents to grow and develop. While in South America, they have the Copa Libertadores which has a high level of quality and has produced some of the world greatest talents.
  5. Youth Development Structures: European clubs often have extensive youth development academies and structures in place to nurture young talent from a very early age. African clubs may lack comprehensive youth development systems, resulting in a gap in player development pathways. South American clubs, especially in countries like Brazil and Argentina, have recognized the importance of comprehensive youth development structures. They often have established youth academies, but the level of organization and resources can still vary widely across the region, somewhat akin to the situation in Africa.
  6. Education and Welfare: Many African players face challenges related to education and social welfare, which can impact their development. European clubs often offer better educational support and welfare services to young players, ensuring their holistic development. South American clubs have also taken steps to address education and welfare issues, but similar to African clubs, there can be discrepancies in how well these services are provided. Clubs in more economically developed areas may offer better support in this regard.
  7. Player Pathways: In Europe, there are clear player pathways from youth academies to first teams, with opportunities for progression. In Africa, the lack of well-defined pathways can make it harder for young players to transition to the senior level. In South America, there’s a clearer player pathway from youth academies to first teams compared to Africa, but the competition is still fierce. However, similar to Africa, South American clubs might face difficulties in retaining young talents due to the allure of European clubs.
  8. Scouting Networks: European clubs often have extensive scouting networks that allow them to identify and recruit talent from various regions and countries. African clubs may have more limited scouting resources, making it challenging to discover and acquire promising young players. South American clubs have traditionally relied on strong domestic scouting networks, which have allowed them to unearth talent from their own regions. However, compared to European clubs, they may have fewer resources to scout and recruit talent from other continents.
  9. Administrative and Regulatory Challenges: African clubs may encounter administrative and regulatory challenges related to player contracts, transfers, and youth development regulations, which can impede their ability to develop and retain talent. While administrative and regulatory challenges do exist in South America, they can vary widely from one country to another. Some countries have more streamlined systems, while others face hurdles similar to those encountered by African clubs.

We can debate these points, including, early exposure to competitive football, role models, and creativity; a scarcity of resources LEADING to creativity, rather than relying on advanced facilities or equipment. Which circles back round to Socio-cultural constraints.

However, despite these challenges, African clubs have produced many talented players who have succeeded both domestically and internationally. Addressing these constraints and investing in grassroots development is essential for African football to continue growing and for young talents to reach their full potential. Additionally, partnerships with international clubs and organizations can help mitigate some of these challenges and provide opportunities for African players to develop their skills and gain exposure on a global scale.

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Written by Andrew Mensah-Twumasi @andrewmensahjr (IG/Twitter)

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