Ajax has always been known as a European soccer power. Since much of the money for soccer is now in the Spanish, English, Italian, and German leagues, AJax has recently been unable to purchase the best players to compete at the highest level. What they did to adapt was create the world's best youth development program nicknamed "De Toekoms"- The Future. It has produced some of the top players in the world including Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, and many players currently on the Dutch National roster.
Ajax now supports it's club by developing these young players into absolute super stars and having the major clubs, who the players would probably end up with anyway, purchase their rights. This has become a very lucrative business, making the clubwell over $80 million.
Now if you talk to many American coaches, they'd probably think these kids are so much better than the players in the States because they play more and against better competition in tournament after tournament starting from the day they can walk. Oh how wrong you would be.....
There are three main points that I will compare from how Ajax develops players to how the USA has been know to develop players.
1. 12 and Under....LTAD vs Peak By Friday
Ajax- The players who are chosen to enter the Ajax club are only allowed to play in one game on the weekend and only practice 3 times a week for about 2 hours a day up until the age of 12. The other times they let them play games outside of structured practice with their friends. They found the value of not having anyone telling them what to do with the ball is essential for future development. Since the country is so passionate about football, it is often not hard for these kids to find games in the streets, parks and neighborhoods. Ajax realizes they want these kids to be world class, not elite 10 year olds. The best part? Ajax pays all expenses but a $12 insurance fee per year.American- "Is he gifted? Lets have them sign up for 2 clubs teams and play with their school. Averaging over 100 games a year." This logic is not that uncommon. Our coaches only prior experience is playing the sport in high school or college and have not been educated at all on how young athletes acquire skills. We kill their creativity by the constant coaching, which is synonymic with yelling what they're doing wrong, and the pressure the parents get to put them in the next competitive 8-under team. By the way parents, you have to pay for all expenses.
2. Small Sided Games
Ajax- This is the heart of the practice with Ajax, especially at a young age. Ajax has done their research and looked at how playing small sided games for young players gives them touches than playing 11 vs 11. It also forces them to make quicker decisions, learn to move and control the ball in a small space, and not get lost on such a big field. Combine this over many years and hours of practice, making players much more effective than ours. Why?
USA- Right away kids are thrown into 11 vs 11 without practicing skills and how to move within the sport. We may use small sided games to warm up, but we will then go into block practices where everything is choreographed and over coached. Instead of putting players into a situation to learn, we instead put them in situations where the is only one way. This kills the creativity of the sport.
Develop the Athlete First
Ajax- Ajax has pulled players away from games to teach proper running technique and improve fitness so they have the ability to use their skills through an entire game. They look to change improper running technique and other movement patterns that may hurt them in the future.
USA- This has become much better in the past 5-10 years but it would take a special parent, coach and athlete to take a kid away from the game for a short period of time to work on athleticism. Many parents freak out that their kid won't be seen in the next tournament by the college scout in a 12-Under Show Case.
I certainly don't agree with why Ajax develops their players, as it seems more like slave trade than anything. However, we should take notes on how they put their system together. They encourage long term development, look for the science behind skill, and make sure the body can hold up with the rigors of training as they get older. I'm asking coaches, parents and athletes here in the US to take a second look on how we can improve our youth sports. In other places of the world they have competed and beat us with less selection of athletes and more understanding of talent development.