ACADEMY DIRECTORS ABROAD: ONE VISION AT AZ ALKMAAR

The year-long U.S. Soccer Academy Director Course prepares club leaders to create an elite youth development environment at their club. This month, the course travels to Europe to take an inside look at some of the world's top youth academies. Girls Development Academy Director Miriam Hickey talks about the group's visit to Dutch club AZ Alkmaar's vaunted academy.

In our three days at the AZ Alkmaar youth academy, former home of U.S. Soccer Boys' Development Academy Director Aloys Wijnker, it became clear that the entire staff, from the U-12 through U-23 coaches, to the high-performance department, education coordinators, scouting coordinator, academy director, technical director and CEO all share the same vision on player development.

The AZ academy's goal is to develop as many players as possible for a first team that competes for the top of the Dutch Premier League on a yearly basis. Currently 50 percent of first team players are homegrown from the academy. The hallway to the locker rooms is filled with photos of the homegrown players currently with the first team, but it also has spots with a "Who's next?" picture, to show academy players that there are opportunities to achieve their dreams at AZ.

AZ cannot financially compete with the Netherlands' big three professional clubs, and therefore must think and act differently to compete on the field. This necessitates a shared vision on player development, programs to attract and keep the best players and knowledgeable, capable staff.

Club Culture

The culture of AZ allows players to reach their maximum potential. This philosophy comes alive in quotes and pictures displayed throughout the building, but mostly by the staff's actions. To build a strong club culture, AZ lives by these six principles:

  1. Raise the bar. Begin with the end in mind, have high expectations of everyone in the organization and keep your eye on the prize.
  2. Purposely create an environment in which the players feel out of their comfort zone, so they must constantly adapt. (Train on a bumpy field, field with long grass, sand field etc.) Players must learn to deal with failure and discomfort to help them grow and expand their comfort zone.
  3. Stimulate creativity and solution-focused thinking. Players must make mistakes and learn by exploring what works and what doesn't. Coaches ask questions for players to think about and answer. Coaches refrain from giving answers and solutions.
  4. Each player has the responsibility to describe what they want to learn. The coach's task is to get to know the person and learn what motivates them.
  5. Players need to learn to live like a top-level athlete with a focus on proper training, nutrition and rest.
  6. A growth mindset. Create an environment where players and staff believe that, with the right effort, everything can be developed.

Both pro teams (AZ has teams in the first and second leagues) and youth academy teams share the training complex. This two-year-old facility has several excellent grass and turf fields, but also a bumpy field, as well as small sand and futsal pitches. A new state-of-the-art building houses locker rooms for each team, a large gym, training rooms, a video review room, many meeting rooms, a cafeteria and the offices of the CEO and coaches. The proximity of everything means that communication lines within the club are very short.

Vision on Player Development

The AZ vision on youth development is holistic in nature. The goal is to develop and train players with the following qualities:

  1. Able to understand the game
  2. Able to make their own choices
  3. Technically and physically in optimum condition
  4. 24/7 focused on performing
  5. Strong, ambitious personalities who can deal with setbacks

The U-11 and U-12 age groups train four times per week, while the U-13 and U-14 teams train six times a week, including twice in the morning, made possible by club collaboration with schools. From U-15 onwards, the teams train nine times a week. Transport in AZ vans to and from school is arranged by the many volunteers who support the club.

Not all sessions are team training sessions, based on age, a certain number of sessions are held in the gym, in the video analysis room, the virtual reality room or in individual sessions. Players meet regularly with the high-performance staff to discuss their goals and reflect on their performance.

Sessions on the field are characterized by being high-intensity, dynamic, varied activities which challenge the players to adjust constantly, deal with real-game situations under pressure (compact high-energy defending) with the opportunity to take initiative and make decisions.

Scouting

AZ has their own scouting network: a full-time director and 25 volunteers who look for players that would potentially do well in the AZ soccer school. The youngest scouted players are at the U-10 level. They train and play with their own club and during the fall, train on Sundays with an AZ coach in one of the five soccer school locations closest to their home. In the spring, top players from each location train Wednesdays and Sundays at the AZ training facility. This way, AZ can work with players for a full year and get to know them as players and people, before deciding to add them full-time to the program.

After the U-14 level, it becomes harder to bring in new players from amateur clubs as they have missed three years of programming. Players from other pro clubs are recruited to fill gaps from the U-17 age group onwards. These players are asked to come on trial for four to six weeks to train with their age group and play in scrimmages.

Scouts give special attention to recruit players who are born in the second half of the year while still being dominant on the field.

High-Performance Program

The goal of the high-performance staff is to ensure that every player can participate in every session throughout the year at their highest possible level.

Two sport scientists create specific programs for each individual player every week. The focus for players during workouts in the gym depends on the biological age group and ranges from the U-13s learning basic movement skills to power, speed and agility training for players who have gone through puberty.

During outdoor sessions, there is time in the warmup to focus on speed and agility. Players are tested twice a month to monitor their progress.

Twice a week the U-13, U-14 and U-15 players train in their biological age group to enhance the growth of all players, as the smallest may now be able to compete physically with their peers and the early-maturing players now must learn to skillfully solve the problems they face.

At the U-15 age group and up, GPS and heart rate monitoring is used during training sessions and games so that the workload of the players can be monitored daily and adjustments can be made as needed.

Players complete an app-based readiness to train questionnaire each morning, take a hip mobility test the day after every match, go through a strength test three days after each match and take an 8x80-meter heart rate recovery test. All these assessments provide data to adjust players' workloads and prevent injuries.

Future Initiatives

In the highly competitive world of professional soccer, remaining as is means getting passed by other clubs.

AZ is creating plans to start its own school on the grounds of the training facility. The curriculum and methods will be more in-line with AZ's vision of how players develop in soccer. A full-size indoor field and dormitory are also in the planning phase. The goal of these initiatives is to attract top-level youth players, keep them long enough to sign them to contracts for the professional teams and improve the daily academy environment.