Athletic Development as discussed by Gary Neville

Last week, the Football Association in England (the FA) opened an incredible new facility (St. George’s Park) as the new home for all English youth national teams and the base for coaching education in England.  It is a reflection of the massive amount of resources and focus being put into youth development around the world, and the recognition of the importance of providing great teaching and training to players at young ages.  

As part of the excitement and ceremony surrounding the opening, current English National Team Assistant, (and former Manchester United great), Gary Neville was interviewed on the BBC about coaching, and specifically his thoughts about training as a youth player.  (Gary Neville is the most capped right back in English history, and played for Manchester United more than 400 times over 20 years - from the time he joined the youth academy until his retirement in 2011.)

In the interview, Neville discussed the training sessions he went through with some of the world’s greatest coaches (Alex Ferguson, Carlos Queiroz, Brian Kidd, and more), and the lessons he learned that helped him become one of England’s all-time great players.

  • On his youth training sessions: “Repetition is critical in anything to get good … All the best coaches that I played under, whilst the sessions might differ slightly from day to day, the same messages rung through – and repetition is the key."
  • On reflecting on his youth coach at Manchester United: “He is still saying those same things to nine year olds as he was saying 20 years ago … look over your shoulder before you receive the ball, make sure you move into a space after you receive a ball, make sure your head is up when you are dribbling and have the ball at your feet.” 
  • On a daily emphasis on possession as a youth player: “We did possession, every single day, for 20 years at Manchester United – different type s of possession, but we did possession because our whole game was built around possession and speed of play, angles, looking over your shoulder and movement You have to repeat those things and principles all the time, and they never change."

Neville’s comments dovetail interestingly with comments made by Daniel Coyle, author of the widely celebrated book The Talent Code, on his blog describing the characteristics of "bad" practice - and the ways to fix it.  He described a poor practice both as one that has a “robotic sameness of performance” as well as a lack of “dammit” moments:

  • “Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn

Dan Coyle’s comments dig deeper into the same topic that Neville spoke about.  Whereas Gary Neville simply expressed the importance of repetition of key concepts and thoughts in elite athlete development, Coyle’s comments show that while it is incredibly important to constantly emphasize the same basic concepts and thoughts – the manner in which they are trained should constantly evolve to force the athlete to apply them in a new and different situation.

So how does this impact a youth female player at FC Wisconsin?

  1. The higher level that you aspire to, the more important the details of performance become.  The details that average players ignore or cut corners on are exactly the details that separate the greats – checking your shoulder, dynamically moving after passing, etc.
  2. Really good training is supposed to be really difficult.  Embrace the difficulty and accept the adversity.  It is exactly this challenge that allows you to differentiate yourself from your peers.
  3. Becoming a great player requires, at its core, the commitment to repetition of training key areas of technical and tactical performance.  This comes through training the same concepts multiple ways in team training, but also by a consistent commitment to individual training.

It is helpful to understand that, while the journey may differ, the path to becoming a great player is the same for everyone.  You have the opportunity to take steps on that path – the choice of whether to take advantage of the opportunity is yours! 


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