Why winning is not England’s only barometer of youth success

England will host the U17 European Championships this month and they will be looking to add the European crown to their World Cup win last year, but winning the tournament will not be the only measure of success for the young Three Lions.

In a brilliant interview on the Football Association’s website, the head of development team coaching Matt Crocker explains that the definition of ‘success’ has changed for England’s youth sides.

That may seem strange on the back of the recent success of England’s youth teams. The U17s were brilliant en route to glory in the World Cup in India last year, the U19s also tasted glory in winning the European Championship, while the U20s were crowned World Cup winners in South Korea and the U21s reached the last four of the European Championships, but more glory on home soil this month is not the be all and end all for England under their progressive guidelines.

England U17 coach Steve Cooper will of course be aiming to win the 16-team tournament.

“We obviously want to be as successful as we can but we are building for the future and whatever returns we get from the games will be learning experiences that will take us and the players forward,” says Cooper.

 

‘A sole focus on winning can be detrimental’

Crocker though explains that winning is not their only barometer of success and the FA’s website notes that ‘a sole focus on winning can be detrimental for the long-term progression of players’ who are still involved in England’s ‘development’ pathway.

“The objective we set for the U17s isn’t to win a major tournament, because history shows that if the only objective is winning then teams tend to only pick the bigger, stronger, quicker players,” Croker told the FA’s website.

The framework for England teams from U15-U20 is the necessity to qualify for major tournaments and with that comes ‘exposure and opportunity’ against some of the best teams in the world.

“The reason we don’t say our younger age-groups should win the World Cup or win the European Championships, is because it’s the experience of being in the tournament which is the key for development. Qualification is always the major objective,” says Crocker.

“A tournament gives the players exposure to a variety of challenges and different experiences. For example, last season our U17s were away in India for 35 days playing in intense humidity.

“They played in front of 75,000 people in huge stadiums against some of the best teams in the world. They also had a taste of taking penalties in a big competition. All those experiences will prepare them for the future.

“We need to get to the tournaments for them to have the exposure and opportunity for different experiences.”

Crocker also explained the ‘development pathway’ which is broken down into youth development (15-17s), professional development (18s-20s) and the senior professional stage (21s and senior side).

“The reason we call it a development pathway [before 21], is that it’s about ‘development’ – it’s not a ‘winning’ pathway.

“Our hope is that the pathway provides the players with a number of building blocks so when they do get to the senior team they feel as prepared as they possibly can be to produce a successful performance,” adds Crocker.

Crocker also explained how it’s now normal for England to take players to tournaments who have not featured heavily in qualifying, simply because they possess the greater potential.

It’s an interesting concept and one which may well be argued it shows little loyalty to players, especially those who may find themselves missing out on a place in the finals of a tournament, despite playing in the majority of the qualifying games.

 

‘Highest long-term potential’

But with the emphasis on development, Crocker says it’s crucial to give players who show the “highest long-term potential” the chance to shine on the big stage.

“Sometimes your qualification squad might look different to your finals squad, because there are some players – those with the highest long-term potential – who you feel might benefit from going to those tournaments. However, they might not have been involved in all parts of qualification.”

Head coach Cooper also highlights the opportunity his youngsters are getting on home soil and says it will only stand them in good stead for the pressures that come with senior football, when the emphasis switches to winning.

“We’re doing a lot of work with the players to make sure they know who they’re representing.

“They’re representing their country as a home nation. They’re standing up for youth development in England, from the grassroots game right up to the professional academies,” says Cooper.

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