The pandemic has greatly influenced the world of sports. Empty stadiums, postponed biggest events, tight schedules, training and match breaks for those who are in quarantine, larger squad rotations and regular staff problems. For many young players, however, it was paradoxically a chance for a faster debut in Ekstraklasa. 16-year-old Xavier Dziekoński stood between the goalposts of Jagiellonia Białystock, 18-year-old Daniel Szelągowski from Korona Kielce had 311 minutes on the pitch to score two goals and an assist, and Iwo Kaczmarski became the first player of the year 2004 to score in this competition. Traditionally Legia Warszawa, Lech Poznań and Zagłębie Lubin come in for young players. Only last season up to 5 juniors made their debut in copper colours, the first team was made up of 13 alumni, and many talented players from KGHM Academy await their chance. In a city with a population of only 70,000, they have ideal conditions for development: the best training base in the country, professional staff, ambitious coaches and a training vision based on the philosophy on which the best football academies have grown. We talk to Robin Pronek, Coordinator for the Development of Coaches and Players, about how the successors of Piotr Zieliński, Krzysztof Piątek and Bartosz Białek are trained here.
When in 2013 Richard Grootscholten became the director of the KGHM Zagłębie Academy, he explained that the biggest problem of Polish football is not on the pitch, but in the heads of the players. He argued that the Polish footballer is brought up in fear of failure, afraid to dribble and take risks, and the coaches mainly think about defense. You came to Lubin six years later, has anything changed since then?
I can only talk about the situation in Zagłebie Lubin. I am not in a position to judge the entire Polish football. I don’t see other clubs training and I don’t know their exact vision of developing players. When Zaglebie Lubin is playing matches against other teams I see a lot of them focusing on defence and winning the match with this style. In my opinion, Polish teams and academy coaches place great emphasis on winning and scoring.
I have been working at Zaglebie Lubin for a year now and I see a lot of creative, technically well-trained players. Our teams play offensively and often dominate the field, but we sometimes forget about the defence. We can certainly improve this aspect and train good defenders.
The Academy creates ideal conditions for their development. Two illuminated pitches with artificial turf, five with natural turf, an open training ground, a dormitory with a gym and great facilities. But the infrastructure itself is not enough.
What were your first impressions after coming to Poland and learning about the training system of Zaglębie Lubin?
Well-prepared coaches, various training materials, especially in terms of attacking. For this many creative and technically well trained players. The training sessions mainly took place on the pitch once and sometimes twice a day, but training football players is more than just training on the pitch.
For several years, the KGHM Academy has consistently incorporated the Dutch training vision. Can you tell about its basics?
The main goal of the academy should be to train players for the first team. This season (2019/2020) 5 of our players made their debut in 1st team in PKO Ekstraklasa. To reach the highest level, a football player must be a specialist in his position. It requires consistent work according to a strictly determined plan. For this, however, the club should have strictly defined vision and guidelines for players.
What does it look like in practice?
It is important for everyone to speak the same language, so we can use the same terminology. For example, 2×10 has become a well-known term at the academy. You create 2 player profiles for each position that correspond to the game intentions. Through training you will then work on developing the team and individual players. All exercises must be related to the style of the game and player profiles.
You previously worked for Ajax Amsterdam and, like Henny Lee, current director of the Academy for FC Utrecht. What elements of training are you currently trying to instill in Lubin?
Players in Zagłębie Lubin are trained comprehensively. From Monday to Saturday they run a program that includes all elements of training. In addition to training with the team on the pitch, we have individual classes, gym and video analysis of training material. All of this is reflected in the player’s PDP (Personal Development Plan). It is important to do exercises related to the match when training on the pitch. These exercises should be intense and complex, so the players are physically and cognitively challenged. The coaches regularly evaluate the progress of the players and set individual goals together with them.
Corne Groenendijk, director of the international academies Ajax Amsterdam, explains that it is very difficult to transfer a vision of training that has proved successful in one country to another, because mentality, culture, tradition and the way of organization play a huge role. What do you think is the difference between Polish and Dutch football at the training level?
I don’t quite agree with that. The key qualities of a modern coach should be willingness to improve and openness to innovation, because this allows him to develop. In Zagłębie Lubin we have a coaching staff that positively affects the players. The difference between Poland and the Netherlands can be seen in the short and long term. Success in working with youth is a long process and more than just today’s training on the pitch. Dutch academies have developed this process and have therefore been successful for decades.
In Poland, like other Central and Eastern European countries, after the fall of communism, the training system collapsed completely. While football was professionalizing in Western Europe, we were left behind. What are we missing today to train players at such levels as Ajax Amsterdam?
Again, I would like to refer to the situation in Zagłębie Lubin. It all starts with scouting and selecting good players. You cannot build a football university with average talents. In Zagłębie Lubin, the scouting from U13 is at a very good level. Subsequently, the basis for achieving overarching goals are coaches and the quality of training. And this goal is to develop football specialists for the first team. That is why we are working particularly hard on training methods and the development of coaches.
One of the common mistakes of Polish coaches of the older generation, which I unfortunately experienced, was to treat young players as smaller versions of adult footballers. This was followed by excessive pressure on the result and excessive loads. When Richard Grootscholten came to Lubin, he looked at strength training with disbelief. He required coaches to be educators, and at matches he made sure that nobody shouted at children, also in teams of rivals. Have you encountered similar phenomena?
It always starts with a goal that you set for the coaches at the academy. If it’s winning matches, titles and cups, getting a bonus or a new contract, then the coach will only work on the short term goals. At Zagłębie Lubin, we evaluate coaches in terms of the development of individual players, the way the team works and plays.
At Sonda Sports, we often visit not only professional academies, but also provincial clubs and see that this awareness is changing a lot. Young coaches today have a completely different approach. They educate, have open minds and understand that development is the most important thing in youth football, and sport successes are of secondary importance.
This is great for the development of Polish football. Young coaches play a very important role here. It is similar at the KGHM Zagłębie Academy. Thanks to coaches who want to develop, it is easier to stimulate young players to do so.
What aspects of training in KGHM Academy do you put the most emphasis on?
We put great emphasis on the intentions of the game and specialization in a given position. We want coaches to put their players in a situation that forces them to leave their comfort zone. Once they have mastered the situation, this must be applied in the matches and looked for the new challenges. That is the principle of developing through training and improving players. In practice, it is the selection of good exercises, asking the right questions, coaching and giving players the right challenges.
From your wings came players like Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind and Toby Alderweireld. What made them become world-class stars? Talent or hard work?
For sure both. But it is worth asking what is talent? I believe this is the sum of the following components: natural predispositions, ability to learn and dealing with disappointments. All of these qualities were largely presented with the mentioned players. The positive influence of the environment, parents and management of a player were also very important. At a top Academy like Ajax Amsterdam, a player is in the right place to develop his potential on a world-class level. At Zagłębie Lubin players have the opportunity to play at least at the Ekstraklasa level in the future.
Like in the best European academies, the training program in KGHM Zagłębie Academy today resembles a pyramid. At the early stage, as many children as possible are allowed to train. In addition to learning football, they learn responsibility, punctuality, time organization and decision making. Selection takes place after the age of 15. What decides at this stage that the player will get the chance to debut in the first team?
In the middle age sector (U13-U16) it is still very difficult to determine whether a player is eligible for the 1st team. They are still developing physically and mentally. Players are then still in front, in the middle or at the end of the growth spurt. In the U17-U21 section it is much easier to determine if he has the potential for the first team. From U17 the focus should therefore be on developing a player in his best position. Thanks to his specific qualities he has to become a specialist. The player profiles then become very important.
The Netherlands is famous for total football, a dynamic and offensive game based on fast wingers. How important is proper motor preparation in your training system?
In a team that wants to attack and play dynamically, specific physical properties are important in every position. Again, profiling of players is key here. A good motor preparation is essential for every training and every position. Still, a fullback must have very different physical qualities than a winger and therefore be trained differently. And there is an individual program for each player to develop physically.
However, many players may not make their debut in the first team, even if they have the talent and predisposition to play at the highest level. Statistics show that half of all football injuries occur under the age of 15, when players grow fastest in adolescence and their organisms are most weakened. Injuries not only inhibit development, but also cause doubt to creep in. How do you approach injury prevention at the KGHM Zagłębie Academy?
Working with players around the age of 15 is very difficult. Some players are developing rapidly, what makes them physically strained. Others are almost past growing and can handle higher loads. But with late-maturing players you have to be patient and not judge too early. That is why it is not possible to predict who will become a professional footballer at this age. Here prevention starts with measuring players and collecting data. Then you have to prepare the right training program for each player. You have to look closely at the volume, intensity and the program itself, always taking into account the profile of the player, his experience and personal situation.
How important is sports analytics in this process?
Very important, as collecting and analyzing data can objectively assess the players on their basis. But that doesn’t mean the eye of the coach and his staff should no longer play any role. An experienced coach is able to properly assess situations based on experience. A good relationship between player and coach is therefore very important. This can provide a lot of information to make the right choices.
KGHM Zagłębie was the first Polish academy to start monitoring the training load of players using the Sonda Sports system. What do you think it brings to coaches and players?
Proper training consists of 4 phases: preparation, execution, analysis and evaluation. All of it on a tactical, technical and physical level. It is very important to look at the load, intensity, sprints and various other physical aspects, depending on the objective of the training. Good monitoring provides the coach, his staff and the player with the right information to make good choices for the development of the team and players individually. Under the condition that the data are properly analyzed and interpreted. Therefore, specialists in this area are very important.
Do Dutch academies use similar technologies?
The innovations in the field of testing, measuring, analyzing and interpreting data are advancing rapidly. Broadly speaking, such types of solutions have been in football over the past 10 years, and it was the same in the Netherlands. The tools themselves are not everything. What is important is how they contribute to the development of the team and players? That is why specialists who can support the head coach with the right conclusions and advice are important.
We hear from the coaches that Sonda also helps to develop the mental sphere, because these small devices change the attitude towards training a lot. Monitored players pay more attention to work and teach a professional approach. Do you have similar feelings?
The best athletes are characterized by strong internal motivation and desire to improve. No wonder that they are interested in the data from training sessions and matches, as it is a challenge for them to constantly improve. I see such an attitude both in Zagłębie Lubin and earlier among the Dutch players.