Despite a relative lack of success on the pitch at both club and national level for almost two decades, football remains very firmly the national sport in Poland. Many observers claim that this lack of trophies in recent times can be explained by poor youth coaching system. That is why I was happy to dig little bit deeper and see how youth football works in Poland in practice.
First of all, let’s take a closer look on the up-to-date structure of the youth coaching system in Poland, or how it should look like in theory at least. We can separate the organisations responsible for the football education into two groups:
- Special sports classes in public schools
- Schools of the Sports Excellence
- Non-public Schools of the Sport Excellence
- Folk Sport Teams – organisations promoting sport in the rural areas
- Sports joint stock companies
- Associations of physical education
These organisations are responsible for the youth coaching at the preliminary stage. Further football education of the pre-selected youth is held by the Regional Sports Associations and, at the final stage, by the Polish Football Association (PZPN).
Now, let’s see the development plan of one of the Regional Sports Association, for this I chose to focus on the South-west region of Poland. Of course, the main objective set for itself by this organisation is to deliver as many skilled players to the Polish top flight as possible. To achieve that, they propose a pyramid system founded on a strong co-operation with schools and sports clubs. Within the region, 71 primary schools host classes within the extended football education programme which contains 6 hours of physical education per week, combined with 4 hours of general physical training.
Furthermore, 5 of the most talented boys from each year group take part once a week in a ninety minute individual session with the district head coach.
The best young players are placed in the 5 high-schools with the strongest football profiles, so that the elite can easily be monitored and help the selection process when choosing those to represent the South-west region of Poland. Schools need to meet several requirements in order to be amongst those who are recommended to the strongest players. They need to possess one grass football pitch, another with an artificial surface and a sports hall. In addition to that, high-schools should have access to the swimming pool, gym and medical centre. Finally, football clubs seeking inclusion in the regional youth coaching structure must have at least one football pitch with artificial lighting and their youth teams must be enrolled in the appropriate league.
Now, let’s analyse the profile and training programme of one of Warsaw’s top youth football clubs –MKS Agrykola. Agrykola was founded in 1908 and can be called a cradle of sport in Warsaw. It was there, where the first international football game in Polish capital took place (in the 1925 Poland lost to the USA, 2-3). From then on, Agrykola evolved into the leading youth football club in Poland’s capital city.
Nowadays, it possesses the complex of football pitches and the modern sport pavilion. Young footballers are trained there from the age of 7 and can stay at the club till they are 18. As far as the recruitment for 7-year-old is concerned, every keen kid is accepted. Agrykola rarely draw kids from other clubs and at an early age put their focus on the kids who are enthusiastic to join their setup.
During the first year, training takes place twice a week. After one year boys are divided into groups A and B, judged by their skill level. From then on, group A continues to practice twice a week while group B trains only once. Group A will also participate in indoor tournaments (5 vs. 5) and the outdoor events on small sided pitches (7 vs.7 – pictured
Fitness training is added to the schedule after another year, as well as the first full training camp taking place.
In the following year the number of training sessions stay the same, but Group A begins to participate in the regional youth championships. From August to October young footballers train on the grass pitches and from November to June on the artificial one, while June is reserved for holidays. Below you will find the general football programmes with respect to age.
Age: Football training programme:
- 7-8 Fun-games to get kids comfortable with the ball
- 8-9 Skill and technique focus – dribbling, shooting, passing, control
- 9-10 Introduction of defending and attacking, with a focus on 1 v 1
- 10-11 Introduction of tactical exercises, 2 v 1, 3 v 2, etc.
A lot of exercises at Agrykola club come from the famous Coerver training system set up by the legendary Dutch coach Wiel Coerver. Usually they practice with a partner and try to synchronize their movements. The emphasis is put especially on the ball control, running with the ball and stopping with the ball at feet. When it comes to exercises off the ball, speed training is the most frequent at this stage. Finally, parents of the young footballers are given diet handbooks regarding young sportsmen and there is a sports psychologist available for them at the club.
From the information presented above one could get a quite positive picture of the youth football coaching system in Poland. Unfortunately reality is not that bright. Agrykola is one of a few decent youth centres in the country. In fact, the huge problem which also restrains the development of football in Poland, is poor sports infrastructure.
Many professional clubs do not have real sports complexes. They train on ground and uneven pitches. In addition, different teams at the club are often forced to practice at the same time and the only way this is possible is by sharing one football pitch.
Thankfully, Polish government has launched a brave initiative named “ORLIK”, which consists of building free of charge, public sports grounds of high standard across Poland. So far 1462 such pitches were opened, alongside many new football centres and stadiums that are being built for the sake of Euro 2012, which Poland will co-host (right – Legia Warsaw’s youth training ground under construction, one of many projects to improve the facilities throughout the country).
To conclude, what I have spotted is that coaches in junior categories are focused from early age on getting positive results in youth leagues rather than developing skills of their pupils. To give you an example, young defenders are often instructed to clear the ball in every single slightly dangerous situation. When one tries to control the ball and distribute it instead, he gets a very harsh reprimand. Also, coaches do not sacrifice enough time on individual approach to each player, which in my opinion, is very important at a young age. Such a state is easy to explain with youth coaches salary being determined by the club’s position in the league rather than being encouraged to develop the proper technical side of a young player’s game. There is no financial incentive if one of their former pupils is transferred to a big club in the future.
Work is being done to rectify this system, but this will take time and investment from the Polish FA and its government. Recently positive action has been taken by ex Polish international stars, Roman Kosecki and Tomasz Frankowski opting to start up their own youth clubs. With hard work, Poland could still assemble a team to challenge when it hosts the Euro’s in 2012.
By Michal Platos
Michal Platos is a writer for the fantastic website, Youth Football Scotland that specializes in Scottish Youth Football as well as youth programs throughout Europe with in-depth articles about League setups and daily reports about youth competitions up and down the country and on the continent.