Back in August 2013 we spoke with Tom Legg, Head of Performance Analysis at The Craig Bellamy Foundation. Based in Sierra Leone, the academy was started when recently retired Welsh footballer, Craig Bellamy, visited the West African country. He managed to see through the desperate poverty that affects much of the population and saw a chance to offer hope and a way out for the nation’s talented youth.
Nearly a year on and much has changed at the academy. They’re welcoming their second generation of players and have made real strides in streamlining their programme to deliver the right information to the right players. It’s about delivering data to the players post-match as quickly as possible so that matches are fresh in their minds as this is when the real improvements can be made.
There is now a real onus on players to self-critique so that they have a firm grip on their development. There is no pressure from the coaching staff to do this – but as Tom says; “it will strengthen mental development and allow them to refer back to past events when they’re in trouble or in a loss of form”. This player-led focus has been able to flourish due to the advancement in video exporting applications on the Performa platform that allows the players to watch their own performances in their own time on their mobile phones. This removes the constant coach/player relationship which some of them may find suffocating. Tom is clearly delighted with the direction that both his players and academy are heading in; “At the start of the programme it was about finding out about what was important for us, now we’re happy about that”.
Much of what we hear about sports analytics is focused at the elite level, where athletes’ explore every possible avenue to increase their performance. For those of us who simply use sport as a way of keeping fit, or as a source of enjoyment, analytics is an expensive, complicated tool that serves little purpose. Even after our data has been collected, making sense of it can be an impossible task. Having said that, there shouldn’t be a fear of exposing data to younger athletes’ who, by themselves, would perhaps fail to see the relationship with football and numbers. In the right hands data can be used by all ages, but as Tom says; ‘You have to be careful about the way you show it to younger players’ and that ‘delivering context is vital to a players understanding’.
Tom described a situation where an under 18 player had been struggling with his forward passing and that data had been extracted to show this. Tom expresses his desire for context by saying; ‘you can’t just say you need to improve forward passing, you need to build a picture in their mind and get them engaged so they can improve that attribute that way’. It’s a process of discovery that gets the players to answer open ended questions which can lead to far more interesting conclusions like that their first touch isn’t sharp enough when receiving the ball or that their vision on the ball is lacking. These are the sorts of discoveries that make a real impact on a player’s development.
For the under 14’s data isn’t as important as it is at the under 18 level, especially when looking at specific attributes. At that age, as Tom says; “a lot of it is about self-exploration”. If something is continually going wrong they’ll still refer to data but it’s often a visual process that requires them to look at video footage, and again Tom and his staff lead with open questions that encourage the youngsters to use their intuition to determine how they can improve their game.
I was also really interested to hear Tom’s opinions on what age a player starts to cement himself in a certain position. Tom expresses his fear of cementing a position to early saying; “At 11 and 12 you can’t be securing a position – certain skills can sway them towards a certain category, but not a specific position”. If a player is particularly skilful then they may guide him towards a more offensive position, but it’s when they reach 14 and 15 that a player’s position starts to take shape.
For Tom this approach pays dividends because his players have become accustomed to a number of different positions. This means that their all-round game is considerably better than what it would have been if they had stuck with one position throughout their development. The academies captain is a shining example of how positional rotation can be beneficial. He entered the academy at right-back, and as Tom explains “this meant he was able to develop his defensive skills, which allows him to play with more freedom now”. This has benefitted him in his new role as a central midfielder.
“An academies philosophy is about creating players, not teams,” remarks Tom. However much the CBF would like to see their academy side be the next Sierra Leone national team, the chances of that happening are relatively slim. However, with analytics becoming increasingly widespread at the top of the game and tactics ever more sophisticated, I was interested to hear Tom’s opinions on whether certain ‘units’ are more catered to analytics than others. In my mind, analytics are a reactive tool suited to professional teams like Chelsea FC, who are more defensive minded by default. This sentiment wasn’t shared entirely by Tom, who conceded that at the top level defensive players could profit more, but that in reality it’s dependant on the players personality and the way they both understand and react to data. He mentions that one of his central midfielders hasn’t really taken to analytics despite the vast array of KPI’s that could potentially be of use to him.
Throughout the age groups at the academy the use of analytics is varied. Tom states; “U14’s is very much focused on their technical ability” whereas at the U18 level KPI’s are utilised to see what they can do off the ball as an individual and how they fit in with the team as a whole. But as always, analytics is used to improve individual performance not that of a team, which is completely understandable and to the benefit of the players, as building a slick, well-drilled team might inhibit some of the players ability to express themselves freely on the pitch.
This is an interesting point because it shows how analytics can be adapted in order to fit in with a player’s development. The CBF’s method has had a string of successes and shows first hand the power of football as a force for social change – since their inception they have had three graduates go to the U.S.A. on scholarships. They recently had 5 players called up to the U20 Sierra Leone squad, with two of them, Santigie Koroma and Sulaiman Samura participating in the match, a fantastic achievement considering the relatively tender age of the academy and the age of both players who were 17 and 16 respect when they were called up. Other success stories have come from both Denmark, where one of their player’s recently had a trial for a Danish team. The Craig Bellamy Foundation is clearly having a profound impact on these players lives and we can only hope their good work continues.