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NorCal Coaching Education Trip: AZ Alkmaar

ALKMAAR, The Netherlands — Perhaps no club in the world does more with less than AZ Alkmaar.

Playing in a minuscule market, AZ are afforded a budget that’s just a fraction of that of Dutch giants Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord.

And yet, the club currently sits in second place in the Dutch Eredivisie and has qualified for Europe on 13 different occasions since the turn of the century.

Using conventional means, none of this would be possible, but AZ Alkmaar are far from a conventional club in any aspect, as NorCal Premier Soccer’s Directors of Coaching learned during a day-long visit this past Tuesday.

See, in order for AZ to compete with those aforementioned giants, they must operate in a completely different fashion — should Alkmaar use the same methods as any of the bigger clubs but do so with fewer resources, they would have no chance.

So the club must maximize its output in every aspect of its operation, whether that be by innovating on the psychological aspect of player development, spend money to innovate on cutting-edge technology, or use advanced pedagogies to get the most out of their players.

It appears to be working, too, as AZ currently have arguably the best youth academy in the Netherlands, with 65 percent of their first team made up of academy graduates and 50 percent of their first team minutes going to former youth players.

“We don’t have the money to buy the best players,” said Bart Heuvingh, the club’s sports psychologist. “But we can develop the best players.”

NorCal’s visit began with a lecture from Heuvingh, who gave a detailed analysis of all the subtle psychological advantages that AZ gets over clubs like PSV and Feyenoord.

This can be something as large as implementing the ideals of a “growth mindset,” the idea that innate talent isn’t as important as hard work and an open mind, or something as simple as giving the academy’s Player of the Month award not to the player who played the best, but the player who developed the most.

“To me, one of the biggest and most impactful lectures was the psychological part of the game, this is one of the areas where we as a nation have to improve on because it’s a big portion of the players, of the parents, of the club,” said Modesto Ajax United Director Carlos Zavala.

Added Alexis Maurtua of Granite Bay FC: “There was intention there in everything they did, the biggest point was the psychological welfare that they placed on everything that they do all the way from the growth mindset to the inspirational quotes that they shared with us.”

After Heuvingh’s presentation, NorCal coaches were treated to a presentation from Bas Naber, the head of Alkmaar’s video analysis program.

Where some clubs use video analysis to go over trainings and games in order to gain an advantage on the field, AZ go one step further, even incorporating virtual reality into their trainings.

The conventional wisdom is that if a player is injured, they won’t be able to continue to develop, but Alkmaar challenges this by taking their players into the video room to go through game scenarios in real time from a first person view.

“Connecting with the youth and trying to relate the game to their current environment is key because whether we like it or not, technology is taking over as a part of kids’ lives so it’s important that they’re using technology to help get kids back out there on the pitch,” Maurtua said.

Following this, AZ’s scouting team of Stephen Etten and Koen Veenstra visited with NorCal, giving our coaches an overview of how their department has collected the best youth players in the area despite competing with Ajax, who start their youth teams at a younger age.

The NorCal coaches then viewed a few youth trainings, which were preceded by detailed explanations from each team’s manager, before ending the day with a presentation from Alkmaar fitness coach Chris Wenker.

There, Wenker explained a common idea that has been making its way around the ranks of youth soccer: that of biological age.

Wherever you are in the world, the most successful players in certain youth teams typically come from the first three months of that team’s birth year.

However, proponents of this theory believe that there is just as much talent in those last nine months, those athletes just don’t get the same opportunity to succeed because they’re constantly playing against more developed kids.

To combat this, AZ calculates each player’s biological age — some 15-year-olds who haven’t hit their growth spurts may be biologically 13 and vice versa — and then creates a specific training program for each player based on that number.

That could mean evaluating their athletic data differently or sometimes playing a player in a younger age group in order for him to garner confidence.

And with that, NorCal was off to Arnhem, where the roughly 20 DOCs in attendance were due for a four-day visit with Vitesse.