At the invitation of Ronald de Boer, the Dutch soccer legend and currently A1 assistant manager at Ajax (the Dutch top soccer club), last week I had the opportunity to visit the Ajax Youth Academy and watch their morning training. I was pleased that the youth coaches took me serious from the start, even though I am a woman. They carefully listened when I mentioned my dream of one day becoming the first female head coach in the Eredivisie (the Dutch professional soccer league), where they could have just ridiculed me. They were also very interested in why I wanted to visit the Youth Academy. ‘As a business woman and company owner I work on team building and talent developing every day,’ I explained, ‘and from that perspective I would like to see how you go about coaching the super talented at at this top Academy.’
From moment I arrived there was this open and positive atmosphere. Similar to the easygoing way in which Ronald de Boer, who is just as down to earth as I am, had earlier agreed to grant me access to a training.
The most memorable aspect of my visit to the Youth Academy? It must be the expansive knowledge the youth coaches have of their pupils. They know all there is to know about their technique, tactical insight, mentality and character. And because they are so in tune with the talents, they can pinpoint for every pupil the areas in which they need extra coaching. Translating this to a business environment it made me wonder: how come that managers don’t even remotely know as much about their team members as these trainers know about their talents? Aren’t the people you work with, just like at Ajax, your human ‘capital’ and key to your success?
Another thing that stood out for me was the willingness of the coaches to accept things. One would expect that coaches think that they can improve pupils in every aspect, and thus the ease with with they accepted a player’s ‘too inflexible ankles’ or ‘lack of reaction speed’, surprised me. By accepting those weaknesses, you avoid wasting energy on something that is impossible to better. And you arrive quicker at the points that can be improved. It was an affirmation of my own method: talk to team members about what they are doing well and try to help them get even better at that, instead of going on about the negatives.
And then there is the home base, so crucial to the pupil’s development. Coaches must accept that sometimes, despite their advise, the home base moves in another direction.
At last it also did strike me, and this fits in with the other observations, how vulnerable top talents are. Only when all the pieces of the puzzle come together perfectly, one can make it to the top. ‘Sometimes I can only make a 2 percent difference,’ as one coach put it, ‘but if it is the right 2 percent, it can make the difference between the top and the sub top.’
The combination of passion, modesty and eye for detail has inspired me greatly. Thank you Ajax!