Before his appointment at Liège, Bruyninckx was coaching youngsters between the age of 12 and 19 who were affiliated to first and second division Belgian clubs such as Mechelen, Westerlo, Anderlecht, Sint-Truiden, OHL Leuven, Vise and KVK Tienen. The youngsters, both boys and girls, had been selected by the Belgian football federation and studied at Redingenhof secondary school near Brussels. Now Bruyninckx is at an institution which has a very different raison d'être -- to produce football players who will help Standard win the Jupiler League before they are -- more than likely -- snapped up by other European clubs.
With five grass pitches as well as an 800-seater stadium, an artificial pitch, a covered training area and a luxury hotel with 30 rooms, the Liège academy, which opened in 2007, is much in demand. Since arriving at Liège, Bruyninckx has received approaches from hundreds of young players from all over the world wanting to come and train with the Belgian club. For weekend matches it is not unusual for 40 agents to be watching games.
Bruyninckx's appointment at Liège followed the arrival of the club's new coach José Riga, another advocate of brain training, who used it when he was coach of the second division club CS Vise. "It's such an intelligent way to learn," said Riga of his academy director's approach. "The exercises are always based on geometrical figures such as rectangles or diamonds. They start off simply but increase in complexity. You have to be running at the same time and looking to see your partners' rhythm. You need to think about putting the ball at a certain angle and you have to think about rhythm, synchronisation and movement. It's not repetition without reflection."
Bruyninckx emphasises that each drill makes use of "tracing" which forces players to reposition themselves as they would in a game. "My organisation is always referring to the reality of a game," he said. He insists that the work he does as a coach incorporates many other aspects -- kinesiology, psychology, biomechanics -- while his players also train with the rhythmic ball -- a small net with room for a football that is then held by the hand to ensure that the ball always stays close to a player -- to maximise the number of touches.
Geoff Noonan, who is Fulham academy co-ordinator for the Under-7 to Under-11 age groups, decided to order 150 of the balls for his players after meeting Bruyninckx at a conference in May. "The rhythmic ball helps to open the hips, and is good for passes across your body, side-on volleys as well as helping a player's weaker foot," said Noonan. "It also allows kids to practise at home and helps them to balance both the left and right sides. The idea of home practice is really useful -- we've lost that culture of kids playing impromptu games on their own and the rhythmic ball provides a way of replacing that."
Barcelona players' high technical level and non-stop movement provide the benchmark for Bruyninckx, but Noonan argues that Barça's recent success as well as Spain's Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs are linked to the number of games Spanish youngsters play. "Having visited Spain the way the game is learned over there is not by drills, because that doesn't teach game sense," said Noonan. "In Spain they learn through a games-based approach to help develop and understand time and space. They might play 80-120 games a year, with lots of matches at tournaments and festivals. Playing so many games helps young players to see images in similar situations over and over again. What we need to do is give the kids a good game sense -- understanding time and space -- and develop good technique. We need lots of games and lots of different types of games -- 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 7 v 6 etc -- with lots of different tactics."
Noonan has brought in the consultant and author Mick Critchell, who in the past has coached Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Southampton's Adam Lallana, and has carried out research in the way the brain works. Critchell is an advocate of this approach based on small-sided games -- in essence a way of replicating street football -- and provides a scientific explanation to support his argument. During a two-hour exploration of the brain's workings and its development from birth until it has fully formed, encompassing an in-depth look at its reptilian, limbic, neo-cortex and corpus callosum structures, Critchell explains that while the left side provides logical and rational skills, the right side is the resource for more emotional and intuitive skills.
He argues that the game in England has been taught through the left brain, which is too slow for a fast-moving game like football, and that players develop best when the right and left brain are working together: the technique and the decision making. "It is essential to activate the right brain and analogous vision by continually putting players in unpredictable situations," said Critchell, who walked out on an in-service evening when he saw the Cruyff turn broken down into 13 different parts. "We therefore need to teach small-sided games which are appropriate for the age and ability of each child."
The 68-year-old Critchell references a piece of research by John Moores University that found that more than 50 percent of time in English academies is spent on fitness training or unopposed practices and less than 20 percent on playing small-sided games. "Not only are we developing poor technical players, said Critchell, "we are also creating poor decision makers. We need players who have the ability to play in the future -- a vision to know what to do before receiving the ball. This won't change unless we get rid of the drills."
A former secondary-school teacher, Critchell talks of the importance of the brain's place and grid cells -- "space-mapping neurons linked to a memory-forming region in the brain called the hippocampus" -- which allow players, indeed all humans, to map space. "In roughly 10 seconds, Paul Scholes will see a hundred alternatives and then make choices that will draw on his place and grid cells," said Critchell. The grid cells "act as though the playing surface has got triangles marked out all over it," he added. That makes the playing of small-sided games like 3 v 3 so important "as it allows players to understand that shape better".
Listening to Critchell's advice, Fulham have also introduced a movement programme for all their age groups. He points out that many African and South American children grow up in societies in which dance is a major part of culture. In dances like the samba and salsa, the brain has to coordinate eight or nine different body parts at the same time, which is great for balance, rhythm and body control. Noonan heard Bruyninckx speak at a conference organised by Bacons College academy, a secondary school in Docklands, the day before Barcelona's victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final in May. Over the last few years the former USSR international Sergei Baltacha has established a thriving football academy at Bacons College -- a number of his players also train with London Premier League clubs -- and has developed a close relationship with Bruyninckx.
The Belgian insists that his players be as committed to their education -- "If I can affect your concentration and attention during my training you will take it to school" -- as they are to their football development, a belief shared by Baltacha. "Keeping the athlete grounded will stop us from creating 'Tin Sporting Gods' who in their late teens or early twenties fail to reach their potential in and out of sport," said Tom Eisenhuth, who works closely with Baltacha at Bacons College. "This model is the lifeblood of Sergei's philosophy."
Bruyninckx estimates 25 percent of the 100 or so players that he coached before joining Standard have turned professional or are in the women's national squads. The former Standard Liège midfielder Steven Defour, now at Porto, and the PSV Eindhoven attacking midfielder Dries Mertens are the two most high-profile players with whom the Belgian coach has worked. Another player Bruyninckx coached is the Belgium midfielder Faris Haroun, who joined Middlesbrough in the summer from Germinal Beerschot, scoring on his debut in the 3-1 win over Birmingham. On a trip to Belgium to meet Bruyninckx earlier this year, Haroun joined his mentor for lunch and happily sat through a two-hour Powerpoint presentation that included a hefty dollop of neuroscience. Haroun's concentrated demeanour was noticeable.
Perhaps what really differentiates Bruyninckx from other coaches is that he is not only interested in creating better football players, but also wants to create better human beings so that if they do not make the grade professionally they will be capable of going on to have fulfilling lives. "It's all about having communication with your athletes and finding out how your players are organised," said Bruyninckx. "It is important not to impose your ideas immediately. If a child has a recently divorced family, that child is not emotionally available to learn something. We all see present-day problems and that sometimes the social behaviour of players is not correct. We have to do it together."
Talking to a number of interviewees who have had experience of youth development both in the UK and abroad, what is striking is the sense that European clubs have a more rigorous and analytical approach to coaching young players. Villarreal have 76 coaches working in their academy, all of whom have physical education and child development qualifications, while up to the age of 12 their players would be deployed in at least three different positions during a game. "In Europe there is a real understanding of a child's emotional development and where the kids have come from," said Webb, who is currently studying for an MSc in Sports Psychology while scouting for Southampton, and has been a frequent visitor to Bayer Leverkusen's academy. "I noticed there is more human and cultural understanding with foreign coaches. And there is a real understanding of the type of coaching kids need at certain ages. It's a very systematic and analytical approach to development."
Over the last few years the exploration of how talent is best developed has seen a proliferation of books on the subject, notably Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated, Matthew Syed's Bounce, John Ratey's and Eric Hagerman's Spark and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code. As Critchell notes, "Everybody is searching for the Holy Grail." Given the millions that are at stake in developing players the search is only likely to intensify. Bruyninckx's theories may seem strange now, but as that quest goes on they could become standard practice.
Follow John Sinnott on Twitter @JohnSinnott
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