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Expert Interview: Mason Minister about Relative Age Effect

Undertegnede møtte Mason for første gang på vei til et FA kurs i 2015. Siden det har vi diskutert og snakket mye fotball, vi blir sjeldent enige, men lærer mye på veien. Jeg er svært fornøyd med å ha fullført dette intervjuet om relativ alderseffekt, som Mason nå skriver bacheloroppgave om, og tror vi i Norge har mye å lære om temaet.

 

I Norge har vi lenge vært bevisst over problemet, i 2017 skrev VG at 72% av spillere på guttelandslag (G15-19) var født første halvdel av året, i 2014 skrev Nettavisen at 41% av ungdomsslagsspillere (G15-21) var født januar, februar eller mars. Samtidig ser vi at det tar tid å endre dette, men første steg er unektelig å spre bevissthet rundt temaet. Så da slipper vi til Mason Minister:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we start?

I’m a Celtic fan with a love/hate relationship with Arsenal from Manchester. Although pic 1 MMnow Peps on the blue side of Manchester it’s hard to resist watching them! I’m currently in my third year of a bachelor’s degree in Football Studies at Southampton Solent, working as the head coach of the University 1st team. I’m proud to say I’ve worked in the USA, India, Norway and a coaching internship in Germany, and I’ve made both great experiences and friends during this path.

As part of my degree I’m writing a dissertation on Relative Age Effect (RAE). I’m passionate about player development, and very excited about going off to make a difference after my degree.

 

That’s interesting, relative age effect is a much-discussed topic here in Norwegian youth football. Could give us some insight into what you’re researching and any potential findings you’ve made so far?

Relative age is a term used to describe the different “ages” within an age group (as illustrated below). By viewing and comparing players against other born in the same year we give the players born early a head start as they have had longer to develop than the rest. Being born early drastically increases the chances of playing for elite youth teams, and even the National team. This is problematic as talent is not distributed according to such a calendar, it is merely a result of coaches valuing maturation and current ability over football potential. For my research, I’m working with a category one academy trying to evaluate their practise in regard to this potential issue. I aim to investigate and analyse some steps the club is taking to prevent this favourism of early maturers, and what they potentially could do.

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The players further to the left are more likely to be perceived as talented football players, what can be done to prevent this bias? (illustrasjon herfra)

RAE was first observed in 1965, since then there has been a countless research studies across not only the affect it has on sport, but education and general development. Effectively your date of birth might determine whether or not you’re perceived as talented, or get selected for your youth national team. First of all this is not fair on the children. Second, we are potentially ‘losing’ out on many talented people. Yet, despite the amount of research discussing the negative influence of this bias towards relatively older players, very little is done about relative age effect.

With the study, I aim to gain an understanding of practices and knowledge currently being utilised by a small portion of the countries elite talent identification staff in regard to relative age effect. First a structured interview will be done with the head of recruitment to gain an understanding of their practices and knowledge. Secondly, 8-10 scouts will complete questionnaires based around the same questions which were asked in the interview.

Possible solutions to remove/change the bias:

The single biggest impact will be to spread awareness. Are coaches aware that they’re eyes are tricking them into selecting current ability over future potential? Are scouts aware of what potential looks like? Are club structures designed to help all players progress, or do they rely on early maturers to win games at youth level?

Once these people are aware of the bias towards early maturers, they realise they are not identifying or valuing football potential but ability. This is the first step, they need to acknowledge their incompetence. Then they are open for learning, and knowledge can be shared and help create a more level playing field for the youngest players.

Behind raising awareness and educating coaches and talent recruitment staff on the matter, there are no black and white solutions to the issue. At Tottenham academy, they attempt to remove the bias by having the players move age group on their birthday. That ensures no player is always either older or younger, and is one example of something that could be done. Here are some other examples/suggestions:

  1. Having patience and facilitate the development of each individual player rather than comparing players at different stages at their development.
  2. Facilitate for more flexible training groups, to allow the youngest player at U15 train with U14 and the oldest to train with U16. This will change the bias and help the talent developer see a more nuanced picture of the players ability, and potential.
  3. Age ordered shirt numbers on match day (oldest to youngest) – ie 2 (January), 3 (January), 4 (Feb), 15 (December) – Educated scouts with an understanding of such a system would allow more information to base selection from.

 

I know you read a lot of books and articles, and I often appreciate your advice reading material – why and which topics do you benefit most from?

I do, I read a lot. I think it’s important to constantly keep learning, there’s always a way to use what I learn as a coach. The best books are not written for football coaches, I therefore read around topics I know I can take something from and that will benefit me in my carrier. I read to learn, not copy. It is good to read non-football books, it forces me to reflect upon what I read and analyse how I can apply it to my situation.

To use an example, a while ago I read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, a book about mistakes and how to react after making one. He wrote “Society, as a whole, has a deeply contradictory attitude to failure. Even as we find excuses for our own failings, we are quick to blame others who mess up. This is unarguably relevant for us as coaches, and it really made me think. Am I guilty of this? And what can I do about it? Are our players or staff guilty of this? And what can I potentially do to improve this behaviour within our team. In order to learn it is necessary to reflect on the information and relate it to your previous knowledge and experiences.

 

You’ve also visited some top academies in Holland, Germany and in the UK, what do the best do better, or different, in your experience?

Whenever I think of all the clubs I’ve visited, the two moments that sticks out the most, was PSV’s insistence on players taking ownership over their development and Hoffenheim’s desire to experiment with sessions.

In my experience, these are the areas where the best excel:

  • Attention to detail.
  • Giving ownership to players.
  • Experimenting.

I’ve been to visit some of Europe’s top clubs, Red Bull Salzburg, Bayern Munich, Rayo Vallecano, Cologne (Køln), Vålerenga, Barcelona (Futsal) and Manchester City, Manchester United and Southampton in the UK. There’s a cultural difference in the sense of openness at the top clubs elsewhere compared to those in the UK. The top clubs are hiding their work behind high fences, regulations and security guards, preventing the local coaches to learn from the best. This is unarguably one of the reasons we do not produce as good players – or coaches – as the top nations in Europe.

When I did my internship in Hoffenheim I learned that they insist on providing development opportunities for local grassroots coaches. This is a stark contrast to the relationships between elite and grassroots in the UK, where the top clubs take no responsibility to improve the local footballing community.

Going forwards I want to expand my horizon further. Pep Guardiola speaks a lot about learning from other sports, and I’ve just finished How Life Imitates Chess by Kasparov. There is no doubt we football coaches can learn from other sports, from training methods, to mentality, team building or to set piece planning.

 

You’ve been working with clubs in India, USA, Norway, Germany and obviously in the UK. Has working in so many different cultures improved you as a coach, how?

Definitely. I’ve learnt so much from working in these countries with various different roles that I’d feel confident taking on most roles around the world. The challenges provided in some demanding, some tragic and some upsetting situations has definitely developed me as a coach. The range of my experiences, working in conditions you can’t imagine with players not speaking English and with hardly any equipment, to working with some really top top coaches have prepared me for anything. Here are three experiences I have made, where I have had make bold choices or that I can look back to and say with certainty ‘I grew from this’.

When taking over the university side, I wanted to instil respect as one of our core values. It was something I took away from Hoffenheim, the level of respect all the players and staff have for one another. It creates a healthy environment where all the people working alongside each other, respect and value the ideas of everybody involved. However, it’s been quite difficult to implement within the university team, with so many players from different backgrounds having such different personalities. Aligning different personalities towards the same cause has by far been my most difficult task as a coach to date, it’s something I’m constantly working towards with our team at university.

I’m a big believer that the social element of a team, especially a university team is of great importance. People don’t want to let their mates down, if you can create a strong togetherness in the dressing room it will show on the field. Though despite, trying numerous approaches, appointing social secretaries after an initial poor bonding stage, then arranging team meals/parties, where we identified quickly there was cliques within the squad and some didn’t have any interest in the social side of the team. So, after a bitter defeat, instead of using the post-match team talk to discuss tactical issues, I chose to use the time to make the team aware of the lack of togetherness of the team and how that could be the main reason for our bad performance. It must have struck a chord, because the same night we had a FIFA tournament in which almost all the squad, including staff.

Working in Norway at my first Adidas Talent Camp hosted by Vind IL, I was asked to do a presentation on attacking principles (for the next morning!). I’ve always been a nervous presenter and this was the first time delivering in front of around 60 players and coaches. But, it is moments like this where you grow as a person and find out you’re capable of doing things you didn’t have confidence to do beforehand. I attempted to speak some Norwegian in each slide… something that received quite a few laughs, need to rub up on my Norwegian skills it seems ha! This helped as a tool to communicate my tactical information without losing the audience. This, in turn, prepared me to present in front of 1500 Indian youth players the next year.

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Working for Wolves as a first team Video Scout for the Bundesliga leagues in Germany allowed me to watch a large amount of football games which has given me a greater understanding of how I want my current and future teams to play. It’s also provided me with a huge data base of ‘coaching videos’ that I use to develop myself as a coach, and also in conversations with my players.

During my time in America I was tasked with help mentoring the other coaches. This was not as easy as it should’ve been, but looking back it was an enjoyable part of my carrier. I met some of the most stubborn characters on earth, refusing to even try to debate their practice without going into defence mode. I was only trying to give them a few hints on which they could develop! I feel bad for the players…

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You’ve experienced a lot in a very young age, working in several roles in some top clubs, in different countries and near to finish a degree. What would be your advice to younger coaches?

My advice would be, stick at it and understand that football owes you nothing. I gave up coaching between the ages of 20-22 because I was annoyed about a lack of opportunities, and I still kick myself about it now. Although, I feel I’ve made up for the time by expanding my knowledge and experiencing so many great memories with football, it still bugs me. Don’t under value the opportunity to learn from both your failures and successes. If you’re working with a ‘successful’ team that wins most weeks, it’s important to find the lessons amidst the glory. As humans, were naturally inclined to learn most from our failures, imagine if we could learn just as much from our successes!

 

Mason, tusen takk!

Har du noen spørsmål, eller innspill, venligst kommenter eller send oss en melding på vår facebookside.

Ønsker du å høre mer fra Mason kan du følge han på Twitter her; @MasonMinisterr.

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