Inside the Mindof a PlayerDevelopmentExpert

With direct influence overNCFC’s pro team and youthprograms, John Bradford findshimself in a unique position.

“I think that more clubs are starting to look internally to find who is going to support their vision of player development, and more importantly, who can bring it to life.

You need someone leading the charge who can manage both worlds  reinforcing the vision and doing the work. If you say you want to promote youth development, you need to find someone who is dialed in and connected to the youth program, or else you’ve shut down your entire player development movement before you begin.”

As the head coach of NCFC and Academy Director for NCFC Youth, Bradford’s presence alone represents an opportunity to strengthen the bridge that connects the two. But not all player development pathways are created equally…

and that’s wherewe start.

Trust the Process

A realistic view of your club’s strengths and weaknesses is the
foundation of a player development philosophy that can both
promise and deliver.

To succeed, everyone from directors to parents needs to get on board with the discomfort that change often brings.

Not everyone needs to agree on the philosophy, but all club members should understand the vision and the pathway.

Is the player’s goal achievable within the framework of the overall development philosophy? Are there the right resources on the ground to support that goal?

Defining player development as one singular concept is impossible.

There are so many different types of environments and players to consider, each characterized by their own challenges.

VISION, RESOURCES, LEVERAGE

Environment

“The first thing that you have to answer for yourself is: What is your vision on the game and player development? And then look around and see what your club environment is and how it meshes with that vision. If you say you want to develop pro players but your club caps at U10 soccer, that vision doesn’t make much sense. You need to be brutally realistic about where you are now as a club while working toward that vision of where you want to grow.

“Ultimately the goal is to provide a home and a good environment for players at all levels and then manage their growth within that environment.

“Your club members have to understand what it is that you’re trying to accomplish by leveraging the strengths, weaknesses, tools, and know-how at your disposal.”

OUTCOMES, PATHWAYS, EXIT STRATEGY

Players

“From there it becomes much more tailored to the individual, on and off the field. What is the player’s background? What is their vision of what they want to accomplish?

“I use the words 'outcomes and pathways' a lot because each individual is different and each development plan needs to be different. Some players may want to be part of the youth national team system, which might be realistic for one group, but not for another. Communicating that and educating them on the selection process is important.

“Player development means achieving whatever that player’s goals are relative to their ability level.”

It all comes down to what an individual player’s 'exit strategy' is, what goal he or she is hoping to attain. Are the parents bought into that? If there’s alignment within the family, then it’s on the club, the directors, the coach to also be aligned.

Player development, by its very nature, is defined by movement. And, movement, by its very nature, creates change. Progress, setbacks, call-ups, more playing time, less playing time, new teams, different formations. The ability to become comfortable with change, with accepting discomfort, even momentarily, is imperative to a valuable player development experience.

“As leagues have changed, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy goes away, all different types of events continue to pop up…Opportunities are evolving, and we try to match that in our programs. We want to put players into different situations, even globally, for development through matches and competition.”

Jerry Seinfeld once joked that “Marriage is like a game of chess, except the board is flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke.”

Swap out marriage with running a youth soccer club and the point remains just as clear.

As John states, “Any time there is change, there will be some confusion. It takes steady, behind-the-scenes communication amongst coaches and directors to make sure that we’re managing all the various players within our programs as things constantly fluctuate. Player development is never done. It’s a moving target.”

The Blueprint:Creating a Technical Framework

“This is my 15th year at NCFC, and within that time we’ve had seven different curriculum. Our current team has taken our experiences and is working to establish a new technical framework, a blueprint, if you will, of how we want the club to go forward. A large part of it is coach accountability, making sure we’re on the same page in terms of curriculum and what we’re teaching our players at various ages."

We want a clear, distinct 
framework that covers the bases 
of what we want to establish:

  • What is our club pathway?
  • What is our club style of play?
  • What is the expectation of each program?
  • What are the attributes of an NCFC player, and what does that mean
 physically? What does that mean mentally? What does that mean tactically
 and technically?
  • What environment should a coach provide for player development, from top to 
bottom?
  • How do coaches learn and what is our expectation of how they use technology?

“Where it sits right now, this new framework is tens of millions of pages. Of course, I’m kidding, but it’s quite extensive. Every club may not have or need something as exact as ours is, and I’m sure there are clubs out there that are more detailed to varying degrees. But I think most clubs that are looking at player development and club vision the right way are coming up with similar plans that they can point to and say,

This is who we are and how we do it.”

The Takeaways

Bradford’s approach to player development isn’t one size fits all. But there are two key things any club needs to be mindful of when planning and executing a strategy.

Get Buy-In

“We recognize how critical it is to connect with our staff to get a clear understanding and buy-in with consistent checkpoints throughout a season to bring a player development philosophy to life. We need to be upfront about what’s expected and allow staff to provide feedback on what’s working and not working. Our rule of thumb is: as long as a coach can tell us why they think something should be done a certain way, then it’s open for discussion.”

  • Share player development philosophy internally
  • Clearly lay out expectations and roles at every level
  • Conduct ongoing staff feedback and evaluations
  • Open dialogue leads to more accountability

Manage Expectations

“We all know that expectations from players or parents might not always mesh with the coaches’ visions and thoughts. Having constant dialogue throughout the season with players and parents might not save you from uncomfortable situations and conversations, but I think it does lead to making better, more informed decisions.

Trusting the process also means that it’s an imperfect process and that sometimes players are not going to get exactly what they want, or honestly, what they should. Staying true to the approach and communicating alongside the parents and players, is what makes it work.”

  • Never stop conversing with player families
  • Direct and honest dialogue always pays off
  • Seeing is believing
  • Trust the imperfect process

About John Bradford

John Bradford is the head coach of NCFC, and director of the North Carolina FC Youth Academy. Holding a unique role that involves working with the club’s first team while overseeing the development of the club’s top youth players, Bradford is a true link in NCFC’s youth-to-pro pipeline. Bradford also serves as the technical director of North Carolina FC U-23 of USL League Two.

A Winston-Salem native, Bradford played collegiately at Furman University.

About PlayMetrics

PlayMetrics is youth soccer’s first all-in-one Club Operating System, unifying your entire club management workflow in one easy-to-manage hub. The centralized platform allows everyone in your club to collaborate, communicate, share best practices, and remain on the same page like never before. PlayMetrics features include season periodization, game and practice planning, player registration and payment processing, field management, custom forms and player evaluations, coach and player profiles, chat and messaging, free mobile apps, and more.