The Method, Vol. 4: How to get the best out of young players (ft. Rob Gale & Jimmy Brennan)

It is now 12 games without a goal for Jonathan David.

The young Canadian’s difficult to start to life at Lille has been a reminder of just how hazardous the path can be for young players fighting their way to the top of the global game.

Development is rarely linear. There are usually plenty of ups and downs, as David has experienced to an extreme degree over the past 18 months.

The challenge for coaches like Lille’s Christophe Galtier is managing the long-term progress and wellbeing of prospects like David while also dealing with the short-term pressure of winning matches.

To understand more about that dynamic and the skills required to handle up-and-coming talent, we turned to two of the best in the Canadian Premier League.

Valour coach Rob Gale worked with Canadian youth national teams for nearly a decade, helping many of the players now in the senior setup through their teenage years.

York9 boss Jimmy Brennan made it in England himself before returning to Canada to coach and uncovering rough diamonds such as Emilio Estevez and Diyaeddine Abzi.

In Volume 4 of The Method, Gale and Brennan walked us through their approach to getting the best out of young players.


Step 1: Set out a clear development plan

Gale: “I work with clubs all over the world and I say to them, ‘Do you know what you’re asking of that player when they get to the top level? What do you want the picture on the front of the jigsaw box to look like?’ Because if you don’t know what that looks like and what you’re trying to build, you’ve got no chance.

“Arsene Wenger said famously, ‘I know that the price you pay for youth players is in points.’ He can play an under-20 centre-back and he’s going to cost him points. By the time he’s 23, 24, you’ll get the player you want. But you have to have the belief and the steadfast mindset to say, ‘We’re going to stick with it.'”

Brennan: “We’re a club that believes that we do give these young boys opportunities. We’ll give them the chance. We’ll try to help them out as much as we can so that they can go out there and really express themselves. And it’s our job to teach them what it means to be a professional footballer.”

Step 2: Know the person, not just the player

Gale: “There’s so much you can learn by, number one, knowing the person. They’re not just players. For me, that goes to the core of my coaching philosophy. If you get better people, you get a better organization. Do the work as a coach and get to know the player. Then, lay out clear expectations. Know that it’s not just going to be a smooth trajectory to the top.”

Brennan: “I’ve got to figure out — myself and my staff — how do I motivate this player? How do I get the best out of this kid? How do I give him the best opportunity to be successful and really provide him with the resources? That’s our job as coaches now, is to really figure out the psyche of the players and how you get the best out of them.

“When I went to England it was, ‘Do you want a job? Right, this is what you’ve got to do. And if you don’t do it, you’re out.’ If you were down or you were upset, they wouldn’t even care or speak to you. That’s just the way it was back then. Now, the game’s changed, but also this generation is completely different from the generation that I grew up in.”

Gale: “People have said it time and time again, but the highest level of the game is 90% mentality. Can you handle adversity? Can you deal with these things?

“Some players will want to be left alone. Others will want to talk your ear off for hours about it. You set up a five-minute meeting at the end of training and they’re sitting crying on your couch and telling you that their girlfriend might be pregnant and life’s a disaster! Sometimes you’re a social worker. Sometimes you’re a disciplinarian. It’s all part of the job.”


Step 3: Draw out their personality

Brennan: “I want to see a young kid that has confidence and that’s not afraid to express himself when he gets on the pitch.”

Gale: “When you see a player like Tony Adams, who became Arsenal captain at 18 years of age, anyone who was around him at that stage of his career said he just came in and started dictating to the older players, communicating, leading from the front. He immediately revealed his personality.”

Brennan: “But then that’s down to me as a coach to allow him to do that. The last thing I want to do is control them or restrict them too much that they can’t really go out and showcase what they’ve got. I’m a believer that a young kid’s real character comes out when they step onto that pitch and they start expressing themselves.

“Far too often with managers, he restricts the players and doesn’t allow them that freedom. There’s tension in the dressing room as well. It’s a harder environment for a young player to come into.”

Gale: “I’ve seen this at the youth level — they’ll be tough tackling, hard-nosed, bossing their young midfielders about, real leaders, but then they get into a men’s dressing room and sort of shrivel up and hide. The things that make you get to a certain level, you then need to keep doing. And the challenge is to keep doing it at each stepping stone of your career.

“When that door opens, can you walk through it?”


Step 4: Communicate your decisions

Brennan: “When you scout a player and you see that he’s got all of the attributes that you like and you bring him in, it’s up to you to tell him right away, ‘Here’s the way it’s going to work. This is where you are on the totem pole and we’ll help you get to the top, but you’ve got to make sure you’re respectful and honest and come in every day and work hard.'”

Gale: “Communication is the key. I was a young player in those kinds of environments, and you see older players come in and think, ‘I’m better than them. I’ve got the ability. But he’s gone back to the 33-year-old veteran.’

“In your own mind as a player, you’re thinking far worse than the coach is. He might take you out because he just wants to protect you and take you out of the media spotlight, or he wants you to do some extra work on the training field, or it might just be because of a certain game.

“You have to be up front, open, and honest with the players because I think if you leave them too much, they’re their own worst enemy. They’re thinking a thousand different things.”

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Step 5: Remind them they’re at work

Gale: “I think the hardest thing for a young player to learn is that you might have been the man at the youth levels, but now you’re just one of 11 and you have to do your job. And it is your job.”

Brennan: “First and foremost, you’ve got to make sure that the player you get is a good character and willing to learn. If they’ve got that and they understand where they are in the dressing room and on the field… they’re at the bottom of the totem pole now. It’s showing respect for the other guys and listening and paying your dues.

“If you’re willing to do all that, I’m more than happy to help develop you and work with you because I know that you’ve got a great character and you want to be a professional footballer.

“I think far too often you get these young guys that think they’ve made it. They’ve got terrible attitudes. Technically, they might be brilliant. But there’s a lot more than just being technically gifted to be a professional footballer.”

Gale: “We had a fun one last year: we were playing Family Feud. The question was, ‘Name a reason you might be late for work.’ One of our players was like, ‘Well, I’ve never had a job, so I don’t know.’ We’re looking at him and going, ‘Uh, this is your job!’ And then someone’s like, ‘Weren’t you late for training two days ago?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I overslept.’ There’s an answer!

“Youth football, it’s fun. You’re with your friends. Even if you get paid as a trainee, it’s still the excitement of it (that matters more) and you think it’s just going to be smooth sailing.

“Now, when you’re in a room with a man who’s got a wife and two kids and is paying his mortgage based on results, and he’s got to get win bonuses and pay his bills, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. You learn those lessons very fast.”