Inside the Nike Academy

Since its incep­tion in 2009, the sto­ried Nike Acad­e­my has ele­vat­ed young foot­ballers from the depths of obscu­ri­ty. It all start­ed when Nike quite lit­er­al­ly took a chance. In 2010, what was orig­i­nal­ly known as The Chance, tri­als were held all across the globe in an effort to unearth the next glob­al superstars.

Now, play­ers use the Nike Foot­ball app to reg­is­ter for one of its Most Want­ed events, in which thou­sands of aspir­ing young foot­ballers flock to tri­al loca­tions across the world, all for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to impress their scouts and get an invite to the academy’s annu­al Glob­al Show­case. Only a few are select­ed from that event, host­ed at St. George’s Park, to live out their dreams of play­ing for the academy.

At its core, the acad­e­my strives to find young tal­ent, wher­ev­er it is, and give those play­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to flour­ish in a pro­fes­sion­al set­up. The cur­rent squad has play­ers from Japan, Eng­land and every­where in between. They live and breathe foot­ball every day. For many, it’s their first time ever play­ing in a pro­fes­sion­al system.

The goal of the staff is to devel­op play­ers into full-time pro­fes­sion­al foot­ballers. Jon Good­man, the academy’s man­ag­er, takes tremen­dous pride in their com­mit­ment to play­er development.

[We] turn over a lot of play­ers very very quick­ly, which is fun­da­men­tal­ly the suc­cess of the pro­gram,” Good­man said. This sea­son alone, play­ers have gone on tri­al at clubs all over Europe, with 63 total play­ers sign­ing con­tracts since its estab­lish­ment – four in just the last five months.

With a revolv­ing door of play­ers going out on tri­al at elite clubs, the ros­ter is con­stant­ly in flux. A year ago we played at Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um against Barcelona. Great occa­sion, but only one play­er is left from that squad,” said Goodman.

So how does the acad­e­my ensure that the team is pre­pared? One of its key tools is video analy­sis. The staff gave us an inside look at the inno­va­tions being made, with exclu­sive insight into video review, and the strides they’re tak­ing to improve the way they com­mu­ni­cate and educate

Field­ing a squad of 11 play­ers can be a chal­lenge, but it’s how the team lines up game by game that can lead to strug­gles on the pitch. Often times, the for­ma­tion in which the acad­e­my plays might be one the play­ers aren’t famil­iar with. It requires a very proac­tive approach to your coach­ing [and] very flex­i­ble play­ers,” Good­man added.

But no mat­ter the matchup, the fun­da­men­tals of the game are sim­ple. It’s 11 ver­sus 11, each and every game. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, under­stand­ing of drop­ping, squeez­ing, nar­row­ing, press­ing, what­ev­er – they run through­out foot­ball,” Good­man said.

The squad’s ver­sa­til­i­ty and approach to devel­op­ing tech­ni­cal­ly pro­fi­cient play­ers is what allows them to shuf­fle their team sheet around, match after match.

Per­for­mance ana­lyst Aaron Calvin works to uncov­er key themes and areas in which the squad can improve. That’s what allows them to adapt quick­ly and teach their squad the fun­da­men­tal con­cepts nec­es­sary to suc­ceed on the pitch.

A few of [the boys] asked for guid­ance as to who plays a back three at the elite side of the game. So, we’ve got a few games of Italy in the Euros play­ing a back three. Coven­try City play a back three in the same for­ma­tion we play at the minute, so we’ve put a few videos of them on [Hudl] just to give them an idea,” said Calvin.

We always real­ly reflect on the strengths of each sys­tem. So using this shape to actu­al­ly eval­u­ate learn­ing,” said Good­man. How well can the cen­ter halves com­mu­ni­cate? Under­stand when to go press or when to just sit and hold in a defen­sive three.

It’s easy to see why the staff put an inher­ent empha­sis on video analy­sis with­in their multi­na­tion­al squad. Being able to draw on the footage just gets over the lan­guage bar­ri­er,” said Calvin. We’ve got a Japan­ese boy who came in this year, spoke no Eng­lish what­so­ev­er. To be able to draw on the footage and just have it banked on his phone or on his iPad gets around the lan­guage bar­ri­er com­plete­ly. He’s man­aged to improve tac­ti­cal­ly much faster than a Russ­ian boy we had last year who also spoke very lit­tle Eng­lish because of that feature.”

It’s round-the-clock learn­ing for the squad, and engage­ment is vital­ly impor­tant. It’s a stark con­trast to the way things were done in the past. Their learn­ing almost stopped when they left St. George’s Park and went back to the hotel. It con­tin­ues how­ev­er long they want to now,” said Calvin.

Times have changed, and access is every­thing to the staff. They want to meet the squad where they are, any­where, anytime. 

When I was a play­er, watch­ing games back wasn’t real­ly acces­si­ble like this,” said Mur­ray. Some­times the ana­lysts would maybe give you some clips, but all the lads buy into this, because they’re all so keen to learn. [Now] Hudl has come in and it’s tak­en it on to anoth­er lev­el… if you make it very easy for them. Look, we’re all young and we’re busy doing all dif­fer­ent things. So the eas­i­er it is, and the most time-sav­ing and effi­cient it is, then that’s what you want. Espe­cial­ly young foot­ballers, that’s what they want.”

Not only do they encour­age thought­ful debate in their pre-match meet­ings, but they encour­age open dia­logue between spe­cif­ic groups of the squad and the coach­es that work direct­ly with them. Good­man elab­o­rat­ed, I’m work­ing with the defend­ers at the moment, Matt is work­ing with the attack­ers, and Aaron with the mid­field­ers. Then, what we’ll do as well, my defend­ers will feed­back to me via email or sit down and just dis­cuss how they felt their per­for­mance was.”

But that feed­back doesn’t end with the imme­di­ate post-match analy­sis. Using video analy­sis requires con­stant ded­i­ca­tion to improv­ing week to week. “[You] can say, Look there’s your clips from two months ago. It’s real­ly easy to find and pull up, and here [you] are now. So look how much you’ve improved in your kick­ing, tak­ing cross­es, ball receiv­ing skills, your fin­ish­ing with your left foot, all of those things.’ It’s there and it’s a visu­al aid that’s real­ly help­ful for the lads,” said Murray.

Ulti­mate­ly, the strong games pro­gram is what entices play­ers from all over the globe to con­sid­er Nike as a next step in their pro­fes­sion­al careers. Annu­al­ly lin­ing up against the likes of Inter, Barcelona, Spar­tak Moscow, etc.. presents the club with some unique chal­lenges in prepar­ing for matches.

This year we’ve had a lot less time out on the pitch due to our games pro­gram, so we’ve had to do a lot of our learn­ing off the pitch, and I’m not sure we’d have been able to do it as well as we have with­out Hudl,” Calvin said.

The trip [to Moscow] was a good foot­balling expe­ri­ence where we didn’t have a lot of time to train. We trained Thurs­day, trained Fri­day, played Sat­ur­day, recov­ered Sun­day, played Mon­day,” said Good­man. So dur­ing recov­ery ses­sions, you can’t get back out on the pitch and dis­cuss and demon­strate play­ing out from the back or mid­field or attack­ing options. So the turn­around on the analy­sis was key.”

The ease and the effi­cien­cy of it is very very good for me, and every­where you go has Wi-Fi, so you can log straight in, whether you’re in Rus­sia watch­ing the game, whether you’re over here. So, yeah I love it. I real­ly real­ly do. I think Hudl is bril­liant.” said Murray.

Every time they play there’s anoth­er chance of a tri­al. Anoth­er chance that some­body could be watching.”

That’s why they’re at the Nike Acad­e­my. They feel like they give them either more train­ing than they’ve ever had, bet­ter train­ing than they’ve had, and bet­ter facil­i­ties than they’ve had in the past- which might have hin­dered their abil­i­ty to get to where they want to be. We offer them that and hope­ful­ly get them a pro con­tract,” said Murray. 

A mas­sive, mas­sive part of that is hav­ing a strong games pro­gram, but also get­ting scouts to the game, and being able to fol­low up with footage of the boys, their stats, phys­i­cal data. Being able to send that all out quick­ly with Hudl stream­lines that process,” said Calvin.

The play­ers’ abil­i­ty to access video of their match­es goes far beyond improve­ment on the pitch. At the end of the day, they’re in a shop win­dow, and any­thing they can do to catch a scout’s eye gives them a chance.

Just this sea­son the staff put an increased empha­sis on the play­ers tak­ing charge of their own high­light cre­ation, which is a step up from what they’ve done in the past, where Calvin was respon­si­ble for most of it. It means that they have to watch the game back, and also it gives them a bet­ter feel when we feed­back [to them] what we’ve seen,” added Calvin.

There’s no doubt the staff has come to ful­ly under­stand and appre­ci­ate the pow­er of analy­sis. The key thing I’ve learned from our expe­ri­ence using Hudl, and analy­sis at all, has been [that] you’ve got to cre­ate a we.’ We’re doing this togeth­er, and we’re learn­ing togeth­er,” said Goodman. 

This men­tal­i­ty, we” not me,” has allowed the pro­gram to flour­ish. It’s buy-in from every­one that allows these play­ers to get to where they want to be.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Nike Acad­e­my, check out their Face­book and Twit­ter accounts.