'We have to make mistakes to learn' - Dokter overseeing quiet revolution in his role as high performance director with the FAI
It's been a funny few weeks for Irish football, with a mixture of the good, the bad and the calamitous all rolled in. Behind the headlines and away from the spotlight, however, the football family goes about its business. Same as it ever was, really.
Or is it? There are those who would like to think not; who believe that Irish football is slowly finding its feet and that there are good things just around the corner.
On Tuesday last, 100 development officers from around the country gathered at the FAI's headquarters in Dublin to exchange news and views about the state of the game on the ground. This is now an annual gathering which is considered important enough for the senior international manager Martin O'Neill to be part of.
The message to the coaches from the FAI is being refined all the time, but at its heart is the ambition to have more children playing football, and more children playing better football. Most of all, though, coaches are being taught to help make football a joyous experience.
"Playing is very important in every age because that creates joy," says Ruud Dokter. "If you don't play you don't have joy."
Dokter has been the FAI's high performance director since 2013 and over the last five years has been implementing - bit by bit - a plan to alter the future of Irish football. Most of his work flies below the radar, only occasionally coming to public attention - like when the introduction of national underage leagues did not sit well with, in particular, Dublin's schoolboy leagues, the traditional powerhouses of the game at that level.
They bristled at the decision to give responsibility for under 15s, 17s and 19s to the League of Ireland clubs and, from next March, this will be extended to under 13s. Dublin's leading schoolboy clubs have traditionally produced the majority of Ireland's football exports but their fear is that they will be forced out of business. They also argue that they have a proven track record in developing players.
Certainly, the League clubs have never been at the forefront of player development in this country. Dokter, though, is certain that this radical change is the best way forward for Irish football. "The thinking behind it is that we need to have a consistent pathway up to the first team and that was lacking," he says, adding that the schoolboy clubs have not been pushed away.
"No, we encourage partnerships [with League of Ireland clubs] because working on your own doesn't help the overall improvement of football. I see collaboration as a very important point and that's why we encourage the partnerships, so feeder clubs work together, and many clubs already do . . . like St Pat's have three clubs and they work together. I strongly believe that these partnerships will enhance the strength of our underage structures. My opinion is that it's the future for the League of Ireland to develop the players for the first teams."
The landscape of the football world has altered dramatically, and it's not unreasonable to suggest that Ireland was slow to react. The days when all our best talent went to England to complete their footballing education are long gone as clubs across the water now cast their net for young talent all over the world. Now, only the best of the best from here are going to the UK, and fewer still are 'making it' at the highest level, so the responsibility for developing young players has shifted back home. With opportunities abroad now so limited, the domestic league's importance here is becoming significantly greater.
"I think you have to have your own house in order because you can't rely on the best players going to England," says Dokter. "You don't have any control over that. And also there's an obligation to our best players in Ireland to develop a pathway that they enjoy, and can play at a high level. Previously, many players came through the League of Ireland first team and then went to England - there's many examples of that, Daryl Horgan, Seán Maguire, and there's loads of others. So the League of Ireland is an important step in the player pathway."
He accepts there have been pockets of resistance but says that, when given the opportunity to outline his vision for Irish football, it has by and large been embraced by the various interests. "High performance is about learning," he says. "It's about attitude and creating the right environment."
The FAI, Dokter says, wants to provide opportunities for every child in the country who wishes to play football to be able to do so in their own area. This is at the heart of his plan, and in order for it to succeed then coaching is vital. For football to grow, and for Ireland to produce better players, then we need to have better coaches and that has been a focus of the last few years.
Dokter says we need coaches who understand the specific needs of the age group they are working with. The big question, when is the right time to introduce full competition for children, is something many sports grapple with, but the Dutchman has strong views on this subject.
"Often you see that children are treated like mini-adults in sport and the mantra would be that winning means happy children, happy coach, happy staff, happy club, happy parents, but that's a very limited view. In my career, and I've been very fortunate to be on the elite side of coaching almost nearly all my working life, the best player of today is not necessarily the best player for tomorrow. There's always exceptions.
"I've worked with some very talented players and you see what they are already capable of at the age of 14 and 15, but I've seen so many good players who didn't make it to the top, and I've seen so many players who were not in the picture to be a high-profile player yet they came through. That's sport. And that's football. That's development. It's not a straight line."
Coaches are reminded to always put the player first, and not their own ambitions. "You have to design your development to the needs of the player," he adds. "The player is central and not the results, or the coach, or the club, or the league - it's player-centred. Too much focus on winning is not beneficial to development."
Dokter, schooled in the Dutch ways, is even prepared to advocate this approach for players into their late teens. He thinks the emphasis on winning is ultimately counter-productive. "Even young players of 19 need to have the freedom to express themselves," he says.
In order to develop better footballers, coaches have to build trust and that's difficult at times because players will naturally make mistakes. "So you play out from the back, 12-year-old, 13-year-old, and he's caught, goal . . . the normal reaction would be, don't do that anymore, play long. No, my reaction is try again. And that means building confidence so the coach shows trust in the player; but of course the coach needs to also help the player to do it better. That's training. That faith, that courage, that motivation . . . that will build players.
"If you are playing and the coach says, 'Don't do that again' well obviously it doesn't help you. As an adult you can deal with that but as a young kid of 12 what immediately happens is fear - the fear is not making mistakes. No, we have to make mistakes, we don't like it, but football is a game of mistakes and learning by your mistakes you will grow. I believe it was Michael Jordan who said, 'I became so good because I was allowed to make so many mistakes', and that's exactly what it is. That's underage football; that's developing."
Dokter has watched a lot of football in Ireland lately and is enthused by what he sees. To him, it's a revolution - a slow-burning one, but a revolution nonetheless. The current travails of O'Neill's team present a less than flattering picture of the state of Irish football but he sees a different vista.
Like any high performance programme in its infancy, it takes time for the full benefits to be seen, but Dokter points to the performances of the national under 17 team in recent years, the lower age profile and improved standards iWn the League of Ireland and feedback from his peers in Europe as signs Ireland is moving in the right direction.
"If the senior team don't have the results then the focus is there but there's so much positivity around. There's 200 people working here, working to improve football, to improve the structures, and we have done a lot over the last five years.
"There's a lot going on. If people say we don't produce [footballers], I say, yes we do. Look at our under 17s, they qualified now three times in four years for the [European Championship] finals, and to be there and to be able to compete - okay winning is of course brilliant - but to be able to compete with the Dutch that's the evidence we do have good players, and good coaches as well."
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