A football-inspired training program for tech teams
Football Manager is a sports simulation game where the player doesn’t control the footballer (soccer player); the player is the coach. The gamer controls starting lineups, tactics, transfer policy, financial decisions, team morale, and the other factors of being a manager. When it comes to match time, though, the player has to watch their simulation play out from the sideline, just like a real manager. Sure, they can bark tactical changes or make substitutions, but they mostly have to watch. Millions of people own the game with several hundred thousand playing every day.
I am one.
The American sports enterprise at nearly all levels does not heavily prioritize player development as a long-term proposition. Players are thrown into a huge pool at their earliest professional age (sometime in the 18-23 age range) and teams draft them. Baseball teams have some sort of minor league system that is affiliated with the club, but American football and basketball basically use university play as a mechanism for filtering talent. There’s not some relationship with the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Texas to send U.S. football players straight from the Longhorns to the Cowboys.
International football clubs, by contrast, develop players through all stages of their athletic careers. The first team, which is the most visible, are the club’s best athletes. The reserve squad comes next (typically players under 23 years old), with under-18 youth players rounding out the training squads. These reserve/youth teams have their own leagues with the squads regularly playing each other. At the highest levels, international clubs aim to begin training players at very young ages and grow them into first-team athletes.
The size and the prestige of the club naturally impacts player development. Liverpool runs top-notch training academies in multiple countries, while fourth-tier club Carlisle has a small locally-focused youth program. Yet the spirit is the same. Clubs invest in junior players before they’re superstars, grow and cultivate them through gradually-increasing levels of maturity, and turn them into first-team players as they come of age.
I think a lot about talent development in my current role. How can I produce a fantastic team of tech-developing athletes? What are the attributes of the international football system that lets it turn out greatness?
Here are some attributes that stick out to me:
- Players are trained in line with the club’s philosophy.
There’s no such thing as a single tactical way to play football. Some teams believe in pressing every minute of every match. Some teams believe in a slow, winding game that wears down their opponents to create chances. A development player can be trained in a way that optimizes the club’s philosophy.
Similarly, it’s silly to believe that all developers are alike. Google’s values are not Amazon’s values. Nor are they Deloitte’s values, where we crave developers who can think about how to solve problems in wildly variant technology environments.
If you’re responsible for the training, you can shape and optimize the team for precisely what the team needs.
- Players and teams both sign contracts that obligate them both for a period of time.
If a 21-year-old prospect signs a three-year development contract with a club, both the player and club are bound to that agreement. If the player has a breakout year at 22 years old, they’re still held to their long-term agreement. On the flipside, if the player fails to grow into a first-team role, the team is still responsible for paying their contractual agreement.
This incentivizes both the club and the player to be on their best behavior. If a player doesn’t work hard to grow, they’re unlikely to secure a more lucrative contract later. If the team doesn’t invest in the player’s development, they lose the chance to have a fantastic first team player operating on a development salary.
To me, this addresses some of the problem of organizational hesitancy to train workers. It’s fairly common in large enterprises to have academic handcuffs - the company pays for a degree with the contractual agreement that tuition will be repaid if the employee leaves in ~2 years. The football system is a variant of that same notion.
- If a contract is to be broken, compensation must be paid.
It’s certainly common for a player to develop faster than either the player and the club expected, and now the contract looks a little silly. If a player was signed on a five-year development contract for $500/week and now they’re competing against elite first-teamers making $50K/week, they are likely to be grumpy about this. At a certain point, they may just shut down.
Transfer fees are designed to address this. This is a cash payment that one team makes to another team in exchange for a player. Player X was making $500/week playing for Club A, but now Club B wants that player to be in the first team? Club B then has to pay Club A a negotiated sum of money, and come to contract terms with Player X.
Entire teams have business models not around winning the league, but around being awesome developers of talent that are then sold on transfers to other clubs. Dutch team Ajax, for example, brought in revenue of 200 million euros, of which 75 million euros stemmed from the sale of a single player.
It’s really easy to say “training should be commonplace” when thinking only of the largest employers. This broadens that aperture. If you’re a mid-sized agency that wants to address a smaller market - and not compete against the FAANGs in anything - this creates the incentive for those leaders to still invest heavily in young talent. Maybe they can pick up a transfer fee for them one day!
- Players grow in the open.
During football season, anyone can pop over to an academy game and scout their next team. There’s regular opportunity to showcase talent! If Player X has a breakout game in front of another club coach, that might mean a transfer, a higher contract value, etc. etc. All of that is in the open. Players aren’t inclined just to show their best work in some interview - they do it every week.
Most engineers who blog in the open about what they’re learning tend to be pretty fantastic engineers over time. The same idea works here. Writing, speaking, publicizing accomplishments and showing up to represent the organization - that both promotes the individual but also promotes the organization who created them.
- The complexity of the task matches the team executing it.
The Liverpool first team is not playing the Carlisle reserve teams. Most of the first team players will make more in payroll than that match would bring to the club in ticket sales. Similarly, the Carlisle reservists wouldn’t learn anything by getting crushed.
Similarly, there’s a matching of problem complexity to capacity to solve it. If part of Google’s testing network goes completely down, the junior engineers may want to take this one on. If the entire prod network drops, that’s a first-team problem. The junior engineers still learn something about fixing problems, but in proportion to their skill levels.
Is the football player development system perfect? No system is. I don’t even know if it would legally work in America with our hodgepodge of right-to-work laws that vary per state.
But there’s something here about incentives to invest in talent development over the long haul. Something that can go beyond just the giant high-$ players in Silicon Valley that can expand industry-wide. Maybe there are some ideas here we can use.