Dembele for England.. The answer to our prayers!(?)
Over the last month or two, the UK public have been going wild (a little bit of an overstatement) about a young boy who plays for Celtic. The 13 year old has shot to fame after earning a spot in the Celtic Development side and a couple of weeks later, playing for Scotland U16s.
Over the past few days, the story gets even better; it emerged that Karamoko Dembele made his debut for England U15s in a 5-2 win vs Turkey!
This kid is clearly talented. He is now in the middle of a battle between not just Scotland and England, but also Ivory Coast as he qualifies to play for them too. The battle is on because logic would assume that if he is this good now, when he grows and matures himself, he will be untouchable. This is the answer to our prayers as England fans, right?!
But is it?
Anyone that really knows me will be able to confirm my passion for talent. Whether it’s someone who can play an instrument, sing, dance, act, do gymnastics flips, or break defenders ankles with a ridiculous bit of skill, I love them all. What is even more amazing is when you see youngsters with this talent.
My worry though is that, although Dembele has all the technical attributes right now to shine, what will happen when he starts to mature?
Maturation through the teen years does some really funny things to people. His body is going to change significantly and there is little way of knowing what that might look like.
A big strength of his at the moment is that, because he is much smaller than the players, his running gait is smaller meaning he is able to have more touches on the ball (think Leo Messi running with the ball compared to Theo Walcott who has a significantly longer stride). Shorter strides means he has a greater ability to change direction, add to that he has a lower centre of gravity making him really nimble and effective with tight control.
What happens when he has a growth spurt? Will he still be able to play in this effective manner? Will he grow tall and skinny? Not grow in terms of height but put on weight? Grow tall and also wide? All of the different possibilities make him a completely different player.
Am I saying that he will fail as an International superstar player? No. I really hope the kid makes it. I am just a little reserved about the prospects of him being the next Messi or Ronaldo.
The above may or may not be interesting to you. As a story on it’s own, it’s not that interesting to me. However, there are some very important aspects of this that have direct implications on my work, both with Haileybury and with England.
At Haileybury, part of my job is to look for young talent and bring them into the school. We want to know that we have a good pipeline of talented hockey players coming through the school to support us in achieving our goals at the top end of the school.
This story about Dembele is interesting to me because it makes me sit and think about what we consider talent when we are looking at youngsters on the scholarship days.
There are always at least a couple of kids that shine really bright at those days. They are head and shoulders above every other kid on show. But what does that mean? Does it mean that they are and always will be better than the other kids? Does it mean that because they have this pre-existing base of ‘talent’, it will be amazing when I am able to impart my own knowledge, skill, and principles? Does it mean that securing the best kids at 11 years old will meant hat I have the best kids at U18? I’m really not sure it does?
Just as I spoke about with Dembele, there are so many things that will happen to the young boys and girls that come on our scholarship days aged 10 and 12. They are yet to hit puberty so God knows what will happen to them!
And if the ‘talent’ is a technical one as opposed to a player who is faster and stronger than their peers, is this just because they have had exposure to the game for longer than their peers? How long have the other players been playing? What would happen if I gave the other players that level of coaching input once they come to the school?
If I have these kind of questions, the struggle comes in how to actually select players that you think will make a difference for you now and in the future. This has to be based on more than just ‘they are better’ and ‘they are faster and stronger’, because those things will change with age.
So what will remain?
You can’t guarantee this, but one thing I personally look out for is the players’ ability to learn. What are they like when you take them outside their comfort zone? How do they react when you show them something that doesn’t make sense to them?
There are so many things I do to facilitate this, both on the hockey field and also off it. Off the field, we put them in the school rackets court with Graeme Tyndall the Rackets pro. He is an amazing coach, but because the youngsters have probably never been on a rackets court, it is really interesting to see which players step up and which struggle.
Does any of this mean I catch the next superstar? No. But I’m sure it will mean I have a group of young players who are keen to learn, have a great attitude, and have the key fundamental movement skills that are pertinent to being a good hockey player.
I guess a similar mindset is needed within the England set up, but here it is even harder.
There is no Rackets pro to help us with selection. Instead, we have to look out for the best players from the Futures Cup tournament that happens historically once a year, and from now twice a year. But what are we looking for?
It’s really hard because you want to select a team that does really well for you in your International programme. As an U16 coach, you want to go through the U16 programme with plenty of wins under your belt! The tough thing is that the players that win you games now may not be the players that win you games at Senior International level.
I’m still very new to that role so it’s something that I hope to develop over the coming years under the guidance and support of the more senior coaches and support staff.
In summary, Dembele is good; really good. I hope he has the most amazing future. I just hope he has all the coachability, focus, determination, and level headedness that is needed for him to stand a chance of making it. It will be really hard to keep your feet on the ground when you are given money and fame so young.. child stars from Hollywood will tell you that I’m sure.