With the return of the K-League roughly six weeks away, all teams are currently ramping up their preparations for the new season. Players are coming and going and most teams have jumped on a plane in search of some warm weather training. In fact, this scenario is being replicated at all levels of the Korean game.
As long time followers of the blog will know, my youngest son, Kid B, is a member of Suwon FC’s under-12 youth team. The squad of 28 players (thirteen U12 players, seven U11s, and eight U10s) have been on Jeju Island for the past fortnight and will come back to Suwon later today (Jan 22nd). Most youth teams, independent clubs and some elementary school teams will have spent some time away at a winter training camp (동계훌련) this month. There seems to be two main areas the camps are focused in. I know Suwon Samsung, Pohang, and Incheon U12s to name a few were in Changwon while the likes of Jeonbuk, Seongnam, and Jeju U12s were on Jeju with Suwon FC. I should add that the youth teams are not automatically the best teams in all instances. Some of the school and club teams are very good. There are many excellent players not yet in a youth team set up.
So, what’s involved in U12 winter training on Jeju? Essentially teams are assigned time on various pitches and schools around Seogwipo for a two-hour training session and another two-hour session when “practice matches” (연습경기) will take place. These practice match sessions usually involve the U12s of two teams playing each other (8v8)* for 25 minutes a half and then the U11s doing likewise. It’s a pretty full on schedule. Suwon FC U12s flew to Jeju on the 7th of January and started their training plus a game schedule on the 8th and will return on the 22nd having had 13 training sessions and 13 games in 14 days. On their “day off” the kids went carting and watched Aquaman.
(*Until this year the U12s played 11v11, but the KYFA decided to reduce the number to 8v8 this year with the idea that players would have more touches of the ball. The flip side is that with many teams having brought the same players through over the past year or two, they now find themselves with squad sizes based on 11v11 so more players are on the sidelines.)
This busy schedule is nothing new to most young players these days. Youth teams will usually train five days a week after school. In the case of Suwon FC U12s training runs from 4pm to 5:30-6pm, Monday to Friday. For us that usually involves Kid B jumping on a bus or in a taxi after school to get to training and me going straight to the training ground from work to pick him up. Usually training will be replaced by a practice match once a week and at various points throughout the year there are tournaments and weekend leagues to participate in. Indeed, Suwon FC will return to Jeju in mid-February for a week-long tournament (칠십리배). Many clubs will be there for that while the majority of those that aren’t will be at 금석배 held in Gunsan next month.
Youth football is a serious undertaking. Lots of commitment, time and, often, money are required from kids and parents. A huge benefit of being with a youth team is that costs for these camps and tournaments (flights, accommodation, meals, etc) are either covered entirely, or heavily subsidized, by the club. Similarly all uniforms, tracksuits, bags, bench coats, etc are provided free of charge to players. For parents outwith the youth teams it can be a serious financial undertaking as they will often have to cover all expenses for these camps.
While all ages play, youth football in Korea is predominantly split into 3 groups: U12, U15 and U18. U12 covers 4th, 5th and 6th grades of elementary school. The U12s are the main focus but the U11s and U10s also train daily in most circumstances and compete in various tournaments along the way. U15 covers middle school aged students and U18 covers high school aged students. In many cases, but not all, the U15 and U18 teams are affiliated with middle and high schools in the area with the players all attending the same school.
Each group has a manager who will oversee the group as a whole while focusing on training the oldest players. The manager is supported by coaches who will work with the younger players or goalkeepers. For tournaments or camps a physio/AT coach usually goes along to deal with injuries and so on. Suwon FC appointed a new manager for the U12s last week. This time they have appointed a female manager who I’m led to believe was part of the coaching set up at the U17 girls’ World Cup in 2010 and has previously worked at the national centre in Paju coaching the U15 and U16 girls’ teams.
The U12, U15 and U18 years are the most-defining years as players attempt to make it to the next stage, be that middle school, high school or professional. Change is natural. Not everyone can make it. Some players won’t have developed as expected and scouts will have noticed players from other teams they want to bring in. It can make for a pretty competitive environment. As the players compete for limited places and parents try to ensure their years of financial outlay and driving across the country as well as the expenditure on “individual lessons” most shell out on have not been for nothing, things can get a bit tense at times.
As Kid B begins his crucial U12 season, which is his second season with Suwon FC, I find myself wrestling with a few issues. A key issue is my role in his footballing development. I watch his matches either in person or on video (all are posted in a naver cafe group). I see clear holes in his game and am torn between pushing him over them and remembering that he’s not long turned 11 years old and becoming a professional or even making the next stage with a youth team is far from the be all and end all. I need to find the balance between being proactive and helping him yet not putting too much pressure on him. There’s also the question of would my advice fly in the face of what his manager and coach are saying. He is in a good place to get closer to achieving his stated dream of being a footballer but he will have to make steady improvement in the coming months. As a parent I have to help and encourage him as much as possible while making sure he is aware that he may not make it and it’s perfectly fine if he does not.
Mike Calvin’s excellent book “No Hunger in Paradise” tells tales from the academy system in England and as you can probably guess not many are heart-warming. The statistic that reverberates around my head is that of the kids playing youth football in England, 0.012% will make it to the EPL. Obviously that is the fat cat EPL and maybe the chances are greater in Korea but there are a whole lot of other issues associated with making it here. Many of which I’m sure we’ll touch on throughout the year.
Anyway, I hope your winter training has gone well and you are fighting fit for the 2019 season.