The lowdown and benefits of the learning culture at Athletic Bilbao (Part 1)

Last week I was lucky enough to be a guest for 2 days of María Ruiz de Oña, the Psychologist based at Athletic Bilbao FC Academy in Spain. She calls herself “responsible for the personal and professional development of players” in the Athletic set up in Lezama, their training ground about 5 miles outside the centre of the city, set in green rolling Basque countryside. The Academy is also the training base for the Athletic first team, but she mainly focuses on work with the Coaches in the Academy system from 11 years old up to the first team.

From my work life in the Digital industry as a Project Manager and as a Psychologist for Chimp Management, there are hugely valuable lessons for both sporting and business organisations learnt. I’ve been given carte blanche to be honest about what I found. This is the first of two posts on my experience of my time there. This post is angled towards the practicalities of Maria’s 20 years of work in the club. In the second post I will write more about how the kind of work implemented in the club and how it relates to organisational psychology.

Athletic (never called Athletic Bilbao by their fans) are unique in La Liga. Along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, they have never been relegated from the top flight. All this achieved whilst only allowing themselves to take from a pool of around 2.5 million local players (A process called ‘La Cantera’). They are possibly the World’s most locally sustainable club! They are almost unable to field any foreign players (Aymeric Laporte — their one French first team player, has Basque Great Grandparents which allowed him to be signed as a youngster; Bixente Lizarazu was also once an Athletic player). Currently they are sitting 7th in La Liga. They are an anomaly in World football. I was keen to understand how they achieve ‘success’ and remain competitive in what is one of the World’s richest leagues using such a small pool of talent and how the work that Maria and the team do facilitates and helps individuals reach these standards. I’d heard they ‘do things differently over there.’

Given their self-imposed restrictions, they are forced to compete in a different fashion. Under the leadership of Academy Director, Jose Mari Amorrortu (a former player), the main vision of the Academy is that ‘The player is the value.’ Speaking with both him and Maria separately, they emphasised that the most important work they feel they have to do in the players development is to educate them to be fully ‘responsible and autonomous.’ I will return to this point in more detail later.

For context, in the past year I was fortunate enough to work at Liverpool FC’s Academy. A huge operation and one delivering the goods in the Premier league in terms of first team players (for instance Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold have both featured in league and cup games this season) and in selling on players (such as Jordan Ibe and Brad Smith to Bournemouth last summer). Liverpool take a lot of pride in their Academy both from the players who have graduated to the first team (Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Steve MacManaman amongst many other legends) to the ethos and identity it gives the club and the local area. Fans take pride in local lads coming through the ranks and in these days of vast commercialisation of the game, feel it connects their club to them in a way that a big money signing maybe can’t quite match. But that could be seen as a bit of an oversimplification and possible rose tinted view of players and fans with their clubs in the 21st Century. My friend and colleague; a Sports Presenter on Al-Jazeera recently gave me a reality check of just how huge the Premier league and La Liga globally in 2017. Ultimately, fans old and new, whether at home or in India, the States, or Nigeria all want to see their teams win and be successful. Football is a results business after all.

But without the leading teams huge resources behind them, teams such as Athletic need to take a position, have a strategy and work hard at delivering against their standards. For the past 20 years, Maria has worked within the Academy setting under different Academy Directors, first team managers and many different coaches. Whilst her practice of coach and player development has evolved, some of the core principles have remained to stay front and centre of the work they do with the players.

To achieve this, the Academy aims to develop players to take responsibility and become autonomous by coaches creating a true learning environment (italicisation deliberate). Not all learning environments generate development, and it is the responsibility of the senior people — the staff and the coaches — within Lezama to afford this. Time is spent by Maria and the senior staff to train the Coaches to be truly reflective in how to understand themselves, emotionally and intellectually, before working with the players. As well as providing technical and tactical football skills, the main role coaches are instructed to provide is to help players ‘find their personality’ in order to develop a ‘victorious attitude.’ A victorious attitude being defined as one where constant improvement, not winning is the key goal.

The Psychological training of players is seen as the most important tool to train players via individual improvement within the team environment. 
The reason for this is to help players better cope with emotions and mistakes, and the challenges of growing up as teenagers in an institution. From the start of the player development, each player is taught how to work on their ‘inner game.’

Responsibility comes from the player-coach relationship via development of self knowledge by each individual via the teaching of emotional and verbal skills. The coaches and Academy try to develop more insight by making players aware of their own thinking, actions and behaviour.

With limited access time to players (those in the Academy only play in the evening after full school days), Maria instead almost purely works developing the coaches through a robust process that makes them effectively mini-psychologists. Each one of the seven Academy coaches has to spend time with Maria working and understanding their personal limitations and are challenged to be open to pushing their own psychological capabilities and be open to feedback and criticism from all angles (including from the players themselves). Some coaches who come to work at the Academy have not been able to adapt to this way of working and their stays have generally been shorter than other more psychologically minded or adaptable coaches.

Looking at the stats from the past eight seasons, Jose Mari showed that the majority of First team players at Athletic have on average spent six years at the Academy, living the values and the system of working, thinking and managing their emotions. In the first team, most graduates stay longer than in other La Liga teams, on average, at least three seasons or more.

Training has special value within the Academy, with it being the most important thing in the eyes of the Director and staff (4 sessions per week compared to 1 match). For a lot of clubs, priority is placed on the matches to be played as the most important output in the Academy setting. The Athletic ethos is that training is the medium in which to learn, and as I’ll write more in part 2, the review of each session and preview to the next session are in depth, detailed and reflective to get the players out of their psychological and social comfort zone to help them all improve their inner game. So it is a growth model of psychology, required by all to participate in ‘success’ in the eyes of the club. In the eyes of Jose-Mari and Maria, the development of the relationship between the coach and the player that follows in the learning environment are the true markers of success in player development and the subsequent success along the conveyer belt to first team (and La Liga) status.

Tomorrow’s post — the methods employed in the learning environment and what is required of the players and coaches to develop.