The professional club dressing room is a place filled with deep meaning. For players it is a sanctuary where they prepare themselves mentally for the upcoming match in their own way. Rituals are born in the dressing room. Some players put on their headphones, clear their mind and visualize their upcoming performance. Others use it as an opportunity to bond with their teammates and keep working on that important chemistry. It is also where the manager meets the players before the game, at halftime and after the game. It is where the shared defeat stings most and celebrations are the wildest. It is where all eyes are on you for the mistakes, and handshakes and hugs are given for great performances. Its more than a place, more than just a noun. It can represent the entire team. We speak of managers who have won over or lost "the dressing room." That's how important the dressing room can be to a football team.
What if the dressing room itself, meaning the physical place, is less of a sanctuary and more of a distraction? What if the dressing room is destroying the potential and chemistry of a team rather than nurturing it. Imagine you are the newly hired manager of a top flight Spanish football team, and you are convinced the dressing room, meaning not just the players but also the space, must change right away.
That was precisely the feeling that Rafa Benitez had when he took over as manager of Valencia CF in 2001. On arriving, he immediately felt something was not right. For one thing, many fans and even the media were concerned that Valencia had chosen Benitez, at the time was a relatively young and inexperienced manager whose only experience was managing Second Division teams. He had no experience in La Liga's top tier. The eyes were on him. La Liga was still dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, which by itself presented a massive challenge for the young manager. He did of course have some good players on his squad when he arrived, including Canizares, who was considered perhaps the best goal keeper in the world at the time. Obviously, though, the squad would need reinforcements. So much to do. Still, there was the nagging sense that something else was not right. Tactics? Strategy? Playing style? Benitez's intuition told him it was something else. Maybe they were not hungry enough. Was it complacency? A lack of camaraderie or chemistry? Maybe the players were too self-absorbed? He knew what he wanted to accomplish at Valencia, and it would require a hungry, humble team of players that would fight for each other to the very last second.
So, what should the young manager focus on first? The dressing room! Not, the team, the room. The physical dressing room itself! To make the players understand the values and behaviors he felt would lead to success, Benitez took the radical step of ordering the dressing room stripped of all luxuries. Gone were the jacuzzi and full-length mirrors. No more idle lounging in warm water, focusing on image, hair or post-training fashion. He did not want the players preoccupied with themselves by constantly looking at themselves in the mirror. From now on, the focus would not be on self, but on TEAM. By removing the props that foster individualized behaviors, he brought a renewed focus on the hunger that a team of players must have in order to achieve something truly remarkable. He wanted them to focus on each other so they could fight together and achieve common goals.
The new spartan dressing room had another beneficial effect as well. The players began behaving more humbly, more down-to-earth and better identified with the rabid, working-class Valencianista fan base. Suddenly, the players were not just football stars, but true local heroes representing their fans in a truly authentic way. Benitez’s approach paid off handsomely. Valencia’s players grew in reputation and appeared to fans and the media as a stronger team than even FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, who at the time had more famous and higher-paid players, owing of course to their larger budgets. The values of the club and the players more closely matched the values of its fans and the city of Valencia itself. This was a remarkable achievement all by itself.
During Benitez's 2001-2004 tenure at Valencia, he and the team reached historic achievements. including two La Liga Championships and one UEFA Cup trophy. His players went from somewhat obscure to wildly famous, including David Albelda, Canizares and Miguel Angel Ferrer Martinez, better known as Mista. The entire club was experiencing one of the highest points of performance and excitement in its colorful, storied history. Confidence in the players and Benitez as Manager was at an all-time high. Why?
Perhaps it all began as the result of a single decision Benitez made to change the dressing room. His desire to change the culture at the club and imprint a new mentality on every person associated it laid the foundations for three years of sustained footballing success. This is extremely deep stuff and requires foresight, confidence and bravery. To this day, Valencia CF has kept the dressing room in the same fundamental style demanded by Benitez. It serves as a tangible reminder of the culture Benitez brought to the club during those amazing three years he served as Manager, and a reminder that the values he embedded then remain just as strong and important today.
On joining Valencia, every new player is treated to the story of the Valencia dressing room and told about the values, behaviors and expectations the Club has of them. This ritual serves as a concrete reminder of the deep and authentic influence Benitez had on the culture that exists to this day at Valencia CF.
What lessons should coaches draw from this story and use to influence the culture at their own clubs? First and foremost, never underestimate the impact you can have as a coach, a club executive or coaching director. Whether it be at a youth club, semi-pro or pro club, the potential and responsibility you have for influencing and instilling culture and values is significant and perhaps the most important job you have.
Your success as an architect of club culture will not be easy nor will it be a given. It requires personal development of the kind that requires you to work on yourself first. It is not just about having the best tactics, most talented players or the biggest budget. Nor does it have nothing to do with luck or good timing or circumstances. Effective Football Leadership (a more complete term than "coaching") is a focused, intentional effort aimed persuading, and then converting, players, staff and the entire club towards your authentic and deeply held principles and values that you believe will bring success to the club. This effort must travel in a positive and constructive direction and like a bus driver, you must bring everyone on board. It won’t work unless everyone is on board. And if someone resists in a way that pulls the effort in a negative direction, then the organization is likely better off without them. Tough decisions are inevitable in this kind of effort.
What we are really talking about here is Club Culture. Beyond tactics, results, the training environment and economics lies the reality that whatever happens (or does not happen) is driven by Club Culture. The central role a football manager, executive or coaching director plays in a Club means their influence will necessarily extend beyond the team and impact the organization as a whole – for better or worse.
The point of Club Culture is not, however, just about wins, losses or trophies. The real value lies in the enduring positive impact you can have on players, other coaches and the organization itself in non-footballing terms. Consider this quote from “No Hunger in Paradise: The Players . The Journey. The Dream”, by Mike Calvin:
“The statistics are really sobering. Out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9, less than half of 1% make it. Or a make a living from the game either. The most damning statistic of all is only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organized youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League pro. That's a success rate of 0.012%. Pretty much the sort of chances of you being hit by a meteorite on your way home”
This statistic applies not only to football clubs in the UK. Academy players all over Europe confront the same mind-blowing percentages. In the United States the figures are likely worse. Pause and let that reality sink in for a moment. Your focus and aim is, rightfully, developing future professional players. However, the odds of players reaching that lofty goal are out of step with the pro player dreams 99% of young players hold onto.
As a club leader, perhaps your focus and aim should be be much broader than just football. Maybe the youth football club experience should be more than just the dream of a pro contract. Is there something else more achievable, perhaps more valuable, that we should want as an ultimate objective for your young players?
Think again about what Benitez did on arriving at Valencia. He faced the privilege of working with obviously high performing professional players. They weren’t the best players in Spain, nor the worst. How far would they go in their football careers? No one knew, not even Benitez. So he focused on the values that would transcend football. Values that while very compatible with achieving football success, would also translate directly to other aspects of life and business, not only for the players but for the entire Club. In so doing, he left behind a lasting legacy of humility, work ethic, mindset and teamwork.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of youth players need Plan B - an alternative career path in society. Even if they make it to the professional ranks, they will always be one injury away from Plan B. Don't discourage young players from pursuing their football dreams. To the contrary, encourage them to pursue those dreams at a club that offers a positive, authentic Club Culture. A club that can educate and guide players toward their goal of being a professional player, but also prepares them to be valuable contributing members of society if a professional contract is not in their future or Plan B is needed.
So why do club leaders devote the overwhelming majority of their effort into football tactics and strategies and virtually nothing into other aspects that are important for developing human beings? Most coaches simply don't think about it. Its heavy lifting and just easier to just get on with the training session. For others, the easiest explanation is they believe culture just happens. If a group of players and coaches show up at the same time and place, a fantastic culture will simply materialize. That's flatly wrong, of course.
Establishing an authentic and impactful culture requires intentional and deliberate architecture and daily execution. It requires a culture-first mindset. This is perhaps the most important change required at youth football clubs. Building the club's future means working with young players to help them to find ways of fulfilling their potential, in whatever pursuit or opportunity comes their way. A truly great club does more than develop athleticism, tactical intelligence or ball mastery. A great club promotes the human values of friendship, work ethic, shared struggle, empathy and sacrifice. A great club does not undermine the value of education or the arts and encourages players to mind their studies and prepare themselves for the next chapters of their lives. Never separate the player from the person. A great club works to develop the whole person.
Your club's culture, and your ability to shape and mold it, will to a great extent be driven by the organizational architecture of the club. In a large, decentralized club, individual teams are where players spend most of their time. It is in that isolated team context, let's call it a "Culture Tidepool", that players experience the culture of the club. They often train at different times and places from other teams in the club. In many instances, the team develops a culture that is different and disconnected from whatever culture the club leaders want for the club as a whole. Often, the only thing a collection of such teams share is the color of their uniforms and the badge. As a result, the individual team coach is in the best position to impact his or her players and create a team culture. This necessarily mean that a single large youth club can have dozens of different Culture Tidepools, some positive, some negative. To align Culture Tidepools with the club's overall vision, philosophy and ensure consistency of message takes tremendous charismatic leadership. Such leadership is often lacking at large youth clubs. This is why players on one youth club team have one experience and players on a team very same club have a very different experience.
If, however, your club has a smaller, more intimate organizational structure, club leadership can have a tremendous impact not only on the teams, but on the club staff as a whole. This is the context Benitez found himself in at Valencia. The moves he made with Valencia's first team reverberated through the academy teams and the front office. In a youth club where teams train at the same place and club leadership is highly visible at all club events, it becomes easier to institute and enforce the norms and expectations that will be the foundation of the club's culture.
Where to start? First, you'll need a concept or vision for what you want your club to be known for. Write it down. Don't just focus on playing styles, methodologies and other tactical concepts. Those are important for sure, but you will need more. You will need to go deeper into the daily expectations you have for the players and staff. These can be little things, such as requiring that all players help unloading equipment before training and collecting and loading it after training, or a sideline conduct policy for parents. There are also bigger things, such as the club's development philosophy and how to communicate it to players and parents so everyone is on the same page. There is obviously much more that goes into establishing a club culture than just these examples, of course. And in the end you will be the one to implement it, promote it and enforce it. You will need to lead by example. A truly authentic and vibrant club culture is not just a list of words, it must be lived.
Building an authentic Club Culture is difficult work, but it is precisely what distinguishes a great club, from one that is just a “player mill”. We know what “player mills” look like. The focus there is strictly on winning at all costs, even if the cost is emotional or even physical harm to a player. Players experience high rates of burnout and injury, eventually dropping out of the sport entirely. This is particularly damaging at the younger ages as global statistics show 70% of young players drop out of the sport by age 13.
Instead of settling for being a “player mill", work to find a better balance. For sure, coaches must provide an effective football education, rich in tactical and technical instruction. Hopefully, it is an education that aligns with the club’s established curriculum and training methodology and, hopefully, with the club’s overarching vision. But like Rafa Benitez , you should want to be more than a trainer or a mere coach. Ultimately your highest and best purpose is to develop human beings within the context of football. In this way, you may develop the next Albelda, Canizares or Mista, but you will definitely develop every one of your players into valuable contributing members of society who will credit your club with instilling within them the values that made them successful. Isn’t that what we really want to do?
About the Authors:
Bram Verbruggen has been working with Valencia CF since 2015 organizing and managing its international programs in 6 different countries. A native of the Netherlands, Bram worked as an international scout for Dutch Eredivisie club Vitesse Arnhem. He is also the founder of Club Culture Matters, a company focused on helping clubs define, develop and implement their club culture.
Joe Campos is the founder, Executive Director and Technical Director at Eagleclaw Football Club in Seattle, WA, and principal contributor and editor of Developing The Future.