Kelly Cross is a figure widely celebrated in Australian youth development.
The current Technical Director of the Sydney FC academy counts the likes of Harry Kewell, Bret Emerton and Aaron Mooy as players that have fallen under his care as they developed, whilst celebrated figures such as Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, Ante Milicic, and Tony Vidmar all count him as a coaching mentor.
A former Assistant National Technical Director of Australia, Cross now runs Sydney FC’s 2-star youth setup; an academy that won Y-League titles in 2008/09, 2013/14 and 2015/16 and finishing in at least the top two of their conference in the past four seasons.
In recent months, the Harboursiders sent six players to a camp for the U15 cohort in Canberra, four players to Britain as part of the U17 side’s World Cup preparations and three players to the AFF U18 Championships.
Combined with young stars such as Luke Ivanovic increasingly making noise out at Moore Park, it’s hopefully an indication that youngsters will be able to make an improvement on the 322 minutes of football played by Sydney players aged under 21 last season.
“I think, when I look back on it [Sydney’s Academy], it’s a special starting point,” Cross told dailyfootballshow.com.
“Being able to… the club gave me maybe ten months, eleven months, to prepare for the first ball to be kicked so, during that time, I had the chance to not only find players but also find the right people to bring in as academy staff.
“That meant that before we even kicked a ball, we had maybe forty, fifty hours of building our group of coaches and having discussions on philosophy.
“What kind of approach to training do we want? What is youth development? What assumptions can we question? How can we do something that’s ours rather than copying what people assume is the right way of doing things?
“We had the opportunity to ask some questions, challenge some assumptions and then go through that in order to do things a little differently.
“We ended up agreeing on a few things.
“Players don’t play enough at training, players spend too much time in non-contextual situations – so it kind of looks like football but it’s so far away from the game that you have to question if it transfers – coaches talk too much, and players don’t talk enough.
“So, coaches do all the talking and players don’t do any talking.
“We looked at how do we get the players to talk? How do we listen to the players? If you go around most places not only do players not really talk, they don’t really get listened to – there’s no dialogue and coaches don’t really find out what the player is really thinking.
“Instead, they’re vessels that just stand there and you upload information. That tends to be what goes on and we’re not sure that that’s the right way to do things.”
In engaging with the players under their care at the academy, Cross and his staff are utilising an increasingly common tool when it comes to interacting with youth across a wide range of diverse sectors: that of empowerment theory.
Empowerment theory places an emphasis on the creation of practices that allow for participation by those they affect; enhancing control through shared decision making and creating opportunities to learn, practice and increase skills.
It is an especially important part of working with young people, who generally display poor levels of help-seeking behaviour thanks to beliefs that they should deal with it on their own, a desire to not come across as “attention-seeking” or a belief that nobody wants to help.
In encouraging his players to play a leading role in their own development, Cross says that he is not only fostering the type of player that he wants to produce but also better people.
“The feedback I get from national teams is that our boys are good kids,” said Cross.
“They’re reliable, professional, they behave, they play football, they follow instructions, the play as part of a team, they try not to let the opposition bother them. They’re focused young professionals.
“Which is a product of what happens in the academy, I think. People talk about being no dickhead, whatever that is, but if someone’s a bad person we weed them out. If someone’s a bully but talented we’ve got rid of them in the past.
“The three key things in our academy is that it’s a clear philosophy, learning environment and good people.
“I believe that that is the kind of environment and culture in which leaders do tend to evolve. They ask questions, they listen, they’ve got an opinion and they are confident enough to say to a coach ‘I’m not sure what you mean by that, could you clarify that’ whereas a vast number of young males look at their peers and say ‘we should just stand here and shut up and nod’ when the coach talks.
“I’m a big believer in individual responsibility, that’s something the club as a whole was big on, so when I started and spoke to Arnie he said that’s what’s missing from some of the older players, they’re a bit… not entitled… but they’ll just stand there and wait for stuff to come to them and wait for the coach.
“We want players to be driven to develop themselves and we want them to come to the coaches. We explain to our young boys that, with all these staff here, we’re basically the help desk. So, if you come and ask if you’re making enough forward runs that’s the perfect start rather than the coach dragging you and telling you what he thinks you need to do.
“If the player’s driving it and the player’s giving thought to his own performance and comes to the coach and says ‘I’ve got some clips from Hudl do you think I’m making the right runs here?’ We’ll give you 24 hours a day of that.
“We think hours of having to drive it into the players is not as effective. You set up a culture where players are expected to come with questions, are expected to interact with us on their journal and through the videos to come to training and say here’s what I want to work on today.
“Most players come to training ‘oh I wonder what we’re going to do today’ and they just jump on for the ride and they’re just passengers.
“We want our boys to be driving it. They have an individual development plan that they co-write with their mentor.
“That’s another thing that’s a bit different, we don’t say who is your coach, it’s who is your mentor? There’s someone who gets to know you as a person and the players end up seeing them as a mentor and not just a coach who does training sessions.
“Put all that together and that enables you to develop the right kind of person we feel to succeed.”