Vaughan Coveny says it is hard to predict what impact another cancelled season of Victorian football will have on the state’s youth development over the next few years.
Coveny, a former New Zealand international who enjoyed a fine National Soccer League and A-League career with the likes of Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne, Newcastle Jets and Wellington Phoenix, has been working in youth coaching for the last decade.
Currently, Western United’s Under-21 coach and Head of Football at Essendon Royals, Coveny has a great deal of interaction with the full range of the state’s youth development pyramid, from its grassroots and community level right up to the A-League.
Coveny believes the most determined players will find a way to persevere through the challenges of COVID-19 and lockdowns, he said the loss of the 2020 season and the cancellation of the 2021 season could have long-lasting impacts across the board.
“Ideally you want to finish the season, because for the players, the coaches and the administrators, that’s the reward you put in all that effort for. Obviously, we understand why that can’t happen, but it’s a blow for all involved,” he said.
“What I would say is that we did get quite a lot of football in 2021, when you consider that in the NPL setting and in the A-League youth settings, we’ve been going since November/December last year with pre-season.
“But still, over 2020 and 2021, there’s obviously a lot of important hours of training and competition that’s been missed. That’s a lot of touches on the ball and a lot of competitive minutes to miss.
“For some players, it can really affect their motivation too, and we might lose some players to the sport altogether as a result, but I would say that’s something that could affect all sports, not just football.”
Coveny stated that the impacts of lockdowns are only really known when players return to training, but he said it’s clear that missing out on so much football over the last 18 months means that in general, many age-group cohorts aren’t as far along down the development track as they otherwise would be.
Of particular concern to Coveny were players in the pre-teen years.
“I think those most important learning years are really eight to 13-years-old. Those years where you’re just learning the sport and mastering the ball in a fun environment,” he said.
“There’s a lot of important technique you learn in those years and that technical skillset that you have at 12 and 13 is really what you’ll have to work with for the rest of your career.
“We won’t really know what the effect of those missed seasons will be until national youth competitions resume and then eventually when those kids in Victoria who have missed a lot of minutes are competing for selection in Australian teams in the future.
“For those players that are now 14, 15, 16, they have that technical base. They’re missing out of course, but there are still a lot of things they can do physically and with one or two mates. What they’re missing is training and match minutes against good players and the experience and lessons those minutes give you.”
However, he was less concerned about the players who are already in top-tier talent identification systems.
“I think the boys and girls who are already in state or A-League set-ups, particularly the older ones that are 15-20-years-old, they’re very driven and determined,” he said.
“They have high hopes of a career in the game. They want to be players, so they do the extras, and they work hard when no one is watching, and that shows when you come back to training.”
Coveny said the data kept on youth players at an A-League level meant it was hard for players within those systems to hide if they haven’t been working hard during lockdown periods.
“We have all their performance data from pre-lockdown, and they all have programs to fulfil from their S&C (strength and conditioning) coaches,” Coveny said.
“So, if they come back from lockdown and we run a beep test and they get a result well under their best, then you know that player hasn’t been doing the work. I think that helps keep players honest at that level.”
At a Junior Boys National Premier Leagues level and a community level, Coveny said there were examples of clubs who were providing ongoing training for players throughout lockdown, whether that be by providing players programs to complete in their own time or running online training sessions.
“At Essendon Royals, we’re running a new four-week online program that will deliver a mix of live, online Zoom sessions, match analysis videos and other content that we hope will help keep our members engaged with the sport and motivated to come back and keep playing, regardless of their level.”
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