We have met a unique man. Marek Śledź is the head coach and academy manager of RKS Raków Częstochowa. In the past he also worked as coordinator coach at Amica Wronki and academy manager at Lech Poznań.
Why are you unique?
Marek Śledź: I was surprised I was announced like this. I think I am actually normal. If a certain image of my work or an image of my personality, which follows quite important values in my life, arouses a uniqueness, then I probably can’t agree with it. It seems to me that in our community these should be ordinary attitudes, that is, everyday, natural. I think I am a person like this.
During the Football Conference, you were presented as a professional, eloquent, but also controversial person. Is the final part of the three true?
I would take a… controversial look here, too! I don’t feel like a very controversial character, I just use values that are very transparent in my life. If I talk about something, I talk about it the way I feel. I say it from the bottom of my heart. I say it from the depths of my thoughts, my knowledge, my skills and I tell the truth. I don’t do politics. I absolutely disgust it. I don’t try to manipulate, because I think it’s something that can do too much harm. If someone is hurt by the truth, then it can be considered controversial, but I don’t recognise it that way. Of course, I have my attitude towards many topics that concern my work, but also those concerning normality, everyday life.
What we mean – and you talk about this in interviews – is quite a specific training methodology that you work in. Can you expand on this because Marek Śledź is not known for trends which are common in Polish football, he has his own way from which he does not retreat but which he consistently follows and develops.
My way is surely about certain working standards. However, when it comes to the development of the methodology or the methodology itself, it is subject to evaluation and then evolution. It is not that I am locked in some space of my work. Every project that I have built and implemented I have tried to implement in a systematic way. I tried to introduce an idea for training, and there were many ideas. It’s not that I have functioned in one parameter from the beginning. Today, however, by adapting the tactical periodisation to the training as a whole, I can consider it a project that is unique. One which in Polish realities is probably impossible to implement. I mean, it is possible, but not in any other place apart from the one managed by myself. Of course, it is not that I am the only creator, the originator of such a system of work. The whole adventure with this direction of action started in Lech, with the formation of a programme department. I was probably the first manager, head coach, originator of the idea to create a program department within academy structures, to appoint and assign coaches to program work, to analyse football trends. How do they go? How are they developing? We tried to systematise and introduce one very significant and evolving training programme. Such a program department functioned. It obviously brought a lot of value to my work. It was under my jurisdiction, under my control. I think it was the beginning of the work in tactical periodisation, as a theoretical basis for a training project or a training program operating in the academy. That curriculum department was also changing. There were more people coming to this department. There were already other coaches at Amica who worked with me. At Lech, a coach who had his origins in Portugal played quite an important role. He introduced us to many elements. I agreed, I showed directions, I adapted them to the value of the whole academy project. Then coaches such as Przemysław Małecki and Marcin Salamon brought great value. These are coaches who inspired model activities in a given training structure. This happened both at Lech and later at Miedź Legnica. Those were the years when a certain training idea was created. But I make no secret that I was also formed then. Despite my age, I am still open to education. I’m still very keen on education. On self-education. It’s not like I’ve locked myself in a training space today and I don’t want to leave it. Indeed – I experience a lot of training goods, a lot of ideas for training, but what I try to do and this is the most important thing is not to copy but to adapt it to my vision of work.
And where does you passion for tactical periodisation stem from? You’ve mentioned that this is a systematic process from an early age to senior football. Have you always seen it that way?
For a very short time in my career I was just a coach. A very short one. Actually, after three years of work, I was already combining coaching with training management. Quite quickly I became a manager, a coordinator, so I got the privilege to decide. I also had the duty to look at the training process not from the point of view of my training group, but of the whole centre I was managing at the time. This is quite a big responsibility, but there is also the need to create a certain model of work, which is a model built from scratch. From the foundation right up to the top! This role accompanied me from the beginning, but it’s not that I was accompanied by tactical periodisation right from the start. This technology has not always existed. It was once initiated. Someone was the first to introduce it. We know who because we know where it comes from. We know what Professor Frade did to show another perspective into football. Of course, working a bit earlier, at other stages and in other centres, I experienced learning many effective training projects. After all, we know very well how technical periodisation used to work, which was a typical Dutch school. But this school had been celebrating its triumphs for many years and Dutch coaches have worked in practically all European centres. I also experienced it, especially at Ajax. But there came a time when this methodology started to „fail”. On a global scale. We started to see the football world change and the Iberian Peninsula suddenly became dominant. It started to dominate for a reason. Someone came up with an idea to see football a little differently. It turned out that seeing football differently was more effective. That it brings a specific dimension of a sporting success. My openness to follow modernity and efficiency has led me to explore the subject. I am not saying that in this methodology, so to speak, I will die as a coach. It is possible that there will be something in the world that will bring other values again and that will go towards an even bigger sporting success. Then you will have to adapt your idea to what is most effective again.
So we are talking about tactics, brain, decision-making. This is what we rely on when it comes to tactical periodisation. Do you think that this may change in the coming years? That someone will come up with something entirely different? That there is something even more important than decision-making?
We all know where the biggest room for improvement for any human being is. Not in the strength, speed or motor activity. Not in their abilities. But in their heads! This is where the greatest potential is, so if someone will be able to bring to every sport even more aspects connected with, so to speak, brain, I think such methodology will triumph. I think today’s tactical periodisation is developing as a very defined methodology, both in terms of its impact and interpretation. Today it is a methodology that affects an intelligent player. It is not a methodology for players who are not intelligent. You have to think, you have to be able to make the right decisions. In relation to these correct decisions you have to perform specific actions. And to do it in the smallest units of time, under great pressure.
And to what extent are you able to accept any modifications to the periodisation of Vitor Frade? Tomasz Tchórz, who is fixated on the Portuguese, does not accept any concession from this path.
I’ll put it this way: Tomek is a wonderful young man. He’s a boy who thinks outside the box which is not common in our daily coaching thinking. However, it should be remembered that he is a young coach. Today he operates within the parameters of a very enriched football theory and I can confidently speak of myself as the one who put this theory into practice. That is to say, to a specific effect. I’m not talking about tactical periodisation as a pattern of a narrow corridor in which I function. I’m talking about periodisation as a theoretical foundation for the training programme. My interpretation of tactical periodisation touches upon its philosophy of football, touches upon its principles which define it in many moments. However, in order to translate it not into a training process – it is not about a microcycle or morphocycle in which we will function – it is about those decision-making processes, those elements connected with making tactics a foundation of the training programme. Tactics understood wisely. Not one that a parent could understand. One who says: if you work tactically, my child will probably play a certain position from the beginning. No. Individual tactics is a choice, for example when a five-year-old player dribbles with the ball to the right or the left side, he makes a decision. That’s his choice. That’s his tactics. Either I go with the ball in that direction, or this direction. My target is to score a goal, but I’m going to look for a way to score that goal. We’re talking about a completely different view of tactics and that’s the basis. The basis, as I said, is theoretical. First you have to write the whole methodology of work, the whole systematics of work, forms of teaching, adjust the structure of the training unit, do many things to divide it into stages. Say how these stages correlate with the age of the child, with his or her ability to acquire knowledge. It all needs to be systematised and introduced into the program, which will function as I said: from the foundation right up to the top. I see many activities in periodisation that accompany my person on a project built in this way, but it is also not that I am closed to the experience of other methodologies. Introducing elements of Coerver Coaching into the structure of the training unit, such as elements of mastering the ball, will not conflict with tactical periodisation or the idea for training. If you can bring something that is better, that is bigger, that will allow for something more, then of course we use it. I assume that there must be a certain theoretical base, which will be the basis for me. We must have macro rules, that is, there must be something to which we always find a reference. And we must not break those macro rules. You can modify the options, but you can’t break the macro rules.
This unified work system you are talking about is probably only possible if the whole academy works as a unit. Is it not possible for a coach in a given age group to work according to a specified system, without continuity in teaching?
There is a chance for such coach, but if I am in charge of the project, it will be a short-lived chance. I always repeat to coaches and to myself that when it comes to projects which I am responsible for the academy is most important. Not Śledź, not Nowak, but the academy. We all have to identify with it, this is our common success. If a player ever makes it, it is not a success of one coach. This is the success of the whole academy. Of all the coaches who work and have worked for it. The important thing is that this kind of thinking is also recognised by the owners of the club. So that they know that the coach working with a five-year-old is no less important than the coach of the first team. He is a very important coach at the club! He is actually one of the most important coaches, because it is him who instils passion in the child, at the same time he selects him, introduces him. Great, if someone understands that.
You say that an academy is like a table. Could you expand on this?
I once had the pleasure of participating in lectures of quite a well-known mental coach – Pawel Habrat. He made a reference to the table. Why did it inspire me? Because we entered into a dialogue with the coach about how to treat the legs of this table. He shortened and then lengthened those legs, but obviously he saw the table a little differently. He compensated one leg for the other. I, looking at the table we are sitting at now, see four legs of the same length. I can’t imagine us sitting, talking, drinking coffee if one leg was much shorter. It was a kind of an inspiration to compare the academy to the table and to define all the main factors that determine its functioning. I divided them into four areas: the first leg is infrastructure. We have a great training methodology, we have passionate coaches, we have someone who will organise it superbly well, but we have nowhere to execute the plan. How are we supposed to educate a player, to a specific level of ability, if we have no place to train? Or if we train on an uneven playing field, on a bend, between park benches or in the school corridor? Pathology. This is pathology! Of course, I’m placing up on the pedestal all the enthusiasts who do it because they do it with great commitment and don’t look at the fact that there is no place to train, but they still do it. And I praise them for it. But unfortunately that doesn’t create a system in which we will regularly create a complete player. So can you train without infrastructure? Not in my opinion. Infrastructure is not just pitches. It’s dressing rooms, it’s showers, so the whole sanitary aspect. It’s offices for coaches who need to work. They need to sit down somewhere and prepare for training, they need to have a TV to analyse matches, they need to have a camera to record the matches and trainings. All these things affect the infrastructure. I talk a lot about standardising work, because it just has to be there. The conditions must be created. The second leg is the organisation of work, because if we have a great infrastructure, great coaches, but we get into chaos, for example: somebody will train two teams on one pitch, because somebody didn’t plan it, we won’t have good organisation. Also the effectiveness of the project will decrease. The third leg is the training methodology. The infrastructure and organization themselves are definitely not enough. If I work in such methodology today and I require players from a given position to do something that is dedicated to a specific space on the pitch, if a player has to read information right, left, ahead of and behind him, because he is a midfielder, then I can’t provide him with the same training exercises for ten years. If we have these three things – great, but for all this to work, we need people to execute it. It doesn’t matter that you have those three things if you don’t have people who can implement it. The coaches I work with must be prepared, open and willing to learn. It must be a selected team that will believe in the whole project and will follow it. This begs the question – can we cut one of these legs so that it still is an effective project? Maybe it will work, but it will definitely not be complete and hundred percent efficient. And after all we want it to be complete.
„I distinguish between Polish football and football.” Do you know who said those words?
I use it often!
So what do you disagree with in Polish football youth development system?
I disagree with many things. I disagree with the treatment of youth development. I disagree with the way people in charge of clubs regard youth development. If someone sees a club, it’s not like the club is just the first team. This is the whole structure. Wherever I can, I condemn this approach, where the first team is most important and the rest is neglected. A sports club is a powerful institution. This is the foundation that is the academy. Which is the training of children and young people. Training in appropriate standards, with appropriate treatment of the coach, with appropriate remuneration for this coach, with identifying the coach in his profession, with shaping his path of development and, most importantly, with building the ideology that I speak of in general – the youth product. But the youth product is not only a football player. Academy is a university. Social factor, educational factor, training factor. The youth product may become a good school teacher in the future, a very good physiotherapist who will work at this club, he may be a doctor, a chairman of a bank, that will soon be a sponsor of this club. Because he grew up there. This is a youth product. He’s not just a football player and you have to be aware of that. If someone sees a club with a mission, that’s how you have to see it.
Your dream, which you mentioned in an interview for „Przeglad Sportowy”, was an own school by the academy. How do you see this in connection with the education system?
I said this a few years ago because our general education system did not respect much of what should support a child’s passion. That is, his sporting path. I see football as a spectacle, not as a primitive meeting of people and some kind of a war on the pitch. As a spectacle. As a theatre. As a unique spectacle and this vision of football also provokes me to see many other organizations that should support the passion of a child. I would like the education system to be correlated with the sporting path of a child or a player. At the beginning it was very difficult to correlate many activities. Then at Lech we found some solutions, for example we wrote, together with the coaches, the so-called pedagogical innovation at various levels, establishing a system of sports classes at a state school. This innovation allowed us, for example, to do one very important thing: not to identify it in the physical education lesson system, so our training with an age group, but with a training group. If a player needed to train with the appropriate training group, his age was of no importance. We had the possibility and permission to move players. In the normal system there was no such possibility. So we open sports classes and the player has to be at classes with his year group. But why can’t we raise the requirements for him? Since he should have an even higher bar in his artistry today? At Raków, my dream, to an extent, has come true. We opened a Sports Championship School at the level of high school, which is a school completely in our jurisdiction. The school’s governing body is RKS Raków Częstochowa. Legally, the chairman of the club is responsible for this school, while on the daily basis – I am responsible for it. I had the privilege to choose the headmaster, teachers and we are at the beginning of the way. It is a very joyful beginning, arousing some enthusiasm for further actions. We have set quite big educational requirements, so we have already had a case of one pupil leaving the school due to not meeting those requirements. But we believe that tactical periodisation and the whole model of our work require a process of intellectualisation from the player, require his brain, thinking. If he is not able to correlate the knowledge of geography with the history of Poland, he will also not read the information on the pitch correctly, he will not be able to link it together with himself.
So what we hear about an ambitious project that was created in Częstochowa, going in an interesting direction, is confirmed by your words…
We made a huge effort. At the conferences to which I am invited, I present a slide about the room for improvement at the club. I touch on the owners, chairmen, people managing clubs. I openly say why I see Polish football functioning like it does and where the room for improvement lies. I would like to delete this slide one day and experience an owner, who is a very noble character. May his business career accompany him in a measurable way. With such an approach, it may evolve towards a great deal of patience and a certain systemic solution. It is essential for the project to succeed. We have taken up a peculiar job, and I must honestly admit that the first three months of my work, the audit and the preparation of the project from next season, were the most difficult period so far in my career. Large logistic projects: Sports Championship School, sports classes, expanding the selection criteria at Raków, so the negative selection, which we had to do. Because I’m not afraid to say that we wanted to get out of the ubiquitous commercialism in Poland – as many children as possible, as many contributions as possible, and an average quality. One coach, 40 players on a bend. It’s a simple fraud! A child and their parents are cheated. Children come to training and have dreams. They want to become footballers. If there are 40 of them, how can one coach teach them anything? Parents often don’t understand it, but if they enrol their son to extra English lessons, what group would they want to send them to? A small group, to make sure he’s taken care of. This is a lesson! We want to do that too. But I’m off topic… The negative selection was very difficult. We had to make a decision to move some of our club’s players to partner clubs. We created a system of work and expanded it with an effective transport project. We were once on an internship at Ajax Amsterdam. They asked us – how many buses do you have? We cheated that we had two. Oh, we have 21 – they answered. Twenty-one buses with drivers who took children to the club and then picked them back up after school, every day. In Częstochowa we have created something similar, four buses go up to 40 kilometres from the city and take the kids home from school every day. In the system of sports classes we have five dedicated training units per week, and at four or five o’clock in the afternoon children are already at home and have some spare time in the evenings.
How many children do train in each training group following the process of negative selection?
The number of training groups can be unlimited as long as such are the infrastructure and financial possibilities so that coaches can be employed to work with these groups. Again, I’m going back to the table and the legs – you have to put this into an organisation that we can handle. We have so many coaches that we can’t stretch this out indefinitely. The important thing though is not how many groups we have, but indeed how many children there are in those groups. I have made that very clear. If I am talking about children’s groups, the number of children per group cannot exceed 12. This is also closely related to our training methodology, such as the foundations of the game. Everything is correlated with each other. Groups that play in seven-a-side and nine-a-side football consist of 16 players, and in 11-a-side football we can have from 20 up to 24 of them.
So after coming to a club, it’s not evolution, but revolution? Because some people talk about Śledź in the context of the latter.
I make a big protest, Przemek. Let me put it in another way… You come into your house, you have unwashed, there are dirty things lying somewhere, there is some dust, what do you do? Revolution or order? Or are you just cleaning up? If cleaning up certain things is a revolution, I disagree slightly. It’s not a revolutionary element. I’ve touched a lot of projects that were in chaos. For example, I’ve touched training places that someone has used in commercial relations. It was about quantity, not quality. I assume that quantity will come to the club, but based on quality. First, you need to create a quality elite, a project that will work greatly and that everyone will want to come to. Because everyone wants to play on the pitch next to the Polish champions. But first there has to be this magnet. We have great training sessions, we have high ethical and moral standards and on the basis of this pyramid we can have 1000 children. But training groups cannot have more than 12 players! Because we cheat a child who cannot be cheated. At the youngest level it is difficult to verify the development and carry put a selection process. Today I realise that we can make a mistake and get rid of Jaś Kowalski, who will soon turn out to be a very talented player at another club. Then we will have to get him back. But today we have to sort it out, that’s what we can do. We can fit jumpers into the wardrobe, so we can’t put 20 of them there, because they will get crumpled and there will be one big mess.
Apparently, many people are afraid of you…
I’m hearing the same thing. When there was once a rumour that I could become manager of one club, one of my coaches, who worked there at the time, was approached by a lady from the laundry. “Do you know Śledź?”, she asked. “I’ve heard he will come here and fire everyone!” It happens that I do this, it’s true. But it’s not easy for me. I take away a part of someone’s life, I decide their fate. But I always emphasize that it’s not me who fires people, it’s because of their working standards. I introduce a certain culture of work. We stand at the foot of the mountain, everyone gets a bag, and I keep putting stones into it. But at some point someone stops and says: „I don’t keep going, I don’t want to carry that bag any further. My legs hurt, I don’t fancy it.” Then they have to leave the group, because it will be a burden for them. Those who can do it, simply keep going.
What are you looking for in the coach and the person who you would like to work with?
A strong determining factor is knowledge. Preparation for work. But this is secondary, because I can take the burden of preparing the coach for work. The first aspect I look at, however, is personality and passion. Following something that will be a challenge. Devoting and making sacrifices for it. Besides, openness to education. I also pay attention to loyalty, but a well-understood loyalty. Not idolising and telling me what I want to hear every day, but loyalty to the project. This should be characterised by courage. Somebody wants to do something, decides, agrees on conditions that he will work with me in a specific way. So he can’t then say „I would do it differently” behind my back. He signed on to something, so he must be loyal to the project… If he disagrees with something, he must come and tell me. It can also lead to some modifications, because it is possible that his opinion is very constructive, of course.
I have been very lucky to people in my life. On my journey I met many exceptional people who followed me as a signpost. If we hadn’t talked about the players, the youth products, then my life winning match is these young people. The coaches. These are the beginnings of their young careers, but I believe those careers will be extremely enriched. These are the victories! Exceptional characters, top coaches, but also great personalities. Fantastic young people who have also followed human values. My controversy, which you mentioned at the beginning, may have such a reference. I don’t tend to respect people for their positions. I may respect someone for what they are like, but I don’t tend to kneel outside of the chairman’s office. If someone is an honest person, I will give my whole self for them. I’ll always put in a word for them.
How would you relate to the work of a coach and their earnings in Poland? Most of them combine their roles and by noon do something completely different than football.
It all depends on the level. Football isn’t just about professional clubs and academies. It is also about making the sport popular and that should take place. It is common all over the world that, for example, someone works in a bakery in the morning, but he is passionate about football and runs a training group in the afternoon. And great, there should be a lot of this. At professional level though, this is not acceptable. That’s why I criticise club structures so hard… If a club owner or chairman does not realise that the training of six-year-olds is as important as the training of the first team, it’s scandalous. In a while these people will be expecting a footballer to come from the academy. The right idea for the club is a place prepared for a boy from the academy in the first team. But how do we prepare him? If the one who leads the team doesn’t care about the boy to go through the training process properly and get there?. Then how is he supposed to get there?! But it’s a typical Polish attitude, everyone sees the tip of their nose.
If someone thinks more long-term, they will never hire a coach for 200 zloty and for the afternoon hours so that he or she can be a postman or sales representative. The work of a coach is not only two hours of a training session. It is also preparation, time to prepare the session, to discuss it. The head coach must divide the tasks – with the second coach, assistant. If someone builds something professional and wants to have professional results, he or she must take into account that it costs money. This is the most normal thing in the world. I’m talking about this pathology, because often the economic value of creating a professional academy is equal to the value of two contracts of average footballers at first-team level.
What advice would you give to coaches who would like to work at a professional academy? How to function if the pathology you’re talking about is omnipresent?
I don’t feel like I can heal the whole world. I can’t tell what they should do. I think everyone should have their moral backbone. The truth about people is reflected in critical situations. The wife of one of my coaches once told him when he asked her what to do after Śledź was fired: „you must never let yourself be treated like this.” That’s a beautiful sentence. He already knew that the following day he would hand in his notice and would not work at a place where something we were aiming for was destroyed. I would urge young people to follow their passion, but in the name of an essentially built hierarchy of values.
Are you open to internships at the Raków Academy?
I would like to treat coaches on an internship as I would like to be treated on an internship myself. I don’t need to feel recognised, I don’t publish many things, because I think it’s better if someone wants to learn something, just come to Częstochowa. You can spend a week, two weeks with me. I’m open to it, I’ll show you everything we do. The intern coach puts on a tracksuit, doesn’t just stand on the side with a notebook, participates in training, goes on the pitch. He’s at all the briefings, at all the activities. He is with us, we treat him like another coach on our staff. We also have a standardised idea for their social functioning. We have an agreement with our hall of residence, where we can accommodate the coaches. There, the food and social rates are very low, dedicated to them. Those interested are therefore invited to contact me by e-mail – email@example.com – with information about what they would like to experience during the internship, a CV and the proposed date of the internship.