Claire Fontaine

D.C. United U-18 Academy Head Coach Nolan Sheldon completes first portion of 16-month FFF course

After traveling to Clairefontaine, France for the first session of a 16-month course, held by the French Football Federation (FFF), U-18 Academy Head Coach Nolan Sheldon returned to the nation’s capital with some international perspective on youth development. Sheldon is among 19 MLS Academy representatives chosen to participate in the program, which will culminate with him earning the Elite Formation Coaching License (EFCL).
“We spent a week in Clairefontaine with the French Federations' coaches and instructors,” said Sheldon. “They used lectures, classroom activities and on-field sessions to walk us through the French methodology. We really got, what I would consider at this point, an introduction to how the French approach youth development.”
The French, Sheldon described, divide age groups into “Pre-Formation,” “Formation.” and “Post-Formation” and have teaching methods catered to each stage of development. At first glance, from Sheldon’s perspective, a main point of emphasis of the French youth development methodology lies in how technical abilities are shaped while also nurturing creativity and the autonomy of the player.

“Our focus at a very young age is technical repetition,” said Sheldon. “This is also true with the French; however they place a great emphasis on a training technique within a tactical context. They put their players in scenarios that offers a tactical dilemma and call upon their technical abilities and creativity to find a solution. So, it’s just not repetition for the sake of repetition. It’s repetition for the sake of solving tactical problems.”
Another significant emphasis of the first session was lectures on psychology and the emotional development of the player. Of paramount importance for the French are a player’s mental capacities, which the country’s coaches believe are the catalyst to creativity in the European nation’s style of play.
“They’ll favor a player that is creative and reads the game well over a superior athlete,” said Sheldon. “They'll take a player that isn’t necessarily the most athletic and through motor exercises, they'll improve that player's coordination and athleticism quite quickly.”
All of this said, the FFF’s expectations are not for MLS academies to replicate the French system. Rather, the aim is for the representatives to identify areas of the French methodology that can be implemented at their respective academies.
“The French teaching methodology was very impressive and has led me to reflect on my teaching methods and how I can be more effective in my profession,” said Sheldon “They were honest and essentially said, ‘This is the way we’ve chosen to do it. This isn’t the only way to develop players, but we've had success in doing things this way.’”