The Angle

Ben Sippola: From Northfield to New Zealand (Part II)

by on 9 November 2017

This is part two of a two-part story. First we met Minnesota’s own Ben Sippola, who started in Northfield, MN and now coordinates the Ole Soccer Academy in Porirua, New Zealand. Now, we hear how his experiences supporting the development of young players reflects what he went through in Minnesota and what he hopes to see for both Kiwi and American players in the future.

There’s a lot on Ben Sippola’s mind these days. Most of it is about what comes next.

“Growth and development, those are really critical terms to talk about. And that’s where you can really get quite deep in regards to what is the best way to grow and develop the American player. It’s not that dissimilar to here in New Zealand.”

Sippola’s all about growth. He worked hard to grow at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, at Butler University, in his professional career. Now he’s supporting the growth of a brand new soccer culture in the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand at the Ole Football Academy. While the academy has already seen tremendous growth, Sippola knows there’s more to be done. Academy graduates have made both youth and full men’s national teams. They play in European leagues and NCAA Division 1 tournaments. But while the players he oversees have grown, development is harder to hammer down.

“I very much see a need around strategic planning in youth football development,” Sippola explains. “I see systems that are, for lack of a better word, fragmented. So there is no comprehensive plan, if I’m a youth footballer, to develop in New Zealand or the Pacific Islands.”

“What New Zealand [has] done is maybe implemented too much rugby into the football, we refer to it as ‘rugball’ at times.”

That fragmented system begets confusion when the best players come together. If academies don’t communicate with clubs, clubs don’t communicate with the national football association, and the football association doesn’t communicate with the academies, then players might grow as individuals. However, they would be unlikely develop a system, an identity, or a style.

Within that fragmented system, the gaps are filled with local culture. As Sippola sees it, “The New Zealand player has always been known for one thing, and that’s their industrious nature.” Think of stalwart defenders Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid, or consider the gritty goalscorers Chris Wood and Shane Smeltz. These are hard-nosed scrappers who Sippola sees as a reflection of how Kiwis compete. “That’s very much in football, and the development of football is a reflection of the culture that you are raised in. So there’s no doubt that the rugby culture in New Zealand has a major impact on its football culture as well.

“What New Zealand [has] done is maybe implemented too much rugby into the football, we refer to it as ‘rugball’ at times. There isn’t as much focus on skill and technique and decision making. There’s more emphasis on power and fighting and combativeness, which, if you’re looking at the modern game around the world, that’s not how the modern player is developed. That’s not the trend that the game is moving towards.”

So what’s a leader in development supposed to do? In Sippola’s case, move forward. “We’ve eliminated rugball from our curriculum. When you look at our curriculum and the pedagogy and how we go about teaching the player, we bring it back to the essence of giving the game back to the player….We develop players within a 4-3-3 model, that’s our formation. Our style of play is quick passing. It must be entertaining. The players must play fair. And winning is a just a consequence of developing players [who] are comfortable with the ball, [who] are technical and skillful.

“You still have to embrace the Kiwi identity which is very much all players around the world must be industrious, but then you must teach the game a different way than it has been. We develop the New Zealand player differently than they probably have been developed.”

For signs of Ole Academy’s success, look no further than May’s U-20 World Cup. To be sure the Young Whites had two Ole Academy prospects (forward Noah Billingsley and midfielder Callum McCowatt). Additionally the other squad from Oceania, Vanuatu, are similarly indebted to Ole Academy. Both Sippola and technical director Declan Edge supported the small island squad’s development and qualification for one of the world’s biggest tournaments.

International competition is nice, but Sippola knows it’s only a part of the process, not the end of it, “competition certainly plays a role in development. But development is about training six days a week over the course of a long term.”

“Everybody wants it too soon. They want to be playing in the MLS too soon, they want a division one scholarship too soon. There’s no fast track to becoming the best player you’re capable of.”

Sippola knows what he sees as the ultimate goal. “I would like to see a New Zealand football that has an alignment from the grassroots levels to the most elite side of the game. [A system] where clubs and academies are working in collaboration with the New Zealand Football Administration to produce the best players they’re capable of.” That’s the system, the holistic system, that will serve the country and the players equally well.

That’s a belief built on Sippola’s experience, both in New Zealand and in the States. “If I were to compare my experience in New Zealand to my experience in the U.S., we’re probably where the United States was ten-fifteen years ago, with that fragmented talent identification system: club, academy, school.

“I’ll be the first to say my University experience was incredible, and there were facets of development that took place, but if I was looking to become the best player that I could, the University system is not set up to develop players. It is more set up as a competition.” That constant rush to compete, to win, to finish, doesn’t serve the desired end of a full national system.

For Sippola it all comes back to one core belief: “Nothing grows if you don’t bless it with your patience.”

“Everybody wants it too soon. They want to be playing in the MLS too soon, they want a division one scholarship too soon. There’s no fast track to becoming the best player you’re capable of.”

To that end, Sippola and his colleagues rely on Anders Ericsson’s philosophies brought to notoriety by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers. The theory explains that it takes 10,000 hours to build expertise. “A lot of our philosophies here center around purposeful practice over a long-term period. So to develop as a player you need a long term body of work. We’re in the business of long term player development. There is no short cut, and you need to be taking place in deliberative purposeful practice everyday. That means that every day you need to be pushed out of your comfort zone.”

From a young leader who could have settled for being a legend in the land of Colleges, Cows and Contentment, pushing out of your comfort zone isn’t only a hard won lesson, it’s an excellent piece of advice for everyone interested in what’s next for development and growth.

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  • Clint

    Really, cool story. I’m interested to hear of the similar problems of fragmentation. Interestingly, I have a colleague at my university from New Zealand and he and I have been discussing a study abroad course that could allow our students to dig deeper on these types of structural differences and similarities in sport between the two nations. Very timely interview for me to read!

  • nomadic loon

    a very good read…. thanks!