Inside Germany's Ultra-Competitive Soccer Coaching Academy

Germany makes soccer coaches the same way it makes cars: with uniform precision that keeps an eye on both tradition and innovation.

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Mar 19 2015, 4:30pm

Agência Brasil, creative commons

In the world of European soccer, there is not a more interesting coach than Roger Schmidt. You know who I'm talking about. Tall, thin, with slicked down, dark hair, he looks almost avian perched in the technical area during Bayer Leverkusen games. He's considered one of the most tactically forward-thinking coaches in the world, redefining the concept of high-pressure defense, taking the gegenpress popularized by Jurgen Klopp, and turning it up to 11.

Here's something you might not know. As recently as 2007, Schmidt worked as a mechanical engineer. Every day after work, he exchanged his blueprints for a whistle and drove to his second job, managing a tiny semi-pro team in northwestern Germany, just outside of Paderborn.

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Going from engineer to Champions League manager in less than a decade is Hollywood stuff. Given his quick rise and sudden influence, it's tempting to think of the guy as a kind of tactical, managerial genius, and maybe he is. But there's more to the story. Roger Schmidt—along just about every other German coach you can think of—wasn't so much unearthed as he was made.

Don't believe me? Schmidt, German men's national team head coach Joachim Löw, former Bayern treble winner Jupp Heynckes, and women's national team head coach Silvia Neid all hold state-recognized Fußball-Lehrer (literally "soccer teacher") degrees from the Hennes-Weisweiler-Akademie, which is basically the Top Gun of coaching institutions, a finishing school offering a ten-month course to a select few of Germany's brightest and most talented young coaches. U.S Men's National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann finished at the Akademie in June of 2000.

Schmidt's success since graduating from the Akademie in 2011 isn't even a one-off. His classmates included Hannover 96's current head coach Tayfun Korkut; Augsburg's Markus Weinzierl; Hoffenheim's Markus Gisdol; and national team assistant coach Thomas Schneider.

Roger Schmidt - Credit: Werner100359, creative commons

You might think it's weird that a semi-pro coach like Schmidt even got into a school like Hennes-Weisweiler, but the school is designed to give opportunities to guys just like him. The course itself is collaborative and practical, and the instructors look to bring in students from diverse backgrounds who can then share and give feedback from varied perspectives. That doesn't mean every suburban dad with a whistle and a copy of Soccer for Dummies is invited to apply. Applicants must already have UEFA-A licenses and years of experience coaching at a high level. The ideal class is made up of a mix of amateur or semi-pro coaches from the sixth division or above; youth academy coaches who have often studied sports science at a university; and former Bundesliga players, like Torsten Frings, who's part of the 2015 class.

Each year about 80 applicants go through a grueling, three-day assessment. When it's all done, the Akademie staff admits only the top 24. The assessment is broken into three parts. In the first, applicants are interviewed and then given a written exam about soccer logic. They're shown a tactics board or a flip chart or maybe a short game reel and asked how they'd solve various problems tactically. This is followed by a two-hour practical exam, which is essentially a simulated training session. The applicants might be asked, for example, to prepare a mock team to face an opponent based on a scouting report that says the opposing team will build up in a 4-4-2 system. This is followed by another written exam.

Throughout the entire process, the instructors pay close attention to personality and how the various candidates work as a team. They're even observed by a psychologist, who makes recommendations on which applicants are best prepared mentally for the challenge ahead.

"At the end of the day we need quality, of course," explains Brendan Birch, an administrator at the Akademie. Along with colleagues Björn Müller and chief instructor Frank Wormuth, Birch makes up the extent of the Akademie's core staff. "We need to have these three different parts in the assessment center, but we also need to talk about the people, because we want not only the 24 best people in the course, training-wise, but we want the best group."

As you might imagine, after three days of testing, applicants who don't make the cut can get pretty angry, and the staff is used to dealing with disappointment: heated voicemails, ranting emails. Birch says it's a normal, if unfortunate, part of the process. "You always have people who come this year, next year, in three years' time, and we say, 'Yeah, you did a good job, but you're not in the top 24. You're not in the course. Please come again next year.'"

Emotions run high because the Akademie's history means it has a certain cultural prestige inside German soccer. It's been around since 1947, which is 16 years before the Bundesliga even existed. The students are constantly reminded of the place's rich history. Inside the Akademie, it's all around them.

The Academie operates out of Sportschule Hennef, an elite, multi-sport training complex tucked into the woods just outside of Bonn. At the Sportschule, the Akademie occupies a small wing of a nondescript two-story building set back along the woodline on a hill overlooking a swimming pool and a track. There's a group of soccer fields behind the trees on a neighboring hilltop. A five-foot-tall gray-and-white timeline is painted on the length of the main hallway, ticking off the five World Cup victories the men's and women's national teams took home before last summer. A blank space on the end waits for the 2014 World Cup, and future victories beyond. Window-sized, sketched portraits of the Akademie's four former directors hang among the world titles.

German National Team coach Joachim Löw (right) with his assistant Hans-Dieter Flick. Photo by Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports.

But the aspiring coaches don't come here just to tread on the Akademie's reputation. In 2008, the Fußball-Lehrer degree became the equivalent to the UEFA Pro License, which is the highest level of coaching education offered by UEFA. The requirements of the Fußball-Lehrer degree actually go way beyond those of the UEFA Pro license, but it's the Pro License that UEFA has made mandatory for top division head coaches across Europe. If you want to work at the highest level as a European coach, you need the Pro License, and if you're in Germany, that means you need to come here.

In Germany, coaches don't just need the Pro License to manage Bundesliga teams, they need it to manage in the second and third divisions as well. And all those youth academies that soccer journalists love to talk about? The ones that produced Götze and Schürrle, the players who combined for the World Cup's winning goal? They are required to employ at least two Pro License-holding coaches, but most have many more.

In other words, coaching in Germany is standardized at the highest level throughout the breadth and depth of the nation's soccer structure. This isn't the case in competing countries. In England, for instance, Football League guidelines stipulate managers in League One—the third division—must only hold a UEFA-A license, which is like a master's to the Pro License's PhD. In England's Championship—the second division—managers must begin working toward the UEFA Pro license by August 1, 2015.

The Pro License isn't what makes the Hennes-Weisweiler-Akademie unique—UEFA has accredited 45 Pro License schools and academies across the continent. What makes the Akademie unique is the depth and breadth of the education it offers. UEFA mandates Pro License courses provide a minimum of 240 hours of education. According to The Guardian, the FA's Pro License course includes 256 hours of education. At the Akademie, they do 815 hours.

The reason the course is so robust has to do with Germany's somewhat unique educational philosophy, one that goes way beyond the Akademie's walls. Germany's regular school system is geared toward vocational training in a way that the American education system is not. Most kids go to school with the goal of doing something called an ausbildung in their chosen field once they graduate. Essentially an apprenticeship, the ausbildung system has deep roots in Germany, going all the way back to the medieval guilds that once controlled the region's commerce. Today, the system is based around a mix of theoretical coursework with participatory fieldwork. You don't just study in a classroom, you also spend time learning alongside experts in the field. Electricians, chefs, masons, school teachers, and doctors all follow a similar setup—so it's no surprise that the student coaches in Hennef do as well.

The first thing students do when accepted to the course is travel together to a summer tournament—a youth World Cup or European Championship—where they learn what professional scouts do when on the road. In pairs or small groups, they film games and breakdown footage and then present their work to the rest of the class.

The presentation is just as important as the content. The course's philosophy, according to Müller, is, "Who teaches, learns." In the classroom, students work through the theoretical side of each module—tactical theory, physiotherapy, psychology, pedagogy—which are often taught by guest master-lecturers. When that's finished, they head outside to do a practical lesson. These practical lessons are frequently created by the students under the watchful eye of Akademie staff. The students then carry out the lessons in small groups—usually two-by-two—before returning to the larger group for a round of hot-seat criticism. This is why the staff puts so much importance on selecting the right personalities from the pool of applicants. The students need to be willing to leave their egos at home and accept constructive criticism.

If there's a downside to all of this, it's that the system is inherently exclusive. UEFA's Pro License policy means there is only one door in for aspiring professional coaches. The Akademie compounds this structural exclusion by selecting for an ideal personality type, which a wide range of potentially gifted coaches might not have. There's nothing the Akademie can do about UEFA's policy, and its admissions standards aren't likely to change either. They're a reflection of how the game has evolved. The role of a manager is no longer one of an infallible leader who controls everything, but one where delegation and interpersonal skills are more important than anything else.

Jurgen Klinsmann - Credit Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

The goal of the course is to give each student-coach the tools he or she needs to work with the specialists that occupy the back rooms of modern Bundesliga teams. "Not only a theoretical insight, but a practical insight about the kinds of work you have to know about as a coach, as a pro coach," says Birch. "So that's why we do these different kinds of things we do."

They've got to be able to understand what the fitness team does, and how to speak the same language as the stats guys and the people who breakdown game footage. When a team doctor warns about overtraining, the coaches need to know to look for sunken eyes and other warning signs that go along with too much work.

To this end, in addition to the theoretical and practical lessons, each student is required to complete eight weeks of internships. The internships are a key part of the process, but they're not included in the 815 hours. Each student is placed with the first team of a Bundesliga club, where they can observe everything they've just learned about and practiced at the Akademie. For many, the internship is the first taste they've ever had of elite, Bundesliga soccer.

People often marvel at how many young, domestic coaches get opportunities in the Bundesliga, and this is why. Teams know what kind of manager they're getting: one that's well rounded and prepared to take advantage when an opportunity presents itself. And thanks to the internship process, they often know the coaches personally ahead of time.

That's how Rodger Schmidt got his shot. After he graduated from the Akademie, he went right to work at SC Paderborn, which was then in the Second Bundesliga. From there, he refined his distinctive system of play during a two year stint at Red Bull Salzburg. But that's not necessarily where he came up with his progressive tactical approach. He'd been thinking about it since his days as a student at the Akademie, if not sooner. Before students graduate from the Akademie, they are assigned a 15-page term paper. After spending a year immersed in German soccer tradition and under the influence of 23 talented peers, Rodger Schmidt wrote up his own philosophy and turned it in.