A Youth Development System Built over a Quarter of a Century Antlers Academy Aiming for Further Progress and Growth
All J.League clubs are required to run Youth (high school age), Junior Youth (middle school age), and Junior (elementary school age) development academies in order to produce professional players. To achieve that aim Antlers has a wide scouting network in many prefectures, but from the very beginning the club has not only focused on recruiting top level players from around the country but also laying down football roots in the local prefecture of Ibaraki in order to create a system through which talented players from the region can be developed. The current target is to strive to have five or six products of the youth set-up as regulars in the first team, and a restructuring of the development process – including the approach taken by all staff involved in youth development – is being undertaken in order to achieve that aim.
The Antlers Academy is at the heart of that process, and from the very outset ‘Kashima’ has focused upon the east of the prefecture, ‘Tsukuba’ on the south, and ‘Norte’ on the north. The Youth are currently based at the same clubhouse in Kashima as the first team, while the Junior Youth and Juniors variously work at the Kashima, Tsukuba, and Norte facilities in three branches of a pyramid system.
That set-up is further supported by Soccer Schools in 16 locations within Ibaraki and one in Chiba prefecture. Players with potential spotted here are then invited for Special Courses or Strengthening Courses, and then from fourth grade of elementary school welcomed into the Junior set- up, or from middle school into the Junior Youth. The academy looks to take full responsibility for improvement by taking care of the familiarisation and development process.
The two standards instilled from Junior level are that the club is looking to produce regular players for the first team and also to establish Antlers as a part of everyday life. Antlers Youth, which sits at the top of the system, has also had a tie-up with Kashima Gakuen school in Kashima City since 2004, part of which sees players also attend the school alongside their football. This agreement means the schedule for the whole team can be optimised to ensure enough time for practice and study, enabling more effective training to be carried out. In 2011 we signed an agreement with Meiji Holdings (currently Meiji SAVAS), who provide all meals at the dormitory according to the advice of registered nutritionists.
The opportunity to participate in top team training and practice matches, as well as attending pre-season camps, is also of huge benefit. In 2018, goalkeeper Yuya Oki was promoted to the top team having gained invaluable high-level experience by joining training and camps since entering the youth set-up. The club also runs an academy training centre system. Launched in 2010, this sees three Junior Youth teams selected from the Kashima, Tsukuba, and Norte facilities to help the players prepare to compete for promotion to the Youth team. The teams then take part in a series of training camps domestically and overseas in order to improve players’ individual levels. Furthermore, an Academy League was launched last year and will continue this year. This league sees games played between Youth and Junior Youth teams at various locations, complete with referees and the same regulation time as official matches. Playing against teams at a different age level in an atmosphere close to that of a real game aids player development, as well as increasing the amount of time coaches of the different categories can spend together, enabling them to share objective and efficient evaluations of the players.
Furthermore, the opportunities for vital overseas training camps are also being increased. In the five years between 2005 and 2010 all categories combined took part in just 14 camps outside of Japan, whereas in the five years since 2011 that number jumped to 42 – a threefold increase. Participation in international competitions is also key, and in 2012 we won the U12 Gyeongju International Youth Championships in South Korea, before winning the Asia Champions Trophy (U18) in 2015 – the latter a competition which can be considered as the youth version of the AFC Champions League. Such experience abroad is an absolutely priceless asset for the players.
With regards to the aforementioned organisational restructure, the foundations have been laid. To accelerate that reform, last season an Antlers Technical Committee was formed and a consistent play style and coaching system established from the top team down to the Junior team. As well as that, the ‘Youth Development Ibaraki’ project has been launched this year in conjunction with the Ibaraki Prefectural Football Association, J2 side Mito Hollyhock, Tsukuba University, and Ryutsu Keizai University, indicating that it is not just Antlers but the whole prefecture striving for even greater results from youth development. The enhancement and reform of the academy will continue apace with the aim not only of producing more key players for the first team like Hitoshi Sogahata, Takuya Nozawa, Shoma Doi, and Yuma Suzuki, but also to ensure the positive development as people of those players who are unable to realise their dreams of progressing to the top team.
Antlers Academy key achievements
|1998||J.Youth Cup winners (Youth)
|2002||Prince Takamado Cup winners (Kashima Junior Youth)
|2004||J.Youth Cup winners (Youth)
|2007||Japan U-12 Football Championship runners-up (Kashima Junior)
|2012||Gyeongju International Youth Championship winners (Kashima Junior)
|2014||J.Youth Cup winners (Youth)
Japan Club Youth Soccer Championship (U15) winners
|2015||Asia Champions Trophy winners (Youth)
Prince Takamado U18 Premier League East winners (Youth)
Prince Takamado U18 Soccer League 2015 Championship winners (Youth)
Vermont Cup All Japan U-12 Futsal Championship winners (Tsukuba Junior)
Prince Takamado Cup third place (Kashima Junior Youth)
Japan U-12 Football Championship runners-up (Kashima Junior)