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How Nick Cox transformed the academy culture at Manchester United

[Credit: Ash Donelon]

Nick Cox has played a leading role in transforming the academy culture within Manchester United, which culminated in last year’s FA Youth Cup triumph where they beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the final. This was United’s first triumph in the FA Youth Cup since 2011, when the likes of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard were playing.

Cox used to be a lecturer in sports science in the early 2000s and has used his experience to transform the United academy setup. Cox is also a big proponent of emotional intelligence and believes that in recent years, United and other category one football academies have been ahead of the curve in terms of the cultures they create for young athletes.

The Cox Philosophy

Cox’s approach to youth development combines a data-led sports science approach with an emphasis on mental health and a culture of vulnerability between players and coaches.

The journey for young players requires dedication and hours of hard work, hence Cox encourages coaches at United to ensure that the journey remains authentic and enjoyable for as long as possible. In particular, Cox encourages coaches and players to embrace a playing environment where mistakes are allowed and empathy towards others is accepted.

On the High-Performance Podcast, hosted by Jake Humphrey, Cox states: “I can never claim who I’ve helped develop, that’s for them.” Cox proclaims this as his one of his golden rules of coaching and believes this helped him develop players like Jadon Sancho when he was at Watford.

A relationship between a player and a coach should be based on connection and trust, according to Cox, which helps to set up players in different walks of life, as the chances of becoming a professional footballer are extremely low.

Cox believes that understanding mental health, especially for young men at football academies, should be central to a coaches’ education. At United, Cox believes that vulnerability and being authentic on and off the pitch is key for young players to develop and improve.

On the High-Performance Podcast, Cox says that one of his main aims when becoming the head of the academy at United was to “make it ok to share weakness and show vulnerability’’ for the players, but also the coaching staff.

Finally, Cox describes the five non-negotiables that exist within the current United academy. These non-negotiables spell out ‘BATON’ and represent brave, adaptable, together, optimistic, nobody else but us and no other time but now.

Identifying talent and embracing the culture

Another key aspect of the changing culture that Cox has brought to the United academy system since joining in 2016 is ensuring that talent identification is well thought out, so that the right characters are brought into the club.

Since becoming the head of the academy in 2019, Cox has made it clear that there is no shortage of talent across the world for United to recruit. The main footballing attributes for a player to join United include game understanding, technical and tactical ability, athleticism, and character. However, Cox has encouraged the coaches at United to look especially for values of emotional intelligence when recruiting and selecting players.

Within the current setup, United academy coaches link character with spirit, and both are seen as critical aspects of being able to play for United. Cox told the High-Performance Podcast that spirit can be defined as an “ability to learn, resilience, it’s an intrinsic drive to want to get better at something and a competitive fire.”

Cox believes the emotional intelligence of players is equally important as their footballing abilities. In fact, he concludes that “Everyone has got athleticism, everyone has got some technique, everyone has got some game sense, but the non-negotiable is character.”

A bright future

As noted above, the highlight of Cox’s reign as academy manager so far is the FA Youth Cup win last year. A key reason for the recent success can be linked to the values and ideas Cox has brought to the club to ensure that dressing rooms across all age groups are honest and emotionally vulnerable. Under the guidance of Cox and his vision for an open culture within the United academy, the future is bright for the red side of Manchester.

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