NIMBLE, SMARTER, TOGETHER: RFYC EMBRACE TECH SOLUTION TO SCOUT TALENT IN COVID TIMES

In the Nellogi household in Hyderabad, the sound of a football being kicked around is a constant companion. Even during the lockdown, at every opportunity he got once his online schooling for the day was completed, 12-year old Ayush would rush to the terrace to kick a ball around. His father was an encouraging presence, supportive of his son’s dedication towards “improving and perfecting” his skills.  

 

Ayush, like thousands of kids his age around the country, has dreams of forging a career in the game. Like his favourite player Harry Kane, he has aspirations of becoming a lethal striker. What began as a hobby three years ago has turned into an obsessive pursuit.

For the last couple of years, Ayush has been preparing to make a case for himself to be selected to train at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) Academy in Navi Mumbai, a fully paid five-year residential program. For aspiring footballers like Ayush, the academy, with its focus on sports training, academics and holistic development of players in equal measure, has emerged as among the most sought after institutions in the country.

Over the last couple of years, RFYC has been conferred Two-Star Academy status by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), one of only two residential academies in India alongside Bengaluru FC to be granted this status; and a 5-star rating by the AIFF Academy Accreditation process in 2019, the first youth academy in India to earn that distinction.

 

In the past, for aspirants such as Ayush, the pathway to put their hand up for a spot was fairly straightforward. Scouts from RFYC would travel across the country, holding sessions where emerging footballers from the region would converge. The process was exhaustive, starting with scouts selecting players from local regions, followed by coaches from the academy personally monitoring them train and play. Once the best players from around the country were identified, they would be invited to Mumbai for a seven-day camp for in-depth evaluations, leading to the final list of players being accepted into the academy.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic upended that process entirely. Football activities, like much else, came to standstill in the country. From a scouting perspective, the coaching staff at RFYC were confronted with a unique challenge - How can they identify talented players without physically watching them in action? After much deliberation, a solution was found and the academy aligned with AiSCOUT, a UK based company that has pioneered a technology solution that uses video based artificial intelligence to gauge a player’s technique, skill, stamina and overall footballing ability.

 

The beauty of the process lies in its simplicity. Using the National Rating Score (NRS) to quantify a player’s physical performance, AiSCOUT can measure and benchmark performances across various age groups. Once the application is downloaded onto a phone, the player enters their profile details before entering the NRS trials. The trials are designed to measure the core physical competencies, measuring attributes such as Speed, Power, Strength, muscular endurance and co-ordination of the aspirant.

Once this is complete, the virtual trials "unlock", which then allows them to choose the RFYC trials. These can include aspects such as passing, dribbling and shooting. The NRS, coupled with organisation specific drills and exercises help scouts to score and rate players, all done remotely, overcoming the hurdles created by the pandemic.

 

Ayush, getting increasingly concerned as the lockdown continued about missing the bus altogether, learnt about the process while scrolling down his Instagram feed. Enthused, he went to work immediately, downloading the application, completing the trials and uploading a video of himself.

“He found it very easy to use and understand,” says his father Praveen Nellogi. “Of course, kids these days are very well versed with technology, but he faced no issue in registering on and navigating through the application. The trials themselves were intense, but he had a fun time doing them. The in-built tutorial helps to visualise each exercise before doing it.”

“We are very happy that he has got the chance to be seen by the scouts and coaches at RFYC,” he added. “This platform has given him the chance to be noticed by some professional scouts and realise his dream.”

“The AiSCOUT platform has been a big help to us in this difficult year,” says Steve Charles, Head of Scouting at RFYC. “Once everything was shut down and our usual player discovery methods affected, we had to find a way a workaround. In that sense, the tool has been a great asset for us. Not only has it allowed us to conduct scouting remotely, it has also given us access to regions we previously were unable to reach.”

“We’ve honestly been completely blown away by the enthusiasm the players have shown so far and the quality on display,” he added. “With thousands of players and potential Young Champs signing up for the trials, our coaches have their work cut out! The addition of the tool has brought in a scientific element to our traditional scouting processes. The NRS and RFYC trials allow us to remotely evaluate thousands of entrants and invite the best of the best for our regional and final scouting camp.”

 

In the United Kingdom, where the platform was used initially, early indicators point to the success of the model. More than 18,000 users aged 8-23 participated and have received analysis and feedback this year. Several Premier League as well as Championship (First Division) clubs have taken to the platform and players are already starting to earn selection on the basis of the scouting method. The Football Associations of Australia and Sweden have reviewed players and the Sri Lankan national squad have called up players on the basis of AiSCOUT trials. The alliance with India’s leading football academy allows the platform to test its viability in a new territory.

“For us, the opportunity to work with the RFYC Academy is incredible,” says Richard Felton Thomas, COO, AiSCOUT. “As an organisation, they have a fantastic track record at developing talented players and securing pathways into professional football. Our role is to help them reach and analyse more players than they have ever been able to before. We both hope and expect to find some exceptionally gifted young individuals that are just waiting to be seen.”

“The whole purpose behind the concept is to level the playing field for the recruitment of academy level players, engage, progress & monitor players who do not make the academy process, and assist the players who just want to get better at football,” he adds. “By automating the recruitment process and increasing the number of players available to the clubs and clubs available to players. It provides an equal opportunity for all young people to be trialled for professional football clubs, FA’s, federations, and universities.”

“For clubs, it lowers recruitment costs while expanding reach and generating complete, data driven, profiles of prospective players,” he explains further. “The tool does not seek to replace the football recruitment professionals. It seeks to leverage their capability and make them more effective. Under the AiSCOUT paradigm, a club’s football professionals and talent identification capabilities will be more valuable and more important than ever.”

At RFYC, nine of whose graduates from the first batch of ten students last year earned professional contracts with Indian Super League clubs, excellence has been the buzzword since operations began in 2015. The unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic demanded a nimble response, while adhering to strict guidelines to ensure the safety of its staff and players scholars.

Fortunately, a solution has been found to ensure scouting across the country continues, so the aspirations of determined kids such as Ayush Nellogi, who dreams of one day wearing the national jersey and playing in the English Premiership, aren’t crushed in the wake of an unprecedented crisis.

NIMBLE, SMARTER, TOGETHER: RFYC EMBRACE TECH SOLUTION TO SCOUT TALENT IN COVID TIMES

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