Harry Varley – Residential Academy

Harry Varley – Residential Academy

There are no “off days”, I finish the week with the feeling that I am on the ground working alongside the boys to help them to achieve their dream. Nothing can beat that feeling.

The Residential Academy

I had experienced a number of coaching and academy environments by the time I received the offer to move to Cambodia, and coach at a full-time residential academy, in 2014. The idea of returning to Asia appealed to me but it was something more than that.

I had become frustrated with the culture of excuses that surrounds academies in the UK and elsewhere. Too much time is spent talking about the mental side of the game and this being the reason why kids fail. It was a problem that made me feel as if working inside that system was futile. I am an impatient person and when I thought about the scope that was potentially provided by full-time access to players I decided I needed to explore this option immediately.

Cambodia was a real proving ground for the experiment. The academy was rife with mismanagement, recruitment of players with poor character and a cultural influence that was extremely detrimental to creating elite level professionals.

I fought to change this but reluctantly decided after 8 months that the people in charge didn’t have the same vision that I did and were deep into the process of creating bad footballers and bad people. At the same time I was utterly convinced that if done right a residential academy is the only true way to comprehensively develop talent. The examples of the JMG academy in Ivory Coast and Right to Dream in Ghana further solidified this belief.

After a brief but eventful sojourn working with the Grenada National Team (another story for another day) the role in Uganda came my way. This time I was not in such a hurry and made sure to ask some very detailed questions to ensure that I would not meet the same challenges that I faced in my first outing. After lengthy discussions I was confident that this was opportunity that I had been looking for.

I am now a year into my time in Uganda and by no means in a position to give a final assessment but below I will address why I am convinced that the residential academy environment is unrivalled as the best way to develop young talent.


In our program we train 5 days a week with one or two games a week depending on the way we wish to program the schedule. This level of access to the players provides us with the flexibility and control to tailor to the individual and group needs of our players. It allows us to develop a theme over an extended period of time from a range of angles to ensure clarity of comprehension and linear learning and the ability to develop individual training programs for players that we can regularly assess and revise to help us pursue the goal of maximising what makes them “great”.

Character Development

Working with the boys year round allows us to implement a classroom curriculum focusing on the mental and character traits that will help them to be a professional in the sport. This curriculum has elements of lectures, discussions and performance. The beauty of working with them everyday means we can modify the curriculum in line with the specific areas that the players need most improvement in. 

Dormitory life

The key benefits that come with having the boys living together is an in-built climate of competition and cooperation. There are players to practice with and to compete against, which is integral  in helping each individual push to be better. We have selected the best young talent from across Uganda so they are training and competing with the best everyday. Additionally we are looking after the nutrition and medical care of the boys to ensure that they are in peak condition.

Personal Life

Daily interaction with the boys allows us to build a connection with the boys so that we are aware of personal struggles that may be affecting them. The majority of the boys are on journeys as people and we are in a position to support them as they grow into self-sufficient adults. Key moments in this development period can be missed when you only see them at a training session a few times a week. The in-depth understanding of each boy and what makes them tick only comes in the residential environment.

As an overview this covers some of the broader strengths of the program.

As a coach it takes a huge amount of commitment to make it work. There are no “off days”. You become a surrogate parent as well as a coach. At the same time I finish the week with the feeling that I am on the ground working alongside the boys to help them to achieve their dream. Nothing can beat that feeling.

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