By Stéphane Peaucelle-Laurens
Photos by Marie Quéau
Translator Florence Beretta

Tahar Assed-Liégeon, is the Director of the INSEP’s Basketball program:  “We started this projet in 2004.  I took on the class of ‘89, which was the first in a new era.  Prior to 2004, we only enrolled 4 to 5 players every year.  We had a large margin of error and we almost had to make mistakes.  For example, people would say to us “Nicolas Batum didn’t get into the INSEP.”  That is true, because at that time, only 4 or 5 a year would get in.  However, today he would easily be accepted into the program.  Antoine Diot and Edwin Jackson’s class, who came in right after that in 2004, included 12 enrollees.  Our thinking was that, if we take 12 first-year athletes, the margin of error will be smaller.  By enrolling 4 per year, the margin was too large.  Today, the realization is that we consider that there are 6 or 7 potential national French team members in each class.”

One can easily conclude that there is very little room for error.  The program’s management is definitely under pressure and clearly have an obligation to perform.  Every year, the program must produce players for the national team.

T.A-L.: “The program was created through a contract between the Basketball Federation and the government.  The aim of the program is to provide the category A French national team with talent for competitions, the Olympic Games, and the European and World Championships in the youth categories.  That is strictly what we are evaluated on.  Last September, I was asked to give the INSEP a list of all the young athletes that came from the federal center and played in the French team’s different competitions.  We know that we are doing well when 50 to 60% of our athletes are on the French team.  If that percentage drops, the purpose of our program might be called into question.  There are 27 INSEP branches in France and here we have a limited amount of beds, which means that we must maintain excellent standards.”

With this need for excellence, the basketball program has to redefine itself every day, in order to remain the establishment that all young athletes dream of getting into. Training centers like the ASVEL are becoming more and more attractive and thus, new competition.  Considering the quality of training centers all over France and their development abroad, it’s important to know how to sell yourself.  The INSEP understands that, and is being proactive by upping its communications strategy.  

« The aim of the program is to provide the category A French national
team »
« Practicing daily involves both investment and organization »

« This year, the federation has put a major communication plan in place.  The first step is the logo for the French program, which has been named Yvan Mainini.  We also have a new sponsoring brand and a great one at that: Jordan.  Our image is going to change.”

INSEP’s basketball program does not scowl at the rise of other French training facilities, quite the opposite:

« Training centers have been around since the late eighties and in the nineties, they began to perform well.  Today, there are a number of promising players who can’t get into our program because of limited space, and are therefore taken on by a training center, like Rudy Gobert or Charles Kahudi, for example.  There are also some athletes who develop later on, some reach their adult height at 16 or 17 years of age, while others do at 22 or 23.  Nature is just that way, we all have an internal clock, but each one runs at a different pace.”

It is clear that there are not enough spots for everyone.  Whether it be in the INSEP’s program or in a training center, the goal is to provide the very best training to young people.  A number of organizations are being created and rather than being in competition with each other, they are actually complementary :

« Our program and the training centers are complimentary, mainly because there are agreements between us.  Jean-Pierre Siutat, The President of the FFBB (the French Basketball Federation) went to see Tony Parker.  We currently have two young players from the ASVEL (a club in the city of Lyon), Killian Malwaya and Alexandre Bouzidi, who are both products of this agreement.”

It’s all for the greater good!  How could we forget this summer’s altercation between Mr. Siutat and Killian Hayes, a pure product of the Cholet training center, who, a year earlier, declined to join the under 20 French national team “for no good reason”.  This type of situation is clearly a failure, and on top of that, Hayes was suspended for 6 games by the federation, which caused him to leave the Jeep Elite for the city of Ulm, Germany.  Thankfully, these situations are few and far between, but what we can be sure of is that the results are spectacular and worth the investment:

I believe that the work we have been doing with the training center for several years now, is paying off.  In 1992, we had only won one medal with the French youth team.  If you compare with today’s figures, it’s astounding, night and day.  Last summer, from the French under 17s to the pros, all but one team placed in the semi-finals.  Currently, our only competition in Europe is Spain, and of course the US teams internationally.  We now rival countries like Serbia, Turkey and Lithuania.

French sports infrastructures are quite criticized, but the INSEP is one worth admiring.  It provides a solid training program and once the parents of budding young players walk into the establishment, the choice quickly becomes obvious.

« It’s the parents who decide what kind of educational environment their children are going to learn in.  it’s a family decision.  Ours is not a three, but rather a five-year program.

They start out in the “Espoir” (hopefuls) program, then go into either the INSEP’s France program or a training center.  Practicing daily involves both investment and organization.  Here, coaches come from all over.  You need an x-ray?  You can get one 300-feet away.  An MRI? In the building next door.  We also have on-site Sports Therapists.  We currently have 50 students enrolled.  Having everything on-site makes for optimal conditions.  Classes begin at 7:45, practice at 11:00, then lunch, classes resume at 2:00, then practice after that.  The students leave the INSEP on Fridays only, so they can experience the life of a regular high school student at the school where they are registered.  The classes have 12 to 13 students in them.  Students rarely decline admission, but it can happen.  It can be about business, the issue is when a club or agent prevents it from happening.”

What’s unique about the French training program for young athletes is that they get an opportunity to compete against seasoned players.  17 year-olds compete in division 1 nationals against semi-pros.  Though this can mean taking the occasional beating.  Here’s why:

« The division 1 nationals is the championship that best lends itself to the program, it prepares the athletes to play on the French national team, come summertime.  I say, the only thing we don’t learn here is money time.  We have trouble dealing with the end of a game when it’s close, we actually always fail at this.  So, we’re working on it.  We recreate the situation and practice, but without feeling the stress of an actual game.  Some say that this kind of high-level championship teaches you to lose.  If I see young athletes giving up because they’re down 40 points, I won’t stand for it.  I will call into question their commitment to the division.  Today, our players fight until the end.  They are very committed.  The terms here are taken seriously, almost in military fashion.  They include self-sacrifice, trust, stress-management and most important, determination.  Without determination, you can’t succeed, even if you have talent.  Determined people succeed.”

Tahar Assed-Liégeon proceeds to turn around and point to a poster behind him : “This is the definition of determination.”  It’s obvious here that someone has left their mark : Tony.  “The level he reached shows that there’s something inside of him that others don’t have.  Way back when, I met him when he was just a kid in the lower Normandy region tryouts.  He was good, but I’m not sure I would have bet on him having that kind of career.”

But there were also eras before and after Tony Parker.  French basketball does owe him for having changed mentalities and taken hits for future generations.  He raised the bar in French top level basketball.  The program’s young talents now have their sights set on the NBA.  

« The level he reached shows that there’s something inside of him that others don’t have. »
« Currently, our only competition in Europe is Spain, and of course the US teams internationally»

« Aiming for the highest standards is something we do every day, it’s a way to persevere and coaches organize themselves around that.  When the score is under 40, the coaches set specific goals.  The players concentrate on those goals, rather than on the low score. And come summer, when they are faced with the challenge of playing on the French national team, they understand what all the work was for.”

A high level and standards are what Julien Colombo, head of preparation for the French basketball program demanded :

« I wanted to reach the highest possible standards and I quickly understood that, even with a coach’s degree, it’s a challenge.  It’s a very closed field.  I therefore decided to turn to physical training, which would enable me to work in high-level sports.  This is the very best.  I used to be a PE teacher, so I understand the difference between the students I used to teach and these students.  Every now and then, you need to remind them, they are teenagers after all, but it’s heaven working here. It’s like night and day.”

Indeed, when you’re on-site, you quickly become aware that, beyond being extraordinary athletes, the training is almost military in nature.  The athletes take in coaches Jean-Aimé Toupane and Lamine Kebe’s comments without batting an eyelid.  You can feel a sense of natural, familial authority.

« They were used to less frequent and less intense training.  Here, there are a lot of training sessions and they are quite intense.  Once they’ve turned that corner in January or February, both athletically and in terms of skill, they begin to improve.  At that age their brains are like sponges and they change very fast.  They spend three years with us and between the time they arrive and the time they leave, they are changed people.  This applies to both boys and girls.”

Change happens to all teens, but here it’s exponential.  In order to rival the elite, you have to alter ways of thinking, particularly when it comes to physical condition.  At the under 17 world championships in Argentina, the French team made it to the finals against the United States, against players whose sizes and builds made them unbeatable.  Julien Colombo explains :

“In terms of physical prowess, we are clearly behind the United States : there is no denying the difference in sizes.  I believe it’s linked to athletic training.  For them, it’s cultural, it starts quite early on.  Here, coaches don’t always get that you first need to prepare the body, in order to perform in any kind of physical activity.  In France, we reason the other way around.  We practice a lot of sport, and when we realize that we have to deal with physical issues, then we turn to athletic training.  In the US, things are structured in a different way.  Muscle strength is the key to practicing any high intensity sport.  Playing a sport takes its toll on the body and the stronger you are, the better you can handle it.  A basketball training session involves 40 to 50 jumps.  Knowing how to jump also means knowing how to land.  If you don’t know how to land, it can happen 40 or 50 times, several times a week or a month.  And if you don’t have the physical strength to do it right, you’re a dead man.  But we are moving in the right direction and awareness is increasing.  In Europe, we dominate everyone athletically.  At the international level, the USA and Canada are ahead.  But we’re right behind them.”

This year, the INSEP plans to build additional courts, mostly to train for 3 x 3, which was recently added to the Olympic games, where there will definitely be an opportunity to win some medals.  So nobody panic, the French basketball program isn’t going anywhere!

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