Development Model or the Emperor’s New Clothes?

                                    Development Model or the Emperor’s New Clothes?

A special thank you to

Jean Côté Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada, Daniel Ekvall Sports Psychologist at the Swedish Football association, Dr Martin Toms senior lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Birmingham. 


These last few months I have been doing some research into various development models being used or proposed by many clubs and organisations regional, national at home and abroad. It got me considering that thought Mark Upton and I left each other with when we met in July 2014- The adult and child in sport, do they have the same motive?

The one thing that many of these models have in common is that they use the Long Term Athletic Development model (LTAD) as a guideline or a structure. The value of a model is determined by the quality of the evidence being represented and the inevitable interpretations of that evidence by model builders. According to Dr Martin Toms the concept of LTAD has never been published in a text that requires it to be reviewed by other experts before publication (like any other reliable study).

“Principally, the model is only one-dimensional, there is a lack of empirical evidence upon which the model is based, and interpretations of the model are restricted because the data on which it is based rely on questionable assumptions and erroneous methodologies” (Forde et al)



Many clubs and organisations using this LTAD structure lay claim to a more holistic approach to player development. In many cases when you dig a bit deeper they are just putting stuff in order in a way that apparently makes sense. Yet there is little or no change. It is not unusual to see these models presented in a simplified diluted “ages and stages” format.  

FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)-TRAIN(13-15)- PERFORM(16+).

The big picture is far more complex. It is here that we can see a split in the motive between the adult and child in sport. There is a risk that we will resort to “averages” (a typical child for this age and stage) if we obey the structure and ignore the many nuances that life and nature challenge us with. Clubs and organisations can wave the flag for “As many as possible as long as possible” and yet at the same time include content that proposes  an early selection process where there is a danger of excluding those children that do not obey or temporarily fit in with the principles of the structure.

The ages and stages used in the model do not exist in that way (and there is no evidence that they do). People develop differently and grow at different rates.”- Dr Martin Toms.

Jean Côté is Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada. He says that “The LTAD is not a bad idea, there is lots of stuff that is good and looks nice but when you look at it and where it comes from it is very fragile”.  His main issue with how the LTAD model is being used is that it is just putting another structure on a structure that is not working. In fact the whole thing is so fragile and open to interpretation that it is far too easy to revert back to what we have always done, back to the more traditional linear model.

In my opinion there are many problems with using a traditional linear model in a dynamic sport such as soccer.

  1. The assumption that all players (learners) should take the same learning path. The assumption is that if it is taught then learning will follow.
  2. As many traditional linear systems are skill acquisition based, we are possibly removing control from the learner. This is true especially in the early years when children may prefer to explore the game so that it becomes more personal and meaningful to them.
  3. Underestimates the motivational possibilities a child gets from determining his/her own learning path. (Development of intrinsic motivation)
  4. Many continue to use an early selection process that that is non-inclusive. This factory ethos like all mass production lines has interchangeable parts. In this case the interchangeable parts are children.
  5. Early performance in linear models is often influenced by physiological differences.

So if a club using this model as a structure but also has an early selection process for its elite or development teams for 8, 9 or 10 year olds then it is essentially contradicting itself. Children in the “FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)” stages are being processed, evaluated and selected by performance, a criteria that the model is claiming to build up to as a  long term aim- PERFORM(16+). It simply reverts back to being a non- inclusive linear model.

When a club or a governing body propose a new model they are essentially proposing change. A model that uses the LTAD structure is so fragile that it can easily be adapted to what people want to hear, especially during the presentation or “sell in” stage. It is the content that is crucial. The quality and relevance of the content and how it is implemented will define the degree of change.

The Swedish Football Association is revamping their player development plan.  One of the aims is to place the child, play and development in the centre. It is based on a children’s rights perspective meaning that the child’s best interests is always put first and that the starting point is that all children have equal value. The plan is to take into account the child’s maturity level and adapt the sport to the child’s physiological, psychological and social needs. The sport should be a playful experience based on the child’s individual needs and take in to account variations in the rate of development to create the best conditions for long-term performance development.

This is a philosophy shared by English FA National Development manager Nick Levett. “We need to encourage the development of play, where the child can explore, be creative, learn about risk and go through the process themselves. We can’t shortcut this”.

In its new Player Development document the Swedish Football Association recognises that the main reason why children play is because it is fun and that through play children learn to deal with different situations and to develop both self-esteem and physical skills. Play is a child’s world in which they train their imagination and their physical capabilities and limitations. Research supports the importance of play for developing an understanding of the game and decision making skills that play a major role in developing intrinsic motivation. This means that a child “playing” will find it easier to absorb what is being done in training. The association also sounds a warning for overly intense activities with high expectations that place a lot of pressure on children. This is something very common in elite orientated activities where early specialisation is a fact. Some children develop while many are eliminated. Experience and research show that the likelihood of bringing out skilled players in this type of activity is small. Something that they feel is an activity not in alignment with the child’s needs. There are better ways to go.


 The Developmental Model of Sport Participation


The Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) developed by Jean Côté is an athlete development model based upon theoretical and empirical data that has been comprehensively researched and refined over the last 15 years.  On reading the Swedish Football Associations view on the child in sport in their player development plan I feel that the DMSP could be a more suitable model and structure. It is a model that is applicable to a sport where children do not have to excel early. Football (soccer) is one of those sports as performance at elite level is influenced by physical factors that in general do not appear until late in the teenage years and cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy. The DMSP describes pathways, processes and outcomes associated with sport development throughout childhood and adolescence.  The outcomes are known as the “3 P’s” performance participation and personal development. Often the focus is placed on one of the outcomes at the expense of the others. Clubs or associations that are built around a more traditional linear model generally practice early selection and specialisation with a focus on deliberate practice and early performance. It is acknowledged that elite level performance may possibly be achieved this way however “it provides a sporting structure that is more costly in terms of mass participation and long term personal development through sport”- (Côté J, Vierimaa M. The developmental model of sport participation: 15 years after its first conceptualization.  Sci sports (2014).

The developmental environment of sport is ever changing. Our coaching methods, our curriculum and learning objectives need to not only be adapted forthe development of the individual over time but in some way must respond to the ever accelerating changes in our world, social structures and immediate environment. In my opinion the DMSP responds to this by promoting in the early years a lot of deliberate play, child centred coaching, early sport diversification (sampling of many sports). These appear to be essential characteristics in the environment of the child in preparation for later in adolescence when the emphasis is on “deliberate practice activities with specialisation for elite level athletes”.

When I asked Daniel Ekvall a sports psychologist who works with the association why they use something as prescriptive as the LTAD model he gave me a very interesting reply. “What I have heard is that most criticism is directed towards the content of the Canadians’ LTAD model more than towards the structure itself. In short, we can say that we have kept the boxes and general order but filled the content with deliberate play, guided discovery, self-determination theory and so on. We do not use LTAD model as a player development model but more as a structure”. Despite the fragility of the structure I am very impressed with the ambition that SvFF has in implementing such relevant content.

So what do I mean by relevant content? Well if we are proposing a more holistic model “As many as possible as long as possible” then we need to take in to account the overall experience and how the sport is perceived by the child. The content should be designed in accordance with what I refer to as “Coaching in Context”, in the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child. To see it as a bio-psycho-social process, designing practice that reflects the demands of the game and encouraging players to take control over their own development respects that learning is non-linear, development is non-linear and that talent is non-linear.

For the basic coaching content the game itself is the starting point. Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format. Defining themes should be game centred concepts, problem solving and questions, always involving the young player in the learning process. All essential components of the game are accessible which enables every learner to choose his own path and pace of learning but still maintain the players focus on the main topic. The coach may have a goal with a training session but doesn’t necessarily determine what is to be learned. The process to that goal may reveal other challenges, other problems other techniques other solutions. The whole game experience in context leading to knowledge. 

                              Experience                                        Knowledge

knowledge Experience

Content is essential and if relevant it will it will help us evolve and progress instead of reverting back to what we have always done. We may have a model that we are trying to “sell in” but if it has no relevant content then it is a model with no context and of no worth, essentially a vacuum.

Youth participation in sport is simply a human activity with all its baggage. If we can reflect this not only in our development models but also in our club and national association educational programs then we will have come a long way. The content that Daniel Ekvall from the Swedish Football Association refers to above is a positive step forward as is their desire for clubs to recognise the importance of play in a child’s development. I am very interested in hearing how the association will work with introducing and implementing concepts such as deliberate play, guided discovery and Self-determination theory in to their coach education programmes.

Whatever the structure or proposed model without relevant content that model is just a bunch of well-chosen words that sound good. As Jean Côté said to me in a recent conversation “Today within youth sports programs we have many people who talk the talk but they don’t apply it”. For to wave the flag with the slogan “As many as possible as long as possible” like many clubs do, then their model and its contents need to promote a more inclusive sporting structure, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist.

Ulf Carlsson Gothenburg Football Association


Ulf Carlsson is responsible for coach/player education at the Gothenburg Football Association in Sweden. He is very active in trying to bring about reforms in Swedish Youth Football. He made his senior debut in 1972 and played his last senior game in 2012 at the age of 57! Between 1978 and 1988 he played at elite level for Swedish club BK Häcken where he was also made team captain. In his youth he excelled at tennis, table tennis and handball. Ulf is a fully qualified Uefa Coach and Sports Teacher with many years of experience coaching from grassroots up to Division 1 in Sweden.


Footblogball: Do you think that The Swedish Football Association (SvFF) should be doing more to ensure that clubs are following the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in Swedish football?

Ulf Carlsson: Yes! The Swedish Football Association should be clear about this. The state and local government should also ensure that the guidelines of ”Spel- Lek- Lär” ( Game- Play- Learn. The Swedish Football Associations development model for children) are being followed. This should apply to all teams up to 12 years of age. I am not saying that what we do at the Gothenburg Football Association is perfect, but we have rules as to how competitive football for children is formed. For instance we do not allow clubs to enter teams of different levels within the same age group. We understand that it is not according to the guidelines proposed in ”Spel-Lek-Lär”. Instead of using an early selection process to divide up children into different levels we want clubs to work with mixed groups in a pedagogic way. It is also forbidden to enter a full team of 12 year olds in a league for 13 year olds. There is a limit to how many under age players you can have in a team. Our 7 a side games are 3 periods of 15 minutes. We propose a maximum of 3 substitutions as an effort to  guarantee game time of 30 minutes per player. With the youngest age groups we try to encourage boys and girls to train together.


Footblogball: Performance at the highest level of football is influenced by physical factors that in general do not appear until late in the teenage years. Factors such as strength, muscle mass, speed are very important but cannot be predicted with 100% precision. At what age do you think it is appropriate for clubs in Sweden to adopt a selection system based on the individual level of each player?

Ulf Carlsson: We should really wait until after puberty, but this is difficult for various reasons. We allow clubs to register teams at different levels from 13 years. In my world the environment plays a big role. You learn in the environment by playing with better players. You learn in the environment with players that are equally as good as you. You also learn when you train and play with those who are not so good. You learn different things and how to set different demands depending on the environment. It is in my opinion very important to find an environment where you end up in all of these three situations. I call it the mixed group teaching, or 25-50-25 environment. In Sweden we should really reflect upon how many of our best players actually  became so good through the traditional academy set up. Luckily for us players like Tomas Brolin who was voted on to the World Cup best 11 in 1994 knew better.


Footblogball:  “Sport is undertaken physically, experienced mentally and understood socially”- Dr Martin Toms

I think that our football coaches and clubs need to understand that the child’s experience and development is a bio-psycho-social process in a sporting context. Do you encourage this within your work at the Gothenburg football association?

Ulf Carlsson: Youth football should mean a lot more than just been seen as a vehicle for developing a good national team. Sometimes it feels that we adults are stealing the game from our children. We are already seeing many examples of clubs that are having difficulties putting together a team during the teenage years. Many clubs are actively seeking out and selecting those that have gone through an early physical development. There are in some clubs a major gap between the oldest youth team and the senior team. Look at how many really young girls are forced into senior football – which, I think, is a small part of the cruciate ligament problem. This is of no benefit to anyone.

Gothenburg is, I think, better than Stockholm in terms resisting the traditional early selection process. Our goal is to maintain a reasonably wide and large player pool as long as the boys and girls are in primary school. I also feel that our elite clubs are with us in this, although their association SEF (Swedish Elite Football Association) is pushing the whole thing in another direction.


Footblogball: At grassroots level I think that there should to be a better appreciation and understanding from coaches for the need to approach “play” from the perspective of learning. Children are not mini-adults. The focus should be on creating experiences that engage our young players.  How in Goteborg do you work with coaches to ensure that the needs of the child are met within the context of the sport?

Ulf Carlsson: I don’t want to say that we are very good at this but we are trying to create regulations that place children in the centre.  Our focus is to have a child friendly regulated framework up to and including 13 years of age. We have also adapted our pitch sizes for children. We play 3-5-7-9 and 11 a side football. Even the first year of 11 a side football is played on a slightly smaller pitch.

We are also working hard on shifting the focus from winning to playing. It is often very easy to win games at grassroots level. Just play your best players (usually the ones with some temporary advantage) instead of the weaker ones. If you have players that have developed early physically you can focus on a simple route one attacking game with an aggressive defensive game and the effect will be good especially in the beginning before anyone develops a passing game. This is the reason why we would like the defending team to back off and not have such high pressure. Maybe introduce a retreat line like they have in some countries.

 “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Footblogball: There is great potential in embracing the transformative qualities of play in a game based approach in practice to make learning inevitable. Football is a dynamic sport and for me it demands dynamic learning. Meaning that young players should be given the chance to experience and understand various concepts and apply their understanding based on the information they have taken in from the environment. One of the common problems with not coaching in context (isolated technique drills) is that coaches often assess players by how they can perform in the moment.  Essentially a moment that is not related to the real game. I believe that this traditional approach to coaching is in the long term a counter -productive ideology in youth sport. Just like in our education system we confuse intelligence with academic ability, we confuse performance with talent. We also confuse technique with game intelligence.


I agree with this. Torbjörn Nilsson has just published a book on this, how to develop an understanding for the game. If you ask me then playing the game is the best way to learn the game. Play small sided games. Vary the space, the rules etc. Take influences from other sports in to your football training, Football can be the world’s simplest game and at the same time the world’s most intelligent game. A simple pass can have a great thought behind it.

With this in mind we cannot define exactly what a footballer looks like. We have short players, tall players, strong players, thin players, slow players, fast players. By experiencing the game we can learn to self-organise our individual properties, skills and abilities to make the best of what we have got.

People are different and have different properties- For example if someone has one leg longer than the other. That means that there is a short leg too.- Hasse Alfredsson

Footblogball: There is so much talk in Sweden at the moment referring to providing a better football education for our young players. Surely then it is essential that we as coaches place more focus on how children learn. If you believe that your training sessions should be a learning space, then make sure that there is space for the young players to learn.  How can we develop our player education plan to encourage more learning opportunities for players and coaches?

Ulf Carlsson: I think that you are 100% right in your analysis. In Sweden we have developed a new Player Development Plan but we must follow this up by using and developing pedagogic methods to create a learning environment. We should ask questions, learn from one another, create the time and space both on and off the pitch for this to evolve. Learning occurs in spurts. Use play, make it fun, and try and make it a joyful experience for everyone-

Footblogball: The early specialisation approach that is evident in many of our academies places a focus from a very young age on deliberate practice. What is your opinion on this? Is it counter- productive?

Ulf Carlsson: I believe that early specialization in football is counterproductive for many reasons: There is a great risk of boredom. It seems that the football careers for many are around the same length. You begin early, you finish early. Sadly today many stop before reaching peak maturation, before they can realise their potential.Terribly sad and very unnecessary.

Based on my experience, I recommend no selection and specialisation in one sport before 16 years of age.

Footblogball: Early diversification (playing more than one sport in what Jean Cote refers to as the sampling years) has been shown to have a positive effect (cognitive, social, motor skills) later in the teenage years when the athlete chooses to specialise in one sport. What is your opinion on this and within your work do you encourage children to experience other sports?

Ulf Carlsson: For me this is the key to the future success of Swedish sport. Instead of early specialization, we should talk about premature generalisation and late specialisation. Research backs this up.


Instead of forcing a development-inhibiting early selection approach we should do the opposite. If a child is involved in numerous sports then he/she gets to experience a wider social network. Health-wise mentally and physically this cannot be underestimated.

Daniel Andersson (who has played in 2 World Cups for Sweden and in Seria A in Italy) made a reference to the benefits of playing many sports in a recent interview. Up until he was 16 he trained football only twice a week but also played basketball, indoor hockey and handbal. He combined this with a lot of spontaneous football.

We recommend at least three sports for the following reasons:

An individual sport: Tennis or table tennis where the athlete has to solve problems themselves without help.

A sport where you use your hands: A good example is handball or basketball. The athlete learns to work with different patterns and gets to see them emerging in the game. In handball, the ball is often at eye level. This allows one to see passes several steps ahead and learn to act and anticipate.

The problem is really with the adult. The fear of losing the player to another activity, we try to prevent this by forcing them to specialise or by making it logistically impossible for them to combine sports

For me one of the big criteria for being good at a sport is the spontaneous neighbourhood street games that really should exist beyond the organised club training. How do we get youngster to re-embrace this?



Don’t Start With a Pack of Crayons and Finish Up With a Blue Pen


Many elite sporting structures are based around the notion of uniformity, conformity and compliance. What we as spectators and fans appreciate and celebrate about sport is, variety, creativity and the joy and emotion it brings. I have seen and heard many traditional academies referring to themselves as talent factories where they claim to mass produce talent. However like all mass production lines they have interchangeable parts. In this case the interchangeable parts are children.

A sporting club or organisation is a great resource to society.  It has the potential to facilitate positive learning experiences both on and off the pitch. Its young members go through a bio-psycho-social development in a sporting context. This is a non-linear process. Learning is non-linear. Talent is non-linear. These young people live out some very fragile, tender and complex years that can also be their most fun and joy filled days. Traditions can and should be challenged. Values, attitudes and behaviour along with joy and passion can amplify throughout the club and echo in to the future. Their future!

Let us not forget that these children are individuals that form teams in clubs that are part of a community. How we deal with this is essential. 

Don’t start with a pack of crayons and finish up with a blue pen.


play 1

Children begin playing football with no emotional attachment to the game.  They need to have an experience that makes them want to come back.  An experience that makes them want to play independent of adults. In our desire to provide football for children, it is easy to forget this.  While our approach to football has become more organised and structured, the opportunities for children to play spontaneous or street football have become fewer and fewer.  Many children’s first contact with the game is through organised sessions at a designated place and time.

A child will make almost any environment their playground once given the opportunity. In playgrounds, children learn to assess different situations, predict outcomes, take risks and develop confidence in their own abilities. They instinctively seek out opportunities to play.  It is the football coach’s responsibility to respond by creating an environment that intrigue, excite and stimulate.  In such football environments, children are able to explore both themselves and the world through the game.  The coach must also create the right balance between preserving the child’s sense of freedom and ensuring learning takes place.

The French philosopher René Descartes once said: “I think, therefore I am.”   Perhaps he could have said: “I play, therefore I am”.   It is through play that children learn and it is through play that children consolidate what they have learnt.  Play by definition is intrinsically motivated.  It is the child’s way of doing things.  It is simply what they do.

Play comes naturally to a child, just like sleeping or eating.  The need to play remains throughout our lives. But we give it new names.  A footballer playing at the top of his game might say he is “in the zone“.  Scientists and artists engrossed in their work talk about “the flow“.  It is still just PLAY.
And Play is our starting point.  It is where we begin.


The Learning Space

If you believe that your training sessions should be a learning space, then make sure that there is space for them to learn.

When working with young children (6-12) in sport, play should be the key strategy in developing the design of our training sessions. It should be variable enough to encourage a constant need for -”thinking and reflection” and have the substance  to provide the inherent enjoyment and short term gratification that the child seeks. When we do this we are what I refer to as “coaching in context”(in the context of the game and in context with the child’s needs.)  We are approaching play from the perspective of learning. We are creating experiences that engage our young players.

Recently I did a session with a group of 10 year old boys of variable ability. I decided to use the classic one-two (wall pass) as a way of introducing concepts such as identifying, creating and attacking space in tight areas. Also I wanted to set an extra challenge to the players. After a player leaves a space to attack a new space how best can the players organise themselves to maintain balance. Of course I didn’t go in to too much detail with regard to this, actually I didn’t mention anything related to this until after a few minutes when I posed a question to the group.

Throughout out this session the coach and players will also have the opportunity to revisit and put into practice some of the essential points that were worked on here

The Thinking Man’s Rondo:

rondo vag 1


Rondo with a one-two (wall pass). 8 passes is one point. A one-two (wall pass) is 2 points.

Question: How does the rondo best reorganise itself after the one-two is carried out?

Magnus Pettersson a coach at Stockholm club Enskede Ik tried this recently for the first time with his 12/13 year olds. You can watch it here:


Game situation 1

rondo vag 2

4v4 with 2 jokers (6v4). 5 passes is a point. A one- two (wall pass) is 2 points.

Question: How does the team in possession best organise itself to maintain balance after the one-two is carried out?

Game Situation 2

rondo vag 3

Normal game: 6v6 (plus joker). A one-two(wall pass) must be completed before a goal is scored. A one-two can be completed with any of your teammates including the joker.

Question: How does the team in possession best organise itself to maintain balance after the one-two has been carried out.

Football is a dynamic sport and for me it demands dynamic learning. Players should be given the chance to experience and understand various concepts and apply their understanding based on the information they have taken in from the environment. This will have technical and pedagogical implications and shift the focus away from the idea of “coach managed learning”  thus providing the space for a more player/learner-centered approach.

If you believe that your training sessions should be a learning space, then make sure that there is space for them to learn.

Twitter constraints on coaching-Coaching in context-

Twitter constraints on coaching- Session by Mark O Sullivan

Aim to use not more than 140 characters in total when instructing.

Each question must be less than 140 characters

Free discussion only when initiated by the players.

To coach in context.

At a club where I am involved in educating coaches I was invited in by one of the teams to help them work with their passing. The team in question were 10 year old boys with a very broad variety of ability and level. However like all children there is a great potential to learn. The coach had described to me the type of training that they were doing to try and improve their “passing -technique”. It seemed that they worked mainly in isolation with detailed instructions as to how the players should actually strike the ball.

I got the coach to divide the group up into 2 teams so that they could play a five a side (with 4 goals).

see the ball 1

The reasoning being as I had not actually seen these children play the game I felt that it was necessary for me to observe them in action so that I could do an analysis. It quickly became obvious to me what we needed to be worked on to improve the passing game and technique.

Control-movement- pass. These are for me the essential elements in improving a players passing game.  The ability to control the ball, recognise and see movement and pass. We can work all day in isolation on predetermined passing  movements, it will look great and orderly and I am sure give some impressive short term improvements in performance. But if we are looking for learning to take place then we need to work on the “passing” within context, or as close as possible to the context of the game.

In Mark Upton’s brilliant blog post “Learning v Performance: Challenging Traditional Coaching” he refers to 2 main principles of learning. They are retention and transfer. ( A must read for all coaches)                                                                            

If we work on control-movement-pass in a more variable way, then in the long term the retention rate will be higher. If we examine the more traditional isolated passing drills that the coach was using we see very little if no variable in the control, movement and pass.                                                                                                                                                            

The closer the training resembles the real game the better the transfer of skills from training to the real game.

“Transfer from practice to match conditions depends on the extent to which practice resembles those match conditions”

When talking about long-term player development, a major focus needs to be learning, rather than short-term performance in a drill – Mark Upton

(Check out my coffee with Mark Upton blog  here

After 5 minutes of free play I asked the players to stop and stay exactly where they are.

Question 1: The team in possession, how many of you are in a position to receive the ball? In this case it was only one player.

Question 2: Can you move in to a position where you can receive the ball?

Question 3:  When you are in that position, what can you see?

Eventually it clicked with one young player, “I can see the ball”.

We continued the game using the idea that if I can see the ball I can receive the ball. When a player has a clear line of vision to the ball that means that the passing lane between him and the player in possession is open. He can see the ball!     Almost immediately the movement began to improve. When in possession players looked to take up positions where they could see the ball. More passing options appeared. More time and space was created to control the ball and pick out the next pass.  The overall initial improvement in the performance of the control-movement-pass was marginal when compared to an isolated passing drill but the fact that the young players were working on the technique within context would in the long term enable better learning through retention and transfer. (They also found it a lot more fun)

I broke the teams up into two 4v1 rondos.

see the ball 2

Question 4: What can players on the outside do to improve the passing options?

Answer: See the ball.

Breaking the group up into two rondos gave the player’s time to work on the control-movement-pass under less pressure (we started with large rondos, over time the coach can decrease the size of the rondo) with variability and still within the context of the game.

Question 5: If the ball is passed from the right which foot can we receive the ball with?

We re-enacted a pass from right to left within the rondo. The player receiving the ball first controlled it with his left foot and then controlled the next pass with his right foot.  

Answer:  After much analysis and discussion the players understood that if the pass comes from the right that they should try and find a position where you can control the ball with the left foot. If the pass comes from the left, try and control the ball with the right foot. This means that the player’s body is more open to the general play and therefore open to more passing options. 

We continued the rondos using the two principles

  1. See the ball
  2. Receiving the ball with the foot furthest away

Then we went back to our game to work on applying these principles.

The first game was 6v4 (with 2 jokers)

see the ball 3

The second game was 5v5 (with 2 goalkeepers)

see the ball 4

This was where the learning became very interesting. Right footed players had difficulties controlling the ball with their left foot and visa-versa, especially as they were simultaneously checking for the movement of their teammates so that they can decide the next pass.  At times it was chaotic as both the individual and the teams tried to self –organise and adjust to the demands of the task. Slowly but surely they started to work it out.

At the end of the session I asked. What did we work on and what can we take with us from today’s training? The aim of the session was to work on improving the “passing”.  The answers the kids gave reminded me of the fact that as coaches we  may have aims with what we are trying to achieve in our training session, but that does not necessarily determine what is to be learned.

Here are some of the answers I got:

  1. Passing
  2. Control with the correct foot
  3. Movement
  4. Communication
  5. Create space
  6. See the ball
  7. Patience
  8. When defending stop your opponents from seeing the ball.
  9. Create width when you have the ball
  10. Shooting
  11. Fitness ( we had to move a lot more than usual )
  12. Dribbling ( movement created more space to dribble)

My last question:

Questions: If I am in space and can see the ball what should I always try and do before receiving the ball?

Answer: Look up and look around.

Question: Why?

Answer: So that I know what I can do before I receive the ball.

My personal check list

  1. Is my session in context? Does it resemble the real game or situations that will arise?
  2. Do the players experience many repetitions with variability?
  3. Did the players have fun?
  4. Did I create enough learning opportunities?
  5. Have I challenged the players?
  6. Is my session age appropriate?
  7. Did I have fun :-)

 Learning can be a messy business. Coaches need to remember that and should not be too eager to control learning .The focus should be on facilitating an environment that creates what Dr Lynn Kidman refers to as learning opportunities. 


I was recently in England and managed to meet up with Mark Upton (now working  there as Coaching Science Manager with the English Institute of Sport) for a quick “5 hour coffee”.Here are some notes with some pictures from this trip that are relevant to what we discussed.

1. Working with the learning process of soccer, seeing it as a bio-psycho-social process, designing practice that reflects the demands of the game and encouraging players to take control over their own development respects that learning is non- linear, development is non-linear and that talent is non-linear.

2. Working isolated with technique using repetition, especially with organised training during the pre-adolescent years pays homage to the internet phenomenon that has become the 10,000 hours rule.

3. This (2) is evident in clubs that promote early specialisation where from a very young age the focus is on deliberate practice.

4. A child’s motivation is to play.
shop centre football
An approach to coaching that encourages play (deliberate play) and diversity before adolescence creates a broader range of experiences that in the long run can aid cognitive and motor skills. Other positive outcomes with diversity are the possibility of personal development with help from a broader social pool.

5. Children do not play like they used to.

no ball games

The everyday interaction with their environment is limited by cars, commerce, diminishing opportunities, insurance and safety issues, rules and “cotton wool” parenting.

6. We discussed grassroots coaching philosophy. We wondered why kids as young as 6 are still being coached technique in isolation instead of experiencing the game first. Surely a more global to the specific approach is more in tune with the needs of young children? Sadly, in many cases it seems playing an actual game of football is some sort of reward given at the end of training. It is like saying that a child must learn the use of grammar before it attempts to speak.

7. Encouraging children to take part in a number of sports helps with the development of fundamental movement skills.

big ball

We have both observed that many children today lack the necessary co-ordination strength and balance. Coaches should encourage young children to experience a number of sports especially in the pre-pubescent years.

8.Introduce variability in to your sessions.  I referred to a young player that I was working with who wanted to get more bend on the ball when shooting. The player wanted to know where exactly on the side of his foot he should meet the ball. I observed the player in action and I felt that he was continually second guessing himself, he was putting too much focus and emphasis on isolated details of the action. My opinion was that of course there is a general area in the foot that you can use to carry out this technique but other factors need to be taken into consideration. How you use your upper body and arms, weight distribution, height etc. There is a lot of talk about how you should position your standing foot but that is in conflict with how players like Ronaldo and Beckham executed free-kicks. I suggested to the player to also vary the distance and angle from where he was shooting. The general conclusion was that the player must find his own “balance” his own way that suits him. The word self- organise which came up many times in our discussion can be applied here. Mark spoke about the body having the capacity to self-organise through trial and error. He showed me these pictures of his son Sam practicing chipping and bending a ball to emphasise this point.


Mark encouraged his son to shoot from various angles while refining the technique. This reinforces the idea of self-organisation under constraints (task/environment/ person). The role of the coach is to manipulate those constraints to help guide and shape learning.

More on Constraints ( Task/ Environment/ Person) Here:

9. Many assume that the coach possesses all knowledge and decides what is important and what should be learned. Therefore the coach decides what should be stored and retrieved for future use. If our aim is to create more skilful creative players then it is essential that we understand the difference between technique (the physical action itself) and skill (technique in context). Our focus should be on developing players who can read the game, players that seek out information to help them make correct decisions.

We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children’s innate quest for information and understanding.– Sugata Mitra

Creating the environment that encourages children to self-organise. Kids love to be challenged. A game centred approach that encourages the child to solve problems and work on perception action coupling in a safe to fail environment. Children are capable of great learning and understand more than we give them credit for. Coaches should look to create an environment that promotes curiosity and provide encouragement instead of directions. As coaches we should not be so eager to correct mistakes. Give children the chance to correct themselves.

More on how kids Self-Organise Here:

10. Coach the child not the sport. We discussed that coaches need to understand that this is a bio-psycho-social process in a sporting context. To place too much or all of the focus on just one of these can have a detrimental effect on overall development and participation. “Sport is undertaken physically, experienced mentally and understood socially” ( Dr Martin Toms)

More on Dr Martin Toms here

11. The” hard skills” such as technique are easier to measure in isolation. This is probably why many coaches feel comfortable with this more traditional method. But it can be argued that because immediate performance looks good it does not necessarily mean that ‘learning ‘ has taken place. That can only be seen when we evaluate retention(over time) and transfer(from training to the real game ) which is why if we can contextualise technique training by also creating an opportunity to develop the harder to measure “soft skills” such as perception we optimize learning. Again the soft skills are harder to measure and do not show immediate results that many coaches and clubs desire but we need to include the opportunity to develop them within our training environment otherwise I feel we are underestimating the intelligence of children and their ability to learn.

More on Hard Skills and Soft Skills here:

12. Perception action coupling is a human behaviour deeply embedded within us and has been essential to us for survival as a species. We begin to develop our perceptive skills as babies. So why remove it if it helps the learning process? We don’t need to put a focus on it, just create the opportunity for it to be developed within the training environment. It is what comes naturally to children and we should embrace it not remove it under the assumption that it will hinder them from learning something else. I feel many of us underestimate the intelligence of children and their ability to learn. Maybe something to think about with regard to the question, how can we develop more creative players?

13. Mark introduced me to the term obliquity which is also the title of a book by John Kay. Essentially it states that our goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Its relevance can be seen when the environment is complex and changing and the effect of our actions is dependent on how others respond to them.



 The Journey Home                                                                                                                           gat 2

Leaving London we were delayed 8 hours. The thought of trying to keep  our 2 year old son and our 5 year old daughter entertained at the circus that is Gatwick Airport wasn’’t something that Kristina and I had planned. There was a children’s play area that at first didn’t really appeal to the adult eye. Worn-out foam cushions in different shapes and sizes enclosed in an area surrounded by cushioned chairs. Soon it became obvious who was really in charge in this area. Kids from 1 to 7 year of age turned it in to an arena of fun, play, co-operation,sharing and fantasy. It was a castle to be defended, a running/parkour track with obstacles, a football pitch. It was anything that the children wanted it to be. It was a world of games, competition and laughter. In all the time we were there (which was 90% of our wait) I didn’t see one adult get involved. Good preparation for the realities of the future. Yes! The children self-organised.

Check out mu earlier interview with Mark Upton Here:

Each Child Has a Game Within Them

SCHOOLYARDThe area is 18sq meters, plenty of space for an impromptu game of football. 1v1, 2v2, 4v4, 3v2 it doesn’t matter. The boy in the Barcelona top is one of the goalkeepers. He frantically throws himself on the concrete to defend his goal. The ball is buzzing around from foot to head to wall to gate. Back-heels, step- overs, volleys, slide tackles. No fear, they don’t have far to fall. The kid in goal grabs a bandy stick (a plastic indoor hockey stick from a game that is popular in Sweden). He has decided that he will combine both football and bandy to stop his opponents from scoring. Nobody bats an eyelid, nobody protests. It’s a great idea. The laughter gets louder as the other goalkeeper, come defender, come forward grabs two bandy sticks and proudly defends his castle like a proud knight/ ninja warrior (or whatever he is today).
This is a sight that greeted me one morning at the local preschool that my daughter attends. These 5 year olds were Inventing games within games.
The bottom line is that this was a natural competitive safe to fail environment created by the kids themselves. It promoted cooperation and creativity, development of fundamental movement skills and most important of all it was fun.

What I was observing was deliberate play, set up and monitored by the kids themselves. This intrinsically motivating activity was designed by the kids to maximise enjoyment and provide the immediate gratification that children seek from play. It all took part in a safe to fail environment where constant evolving game situations encouraged more decisions, more failures and more successes.
Was what I was observing as instrumental in determining future performance, participation and personal development as any structured/ organised practice that will more than likely enter their world sooner rather than later?

Once upon a time street football and free play was the norm. Then we become adults wanted to control it, make it organised and forgot the child in all of us.


Lots of interesting pieces out there with regard to early sampling/ diversification v  early specialisation. I have decided to gather my thought s from my previous blogs and try to formulate my thoughts and the thoughts of others in one blog post.


Allow children to play more sports with the emphasis on PLAY.

There is an ever increasing pressure and demand on children to focus on one sport and to play the adult game. This is creating a counterproductive culture that drives the specialisation age down. The landscape for the hearts and minds of our children is being turned in to a race to the bottom. Sports science has shown that this pathway can lead to serious injuries and a lower level of expected success.

The majority of research supports the argument that early specialisation, despite what can be interpreted as early success (making the team, winning the league) can contribute too many problems in the long-term.

1. Negative effects on development over a longer period of time where the problems of burn out and drop out are more evident. (Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996).

2. High injury rates and less enjoyment.  (Côté & FraserThomas, 2008; Jayanthi, 2012; Law et al.,  2007)

3. Psychological problems (Baker,  2003, Dalton, 1992)

4. Social exclusion (Wiersma,  2000);   

 5. Limited range of fundamental movement skills ( motor skills) (Wiersma, 2000)

 6.  Lower level of participation in adulthood.(Russell & Limle, 2013)

Former Swedish Olympic sports physician Klas Östberg has spoken out about the high injury rates. He is in a good position to do this, after all these children are his patients. The amount of children visiting him with serious sports injuries is increasing every year.

“I am regularly dealing with these children from elite talent programs as patients. Many have bone/skeletal disorder that not even Swedish orthopedists have seen before. On an increasingly more frequent basis I am meeting children with life-long injuries”.

It seems that these problems arise when children are trained like adults. This not only leads to injury but there may also be social and psychological costs.  Many of these specialised elite programs are also carried out without sufficient medical supervision.

So what are the roots of this early specialisation phenomenon? Where does it come from? It is hardly a child’s invention?  Early specialisation definitely has a large element of adult self- interest about it where children’s sport and how the child experiences the sport is been compromised more and more by the business of sport. Despite the claims made by science, the market for a better word does encourage a “focus on one sport and train hard” model. This adult driven environment is merely betting on talent, it marginalises children and it means that we neglect what sport can give to children and our society when it comes to fun, exercise and an interest for life.

The societal expectations through professional sport has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Dr Lynn Kidman

The early specialisation pathway means that the child focuses on one sport in a highly organised sporting environment. Early specialisation models are mostly built on the belief of deliberate and focused practice, rather than just free play. This environment rewards early success and performance with early selection to elite programs. It is a model for promoting and achieving short term goals.

 If success at elite level of the sport is characterised by reaching peak performance in adulthood then naturally the focus of the coach should not be on winning the under 9’s cup. But with so many these  early selection/specialisation academies being result orientated to justify their existence, there is a huge risk that children are been coached to win rather than been coached to learn the game and to learn to think for themselves.

Talent development in any sport is a complex, dynamic, non-linear process. There is little consistent evidence that links early intense training with becoming an elite level athlete. Early prediction of talent years in advance of adulthood is almost impossible as numerous other factors come in to play in the development of sports skills and no formal pathway predicts success.  What we know is that we don’t know.

What are these other factors?   


It can be argued that a model that selects its “talent” early and forces specialisation fails to take in to account its social, psychological and physical shortcomings therefore not allowing for the complexity of human development.


The 10,000 hour rule has a lot to answer for. Who decided that this was a rule?

 It seems to be a popular internet view (Ericsson 2012).

 It does however give credence to those who benefit from it being applied within their sporting organisation. I can almost hear the sports director of club X giving a presentation to a parent group saying that your son/daughter must practice one sport for 10,000 hours to reach the elite level. Therefore it is better that they focus on one sport. We will supply extra training at a cost of ……….  

Essentially a belief that is based on repetitive skills is used to explain how to achieve excellence in a sport that is based on dynamic skills while at the same time ignoring many factors represented in the diagram above that combine to help shape and develop skill acquisition and performance.

The 10,000 hours theory ignores the bio-psycho- social aspects of development. Dr Martin Toms


Sampling/Diversification before adolescence

It should never be seen as a problem that a child wants to participate in many different sports.

Early diversification is beneficial to long-term talent development in sport. It can lengthen playing careers (Barynina, Vaitsekovski, 1992), and provide a higher level of physical capacity and a more all-round motor skill base – Physical Literacy.

The research work of Job Fransen a doctor of movement and sports science from the University of Ghent in Belgium suggests that children should sample a variety of sports rather than focusing all their efforts on a single sport.  A better development of fundamental movement skills (FMS) is encouraged by the variety of movement used when a child is active in more than one sport (Bailey et al. 2010; Côté, et al., 2009). Early specialisation narrows the movement repertoire.

Well known to this parish Dr Martin Toms has carried out a study on 1000 athletes that suggested that early specialisation in one sport could be detrimental to success and that sampling a number of sports is a better is a more beneficial pathway to take.

Neeru Jayanthi did a 3 year longitudinal study from his position as director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago. His research revealed that kids who specialised had increased the risk of suffering a serious injury due to overuse by 36%.  The study showed that sampling/diversification had a positive effect on long term health. Kids who played different sports earlier benefited from not just only having a wider range of movement skills but possessed a higher level of anticipation and understanding of game situations due to the transfer of “skill learning” from one sport to another.


Skill Transfer

Early diversification provides us with great potential for a more holistic learning and benefit from the transfer of skills from one sport to another. It was suggested through research by Baker et al (2003) that when the sampling of sports was encouraged in early years the athletes involved benefited from  developing a better understanding of pattern recognition and decision making. If we couple this research with that of Marije Elferink-Gemser from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) we get a clearer picture. Gemser noted that in a study of elite Dutch footballers, progress from youth to professional level is highly dependent on the player’s ability to understand the tactical concepts and to put them into practice (pattern recognition). The ability to be in the right place at the right time and to make correct decisions is the most important factor in determining future success.

Emphasise Play  

The term “deliberate play “coined by Côté refers to activities that maximise enjoyment, give immediate gratification and are intrinsically motivating. It requires minimal equipment and allows children to experiment with rules, tactics etc  (Bailey  et  al.  2010;  Côté,  et  al., 2009). 

All you need are the players in an empty space with a ball. We should add nothing to it unless it helps.

It is during adolescence that children need to take ownership of their own development. This ownership needs to be discovered and not forced upon them during childhood.  Allowing the child to fall in love with the sport through play helps develop creativity (Cote, Baker, Abernethy, 2003) and decision making skills.


A study of Australian Rules Football has shown that athletes that experienced greater levels of deliberate play in childhood were superior decision makers when compared to those who did not experience much deliberate play (Berry & Abernethy, 1993).

Recently I watched a bunch of kids where I live, (yes! it seems that in summer 2014 spontaneous football is making a comeback in my area of Stockholm, or perhaps it’s just the World Cup?) imitating Pirlo and Ronaldo, by having a free kick competition. I returned an hour later to see that they were still trying to fine tune this skill. I thought about the learning that was been experienced, in this safe to fail environment, especially by the goalkeeper as each kid varied the position of where the free kick was taken from. How often do they get to practice this in an organised football environment?  This is referenced by (Côté, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007) where seemingly more time is spent focussed on a task in deliberate play than in an organised coach led practice session.

The child must be allowed to light the flame. Play in the early years feeds this flame, makes it fun and develops a love for sport while preparing that child to become more mentally engaged and committed to a sport in adolescence.



Allow children to play more sports with the emphasis on PLAY.

Develop the individual/ athlete beyond the sport.

When it comes to talent: What we know is that we do not know.

Focus on learning rather than the short term performance and results.

The sport belongs to the child.

My ability as a coach is defined by my understanding as to how the player’s learn.

Children learn best by doing.


















KLAS ÖSTBERG- sports physician



Recently I have come in contact with a very interesting man. His name is Klas Östberg.

He is one of Sweden’s most experienced sports doctors/physicians. He has worked for the Swedish Olympic team at several Olympic Games and also served as national team physician for the Swedish biathletes for many years. He has been involved with many athletes who have passed through the eye of the needle that is elite development. Some have become the fastest, the best, stood on the shoulders of giants and reached the pinnacle within their sport.

Klas Östberg is passionate about children’s sports. For him it must be carried out from a child’s perspective.

Here we get a professional sports physicians perspective:


As a sports physician Klas regularly deals with athletes that not only have normal sports related injuries, but also those with infections, overtraining, asthma, eating disorders and depression. In recent years he has been looking at and evaluating the situation on his own doorstep. He has been studying the process from child to elite athlete. He sees a society where children’s sport is being compromised by the competitive business of sports (adult world), where elite selection begins earlier and earlier as “strategy and competitive landscapes drive a “race to the bottom” despite science truths (Ross Tucker). We can read all the latest research papers and journals but nothing gives more valuable information and knowledge about children in sport than the one on one day to day experience.

Klas Östberg increasingly meets these children as patients.

His opinion is very clear. Despite all these hard elite programs they are in general done with little or no medical supervision. Children are not small adults. Klas says -”I am regularly dealing with these children from elite talent programs as patients. Many have bone/skeletal disorders that not even Swedish child orthopedists have seen before. On an increasingly more frequent basis I am meeting children with possible life-long injuries. The problem often arises when children are trained as adults and continue to train without any diagnosis. Not only can this lead to a serious injury it can also cause psychological problems. The question is should we allow our children to train in these hard driven sports elite programs and have the same medical support as if it were some spontaneous game of street football? Another question is, how many of these sporting organisations are not following the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The misguided effort to win medals often means that we miss out and neglect what sport can give to children and our society when it comes to pleasure, fun, excercise and an interest for life. For when you remove a 9 year old girl from the team, push the 10 year old ice hockey player too hard  you also remove much of what is great about sport.

What happens to the 98% who do not reach elite level? Where do they go? Is it not interesting to investigate?

What worries Klas is that these early elite programs are merely betting on talent and it has no scientific basis. It does not give more medals but just more marginalised children.

 We know how much fun sport can be. Our goals should be to have a broader participation in sport, where as many as possible will continue to play as long as possible. Therefore it is vital that we have an open discussion.

“I have been responsible for Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) top athletes for many years, all have been active in sport and specialised first at 15-20 years of age. What lessons can we draw from that?” Klas Östberg