Survival of the fittest or survival of talent

The optical illusion that is early talent identification and the selection philosophy of district teams

According to Darwin’s theory of evolution organisms which are better adapted to their environment tend to survive longer. Does the environment we create influence the selection process and favor those that possess attributes that give them a temporary advantage while at the same time disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt?  Adaptive behavior is key to the survival of the human race and specific to soccer, a trait of high quality players. However if the early environment supports only temporary adapting systems ( in this case the young player) then those that are better equipt to adapt in the long run may well be lost to us forever.

Are some systems and structures just counterproductive ideologies that that are in conflict with development (learning & biopsychosocial) and the young player’s natural learning process? We should of course remember that struggle is also part of the learning process. What are we doing to help players overcome those struggles that will appear during their development (non-linear)?

The Standard Model of Talent Identification

One of the most common models used in talent identification is often referred to as the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD). This is a pyramid structure that is based on erroneous presumptions.

  1. Development and performance are essentially linear.
  2. Early ability that is identified as talent indicates future ability and performance.

The selection process is done at the cost of the wider group where focus is placed on those who have been identified as talented (Richard Bailey and David Collins, Kinesiology Review 2013)

Selection: Based on current performance. Identify those as talented as early as possible. Early specialization is deemed necessary to reach elite performance level in the future. Early performance and ability is necessary for success in the future.

De-selection: Hard to return to the system. Questionable selection criteria (often based on early physical characteristics)

PYRAMID

District team selection often begins at the age of 13/14 and is part of this pyramid. Its influence is felt years before the actual selection process. I recently spoke with a Swedish U17 youth international who said that this process can create and feed a stressful environment. Over a year before the district team selection, every day at school, at training, on social media each match or training performance was put under the microscope of analysis. “How did you play? How did I play?  As well as being physically tired you would be mentally tired as well”. The player went on to say “I was lucky because I had an external support structure, family and good adult mentors that really helped me, I don’t know how I would have coped otherwise”. Competition, failure and struggle are of course part of the sporting experience. They don’t have to be negative experiences for children. The problems occur when it is all based on adult demands and values. These adult demands and values are appearing earlier and earlier in our sporting structures. The adult and the child, do they have the same motives?

There is no convincing evidence that most sports require an early investment of training in one activity. In fact, what evidence is available suggests that across a number of eventual elite players, early specialization is negatively correlated with eventual success (Gullich, 2011).

In the paper The Standard Model of Talent Development and Its Discontents by Richard Bailey and David Collins (Kinesiology Review 2013) it is suggested that the apparent success of the SMTD is ultimately an optical illusion as there is no way of knowing who might have succeeded through different systems, and who were de-selected from the system but might have (under different circumstances) gone on to achieve high performance”.

The paper goes on to suggest risks associated with ill-focused of incorrectly administered pyramids.

  1. Early adult like training can lead to over-use injuries. There is a particular high risk associated with intensive training during maturation.
  2. Early intensive training can lead to psychological problems (Boyd & Yin, 1996) .This can lead to drop out and burnout (Baker, 2003)

Development is non-linear, learning is non-linear. Therefore talent is non-linear

Judging early performance during the formative years does have its problems. This is true especially when judging and identifying something that is non-linear using what is essentially a linear model.

  1. Miss out on identifying other factors that are associated with talent ( soft skills such as decision making, communication, awareness)
  2. Often fails to recognize potential due to a focus on the performance now.
  3. Many pyramid structures based on early talent identification discriminate against those born later in the sporting calendar year.(RAE)
  4. Size and strength factors that are identified early contribute to a temporary advantage resulting in short term superior performance. This all evens out after maturity. There is a risk that the player has been used for his temporary advantage (to win) and has not actually learned the game. This player will struggle when growth evens out when maturity is attained.
  5. Questionable accuracy with regard to measurement of ability, often affected by gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

Are we judging biological maturation or talent?

Dutch Soccer coach Raymond Verheijen has presented data under the title “Growth spurt study in Dutch Youth Academy soccer”. A 12 year study that included 36 professional clubs was carried out in Holland between the years 1997-2009. An analysis of a data base of over 10,000 players was carried out where factors such as height, weight, injuries and date of birth were taken in to consideration. The general idea was that month of birth should have no influence on talent. At the beginning of the study the Dutch schoolboy national teams were selected from August to July. Most players were born in the period August to October (43%) while only 10% of the players were born May-July. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Relative Age Effect (RAE)

Relative age effect (RAE): A bias that seems to favor a higher participation rate amongst those that are born early in the selection period.

Hancock, Adler, & Cote in a study from 2013 suggested that RAE is more than just a physical advantage. The research suggested that there are also some powerful social influences at play.

  1. Parents (Matthew effect) – The rich get richer. Those who are perceived to have ability are given preferential treatment and extra support. This in turn increases that ability which leads to more support.
  2. Coach (Pygmalion effect) – The higher the expectation placed on people the better is their performance. Those who are perceived to have ability are given more attention. Others feel neglected.
  3. Athletes (Galatea effect) – A player may see that she is able to perform better than her peers. This performance can be due to due to early maturation A players opinion about her ability and his self-expectations about her performance largely determine the performance.

During this study the Dutch FA changed the cut-off date for its national youth teams to the Jan-Dec period. The RAE adjusted accordingly. It seemed that the scouting system was primarily based on how old the player was as opposed to how talented that player is or could be. Countries with small populations have a relatively small player pool. Focusing on winning during the early stages of development just encourages the RAE, in turn making the player pool even smaller. It becomes more about the survival of the fittest as opposed to survival of talent.

The various traits slowly appear and differentiate over time….. infancy, adolescence, and even adulthood will see the latent components undergoing various transformations (Simononton,1999,p442)

In the research paper “Swedish soccer is searching for talent but finding age” Tomas Petersson says why players are chosen in accordance with their physical development is not known “but one may assume that there is a silent agenda dictating that these players will be the most successful in the forthcoming selection steps” from club to district team to national youth team. The material and data collected “indicates that selection on the grounds of physical development is already at work in groups of 5-12 year olds and “ and the effect of this process is very clear when these children reach 13 and enter an even harder selection process. It is Tomas Petersons opinion that this is counter- productive to the development “of all the football talent that exists within every yearly cohort of girls and boys. I also believe that its goes against the goals of both the sports movement and the community in general”.

Summary

“Assessment of talent at a single or narrow point in time is a flawed approach”- Mark Upton

Many current methods of focusing on early indicators of talent are very static and linear approaches. They ignore the fact that development is individual and that differences in performance can be explained by differences in maturation. Coaches that judge early talent evaluate and focus on the contemporary level of performance where physical characteristics are fundamental factors in the talent identification process. This brings to the surface three fundamental problems that need to be addressed with early talent ID.

  1. Coaches gamble on the wrong players- (misuse of resources)
  2. Miss out on those with more long term potential
  3. Environment problem (development of a non-inclusive environment. No clear pathway back in to the system)

If we want to keep players viable over what is essentially a long, complex and sensitive development process then the aim should be to keep as many as possible as long as possible active within our sporting organization. What are we doing to help certain players overcome struggles that will appear during their development (non-linear)? What role does the environment play in creating these struggles?  We should remember that failure and struggle is also part of the learning process. Our environment should be a place where these failures and struggles can be met head on and dealt with through patience, encouragement, understanding and support.

Does the environment we create influence the selection process and favor those that possess attributes that give them a temporary advantage while at the same time disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt?

Magnus Pettersson- Shifting the paradigm of a traditional sporting culture towards empowerment and community

Magnus Pettersson- Parent-coach and visionary   

Enskedemoddelen 1   

Shifting the paradigm of a traditional sporting culture towards empowerment and community

In spring 2007 father of two Magnus Pettersson began as a football coach in one of Stockholm’s oldest and most well-known club. That club was Enskede IK. Situated in the southern suburbs between idyllic leafy housing estates and apartment blocks the club was always going to be a socio-economic melting pot of class and culture. Formed in 1914 Enskede IK has had a long history of being a meeting point for the local community and providing grassroots soccer for its children. With tradition comes strength and community, a sense of place and a safety net for many to fall back on. Also with tradition comes inertia, a DNA that refuses to adapt to environmental, political, social and economic changes. Safety nets begin to unravel. A sense of place becomes a sense of comparison as modern X-Factor culture and adult perspectives highjack the child’s game.

Even at his very first meeting with the club Magnus Pettersson felt that he could not support some of the views that were being expressed. The only way he could influence the situation was by staying involved. By 2009 he had begun to convince Enskede IK that it was time to reassess its modus operandi. However, within the halls of tradition echoed much resistance. Magnus heard all the usual arguments especially around the subject of young children being put through an early selection process to identify talent. Here are a few of them.

  1. Yes we know what science says but we know what is best for the club!
  2. For children it is no problem to change team, it is only us adults that think it is a problem
  3. Everyone knows that the best young kids must train with the best otherwise they will not develop.

The process of taking on inertia

Magnus was responsible for a very large group, the boys born 2001. As he communicated his thoughts with the other coaches he found that ideologically they had much in common. “We managed to influence the selection process of our group so that at least it was a more inclusive process. We lost only 2 players out of 110 thanks to the measures we took”.  A special mixed team called “Team 42” was started. Players from the various teams within the age group would play with each other. Another great project was the Knight Cup initiated by long time club member Daniel Kings (another parent coach). All the players born 2001 would be mixed up randomly in to various teams and play a tournament over one night. The purpose of the Knight Cup is to create a community between the young people playing football in Enskede IK.

“We see the team as a free zone. If it is tough at home, at school or among friends, the team will provide an opportunity for security. With the Knight Cup, we hope to lay a good foundation for the players to get to know each other and help to prevent any future conflicts when they meet each other in the years to come in other environments”.

Behind the scenes Magnus was busy working on his own development. “I read, I researched and I continued to train a group of young players of varying abilities”. Most evenings and nights after training were spent online intensively searching for ideas, information and inspiration. One of these evenings Magnus came across a coaching document by Ulf Carlsson from the Gothenburg Football Association. Magnus took a chance and emailed Ulf. Pretty soon they were discussing topics such as early selection models and early specialisation while at the same time Magnus got an insight in to how things worked at grassroots level in Gothenburg. “Thanks to Ulf, in the autumn of 2012 I got a draft of Fredrik Sundqvist’s “How Youth football works”, a book that would prove to be very influential.

Ulf Carlsson came to Stockholm and held a seminar for Enskede IK. It was then that things really began to happen. The club had started to take notice of the boy’s 2001 group that Magnus had been responsible for and how it worked. Enskede IK held a “Talent development meeting” in August to address the issue as to why they were producing less and less players that could compete at elite senior level. The club after all was structured around the ambition to deliver talented senior players. They were competing with all the top clubs at grassroots level. But in the long term they were not succeeding. Magnus delivered a talk on the fundamental problems with using an early selection process in a community club like Enskede IK. Then Fredriks Sundqvists book “How Youth Football Works” came out. Fredrik held a seminar for the club and the pieces began to fall into place.

Magnus felt it was time to challenge tradition and create a new environment where the club could express its true DNA.

In the Autumn of 2013 a task force chaired by Magnus was put together to develop a new Enskede Model. A report was submitted to the board in April 2014. By May the new model was being introduced to the boys born 2003 (120 children). Many discerning voices both inside and outside of the club predicted a mass walkout of players. Their dooms day predictions were unfounded. The coaches and players embraced the new model. For them it was no problem to run a serious organisation without having to adopt an early selection process to create an elite team.

As many as possible as long as possible

The board at Enskede IK was very positive and eventually approved the delay of all first team selections until girls turned 15 and boys turned 16. In June 2014 the clubs chairman informed the media that Enskede IK will stop with all early selection methods and  focus on having as many people possible for as long as possible. In 2014 Enskede IK held its 100 year anniversary.  At a special event for sponsors Magnus introduced the new Enskede Model. Afterwards the clubs main sponsor walked up to Magnus and thanked him by simply uttering the word “finally!”.

The Enskede Model is a living document based on principles that hopes to breed new life in to the grassroots soccer culture in Sweden’s capital city. Enskede IK has chosen a unique direction to work with the complexities of participation, performance and personal development among its young members. The club is also aware that it has not chosen the easiest way forward. With over 100 boys and 50 girls in each age category, this will require a high quality of leadership and coaching resources. At the heart of the Enskede model is the understanding that young people go through a biopsychosocial development in a sporting context. All development and learning is non-linear. Therefore talent is non-linear. Enskede IK along with its 2,400 members through its model has the ambition to develop and build the social capital that it will eventually come to depend on. The club It is connecting with the future.

In spring 2007 father of two Magnus Pettersson began a process of taking on inertia by shifting the paradigm of a traditional sporting culture towards empowerment and community.

CELSO BORGES-Portrait of a professional player as a child

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Celso Borges

”I felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”

For me one of the constants in Costa Rica’s successful 2014 World Cup campaign in Brazil was Celso Borges. He just always seemed to be there when things were about to happen. He was there on the periphery taking up a position to support a teammate, creating a passing option, distracting defenders with his movement. He was also there to make sure that nothing would happen just in case the ball was lost. It is said that the opposite of constant is a variable. For Celso Borges to become this “constant” on the World stage it required great variability.

I first met Celso Borges in October 2013. His then teammate Henok Goitom brought him to the Stockholm RCD Espanyol player’s camp I was involved in. Henok is a friend and even though he is still playing professionally he is one of the best coaches I know. His work on and off the pitch with Kista Galaxy is proving to be a huge inspiration for many. Celso wanted to come as he also has a big interest in coaching. We spoke about Costa Rica’s chances in the World Cup- “We will surprise many- although I will not be surprised. We will qualify from our group” I recall him saying. He took a keen interest in how the young players at the training camp were responding to the game centred sessions that the Spanish coaches had set up. We met again at another Stockholm RCD Espanyol player coaching camp in August 2014. Celso had just returned from a very successful World Cup campaign with Costa Rica. Yes, they surprised a lot of people. Still, the same appetite to learn was there. He stayed for two hours watching the young kids learning the game and later discussed coaching ideas and methods with the Spanish coaches often reflecting on his own childhood and how he learned the game. It was these childhood reflections that made me decide that I needed to interview him. We eventually managed to sit down and talk before his move from Swedish club AIK to La Liga club Deportivo La Coruna.

Enrique Henok

We played wherever and whenever we could

Even as a child the game was all about the experience and connecting the dots. These dots were different game situations, different skills, different social experiences and different sports.  His early learning in sport was not through a staggered text book process of coach instruction led sessions but by simply discovering and doing. “I always felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”.

We can divide Celso’s early sporting experiences into two categories.

  1. Inclusive sporting experience in an unstructured sporting environment. (Street games)
  2. Inclusive sporting experience in a more structured sporting environment. Moderate volumes of organised soccer training plus participation in other sports

Soccer was in his family. His father Alexandre Guimaraes was a professional footballer representing Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup and was head coach in the 2002 World Cup. Celso’s early development was based around the simplicity of playing street games. Its instant gratification, the trial and error of it all captured his imagination. His first contact environment with soccer was all about autonomy and fun. These defining themes along with social interaction, problem solving and intuition frequently surfaced during my conversation with him. They lay the foundations for what was to come.

“My earliest memory of playing soccer was on the streets of Tibas in Costa Rica. It would begin with maybe two of us playing goal to goal just taking shots at each other and trying to stop each other from scoring. Then others would join in and a game would develop. Different ages, different abilities all there for the same purpose, to have fun. Basketball was also a big street game. I grew up in the Michael Jordan era. He was a real hero to us”. All it took was for a Chicago Bulls game to be on TV and afterwards they were out on the street re-enacting the best moves of their hero. Celso and his friends just played, individual ability was never considered important. These games were competitive, challenging and a lot of fun. He and his friends structured “unstructured” games –inventing their own rules and games within games creating their own learning environment.

I would do it all over again

The environment -the streets, the school yards and back yards with their varying surfaces and sizes, manipulated time and space and encouraged the development of more flexible and adaptable skills. ”We played wherever and whenever we could”: Games were invented and skills were developed. Different surfaces demanded different solutions that Celso himself to this day believes helped develop his skills. “We played on cracked concrete. The ball could suddenly come at you at any angle. I got to practice a variety of techniques in lots of different situations. I learned to find quick solutions and you know what? I WOULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN”.

His early experiences of soccer seemed to be fresh fun and novel. The various environments and surfaces with their unpredictability were welcomed challenges. “So many kids today get to play on these perfect artificial pitches”. Celso does have reservations with regard to how many children today experience the game, drilled from cone to cone through repetitive technique and passing exercises. He feels that coaching kids in the early years this way does not necessarily prepare them for the sheer dynamic unpredictability of the game.

Despite being comfortable with the ball they may well be strangers to the game -Andreas Alm/ Johan Fallby (Se På Spelet)

Often while just hanging out with his friends they would feel like playing soccer, but nobody had a ball with them. Maybe the ball they had yesterday disappeared in to a neighbor’s garden. If the “human pyramid” approach to scaling the wall didn’t work then they would have to wait until the neighbor returned before they uttered those immortal words so familiar to us of a certain age “Please can we have our ball back?” With necessity being the mother of invention Celso recalls how he and his friends would make a ball from masking tape. “It was our solution to our problem and it was fun, a lot of fun”. It didn’t roll like a ball it didn’t bounce like a ball, yet another variable for Celso to adjust to. “We often played where cars passed by. It certainly increased our awareness. I guess that many parents today would see this as a problem. To us it was just how it was”. Maybe in those days when street soccer was the norm, not only were Celso and his friends aware of oncoming cars, the driver was also aware of the possibility of a street game happening in the neighbourhood. There seemed to be an unwritten contract, an understanding between the driver of the car and the kids playing football on the street. Just like my own childhood in Cork, Ireland, we respected that they had to pass through our environment and they respected our right to the street.

Celso’s early sporting experience was a positive and diversified one. Between the ages of eight and eleven he engaged in a range of activities in different environments. In school Celso was involved in soccer, basketball, high jump, baseball and athletics. They used to have these sport festivals between schools.” I tried to compete in as many sports as possible. It was fun. I had a passion for sports in general. I was content with playing nearly any sport. I felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”. For the young Celso play was practice. This intuition indeed a child’s intuition to associate play, enjoyment and fun with learning seems to have become lost in many traditional grassroots coaching environments.

“My involvement in many sporting activities was very beneficial from a social point of view. I got to move in different social circles. The sports I played were not expensive to take part in therefore they were open to a broad social spectrum. Youth sport is a great chance to make and develop friendships”.

I really felt that I was going to be a footballer- I just didn’t know the route

Despite the fact that his parents didn’t push him in to one particular sport it was never really in doubt which sport Celso would eventually focus on. Celso’s first contact with organised soccer was when he was 8. The local club would get a bunch of kids together on Saturday just to play a game. “There was minimal coaching – It was all game based”. At the age of 12 he decided to push other sports aside and began to train twice a week with a team. “It felt good to be involved in organised training sessions, I embraced the seriousness, I was ready. Being involved in other sports and the many hours of street games gave me a solid foundation”.

Again Celso felt that he had a good chance at improving at something that he enjoyed. He recalls a real switch in his attitude on entering high school at 13. “I really felt that I was going to be a footballer, I just didn’t know the route”. Being involved in many sports had thought Celso about responsibility and compromise and this prepared him for the focus and sacrifice that was necessary in his teenage years. “An early positive sporting environment is so good for youth development. It teaches you values. You meet people from different backgrounds and circumstances. It is such a good tool for development, especially when you reach your teens when there are so many distractions. You find out what you really want. What are you capable of giving up? What sacrifices will you make? Those positive early experiences can help keep you on your path”.

Celso found many similarities in the dynamics between basketball and soccer especially in reference to how the team had to organise so quickly in response to losing or gaining possession. This required fast solutions, general team play such as defending and attacking as a team. Athletics helped him on a more personal level. “You need to rely on yourself, goal settings are the same but a bit more personal. The high jump helped me develop speed over short distances and my ability in the air”. However it was soccer and the nature of the team sport that that was his first love. “Even Rafael Nadal speaks about the bond, that brotherhood that you find in team sports that he misses and cannot experience in tennis”.

“My parents were always a great support to me. They never forced me to play or train football. They always said to me that I should focus on the things that make me happy. I remember when I was 15 my parents once saying to me that I was playing in my comfort zone and I didn’t seem to be showing much enthusiasm or passion for the game. They showed me videos of me playing football when I was a kid- look at the joy they said- you are too comfortable now -look at the joy”. His parents were right. That same year Celso got cut from the national youth team. It was a devastating blow for him and it hit him very hard. “They said I was not dynamic enough. I could easily have quit but I worked on it. I was determined to prove them wrong.  I got great support from my family. They saw how sad I was”.

Somewhere within the environment of cracked concrete, school, a supportive family and childhood friendships a foundation was built for elite performance. Since he can remember he always felt that he had a winning mentality. When he played on the street of Tibas, Costa Rica with his friends he was always competitive. When he ran in the school athletics festivals he was always competitive. But it never became overwhelming. It was about the process..

In a sport where peak performance cannot be reached until after maturity Celso benefited from a more holistic development. His early sporting experiences were based on diversification and play. For him play was practice. He always wanted to improve and as long as he was enjoying it, he believed that he would. This built the intrinsic motivation that helped him take control of his development in later years. Celso the young boy became the protagonist of his own learning. “Loads of players that I played with and against had more talent than me but they didn’t want it enough. They didn’t have the drive”. Within that drive was an ability to deal with setbacks and failure.

“A winner is someone who, when he loses gets over it quickly. It is nothing to do with results it is a mentality”. This mind-set, a growth mind-set has its roots in his childhood.

For Celso Borges to become a constant on the World stage it required him to experience and embrace great variability, especially during childhood.

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A SAFE TO FAIL ENVIRONMENT IS A SAFE TO REFLECT ENVIRONMENT

winterball

Is there a way to challenge and transcend traditional structures and coaching habits by investigating ideas and methods that support the natural learning process for our young players, our learners?

Today there is a tendency to look at youth sport as adult and children. Many believe that children can only learn in adult organised environments – what is worse is that children are starting to believe this. Sport should also be just about children playing sport.

When it comes to designing and determining a child’s environment, the child’s own voice is often the smallest. Here we have one of the fundamental drawbacks with today’s organised “one size fits all” grassroots training. All authority, all decision making, resides with the adult coach. This has a profound knock-on effect with regards to influencing coaching behaviours and styles placing a focus on instruction and error correction as opposed to learning and understanding. Today the child’s experience in sport is more or less based on an adult-centric structure both on and off the pitch. With the decline in street games and spontaneous play children are more than ever dependent on adults to take them to and from their sporting activities.

Yet play seems to be back on the agenda with many governing bodies and sporting organisations. Words and phrases like “focus on Play” “FUN” or “FUN-damental” are appearing in development plans in an effort to convince parents that their child is in a safe child centred  environment and that it is all about “as many as possible as long as possible”. Of course at the same time many are also operating an early selection process followed by a continuous selection process through the various ages and stages. They are doing exactly what they have always done. They have just repackaged and rebranded it. It is administration, something to make the homepage look good. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Read: Development Model or The Emperors New Clothes

The other argument I have heard been thrown around is that we must define “play” within our development plans. This statement is usually followed by the argument that “people think that they just need to throw a ball in, let them play and suddenly an elite player will appear at 18. Anyway how are they ever going to learn to do * insert technique here* if I don’t teach them how to do it?” There is so much wrong with this- the assumption that if it is taught then learning will take place- the assumption that children can only learn in adult organised environments and of course the need for the adult coach to have control over the child’s learning process. It’s a typical adult perspective. We brush aside play as a waste of time as we have difficulty in seeing how it serves us and at times our children’s future.

Play is one of those intangibles. We know of its positive benefits but we don’t really know exactly what it is as we adults are not really part of the experience. We influence it but we should not define it.

A mismatch between children’s developmental needs and coaching behaviours leads to more dropout, injuries and shorter careers than when children are trained by a competent age appropriate coach” Fraser-Thomas et al. (2008a)

Play is serious business. Play is learning and learning a dynamic sport like soccer is especially in the case of younger age groups sometimes not that easy on the eye. Its chaotic combination of chance, failure and success demand a patient coach. The temptation to add some adult controlled structure to the process more than often wins out in the end. Here we are entering the realm of what @innovatefc calls pseudo-coaching. It looks good, it is pleasing on the eye especially for the parents. Tasks are being carried out in an orderly fashion. The emphasis here is on teaching rather than learning. When young kids are coached this way then practice becomes conditioning.

It’s just adults thinking like adults. We know what is good for the child but we deliver it in an adult perspective- Jean Côté

The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience today seem to be heading towards becoming environments of conditioning. Kids are being moved from a play based environment to a practice based environment earlier than ever. At the same time there is much talk among governing bodies and clubs that we need to develop players with a better understanding of the game more intelligent and creative players.

Understanding OF the Game v Understanding IN the Game

Perhaps it is time to turn the whole curriculum on its head.

I have many friends with a great understanding of the game but that does not necessarily mean that they are any good at playing the game. Why do we think that if we instruct or teach young children an understanding of the game that we will develop more intelligent and creative players?  Surely what is more important is that we create an environment where young players can develop understanding IN the game, after that we can talk about understanding of the game. The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience need to be structured in a way that is relevant to their intrinsic needs and innate desires. We should present the whole game experience to the child and create learning opportunities by basing our training sessions on the concept of play- a sort of spontaneous practice. In play, time is not of the essence and mistakes are part of the learning process. Therefore the coach needs to be patient.  By virtue of presenting the game experience to the child we are opening them up to even more possible experiences (decision making, communication, pattern recognition, creativity, problem solving)   This approach gives them the chance to connect a variety of experiences to bring forward new ideas and solutions, their ideas and their solutions. They can do this because the nature of play allows the child time to reflect. A safe to fail environment is also a safe to reflect environment. They join the dots of past experiences to create new learning opportunities for themselves. This is learning IN the game and  will develop understanding IN the game. When allowed to reflect on their mistakes and learning children have more control over the narrative, their development over time.

We know that fun and autonomy are both crucial from a commitment and motivational perspective and are essential elements of “play”. So perhaps instead of the environment defining how children play we let children define their environment. One of the core values of play that we should take in to our practice environment is that for the child mistakes do not exist. They only exist in the eye of the adult coach. The aim should be to create an environment where the game of soccer is inevitable

A Safe to Fail Environment is a Safe to Reflect Environment

16 year old Norwegian Martin Odegaard who signed for Real Madrid recently spoke about how his father always told him that it was not all about winning and that there are no mistakes only opportunities to learn.

“My dad has never talked about winning and being the best. The only thing that has mattered was development and improving all the time. It’s always supposed to be fun, devoid of stress and fear. He always tells me that there’s no danger in making mistakes. He wants me to make them. Then try again. He’s always encouraged me to use the ball”.

Ever tried- Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better- Samuel Beckett

Coaching after all is not about players learning drills but about educating and inspiring them to think for themselves. By designing practice environments closely related to the concept of play we can transcend tradition and develop methods and strategies that support and respect the child’s natural learning process. The coach can structure learning by designing different age appropriate modified games and placing the players in situations where they have to respond with solutions. The coach can then build on learning by manipulating the constraints-Maximize development and potential by adjusting the environment they learn in. The young players are given the opportunity to become the protagonists of their own learning.

By designing environments for learning instead of success we also redefine what success is

FAMILY

MEDIA DEBATE-The Child and Child Participation in Organised Youth Sports in Sweden

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These last few days there has been a big media debate here in Sweden with regard to children in sport. Traditional structures and practices have been questioned and analysed as the question being asked was -why are an increasing number of children turning their back on organised sport? The debates have been interesting with many eager to provide input and opinions. To get to the heart of the discussion I think we need to ask the following questions.

Has the debate just been focusing on youth sport as adults and children when sport is also just children playing sport?

If so-

The child and adult in sport- Do they have the same motives?

It is generally accepted that sport is good for children. Participation is often associated with the development of many positive life skills. This is a common sound-bite used by clubs, politicians, governing bodies and coaches. However participation alone cannot guarantee positive outcomes. It would be more appropriate to say that sport is good for children under the right conditions. Over the last few years there has been a huge metamorphosis within sport. Major advances in sports science and in general a higher standard of training facilities have set new levels of expectation for elite athletes. There is a demand for immediate success and each performance gets pushed under the microscope of analysis. For better or for worse this is having an influence on all levels. This is no more evident than at grassroots level. Earlier than ever children are being exposed to the organised sport and funnelled through various selection systems judging their ability while they still have their milk teeth.

Children see the sport and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. They accept what they experience as the norm- so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexities of adults when “running” clubs do not affect them- Dr Martin Toms 

Unlike adults who focus on particular goals, children seek instant gratification. This possibly explains why we adults often brush aside play as a waste of time as we have difficulty in seeing how it serves us and at times our children’s future. Today children mainly experience sport in adult organised environments. Many a child’s first contact with a sport happens this way. The race to the bottom is in full flow. At an earlier stage than ever we are minimising the child’s play experience and committing them to a practice environment. These are more than often environments where there is a single focus on one sport.

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- Ulf Carlsson Goteborg Football Association

Many adults believe that children can only learn in adult created environments and now there is a risk that children are starting to believe this. Children need the opportunity to develop a sense of fun and autonomy (important from a commitment and motivational perspective), a feeling that they also have some control over their environment and development.

If you want to see what autonomy looks like then look at the face of a child that has just learned to walk. That is self-esteem growing- Jean Cote

Children thrive in safe to fail environments, just like the ones that they used to create by playing spontaneous “street” games, before we adults set limits on their everyday interaction with their environment. A good example of a modern safe to fail environment is computer games. There is no adult shouting over the child’s shoulder giving instructions and solutions. The child is allowed to fail and fail better, eventually finding their own solutions to problems. Better learning can occur when children are allowed to make mistakes. Children in these environments can be very creative. They seek out solutions through cooperation or as in the case of computer games, through the many different forms of social media that they have access to. There is a sense of ownership.

As coaches we need to reflect on what we do and the environment we create especially if we are not getting the desired response from players – Janne Mian                                                                     

A safe to fail environment where mistakes and struggle are not judged because the player is more worried about personal development than judging others- Mark Upton

We need to ask ourselves, how is the child’s sport played and how is it experienced? We know that it has become more structured and certainly more competitive. Children want to win, they are competitive. They just don’t need adults to remind them or define it for them. Problems begin to arise when there is an early focus placed on children to compete on the same terms that adults compete.

It is the societal expectations through professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Lynn Kidman

You see, Youth sport has become big business. This means that it has become “adult business” with adult expectations, adult rules and driven by adult motives.

Sport logic is a bubble in many ways disconnected from the rest of life- Fredrik Sundqvist

So how do we move forward? Here are some “spontaneous” suggestions J

  1. Understand that children are NOT mini-adults ( One of the many mantras I learned from Dr Martin Toms)
  2. Coaching children is about relationships, how we nurture and enhance them.
  3. It is their sport not ours. We are there to facilitate learning and development
  4. Learning and development is non-linear. Therefore talent development is non-linear
  5. Understand that each child is unique. They are human beings with feelings and history. One size does not fit all
  6. A safe to fail environment, one that encourages process and values effort and perseverance is also a safe to reflect environment. Mistakes are a powerful part of learning. Children can reflect and develop their self- awareness.
  7. Find a balance between structured and unstructured practice and structured and unstructured play- activities. This is the real art of coaching children. Parents should play their part and encourage this balance. Play can also be spontaneous practice!
  8. Empower them!!!!!

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 very important.

The child and adult in sport- Do they have the same motives?

Thank you to the following for inspiration

Follow them on twittwer Dr Martin Toms Richard Bailey Jean Cote Mark Upton Lynn Kidman Fredrik Sundqvist Ian Renshaw

TURN THE CURRICULUM ON ITS HEAD- COACHING IN CONTEXT

pep coach

Turn the curriculum on its head. Replace it with game centered concepts with questions and problems as defining themes.

In the blog post ” Development Model or The Emperor’s New Clothes”  I referred to the problems with the  linear model associated with more traditional structured coaching and how it can have a negative effect on learning.

As part of my Coaching in Context philosophy (in the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child) I propose some suggestions to help coaches design their training sessions to optimize learning.

Non Linear Training Design

  1. Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format
  2. Access to advanced content for the more interested learners (or those who are ready)
  3. Provide learner choice for parallel content
  4. You make the learning experience deeper by providing relevant links to other game situations etc.
  5. The learner takes the path that works for him/her. Multiple paths with multiple solutions.
  6. The coach can set a goal of what he would like his players to learn but he does not decide what is to be learned on the way to the goal.

If we take my “Coaching in Context” training session from a previous blog.as an example  we can analyse it with reference to the 6 points above on non-linear training design.

Clear Headline: Passing and Control- “See the Ball”

Short Explanation: If you can get in to a position where you can see the ball it is easier to receive the ball.

Advanced learning: You need to think about when should you move into space so that you can “see the ball” and what you are going to do when you receive the ball. As a team we need to create width and depth

More Detailed Information for further/deeper learning

  1. Control with correct foot-Body shape,
  2. Creating passing alternatives ( Left , Right, Forward)
  3. Identify, occupy, use space
  4. Control with movement
  5. Communication ( Verbal, non- verbal)
  6. Scan the field while catching glimpses of the ball
  7. Make a decision before you receive the ball
  8. Passing to create a goal scoring chance
  9. Passing our way out of trouble.
  10. Move the ball to move the opponent

Multiple Paths: Perhaps the learner starts the passing and control excercise from the point of view of communication (verbal, non-verbal) prompting others to communicate with him.

Parallel content: In this case it could be a defensive action say closing off the passing lanes. (Stop your opponent from seeing the ball). When I did this session as part of a workshop for BK Azalea in Goteborg Sweden I was really impressed how towards the end of the session the young players (born 2004) started working on parallel content. It added a real competitive edge to the session making it even more game realistic.

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. Wall pass
  12. Fitness ( we had to move a lot more than usual )
  13. Dribbling ( movement created more space to dribble)

The coach can set a goal of what he would like his players to learn but he does not decide what is to be learned on the way to that goal.

The aim of many traditional drills is to develop technique while games or modified games contextualize technique and develop skills. Skill is the application of technique under pressure. Mark Upton also provides us with a good definition of skill.

Skill = adapting movement to “fit” the game context – Mark Upton

This stresses the importance of “coaching in context” as decision making is based on perception, what is seen and the information taken in by the young player. This allows learners to become attuned to game contexts and adapt their movements accordingly.

If we value learning, we respect that it is not a race. Then the potential for a transformation away from the conventional football education paradigm is extraordinary. Yet with how many coaches does this register? There are many well-meaning attempts to promote excellence among our young players but it more than often happens in the parallel universe of a result orientated environment. Is it any wonder that the development of talent can get lost in the traditional conveyor belt of talent identification? Especially when during this very important learning period talent and winning/ beating an opponent are not recognised as distinct concepts. We must respect the fact that learning and development are non-linear. If we want to create a learning space for our players, then we must create a space for them to learn.

Some words with Richard Bailey, Ph.D. Physical Activity, Sports and Human development

RICHARD BAILEY

Richard Bailey, Ph.D, is a former university professor who now focuses on writing and public speaking. His work and interests meet on the intersection of physical activity, sports and human development. He received a doctorate of philosophy of education from University of Sunderland and has been a professor at a number of leading Universities in the UK. . He is co-editor of The Routledge Physical Education Reader, co-author of The SAGE Handbook of Philosophy of Education, and the author of Philosophy of Education: An Introduction and Physical Education for Learning: A Guide for Secondary Schools, among other books. He has conducted research on topics including gifted education, talent development, effective teaching and coaching, and the development of expertise.

“My interests include science, philosophy, education, martial arts and the insidious bullshit that threatens them”.

Catch him on twitter @DrDickB

Visit his blog http://talkingeducationandsport.blogspot.se/

Footblogball: Is there a conflict between how children learn and how modern youth sports elite programs (early selection, specialise and train hard) are carried out that is causing an imbalance?

Richard Bailey: Yes, I think there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate.  Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions.

Footblogball: Physical Education (as well as the arts) seems to have taken a back seat to other what are considered more important subjects in the school curriculum. With the concern for the rise in diabetes and the general health of children are we now reaping what we sow?

Richard Bailey: I don’t think this is necessarily true. Physical education and school sport was a major element of the last UK government’s education programme, and still carries a significant amount of central government funding.  It is true that physical education and the arts Have traditionally been marginalised within the school curriculum. And that is partly due to their inability to demonstrate value. But I think this is changing in many places.In answer to your specific question, I would like to see your evidence that there is a relationship between diabetes/general health and curriculum physical education. I do not think that relationship has been demonstrated.

Footblogball: Do you think that there is relationship between physical activity during the school day and educational performance? How does exercise effect brain activity in children? (I know VERY general question)

Richard Bailey: Yes. Exercise seems to stimulate the development of the neural networks that underlie thinking.  Activity also seems to stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, and more complex thoughts.

Footblogball: In your Psychology today blog “Leaning to move, moving to learn” there is a reference to questioning the standard ways in which schools organise and prioritise their various responsibilities. In reference to Youth sport organisations can we ask the same question?

Dr Richard Bailey: Yes.   I think they suffer from basically the same problems: inflexibility; lack of evidence; adult-centred.

Footblogball: My own personal coaching philosophy is “It is not how I coach but more about understanding how they learn”. Do you think that our coaching education programmes should place a greater emphasis helping coaches understand how humans learn? Surely if we develop an understanding for how our players learn then coaching becomes easier, your sessions become less coach-centric more player centred and it will easier for players to take control of the learning process?

Richard Bailey: Yes.  Although we do not know a huge amount about how people learn, and lots more research is needed in practical settings.  I also think planners of coach education programmes need to take their role more seriously, and design training that is much more challenging, and leads the participants to walk away better coaches.

Footblogball: Apparently 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses can be recognised by 14 years of age. This is not something that I have heard been discussed much within the context of athlete development and talent ID models.  Are we doing enough to identify this early on? Are we adults contributing to it with the demands and pressures that we put on kids?

Richard Bailey: I do not know what it means to say that 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses are recognised by 14 years of age. I very much doubt that is true, and I suspect it really means that the origins of many mental illnesses can be traced back to early adolescence.

But in answer to the question, I think sports doing almost nothing to identify and support mental health issues. Nor do schools.  And I have no doubt that intensive early training programmes can be harmful for both physical and mental health.  We are still very much in the dark ages as far as mental health is concerned, and it is not taken nearly seriously enough.

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. 

SWEDISHBALL

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)

 LTAD

LTAD2

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

dmsp                            

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

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.

Comment?

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

ESSINGE LEK PLAY

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.