Coaching, Learning and the Brain – Richard Bailey Research Survey


Footblogball is delighted to be able to present and invite coaches to take part in a new exclusive research survey by Richard Bailey (International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education)

This survey is aimed at practicing coaches in the UK and Ireland only.

This survey is concerned with coaches’ knowledge and experience of learning theories, especially those linked in the brain. It asks about experiences of coach education and professional development, and how they presented ideas about how players and athletes learn. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first survey of its kind, so your answers will provide extremely important and useful information. The survey gathers information on a number of topics that are necessary for us to develop a complete picture of coaches’ knowledge and understanding of learning and the brain.

  1. Background information about you and your sports coaching background
  2. About coaching and the brain – about your views and experience of brain – based learning ideas
  3. Ideas about the Brain and Coaching/learning – about your personal understanding of the brain and learning

The survey should take about 30 minutes to complete, and is entirely voluntary. All answer will remain anonymous and confidential. If you have any questions about this survey feel free to contact: Richard Bailey at

Thank you in advance for your participation in the survey

Survey Link

About Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is a former teacher in Primary and Secondary Schools, teacher trainer, coach and coach educator. He has been a full Professor at Canterbury, Roehampton, Birmingham and Liverpool in the UK and has directed studies that have influenced policy and practice both nationally and internationally. In addition to his position as Writer in Residence at the ICSSPE Executive Office he is an author and blogger.

Richard has undertaken funded research in every continent of the world. He has worked with UNESCO as Expert Adviser for Physical Education, the World Health Organization, the European Union, and many similar agencies. He has carried out research on behalf of the English and Scottish governments, numerous educational and sports agencies. He was a contributing consultant for both Nike-led Designed to Move and Active Kids Do Better initiatives, and has directed numerous scientific reviews, including the most comprehensive review ever published on the benefits of physical education and sport (BERA, 2007‐2008), the UK’s independent review of player development in sport (sportscoach, 2008‐2009), and the IOC-funded study of the contribution made by Sport in Education (IOC, 2004).

The Race to the Bottom (adventures in early and earlier talent ID)

Children see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Just like their family backgrounds, they accept what they perceive as the norm – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexity of managing an association does not affect them – Dr. Martin Toms (Footblogball Interview March 2014)

Recently English club Fulham FC posted on social media information about their Pre- Academy Talent Identification day.  Children as young as under 5 are invited. The introduction statement informed us that Fulham Football Club were in search of new talent. Also, stating the child’s preferred position was recommended when parents sent in their application.

Naturally this caused a huge debate on Social Media. What really surprised me was the type of questions asked and excuses pawned off in defense. Thankfully, the majority of comments on social media were very critical.

For me one vital element in all this was never discussed. The role of the parent.  After all it will more than likely be a parent filling out the application form and transporting their child (under 5!) to this Talent Identification day. How informed are these parents?  If we reinvented youth sports, started from scratch and placed the physical and emotional needs of children first, would it look like this?

As the race to the bottom gathers pace I feel that there are two areas we must place a larger focus on if we are to develop a more informed opinion around what has already become a highly polarised debate.

  • Education of coach educators (see link here)
  • Parent education

Here are some ideas that I use for my Parent Education Workshops. Though, for me the real value  is within the discussions that emerge as the material is absorbed.

As many as possible, as long as possible in the best enviroment possible


  • This is a club for children, young players and their parents. Without parent support and involvement there is simply no club. We understand the importance of parents engaging themselves in the club. Therefore, it is vital that the club provides the parents with a clear and transparent picture as to how the club operates.
  • If we only see children as players, then we will view the family separate from the club. By this we mean that the family is expected to do its job and leave the football education solely to the club. If the club sees the young players as children, then it is possible to see both family and club as partners in the child’s learning and development
  • The coach and the parent are often the same person in many grassroots clubs


Create a culture of trust      


If all people (coach, parent, leaders) around the child send the same message, then it is easier for the child to interpret.


 Create a forum to facilitate discussion – We are educating each other

  • Offer coach education to parents
  • Organise educational workshops to develop and facilitate discussion
  • parent-2
  • Recommend literature, seminars, events, lectures


A vision that drives our work

  • As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible
  • Participation, performance, personal development



  • Transparency
  • Motivation climate where development is central and the focus is on learning
  • Flexibility and patience – biopsychosocial development in a sporting context
  • Development does not happen in a vacuum. We the club are one part of a system (School, parents, peers, other sports organisations)


 The development process is nonlinear


and we must support this


Therefore, we need……….

A commitment to learning and development

The culture of youth sports should be seen and understood as a good environment for learning. Not just the opportunity to learn skills that will benefit development in the sport, but even those that can be applied to life in general. The biopsychosocial differences between children as they grow have a big impact on their willingness to learn and develop

Children do not develop in a linear fashion and we must support that

Chronological age v Biological age         

Chronological age: The amount of years that have passed since birth

Biological age: ”Physical maturity” age. For example, a 9 year- old can have a biological age of 7 or 11.



Development is very sensitive and will affect the overall mental state.

This affects

  • Performance
  • Participation
  • Confidence
  • Motivation




Development is also influenced by and dependent on the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sports organisations, societies, cultures). We may conceptualise sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact and shape development

 Let us not forget that all this takes place in what is fast becoming an increasingly prestigious area of sport

“I am often surprised when I compare child and youth environments and see the stress that occurs there with the real elite environments of adult sport. I myself have been involved in preparations for European Championship and World Cup games in table tennis and football with both the senior and junior national teams and with club teams. Unfortunately, there is way more stress, induced by grown-ups evident in child and youth sport. Why this is so is actually incomprehensible to me. It is from the “support environment” that emerge our strongest “winners”. Anyone who believes that it is done by “survival of the fittest” should think again and try for example to create a motivational climate instead.  They will be surprised how effective it is. (Johan Fallby (Footblogball interview Dec 2015)



  • “It is society’s expectations of professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport” -Lynn Kidman (Footblogball Interview March 2014)


  • “They see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Like their family backgrounds, 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.”- Martin Toms  (Footblogball Interview  March 2014)


  • “There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes work. 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:” – Richard Bailey (Footblogball Interview November 2014)


Gör det bättre själv om du kan forskning och praktiska råd till föräldrar med idrottande barn  (Research and practical advice to parents with children involved in sport . available only in Swedish) – Johan Fallby. Available here.

International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development (Michael F Bergeron, Margo Mountjoy, Neil Armstrong, Michael Chia, Jean Côté, Carolyn A Emery, Avery Faigenbaum, Gary Hall Jr, Susi Kriemler, Michel Léglise, Robert M Malina, Anne Marte Pensgaard, Alex Sanchez, Torbjørn Soligard,  Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, Willem van Mechelen, Juanita R Weissensteiner, Lars Engebretsen)

The Brain in Spain (Sid Lowe, Blizzard issue 1, 55-64, 2011)

The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport (Jean Côté, Jennifer Turnnidge, M. Blair Evans, Kinesiologia Slovenica, 20, 3, 14-26; 2014)

The Standard Model of Talent Development and it’s Discontents (Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259)

Where you grow up matters for sporting success – that’s why Yorkshire cricketers are so good (Dr Martin Toms, 2015, )

Imposing set structures on complex phenomena – Stop making ‘common’ sense


Traditionally we have been treating all systems like independent mechanical systems. We tend to reduce them to simplified sequential models. In a recent conversation with James Vaughan (TwitterTwitter) we discussed if we were creating environments that were more suitable in helping machines reach their potential rather than human beings? Humans unlike computers are synonymous with error. Predicting the future behaviour of a complex system (human, team) can be quite futile. Yet we still feel the need to develop a perfect algorithm, formula or model that can be applied with production line efficiency in attempt to forecast the future? This seems to have been absorbed in to the language of child/youth development within many sports organisations. Clubs describe their child/youth system as a talent factory or refer to players as products that have rolled off their talent conveyor belt. On closer inspection, we often see that the collective of successful senior players clearly emerges from frequently repeated procedures of selection and de-selection across all age stages rather than a long- term continuous nurturing process of player education and development.

It is NOT possible to predict everything that will happen by just knowing the existing conditions and projecting those into the future. So, are management principles, models and structures sold in as ‘common sense’ yet seem to only enhance efficiency in non-complex projects having a negative influence on the potential of young people? Many models are put forth as examples of how things should be done, inevitably influenced by a range of confirmation bias and hindsight bias. John Stoszkowski sums this up in a simple turn of phrase – “By trying to reduce this complexity to simplified models or rules, the complexity is lost, and the model is therefore as useless in explaining things”.

Our ongoing search for simple relationships that are easily and logically understood has created many optical illusions. The Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD) and its apparent success as discussed in a previous blog is one of these. (Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259). Select some eggs. Put eggs in a plastic bag. Throw the plastic bag at a wall. Show the world the egg that doesn’t break – The system works! (see here)

Like John Kiely (Twitter) said in a recent interview “Talent is the graveyard of evidence. Nobody looks at the dead bodies”.

Despite 35 years of evidence against, learning styles still echo through the corridors of many of our sports education institutions. It sounds logical, it makes sense and and it gives the illusion to the teacher that it will be easier to predict future learning.

By arranging sequential units in “logical” order many models seek to control future outcomes. In skill acquisition if we continue to “logically” reduce a task we decontextualize it and eventually it is not that task anymore. These sort of mechanistic deliberate practice models seem to view the body as a machine, meaning that a certain input will provide a certain output. There is a presumption that human adaption is quite predictable and will follow a determinable path. The focus is to “learn out” instead of creating environments for learners to “learn in”. All this often at the expense of marginalizing the important issue of the complex nature of living systems and their interactions.

Simplified processing systems and models

“The player is likened to a computer which receives sensory information and acts upon it before producing output” (Broadbent, 1958; Marteniuk, 1976; Eysenck and Keane, 1990).

In sport, particularly invasion sports the metaphor of the computer seems to be programmed into the culture of learning and skill acquisition. Top teams are often reffered to as behaving like machines. The movements of top performers are seen as preprogrammed, often referred to as automised. This logically (that word again) implies that there is less effort required to perform the movement thus freeing up space for the processing of further information.

A common view is that a young player remembers similar situations that they were involved in and use their experience to evaluate and take a decision. The basic, implicit assumption of information processing (IP) is that motor learning and control is the domain of the brain. Learners come to know about their environment by representing it in the mind. Such representation is a result of a computational process involving information received through the senses.

The IP system is divided in to at least 3 levels.

  • Receiving sensory input
  • Perception of the input
  • Production of a motor output

However, as every situation is unique should it not follow that the young player recognises (not remembers) similar situations. In the ever – changing dynamics of the game we recognise the situation and adapt our movement live as the situation develops and unfolds in the environment.

I find my thoughts echoed in the excellent philosophical paper Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance (Richard BaileyRichard Bailey and Angela Pickar). It is suggested that skill learning in dance (or indeed any domain) is not a matter of processing information, but is imminent in the active, perceptual engagement of learner and context.

A player might recognise a situation and are conscious of the fact that they have had a similar perceptual experience before. How that player critically interprets the situation and acts will depend on a unique bibliography of movement experiences. How the situation is perceived in terms of their ability to act and/or their understanding of that ability (motivation, Self Determination Theory). “There is no generic movement solution – Skills also have their autobiographies in the sense that they embody the movement experiences of actors up to the moment of performance of the skills” (Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard).

There is no separation of perception and action, there is only perception-action. The learner makes up the content of what is to be learned and is understood within the organism -environment synergy.

This of course should be accounted for when structuring our pedagogical approach and training design. When working with complex systems (players) our training design should be about bringing things (systems) together and not taking them apart. We think in terms of movements not muscles and this implies that movement can be better controlled when the focus lays outside the body rather than inside it.

“…. people’s thoughts, choices and insights can be transformed by physical interaction with things. In other words, thinking with your brain alone – like a computer does – is not equivalent to thinking with your brain, your eyes, and your hands – as humans frequently do”. (Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Psychology, Kingston University & Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Kingston University).

To understand motor learning/skill acquisition it can be suggested that we need to understand:

  • What the individual brings to the table
  • What the environment affords the individual
  • What is the task

Skill is not a property of the mind. Nor is it a property of the body. If we are going to understand how people learn skills, we need to widen our focus to take in the total field of relations made up of the whole learner and the whole space for learning – Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard

Instead of attempting to predict the future it could be suggested that we look at strategies that can help learners to determine their future. By doing this we are saying that we are willing to adapt as we integrate vast amounts of new complex emerging information. We are willing to embrace complexity.

The future is unwritten.


Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard (2010) Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance, Sport, Education and Society, 15:3, 367-382, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2010.493317

The Past and Future of Motor Learning and Control:  What Is the Proper Level of Description and Analysis? (Howard N. Zelaznik; Kinesiology Review, 2014, 3, 38-4)-

The natural physical alternative to cognitive theories of motor behaviour: An invitation for interdisciplinary research in sports science? (Keith Davids, Craig Handford & Mark Williams; Journal of Sports Sciences, 1994, 12, 495-528)

Why the best problem-solvers think with their hands, as well as their heads (Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Psychology, Kingston University & Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Kingston University)

Representative Seminar/Workshop Design

Having attended many coaching seminars and workshops (and having given a few myself) I have in the last year started to reflect on their true purpose and use in their traditional form. Most seminars have some lectures (an orgy of power point presentations?) and sometimes there might be some practical sessions. More than often these are not even connected. Sometimes someone is selling a product. Many who are attending are looking for simple answers to complex questions (yes this is where the products come in). Those attending rarely get to take part. With all this in mind, I have been looking to adjust and adapt my own seminar/workshop design.

Here are some notes from a recent workshop.

Workshop Design:

11.00-12.00 Training session with 16 players aged 11/12 observed by 32 coaches

12.15- 13.45 Workshop + discussion + training design (players were also involved to give their input)

14.00-15.00 Training session 16 players aged 11/12 (led by some of the coaches)

15.15-15.30 Q and A

Session description: Passing – External focus of attention. By this I mean allowing the young players to explore the task by directing their attention towards the movement effects that are to be achieved.


6v2 (Developed this from a session I was involved in a few years ago at RCD Espanyol. I can also recommend Kieran Smith who has done some excellent work around similar session designs)

  • 1st line pass: To the side but not past the first press
  • 2nd line pass: To the side and past the first press
  • 3rd line pass: Splits the first press
  • Defenders try and close off passing lanes and break up the passes

Discussions with players due to emergent behaviors (no instructions given):

  • Body profile: Try to find a position where you can receive the ball with the foot furthest away from where the ball is coming from
  • Opening passing lines: If you can get in to a position where you can SEE the ball then it is more likely that you can receive it
  • 1st and 2nd line pass requires various degrees of width. 2nd line pass requires width and depth. 3rd line requires depth


4v4 Game

  • Dribble the ball between the red cones = 1 point
  • Dribble the ball between the yellow cones = 2 points
  • Use 1st, 2nd and 3rd line passes to build up play and create scoring chances
  • Can we use 1st and 2nd line passes to create possibilities for the more penetrative 3rd line pass?

Workshop & discussion: I began the workshop by getting the kids to share with the coaches how they experienced the session. I felt that it was important to not ask them what we did as I felt that their experience was of greater value for future discussions.

Here are some of their thoughts.

  • The emphasis was not on how we passed but more to who and where the pass was going
  • We constantly needed to adapt ourselves to every situation (yes! An 11- year old said this!!!
  • We needed to think more, make decisions. We were working on game understanding/insight
  • I sometimes did a simple pass and asked for the ball back so that I had more time to see what was happening. That way it was easier to find the most dangerous pass.
  • I never thought about HOW I was passing the ball
  • If we create width and depth and communicate a lot it was easier find a good pass
  • We can move the opponent by passing the ball. They become disorganised.

Investigating the Complexity of Youth Development                                                               

The workshop continued investigating factors that influence performance, participation and personal development in Youth sports.

 The Game is Complex : The coach needs to understand the game but also other aspects that surround the game. The surrounding environment, society, economy – Joan Vila (Head of Methodology, FC Barcelona)

The Culture is Complex: The culture of youth sports in general, has become disproportionally both adult and media- centered. There is a need to address interactions between athletes, coaching styles and practices. The effects on youth athletes from parental expectations and the view of youth athletes as commodities, which is often intrusive with a fine line between objectivity and sensationalism. (IOC Consensus Statement on Youth Development). More information? see this link

Learning the Game. Yes! It is Complex: Learning involves retention and transfer. It is dynamic and context dependent and cannot be observed here and now. Performance at the point of instruction is not a good indicator of learning. Emotions form a critical piece of how and why people think and learn.

If we as coaches step in to the learning process, we better know how to add value!

I introduced the Constraints Led Approach as I feel that it is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of information.

I gave a simple of example of environmental, individual and task constraint. The coaches got in to groups to discuss these constraints and come up with some examples that were relevant to their environment.

Once coach came up with a very interesting constraint that she thought had a negative effect on her player’s motivation. She noticed that some parents spent more time looking at their mobile phones than watching their sons or daughters play. She said that she could see that this caused a lot of disappointment with some kids. Is this some sort of modern socio-cultural constraint?

Training/learning design and nonlinear pedagogy

How nonlinear pedagogy, a learner centred method can help coaches to design their practices.

Training should capture the inherent variability of the competitive performance environment. Leading performers to use information that is relevant. (Pinder, Renshaw, & Davids, 2009; Pinder, Renshaw, & Araujo, 2011)

We analysed one of the sessions from the Swedish FA C Diploma curriculum. I provided some information and challenged them to manipulate the task to achieve a certain goal.

Encourage players to create, identify and attack free space


3v3 game

A goal is scored if one team dribbles the ball over the opponent’s end-line

  • How can you manipulate the task constraints if you feel that players are passing the ball instead of accepting or picking up information about gaps or spaces to attack?
  • How can you further manipulate task constraints if the defending team plays a high-pressure game and the team in possession because of the previously added constraint have difficulty building up play?
  • For more information see this link

The other session design was the one I did together with Swedish National team coach Maths Elfvendal (see here). I had a video of this session and asked the coaches to analyse the session as if they were “shining a light” on

  1. Goalkeeper
  2. Defenders
  3. Attackers

This also gave us a good chance to discuss co-adaptability.

Click on the video near the end of this blog link

Some of the attending coaches organised themselves and the young players to take these two session designs.

Afterwards there was a Q n A.

A Holistic View: Flexible framework, sound developmental principles and emerging information.

We need a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles (Al Smith & Mark O Sullivan)

A holistic view on the complexity of youth sports. Various systems interacting over time to influence performance, participation and personal development



So let’s break this framework down

The Constraints Led Approach

The Constraints Led Approach I find is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of complex and emerging information to give us an understanding of skill learning during practice and play. Constraints whilst not always negative or limiting are boundaries that channel the learner to explore and search for functional movement solutions. Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time

Learning and performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental and individual (player) constraints. 



What are the factors that influence performance. participation and personal development?


  • Constraints change over time due to developmental differences.
  • Constraints decay and emerge over time meaning that their importance can vary.
  • Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time



The Individual/player


Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and therefore it must be considered individually.(The International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement)



The Environment

Human systems are made up of people and people make decisions for complex reasons; moreover, they learn, they interact and they live in complex environments which themselves are constantly changing (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)




The Task

Coaches have more control over the manipulation of task constraints than individual and environmental constraints.


For the purpose of retention and transfer, training should be representative of the performance environment


Learning organises the perception- action system with respect to what happened


Through exploration we can search for information. How often do we design training where we ask our players to explore and learn about our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses? Example: A winger deliberately testing a full back to inform what the best attacking strategy might be. (Ian Renshaw)

The Coach


Design the Task


To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must

  • Have a good knowledge of the sport
  • Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
  • Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
  • Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does NOT achieve this)
  • Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.

Nonlinear pedagogy

  • Players (Humans) are complex systems (Learning and performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental and individual constraints.
  • Repetition with Variability
  • Adaptability – No one size fits all technique
  • Representativeness (see here)
  • Focus of attention – External/Internal) see my interview with Daniel Memmert here!
  • Prescribe a task (problem) not the movement (solution)

For more on Nonlinear pedagogy read ‘The 7 principles of nonlinear pedagogy‘ by Mark Upton.


Design a task that simulates an aspect of the performance environment

A session can be designed to be deliberately flexible one that creates a framework where emerging information can help the trainer to coach what emerges. Using the logical structure of the game (Attack – Transition – Defending) and the principles of co-adaptability we can design with the aim of helping young players learn how to co-adapt (not react) their actions to the moves of other players and the ball.

Co-adaptability: Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on.

A game like the one below that I designed with Maths Elfvendal can afford many learning and coaching opportunities. Maths is the goalkeeper coach for the Swedish national team and IFK Norrköping. His integrated approach to goalkeeper coaching is a philosophy that I fully endorse. (more information here)

The task was designed to work on

  • Transition
  • Build-up of play
  • Counter attack

2 goalkeepers, 7-8 players

The “resting” goalkeeper begins the game by playing the ball behind the defensive line. The other goalkeeper along with the defenders immediately transition to attacking play and try and score in one of the two small goals. The resting goalkeeper should vary the position of distribution and type of ball (high. low…) so that the opponent is continuously faced with the problem of making new decisions.

What we were looking at was how the players re-organise themselves relative to the actions of teammates and opponent during transition. Communication (verbal, non-verbal) is a very important aspect of this.

Defensive actions: This task is very suitable for a team that wants to steer its high pressing in a certain direction while at the same time looking to close off passing lanes for their opponent’s goalkeeper. This may well force the goalkeeper to play a high risk long ball.

Attacking actions: This task is suitable for a team that wants to learn how to quickly play out and through their opponent’s high pressure.

Recommended further reading

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, Ian Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015 )

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

Embracing & Exploiting the Complexity of Player Development (Mark Upton, Cruyff Football Player Development Magazine)

The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport (Jean Côté, Jennifer Turnnidge, M. Blair Evans, Kinesiologia Slovenica, 20, 3, 14-26; 2014)

The quiet revolution; Swedish youth football and the idea of avoiding exclusion

The Coach Educator, the Coach and Coach Education


“They should create an environment where children want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the kids much more than the coach can teach (learn-out).  Creating a training environment where participants learn from each other. That is the trainer’s pedagogical role”.

This is a quote from and interview I did with Per- Göran Fahlström (link) in January 2016 elegantly explaining the pedagogical role of the coach. This approach to creating a learning space places great demands on the coach. The quality of someone’s coaching is likely to depend not only on their knowledge but also on their ability to cope with and use this knowledge. Thus the quality of a coach education program will depend on the knowledge of the educator and the use of this knowledge.

If expert coaching practice draws on theory and experience in order to produce innovative practice, then expert coach education development practice should do the same

 I have been reflecting a lot recently on my role as coach educator (new Swedish FA C and B Diploma) and coach/curriculum developer at my club. I looked back at the time I was attending coach education courses and how these environments (in my own personal experience) seemed to be more functional than transformational. Functional in the sense that this is the course, now get it done! At that time the contents of the curriculum based around skill acquisition and pedagogy was not something that I agreed with. However, times have changed some fresh innovative and critical minds have reviewed the material leading to the evidence based curriculum that I work with today. Knowledge and understanding of this evidence can provide the coach educator with the possibility to become more of a facilitator of a challenging and transformational learning experience rather than a traditional functional instructor.

I reached out to Richard Bailey’s excellent Coaching Science group to help me make sense of my reflections. As usual many great practitioners, ex-pro’s, coaches and researchers proved to be generous with their thoughts and feedback. One of those was Dr Andrew Abraham who is Head of Subject for Sport Coaching at Leeds Beckett University. Recently Andrew has been involved in developing and delivering a post graduate qualification to coach educators within The English Football Association. I feel that his work and feedback through our interactions has helped me put some pieces in place. After all any informed professional development should lead to me being better at developing better coaches.

The coach educators challenge is to deliver the coach education course in a meaningful way for the coach.

 Some of Andrew Abraham’s research work attempts to understand the work of coach developers in the development of coaches. The general consensus is that there is limited understanding with regard to what coach educators do and therefore little understanding as to what their professional needs are.

A model of coach development decision making was developed by Abraham, Collins, Morgan & Muir (2009) that drew on similar work in coach decision making (e.g. Abraham, Collins & Martindale, 2006). This model was developed using available evidence and literature with the aim to unpack, explore and therefore define coach education. The model can be summarised in six domains.

  • UNDERSTANDING CLUB AND FA CONTEXT, STRATEGY AND POLITICS – Understanding the culture of the situation that is being worked in and adapting behaviour.
  • UNDERSTANDING THE COACH -Understanding the coach’s motivations, needs and wants.
  • UNDERSTANDING ADULT LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT – Understanding how to most effectively develop learning environments to support adult learning.
  • UNDERSTANDING THE COACHING CURRICULUM- Understanding the curriculum that will need to be delivered to support coaches in their development
  • UNDERSTANDS SELF – Understanding own goals, strengths and limitations striving to improve when the opportunity exists.
  • PROCESS AND PRACTICE – Understanding the process and practice of coach development

Ideally a coach graduating from a NGB coach education system should have

  • Thorough knowledge of the needs of the learner
  • Thorough knowledge of the sport specific content
  • Thorough knowledge of learning and teaching (i.e. pedagogy)
  • The ability to adapt and quickly build a thorough knowledge of the culture within which they operate

This of course is a complex path that needs to be navigated with guidance from the coach educator where the needs of the individual learner (in this case the coach) are met. Sometimes these individual needs are determined by how far along the coach education pathway the “learner coach” wants to go. In my experience this is often not a question of motivation or ambition but of time commitments and socio – cultural constraint. Here in Sweden there is a very deep tradition of parent coaches up too early teens. Many of the coaches I deliver the coach education program to are happy to stay at the first level (C- Diploma) as they are only involved because they have a son or daughter active within the sport. How long they will remain as coaches often depends on how long their children remain as players. Some of these coaches are responsible for giving young players their first experience of football in an organised environment. I believe that this places great demands on the more conscientious coach educator who with limited time has to inspire and challenge the learner (the coach) to continue to reflect and develop a genuine desire to become better and continually improve. This may be achieved if the coach educator helps and inspires the coach to gain a sense of ownership of the material. Otherwise once the course and or coach educator is removed the self-development may slow down and the coach may fall back in to doing what he/she has always done.

“Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different they do what all the others do. Then they feel that they cannot be wrong. The Swedish words for security and inertia (trygghet och tröghet) sound very alike and what is reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change. This is often reinforced by players who become coaches and coaches who become managers. So it is often people with the same experiences that control operations in our football clubs”. – (Per- Göran Fahlström, Footblogball interview January 2016)

Sometimes helping coaches identify what they want is not necessarily what they need is of great importance. No doubt that Per-Göran Fahlströms thoughts above can be added to the socio-cultural constraints that impinge on coach development and thus coach education.

To develop coaches and to meet their individual needs we need to consider how we develop innovative coach education. The research paper Developing expert coaches requires expert coach development: Replacing serendipity with orchestration (Abraham, A., Collins, D., Morgan, G., & Muir, B; 2009) looks in to this and suggests some criteria.

  • Is the coach educator capable of delivering this? This may sound obvious, but our experience is that often people have not recognised how they may limit the development of others. Sports have often been guilty of putting people in charge of major educational initiatives who simply don’t have the expertise to complete the task. This is often the reason why the short term fixes, that Druckman and Bjork (1994) refer to emerge. People without expertise try to fix the most obvious thing that is wrong and often fail to see the underpinning problems that are really the issue (Abraham and Collins, 1998). After all, we only know what we know, our decision making is constrained by personal theory which in turn is built on our personal ‘repertoire’ of experience (Gilbert and Trudel, 1999)
  • What counts as competent practice is predefined. The standardized nature of competences can encourage a uniform approach and, in so doing, discourage creativity and imagination;
  • We need to adopt a critical approach; the competence-based approach recognizes the importance of underpinning knowledge but offers little guidance in how it can be used. Therefore, working towards achieving competences will not, in itself facilitate the integration of theory and practice
  • The stretched time resources of many coach education programs inevitably means that an eclectic approach is taken to their delivery often leaving little if any time for critical consideration of that knowledge, a key factor in integrating theory into practice (Thomson, 2000, Nelson and Cushion, 2006). In essence, an uncritical approach to coaching development may lead to the development of ‘skilled robots’ rather than ‘knowledgeable doers’” (page 121) (Thomson, 2000).
  • Insufficient expertise in coach education may also limit the development of coaches due to a lack of understanding of the subject matter they are delivering. For example Collins et al. (1991) suggest that providing a model of the content to be taught to a learner can help the learner get an overview of the content before they have to go into more detail (an idea that is similar to the whole part whole approach).
  • In order to develop a clear model of the content that is to be taught the educator must have an excellent understanding of their subject. However, the need for an educator to really examine their own understanding of a subject only comes when they realize that they need to teach that knowledge and so the final development of a model of their subject may only come through the experience of teaching it.

“From my research experiences I’d say some educators are put in place because they are good/highly experienced at coaching, not necessarily because they are highly experienced at helping other coaches to learn” –Anna Stodter (Lecturer in Sports Coaching Anglia Ruskin University)

NGB’s on creating a coach education curriculum want to define an ideal future and develop a culture. The coach educator through the medium of coach education works with understanding the present (the coaches on the course) and closing the gap between the present and the ideal future. During the course they (coach educator and coaches) together work with the evolutionary potential of the present moving slowly towards cultural goals without any assumption as to what that end destination looks like for each individual.

In a world seeking quick fixes, silver bullets and linear prescriptive explanations and models, coach education has many challenges to consider. The prevailing attitudes towards coach education by administrators, parents, coaches, mentors, government. The endless products and myths that are sold in to parents, children, clubs, coaches, coach educators and NGB’s. The professional demands and expectations that are being set on a profession that in most developed countries is not even fully recognised as a profession.

So let’s summarise my thoughts by paraphrasing Per-Göran Fahlströms quote that I referred to at the me beginning of this piece.

“They should create an environment where coaches want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the coaches much more than the coach educator can teach (learn-out).  Creating an environment where participants learn from each other. That is the coach educator’s pedagogical role”.


Abraham, A (2016) Task Analysis of Coach Developers: Applications to The FA Youth Coach Educator Role. In: Advances in Coach Education and Development from Research to Practice.

Abraham, A., Collins, D., Morgan, G., & Muir, B. (2009). Developing expert coaches requires expert coach development: Replacing serendipity with orchestration. In A. Lorenzo, S. J. Ibanez & E. Ortega (Eds.), Aportaciones Teoricas Y Practicas Para El Baloncesto Del Futuro. Sevilla: Wanceulen Editorial Deportiva.

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Footblogball Interview with Per-Göran Fahlströms (January 2016): One cannot shape and form schildren’s sport around such small numbers.





We need to coach players to play according to how a game emerges

A typical practice may well be based on a defined theme introduced by the coach. For example, driving in to space with the ball, passing, shooting or defending 1v1 are typical themes. This approach is quite commonly encouraged in most Coach Education courses and of course depending on how it is carried out has great value. Coaches can also design sessions using the logical structure of the game (Attack – Transition – Defending) and the principles of co-adaptability. Deliberate design with the aim to help the young learners learn how to co-adapt (not react) their actions to the moves of other players and the ball,

Many thanks to Keith Davids (co-author of the book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition and Professor of Motor Learning Centre for Sports Engineering Research, Sheffield Hallam University) for advising me on this piece.

“Practice tasks should be skilfully and thoughtfully designed by the coach so that players need to continually re-organise themselves relative to the actions of teammates and opponent. This is what ‘playing what emerges’ means” – Keith Davids

The player is one part of a dynamic system. The system is comprised of the game/training environment, the task, constraints and the interactions of players in attack, defence and transition. The player acts in context. This dynamic context creates information that needs to be perceived so that the players can regulate their actions. Therefore, it is important to train the perceptual and action systems of young players together. Recognising how the young learner perceives, accepts and or adapts to information sources is of the utmost importance. Information sources for “learning and coaching opportunities” can be designed in to practice but they will also emerge in the practice. This sets great demands on the coach.

“I don’t believe in a cause and effect, mechanistic type of coaching, where if you do this, this will happen. The context is always changing, the opposition is changing, and even the nature of the sport is changing. There are an incredibly complex set of variables within a team sport context” –  High Performance Coach of the Year Danny Kerry (England Women’s Hockey Team Coach)

A session can be designed to be deliberately flexible one that creates a framework where emerging information can help the trainer to coach what emerges.

To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must

  • Have a good knowledge of the sport
  • Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
  • Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
  • Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does NOT achieve this)
  • Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.

A game like the one below can afford many learning and coaching opportunities. Underpinned by the principles of co-adaptability in this session was deliberately designed for young learners to learn how to play with purpose. In other words, to play with a deliberate “learning” intent even though what exactly is to be learned emerges and is determined by the young players acting in context and what the coach observes.

Co-adaptability: Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on.

The evolution of this game is 2v1(+GK) and after a goal is scored or the ball leaves play it turns directly in to 3v2(+GK). It is very important to let the game flow for a suitable amount of time before any coaching interventions. This will enable the young players to seek out solutions.

Blog emerge 1

Red passes the ball to blue on the side who then passes too blue in the middle. A 2v1 situation begins where the blues try and score in the big goal and the reds try and score in the yellow goal.

Blog emerge 2

When a goal is scored or the ball goes out of play a 3v2 situation begins.

We go back to the 2v1 situation. Even at this early stage, the coach can observe certain behaviours and decisions being carried out by the young players.

  • How is the body shape of the Blue players as they receive the pass?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) between the Blue players as they attack 2v1?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) between the goalkeeper and the defenders?
  • How does the Red player turn the 1v2 in to a 1v1?
  • How can the Blue players maintain the 2v1?
  • Do the Blue players shoot when they have a clear view of the goal?
  • Do the Blue players shoot if they see that the goalkeeper is out of position?
  • Can the Blue players use the Red defender to disguise a shot on goal?
  • How are the players behaving and communicating (verbal, non-verbal) in transition?
  • How does the goalkeeper behave when the Reds have won possession?

Blog emerge 3

The questions asked above can also be applied to the 3v2 situation. There are also other learning and coaching opportunities.

  • When the Blue player in the middle has the ball how do the other two Blue players reorganise? Are they implementing the principles of play, creating width with a good body shape and looking to progress the play? Are the wide players in line with the last Red defender and if they are what attacking opportunities does this offer?
  • What options does the player in the middle have when in possession? Pass wide to secure possession? Identify a gap to pass the ball in depth to an oncoming attacker? Drive the ball at the defenders and provoke a reaction?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) in transition?
  • What is the role of the goalkeeper when the Red team wins the ball? Positioning? Communication?

“Sometimes we can coach players to stick to a ‘plan’ but typically we need to coach players to play according to how a game emerges. This is because good opposition will identify your plan and disrupt it”- Keith Davids

As behaviours, actions and solutions emerge, regardless of whether they are the best decision for that unique moment or not, possibilities for coach interventions will also emerge. The coach can shine a light on a positive action or a great decision even if the result was or was not the desired outcome.  For example, if the Red player in the 1v2 is struggling (struggle is also emerging information) then it is the coach’s duty to present learning strategies to help that individual.

The coach can try and “nudge” the young learners into constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game.

Football is a game of constant decision making based on communication/information. Every training session should have as many aspects of football as possible. The aspects used should interact and should also influence each other.

“…the environment is changing half second by half second, and you have to decide which method or skill to use in which context every time it changes”. High Performance Coach of the Year Danny Kerry (England Women’s Hockey Team Coach)