A Player Learning in Development Framework

A Player Learning in Development Framework

We recently published a paper in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching. The paper is open access and can be downloaded from here: 


In this paper we propose that a constraints-led approach (CLA), predicated on the theory of ecological dynamics, utilising Adolph’s (2019) notion of learning IN development, provides a viable framework for capturing the non-linearity of learning, development and performance in sport. We highlight some of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the CLA in coach education and practice. Further, we provide a user-friendly framework that demonstrates the benefits of the CLA. Throughput the paper we offer deeply contextualized ‘real world’ examples to support our argument.

Some main points

  • As it is appreciated that learning is a non-linear process – implying that coaching methodologies in sport should be accommodative – it is reasonable to suggest that player development pathways should also account for this non-linearity. 
  • Contemporary non-linear pedagogical frameworks, such as the constraints-led approach (CLA), have emerged to theoretically guide practitioners through this challenge 
  • Uptake effects have not been helped by some misinterpretations of the CLA in practice and coach education.
  • When used appropriately the CLA highlights the nature of the continuous complex and dynamic non-linear interactions between a performer (individual), task, and environment. Termed as constraints (Individual, environment, task), these interconnected system features guide or channel the direction and rate of development by providing the boundaries within which learning happens. A key point here is that constraints do not determine an individual’s learning and performance behaviors, but continually interact to guide and shape them.
  • The term “non-linear” refers to the notion that small changes in system properties (e.g. the physical, psychological and emotional characteristics of an individual; a team’s practice conditions) can lead to large changes in emergent behavior and vice-versa. 
  • Critically, while the CLA helps conceptualize how skills emerge, it does not provide a framework for how to design appropriate learning environments in team sports. Principles of a non-linear pedagogy can address this limitation, supporting practitioners to harness CLA methods in a range of practice task designs. 
  • Knowledge about and Knowledge of the environment: Knowledge about is typically developed through verbal responses to questions or coach-provided declarative instruction, may be useful when describing performance ex situ. However, while young players may display knowledge about the game when verbalizing responses to questions posed from a coach or educator, it does not necessarily imply that they can actually perform these actions in the game. Knowledge of the environment is reflective of embodied-embedded knowledge developed by, and exemplified in, activities (e.g., movements, behaviors, performances) that enhance the coupling between perception and action.
  • An important contention of this paper, though, is that practice tasks need to be designed by coaches with an extensive knowledge about the game, as this knowledge about collective and individual performance can inform practice designs to support the development of a performer’s knowledge of (in) the game.
  • The Foundations for Task Design Model captures the main principles of non-linear pedagogy to support the design of football specific tasks in training.
  • The purpose of the Player Learning in Development Framework is twofold; first, to help practitioners conceptualize the inherent non-linearity and highly personal nature of learning in order to inform player development pathways, and second, to show how to integrate a CLA in practice task design. 
  • The 3 phases of the Player Learning in Development Framework is a cycle that aims to guide practitioners towards a more flexible and adaptable approach to planning, where, through the implementation and refinement of task designs, they can continually assess and evaluate each individual’s needs (within a team) over various timescales of development. 


It’s time for better questions: Living up to the idea of as many as possible, as long as good as good as possible.

It’s time for better questions: Living up to the idea of as many as possible, as long as good as good as possible

There is an ongoing discussion within youth football around the subject of ability grouping. The practice of early selection and de-selection of children through ages and stages are now central tenets of player development programs around the world (Güllich, 2014; Rongen et al., 2018) and have become a common point of departure for these discussions. Often pyramid like in structure, these type of development programs have been termed by Bailey and Collins (2013) as the Standard Model of Talent Development. Lacking in both empirical and conceptual validity this model is based on the presumption that development and performance in sport are conceptually linear and predictable (Bjørndal, Ronglan & Andersen, 2017). 

Language precedes culture 

More recently these models have come under media scrutiny (Shannon, 17 November 2020) highlighting how there are many social norms and organisational pressures present within the facets of professional football that impinge on child youth football. For example, the use of words such as ‘elite’ in reference to children and youth has added to the development of a sensationalist artificial mythology in and around the culture of child youth sports programs (Kirkland, O’Sullivan, 2018).

Similar concerns were raised by the International Olympic Committee in a consensus statement on youth athlete development in 2015, highlighting possible negative influences on health and well-being. It was suggested that the ‘culture’ of youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centered, viewing youth athletes as commodities promoting a sensationalism that has an influential grip on adult expectations (Bergeron et al., 2015).

Indeed, language plays an important role as does acknowledging that learning and development cannot be fully understood without taking in to consideration the environmental, historical, and socio- cultural constraints that can influence learning and development. For example, many resilient beliefs and even the attributes and skills appreciated in young players are culturally embedded in traditional pedagogical approaches, organisational settings and structural mechanisms founded upon specific socio-cultural and historical constraints (Woods et al, 2020). There is a need to investigate which specific sociocultural constraints on behaviours that we need to amplify and which ones we need to dampen (Vaughan et al., 2019)?

In Sweden, the well-worn cliché “lika barn leka bäst” (children that are alike play best together) is something that I hear regularly in connection with ability grouping in child-youth sport. This for me highlights an important aspect of any youth player development program, how performance can be an unreliable index in relation to learning (Söderstrom & Bjork, 2015). 

The debate here though less polarized is still at time driven by anecdotal evidence with certain individuals referring to the players that ‘they’ have created!

Here, the idea of survivorship bias is something that is worth reflecting over

“You’ve been blinded by the unicorns and survivors, and misled by economic forces” – Ross Tucker (twitter)

Time for better questions- The learner and the learning process 

For a more nuanced approach and in order to place the child/youth/player at the center of this discussion from a long-term learning perspective, we need to turn the question around. 

When I am asked about ability grouping/selection-deselection (yes or no?), I now answer with another question.

What is your understanding of the learner and the learning process?

What is your understanding of human learning and development in a youth football context?

Re-conceptualising youth development

AIK Youth Football, took the decision in 2017 to reposition itself within the world of youth football (see here). This decision was underpinned by a long-term strategy; (i) promote the wellbeing of children; (ii) follow relevant guideline documents (e.g. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child); (iii) increase the development and promotion of players to our respective senior teams, as well as increase the number of players in the U16-U19 age groups. 

A research and development (R&D) department has been embedded in the club’s daily activities since 2017 to support AIK youth football in its endeavor. Its stance and work can be summed up as follows –

While it is understood that human learning is nonlinear in nature, implying that coaching methodologies should account for such nonlinearity, it should also be recognized that there is a need for our player development structures and models to account for this nonlinearity

If we really want to support the well-being and foster more and better players, then it is important to consider the complexity and non-linearity of human development. This requires an understanding of what learning and development is and what factors that can influence it?

Learning IN Development

The concept of Learning in development (Adolph, 2019) can help coaches, parents and organisations understand how different factors influence learning throughout development, helping us to gain an understanding of the non-linear and individualized nature of players learning in development.

  • Development describes the continuous changes (physical, psychological, skilled, social, cultural) in individual-environmental relationships.
  • Learning takes place in the midst of these developmental changes. Learning is what the player does about these changes.

As coaches, parents, clubs and governing bodies, we need to find a balance in our between both supporting and challenging young players during their learning IN development.

What specific soicocultural constraints on behaviours do we need to amplify and what do we need to dampen?

The aim with this piece is to stimulate a broad and informed debate within youth sport by emphasising the complexity and non-linearity of human development and the need to understand the dynamic interrelations between various components, if we are to truly live up to the idea of ‘as many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible’

Perhaps it’s time for better questions?


Adolph, K. E. (2019). An ecological approach to learning in (not and) development. Human Development63, 180–201. 

Bailey, R., & Collins, D. (2013). The standard model of talent development and its discontents. Kinesiology Review, 2(4), 248–259.

Bergeron, M. F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C. A., Faigenbaum, A., Hall, G., Jr, Kriemler, S., Léglise, M., Malina, R. M., Pensgaard, A. M., Sanchez, A., Soligard, T., Sundgot-Borgen, J., van Mechelen, W., Weissensteiner, J. R., & Engebretsen, L. (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. British journal of sports medicine49(13), 843–851. 

Bjørndal, C.T. Ronglan, L.T., & Andersen, S.A. (2017). The diversity of developmental paths among youth athletes: A 3-year longitudinal study of Norwegian handball players. Talent development & Excellence, 8(2), 20-32.

Chow, J. Y. (2013). Nonlinear learning underpinning pedagogy: Evidence, challenges, and implications. Quest, 65(4), 469-484.

Güllich A. (2014). Selection, de-selection and progression in German football talent promotion. European journal of sport science14(6), 530–537. 

Kirkland & O’Sullivan (2018). There Is No Such Thing as an International Elite Under-9 Soccer Player. Sports science and medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6243622/

Rongen, F., McKenna, J., Cobley, S., & Till, K. (2018). Are youth sport talent identification and development systems necessary and healthy? Sports Medicine – Open, 4.

Shannon (2020). Why Ruud Dokter’s ‘elite player pathway’ plan is not good for Irish football. Irish Examiner. Retrieved from https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/arid-40083608.html

Soderstrom, N., & Bjork, R.. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. 10. 176-199. 10.1177/1745691615569000.

Vaughan, J., Mallett, C. J., Davids, K., Potrac, P., & López-felip, M. A. (2019). Developing Creativity to Enhance Human Potential in Sport: A Wicked Transdisciplinary Challenge. Frontiers in Psychology10(September), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02090

Woods, C.T., McKeown, I., O’Sullivan, M., Roberston, S., & Davids, K.  (2020)Theory to Practice: Performance Preparation Models in Contemporary High-Level Sport Guided by an Ecological Dynamics Framework. Sports Med – Open 636 . 

Two new papers published

I am delighted to have published two papers together with some inspiring colleagues over the summer.

Theory to practice; performance preparation models in contemporary high-level sport guided by an Ecological Dynamics framework  is published in sports medicine.

Conceptualizing Physical Literacy within an Ecological Dynamics Framework is published in Quest.

Theory to Practice: Performance Preparation Models in Contemporary High-Level Sport Guided by an Ecological Dynamics Framework

This paper was written together with some colleagues in the UK and Australia and is partly a collaboration with Port Adelaide FC (Aussie rules) and AIK Research & Development department (Stockholm).

You can get access to the article here


Carl Woods (twitter) excellent work at Port Adelaide is  featured in the article and is a powerful example of how they are utilising an ecological dynamics approach in high performance Australian Rules Football. While the work being done at AIK youth football (8-12) can provide some insights how adopting and ecological dynamics perspective is helping the club to re-conceptualise youth player development.

The paper gives some insights in to practice environments that are

  • utilising empirical and experiential knowledge sources within a Department of Methodology to inform present and future practice
  • repositioning the coaches role to one of an environment designer, who facilitates athlete- environment interactions
  • embedding a constraints led approach

we also look at how

  • coaching skill was being developed and shaped by the landscape of traditional coaching practices and coach education programmes,
  •  attributes and skills appreciated in players were culturally embedded in traditional pedagogical approaches, organisational settings and structural mechanisms founded upon specific socio-cultural and historical constraints.
  • training designs  have typically been underpinned by a culturally dominant planning paradigm pervasive in traditional educational approaches (e.g. coach determines in advance the specific theme, presents predetermined coaching points and controls the sequence and duration for each part of the session)


Screenshot 2020-08-22 at 19.36.04

“Do players have the freedom to explore solutions to problems designed? Youth players should not be ‘props’ in some type of coach-conducted orchestration, where players learned to play an idealised model of the game as opposed to functioning in the game itself, limiting player autonomy and self-regulating tendencies” (Woods, C.T., McKeown, I., O’Sullivan, M. et al. Theory to Practice: Performance Preparation Models in Contemporary High-Level Sport Guided by an Ecological Dynamics Framework. Sports Med – Open 6, 36 (2020).



Conceptualizing physical literacy within and Ecological Dynamics framework

“The shared intentionality across sporting and physical activity landscapes should be about supporting self-regulation, thus supporting the individuals’ continued physical literacy across a lifespan.”

Article can be sourced from here:



This paper has an interesting history. In March 2019 I presented together with colleagues James Vaughan (twitter) and Jean Cote (twitter) at a Riksidrottsförbundet (Swedish Sports Confederation) conference in Stockholm. There was a lot of talk about physical literacy, from measuring it, to how it should be central to school physical education, to even commercial organisations selling physical literacy as a product. What I realised was that there was no clear consensus of what Physical Literacy actually is and how it can be implemented. I had some great conversations with James and Jean about this that inspired me to dig a bit deeper.

I originally wrote a blog about this rather promiscuous (thanks Richard) concept called Physical Literacy  and just before the summer together with some great colleagues we put together this paper.

The abstract will give some insights with the intentions of the article.


Screenshot 2020-08-22 at 18.54.45

We look in to

  • the definitional vagueness
  • problem with how it is being promoted through national governing bodies
  • the problem with the idea of Fundamental Movement Skills and how physical literacy is measured
  • how  the lack of a theoretical framework underpinning the concept has been an issue

We recommended a way forward for the concept by utilising the Ecological Dynamics framework

These are the concussing remarks:

Screenshot 2020-08-22 at 19.44.25


As a complimentary to this paper, I highly recommend listening to James Rudd (twitter) on the Perception Action Podcast (see here)


Re-conceptualizing Player Development at AIK Youth Football (MSA Ireland Presentation)

As part of a series of webinars for Movement & Skill Acquisition Ireland (Twitter), Dennis Hörtin (twitter) and I recently had the honor of presenting the work being carried out at AIK youth football in Sweden. You can check out the presentation here, with a really interesting Q&A.

The presentation focused on AIK youth football and their decision to remove its early selection model (see here), with a particular focus on the 8-12 age groups that are immediately affected by this decision. We delve in to the work of the AIK Research & Development department and offered some pedagogical principles to guide practice task design.


I have taken the liberty to add some extra notes to the presentation based on the numerous conversations and the great feedback we had after the presentation. Again, it needs to be made clear, this is no silver bullet.

Building a player development framework

Frameworks for youth player development need to be flexible (Bergeron et al., 2015), dynamic and adaptable to both, the cultural context, and that of the individual (Meyers et al., 2013; Vaughan et al., 2019). In other words, a player development framework needs to evolve in, interaction with the sociocultural context in which we are embedded. Avoid copy and paste!

“The problem is, when you copy a Dutch model or a Dutch way in to another country, it will not work. Our infrastructure is so unique for example”.  – Jan Verbeek (KNVB)on the Learning in Development Podcast (See here)

Inherent barriers to changing practice in sports organizations, shaped by socio- cultural-historical constraints reveal a trajectory, a path dependency (see here), which is often difficult to change (Kiely, 2017, Rothwell, Davids & Stone, 2018; Ross, Gupta, & Sanders, 2018).

We need to investigate form of life to understand these socio-cultural- historical constraints and to create our own knowledge about the means of transforming ways of action to develop a flexible player development framework.

 Form of life (What the AIK Research & Development department are continually investigating).

Form of life (Wittgenstein, 1953), describes the behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, practices and customs that shape the culture, philosophy, and climate of societies, institutions, sports organizations and player development programs in different societies (Rothwell, Davids & Stone, 2018). Karin Redelius (2013) captures the influence of form of life in Swedish youth sport, when she suggested that culture in a particular club or sports organization can be understood as partly a result of a historical process influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders, influencing type of practice design, who is considered talented, what distinguishes a good leader and what is considered success.

AIK Base

Working within a unified conceptual framework encouraged the coordination of shared principles and language that informed the ‘AIK Base’ framework, forming a coherent foundation for the club’s practice design and education programs.

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 18.57.25

Figure 1 AIK Base: AIK Research & Development

Practice task design

Coaches should see themselves as learning designers and what they do in practice is underpinned by a theoretical framework (at AIK we use ecological dynamics) as this will give them principles to guide their practice. This emphasizes the idea that young players are still on a learning journey. So, as Jason DeVos suggested in the Learning in Development podcast, “instead of player development pathway we should say player development journey”.

Regarding coach interventions and session objectives:

  • We encourage coaches to move away from theme-based sessions and design practice around  principles of play

In Possession: Search Discover Exploit gaps and space.

Recovering the Ball: Minimize opportunities for opponents to utilize space and gaps. Win the ball.

Coaches can check their design and reflect using the following diagram.

  • Ball-opponent-direction
  • Consequence (e.g. lose the ball, if you don’t win it back, opponents can score)
  • Information in practice task design should be representative of the game or aspects of the game


Figure 2 AIK Research & Development

We start where people are at not where we want them to be. The above ideas may help explain the principles of nonlinear pedagogy to parent coaches

  • Representative learning design,
  • Task simplification instead of task reduction. Modify the task while insuring that functional information -movement couplings are maintained
  • Repetition without repetition (movement variation)
  • The manipulation of constraints: Adjust task constraints (pitch size, number of players, starting positions, ball feed, rules)
  • Promote an external focus of attention: Reduce conscious and explicit control of movement (instructions should promote an external focus of attention to help players learn to learn how to exploit information)

Coaches and players are architects of a learning experience.

  • If the design is rich in representative information and tailored to the age and capacities of the young players then the first feedback should come from the design directly to the children. It is their behavior that the coach observes, and that determines the necessary interventions. However, if a coach must step in too often and explicitly instruct, then the coach needs to re-examine their design.

A key point is to use game forms in training sessions that “directly talk to the players”. This means that feedback is directly “coming from the game forms”, so that the coach has to give less feedback from the outside and providing instructions that reduce the player’s breadth of attention.(Daniel Memmert, Footblogball, 2015)

A great point brought up by Andrew Abraham (Twitter), was that all coach interventions have the potential to disempower the young players. This is something that needs to be considered carefully.

  • For me guided discovery is as much about the design as the questions and task manipulations. This is often forgotten. Interventions should help players focus their attention and intentions towards developing understanding in (Understanding of the game does not imply understanding inthe game)

Practical example

  • It is quite common that opportunities to design practice are constrained by environmental factors such as available pitch space, amount of goals on pitch. For example, AIK 8 and 9 -year-olds play 5 a side competitive games and the 10 and 11 year-olds play 7 a side. Due to the limited amount of pitches availabe in the municipality we can have up to 8 teams on a full-size pitch with only four available 5 a side and 7 a side goals. This is a common issue in Stockholm and indeed in many large urban cities.

Taking this in to consideration I would like to give an example of how a coach can design practice with limited field space and material.

You can check a video of these session designs in the presentation for MSA Ireland (see here)

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 13.36.18

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 13.46.35


Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, Chia M, Coˆ te ́ J, Emery CA, Faigenbaum A, Hall G Jr, Kriemler S, Le ́ glise M, Malina RM, Pensgaard AM, Sanchez A, Soligard T, Sundgot-Borgen J, van Mechelen WV, Weissensteiner JR, and Engebretsen L.International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med 49: 843– 851.

Kiely, John. (2017). Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Medicine. 48. 10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y.

Redelius, K. (2013) Att vilja och kunna fortsätta – Om idrottens utformning och tillgänglighet (s. 19-40), i Spela vidare: en antologi om vad som får unga att fortsätta idrotta, Stockholm: Centrum för idrottsforskning.

Ross, E., Gupta, L., & Sanders, L. (2018). When research leads to learning, but not action in high performance sport. Progress in Brain Research Sport and the Brain: The Science of Preparing, Enduring and Winning, Part C,201–217. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.08.001′

Rothwell, Martyn & Davids, Keith & Stone, Joe. (2018). Harnessing Socio-cultural Constraints on Athlete Development to Create a Form of Life. Journal of Expertise.

Vaughan, J., Mallett, C. J., Davids, K., Potrac, P., & López-felip, M. A. (2019). Developing Creativity to Enhance Human Potential in Sport: A Wicked Transdisciplinary Challenge. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(September), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02090

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford, UK: Blackwell

It’s difficult to change the system if you are only talking to part of the system (How do we make each other better?)

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 12.36.32

For the 5th guest discussion on our Learning in Development podcast we invited in Dr. Jennifer Turnnidge from Queens University, Kingston. Ontario.

Jennifer did her doctorate degree in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University under the supervision of Jean Côté. In addition to her doctoral work, she also completed her Undergraduate (2009) and Master’s (2011) degrees at Queen’s. Broadly, her program of research explores how coach-athlete and peer relationships can promote positive development in sport. Specifically, she examines how coaches’ leadership behaviours can influence the quality of youth’s sport experiences. Outside of her role as a researcher and a student, Jennifer loves to spend time with her family and friends.

iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/se/podcast/how-do-we-make-each-other-better/id1507378548?i=1000473034597&l=en

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/42VJefYAUUiwrP1YPxW79J

While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will all leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).


How can we use research to improve the sporting experience for people?

We should be embedding collaborations between researchers and practice in national governing bodies, sports organisations or clubs in representative environments (coach education, day to day club activities)

This approach invites a possibility for rich shared experiences and discussions that can further inform the research.

Research can inform practice and practice can inform research – Its bi-directional, reciprocal and dynamic. We need to create opportunities for this.

Can we create environments for children to play for ‘play’s sake’?

We often focus on the long-term outcomes of sport. We also need to focus on the immediate experience, the meaning and value of what is happening to them (the children) now.

Sports development comes back to the day to day experiences

Who are we organising sport for?

How can we improve the immediate experience?

What are the barriers to change?

Do we need to reconceptualise child youth sport as something that is participated in away from organised sport?

How can we encourage a diversity of experiences?

How do we design in opportunities for these experiences?

What do children ‘not’ miss about organised sport?

Are we really paying attention to what matters?

Reccomended reading: The play deficit – Peter Gray (see here)


It’s difficult to change the system if you are only talking to part of the system

 We need to deliberately engage more with parents

 We need to provide parents with good examples of what good youth sport looks like. The examples we have now tend to come from the professional level. For example, adult driven examples of what good coaching looks like.

The coach is part of the activity

We need to educate coaches about the important role they have

Coaches can better define their objectives if they are underpinned by the quality of their interactions. For example, objectives for a practice can be co-designed with the young players

A good youth coach can find the link between the behaviours they see and the outcomes that the players are hoping to achieve?

RIP Millie Small












Different cultures, similar issues

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 16.29.41

The 4th guest discussion on our Learning in Development podcast brought together two national federations from different sides of the globe to discuss how they are looking to evolve player development and coach education. We also discussed the culturally pervasive beliefs that underpin the values, belief, ideas and behaviors (form of life) in and around child-youth football.


From the Dutch football federation (KNVB) we have Jorg van der Breggen (twitter) and Jan Verbeek – KNVB

From the Canadian Soccer Association, we have Director of Development Jason De Vos (twitter)

You can listen to the discussion here:

iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/se/podcast/different-cultures-similar-issues/id1507378548?i=1000472307211&l=en


While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will all leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 16.29.42        Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 16.30.30


There are many positives for youth football when you consider the geography of the Netherlands. With a population of 17 million and 3,000 clubs in such a small country, there are opportunities everywhere for children to play football locally. A football club is often just a bike ride away.

The biggest challenge Canada Soccer faces is the vast scale of the country. Football, how it looks and the culture of the game can be very different on one side of the country when compared to the other side. It has been common for young children to travel 6 hours or more in a car just to take part in a football tournament.

It is the role of a national federation to be progressive and to continuously ask questions about their current practice and structures.

Despite having different football cultures, both federations are basically investigating and assessing the same thing, youth football. For example, they are both asking, how do we structure youth football to meet the needs of the young players? Are the systems already in place respecting the nonlinearity of player development?

Investigating this is a delicate process as is how we act on the information we collect and the knowledge we create. Are we going to regulate the system with restrictions, or are we going to build it on relationships with people through education?

It is a common mistake to assume that success at senior national level directly reflects the state of youth football in that country at that time. While a system may seem effective, as you may be getting players through that can perform at the top level, it does not imply that it is efficient. For example, an inefficiency in the system may be seen in the relative age effect. As a federation we need to ask how we can work with these inefficiencies?

Words like ‘production line of talent’,’ football factory’ are highly problematic. This can shape form of life (e.g., the conversation, values, beliefs, behaviors and ideas) in and around youth football and make for a resilient culture.

It seems that there is one common model- in practice The Standard Model of Talent Development (see here). It gives the illusion that it is working as players come through the system. But does this model adhere and respect principles that underpin the nonlinearity of human and therefore player development?

The KNVB “Equal Opportunities Project” is investigating this system, the selection and deselection of players at a very young age. This system has many assumptions that need to be challenged and there is much room for improvement.


Children compete, adults compare

In both countries many adults have assumed that by not publishing league tables with the youngest age groups we are stopping children from competing.

We had an adult competition model super imposed on to children’s football

We don’t need to teach kids how to compete: The idea not publishing league tables or not having promotion and regulation with 9 and 10 -years old’s, will not stop children from competing

The new game formats at the foundation phase that KNVB are promoting are in line with the vision of Johan Cruyff. In many ways it goes back to street football. Cruyff was quite ahead of his time without knowing it. His ideas and the ideas been promoted within KNVB align pretty well the concepts of Representative Learning Design (see here) and Ecological Dynamics (see here)


Do not copy and paste

If you try and copy and paste someone else’s ideas, it just won’t work!

 “If I had a dollar for every person that told me that you just need to copy what Germany does, Belgium does, what Iceland does, then I would be able to retire right now” – Jason DeVos (Canadian Soccer Association)

“The problem is, when you copy a Dutch model or a Dutch way in to another country, it will not work. Our infrastructure is so unique for example”.  – Jan Verbeek (KNVB)

You have to have a deep understanding of your own national culture


Coach Education

We need to ask why are we delivering our coach education programs in the manner we are?

The traditional evaluation systems used in coach education need to be questioned

Move coach education away from the standardised approach. Start with a conversation and some self-reflections and base the course around the individual’s needs.

Coach education programmes should have the same individualised approach towards coaches as we should have with players.


To change what we do, to better serve what they need

We are not in the football business, we are in the relationship business.

You can put the best structure in place, but it’s down to creating environments for kids to fall in love with football

Our job is to understand how we can try and help and support people and Covid-19 has really shown how important this is.

The challenge is, how can we change what we do, to better serve what they (the young players) need?

We start where people are at, not where we want them to be





Are we paying attention to what matters, or are we paying attention to what we can measure?

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The 3rd guest discussion on our Learning in Development podcast was a real challenging one as it involved guests with a broad range of experiences, from a broad range of disciplines. We used the Menotti quote, “Those who only know about football, don’t know about football” that featured in a previous discussion with Jordi and Isaac from FC Barcelona (see here), as our point of departure.

Tony Strudwick: Welsh national football team coach, Head of performance at Sheffield Wednesday, former head of development at Manchester United

Martyn Rothwell: PhD researcher and lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University with a focus on performance analysis, skill acquisition and talent development. Background in rugby league as a coach educator and player developer.

Dennis Hörtin: Head of education and Research and Development at AIK youth football

You can listen to the discussion here:





While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will all leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).



There is a lot to be said for looking at the micro questions through the lens of macro aspects

We must recognise complexity of the holistic environment that supports the young player to understand what learning in development actually is and what it can look like

A wider picture of society and people are extremely valuable. Look at the wider aspects- For example the social media world for kids today is one of instant gratification. This also influences parents. So, what is understood as good practice at a club both on and off the pitch and what it should look like, can be influenced by this.

Question to reflect on: If we accept that the modern skill set for a modern coach has changed (due to changes in the game and society), what are the requirements for coaches to deliver these holistic programmes that we feel are necessary?

Form of Life

Form of life describes everyday practices, customs, beliefs of a group of people (Wittgenstein, 1953)

How does form of life influence athletes, coaches etc? For example, the cultural context invites many of the coaches behaviours that we see today

Much of the research has mainly focused on the individual characteristics of the athlete (organismic asymmetry) and not necessarily the environment. This has been problematic.

 We need to be aware of the phenomena are we trying to understand? Does it operate under principles of complexity or principles of more mechanistic, linear domains and practices?

There has been a dominant mechanistic, linear approach, a recipe approach to coaching, coach education and player development. For example, this idea of an optimal movement template, the right way to perform a technique is a good example. (see path dependency).

This highlights how the wider socio-cultural influences player and coach development.

These culturally resilient beliefs filter down to shape parental beliefs, what coaching and practice should look like and what talent development looks like down to the daily, weekly and monthly training cycles and how they should look. (For further reading- The present is not a clean slate).

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There is no valid model of a human system but the system itself

Don’t look for a template, blueprint or curriculum to adopt straight in to your club or governing body. Focus your attention on what is actually going on, pay attention to the environment, the players, their parents, the wider aspects and then make informed decisions

Fixed template coaching has been central to coach education and player development. These generic linear pathways, in the current landscape, need to be re-addressed.

Step based and stage based curriculms that are common in clubs and governing bodies are limiting. They are driven by our desire for certainty and they are not necessarily sensitive to  the nonlinearity of human development. They draw our attention away from individuals and their interactions.

Anything (i.e., a plan, a curriculum) that distracts our attention from paying attention to the interactions of individuals and understanding that wider context inhibits us, and isn’t helping us.

Are we paying attention to what matters or are we paying attention to the data, what we are measuring or the plan or curriculum?

The world is its own best model


Drowning by numbers?

Is the desire to measure, underpinned by quantitative analysis, taking us away from being ‘present’?

There is no value placing a GPS monitor on a 12-year old

Data is great, it should guide us but should not be the driving principles behind youth player development and even at the top professional level.

The Illusion of professionalism in youth football through the collection ‘adult type’ performance measures. This takes us away from being present.



By looking at the micro level and the words that are used, you can enable cultural change by encouraging a small-changes in language. Culture catches up with language.  Micro changes in language can actually shape conversations and assumptions and potentially can help cultural change. Are you producing players or fostering young people that play football?


Academia and applied practice

There is a need for more applied ‘real world’ research. This is a real challenge for academia and applied practice

The work that goes on in academia doesn’t always fit the narrative of what clubs are looking for. Those ideas that have almost been propagated and stayed within coach development and coach education have been the pop-science ideas like, 10,000 hours and learning styles. They survived due to the lack of opportunities for them to be academically scrutinised.

Someone employed in a club as part of a research and development department can help tie the ideas of academia and practice where experiential knowledge of coaches is integrated with theory and empirical data.

For our paper on embedding a Department of Methodology (research and development) in a sports club see here

RIP Dave Bacuzzi

Children Compete, Adults Compare


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The 2nd guest discussion on our Learning in Development podcast shone a light on various aspects of child-youth sport. We discussed some aspects that need to be amplified and others that need to be dampened.

It is important to understand that this is not a discussion about how coaches design their sessions. It is  about the culturally pervasive beliefs in child youth football that influence how it is structured , how learning in development is viewed and understood; and how this apparent inertia can be investigated and challenged?

Bastiaan Riemersma (twitter),Head of Youth Development at Dutch premier league club Willem II, (most known for fostering Virgil van Dijk and Frankie DeJong) shared his views on learning in development for young football players and gave some insights in to the present discussions in and around Dutch youth soccer.

Michiel de Hoog (twitter) is a journalist. In recent years being investigating culture and practice in youth sport around the world, with a particular focus on youth football. Michiel shared some revealing insights from his work. His investigations in to youth sport can be viewed in De Correspondent

You can listen to the discussion here:





While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will all leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).

It should be noted that the title Children compete, adults compare is something that I borrowed from Jamie Williams(twitter)


Insights from the discussion

As Willem II is not such a big club with a lot of financial resources they have to do things differently when it comes to player development. The club focuses on serving the local community and does not take in young players that live more than 25 kilometers away. Having patience and a sense of culture is so important. The culture is reflected in the daily behaviours of the coaches, the parents and the players. It is important that this is consistent.

Willem II try to keep their system open as long as possible for as many as possible. The club carries out a selection at 13 but the idea is to try and keep the group as big as possible until 16.

Buying young players is not developing players. Budgets available in certain big clubs means that they can buy the best young players in the country or even Europe. This is not developing your own players. There is a big difference between developing players and identifying players

A national or district football associations competitive structure can hinder clubs that are looking to implement evidence-based approaches underpinned by empirical and experiential knowledge. This may be in conflict with the club’s philosophy.


Select the coaches

Select coaches that believe in the idea of learning in development. If you have coaches that believe in the idea of talent then it will be difficult to change the system.

We have a way of playing and training that focusses on the idea that it is fun to play our way.

A good youth coach can work with all players not just the players who are the best performers just now

Work with the culture- You can influence the culture by how you react to winning or losing, how a you react when someone makes a mistake

We can talk all we want about to how we play and train, our methodology. You can find a lot of this information on the internet, that is not a secret anymore. How do we deal with set-backs? How do coaches speak to each other? How do coaches speak to the children? How do you speak to the parents?

Wellbeing of children is one of the main aims at Willem II. Each of our players can chose a coach at the club to become their mentor. This is not specifically for football reasons but to have someone to reach out to, and talk to about ‘life’.

While our mandate may be to develop players, our duty of care is towards developing people.


We don’t cover the weather, we cover the climate (De Correspondentmotto)

Many present systems, models and ideas in youth football are seemingly promoting certain expectations with parents, coaches and clubs regarding what child youth football is, how it should be structured and what learning in development looks like. This limiting their ability to think critically, act differentlybreak routines and try new ways

It’s hard to change even the smallest of assumptions in youth football, even the idea of not seeing it as just a miniature version of the adult game.

There are growing and influential voices in Dutch football that are thinking critically and questioning the status quo. Some discussions that would never even be considered a few years back are now surfacing.

The assumption that early performance is an indicator of late performance is being challenged. However, there is a tendency towards ‘survivorship bias’ (see here) when arguments are presented in favour of the early selection and deselection of children.

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KNVB (Dutch Football Association) are listening. For instance, the RAE (Relative Age Effect) has played a big influence on player development in Dutch football and this is something that KNVB are looking in to.

This quote by Laura Finnegan (twitter) from her excellent report on the Relative Age Effect in UEFA u17 Championships 2019 (read more here) is worth reflecting on.

“The Netherlands displayed one of the largest recorded percentages of quarter 1 births seen in youth football research, with 62% of their players being born in the first 3 months of the year”.


Clubs act out of fear. “If we don’t do it, someone else will do it..” – Aloys Wijnker

There are some interesting developments happening in the Netherlands.

Aloys Wijnker who will soon become the new head of talent development at KNVB was recently interviewed by Michiel (see here).One of the things Wijnker questions about football is the idea that adult men can earn their money by evaluating the football ability of seven- and eight-year-old’s.

This issue is further highlighted by AZ Alkmaar youth talent developerBart Heuvingh (Heuvingh on Twitter.),who spoke from experience and in reference to his own research work: “The predictive value of performance at that age (7 years old) is next to nothing”- 

The message is clear from Wijnker – “Forget about scouting that small group of youngest children; pay more attention to a larger group of children; and only invest in the best when they are older”.

In stark contrast: There was an open talent day at Ajax in Novermber 2019 where 3-year old kids were being evaluated by professional scouts.

The KNVB (Dutch football federation) have received criticism from some of the bigger clubs and commercial media for opening up a discussion around these issues. For example, not publishing league tables in children’s football was met with the argument that Dutch football is in danger of surrendering the will to win and lose in children’s football. Kids compete, adults compare.


 Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie DeJong

 They were not the best players when they were younger. Virgil van Dijk was regularly on the bench until he was 13. Frenkie De Jong was a small child.

Bastiaan mentioned that he had some games of Frenkie playing for Willem II against PSV U16 and Frenkie only touched the ball twice in one half”

There is a document at Willem on the development of Virgil van Dyke when he was a 12-year-old. The document refers to an evaluation and forecast on van Dykes future. The coach said that he could maybe reach the 2nd team of Willem II. This document can be shown to young players at the club now as it says a lot

They both loved playing on the street. They played for hours with their friends. The reason why Frenkie DeJong chose to stay with Willem II for so long (until 17), and not go to a bigger academy club, was to play with his friends.

We cannot predict the future, so instead of talking about the future, keep the system open. It is difficult. There is a game on Saturday and we are back to comparing children.







Learning in Development: Those who only know about football, don’t know about football

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I recently started the Learning  In Development podcast series together with my good colleagues and friends Mike Whyatt (twitter) and Britain Thomas (twitter)

Over the coming weeks I aim to publish these podcasts on this blog and include some of my own personal notes and refelctions from the discussions.

To kick off, we invited in  Jordi Fernandez (twitter) and Isaac Oriol Guerrero (twitter) from FC Barcelona  as guests. We discussed the culture of coaching, coach education, player development and some of the culturally pervasive beliefs around learning in development that we need to unearth and investigate.

While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).


Apple Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/session-design-planning-paradigm/id1507378548?i=1000471078827


  1. Challenging a culturally dominant planning paradigm that underpins many coach education programs around the world.
  • Coach decides the theme, breaks the session up in to fragments, decides how long each part will be and their sequential order
  • Can liberating coaches from these culturally resilient paradigms improve coach development and ultimately player development?
  • Are we over structuring our sessions? How much is too much? Are theme-based sessions giving away the answer?


A training session is just the expression of the coach and what he thinks his role is.

How the coach does a session is an emergent behavior of all the influences of context, of culture of society that ends up with me doing this as a coach. We need to understand how the role of the coach is perceived and why it’s perceived this way in this very context.

Most coaches have the intention of, “I am going to session to train solutions”. The coach’s planning, design, timing, interventions will therefore be related to their intentions, to the idea of “I am the provider of solutions

If we understand that coaches have a bigger impact in society, a bigger impact in the development of the child and that there is nothing measurable in front of you,  yet right now they measure what happens in the weekend (the result).

If we develop a context where these coaches see that the actual impact happens in 5 years’ time or even longer, that might change the mentality of the coach, and then the coach can attune him/herself to new possibilities within that session. If we change that lens from how the coach watches the session or sees his/her role then we can change many of thise things.


  1. Explicit top down game models being introduced earlier and earlier, where the coach gets the kids to practice predetermined passing patterns that they regurgitate in competitive games. Are children therefore only learning a model of the game as opposed to the game?


In the pay to play model (USA, Canada) there are parent expectations that are underpinned by what their understanding of what coaching is. So. a more passive coach may be viewed as someone that is not coaching. Coaches do identify themselves as providers of solutions.

Within each team there can be 20 different game models because of the players.

For us the most important thing is to observe the natural behavior of the players. In our work we try to use certain constraints around elements of space and time so that we can be open to observe the natural behaviour of the player. If we are very focused on one game model then we are only focusing on pre-determined established model for the player (a one size fits all approach).


  1. Should coaches see themselves as designers (architects of an environment)? The first feedback to the players should come from the session design and how the players interact (with information) informs the coach how he interacts with the learning space to add value.


We have to challenge the status quo especially with regard to the idea of what feedback is. We of course need to change this.

Can we design context to create situations where the player decides so that they can connect their intentions with actions?  This requires patience as the player has to analyse their own feelings and emotions and we cannot be judging their actions too early. (players need to be given the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their behaviours)

What coaches are doing with players is more or less what governing sports bodies, or federations or coach education institutions are doing with the coaches. It all comes with the culture of certainty and needing control. If we change the paradigm but implement it the same way that we have always done then we will probably still have the same issues.

It is not just the player that is learning, the coach is also learning and serving the community. We need an approach from both directions so that we are able to act on what is in front of us and not on what is established or what we think is right or wrong.

We can possibly learn more (about football) from attending a seminar on culture than one given by a professional coach

Those who only know about football, don’t know about football(Cesar Menotti)

  1. Football Interactions

The action is something that is isolated, when you are doing interactions, you are doing something because of your teammates and opponents. These interactions are situational, and also framed by cultural


  1. Learning is an active, ongoing process that happens in development

The role of the coach is to optimize their players, through their own optimisation (the coaches own learning in development).

Language that you use in your club material, in your daily interactions, can help your coaches to adjust their lens

The cultural context (for good and bad) plays a part in inviting  certain coach behaviours that we see today


RIP Bill Withers

Erling Haaland – As Many as Possible, as Long as Possible, as Good as Possible

Since I published this article, a really  insightful paper by Martin Erikstad and colleagues was published, giving a deeper insight in to the development environment of Erling Haaland. I urge you to read it.

As many as possible, as long as possible – “Sport organizations and clubs should, therefore, be careful to not build systems that reduce individuals’ opportunities for long-term engagement and/or personal development.”

Link here: https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/tsp/aop/article-10.1123-tsp.2020-0107/article-10.1123-tsp.2020-0107.xml

As reported in the national Norwegian newspaper VG, Marius Johnsen, a former professional footballer,  carried out research into Erling  Haaland’s journey towards professional football. The results are quite revealing and challenge many culturally pervasive structural and pedagogical assumptions, providing an argument for a re-conceptualisation of player development in youth football.

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For me, this once again highlights the need for an open conversation on evolving a purposeful and supporting culture for young players, parents, coaches, leaders and community in child youth sports. Why are we creating generic linear  models in the hope of finding unique people?

Maruis Johnsen’s thesis can be read here (only in Norwegian) https://uia.brage.unit.no/uia-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2620251/Johnsen%2C%20Marius.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Here are the main points from the thesis as reported in VG

  • Played until he was 16 for his mother club Bryne
  • He was born 2000 but played with the team born 1999
  • His training group consisted of 40 players (39 boys and 1 girl)
  • At 9 they had one training session a week
  • Facilities (indoor and outdoor) were kept open for spontaneous football and many of the kids took the opportunity to play as much football as possible.
  • Not one player dropped out before 16 years
  • Football was understood as a social environment for learning in development and keeping the social group together was a priority
  • At 15 the players were given the choice to decide if they wanted to train 4 times a week (specialized team) or 2 times a week (recreation team). The kids themselves made the choice.
  • 5 national team players and in total 6 professional players emerged from this group
  • Many including high profile youth coaches who assumed that the best must play with the best otherwise they will not develop, questioned Alf- Ingve Bersten’s approach to coaching . Bernsten says “it would be fun to go back and speak to them now”.
  • Bernsten believes that what was most important was to include all players and avoid giving in to these culturally pervasive beliefs that have remained unchallenged and unchanged. He admitted that he could not see who will be the best
  • “If you have 40 players and select the best 14 as the 1stteam, 13 as the 2ndteam and 13 as the 3rdteam, then the 1stteam gets the good coaches. Before summer the 3rdteam collapses and then the same thing happens with the second team. Then you are left with 14 of 40 players and of those maybe 5 or 6 will lose interest. Suddenly you have too few players when you are going up to junior football (11 a side). This happens so often”.
  • Bernsten has nothing against top academies, but I doubt the effect of them. Martin Odegaard does not come from an academy. Then you have Erling Halland who played with a girl and 38 boys.

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Something to reflect on

There is a fundamental flaw in any system that excludes individuals based on rates of development and does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development & excludes individuals based on rates of development.

Despite the fact that we have been educating coaches, parents, clubs and federations for decades it is hard to imagine any changes (structurally & pedagogically) taking place as long as the structural conditions remain unchanged & unchallenged.  This includes coach education.

Many clubs and even NGB’s are still anchored in a traditional view of sport and competition limiting their ability to think critically and differently, break routines and try new ways  (Håkan Larsson , 2013 )

Skills have history (Baily & Pickford, 2010). Movement solutions in young players cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point

RIP Andrew Weatherall