Analysing the young learner

Learning is an ongoing process of adaption

In the dynamic sport of soccer if we remove things from their context they are no longer the same thing.  If we for instance want to evaluate the performance of a particular player we have to evaluate it in relation to those players around that player. Recently I was analysing the performance of a much coveted elite youth player. This is a very hard thing to do at youth level as many validate the process through results and form their analysis upon this. In youth soccer even if something is done well it does not guarantee that it will finish up well and vice versa.  Take for example the young kid who is told by his coach to “get rid of it” launches blindly a hopeful long ball/clearance that results in a fast attacker running on to it and scoring a goal. Another young kid tries to play the ball out of defence, he succeeds a few times but on one occasion slips and this allows the oppositions forward to take the ball and score a goal.

The young player in question felt that he had made the correct decision on one or two occasions when the opponents almost scored a goal. These incidents could easily have been interpreted as his fault.

Here is an example of one of those situations.


Blue centre forward runs on to long ball behind the Yellow backline


Goalkeeper reacts quickly and clears the ball before the forward can reach it


The player I am analysing (left centre back) immediately calls for the backline to push up and get a compact shape in relation to the ball. The reason for this is that he knows that while the ball is travelling in the air neither team has control over the ball. The player shows good game intelligence in understanding this and wanting his team to be in a good position to defend or attack depending on who wins the long clearance. The player sees that the clearance is going to be met by an opposition player first. He wants his defensive line to drop a step just before the clearance reaches the opponents foot. This way they are already in a good position to deal with a long ball.


The Yellow left back pushes up in a straight line while the rest of the defence pushes up at an angle in relation to the ball. A long ball is played between the left back and left center-back creating a possible 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper.


Remember that 3 of the back 4 reacted correctly (pushing up at the correct angle in relation to the ball and dropping a step before the clearance reached the opponent in anticipation of a long ball behind them. They were already in a good defensive position to recover.


The left center back in a risk/reward decision making process managed to recover and minimise the goalscoring possibility for the attacker by closing off a big part of the goal (see red area), while at the same time closing off or delaying a central pass to another attacker (see red area). This forced the player to shoot into a very narrow area of the goal where the goalkeeper stood. The end result was an easy save.

What I am interested in is how the player reads and responds to the ever changing dynamics of the game, the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making. There should be an understanding that skill is the technical and tactical dimensions of the game working together as complimentary pairs. Skill development is an ongoing learning process of adaption. Even if a correct decision is made for one situation but something in the system (the team) creates an imbalance (in this case the left backs poor decision making) there needs to be an immediate process of adaption (organisation of information and action through perception and decision making) if the system is vulnerable to threat.

The player I analysed showed great ability to organise information and action and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances through high quality adaptive behaviour.

“Adaptive behaviour is key to the survival of the human race and specific to football, a trait of high quality players”. (Mark Upton)

Practice and play in the development of German top level professional football players

Practice and play in the development of German top level professional football players (European Journal of Sports Science 2014, Hornig et al, 2014).


A study of top-level German players (including national team players) in comparison with their amateur counterparts suggested that an interaction of playful and organised experiences had positive impact on the development of those that reached elite level.

Those that reached elite level “mostly combined moderate volumes of instructed exercise with extensive forms of game play where play shifted in large parts from non-organised play and other game sports in childhood/youth towards organised in-club play in adulthood” (Hornig et al, 2014).

Senior top level footballers

  1. Early engagement
  2. Moderate volumes of organised football training
  3. Extensive game-play within organised in-club practice/training
  4. A lot of non-organised leisure football-play during childhood and youth
  5. In many cases participation in other sports

National team players specialised later and played more spontaneous football in childhood. Played other sports in adolescence and more organized football only in adulthood compared to amateurs

This research corresponds with other research that stated that world class athletes did not differ from national class athletes in more sport-specific practice/training but in more variable involvements (Carlsson,1988,Gullich, 2014, Gullich and Emrich, 2014, Johnson 2006; VanRossum,2000)

Read the full report here

Investigating the Complexity of Youth Athlete Development and the IOC Consensus Statement-


“Without our context we are not what we are. We are not a list of attributes. My aim is not to fracture and break apart what should be together, not to de-contextualise. And that’s the oldest approach on earth”. (Juanma Lillo)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in an effort to advance a more unified and evidence informed approach to youth athlete development organised a consensus meeting of experts in the field in November 2014.They critically evaluated the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development. In a research paper published May 2015 the IOC presented recommendations for an approach that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of healthy, resilient and capable youth athletes/people, while providing opportunities for all levels of sport participation and success.

Various systems interacting over time to influence development

“While sports science and research tends to focus upon the biological and psychological training necessary to become an elite performer, success in sport is much more complex than this. Underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up”. (Dr Martin Toms).

 Development is also dependant on the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sporting organisations, governing bodies, communities, cultures). One of my favourite sports interviews appears in the first edition of Blizzard magazine.  Speaking with Sid Lowe, Juanma Lillo mentor to Pep Guardiola explains his thinking on clubs, coaching and society. Lillo talks about how people always want to separate things. “It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them. How do you know that the cause was not an effect of something from before and that the effect is not going to cause something else- in the context of countless other variables”. Juanma Lillo’s holistic “big picture” thought process is echoed in the research article The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport by Jean Côté (Professor and Director, School of Kinesiology and Health Studies Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario). Here it is suggested that the power of developmental system theories to help explain sport participation and performance resides in their ability to conceptualise sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact and shape development. I believe that the IOC has also looked through this lens when questioning the whole underlying philosophy for developing youth athletes. By investigating the complexity of athlete development, they are promoting an understanding that it is a” complex mix of experiences/factors that shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success”. (Mark Upton)

According to the IOC the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. 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.

The IOC view specialisation in youth sports as a concern that needs to be addressed appropriately and realistically. Youth athletes involved in a single sport should be allowed experience appropriate diversity and variability within that sport. This should support the learning of foundational skills and sport-specific technique and biomechanics to minimise injury risk and optimise performance, along with consistent adequate rest and recovery.  There should also be a balanced emphasis on other priorities (eg, family and school, life skills and social development).

The limited success of talent identification and athlete development programmes is nothing new to this blog and according to the IOC consensus statement not surprising. Many developmental programs begin (seemingly earlier and earlier) with a subjective assessment of talent. This is followed by a structured programme of training in a specific sport. This traditional linear approach is not without its problems. Athletic development is multidimensional and difficult to assess in youth, and the trajectories from the novice to elite levels can vary greatly among athletes. Development is built on an individually unique and constantly changing base, including the demands of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and their interactions. The IOC also points to the fact that we know little of those who are systematically excluded (cut from the system), who drop out or are injured (overuse or overtraining) or experience burnout .

General principles of the IOC statement

▸ 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.

▸ Allow for a wider definition of sport success, as indicated by healthy, meaningful and varied life-forming experiences, which is centred on the whole athlete and development of the person.

▸ Adopt viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete’s perspective and needs.

▸ Commit to the psychological development of resilient and adaptable athletes characterised by mental capability and robustness, high self-regulation and enduring personal excellence qualities—that is, upholding the ideals of Olympism.

▸ Encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (ie, deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sport participation and enjoyment.

▸ Make a commitment to promote safety, health and respect for the rules, other athletes and the game, while adopting specific policies and procedures to avert harassment and abuse.

▸ Across the entire athletic development pathway, assist each athlete in effectively managing sport-life balance to be better prepared for life after sport.


▸ Provide a challenging and enjoyable sporting climate that focuses on each athlete’s personal assets and mastery orientation.

▸ Coaching practices should be informed by research-based developmental guidelines that promote flexibility and innovation, while accommodating individual skills and athletic development trajectories.

▸ Coaching should be context-specific (eg, participation vs performance focus) and aligned with individual athletic readiness.

▸ Coaching education programmes should assist coaches in establishing meaningful relationships that enrich the personal assets of their athletes and foster their own intrapersonal and interpersonal skills (eg, reflection and communicative skills).

▸ Coaches should seek interdisciplinary support and guidance in managing a youth athlete’s athletic development, fitness and health, and mental and social challenges and needs. Conditioning, testing and injury prevention

▸ Encourage regular participation in varied strength and conditioning programmes that are suitably age based, quality technique driven, safe and enjoyable.

▸ Design youth athlete development programmes comprising diversity and variability of athletic exposure, to mitigate the risk of overuse injuries and other health problems prompted by inappropriate training and competition that exceed safe load thresholds, while providing sufficient and regular rest and recovery, to encourage positive adaptations and progressive athletic development.

▸ Maintain an ethical approach to, and effectively translate, laboratory and field testing to optimise youth sports participation and performance.

▸ Develop, implement and continue to evaluate knowledge translation strategies and resources that will enhance injury prevention and promote health in youth athletes.

▸ Promote evidence-informed injury prevention programmes, protective equipment legislation and rule changes that are context specific, adaptable and consistent with maintaining the integrity of the sport and participation goals.

▸ Strictly adhere to a “No youth athlete should compete—or train or practice in a way that loads the affected injured area, interfering with or delaying recovery—when in pain or not completely rehabilitated and recovered from an illness or injury”.

Sport and sports medicine governing bodies and organisations

▸ Sport and sports medicine governing bodies and organisations should protect the health and well-being of youth in sport by providing ongoing education, and fully implementing and monitoring practical, and effective, athlete safeguarding policies and procedures in all youth athletes.

▸ Youth athlete selection and talent development philosophies should be based on the physiological, perceptual, cognitive and tactical demands of the sport, and a long-term, individually variable developmental context.

▸ Diversification and variability of athletic exposure between and within sports should be encouraged and promoted.

▸ Competition formats and settings should be age and skill appropriate, while allowing for sufficient rest and recovery time between multiple same-day contests.

The IOC challenges all youth and other sport governing bodies to embrace and implement these recommended guiding principles.


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

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)

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

Steve Lawrence – The Future Learning Space?

Footblogball is back with another Essential Interview. This time it is with Steve Lawrence who discusses  Cruyff, Ajax, Montessori. and RAE. In this interview Steve Lawrence gives us a fascinating insight in to how we can look to challenge tradition and structure the future of youth sport to create a better learning environment for both the young player and the coach.


Steve Lawrence

Graduate from Cruyff Institute Amsterdam (Master International Sports Management 2012). Founder The Football Analytics Lab™ owned by Milk Studios Ltd, London.

Consultant to Cruyff Football and Ajax.

Author of the original master plan for the London Olympics, researcher into relative age effects in football and author ‘The Age Advantage in Association Football’, inventor ‘average team age’ rule for team sport.

Married to Lynne Lawrence FRSA, Executive Director, Association Montessori Internationale. Two sons, Tom, a social anthropology graduate working in social media and Jamie a professional footballer with AS Trencin.

Architect in private practice (Carrick, Howell & Lawrence) for 33 years, graduate from Bath University (B.Sc. 1978 & B.Arch. 1980)

You can follow Steve on twitter

FOOTBLOGBALL: Much of my blog is about exploring ways to create a learning space, a space that promotes development, one that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of an intelligent well balanced and healthy person and player. From my brief correspondence with you I believe that you are also exploring avenues that can lead to similar outcomes especially through your work with Montessori educational philosophy and Ajax academy. Can you briefly explain how this will be structured?


The project emerged from an exercise in 2012 to establish a ‘Spatial Development Manifesto’ for Cruyff Football defining the key characteristics of a Cruyff inspired ‘Football Development Centre’. We realised that there was a great deal of synergy between the ideas of Johan Cruyff and the philosophy of Maria Montessori. This is hardly surprising as both are leaders in fields of child development and both had an analytical eye that went back to first principles and then rethought paradigms on the basis of those principles. We see the result of Maria Montessori’s thinking in the tens of thousands of schools worldwide and the results of Johan Cruyff’s thinking in the acclaimed football academies of Ajax and Barcelona where he was instrumental in creating a youth player focussed environment. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that their lives in Amsterdam overlapped by 5 years and that Johan attended schools influenced by Montessori’s thinking.

In developing the study we identified the following key characteristics:

  • Child-centred pedagogical principles inform all aspects of the football development centre. A football development centre is seen essentially as an ‘educational environment’.
  • The facilities encompassed within a centre constitute a prepared environment for children – this is a quintessential Montessori idea. The environment is designed around children, for children and the spatial planning is maturationally appropriate, child-sized and fit for purpose.
  • The spaces envisaged are intended to accommodate ‘dynamic movement’ of all kinds, in 3D space, at the highest performance levels and follow the principle of ‘design following function’.
  • The facilities are intended to be flexible in their ability to encompass technological apparatus for assessment, measurement and monitoring.
  • Whilst a significant proportion of facilities are designed around participation in high performance activities an over-arching idea is the incorporation within the design of facilities for observation.

Children are naturally predisposed to develop themselves, furthermore their inherent natural instincts take them on an optimal path proceeding at a rate according to individual characteristics and adapted to their environment.

Developmental advancement for these motivated learners depends on two fundamental components:

  1. The provision of a prepared environment.
  2. The provision of appropriate guidance.

The characteristics of such a Cruyff inspired Football Development Centre are that the environment is optimally prepared for high-level athletic and technical football performance.

And that provision is made for maximum information feedback to trainers and others responsible for the children so that optimal guidance can be given.

FOOTBLOGBALLl: How can this philosophy and its contents help clubs build more inclusive sporting structures, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist?


Whilst the individual performance and training spaces are the principle working components of the Centre the facilities for observation constitute the defining parameters for a ‘spatial planning backbone’ and fall into 5 categories:

  1. Visible observation by spectators.
  2. Visible observation by students.
  3. Visible observation by technical staff and trainers.
  4. Invisible observation by technical staff and trainers.
  5. Observation by technology.

A further aspect of the project is the development of a sport/football based curriculum – not a curriculum for sport but an academic curriculum with sport and football as its inspiration providing source material for the broad range of academic subjects. Also importantly not a syllabus which implies adherence to a chronological programme followed by an age set – the Cruyff/Ajax/Montessori curriculum sets the framework in which the individual progresses at their own pace, guided and supported by the teacher/trainers.

The development of the curriculum is collaboration between the club and the Association Montessori Internationale involving the development from the existing international elementary and adolescent curriculum in use in Australia and the USA.

All of this operates within the context of a multi age group training and educational environment.

FOOTBLOGBALL: What demands does this set on the coach?


The demands on the coach in a child-centred rather than team-centred environment are immense.

Child-centred development means multi age groups, individual training programmes and monitoring mostly by observation not by testing. The coach has to be efficient in documenting progress and engaging others with different skills in guiding the development trajectory of the individual player. Squad construction, mentor group setting and pastoral support all need coordination. This creates a major burden in data accrual and analytics along with time management and communication.

As part of the analysis we have identified the need for a specialised Training of Trainers Programme incorporating both Montessori elementary (6-12) and adolescent programmes dovetailed with Cruyff inspired football coaching education.

FOOTBLOGBALL:: A complex mix of experiences and factors shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success. In the middle of this complexity is one subject that you are looking to challenge, the Relative Age Effect (RAE). The feeling I get is that you view this as something that represents social inequality. This creates an artificial environment in youth sport one that is the consequence of an adult constructed competitive structure leading to many negative outcomes. Comment?


RAE is a function of the widespread use of cut-off date eligibility rules. Cut-off dates are useful for administration – they make adults lives easier and because the discrimination, which arises from them, is invisible and everyone uses them changing the paradigm is challenging.

Whilst eligibility cut-off dates continue to exist, knowledge of RAE can be exploited for competitive advantage in a variety of ways, in squad development, player contract strategy and transfer scheduling. Knowledge of RAE can also inform scouting strategy and assist in developing football education. It will be clear, for example, that a multi-age group youth training structure goes some way to mitigating relative age effects and creates an environment in which otherwise invisible talent can emerge.

FOOTBLOGBALL: You recently went to the European Commission in Brussels and had a meeting with the head of politics and programming for sports. Would you care to elaborate on the subject matter of this meeting?


Alongside my work in exploiting the knowledge of RAE I take the view that RAE is ‘systemic discrimination’ – I refer to it as ‘relative age discrimination’. It operates globally and advantages one cohort of individuals whilst disadvantaging another. As such it conflicts with basic ethical values of fairness and in particular it conflicts with the fundamental provisions of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

I have challenged the use, by The FA, of cut-off date rules for establishing eligibility within youth football in England. The FA governs all youth football and the imposition of universal cut-off dates by The FA establishes systemic relative age discrimination. I have asked the Commission to determine the use of such rules as illegal.

The meeting with the European Commission was in the context of my complaint. The complaint is being assessed by the Commission’s lawyers and if admissible will trigger a request for a response from the appropriate state authority – in this case probably the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

European Commission written guidance in the ‘Study of Discrimination of Sportspersons in Individual National Championships’ says ‘ Equal treatment requires abolition of both direct discrimination and rules which, …., in fact lead to unequal treatment.’ This is the core of my argument.

It’s my view that an ‘average team age’ rule can, over time, remove RAE and I have asked The FA to engage in piloting projects to explore the potential of such solutions.

Coach education can be multi-sport driven – we can learn from each other.

Soccer- Basketball- Lacrosse

Bart Sullivan is currently the Head Boys Varsity Lacrosse Coach and Program Director for Southlake Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas. Recently he posted a blog that reminded me of the value of communication between coaches of different sports. There is always something to learn, always ideas to share. Bart has used some ideas from my last blog “How do we help the young player organise information and action?” and USA baskeball coach Brian McCormick to design his own training sessions for lacrosse. Let us reflect on this. Three different sports, three different sized balls. One sport played using the feet, another using the hands and the third with sticks.

“Our aim is to promote a rethink of learning that helps people to be their best by encouraging organisations to embed functional coaching systems and dynamic learning environments that best meet their needs”My fastest mile

Bart, Brian and I work mainly with young athletes. Even away from training design I am sure that we have much to learn from each others experiences. We work with and do our best to support children that are going through a bio-psycho-social development in a sporting context This complex non-linear development is as much a challenge for us coaches as it is for the young athletes.. Our training design also needs to take this in to consideration. We are working with learners. For me it is about creating learning opportunities that teach the young players to learn to think for themselves. Bart has sought inspiration from other sports to help shape the dynamics of the learning environment.

“Kids typically enjoy them more because they are essentially games rather than drills”- Bart Sullivan

You can read about Bart’s training session and watch a film clip  here. I really look forward to hearing about his reflections.

How do we help the young player organise information and action?

Following on from the  previous blog “We have to be creative with our pedagogy to get people to reflect and think”  I will make some suggestions that may help us answer the question:

How do we help the young player organise information and action?

  1. Design learning sessions that are based on perception and action. A simple guideline could be

Avoid: The rules of the drill decide all the decisions that are made. The classic passing drill -A passes to B, B passes to C and so on is a good example of this.

Aim: The decisions are based on perception, on what the young player sees, the information that is taken in and how it is processed. Rules can be used as problems or boundaries that the young player must solve or challenge to attain an outcome.

  1. Create opportunities for the individual to learn how to learn

The objective should not be that the young players learn a specific “drill”. It should be creating learning opportunities that teach the young players to learn to think for themselves.

  3 simple games to help the young player organise information and action

Game 1

3v1 rondo

8 players are broken up into two 3v1 games

Let them play and from your observations use questions to create 2 rules.

You can freeze the play and ask the players to take up a position where they can receive the ball. Then ask them after they have taken up the correct position- “what do you see?”

Answer: The ball

If the defender moves in to a position that prevents me from seeing the ball what should I do?

Answer: Find a new space where I can receive the ball (Identify and occupy new space where I can see the ball).

Rule: When a player has the ball his other 2 team mates must try and move in to a position where they can see the ball. This way they will open up a passing lane.

After we have identified and occupied space how do we use that space?

If I receive a pass from the left which foot should I control the ball with? I want to have the right body shape that puts me in a position to execute as many decisions as possible?

Rule: If the ball comes from the left then control it with the right foot and visa-versa. Try and find the time and space so that you can carry out this task.

So from our discussions with the players we have created 2 rules.

What information must players take in to help them-selves make better decisions on and off the ball? How can we communicate this information with our teammates?

 Game 2

2v2 switch

4v4 game with 2v2 situation in the middle and 2 players from each team on the sides

We can use the rules from Game 1 to help develop the tactical understanding and improve the technical quality in this game.

Rule: To score a point the ball must be played from one side to the other through at least one player in the middle

This game can be a good opportunity to discuss width and depth with the players.

Development rule: If you receive the ball facing the player who passed you the ball then you must play it back with your first touch (We want to encourage our young players to find space and to open up their body when receiving the ball- this way it will be easier for them to take in more information so that they can learn to make better decisions)

What information must players take in to help them-selves make better decisions on and off the ball? How can we communicate this information with our teammates?

Game 3

Diag 2

2v2 game in the middle with four jokers on the side that play with the team in possession

8 passes is a point

Rule: When in possession the players in the middle must always take up a position that is diagonal to each other. The defending team tries to press as a unit and win the ball.

We can again suggest the rules that we created together with the players in game 1 to help with the development of tactical understanding and technical execution.

When in possession what information must the two players in the middle take in and organise so that they can execute the best decision?

When in possession what information must the players on the side take in and organise so that they can execute the best decision?

What information must players take in to help them-selves make better decisions on and off the ball? How can we communicate this information with our teammates?

We have to be creative with our pedagogy to get people to reflect and think

1 essinge lek shot

Many young players are perceived to have reached a high level of performance based on their physical abilities not their cognitive abilities. The common “coach solution” to this problem (depending on your view point) is often referred to as ability grouping. But what are we actually grouping? What are our criteria for ability grouping? I have asked this question numerous times while delivering the new Swedish FA coach education courses in the Stockholm district. The early part of this evidence based curriculum is a great introduction for any young trainer or parent to the subject of the child in sport. The UN convention on the Rights of the Child is introduced to the coaches and 4 articles are interpreted from a soccer perspective. It is followed by a simple explanation of the biopsychosocial development of children between 6-12 years of age. This lays a good foundation for discussions on practice design, environment, coaching behaviour, skill acquisition, development and learning. These discussions are encouraged throughout the course.

The most interesting and often the longest discussions evolve around the topic of ability grouping and the early selection process (often referred to as early talent identification). I have already from an evidence based perspective touched on this topic in the blog post “Survival of the fittest or survival of talent”. The Swedish FA is very clear where it stands on this. “From a child’s rights perspective, children are at risk of being subjected to indignity instead of prioritising their developmental needs”.  However away from the moral side of the debate I also like to challenge preconceptions that seem to be based on tradition (we have always done it like this!). This tradition is often something that is deeply rooted in the culture of the club and in my opinion the new Swedish FA coach curriculum wants us to critically analyse and challenge these assumptions.

“We have to be creative with our pedagogy to get people to reflect and think”- Daniel Ekvall (Swedish FA Instructor Behavioural Science)

During these discussions I ask some questions:

  1. What are our criteria for ability grouping?
  2. What are we actually grouping? (Who are these young social beings that we are putting in to different groups? What do we understand about them?)

Certain attributes are easier to measure than others. Anyone will notice the young player that has a great shot (usually meaning that he/she kicks the ball very hard) or the very fast player. How about the goalkeeper or defender that can kick the ball very far (usually to the fast player J).  What about the young player that is great at dribbling or really good in the tackle? These are essentially the hard skills. They are quantifiable, easy to measure as they are related to a specific task. They are easily evaluated through observation.  All these examples have turned up in the course when coaches discuss how they evaluate young players

This is where I usually take up the example of the importance of 1v1 defending and attacking. We all agree that this is a very important characteristic of the game. Yet if we look at one of the greatest midfielders in the last 15 years we need look no further than Barcelona’s Xavi. Now Xavi is not exactly known for his explosive ability to dribble past a player or even defend 1v1.  I ask the coaches “when you watch Xavi what is it that you appreciate about him “? Always the same answers come up. His awareness, his ability to create space, pass his way out of tight situations (problem-solving), his ability to read the game.

When evaluating our young players how many of these attributes are appreciated, recognised and encouraged? Like all great players Xavi is highly skilled at organising information and action. Do we look to create opportunities in our training sessions for young players to develop and learn these skills?  To emphasise my point I take the example of the young player who is very good in the tackle. Was that player in the right position before making the tackle or are temporary physical advantages covering up a lack of game understanding? In his prime one of the greatest defenders of all time Paulo Maldini made on average of one tackle every two games. Once again, game intelligence, the ability to read the game.

The traits that the coaches associate with Xavi are what are often referred to as soft skills. These are often associated with personal traits, emotional intelligence. Examples of soft skills are problem solving, how players relate and communicate with each other and pattern recognition. These traits can be learned through trial and error. The application of soft skills is more dynamic as it can change depending on the situation. A good example of this is recognising goal scoring opportunities both on and off the ball in various different situations. Development of soft skills also helps when you are confronted with an unfamiliar situation giving you the confidence to attempt to find a solution. This helps develop the player’s flexibility to adapt. Taking the example of Xavi we can see that adaptive behaviour is a trait of high quality players. His undeniable ability to organise information and action often sets him apart from the rest.

Why is a player fast and a great dribbler? Why has another player better coordination and balance making it easier to perform a given task? What opportunities have been afforded to these players? Have they older siblings that they have played with since it was possible for them to kick a ball? Has their immediate environment provided them with opportunities to play?

So if our early practice environment only supports those that adapt through the use of hard skills then maybe those that have potential to adapt in the long run may well be lost to us forever.

Many kids are perceived to have reached a high level of performance based on their physical abilities not their cognitive abilities. Therefore it is quite common and understandable that we allow hard skills to influence our early player evaluation process. If we understand what we are looking at then maybe we can readjust the parameters of how we work with a group of young players.