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.

Mark Upton – 4 corner matrix for player development

I think that it is high time that we revisted Mark Upton’s 4 corner matrix.

Recently I began as coach educator in the Stockholm district delivering the  Swedish FA’s new Uefa coach education plan to aspiring coaches. I was very happy to see my friend Mark Upton and his  4 corner matrix featured in the literature. I think that this is a great reference for any coach especially those involved with youth sports.

Dr. Ian Renshaw-The child in sport. meeting their needs in early structured competition


Dr. Ian Renshaw is a Senior Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.  He is a former P.E. teacher, who’s day job has been about teaching and researching sports coaching, skill acquisition and sport psychology for over 25 years now. Outside of this, Ian has coached and continues to coach a range of sports, but largely focuses on cricket coaching from 8 year olds through to adults, football and rugby union. Ian is particularity interested in developing constraint-led approaches for P.E. and coaching. Check his blog out here and follow him on twitter

I recently interviewed Ian for a book that I am completing. The main focus of the interview was “nonlinear pedagogy”. We are both of the belief that we move children to structured training and competitive programs far too early. Ian shared an experience he had with a group of 8 year old’s that he was coaching. I want to share it with you.

Structured competitions can also be restricting and can fail to meet the needs of the children. A good example for me was when I was coaching a U-8 team. We were a 6-a-side team and playing in an intra-club league (there were 8 teams in the league). Whilst most of the teams were made up of boys, on this particular day 2 out of 6 were girls. Of course this didn’t mean they were going to be a weaker team, but on this particular occasion we happened to be a stronger team. After a couple of minutes we scored and I noted how enthusiastically the other team brought the ball back to the middle for the restart. Excellent, I thought, their heads were still up and they were up for a game. However, we scored 4 more goals very quickly and after each goal you could see their heads go down further and further and the ball came back slower and slower. At half-time I spoke to the opposition coach and suggested to her that we should stop the game and mix the teams up. Her response was positive, but couched with “can we do that?” My response was that we can do what we think is best for the children. We created balanced teams and the second half scoring went something like 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2 before finally finishing 5-4. I can’t remember which team won, but it really did not matter.

The win was for us; the smiles of the children as they dragged their tired bodies off the field.

Advice to parents on how to raise young footballers- David Lynch

David Lynch is a trainer for 8 and 9 year olds at Stockholm club AIK

He sent me this, I think it is brilliant!!!

Advice to parents on how to raise young footballers.

1. Make them pack and prepare their own kit bag.
2. Always be in time for training.
3. Make them clean their boots
4. Make them put their dirty kit in the wash
5. Tell them to give 100% at training and matches.
6. If possible, walk or cycle to training
7. Teach them how to tie their shoe laces
8. Play football with them, where they want and when they want to
9. Make them wear kit until its falling apart. Then buy new kit.
10. Buy them new boots when they need them, not when they want them
11. Buy second-hand boots and save yourself a fortune
12. Teach them not to hate other teams.
13. Win or lose, love the game.
14. Respect teammates, the opposition, respect the ref, respect other team’s coaches. If you don’t teach them this, the coach will have to do it.
15. Let them dream that they can be a Lionel Messi, but don’t give them any expectations.
16. Blaming teammates, blaming the ref, blaming anything is out.
17. Let them play football at home with a tennis ball
18. Take them to football matches and let them watch the pros.
19. Tell them football is for fun. Training is for fun. If it isn’t fun for them, talk to the coach/club or move to another club
20. Watch football training videos on youtube and let them try out and perfect some of the moves.
21. Encourage them, support them, but never ever shout out instructions when they play on my team, or any team
22. Play other sports
23. If you are a football mum or dad, don’t try to train your kid. Take them out, ask what they want to do and let them do it.
24. Tell your kids that you love watching them play (thanks Mark O Sullivan)

That’s it.