Growth/Fixed mind-set? It is really about learning

The coach education courses are coming thick and fast. Nearly every weekend from January to May I will be delivering to coaches either of the first two stages of a fantastic curriculum developed by the Swedish FA. Each group I work with is unique. Coaches between the ages of 16 and 55 sit in the same room discussing, personal experiences, training design, how we meet the child’s physical and emotional needs and the many issues that are presently polarising the debate around child and youth sport in Sweden. Opinions come in many shades as experiential knowledge and socio-cultural factors are so varied. This leads to many rich and rewarding discussions and hopefully with the material provided during the course helps guide the coaches (and me) towards developing a more informed opinion.

One thing that I have been reflecting on from leading these courses (with the aim of deepening my understanding of how the learner learns and how learning occurs) is the praising of effort by coaches. Richard Bailey in his Psychology Today article “The problem with praise” refers to a rationale that is commonly expressed by coaches during these courses. One of praise bolstering self-esteem and criticism harming it. “In effect this is the “gas gauge” theory of self- esteem, in which praise fills up the tank with good feelings and social approval and criticism drains it”. Later in the piece Bailey delivers a crucial line that us coach educators need to take with us in to the classroom, “poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”.

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We need to discuss the how, why and what of coaches praising effort. What do they say and how is this interpreted by the learner? Why do they say it? What IS that effort, does it lead to learning and if not how can we “nudge” or guide the leaner to find a way?

“Always try to praise the effort, not the outcome. That’s the lesson that parents and teachers often take from my work. But it’s the wrong lesson, or it can easily become so” Carol Dweck

Praising effort has for many been interpreted as central to the work of Carol Dweck. This interpretation has created many misunderstandings. Recently Dweck has spoken out about the common misconception in equating growth mind-set with effort. “It really is about learning” she said. When we are stuck between a rock and a hard place “we need a learning reaction”. We need to vary our approach to learn and improve. We can reflect on what we have done, the effort that got us here but we must be willing to investigate and develop new strategies. We need to seek out help from others. We need to learn to thrive in the storm of the challenge embracing setbacks on our way to learning. Navigating this storm is complex. A young player may display a growth mind set but suddenly a “trigger” can propel him/her back to a fixed mind set. This also applies to the coach.

I must ask myself how good am I at understanding these triggers and recognising a fixed mind-set reaction?

Dweck outlined a few common reactions to these triggers.

  1. Anxiety in the face of new challenges
  2. Negative voice in head
  3. Looking for excuses
  4. Defensive to criticism instead of showing an interest in learning
  5. Envious and threatened by others when looking at their performance

Any of these sound familiar?

Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them” Carol Dweck

The process of helping our young players to learn to be learners is a complex one. In the training environment I want young players to become attuned to key sources of information so that they can become adaptable and creative and transfer this to the competitive game. Equally as important, as a coach I also need to be attuned to key sources of information in and around the young learner’s social environment how it is influencing them and what signals they are sending us.

Part of the art of coaching and designing a learning space is very much down to understanding these triggers that can constrain learning. When we feel development is being hindered or has stalled then we need to identify why this has happened so that we know what constraints are impinging on the learning process.

These constraints may change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Many of these “boundaries” that can influence performance, participation and personal development emphasise the individual nature of development over time. For example, changes in structural constraints caused by growth can be a delicate and sensitive time influencing the overall psychological state. Growth can be fast and disruptive where specific parts, tissues and organs have different growth rates. Just as important, Dr Martin Toms points out that there tends to be a focus upon the biological and psychological yet “underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up”. What are the “triggers” that can emerge from there?

All this implies that the young learner may only be receptive to change (learning) at specific periods of development. How we respond to this is critical.

I see a reference to these triggers in a previous blog, Talent: A challenging concept that more than ever requires a more humanistic approach to support its emergence. Al Smith from my fastest mile identified a big problem associated with the label “talent” in children’s sport. Simply the weight of expectation that comes with that word, particularly for the parent more than the child. This weight may trigger an unhealthy reaction from the young player.

“Everyone thinks only of themselves, they think only of themselves as a way to cope in their incredibly tough competitive situation. We must have a regular dialogue with these children. It is very important in their early years that through warm relationships they experience love and kindness” Tommi Hämäläinen (Talent development at Finnish Ice Hockey club HIFK)

These triggers are “rate limiters” and identifying them is key. We need to adapt to our learners needs and also understand them better as people.

” From other discussions with coaches, I get the feeling that praise is easy to give but in most cases lacks the connection to learning and as a result the athlete misses out on information relevant to learning AND effort and how these two are related”. Kristoffer Berg (Swedish Fkoorball Association/

“poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”. Praise them like you should.

Talent: A challenging concept that more than ever requires a more humanistic approach to support its emergence.

Talent: A challenging concept that more than ever requires a more humanistic approach to support its emergence.

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Al Smith from My Fastest Mile sees talent as the potential to be something- “it is something that has yet to be expressed”. Recently there has been a lot of criticism of the fact that many refer to small children as talent

Al, who himself has worked with many elite athletes wonders how children can be as good as possible when they reach adulthood. He sees the present view around the child in sport, talent and the expectations that come with this as a big problem.” The label talent creates expectations particularly for the parent more than the child. Often the child is being driven to sport because the parent has so much expectation of success and that it could change life for the child and the family. The more money that is in sport the more sport seems to be reaching down to children saying you are a footballer, a cricket player, you are a rugby player. That is wrong, you don’t know what that child is going to be. The best way for them to be a successful footballer as an adult is to not specialise in one sport when they are young but to have a diverse experience. All the evidence we have in many different domains is that you are more likely to be successful if you have a very rich learning environment as a young person with different experiences in different sports and outside of sport and YOU LEARN T BE A LEARNER and be adaptable and be creative. The more competitive sport becomes, the more creative and adaptable you must be”.

Al struggles with the thought of young people been asked to put everything in to one box and the parents asked to support this because they are told that this is what your child will be! A very low percentage become elite athletes. Most that enter this system fall out of it and we hear very little about them. As discussed in the interview with Per Göran Fahlström “one cannot shape and form children’s sports around small numbers and say that this is what sport is all about”.

Tommi Hämäläinen works with talent development at Finnish Ice Hockey club HIFK. He believes that every coach has the duty to develop the individual. We are working with many different individuals and you must treat them as individuals. “You cannot have just one concept that you learnt a long time ago. You cannot have a concept primarily based on how you were taught. Children today are not the same as children were before”.

Echoing Peter Grays superb essay “The Play Deficit“, it is Hämäläinen’s personal opinion that many children involved in these early elite competitive environments are lacking in empathy. “Everyone thinks only of themselves, they think only of themselves as a way to cope in their incredibly tough competitive situation. We must have a regular dialogue with these children. It is very important in their early years that through warm relationships they experience love and kindness”. Adults are always in a hurry somewhere, keeping schedules, they don’t get a chance to spend so much time with their children.

“Children and young people who devote themselves heart and soul to football deserves responsible and knowledgeable leaders- We have high goals. A children’s rights perspective and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are the basis for the wording in our curriculum” Urban Hammer (Head of Coach Education at the Swedish FA)

Hämäläinen’s ambitions resonate with those expressed by Urban Hammar at the Swedish FA. Teachers, leaders and coaches must be educated from a more humanistic perspective and we need to apply this in our behaviour in and around children. It is after all an adult structured competitive system that we have been mainly using on children. The result orientated climate has its roots in a lack of understanding and especially lack of knowledge on the side of parents who chauffer their children to every training and game often over very long distances. “Through try-outs and early selection programs many friends are lost on the way when the clubs are so competitively structured and oriented. This has a great impact on children. It creates a culture of self at a very early age and in the long run may have a negative effect of the type of person they become on entering society as an adult”. Do we want a society where everyone just competes and is obsessed with results? There is nothing at all wrong with children competing but the “spirit” of child sport loses its meaning when we adults place our adult emphasis on results. So again we ask – Why are we talking about winning and losing when we should be talking about learning?

When we examine the many interviews and research work done here at Footblogball we see that many governing bodies (see IOC Statement), clubs and individuals are reflecting on this and we are beginning to understand that this is an experiment that is going horribly wrong.

The learning process of children in sport and the environment where it takes place- What does it look like?

“we should look at the evidence where most of it suggests that the environment should be free and self-organised, one that offers the opportunity to explore with a limited involvement from adults constraining how the learning takes place. The role of a coach is to shape the space for learning but let the learner engage with the opportunity to explore and discover. I am a very strong proponent of discovery learning that often gets misinterpreted as hands off coaching where the coach isn’t doing anything. Actually the coach has spent all the time before shaping the learning environment, building in the challenge and all the affordances that allow someone to explore and discover how to improve. Then afterwards the coach is helping the learner to reflect on what they have learned and anchor it to new experiences. So the job of coaching happens before and after and during the learning experience the coach should be in the background and maybe just gently shaping things once they see what is emerging. But so many coaches see their role as being in your face telling you what to do and that is not coaching for me”- Al Smith

As coaches we need to believe in our young players not just as athletes but as people. As Dr Martin Toms says: The best youth sport coaches are “Chameleons” who can adapt themselves to the coaching environment & the needs of ALL the kids they coach. This requires a more humanistic approach. This will provide us and them with the tools for future success. The linear assumption that a good player at 8 makes a good player at 20 is a big problem in many early specialised environments. A lot of things happen in between. If we have a wider base in the beginning one that embraces diversity and awakens a passion for sport and we underpin this with a more humanistic approach then maybe we can achieve the aim of as many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible.

And talent, well that is a by-product of all this, a challenging concept that more than ever requires a more humanistic approach to support its emergence.

On The Footblogball Stereo



Per Göran Fahlström – One cannot shape and form children’s sports around small numbers and say that this is what the sport is all about

Our ability to look at sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact with and shape development can go a long way to explaining participation and performance of our young learners/players. What are you looking at (performance criteria-maturity, awareness, strength speed, skill, decision making, passion, desire, communication)- Who are you looking at (what do you know about these young people, their background, socio-economic, socio-cultural situation?) – Where is this taking place (context, environment) – Why are you here (why are you coaching children)? These are all relevant questions that we coaches should ask ourselves as we engage with the young learner.


Per Göran Fahlström is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sports Science at Linneuniversitetet Sweden. His areas of interest are coaching, leadership, creating learning environments and talent development.  He has published many articles on these topics. His research work with various National Governing Bodies is proving to be very influential with regard to the philosophy, construction and organisation of the future of Youth sports in Sweden.

Footblogball: I see learning as an ongoing process of adaption. This of course requires great patience and support. Many early environments support only those that can adapt at that point of time in their development thus disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt. Surely there is a risk that those who have better potential to succeed in the long run could well be lost to us forever. Despite evidence to the contrary why are we earlier than ever pushing children in to the “zero sum game” that is early talent identification?

PG Fahlström: One can say that there is an international “talent arms race” in operation. Countries, federations and clubs feel the need to demonstrate their excellence through good sporting results. This may mean that after a championship or tournament a Governing Body may think that “others” are performing better- “we have to win more medals, why can’t we beat Norway in skiing?” etc. That is one explanation. The second is that many adults think that today there is too much “curling” in childrens sport and that you have to start early to succeed. The third point is a belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve succeed. There is no actual evidence supporting a 10,000 hours model, but it is frequently referred to. This implies that we must begin accumulating those hours from an early age. In this way, it is believed that early specialization provides greater opportunities for elite success. These three factors together mean that when researchers/scientists enter the debate and argue that children should not specialise early, we are met with comments such as “there is too much curling” and “you have to make demands”. They say that children want and need to learn things. But I think they are confusing the desire to learn with the desire to invest and to compete at elite level. Children want to learn – but not all children want to compete. They might want to be as good as possible, but not necessarily compete to see if they can be better than others. I would like to point out that there is no evidence supporting the notion that you will be a better performer as an adult by winning competitions when you are a child.

Footblogball: Early talent identification is but a snapshot without a focus, a picture viewed through a subjective adult lens that more than often does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development.  Should National Governing Bodies ensure that a greater importance of promoting an understanding of these complexities is introduced as early as possible in the coach education curriculum/pathway?

PG Fahlström: Yes. All children that play soccer are not, and should not be considered aspiring soccer stars. They are kids who play football – and perhaps also tennis, hockey, etc. Some of them will want to continue to play football and a very small number of them will eventually become elite players. It’s a very small proportion of active children who will become competitive athletes or even professional athletes. One cannot shape and form children’s sports around this small number and say that this is what the sport is all about. Therefore, engagement is more important than early selection and elite investment. If you have a good organisation then some will want to continue and try to become elite athletes anyway. It is less efficient to select early and to only place resources on those who are “best” in the early years.

Footblogball: But there here seems to be a need to standardise everything (talent id and training environment) where every step in the development pathway is prescribed.

PG Fahlström: All talent and selection systems are inclusive and exclusive. If you say that training should be a certain way, perform at a certain level, perform certain things, etc. it will fit / favour certain participants and exclude others. It will include those who fit in to the model and exclude those that develop at a different rate than the model “provides for”. This can be said of all talent systems. They will select those that fit into the model. These models are not flexible (see survival of the fittest or survival of talent) so they cannot meet the needs of different individuals with different development trajectories. Those who develop at a different pace, those who have other characteristics (such as a short high jumper, a long and “gangly” footballer) are liable to be removed because they do not fit into the standardised template. Some of them “survive” but the vast majority will be left outside the system because they are not considered talented or interesting enough to develop. Instead of developing models for the development of (unique) individuals we miss those who have great development potential and only see those that fit into the model. Research shows that the road to success is very different. Therefore, a good talent system needs to be flexible and support the various pathways to the elite level. This creates quite different demands on coaches and organisations. Coaches, managers, clubs and organisations need to be much better at meeting the needs of various individuals who want to get involved in sport. This is will of course also change over time. The type of sport that we experienced and loved as children does not necessarily fit in with children’s sport today. It does not mean that today’s children are lazy. The world is a lot different now than it was in our youth. Children these days live much different lives with different expectations. Sport must adapt to this.

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

 Footblogball: It can be argued that traditionally we have been having a one way conversation with our young learners. Many traditional coaching environments that involve young children are based on measurement, control and ranking yet characteristics of positive learning environments are safe to fail, variability, autonomy, fun and problem solving. Skateboard parks are a perfect example of this. In my opinion we as coaches, researchers and learners have much to learn from this. The environment offers information as to “WHAT” the possibilities for action are but the concept of “HOW”, the young learners/players themselves fill with life. Could understanding this concept help us create a more child centred learning space within our coaching environment?

PG Fahlström: I believe that learning and the learning process should be built around the child’s own motivation. It may sound naïve but I think that everything we like doing is essentially built on desire, that we think it is fun regardless of whether it is playing the guitar, listening to music, going for a walk or playing a sport. This desire/motivation should be built on way more than meeting a standard requirement of doing things correctly. Training should build on this desire to test, experiment, mimic and develop. I often refer to this “skateboard-metaphor” where young skateboarders develop advanced skills without a coach or an adult steering the practice and without the government funding that many of our sporting organisations benefit from. They observe, mimic, test, experiment and learn from each other. This is all driven by high motivation and focus. Nobody needs to take a roll-call or lead the practice session. This is the type of desire that you can build on and develop in sport. This should be the basis for the design of children’s sport and even actually adult sports.

Footblogball: As a district coach educator here in Stockholm I always ask the participants to use the time we are together as a forum for discussion and debate, to challenge each other, to challenge themselves and to challenge me. Our aims should be that over time through critical thinking and analysis that we will be able to develop future discussions from a position of informed opinion and therefore influence our clubs and Governing Bodies in relation to how the future of youth athlete development should be formed. With this in mind I would like to quote world renowned Swedish Master chef Magnus Nilsson. “Anyone can learn to duplicate a technique, but that’s not creative expression. What’s interesting is true development. It’s not something that happens over, like, a couple of weeks or a year. To create true understanding of produce and technique, it’s a long process. Most chefs don’t even think about that as the chef’s job, and that’s not very constructive. It’s actually very lazy. “It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. Like what is is there and why? And if it doesn’t make sense, how can it be transformed to become greater.”  Comment?

PG Fahlström: It is difficult this with “experience”. On the one hand, one should learn from their experiences. We can and should learn from our own and others’ mistakes. But there are also risks with experience. You think have learned how things are but really you have not tested other options. There is a saying that says, “people think that they have 25 years of experience but really it has been 1 year of experience repeated 25 times.” This we see a lot in sports, you do what you have always done. This of course gives one sense of security in knowing how to do things. There are coaches who have their coaching and leadership model, they have their coaching folder and use this in all the clubs they work with. When they have gone through their “coaching folder” in one club they change to another club.

There is a paradox, the more pressure and competition that coaches feel the more cautious and conservative they become. There is a saying that “invention is the mother of necessity” but often it is the opposite. Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different they do what all the others do. Then they feel that they cannot be wrong. The Swedish words for security and inertia (trygghet och tröghet) sound very alike and what is reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change. This is often reinforced by players who become coaches and coaches who become managers. So it is often people with the same experiences that control operations in our football clubs. If you have not played yourself or won anything as a coach then you don’t get a piece of the action. These coaches, often without any formal education use knowledge based on how it was when they played, what they thought was good rather than developing an understanding that in a training environment it is not the coach who “learns-out” different elements but it is the players that “learn-in”. The coach’s task is to create a learning environment that suits the different individuals who are training. They cannot just repeat what they remember from when they themselves were young. They should create an environment where children want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the kids much more than the coach can teach (learn-out).  Creating a training environment where participants learn from each other. That is the trainer’s pedagogical role.

It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. What feels reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change.

On the Footblogball stereo






Soccer in Siam

A meter high brick wall separates the sand of Klong Dao beach from the humid clay soil of an unkept fisherman’s graveyard. On the beach retired or semi-retired Northern European tourists wander in nomadic bliss. Tourist children play in the sand while others are swimming. Those not yet able to swim, under the watchful eye of their parents, are running knee deep in the water, franticly retreating to the shoreline when an oncoming wave looks like it could upend and dampen their giddy spirits. Amused local fishermen attending to their boats look on.  High season is about to hit the island of Koh Lanta. Everyday more and more Scandinavians arrive. They leave their modern safe European homes escaping the cold dark winter to refill their “vitamin D” reserves in Thailand’s warm and friendly embrace.


A familiar sound draws my attention to the fisherman’s graveyard. I peak though a gap in the bamboo wall that divides the graveyard and a modern tourist complex. In an old pavilion young Thai children are playing soccer.  All the kids, some wearing fake replica football shirts are playing barefoot. This small 15 x 15 meters area with the added constraints of an uneven surface, old fishing nets and pots plus a broken sofa is hosting a highly competitive game.  The ball rarely leaves the pavilion in to the deep surrounding undergrowth. My conservative tourist brain kicks in as I recall the previous night’s incident when a two and a half meter cobra was found wandering just outside the door to our apartment. Perhaps that is why the ball rarely leaves the pavilion in to the dense green undergrowth? Two young Scandinavian kids approach me. They are very inquisitive and are wondering why I am peering through a gap in the bamboo wall. They have a look, shrug their shoulders and move on. The previous day I had encountered one of them just outside our apartment dressed head to toe in prime English Premier League regalia. He was a little bit disappointed that there was no astro-turf pitch nearby where he and his friends could play.  

My Daughter Millie approached me as I was taking some photos using a smart phone.  Mama (Kristina) and our other two children Pep and Sam are waiting for me to join them for lunch. After lunch I return in an attempt to get some better photographs but the young Thai kids are not there. The pavilion is deserted. I walk a few meters to the beach and there they are!  Goalposts have been expertly fashioned by dismantling and rebuilding old fishing nets and pots.  A 3v3 game is in flow except for a brief moment when a local fisherman joins in. It is then that I understand why they had earlier been playing in the graveyard pavilion. They were waiting for the tide to go out so that their playing field would return.


A happy new year to you all and many thanks for the support ,encouragement and kind messages during 2015. We will raise the bar in 2016!

On the FOOTBLOGBALL stereo

Johan Fallby-As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible

“I am often surprised when I compare child and youth environments and see the stress that occurs there, with the real elite environments of adult sport. I myself have been involved in preparations for European Championship and World Cup games in table tennis and soccer with both the senior and junior national teams and with club teams. Unfortunately there is way more stress evident in child and youth sport” (Johan Fallby Footblogball interview December 2015)


Johan Fallby is Sport Psychologist at premier Danish soccer club F.C. Copenhagen. ( He is an ex professional table tennis player, representing Sweden at youth, junior and senior level. Johan is also the author of five books, two of which have proved to be a big influence on my learning process and coaching journey. Se på spelet (See the play) co-written with Andreas Alm and published in 2011 is about game intelligence in football and  Spelarutveckling- Ett helhetsperspektiv (Player development- A holistic perspective) was published in 2004. Both books are included on the Swedish FA Coach education courses.

His new book ”Gör det bättre själv om du kan” (Do it better yourself if you can) has just been published.


According to the IOC consensus statement (see here) the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centrred. It seems that there is much within our adult organised competitive systems that no longer meet the physical and emotional needs of the child in sport. What is required here (and is missing from many discussions on youth sport) is the education of adults with regard to the child in sport. Johan Fallbys new book “Gör det bättre själv om du kan” (Do it better yourself if you can) reaches deep into the heart of these discussions. Aimed mainly at parents the book is also a great reference point for coaches, clubs and governing bodies. While putting to bed a few myths, Fallby discusses the nuances and complexities of youth development in sport, the factors that impinge on this development and how parents can become more informed so that they can understand and deal with these complexities.

Johan Fallby: Thank you for inviting me to be part of your blog. First I want to make it clear where I stand in relation to the purpose of this book. For me the emergence of many high quality elite athletes from Sweden is of great importance. If we are to achieve this I hope that I can contribute by helping to develop the level of competence within our sporting organisations. This is one of the key factors in relation to the process of continually developing elite performers. In this process the role of parents and coaches are of extreme importance. So the book is a guide in how to strengthen competence in clubs and sporting organisations by clarifying the role of parents and providing the tools to help clubs and organisations move in a positive direction. For we know that the coach and the parent are often the same person in both child and youth sports.

I have also created a Facebook page called “idrottsföräldrar” (sports-parents) that I hope will help spread ideas, thoughts and knowledge to sports of all levels in Sweden. I hope to reach out to associations, governing bodies, coaches, leaders, parents. If we are many it will be easier to spread the information and ideas.

It is also important to me that both science and my practical and personal experience can stand up well to the motto “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible”. With regard to soccer even during the early teenage years, we cannot predict who is going to be the best. Many things start to happen and it is not until after 20 years of age do we find out who has survived the journey to elite level. That is ten years, plus the glorious years of child football!

For this reason, I can see with very good support from both practical experience and science that early specialisation is not the most effective way to reach the elite level. It is a fairly complex discussion. At the same time I want to emphasise that it actually requires a large amount of playful sporting activities, different types of training at different ages and competitive experience in order to become proficient. What the book brings up is how we can do this because the likelihood of an elite career, or a child growing up developing good exercise behavior and habits should be as high as possible.

The debate around the child in sport has many different opinions. However, I stand firm in my approach, both practically and scientifically. For me it is important that it is easy in practice to take in the knowledge that will help us to develop sensible and reasonable sporting environments. That’s the goal!

Finally, I would also point out that discussions dealing with precisely these issues often become emotionally charged, negative and problem focused. However we should always remember that there are many clubs, coaches, managers and parents out there who are incredibly talented. With this book and the Facebook page I hope to give them more room to provide input and the possibility to influence the debate.

Footblogball: On first read what I am getting from this book is that you are giving us tools to help create a culture of trust within the child’s organised sports environment. If we (child, parent, coach, club) can trust each other in terms of a common purpose then many possibilities open up. Would you agree?

Johan Fallby: Absolutely! It is about creating an environment that consists of cooperation and trust. If all the people around the child send the same message, it is easier for the child to sort out and interpret. Within this cooperation there should also be opportunities for the child to take their own initiative, their own responsibility and pursue their own development. This means that the role of both coach and parent can differ from the traditional one that many expect from a sporting environment. I want to see the coaches, leaders, parents and children / athletes work together by creating a network that pulls in the same direction. In this way, children will be challenged at the right level and the opportunities to develop them into elite athletes in adulthood will increase. A positive experience in the early sporting environment also increases the possibility of the development of healthy exercise habits and behaviours for life. So there is no contradiction at play if the sports environment is based on sound principles of what children and young people are about. Unfortunately we often see child sport environments based on other principles  and these are rarely examined or analysed properly from either a talent development perspective or a from a public health perspective.

“Be strong and work to eliminate this culture and ignorance from your club. Be curious and find out more about how a sports environment should look like for your child”.

Footblogball: The biopsychosocial differences between children as they grow have a major influence on their readiness to learn and develop. Development is very delicate and sensitive in the sense of how vulnerable and fragile performance, confidence and self-image can be for the growing and developing young learner. Let’s not forget that this all takes place in what is fast becoming an increasingly prestigious area of sport. Children do not develop in a linear fashion-we need to SUPPORT this. How would you suggest that a parent supports and communicates with the child with regard to this?

Johan Fallby: You should make it as easy and as practical as possible. There are five points that I consider to be crucial for parents in relation to children’s sport and development.

  1. It has been shown that the importance of parents as to how children in general come into contact with sports is relatively large. Therefore parents should ensure that their child comes in contact with a sporting environment that is also actively a playful one so that the child gets to experience how much fun it is to use their body through various physical activities.
  2. Once they are in contact with the sport, I think it is important that they are involved in creating a pleasant and positive environment along with the other parents. Make contact and create a network around the kids. If kids see that their parents feel comfortable in the environment this will increase their sense of security and in all likelihood help spread a feeling of joy. When the child is gripped by the sport and think it is fun you can start placing reasonable demands on the child.
  3. So the third point is that the child should be encouraged to always try to do their best (in relation to their age, maturity etc). For example, to “fight” well and fairly, try new things and experiment while playing the sport. Listening to the coach and collaborating with teammates are also an important part of the sport and their development. Sometimes it may be appropriate to tell the child to go to training even though they feel a bit tired. Depending on the age it can also be about getting them to pack their own bag for training, get them to learn to take responsibility.

I would like to point out that the “demands” I refer to are not about being better than others, making the most goals or winning, nor is it that the child should practice constant, or exercise more than others.

  1. I would like to stress that there should not be a focus on results. In fact the opposite. For the purpose of developmental it is best if parents do not engage in comparing their child with others. Each child has their own individual development curve and the most important thing is that as early as possible we help create a climate that can develop the child’s self-determination and motivation.
  2. The fifth point is about observing the club that the child is in. If it’s an unhealthy environment should you as parents try to influence the environment in a better direction or just leave the environment? It may, in serious cases involve physical or mental abuse but more than often it is down to bad leadership where the environment may be built on early specialisation or exclusion policies. Parents should avoid being caught up in the frenzy. There is very little to suggest that it would be of benefit to your child. Be strong and work to eliminate this culture and ignorance from your club. Be curious and find out more about how a sports environment should look like for your child.

Remarkably often I think parents who have themselves been really good (now I’m talking about the finest elite athletes in sport) understand that they should take it easy and support their child in a relaxed sensible and correct manner. It is probably because they themselves often experienced their parents in a similar way.

Footblogball: If we consider what for me are two very important themes in the book. The creation of a Motivational climate and the social integration of systems, the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sporting organisations, governing bodies, communities, cultures).How they interact and shape development should not be underestimated. The young player’s development process does not happen in a vacuum.      

How can parents play a role in these domains to aid the child’s development of pro social behaviors (kind, generous, tolerant) and pro- learning attitudes (resilient, collaborative, creative)?

Johan Fallby: This question I think is related to the previous one. The basis of everything is for me to create a climate of self-determination and motivation in coordination with a good network around the sport. It will, together with the coaches and leaders create a positive environment and guide the child so that it will find its place in the sports environment and reinforce positive behaviors. Combined with a focus on performance it means that the environment is relaxed, safe and inspiring. This is also how good behaviours get strengthened. People thrive in these environments. This is how “easy” it is!

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

In this case, I also hope that parents can help by creating an environment based on these principles. Get involved and influence the club to work with more modern methods if they discover that the system is still based on the negative aspects of early specialisation or exclusion. This is not an effective system. This is actually what the book is about in a practical way. It is important that somewhere science meets practice and that it will be helpful when transferred on to the pitch.

Footblogball: Can you please comment on the following quotes with reference to you book

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

Johan Fallby: Agree with this. It is above all ignorance in several areas which allow for many environments to work with methods that are not effective. People in all environments confuse growing children and youth sport with professional adult sport. It should be remembered that it takes tremendous effort to become an elite athlete. This should be respected, you do not rush it. Those who work long-term and are persistent increase their opportunities.

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

Johan Fallby: Children will always be influenced by what they see around them. How parents and coaches act is interpreted by kids as how things actually are. When adults don’t understand what is best, how can we expect the kids to understand? We will always get a response from children based on what we ourselves have taught them through our behaviour and actions.

I find it interesting that the problem stems from the so-called “social desirability”. Parents and coaches may say that they do not incite and stress, but in their behaviour you can see it clearly. They cannot understand this because of what has become the social norm. Similarly, the children always defend their parents and often their coaches as they are conditioned in to this system. Children will never stand up and say that enough is enough with regard to early specialisation. They do not even know what it means. Therefore, we need adults to take responsibility to promote a healthy sports environment. And of course we should not be too concerned that by doing this, elite athletes will emerge and go on to take World Championship Gold in the future.

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

Johan Fallby: It is often the less instantly recognisable environment that is best. If I remember correctly, Richard Bailey has also said that of all the “talent environments” that he has researched or read research on, that not one meets the criteria suggested by practical and scientific research today. There is simply a lack of knowledge. This is also my experience. The environment that beats its chest claiming to be a “talent factory” is usually a high risk environment. As they say, empty barrels make the most noise.

As a parent, I would be careful with regard to what environment I place my child in to. If your child wants to go far in their sport, they will spend many hours in training and competition. Therefore, I would put my child in the environment that truthfully, ethically and morally provides the best opportunities for development. That’s like choosing schools today. Do you want to choose a school where teachers have a lack of knowledge use old pedagogical methods and exclude children who at that moment in their development perform below average? Or, do you feel better about choosing a school that uses scientific evidence and best practice, educated teachers, and individual teaching plans? The answer is evident to me.  That is the choice you can make for your child.

The book is at present only available in Swedish. There are plans for an English version.



Releasing responsibility to the young players for them to become more self-sufficient learners

This is part-three in a series of blogs that I will publish on the theme of helping someone become their own learner. You can read part one here and part two here .

I continue to eavesdropped on some fascinating stories and exchanged learning experiences with many great people as I go “Ag Bothantaiocht”.

This is a session I designed at the end of the season and certainly one I really look forward to working with in more depth next year. I present the game here in the 8v8 format but I have also applied the same/similar constraints to a 5v5 and 6v6 game.

Game to develop collective defensive tactical organisation and recognition of pressing triggers

Session performed with 13/14+ over a period of one month


8v8 game with 3 zones

Maximum 3 touches

Red Zone 1: Blues cannot tackle. They can only intercept a pass. (They should focus on influencing direction of play)

Red Zone 2: Blues can only try to win the ball if

  1. A red player receives the ball with his back to the goal that he/she is attacking
  2. A red player is in possession facing the side-line
  3. A red player stops when in possession
  4. Intercept a pass

Red Zone 3: Blues can tackle

Same applies for red team when blues are in possession

My personal observations: One of the aims of this game was to get players used to the idea of recognising pressing triggers in the middle zone (player facing side-line, receiving the ball on the wrong foot, receiving the ball facing their own goal, stopping while in possession). After playing this game a few times over a few sessions the learning took an interesting evolution, one that I had not entirely anticipated. I noticed that the defending team began to self-organise and influence their opponent’s behaviour by forcing the “pressing triggers” to happen.

Evolution of session/learning

  1. Identify pressing triggers
  2. Influence the behaviour of the opponent to create the pressing triggers
  3. Connect the constraints of the session back to the purpose you applied them for by removing the rules and go into free play. For the coach, the real challenging part- Observe and make notes!

Releasing responsibility to the young players for them to become more self-sufficient learners

With the aim of helping our young players to become their own learner we ask ourselves what learning opportunities are on offer in our training environment? What conditions do we create that embrace the adaptive capacity of our young learners? How do we help our players to become perceptually attuned to the dynamics of the game?

We take responsibility for WHAT but the concept of HOW the players must themselves fill with life




Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?


When vigorously promoted competition prematurely intrudes on play, it diverts the attention of the children from their still growing bodies. It robs them of the space they need to explore their strengths, their weaknesses, their endurance, their agility, their -capacity to think in movement in the immediacy of the moment, their kinetic ingenuity, and so on. It catapults them beyond their years and their abilities, deflecting them from testing their possibilities and recognising their limitations in relatively risk-free ways. It shunts their attention from the care and survival of others in concert with their own to a quest for dominance over others. It focuses attention on something altogether different, winning. (The Roots of Morality- Maxine Sheets-Johnstone)

It is an ongoing debate within many governing bodies at the moment. The competitive environment that our young children find themselves in when they get involved in organised sport is being forensically examined and laid bare for all who want to see. It is being laid bare for a reason- It seems that there is much within these adult organised competitive systems that no longer meet the needs of the child in sport.

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. According to the IOC the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. (You can read my analysis of the IOC consensus statement here)

The Swedish Football Association has this week taken the decision to no longer have series/cup winners in competitions for teams with players up to 12 years, a decision that will take effect from 1 January 2017. There has been some interesting fall out and discussions from this decision. As the debate escalates I ask the question:

Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?

I guess the biggest job of work is to help people to understand and get comfortable with the ultimate coaching paradox: the more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win. . (Al Smith-

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”- even better imagine if winning or losing were both considered equally important learning opportunities.The facilitation of learning in our young players training and competitive environment should be our priority. Perhaps then winning and losing can be understood within the context of the child in sport so that it can be dealt with and experienced appropriately. This of course in many cases means an adjustment to the adult mind-set.

“It is the societal expectation through professional sport that has screwed up the focus of learning and development of children in sport”- Lynn Kidman

What is required here (and seems to be absent from the “fall-out” debate) is the education of adults with regard to the child in sport. Kids should compete, compete a lot but compete in their way. We need to place their physical and emotional needs first. This is echoed by Urban Hammar (Head of Coach Education at the Swedish FA) when speaking about the Swedish FA’s new coach education plan. “Children and young people who devote themselves heart and soul to football deserves responsible and knowledgeable leaders- We have high goals. A children’s rights perspective and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are the basis for the wording in our curriculum”

Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?