Those of you who are frequent readers of this blog will know that the pedagogical framework I propose endorses the importance of a continuous, intertwined relationship between decision-making and action, perception and cognition in football (e.g. Davids, Araújo, Vilar, et al. 2013). This is of course in conflict with the seductive computer metaphor of Information Processing (IP) which has framed ideas of decision making in skilled performance for many years. A typical example of IP would be a linear sequential model which would include:
Input- Decision making – Execution of decision
It can be argued that this separation of decision making and execution of decision is a dualism. Information Processing approaches work well for simple behaviours but fail to explain the issue of complexity where both the biological system itself and the environment it finds itself in are complex (Clark, Jane; 1995). Basically, IP fails to account for understanding IN the game (as opposed to just OF the game).
Taking this in to consideration it implies that coaches need to design a learning space to interact with learners and facilitate interactions (football interactions) between them and it is through these football interactions that coaches should become better informed how to design in future opportunities for interactions (Correia et al; 2018). This approach places great demands on the coach.
Relevant to this, is a recent discussion with Todd Beane on The Coaching Journey Podcast (see here for link). This podcast will provide listeners with some valuable insights into dominant flawed training paradigms, coaching myths (you can’t play until you learn the technique first) that fuel a cultural inertia in child youth football making it easier to persevere with and fall back on embedded habits and beliefs. This seemingly has a constraining grip on some coach education curriculums and even coach and parent understanding as to what learning is and what it can look like. Programs and ideologies based on the latest World Cup success story are also discussed. These are often turned in to commercial ventures and sold under the banner ‘this is what they do here, look at their success, you need to also do this’. All this while not taking in to consideration the socio-cultural and historical constraints that has influenced player development in that country. The idea that we can then drop a model from one country in to the coaching culture of another country and expect success is a highly flawed (yet profitable for some) approach.
An underpinning theoretical framework
This conversation, for me accentuated the importance of something that we are actively working with at AIK youth football. Player development pathways, coach education programs and session designs that are underpinned by research and experiential knowledge can help clubs and governing bodies to implement, more flexible structural mechanisms, become more aware of trends and commercial ventures that capture popular opinion (Moreau, Macnamara, & Hambrick; 2018) and provide coaches with principles to guide their practice.
The area of overlap is the space that we should inhabit to inform how we design a learning space – Hopefully over time this space gets bigger.
Ecological dynamics (ED) informs a Constraints Led Approach (CLA) and is a powerful theoretical framework that can help us to understand that expertise and therefore learning can be best explained and conceptualized through how a number of interacting constraints— individual (e.g., height, weight, body composition, motivation, emotions, anxiety, self-confidence, fatigue), task (e.g., the goal of the task, rules that implemented, coaching styles and methodology) and environmental (e.g., temperature, light, altitude, facilities, social values, peer groups and societal expectations)—interact over time at different timescales to shape behaviour. From this we can argue that the attributes and skills that are appreciated in young players are culturally embedded in pedagogical approaches, organisational settings and structural mechanisms founded upon specific socio-cultural, economic and historical constraints (Rothwell, Davids and Stone; 2018) in which development in child-youth sport occurs Why does a player succeed in one environment yet fail to perform in another? Why are some players having difficulty adapting to the environment and why are some succeeding? Does your culture have an early selection/ talent identification bias towards bigger, faster stronger? This perspective from the point of view of training design proposes that understanding individual performance requires an appreciation of the types of behaviours that a performer’s environment affords (Gibson, 1979).
Approaches to Practice Design
Traditional pedagogical approaches (that you find in many coach education courses) are underpinned by a culturally dominant planning paradigm. Essentially a rule based planning process, where the coach is taught to decide beforehand the specific theme, instructions, time length and sequence of each section of the session, the space, rules and conditions. To borrow from John Kiely (2012), a culturally pervasive planning heritage that seeks to control future outcomes (ex only coaching attack and not coaching defence to improve the attack- co-adaptability) through the decomposition of the overall process to a series of distinctly focused sequential units arranged in a predetermined order.
A more learner-environment centred approach as advocated in a Nonlinear Pedagogy embraces the idea of session design planning being underpinned by principles of play and allowing for a more emergent, adaptive and individualised approach. Emergent behaviours can be observed and worked on if the session is defined by principles of play. This notion of being more flexible and adaptive as a coach towards the planning and monitoring of a session where learning is characterised by effective perception- action coupling, sets great demands on the coach. By underpinning their session design with principles rather strict planning, rules and themes that are dictated from the outset, coaches are inviting the players to take part in the conversation, a dialogue of interactions.
So, while traditional approaches may just place a focus on attacking or defending, a more creative coach may apply the principles of co-adaptability to try and “nudge” the young learners in to constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game. A simple example would be in a session where the coach is working on high pressing the opponent’s full backs, and despite the early success one team solves the situation by pushing full backs up high, splitting the centre backs with a midfielder dropping in between. A creative coach would see this as a great learning opportunity and not over constrain the team in possession by limiting their interactions i.e. forbidding the full backs from pushing up. Instead the coach should challenge the pressing team to solve the situation by co-adapting.
Coach as a Designer
The coach can be viewed as a problem setter and therefore must be careful not to over constrain or under constrain the task. Welsh national team land hockey coach Danny Newcombe asks the question, ‘how much should the coach let the player know about the intention of the session’? Some learning designs may ‘under constrain’ (the game is the teacher) and others may over constrain (limiting touches in football) the young learner’s behaviour. For example, the idea of limiting players to 2 touch in football may lead to the defending team self-organising their behaviour around the rule in a way that is not representative of the game.
A key point is to use game forms in training sessions that “directly talk to the players”. This means that feedback is directly “coming from the game forms”, so that the coach has to give less feedback from the outside by providing instructions that reduce the player’s breadth of attention – Daniel Memmert (Footblogball interview)
Representative Learning Design
Representative design (Brunswik; 1956) is one of the principles that needs to be considered when applying a Nonlinear Pedagogy. Task constraints used in training design should be representative in order to promote learning to improve player and team performance. For example, the rule that everyone must touch the ball before a goal is scored is not a representative task constraint (Correia et al; 2018). In this case, the team in possession are not attuning to the information that will enable them to exploit an imbalance in the opponent’s defence to penetrate and score. Instead both teams are self- organising around a rule that is not promoting effective perception- action coupling.
A key limitation may be the biographies of coaches (and coach educators) who have developed abilities shaped by the landscape of traditional coaching practices and coach education programmes (Renshaw et al; 2018). For instance, if a session is planned (in the traditional sense) around the theme of ‘Overlaps’ it is possible that the coach or coach educator may judge the success of the session solely on the amount of times the player performing the overlap receives the ball. Thus, not considering the fact that a player overlapping can also destabilise the defensive organisation creating gaps for teammates to exploit. This focus on the idea that the overlapping player must receive the ball may well result in the defending team organising its defensive strategies in a way that is not really representative of the performance context but will solve their task under the present constraints. Therefore, the planned design, rules and feedback used in this situation is over constraining. Player interactions are highly constrained and the opportunity to educate the attention of the learner to perceive and utilize relevant information sources is compromised.
Another example worth looking at comes from a UEFA coaching course. The theme is ‘switching the play’. The session design is 7v7 with goalkeepers and two vertical corridors, one on either side of the pitch. The rule is that the team in possession must play the ball from one corridor on one side to the corridor on the other side before they can score a goal. This is another example of over constraining as the defending team may solve this by deciding that when the attacking team has the ball in one corridor they just occupy the other corridor. This brings us back to Danny Newcombe’s point ‘how much should the coach let the players know about the intention of the session’? Is it really necessary to tell the players that the theme of this session design is ‘switching the play’ as this is also giving away the solution! Maybe a better approach would be to constrain the defence. If the ball is in one vertical corridor then no player from the defending team can occupy the opposite corridor. This means that the defending team will interact in a way that is representative of the performance context. It also implies that the affordance to switch the play is offered to the team in possession who can still
utilize relevant information sources as they search for solutions (i.e. exploit gaps, attack centrally/out wide) to penetrate and score as they are no longer over constrained by a rule.
What football interactions does your culture promote or nurture?
What is argued here with regard to session design is that the dichotomy of ‘perception and action’ is non-existent (Gibson; 1979) and that opportunities for perceiving and acting on relevant information sources should be situated within the session design. Therefore, as learning is based on effective perception action couplings, the coach should ‘design in’ opportunities for action (affordances) that are representative of the performance context or aspects of the performance environment.
We also need to consider as pointed out by Reed (1993), that there are also socio-cultural and historical constraints, those actions that a culture promotes or nurtures. These can have also constraining dominance on coach education, practice design and player development. Movement solutions performed as solutions to a problem cannot be separated from the environment in which it takes place then it should be understood as hypothesised by Baily & Pickford (2010) that skills have history. Movement solutions cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point. For instance, a young player’s decision making can be influenced by socio-cultural historical constraints. Years of training dictated by explicitly coached patterns of play from an early age (PlayStation coaching) may lead to players learning to play the pattern as opposed the information. For example, a left back plays the ball in to a crowded central midfield (the practiced pattern) instead of exploiting the affordance of the space offered in front of him/her. Strict game models imposed top down early in a player’s development may in the future lead to players making decisions based on the game model as opposed to the information presented to them in the game.
As with any social phenomenon, sport coaching and player development practices are habituated by wider political and cultural contexts (Day, Carter, and Carpenter, 2013). It has been argued (Redelius, 2013) that culture in a particular club or sports organisation is partly a result of a historical process (path dependency) influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders. In turn this influences the way clubs and governing bodies implement structural mechanisms, how coaches design their training sessions, how young players are taught skills, how coach education and player development is shaped and delivered and how the theory- practice gap evident in child-youth football is dealt with.
Essentially what is proposed here is no silver bullet but a player-environment centred approach underpinned by both empirical and experiential knowledge that always considers player development in the context of the environment (Araújo et al. 2014; Gibson 1986) for – As Many as Possible, As Long as Possible As Good as Possible.
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