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.

Survival of the fittest or survival of talent

The optical illusion that is early talent identification and the selection philosophy of district teams

According to Darwin’s theory of evolution organisms which are better adapted to their environment tend to survive longer. Does the environment we create influence the selection process and favor those that possess attributes that give them a temporary advantage while at the same time disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt?  Adaptive behavior is key to the survival of the human race and specific to soccer, a trait of high quality players. However if the early environment supports only temporary adapting systems ( in this case the young player) then those that are better equipt to adapt in the long run may well be lost to us forever.

Are some systems and structures just counterproductive ideologies that that are in conflict with development (learning & biopsychosocial) and the young player’s natural learning process? We should of course remember that struggle is also part of the learning process. What are we doing to help players overcome those struggles that will appear during their development (non-linear)?

The Standard Model of Talent Identification

( Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259)

In a recent paper, Bailey and Collins introduce one of the most common models used in talent identification, the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD)

This is a pyramid structure that is based on erroneous presumptions.

  1. Development and performance are essentially linear.
  2. Early ability that is identified as talent indicates future ability and performance.

The selection process is done at the cost of the wider group where focus is placed on those who have been identified as talented ( Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259)

Selection: Based on current performance. Identify those as talented as early as possible. Early specialization is deemed necessary to reach elite performance level in the future. Early performance and ability is necessary for success in the future.

De-selection: Hard to return to the system. Questionable selection criteria (often based on early physical characteristics)


District team selection often begins at the age of 13/14 and is part of this pyramid. Its influence is felt years before the actual selection process. I recently spoke with a Swedish U17 youth international who said that this process can create and feed a stressful environment. Over a year before the district team selection, every day at school, at training, on social media each match or training performance was put under the microscope of analysis. “How did you play? How did I play?  As well as being physically tired you would be mentally tired as well”. The player went on to say “I was lucky because I had an external support structure, family and good adult mentors that really helped me, I don’t know how I would have coped otherwise”. Competition, failure and struggle are of course part of the sporting experience. They don’t have to be negative experiences for children. The problems occur when it is all based on adult demands and values. These adult demands and values are appearing earlier and earlier in our sporting structures. The adult and the child, do they have the same motives?

There is no convincing evidence that most sports require an early investment of training in one activity. In fact, what evidence is available suggests that across a number of eventual elite players, early specialization is negatively correlated with eventual success (Gullich, 2011).

In the paper In the paper The Standard Model of Talent Development and Its Discontents (Bailey, R.P; & Collins, D. ) It is suggested that  the apparent success of the SMTD is ultimately an optical illusion as there is no way of knowing who might have succeeded through different systems, and who were de-selected from the system but might have (under different circumstances) gone on to achieve high performance”.

The paper goes on to suggest risks associated with ill-focused of incorrectly administered pyramids.

  1. Early adult like training can lead to over-use injuries. There is a particular high risk associated with intensive training during maturation.
  2. Early intensive training can lead to psychological problems. This can lead to drop out and burnout

Development is non-linear, learning is non-linear. Therefore talent is non-linear

Judging early performance during the formative years does have its problems. This is true especially when judging and identifying something that is non-linear using what is essentially a linear model.

  1. Miss out on identifying other factors that are associated with talent ( soft skills such as decision making, communication, awareness)
  2. Often fails to recognize potential due to a focus on the performance now.
  3. Many pyramid structures based on early talent identification discriminate against those born later in the sporting calendar year.
  4. Size and strength factors that are identified early contribute to a temporary advantage resulting in short term superior performance. This all evens out after maturity. There is a risk that the player has been used for his temporary advantage (to win) and has not actually learned the game. This player will struggle when growth evens out when maturity is attained.
  5. Questionable accuracy with regard to measurement of ability, often affected by gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

Are we judging biological maturation or talent?

Dutch Soccer coach Raymond Verheijen has presented data under the title “Growth spurt study in Dutch Youth Academy soccer”. A 12 year study that included 36 professional clubs was carried out in Holland between the years 1997-2009. An analysis of a data base of over 10,000 players was carried out where factors such as height, weight, injuries and date of birth were taken in to consideration. The general idea was that month of birth should have no influence on talent. At the beginning of the study the Dutch schoolboy national teams were selected from August to July. Most players were born in the period August to October (43%) while only 10% of the players were born May-July. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Relative Age Effect (RAE).

Relative age effect (RAE): A bias that seems to favor a higher participation rate amongst those that are born early in the selection period).

Hancock, Adler, & Cote in a study from 2013 suggested that RAE is more than just a physical advantage. The research suggested that there are also some powerful social influences at play.

  1. Parents (Matthew effect) – The rich get richer. Those who are perceived to have ability are given preferential treatment and extra support. This in turn increases that ability which leads to more support.
  2. Coach (Pygmalion effect) – The higher the expectation placed on people the better is their performance. Those who are perceived to have ability are given more attention. Others feel neglected.
  3. Athletes (Galatea effect) – A player may see that she is able to perform better than her peers. This performance can be due to due to early maturation A players opinion about her ability and his self-expectations about her performance largely determine the performance.

During this study the Dutch FA changed the cut-off date for its national youth teams to the Jan-Dec period. The RAE adjusted accordingly. It seemed that the scouting system was primarily based on how old the player was as opposed to how talented that player is or could be. Countries with small populations have a relatively small player pool. Focusing on winning during the early stages of development just encourages the RAE, in turn making the player pool even smaller. It becomes more about the survival of the fittest as opposed to survival of talent.

The various traits slowly appear and differentiate over time….. infancy, adolescence, and even adulthood will see the latent components undergoing various transformations (Simonton,1999,p442)

In the research paper “Swedish soccer is searching for talent but finding age” Tomas Peterson says why players are chosen in accordance with their physical development is not known “but one may assume that there is a silent agenda dictating that these players will be the most successful in the forthcoming selection steps” from club to district team to national youth team. The material and data collected “indicates that selection on the grounds of physical development is already at work in groups of 5-12 year olds and “ and the effect of this process is very clear when these children reach 13 and enter an even harder selection process. It is Tomas Petersons opinion that this is counter- productive to the development “of all the football talent that exists within every yearly cohort of girls and boys. I also believe that its goes against the goals of both the sports movement and the community in general”.


“Assessment of talent at a single or narrow point in time is a flawed approach”- Mark Upton

Many current methods of focusing on early indicators of talent are very static and linear approaches. They ignore the fact that development is individual and that differences in performance can be explained by differences in maturation. Coaches that judge early talent evaluate and focus on the contemporary level of performance where physical characteristics are fundamental factors in the talent identification process. This brings to the surface three fundamental problems that need to be addressed with early talent ID.

  1. Coaches gamble on the wrong players- (misuse of resources)
  2. Miss out on those with more long term potential
  3. Environment problem (development of a non-inclusive environment. No clear pathway back in to the system)

If we want to keep players viable over what is essentially a long, complex and sensitive development process then the aim should be to keep as many as possible as long as possible active within our sporting organization. What are we doing to help certain players overcome struggles that will appear during their development (non-linear)? What role does the environment play in creating these struggles?  We should remember that failure and struggle is also part of the learning process. Our environment should be a place where these failures and struggles can be met head on and dealt with through patience, encouragement, understanding and support.

Does the environment we create influence the selection process and favor those that possess attributes that give them a temporary advantage while at the same time disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt?