Analysing the Young Learner During Practice

Analysing the Young Learner During Practice

This is a very hard thing to do at youth level as many validate the process through results and form their analysis upon this. In youth soccer even if something is done well it does not guarantee that it will finish up well and as in the example I give below, even if something finishes up well it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was done well. This can cause all sorts of problems when differentiating between performance and learning. It is complex.

This was part of the discussion during a B Youth National Diploma course I was holding in Stockholm recently. We discussed the sequence shown below. Perception action coupling helps our young learners become attuned to the dynamics of the game. As Mark Upton said in a recent blog postenabling young players to explore, we will see the variability so crucial to learning”.

Press 2v2

press 2v2

2v2 (reds versus blue): The focus is on pressing and eventually winning the ball. Here we see that in this context the body shape of the red player as he presses is incorrect when you consider that there is an overlapping blue player (a break down in perception action coupling). The blue player in possession has not seen the overlap and turns inward to two red players (a break down in perception action coupling). Despite the fact that the initial press was incorrect for this situation the reds still won the ball and scored a goal. The performance gave the desired result but what was learned?

I felt that this situation afforded some good learning opportunities for coaches and players. It is important for the coach to be able to differentiate between performance and learning especially if we want to develop together with our young players a long term view on learning, one that promotes retention and facilitates transfer from practice to the game.

What learning opportunities are on offer in our training and coach education environment?

What conditions do we create that embrace the adaptive capacity of our young learners?

And how can we help our coaches to tune in and embrace this?

By helping our players and coaches become perceptually attuned to the dynamics of the game we help them to differentiate between performance and learning

The Polarisation of the Swedish Youth Football and Talent Development Debate


We need to reclaim the topic and discuss how to develop children and therefore the coaches – Calle Vredin, (Head of Youth Development Ulricehamns IFK, Sweden, 2015)

Recently on Swedish TV there was a debate on youth football and talent development.  Stefan Lundin who is head of Swedish Elite Football and well renowned professor and researcher Tomas Peterson went toe to toe. All that they succeeded in doing in my opinion was further polarising the debate.

Tomas Peterson has extensively researched talent development, talent identification and how it is carried out in Sweden. He has received much international attention for his work. He believes that the recent success of the Swedish U21 team (winning the European championships) is the worst thing that could happen for talent development in Sweden. Through his research he has come to the conclusion that a lot of Swedish “talent” is lost in the early selection process and we should place our resources in to keeping as many as possible in the system as long as possible. He accentuates this point by saying that Sweden should not have youth national teams. Stefan Lundin likened this point of view to turning Swedish soccer in to some kind of North Korean state and was very adamant to put forward the point “we work with education” (more on this later).  He further developed his point by saying that “In general all development is about competition (between individuals and teams) and we need to keep up internationally. We need youth national teams as this is also part of their education”.

To compound matters, researchers often do not, or are slow to, translate their findings into clear guidelines for coaches and coach educators (Cushion, C. J.; Jones, R. L. (2001) A systematic observation of professional top-level youth soccer coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior 2001 Vol. 24 No. 4 pp. 354-376)

Somewhere in the middle of this polarised debate many of the usual clichés entered the ring, such as Belgium (without reference to socio-cultural context).  Then the classic (no pun intended) music analogy was rolled out by Stefan Lundin “If you want to be a great soloist with an instrument you cannot begin when you are 16. You must begin early and train/practice”. This caused me to reflect on his earlier “we work with education” statement, one that had filled me with much hope. Now I was thinking what sort of education is he proposing or referring to with this statement? – One that engages our young people or just instructs them? One that provides them with affordances to help them discover and take ownership of the game or one that prescribes a strict curriculum. For me this music analogy is a well-used homage to the 10,000 hour theory that seems to get rolled out every now and then. Part of the baggage that comes with many interpretations of the 10,000 hour theory is early specialisation, less early engagement and more early deliberate practice. This topic is more than adequately analysed and dealt with in Richard Baileys recent article “Is it time to think again about early specialisation in sport?” I urge you to read it.

But let us take this music analogy at face value and respond accordingly. I would like to quote Richard Bailey when faced with this music analogy in relation to talent development in sport.

“The most famous music teaching method in the world is the Suzuki Method. It is based on early exposure to lots of different music, some for years, before focused practice”

Tests and auditions are avoided when a child begins with music as Suzuki believed that teachers who test for musical aptitude before accepting students in to their class are only looking for so called talented students usually children who have already started their music education. The curriculum is designed to present technical problems to be learned in the context of the music rather than through dry technical exercises. Just as every child is expected to learn their native language, Suzuki expected every child to be able to learn to play music well when they were surrounded with a musical environment from infancy.

In an extra chapter recently added to his book The Sports Gene David Epstein makes a reference to a study “Biological Precursors of Musical Excellence”. It was found that teenagers in a competitive music school who were deemed of “exceptional ability” had, prior to gaining entry to the school, sampled instruments and practiced less and had fewer lessons than students who were deemed of “average ability”.

Average students: 1,382 hours of play and practice on their first instrument prior to entering the school

Exceptional Students: 615 hours of play and practice on one instrument while sampling other instruments

Through my own research I have found that many elite Swedish clubs are still using “10,000 hours” as part of their philosophy. The original study from 1993 was led by psychologist K. Anders Eriksson. So how does a study originally based on a small group of violinists in Berlin become for some a way of explaining excellence in a dynamic sport like soccer?(If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach excellence then who is paying these coaches by the hour? Or an even more important question – who can afford to pay these coaches by the hour?) . In 2012 Anders Ericsson published “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists” in response to how he felt that his work had been depreciated, referring to the “10,000 hour rule” as invented. He has also later described the popular use of his work as the “internet version”.

Reforming Child and Youth Coach Education in Sweden

For me what is missing from this debate that will help us to reflect on the “we work with education” statement and something that will go a long way to narrowing this polarisation problem, is the Swedish FA’s new Coach Education and Player Development plan. The Swedish FA has reformed child and youth coach education asking us to respect the non-linear bio-psycho-social development of our young learners. The emphasis is on the young person, their perspective and how important it is to involve them in the process and not just lead and instruct them.

Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and therefore it must be considered individually (International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development, 2015)

The Swedish FA is translating both national and international evidence based findings into guidelines for coaches and coach educators.

“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 Hammar (Swedish FA Head of Coach Education)

We work with education

In 1915 Albert Einstein after completing his work on The Theory of Relativity sent his son Hans- Albert a letter which included the following paragraph.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign thoseThat is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

 Football is a dynamic sport and for me it demands dynamic learning. Our young players should be given the chance to experience and understand various concepts and apply their understanding based on the information they have taken in from the environment. This will have technical and pedagogical implications and shift the focus away from the idea of “coach managed learning” thus providing the space for a more player/learner-centred approach, helping the young player become their own learner. By moving from an instruction to a more “supporting the learner “based philosophy the dynamic between the coach and player becomes less of a one way conversation.  I have my own term for this- Coaching in Context: In the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child.

It is the societal expectations through professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Lynn Kidman (Footblogball Interview, March 2014)

Is there a way to challenge and transcend traditional structures, coaching habits and established practices around development and learning by exploring ideas that support the natural learning process of our young players? By promoting curiosity, engagement and encouraging young players and coaches to direct their own learning the Swedish FA has taken huge steps towards answering these questions. They encourage us to think critically, develop an informed opinion and be creative with our pedagogy to get people to reflect and think. It is an evolving curriculum. Let us help them to implement it.

We need to reclaim the topic and discuss how to develop children and therefore the coaches. We must focus on the elements of sport that children and young people value.


Cushion, C. J.; Jones, R. L. (2001) A systematic observation of professional top-level youth soccer coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior 2001 Vol. 24 No. 4 pp. 354-376

Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, Tesch-Römer C. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychol Rev 1993; 100:363-406


Footblogball- Interview with Lynn Kidman


International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Svenska Fotbollförbundets Tränarutbildning

The Sports Gene- David Epstein                                                                      

The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments- K. Anders Ericisson

Some Reflections

Some reflections


Ten years of coaching without reflection is simply one year of coaching repeated ten times (Wade Gilbert and Pierre Trudel, The Sports Coach as Educator: Re-conceptualising Sports Coaching Sports Coaching, p114)

  1. Children are NOT mini-adults (A mantra I picked up from Dr Martin Toms and Richard Bailey)
  2. Coaching children is about relationships. We must nurture and enhance them.
  3. Coaching is the difference we make to young people’s lives
  4. The coach is there to facilitate learning and development
  5. An expert coach can create and support learning with any group regardless of ability. An elite youth coach is not necessarily an expert youth coach
  6. Learning and development are non-linear. Therefore talent development is non-linear
  7. Each child is unique. One size does not fit all
  8. It is about drawing out potential. Not just potential in terms of performance but more importantly human potential.
  9. A safe to fail environment- one that encourages process and values effort and perseverance. Mistakes are a powerful part of learning.
  10. Find a balance between structured and unstructured practice and structured and unstructured play- activities. Parents should play their part and encourage this balance. Play can also be spontaneous practice!
  11. Development is non-linear. Learning is non-linear. Therefore talent is non-linear
  12. It is their sport not ours. Empower them!

The child and adult in sport, do they have the same motives?      

  1. Youth sport has become big business. This means it has become “adult business” with adult expectations, adult rules and often driven by adult motives.
  2. It is more common today that the child’s first contact environment is an adult organised environment
  3. Many adults believe that children can only learn in adult organised environments. What is really worrying is that children are starting to believe this
  4. The race to the bottom is in full flow. The youth sport landscape is full of clubs and organizations that are competing with each other for the hearts and minds of children. This is driving the recruitment age down
  5. Children are being forced from a natural play environment to a practice environment earlier than ever
  6. These adult-centric environments often promote a single focus in one sport with the added complexity of an early-selection process
  7. Youth sport has become big business, influencing parents and children on ideas around development and learning and what it should look like

My Learning Space

learning space

So many coaches talk about the “right way” to introduce kids to the game. I think that we should let the kids introduce themselves (Mark O Sullivan, 2015)

This blog is my learning space. In this post I want to  shine a light on some of those who have inspired me on my learning journey. If you click on their names you will be directed to their twitter account. I would advise you to follow them.

Dr Martin Toms – Cultural Isotopes                                             

Richard Bailey– Positive early experiences of sport matters

Mark Upton– Learning v Performance & challenging traditional coaching

Nick Levett – The Value of Play / Grassroots coaching                                   

Lynn Kidman –  Learning Opportunities                                                           

Jean Côté –  “If you want to see what autonomy looks like then look at the face of a child that has just learned to walk. That smile is self-esteem growing”                                                                                   The Dynamic Process of Development Through Sport

Celso Borges – Portrait of a Professional Footballer as a Child

Henok Goitom – Professional soccer player/ Community developer

Ian Renshaw – The Child in Sport: Meeting their needs in early structured competition

Janne Mian – Professional Senior Elite Coach, Sweden- Happy Birthday Janne!!!!

Double Gaze- Analysing and Coaching 1v1 Attacking Situations

Double Gaze

Recently while working as a guest coach for a group of young players I  noticed an interesting behaviour that seems to be quite common among young players today. The coach was working on 1v1 with a focus on attacking. He set up a simple exercise.

1v1 a

Red A passes the ball to blue A and immediately applies pressure.

1v1 b

Blue A and Red A are in a 1v1 situation where Blue A tries to score and Red A defends.

On completion the same action is performed by Red B and Blue B

I then suggested that a game situation (in this case it was 6v6) where the emphasis was on taking on an opponent in 1v1 situations. After observing this game situation for 10 minutes we went back to the original exercise -with a slight adjustment.


Both 1v1’s occur at the same time


The goalkeeper will immediately evaluate the most immediate danger and get drawn to that situation

What I am interested in is how the player reads and responds to the ever changing dynamics of the game, the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances through high quality adaptive behaviour

The goalkeeper has reacted (See diagram above), moved to his right and closed off the most immediate danger If the attacker on the other side  sees this then he should know that he has an almost free shot at an empty goal. On every occasion the attacking players were so concentrated on the ball and trying to beat their man they didn’t see the opportunities that were opening up behind the defender.


I asked the goalkeeper to leave his goal while both 1v1’s were in progress. I froze the play and asked the attackers if they noticed anything?

I had noticed earlier in the session that the players despite showing good technical quality in 1v1 attacking situations kept their focus almost entirely on the ball and some focus on their direct opponent where they were taking most of their perceptual cues. In the game situation the players often dribbled passed one player and straight in to another defender ( the more physically advanced players got away with this) or into a space already occupied by one of their own players. Despite the fact that the actual dribbling technique was very good it seemed that quite often the decision making and awareness around that technique was poor.

My point was that I wanted the players to understand the value of being aware of the events that were unfolding in the wider view behind their direct opponent . This would help them become better at organising information and action thus becoming better decision makers. I described it as almost looking in to the future- you want the future to take place behind the defender in the 1v1 and you want to influence it as much as possible.

Nick Levett (Talent Identification Manger at the English FA)  in one of our recent discussions gave a very good description of this- “They are recognising the local and global picture of the game and finding the techniques to solve the problem. I would rather that they had that in their locker than a technique and then try and work out how to use it, when that situation may not occur perfectly, ever, for them to do so”.


Teaching Tactical Creativity- Dr. Daniel Memmert


Daniel Memmert is a Professor and head of the Institute of Cognitive and Team/Racket Sport Research at the German sport University of Cologne. He is a football and tennis coach with a PhD in cognition and a habilitation in creativity in team and racket sports from the Elite University of Heidelberg. Daniel is a reviewer for several international sport psychology journals and transfers his expertise to business companies and several professional football clubs (German Bundesliga, Champions/Europa League)

What I am interested in is how the player reads and responds to the ever changing dynamics of the game, the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances through high quality adaptive behavior. At the heart of this is an understanding that skill is the technical and tactical dimensions of the game working together as complimentary pairs. Skill development is an ongoing learning process of adaption. Daniel Memmert’s book “Teaching Tactical Creativity in Sport: Research and Practice” has taken me to the roots of this thought process. A key feature of a traditional sports coaching programme is a focus on decontextualized skill training (movement skills are seen as bits to be assembled, a linear approach). In his book Daniel challenges this pedagogy and promotes the influence of context, the possibilities of creativity in children and how vital it is for young players to experience the global form of the game in early development

Footblogball: One of the main ongoing themes in your book is looking at providing greater opportunities for the young player to develop and retain a wide visual attention. This you suggest will make the player more creative and aid to the emergence of a more skilful adult player. What in your opinion are the coaching behaviours that may narrow a young player’s visual attention?

Daniel Memmert: Coaches always try to point out different circumstances, objects and possibilities in game forms to the players through instructions. Those instructions result in reducing the players’ breadth of attention. They cannot perceive all players or possibilities they have for their passes and decisions on the field. 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 and providing instructions that reduce the player’s breadth of attention.

Footblogball: Playfulness correlates with a particular way of thinking in young children. A way of thinking that encourages creativity. Yet many adult coaches are uncomfortable with the word play. They assume that it just means throw in a ball in and let them at it. Of course it can, but within the training environment “playfulness and this particular way of thinking” can provide the coach with great possibilities to set tasks that can challenge the child. I believe that this child-centred approach places greater demands on the coach especially with coaching interventions and task integration. Would you agree?

Daniel Memmert: Yes, we say that it is not only throwing in a ball, and therefore we speak of deliberate play, but we have to precisely keep an eye on the constraints, the environment and the rules of the game. If you establish good rules, field measurements on how big the field is and how many players there are with how many balls, the environmental conditions result in the children being able to solve tactical problems in a better way and receiving feedback from the environment rather than from the coach in a specific way on what they can improve. This is very important.

Footblogball: Cognitive effort is an important condition for skill learning (Gabbett, Jenkins &Abernathy, 2009). What is it that makes many coaches reluctant to explore and encourage the cognitive potential of young children in sport when in the long term it may lead to more positive outcomes?

Daniel Memmert: Actually, cognitive factors have been underestimated so far. We are very much concerned with different cognitive factors including working memory, breadth of attention, perceptual load, anticipation, perception, and motivation. We believe that the last percentage points are especially inherent there. It is important to always challenge the players with the tasks – to cognitively challenge them. They have to always think about new things including the variation of rules and the environment within the game forms, as well as the fact that there is always variability in order to learn the development of various tactical ideas over and over again and how to transfer them into different contexts.

Footblogball: For me Isolated technique training in young children is conditioning, it is linear and it decreases the width of the focus/attention leading to many young players being friendly with the ball but strangers to the game. The ability of the player to adapt their movements to the dynamics of the game through the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making is how expert performance is expressed. Comment?

Daniel Memmert: An isolated technical training only results in the problem that techniques cannot be related to situations and therefore a tactic cannot be trained. We know from studies that technical training is not as effective as combined technical-perception training and cannot be applied as variable. It is important that children experience in which situations or constraints they have to use which technique. Only then they will be able to apply those techniques in real complex game forms or the real match.

Footblogball: I like the idea of “1-D Games” that you introduce in your book. You use these games to promote tactical understanding, self-organisation with a focus on one basic tactical component.  Within these games we integrate exploration, solving problems through trial and error and we help our players learn to adapt to changing circumstances. Could you care to elaborate on the importance of these games from the point of view of repetition without repetition and skill acquisition (understanding that skill is the technical and tactical dimensions of the game working together as complimentary pairs)?

Daniel Memmert: We know that when game forms become too complex, not in a situative but in a tactical way, different if-then-rules cannot be learned appropriately. Therefore, it is necessary, that only one tactical component is the center of attention of the game form, but in a very complex and variable way through always changing environmental conditions. Only then tactical training is possible in the fastest and most variable manner.

Footblogball: You also suggest 2- D Games (2 tactical components), 3-D Games (3 tactical components) as a progression as the young player develops and gets older. Would you care to elaborate on this?

Daniel Memmert: When children grow older and a tactical component has been over-learned, like detecting gaps, a second tactical component can be integrated into the game form on which the children have to concentrate. The first component (e.g., detecting gaps) runs on, is automated and can be easily applied by the children, but the training takes place in the second component.

Footblogball: Can your book and its contents help clubs and coaches build a more inclusive sporting structure and philosophy where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist?

Daniel Memmert : The basic idea of clubs and coaches has to be that they always question and search for innovative training norms and training contents. Tactical creativity has been neglected for a long time. We believe that is a very important tool for the training of adolescence and adult soccer, due to the fact that teams can always prepare better for new opponents. Therefore, it will always be related with the individual player being able to generate new ideas and apply them on the field. Creativity and innovation – those fields are involved in the future, and clubs are well-positioned if they integrate those as central components into their philosophy.

You can purchase Teaching Tactical Creativity in Sport: Research and Practice (Routledge Studies in Physical Education and Youth Sports) HERE!


Analysing the young learner

Learning is an ongoing process of adaption

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

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

Here is an example of one of those situations.


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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