DR Martin Toms is the senior lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Birmingham in the area of sports coaching, talent development and developmental socialisation. He is Board Member of “World Scientific Congress of Golf” ( and
Co-editor of “European Journal of Sport and Society” (

You can follow Dr Martin Toms on twitter @drmartintoms


FOOTBLOGBALL: Coach the child not the sport is a statement that I associate with you. Could you please elaborate as to what this means to you?

DR MARTIN TOMS: Quite simply that we need to focus upon the individual(s) we are coaching rather the sport in order to be most effective – it is about the young people after all! One thing we often forget is about the learning process, and to ensure that people learn most appropriately is to ensure that we teach them appropriately. Children are all different so we need to make sure we try and understand what their needs are in order to help their specific learning. We can’t treat all young people as the same and then teach them all in the same way – there are so many lessons from education that show this. If however we want to ignore an inclusive approach then teaching the same thing in the same way to all children is fine – as long as you realise that any drop out it not likely to be the fault of the child……..

FOOTBLOGBALL: Do you have any information with regard to how structured “traditional coaching models” became the norm? Why do many youth coaches work from the specific to the global? Working on isolated technique first and the game is seen as a reward at the end of the session. Is this not in conflict with how best we humans learn? Should youth soccer coaches work from the Global to the specific?

DR MARTIN TOMS: The traditional model is very much rooted in the idea of learning by rote – even going back to the old models of Physical Training (which was pre Physical Education). Unfortunately we have also seen talent systems where it appears (from the outside) that teaching technique is the way forward – go back to all of the videos of the old Communist sports systems and the sight of hundreds of kids learning by rote. What do you see in those hundreds of kids? Perhaps 1 who might make it despite the system (not because of it). We have a system that has traditionally been about instruction and reward for good behaviour, which (when you think about it) is what we come to accept through childhood. But it is clear that we learn far more from context and play – so ideas like TGFU (Teaching Games for Understanding) is such an important aspect of development and play.

One of the problems with many sports (of which football is an example) is that coaching is often seen as an environment of control – whistles, load voices and swearing are often accepted (and expected from some parents) norms that coaches who themselves have been through the system (“it did no harm to me”) reflect in their own behaviours. A great example of this is to actually coach and not say a word for 10 minutes – see what happens to those around you and what they do!

The issue of global to specific is a key one – remember that no child is the same (if anyone ever queries this, ask they have 2 or more kids? Are they the same with the same needs and expectations?). So many technical things might work for some but not others (based upon physical or psychological development), so whilst the ones who are lucky enough at that age to be able to do an overhead kick because their co-ordination may be better, that may automatically have a negative effect on those who cannot – yet – do that. By focussing upon a TGFU approach – based upon ability NOT age – it is much easier to be more efficient and effective as a coach.

FOOTBLOGBALL: Why do you think that there still is a tendency to force the adult game on kids where we treat them like mini-adults? Is this related to early elite selection and specialisation programs? How can this affect the development of a child?

DR MARTIN TOMS: The first answer is simple – there is a tendency to do this because it is what we know, it is our safety zone and it is what we ‘think’ kids want. To be frank, it is lazy, inherently problematic and should be banned! What we need is more careful thinking on what is done – and the work of people like Nick Levett (@nlevett ) needs to be taken into account far more.

The whole issue of specialisation is inherently fraught with problems – when you are in a system that requires specialisation in order for you to ‘fit’, then no wonder people say look at xxxxx they specialised early. What they forget are the number of kids who were forced out of the system because they did other things or chose to opt for another sport. The problem with that? Obviously we miss people who could become top class because we ensure there is exclusion criteria applied to them. We need to remember that talent is not achieved until peak ability is attained – and that does not happen until we stop growing, psychological maturity is reached and we have stable support systems. Roughly at the ages of 16-18, so if you were a small child, a late developer or only took up the game later – since you were not in the system at a young age, you will never get in.

FOOTBLOGBALL: Society can survive without sport but sport cannot survive without society. Do you feel that the role of the child’s immediate social surroundings and circumstances are somewhat underestimated often ignored in the more traditional coaching culture.

DR MARTIN TOMS: Absolutely – it is ridiculous that we ignore these things. How do kids get to football training? Their parents? OK – what if they cannot afford to get them there? What about working/single parent households who cannot afford the time to help and support? ……. So some people will be saying that’s OK, we have those kids here….. but what if they cannot get there through public transport? The whole issue of understanding the child is vital to help this – we’re not bags of jelly, bones and fluid with a brain controlling it all, we’re social beings with our own history and background. The sooner we can better understand that the better.

FOOTBLOGBALL: Sports clubs have diverse meaning, multiple agendas & complexity” (Kirk & MacPhail, ’03). That’s how adults see them, but what do kids see?  This is from your twitter feed. In your opinion, what do kids see?

DR MARTIN TOMS: They 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.

FOOTBLOGBALL: “It is during adolescence that children need to take ownership of their own development. This ownership needs to be discovered and not forced upon them during childhood”. Do you agree with this statement? Can you give any tips on how coaches can help develop this process of discovery?

DR MARTIN TOMS:  Yes I do. I wanted to be an England cricketer and professional footballer (at the same time) when I was younger – but I came to the decision that I couldn’t do both (or, as it turned out either!).  In sport, you cannot possibly decide what you want to be until you are much older – although I know people will say, well look at so and so, he knew he wanted to be a footballer from the age of 5 and made it. But how many other 5 year olds at that time also said that and didn’t make it? The use of professional sports people who fit this argument neglects the millions who tried and didn’t make it. I still argue that if you were to dye every young footballers hair green when they were 7 years old, in 10-15 years we will have green haired players in the premiership.

As for taking ownership, absolutely they should be empowered to make decisions themselves but part of that for sport should be that they have had the opportunity to sample enough sports at a young age (and for long enough) to identify which ones they wish to do. This is key and is often forgotten at the expense of so many talented sports people who could become elite performers I other fields……..

FOOTBLOGBALL: Once upon a time street football and free play was the norm. Then we become adults wanted to control it, make it organised and forgot the child in all of us. Any comment?

DR MARTIN TOMS: Yes, one – it’s a tragic indictment on modern society. In almost all sports we have lost the ‘talented’ as anyone who does not fit the norm is rejected or has that flair coached out of them (or is criticised for it). This is especially a problem in the UK because of our obsession with controlling sport and coaching.

FOOTBLOGBALL: The more I get into coach education and the deeper discussions become with regard to  ideas, philosophy etc I have started to form the opinion that It is less about how I coach but more about how they learn. Could my ability as a coach be defined by my understanding of how each individual player learns?

DR MARTIN TOMS: Yes – we need to start from this perspective and turn everything we know on its head. Consider how Victorian our teaching systems have been, how that has influenced PE and sport – we need another generation of change to really embrace this view. There are some coaches (in a number of sports at a number of levels) already doing a fantastic job of this, but they are often seen as being fringe or marginalised because they do not reflect the control of the NGB coaching system. Sad really.

As coaches we need to learn to be more like chameleon’s and adapt to situations, learners needs (not just the simplistic notion of learning styles) and also understand them better as people.

FOOTBLOGBALL: Many think that children can only learn in adult organised environments (school, Organised Sports), what is worse is that kids are now starting to believe it. Modern organised football training at grassroots level needs to move away from its coach led culture which can result in passive adolescence who do not take ownership of their own development at a time when they most need to. The easy option is not to have learners as it is a longer process that rarely gives short term results and in the culture of the coach and early elite development programs there is very little patience. Comment?

DR MARTIN TOMS: Once upon a time we used to believe the world was flat. Whilst some people still do we have had some enlightenment – but it took many hundreds of years. The same will go for this notion, it is going to take time and we need a new generation of coaches to influence this. That means that we need a whole 30-50 years of new ‘enlightened’ coaches to replace the old fashioned ones to make this change.

Anyone who views youth sport and talent as short termist is so far off the mark that they need to review and reflect back upon themselves.

FOOTBLOGBALL: We know that learning is not linear. Surely this means that Talent is not linear?

DR MARTIN TOMS: Absolutely – we know that biological, psychological and social development is not linear, so this goes to show that nothing in our dynamic, interactive and ‘real’ life is ever linear. (Of course birth to death is a liner process and so it appears is the annual increase in our taxes).



  1. It’s great to hear that what happens in the elite part of the game is being delivered at youth level. This approach should be in every sport and it’s a similar approach we take in Mind Fit Golf. If anyone has had lessons from a golf coach they can tell you all the technical stuff, but when it comes to you and your swing there’s something lost along the way. It’s the 5 inches between your ears that they miss because they are coaching the sport not the person, exactly as Dr Toms says!

    The fundamental principles behind coaching of ‘raising awareness to generate responsibility’ are sound. However, by far the major cause of coaching failure is the attitude and behaviours of both coach and coachee. And that’s in all coaching – sport, education, business….life!

    The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda was a great phrase in education but sadly not executed in the way one might think from the meaning of the term.

    If we ever get teachers to become coaches we might just get there – and that’s our aim! GREAT ARTICLE!

  2. […] 10. Coach the child not the sport. We discussed that coaches need to understand that this is a bio-psycho-social process in a sporting context. To place too much or all of the focus on just one of these can have a detrimental effect on overall development and participation. “Sport is undertaken physically, experienced mentally and understood socially” ( Dr Martin Toms) […]

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