I was recently in England and managed to meet up with Mark Upton (now working  there as Coaching Science Manager with the English Institute of Sport) for a quick “5 hour coffee”.Here are some notes with some pictures from this trip that are relevant to what we discussed.

1. Working with the learning process of soccer, seeing it as a bio-psycho-social process, designing practice that reflects the demands of the game and encouraging players to take control over their own development respects that learning is non- linear, development is non-linear and that talent is non-linear.

2. Working isolated with technique using repetition, especially with organised training during the pre-adolescent years pays homage to the internet phenomenon that has become the 10,000 hours rule.

3. This (2) is evident in clubs that promote early specialisation where from a very young age the focus is on deliberate practice.

4. A child’s motivation is to play.
shop centre football
An approach to coaching that encourages play (deliberate play) and diversity before adolescence creates a broader range of experiences that in the long run can aid cognitive and motor skills. Other positive outcomes with diversity are the possibility of personal development with help from a broader social pool.

5. Children do not play like they used to.

no ball games

The everyday interaction with their environment is limited by cars, commerce, diminishing opportunities, insurance and safety issues, rules and “cotton wool” parenting.

6. We discussed grassroots coaching philosophy. We wondered why kids as young as 6 are still being coached technique in isolation instead of experiencing the game first. Surely a more global to the specific approach is more in tune with the needs of young children? Sadly, in many cases it seems playing an actual game of football is some sort of reward given at the end of training. It is like saying that a child must learn the use of grammar before it attempts to speak.

7. Encouraging children to take part in a number of sports helps with the development of fundamental movement skills.

big ball

We have both observed that many children today lack the necessary co-ordination strength and balance. Coaches should encourage young children to experience a number of sports especially in the pre-pubescent years.

8.Introduce variability in to your sessions.  I referred to a young player that I was working with who wanted to get more bend on the ball when shooting. The player wanted to know where exactly on the side of his foot he should meet the ball. I observed the player in action and I felt that he was continually second guessing himself, he was putting too much focus and emphasis on isolated details of the action. My opinion was that of course there is a general area in the foot that you can use to carry out this technique but other factors need to be taken into consideration. How you use your upper body and arms, weight distribution, height etc. There is a lot of talk about how you should position your standing foot but that is in conflict with how players like Ronaldo and Beckham executed free-kicks. I suggested to the player to also vary the distance and angle from where he was shooting. The general conclusion was that the player must find his own “balance” his own way that suits him. The word self- organise which came up many times in our discussion can be applied here. Mark spoke about the body having the capacity to self-organise through trial and error. He showed me these pictures of his son Sam practicing chipping and bending a ball to emphasise this point.


Mark encouraged his son to shoot from various angles while refining the technique. This reinforces the idea of self-organisation under constraints (task/environment/ person). The role of the coach is to manipulate those constraints to help guide and shape learning.

More on Constraints ( Task/ Environment/ Person) Here:

9. Many assume that the coach possesses all knowledge and decides what is important and what should be learned. Therefore the coach decides what should be stored and retrieved for future use. If our aim is to create more skilful creative players then it is essential that we understand the difference between technique (the physical action itself) and skill (technique in context). Our focus should be on developing players who can read the game, players that seek out information to help them make correct decisions.

We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children’s innate quest for information and understanding.– Sugata Mitra

Creating the environment that encourages children to self-organise. Kids love to be challenged. A game centred approach that encourages the child to solve problems and work on perception action coupling in a safe to fail environment. Children are capable of great learning and understand more than we give them credit for. Coaches should look to create an environment that promotes curiosity and provide encouragement instead of directions. As coaches we should not be so eager to correct mistakes. Give children the chance to correct themselves.

More on how kids Self-Organise Here:

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)

More on Dr Martin Toms here

11. The” hard skills” such as technique are easier to measure in isolation. This is probably why many coaches feel comfortable with this more traditional method. But it can be argued that because immediate performance looks good it does not necessarily mean that ‘learning ‘ has taken place. That can only be seen when we evaluate retention(over time) and transfer(from training to the real game ) which is why if we can contextualise technique training by also creating an opportunity to develop the harder to measure “soft skills” such as perception we optimize learning. Again the soft skills are harder to measure and do not show immediate results that many coaches and clubs desire but we need to include the opportunity to develop them within our training environment otherwise I feel we are underestimating the intelligence of children and their ability to learn.

More on Hard Skills and Soft Skills here:

12. Perception action coupling is a human behaviour deeply embedded within us and has been essential to us for survival as a species. We begin to develop our perceptive skills as babies. So why remove it if it helps the learning process? We don’t need to put a focus on it, just create the opportunity for it to be developed within the training environment. It is what comes naturally to children and we should embrace it not remove it under the assumption that it will hinder them from learning something else. I feel many of us underestimate the intelligence of children and their ability to learn. Maybe something to think about with regard to the question, how can we develop more creative players?

13. Mark introduced me to the term obliquity which is also the title of a book by John Kay. Essentially it states that our goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Its relevance can be seen when the environment is complex and changing and the effect of our actions is dependent on how others respond to them.



 The Journey Home                                                                                                                           gat 2

Leaving London we were delayed 8 hours. The thought of trying to keep  our 2 year old son and our 5 year old daughter entertained at the circus that is Gatwick Airport wasn’’t something that Kristina and I had planned. There was a children’s play area that at first didn’t really appeal to the adult eye. Worn-out foam cushions in different shapes and sizes enclosed in an area surrounded by cushioned chairs. Soon it became obvious who was really in charge in this area. Kids from 1 to 7 year of age turned it in to an arena of fun, play, co-operation,sharing and fantasy. It was a castle to be defended, a running/parkour track with obstacles, a football pitch. It was anything that the children wanted it to be. It was a world of games, competition and laughter. In all the time we were there (which was 90% of our wait) I didn’t see one adult get involved. Good preparation for the realities of the future. Yes! The children self-organised.

Check out mu earlier interview with Mark Upton Here:



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