Ulf Carlsson is responsible for coach/player education at the Gothenburg Football Association in Sweden. He is very active in trying to bring about reforms in Swedish Youth Football. He made his senior debut in 1972 and played his last senior game in 2012 at the age of 57! Between 1978 and 1988 he played at elite level for Swedish club BK Häcken where he was also made team captain. In his youth he excelled at tennis, table tennis and handball. Ulf is a fully qualified Uefa Coach and Sports Teacher with many years of experience coaching from grassroots up to Division 1 in Sweden.
Footblogball: Do you think that The Swedish Football Association (SvFF) should be doing more to ensure that clubs are following the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in Swedish football?
Ulf Carlsson: Yes! The Swedish Football Association should be clear about this. The state and local government should also ensure that the guidelines of ”Spel- Lek- Lär” ( Game- Play- Learn. The Swedish Football Associations development model for children) are being followed. This should apply to all teams up to 12 years of age. I am not saying that what we do at the Gothenburg Football Association is perfect, but we have rules as to how competitive football for children is formed. For instance we do not allow clubs to enter teams of different levels within the same age group. We understand that it is not according to the guidelines proposed in ”Spel-Lek-Lär”. Instead of using an early selection process to divide up children into different levels we want clubs to work with mixed groups in a pedagogic way. It is also forbidden to enter a full team of 12 year olds in a league for 13 year olds. There is a limit to how many under age players you can have in a team. Our 7 a side games are 3 periods of 15 minutes. We propose a maximum of 3 substitutions as an effort to guarantee game time of 30 minutes per player. With the youngest age groups we try to encourage boys and girls to train together.
Footblogball: Performance at the highest level of football is influenced by physical factors that in general do not appear until late in the teenage years. Factors such as strength, muscle mass, speed are very important but cannot be predicted with 100% precision. At what age do you think it is appropriate for clubs in Sweden to adopt a selection system based on the individual level of each player?
Ulf Carlsson: We should really wait until after puberty, but this is difficult for various reasons. We allow clubs to register teams at different levels from 13 years. In my world the environment plays a big role. You learn in the environment by playing with better players. You learn in the environment with players that are equally as good as you. You also learn when you train and play with those who are not so good. You learn different things and how to set different demands depending on the environment. It is in my opinion very important to find an environment where you end up in all of these three situations. I call it the mixed group teaching, or 25-50-25 environment. In Sweden we should really reflect upon how many of our best players actually became so good through the traditional academy set up. Luckily for us players like Tomas Brolin who was voted on to the World Cup best 11 in 1994 knew better.
Footblogball: “Sport is undertaken physically, experienced mentally and understood socially”- Dr Martin Toms
I think that our football coaches and clubs need to understand that the child’s experience and development is a bio-psycho-social process in a sporting context. Do you encourage this within your work at the Gothenburg football association?
Ulf Carlsson: Youth football should mean a lot more than just been seen as a vehicle for developing a good national team. Sometimes it feels that we adults are stealing the game from our children. We are already seeing many examples of clubs that are having difficulties putting together a team during the teenage years. Many clubs are actively seeking out and selecting those that have gone through an early physical development. There are in some clubs a major gap between the oldest youth team and the senior team. Look at how many really young girls are forced into senior football – which, I think, is a small part of the cruciate ligament problem. This is of no benefit to anyone.
Gothenburg is, I think, better than Stockholm in terms resisting the traditional early selection process. Our goal is to maintain a reasonably wide and large player pool as long as the boys and girls are in primary school. I also feel that our elite clubs are with us in this, although their association SEF (Swedish Elite Football Association) is pushing the whole thing in another direction.
Footblogball: At grassroots level I think that there should to be a better appreciation and understanding from coaches for the need to approach “play” from the perspective of learning. Children are not mini-adults. The focus should be on creating experiences that engage our young players. How in Goteborg do you work with coaches to ensure that the needs of the child are met within the context of the sport?
Ulf Carlsson: I don’t want to say that we are very good at this but we are trying to create regulations that place children in the centre. Our focus is to have a child friendly regulated framework up to and including 13 years of age. We have also adapted our pitch sizes for children. We play 3-5-7-9 and 11 a side football. Even the first year of 11 a side football is played on a slightly smaller pitch.
We are also working hard on shifting the focus from winning to playing. It is often very easy to win games at grassroots level. Just play your best players (usually the ones with some temporary advantage) instead of the weaker ones. If you have players that have developed early physically you can focus on a simple route one attacking game with an aggressive defensive game and the effect will be good especially in the beginning before anyone develops a passing game. This is the reason why we would like the defending team to back off and not have such high pressure. Maybe introduce a retreat line like they have in some countries.
“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Footblogball: There is great potential in embracing the transformative qualities of play in a game based approach in practice to make learning inevitable. Football is a dynamic sport and for me it demands dynamic learning. Meaning that 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. One of the common problems with not coaching in context (isolated technique drills) is that coaches often assess players by how they can perform in the moment. Essentially a moment that is not related to the real game. I believe that this traditional approach to coaching is in the long term a counter -productive ideology in youth sport. Just like in our education system we confuse intelligence with academic ability, we confuse performance with talent. We also confuse technique with game intelligence.
I agree with this. Torbjörn Nilsson has just published a book on this, how to develop an understanding for the game. If you ask me then playing the game is the best way to learn the game. Play small sided games. Vary the space, the rules etc. Take influences from other sports in to your football training, Football can be the world’s simplest game and at the same time the world’s most intelligent game. A simple pass can have a great thought behind it.
With this in mind we cannot define exactly what a footballer looks like. We have short players, tall players, strong players, thin players, slow players, fast players. By experiencing the game we can learn to self-organise our individual properties, skills and abilities to make the best of what we have got.
People are different and have different properties- For example if someone has one leg longer than the other. That means that there is a short leg too.- Hasse Alfredsson
Footblogball: There is so much talk in Sweden at the moment referring to providing a better football education for our young players. Surely then it is essential that we as coaches place more focus on how children learn. If you believe that your training sessions should be a learning space, then make sure that there is space for the young players to learn. How can we develop our player education plan to encourage more learning opportunities for players and coaches?
Ulf Carlsson: I think that you are 100% right in your analysis. In Sweden we have developed a new Player Development Plan but we must follow this up by using and developing pedagogic methods to create a learning environment. We should ask questions, learn from one another, create the time and space both on and off the pitch for this to evolve. Learning occurs in spurts. Use play, make it fun, and try and make it a joyful experience for everyone-
Footblogball: The early specialisation approach that is evident in many of our academies places a focus from a very young age on deliberate practice. What is your opinion on this? Is it counter- productive?
Ulf Carlsson: I believe that early specialization in football is counterproductive for many reasons: There is a great risk of boredom. It seems that the football careers for many are around the same length. You begin early, you finish early. Sadly today many stop before reaching peak maturation, before they can realise their potential.Terribly sad and very unnecessary.
Based on my experience, I recommend no selection and specialisation in one sport before 16 years of age.
Footblogball: Early diversification (playing more than one sport in what Jean Cote refers to as the sampling years) has been shown to have a positive effect (cognitive, social, motor skills) later in the teenage years when the athlete chooses to specialise in one sport. What is your opinion on this and within your work do you encourage children to experience other sports?
Ulf Carlsson: For me this is the key to the future success of Swedish sport. Instead of early specialization, we should talk about premature generalisation and late specialisation. Research backs this up.
Instead of forcing a development-inhibiting early selection approach we should do the opposite. If a child is involved in numerous sports then he/she gets to experience a wider social network. Health-wise mentally and physically this cannot be underestimated.
Daniel Andersson (who has played in 2 World Cups for Sweden and in Seria A in Italy) made a reference to the benefits of playing many sports in a recent interview. Up until he was 16 he trained football only twice a week but also played basketball, indoor hockey and handbal. He combined this with a lot of spontaneous football.
We recommend at least three sports for the following reasons:
An individual sport: Tennis or table tennis where the athlete has to solve problems themselves without help.
A sport where you use your hands: A good example is handball or basketball. The athlete learns to work with different patterns and gets to see them emerging in the game. In handball, the ball is often at eye level. This allows one to see passes several steps ahead and learn to act and anticipate.
The problem is really with the adult. The fear of losing the player to another activity, we try to prevent this by forcing them to specialise or by making it logistically impossible for them to combine sports
For me one of the big criteria for being good at a sport is the spontaneous neighbourhood street games that really should exist beyond the organised club training. How do we get youngster to re-embrace this?