Development Model or the Emperor’s New Clothes?
A special thank you to
Jean Côté Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada, Daniel Ekvall Sports Psychologist at the Swedish Football association, Dr Martin Toms senior lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Birmingham.
These last few months I have been doing some research into various development models being used or proposed by many clubs and organisations regional, national at home and abroad. It got me considering that thought Mark Upton and I left each other with when we met in July 2014- The adult and child in sport, do they have the same motive?
The one thing that many of these models have in common is that they use the Long Term Athletic Development model (LTAD) as a guideline or a structure. The value of a model is determined by the quality of the evidence being represented and the inevitable interpretations of that evidence by model builders. According to Dr Martin Toms the concept of LTAD has never been published in a text that requires it to be reviewed by other experts before publication (like any other reliable study).
“Principally, the model is only one-dimensional, there is a lack of empirical evidence upon which the model is based, and interpretations of the model are restricted because the data on which it is based rely on questionable assumptions and erroneous methodologies” (Forde et al)
Many clubs and organisations using this LTAD structure lay claim to a more holistic approach to player development. In many cases when you dig a bit deeper they are just putting stuff in order in a way that apparently makes sense. Yet there is little or no change. It is not unusual to see these models presented in a simplified diluted “ages and stages” format.
FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)-TRAIN(13-15)- PERFORM(16+).
The big picture is far more complex. It is here that we can see a split in the motive between the adult and child in sport. There is a risk that we will resort to “averages” (a typical child for this age and stage) if we obey the structure and ignore the many nuances that life and nature challenge us with. Clubs and organisations can wave the flag for “As many as possible as long as possible” and yet at the same time include content that proposes an early selection process where there is a danger of excluding those children that do not obey or temporarily fit in with the principles of the structure.
“The ages and stages used in the model do not exist in that way (and there is no evidence that they do). People develop differently and grow at different rates.”- Dr Martin Toms.
Jean Côté is Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada. He says that “The LTAD is not a bad idea, there is lots of stuff that is good and looks nice but when you look at it and where it comes from it is very fragile”. His main issue with how the LTAD model is being used is that it is just putting another structure on a structure that is not working. In fact the whole thing is so fragile and open to interpretation that it is far too easy to revert back to what we have always done, back to the more traditional linear model.
In my opinion there are many problems with using a traditional linear model in a dynamic sport such as soccer.
- The assumption that all players (learners) should take the same learning path. The assumption is that if it is taught then learning will follow.
- As many traditional linear systems are skill acquisition based, we are possibly removing control from the learner. This is true especially in the early years when children may prefer to explore the game so that it becomes more personal and meaningful to them.
- Underestimates the motivational possibilities a child gets from determining his/her own learning path. (Development of intrinsic motivation)
- Many continue to use an early selection process that that is non-inclusive. This factory ethos like all mass production lines has interchangeable parts. In this case the interchangeable parts are children.
- Early performance in linear models is often influenced by physiological differences.
So if a club using this model as a structure but also has an early selection process for its elite or development teams for 8, 9 or 10 year olds then it is essentially contradicting itself. Children in the “FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)” stages are being processed, evaluated and selected by performance, a criteria that the model is claiming to build up to as a long term aim- PERFORM(16+). It simply reverts back to being a non- inclusive linear model.
When a club or a governing body propose a new model they are essentially proposing change. A model that uses the LTAD structure is so fragile that it can easily be adapted to what people want to hear, especially during the presentation or “sell in” stage. It is the content that is crucial. The quality and relevance of the content and how it is implemented will define the degree of change.
The Swedish Football Association is revamping their player development plan. One of the aims is to place the child, play and development in the centre. It is based on a children’s rights perspective meaning that the child’s best interests is always put first and that the starting point is that all children have equal value. The plan is to take into account the child’s maturity level and adapt the sport to the child’s physiological, psychological and social needs. The sport should be a playful experience based on the child’s individual needs and take in to account variations in the rate of development to create the best conditions for long-term performance development.
This is a philosophy shared by English FA National Development manager Nick Levett. “We need to encourage the development of play, where the child can explore, be creative, learn about risk and go through the process themselves. We can’t shortcut this”.
In its new Player Development document the Swedish Football Association recognises that the main reason why children play is because it is fun and that through play children learn to deal with different situations and to develop both self-esteem and physical skills. Play is a child’s world in which they train their imagination and their physical capabilities and limitations. Research supports the importance of play for developing an understanding of the game and decision making skills that play a major role in developing intrinsic motivation. This means that a child “playing” will find it easier to absorb what is being done in training. The association also sounds a warning for overly intense activities with high expectations that place a lot of pressure on children. This is something very common in elite orientated activities where early specialisation is a fact. Some children develop while many are eliminated. Experience and research show that the likelihood of bringing out skilled players in this type of activity is small. Something that they feel is an activity not in alignment with the child’s needs. There are better ways to go.
The Developmental Model of Sport Participation
The Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) developed by Jean Côté is an athlete development model based upon theoretical and empirical data that has been comprehensively researched and refined over the last 15 years. On reading the Swedish Football Associations view on the child in sport in their player development plan I feel that the DMSP could be a more suitable model and structure. It is a model that is applicable to a sport where children do not have to excel early. Football (soccer) is one of those sports as performance at elite level is influenced by physical factors that in general do not appear until late in the teenage years and cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy. The DMSP describes pathways, processes and outcomes associated with sport development throughout childhood and adolescence. The outcomes are known as the “3 P’s” performance participation and personal development. Often the focus is placed on one of the outcomes at the expense of the others. Clubs or associations that are built around a more traditional linear model generally practice early selection and specialisation with a focus on deliberate practice and early performance. It is acknowledged that elite level performance may possibly be achieved this way however “it provides a sporting structure that is more costly in terms of mass participation and long term personal development through sport”- (Côté J, Vierimaa M. The developmental model of sport participation: 15 years after its first conceptualization. Sci sports (2014).
The developmental environment of sport is ever changing. Our coaching methods, our curriculum and learning objectives need to not only be adapted forthe development of the individual over time but in some way must respond to the ever accelerating changes in our world, social structures and immediate environment. In my opinion the DMSP responds to this by promoting in the early years a lot of deliberate play, child centred coaching, early sport diversification (sampling of many sports). These appear to be essential characteristics in the environment of the child in preparation for later in adolescence when the emphasis is on “deliberate practice activities with specialisation for elite level athletes”.
When I asked Daniel Ekvall a sports psychologist who works with the association why they use something as prescriptive as the LTAD model he gave me a very interesting reply. “What I have heard is that most criticism is directed towards the content of the Canadians’ LTAD model more than towards the structure itself. In short, we can say that we have kept the boxes and general order but filled the content with deliberate play, guided discovery, self-determination theory and so on. We do not use LTAD model as a player development model but more as a structure”. Despite the fragility of the structure I am very impressed with the ambition that SvFF has in implementing such relevant content.
So what do I mean by relevant content? Well if we are proposing a more holistic model “As many as possible as long as possible” then we need to take in to account the overall experience and how the sport is perceived by the child. The content should be designed in accordance with what I refer to as “Coaching in Context”, in the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child. To see 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.
For the basic coaching content the game itself is the starting point. Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format. Defining themes should be game centred concepts, problem solving and questions, always involving the young player in the learning process. All essential components of the game are accessible which enables every learner to choose his own path and pace of learning but still maintain the players focus on the main topic. The coach may have a goal with a training session but doesn’t necessarily determine what is to be learned. The process to that goal may reveal other challenges, other problems other techniques other solutions. The whole game experience in context leading to knowledge.
Content is essential and if relevant it will it will help us evolve and progress instead of reverting back to what we have always done. We may have a model that we are trying to “sell in” but if it has no relevant content then it is a model with no context and of no worth, essentially a vacuum.
Youth participation in sport is simply a human activity with all its baggage. If we can reflect this not only in our development models but also in our club and national association educational programs then we will have come a long way. The content that Daniel Ekvall from the Swedish Football Association refers to above is a positive step forward as is their desire for clubs to recognise the importance of play in a child’s development. I am very interested in hearing how the association will work with introducing and implementing concepts such as deliberate play, guided discovery and Self-determination theory in to their coach education programmes.
Whatever the structure or proposed model without relevant content that model is just a bunch of well-chosen words that sound good. As Jean Côté said to me in a recent conversation “Today within youth sports programs we have many people who talk the talk but they don’t apply it”. For to wave the flag with the slogan “As many as possible as long as possible” like many clubs do, then their model and its contents need to promote a more inclusive sporting structure, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist.