Is there a way to challenge and transcend traditional structures and coaching habits by investigating ideas and methods that support the natural learning process for our young players, our learners?

Today there is a tendency to look at youth sport as adult and children. Many believe that children can only learn in adult organised environments – what is worse is that children are starting to believe this. Sport should also be just about children playing sport.

When it comes to designing and determining a child’s environment, the child’s own voice is often the smallest. Here we have one of the fundamental drawbacks with today’s organised “one size fits all” grassroots training. All authority, all decision making, resides with the adult coach. This has a profound knock-on effect with regards to influencing coaching behaviours and styles placing a focus on instruction and error correction as opposed to learning and understanding. Today the child’s experience in sport is more or less based on an adult-centric structure both on and off the pitch. With the decline in street games and spontaneous play children are more than ever dependent on adults to take them to and from their sporting activities.

Yet play seems to be back on the agenda with many governing bodies and sporting organisations. Words and phrases like “focus on Play” “FUN” or “FUN-damental” are appearing in development plans in an effort to convince parents that their child is in a safe child centred  environment and that it is all about “as many as possible as long as possible”. Of course at the same time many are also operating an early selection process followed by a continuous selection process through the various ages and stages. They are doing exactly what they have always done. They have just repackaged and rebranded it. It is administration, something to make the homepage look good. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Read: Development Model or The Emperors New Clothes

The other argument I have heard been thrown around is that we must define “play” within our development plans. This statement is usually followed by the argument that “people think that they just need to throw a ball in, let them play and suddenly an elite player will appear at 18. Anyway how are they ever going to learn to do * insert technique here* if I don’t teach them how to do it?” There is so much wrong with this- the assumption that if it is taught then learning will take place- the assumption that children can only learn in adult organised environments and of course the need for the adult coach to have control over the child’s learning process. It’s a typical adult perspective. We brush aside play as a waste of time as we have difficulty in seeing how it serves us and at times our children’s future.

Play is one of those intangibles. We know of its positive benefits but we don’t really know exactly what it is as we adults are not really part of the experience. We influence it but we should not define it.

A mismatch between children’s developmental needs and coaching behaviours leads to more dropout, injuries and shorter careers than when children are trained by a competent age appropriate coach” Fraser-Thomas et al. (2008a)

Play is serious business. Play is learning and learning a dynamic sport like soccer is especially in the case of younger age groups sometimes not that easy on the eye. Its chaotic combination of chance, failure and success demand a patient coach. The temptation to add some adult controlled structure to the process more than often wins out in the end. Here we are entering the realm of what @innovatefc calls pseudo-coaching. It looks good, it is pleasing on the eye especially for the parents. Tasks are being carried out in an orderly fashion. The emphasis here is on teaching rather than learning. When young kids are coached this way then practice becomes conditioning.

It’s just adults thinking like adults. We know what is good for the child but we deliver it in an adult perspective- Jean Côté

The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience today seem to be heading towards becoming environments of conditioning. Kids are being moved from a play based environment to a practice based environment earlier than ever. At the same time there is much talk among governing bodies and clubs that we need to develop players with a better understanding of the game more intelligent and creative players.

Understanding OF the Game v Understanding IN the Game

Perhaps it is time to turn the whole curriculum on its head.

I have many friends with a great understanding of the game but that does not necessarily mean that they are any good at playing the game. Why do we think that if we instruct or teach young children an understanding of the game that we will develop more intelligent and creative players?  Surely what is more important is that we create an environment where young players can develop understanding IN the game, after that we can talk about understanding of the game. The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience need to be structured in a way that is relevant to their intrinsic needs and innate desires. We should present the whole game experience to the child and create learning opportunities by basing our training sessions on the concept of play- a sort of spontaneous practice. In play, time is not of the essence and mistakes are part of the learning process. Therefore the coach needs to be patient.  By virtue of presenting the game experience to the child we are opening them up to even more possible experiences (decision making, communication, pattern recognition, creativity, problem solving)   This approach gives them the chance to connect a variety of experiences to bring forward new ideas and solutions, their ideas and their solutions. They can do this because the nature of play allows the child time to reflect. A safe to fail environment is also a safe to reflect environment. They join the dots of past experiences to create new learning opportunities for themselves. This is learning IN the game and  will develop understanding IN the game. When allowed to reflect on their mistakes and learning children have more control over the narrative, their development over time.

We know that fun and autonomy are both crucial from a commitment and motivational perspective and are essential elements of “play”. So perhaps instead of the environment defining how children play we let children define their environment. One of the core values of play that we should take in to our practice environment is that for the child mistakes do not exist. They only exist in the eye of the adult coach. The aim should be to create an environment where the game of soccer is inevitable

A Safe to Fail Environment is a Safe to Reflect Environment

16 year old Norwegian Martin Odegaard who signed for Real Madrid recently spoke about how his father always told him that it was not all about winning and that there are no mistakes only opportunities to learn.

“My dad has never talked about winning and being the best. The only thing that has mattered was development and improving all the time. It’s always supposed to be fun, devoid of stress and fear. He always tells me that there’s no danger in making mistakes. He wants me to make them. Then try again. He’s always encouraged me to use the ball”.

Ever tried- Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better- Samuel Beckett

Coaching after all is not about players learning drills but about educating and inspiring them to think for themselves. By designing practice environments closely related to the concept of play we can transcend tradition and develop methods and strategies that support and respect the child’s natural learning process. The coach can structure learning by designing different age appropriate modified games and placing the players in situations where they have to respond with solutions. The coach can then build on learning by manipulating the constraints-Maximize development and potential by adjusting the environment they learn in. The young players are given the opportunity to become the protagonists of their own learning.

By designing environments for learning instead of success we also redefine what success is




  1. I believe certain learners need to have a well structured, adult-guided foundation or scaffold if you will to build fundamental or as you put conditioned responses. The fundamentals of football technique are the gateway to success in other aspects of the game such as tactical. Those certain learners I mention are the majority of Modern Footballers who are not playing 7 days a week in street football games. Below is an excerpt from a cnn profile of Odegaard. In my opinion there has to be a balance between the traditional coach centered approach and the learner or athlete centered approach. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

    Odegaard’s father has been a huge influence on his son’s career. He estimates that Martin has trained for around 20 hours a week since the age of seven and recalls the moment he knew his son would be “quite good” at football. “I was still playing and Martin must have been no more than eight,” he told CNN. “I was out on the pitch running some intervals. When I was finished, I wanted to go home, but we couldn’t before he had done 50 more shots.””Then I understood he also had a talent for training and that is the most important talent you can have.”

    What’s clear from Odegaard’s prodigious development is that his success has been helped by a specialized training regime and his thirst to learn and practice.

    “I have been a regional trainer for the best boys in this area, and I checked how much they trained with the team and by themselves,” says Hans Erik. “Martin is training more than double than these boys did — at least 20 hours a week.”
    It’s not just how much he trains — it’s also the type of training he has focused on by doing everything with the ball.

    Hans Erik believes Martin has been able to cope with the demands of professional football and making his international debut at such an early age because of the work done to develop his first touch and “quick feet.”
    “It’s the pace of the game that makes the difference in adjusting to different levels,” says Hans Erik. “We’ve used so many hours in working with his first and second touch to take off the pressure.
    “We have worked a lot on bringing the ball closely to his feet, so he can change direction quickly, so even if he’s physically weaker than the others he doesn’t get caught because he’s able to get away.”

    Here’s the source…http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/10/sport/football/martin-odegaard-norway-football/

    • Hi Dave thank you for your post. You make good and vslid points. Maybe I should have written that training could be based on the concept and principles of play. In many ways this is What Martin Odegaard was doing. Take for instance perception action coupling that comes natural to children – learning to walk etc that is a very much What play is. Yet in the more analytical approach to training we remove perception. Martin Oddegaards Father in an interview on Norwegian TV spoke about how they worked with technique and perception together. This can also be done in training situations, games based on the concept of play. Technique described the biokemisk movement – Skill has technique as part of it but it is how well we apply it in the dynamic game situation with perception, decision making etc.

  2. Anyone who discusses “Play” should be aware that they will use a certain rhetoric as their default setting. This creates a bias in the discussion. Once a rhetoric has been used the author will tend towards examples that support that particular point of view. According to Brian Sutton-Smith in ‘The Ambiguity of Play’ there are 7 such rhetoric’s; “–the ancient discourses of Fate, Power, Communal Identity, and Frivolity and the modern discourses of Progress, the Imaginary, and the Self.” Language is a poor communicator and understanding this difference is an important step in clearing up plays ambiguities. Most of the blog uses the Progress (development) rhetoric and BS-S points out significant problems with that POV.

    • Great stuff Larry and thank you for taking the time to reply. I am familiar with Brian Sutton-Smith. The 7 such rhetoric’s you refer to- are they not based on William Empsons Seven Types of Ambiguity? (found in peotry)
      If you are familiar with music theory you will hear a song based on the standard blues structure but it is not a blues song. 😉
      I agree when BS-S says that Play development is not assured just because children are on the playground. I also believe that just because it is taught doesnt mean that learning has taken place. A very common problem in coach led instruction based practice which is often a conditioning environment. I think you should track down “Practice and play in the development of German top level professional football players (2014). What I am interested in is the suggestion of the application of the concept of play (its mechanisms) in our early coaching environment. I see it as a way to deliver the game to the child in a more natural way as opposed to components of the game. Are you familiar with the work of Peter Grey?

      • Thanks for the reply and the names. It sounds like we have some common interests in learning. My approach is based on John Boyd’s OODA loop. He indirectly addresses your blues music problem. It includes situated learning and communities of practice (Lave & Wenger) among other things. It’s a ‘what’ and ‘how’ point of view. Practical not theoretical. Are you familiar with the solution space of problems? Your blog contains a wicked one. These aren’t something that Anglo/German Education handles very well.

    • The Mary Argument. Renders technical teaching models impotent.

      Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

      In other words, Jackson’s Mary is a scientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of color, but has never experienced color. The question that Jackson raises is: once she experiences color, does she learn anything new?

      Ontologically, the following argument is contained in the thought experiment:

      (P1) Any and every piece of physical knowledge in regards to human color vision has been obtained (by the test subject, Mary) prior to her release from the black-and-white room. She has all the physical knowledge on the subject.

      (P2) Upon leaving the room and witnessing color first-hand, she obtains new knowledge.

      (C) There was some knowledge about human color vision she did not have prior to her release. Therefore, not all knowledge is physical knowledge.

      Most authors who discuss the knowledge argument cite the case of Mary, but Frank Jackson used a further example in his seminal article: the case of a person, Fred, who sees a color unknown to normal human perceivers. We might want to know what color Fred experiences when looking at things that appear to him in that particular way. It seems clear that no amount of knowledge about what happens in his brain and about how color information is processed in his visual system will help us to find an answer to that question. In both cases cited by Jackson, an epistemic subject A appears to have no access to particular items of knowledge about a subject B: A cannot know that B has an experience of a particular quality Q on certain occasions. This particular item of knowledge about B is inaccessible to A because A never had experiences of Q herself.

      The knowledge argument

      The knowledge argument is that if Mary does learn something new upon experiencing color, then physicalism is false. Specifically, the Knowledge Argument is an attack on the physicalist claim about the completeness of physical explanations of mental states. Mary may know everything about the science of color perception, but can she know what the experience of red is like if she has never seen red? Jackson contends that, yes, she has learned something new, via experience, and hence, physicalism is false. Jackson states: It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.[4]

      It is important to note that in Jackson’s article, physicalism refers to the epistemological doctrine that all knowledge is knowledge of physical facts, and not the metaphysical doctrine that all things are physical things.

      • I quote RM-Teambuilding on slide 1 of the first Slideshare. He and Cruyff use a form of structural coaching, something other top coaches use. As to TP it has some use. The weakness that I see so far is that no one addresses the moral/conflict aspect of the game. Soccer is a game of opposing wills, it’s played out over moral, mental and physical battles. These videos, 6 hours total, offer a more comprehensive view of the game. Something that’s beyond the scope of TP models. Rinus Michels would understand and, IMO, agree with the points that Boyd makes, John Boyd Patterns of Conflict Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzRqZnPVeJI.

      • RM does distinguish between the adult game and the childs game. I like how he refers to the importance of implict learning with regard to the childs experience of the game. Will check out that video. thanks. With regard to TP it is what is says on the can..”tactical”.

      • To your last post, this just in from US Soccer;

        The F license course is aimed at coaches working with six to eight year old players and will be accessible to all coaches. The course will be available online at U.S. Soccer’s Digital Coaching Center, which is a comprehensive resource center for coaches at all license levels. The DCC allows coaches to create a personal profile, register for courses, communicate with technical staff, take part in online courses, create session plans with an online graphics tool, access an archive of U.S. Soccer training sessions and much more. During the initial launch phase, the DCC will offer the new F license. Registered coaches of the F will also have access to other features such as a graphics tool. In the upcoming months, additional resources and courses will be offered through the DCC.

        The DCC is a MOOC. Many Universities and businesses are going this way. However they contain an internal problem. The intended lesson and method of delivery have to match. In MOOC’s the MoD is in reified bits of knowledge, Mary in the lab. They assume a level of experience in the student, that they have the benefit of having seen color. That requires a leap of faith, that they “get” the implicit message. Soccer requires an emotional commitment, what some call a passion, a feel, for the game. Intellectual experience through MOOC’s yes, emotional experience no.

        Reading the article and watching the video this is more about control of the business model then it is about developing quality players.

  3. Which comes back to the question Mark Upton and I discuss a lot. Adult and child in sport- do they have the same motives? Looks like a lot of admin work is expected of coaches on F License course

    • Adults and children have the same motives. It’s a question of scaling. Adults work at and with much larger scales. Children seem petty in comparison, they’ll fight over whose turn it is. When you view adults and children as humans, people, it becomes clearer. From John Boyd;

      “Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences—otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action.

      The degree to which we cooperate, or compete, with others is driven by the need to satisfy this basic goal. If we believe that it is not possible to satisfy it alone, without help from others, history shows us that we will agree to constraints upon our independent action—in order to collectively pool skills and talents in the form of nations, corporations, labor unions, mafias, [soccer teams, clubs and leagues] etc. —so that obstacles standing in the way of the basic goal can either be removed or overcome. On the other hand, if the group cannot or does not attempt to overcome obstacles deemed important to many (or possibly any) of its individual members, the group must risk losing these alienated members. Under these circumstances, the
      alienated members may dissolve their relationship and remain independent, form a group of their own [birth of the EPL], or join another collective body in order to improve their capacity for independent action.”

      A problem in western culture is we view children as needing protection, example no “playing up” out of your age group. When scaled up this protection works against them. They lose sight the real world and “learn” in this artificial one. Since we strive to guarantee safety and security, (we do need these elements, it’s the guarantee that’s the problem) children never learn their real place in the pecking-order, a Rinus Michels/street soccer rule. This distorted view becomes ingrained and they learn how to work adults to get what they want. Adults become limited in giving them what they need. The tail wags the dog.

      • Had a parent email me. Their 6 year old wasnt allowed take part in a tournament as he had a low attendance rate at practice over Winter . The kid was playing icehockey and indoor floorball( a form of indoor hockey) . 1. Why are adults organising cup tournaments against other clubs for 6 year olds? 2. Why punish a 6 year old from an adult perspective?( the kid still believes in Santa Clause 🙂 ) adult and child motives? I do agree that we are over protecting our children but on the other hand we are exposing them to adult societal expecatations far too early and to quote Lynn Kidman this is ” screwing up the childs learning process”. I could go on, like this week dealing with a youth International who came back from an international tournament and after a long flight was forced to do a fitness test 2 full training sessions and play a game within 48 hours. Adult coach wanted to win- he just wanted to avoid injury as he could barely walk.

      • Those examples are more about an unequal power distribution and cultural demands then motivation. It does “screw up” the learning process, but that’s not motivation. In terms of motivation each example can be understood in Boyd’s hierarchy. That includes stretching out the timescales for each individual when they quit, join a different team/club or form their own. Timescales are a form of scaling.

        You might want to look at Ritzer’s McDonaldization theory; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonaldization. It helps one to get a grasp on some of the forces that drive the situations you describe. They are real, your observations are valid.

        Another point is to see these problems for what they are, Wicked Problems; “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.[1] Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

        In the US we are a culture of doers first, often without thinking. We like nice, neat, short, easy answers to Wicked Problems, what’s called “magic thinking” or bumper sticker solutions. These usually make Wicked Problems worse.

      • I am learning so much from this duscussion. Its inspiring. many coaches like the one I described do have a motivation and that is results gets them a better job in a bigger club with more pay. I see it here, pick the players that will win now( even at 6 years of age). Survival of fitnest over survival of potential talent.,i worked for a few years as boss of one of Stockholms city biggest youth center. Even here the adults and politicans were Looking for short term solutions to youth problems and questions as long as they were implementera and seen while they were in government.

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