Footblogball is back with another Essential Interview. This time it is with Steve Lawrence who discusses Cruyff, Ajax, Montessori. and RAE. In this interview Steve Lawrence gives us a fascinating insight in to how we can look to challenge tradition and structure the future of youth sport to create a better learning environment for both the young player and the coach.
Graduate from Cruyff Institute Amsterdam (Master International Sports Management 2012). Founder The Football Analytics Lab™ owned by Milk Studios Ltd, London.
Consultant to Cruyff Football and Ajax.
Author of the original master plan for the London Olympics, researcher into relative age effects in football and author ‘The Age Advantage in Association Football’, inventor ‘average team age’ rule for team sport.
Married to Lynne Lawrence FRSA, Executive Director, Association Montessori Internationale. Two sons, Tom, a social anthropology graduate working in social media and Jamie a professional footballer with AS Trencin.
Architect in private practice (Carrick, Howell & Lawrence) for 33 years, graduate from Bath University (B.Sc. 1978 & B.Arch. 1980)
You can follow Steve on twitter
FOOTBLOGBALL: Much of my blog is about exploring ways to create a learning space, a space that promotes development, one that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of an intelligent well balanced and healthy person and player. From my brief correspondence with you I believe that you are also exploring avenues that can lead to similar outcomes especially through your work with Montessori educational philosophy and Ajax academy. Can you briefly explain how this will be structured?
SPATIAL DEVELOPMENT MANIFESTO
The project emerged from an exercise in 2012 to establish a ‘Spatial Development Manifesto’ for Cruyff Football defining the key characteristics of a Cruyff inspired ‘Football Development Centre’. We realised that there was a great deal of synergy between the ideas of Johan Cruyff and the philosophy of Maria Montessori. This is hardly surprising as both are leaders in fields of child development and both had an analytical eye that went back to first principles and then rethought paradigms on the basis of those principles. We see the result of Maria Montessori’s thinking in the tens of thousands of schools worldwide and the results of Johan Cruyff’s thinking in the acclaimed football academies of Ajax and Barcelona where he was instrumental in creating a youth player focussed environment. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that their lives in Amsterdam overlapped by 5 years and that Johan attended schools influenced by Montessori’s thinking.
In developing the study we identified the following key characteristics:
- Child-centred pedagogical principles inform all aspects of the football development centre. A football development centre is seen essentially as an ‘educational environment’.
- The facilities encompassed within a centre constitute a prepared environment for children – this is a quintessential Montessori idea. The environment is designed around children, for children and the spatial planning is maturationally appropriate, child-sized and fit for purpose.
- The spaces envisaged are intended to accommodate ‘dynamic movement’ of all kinds, in 3D space, at the highest performance levels and follow the principle of ‘design following function’.
- The facilities are intended to be flexible in their ability to encompass technological apparatus for assessment, measurement and monitoring.
- Whilst a significant proportion of facilities are designed around participation in high performance activities an over-arching idea is the incorporation within the design of facilities for observation.
Children are naturally predisposed to develop themselves, furthermore their inherent natural instincts take them on an optimal path proceeding at a rate according to individual characteristics and adapted to their environment.
Developmental advancement for these motivated learners depends on two fundamental components:
- The provision of a prepared environment.
- The provision of appropriate guidance.
The characteristics of such a Cruyff inspired Football Development Centre are that the environment is optimally prepared for high-level athletic and technical football performance.
And that provision is made for maximum information feedback to trainers and others responsible for the children so that optimal guidance can be given.
FOOTBLOGBALLl: How can this philosophy and its contents help clubs build more inclusive sporting structures, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist?
A PHILOSOPHY BASED ON OBSERVATION
Whilst the individual performance and training spaces are the principle working components of the Centre the facilities for observation constitute the defining parameters for a ‘spatial planning backbone’ and fall into 5 categories:
- Visible observation by spectators.
- Visible observation by students.
- Visible observation by technical staff and trainers.
- Invisible observation by technical staff and trainers.
- Observation by technology.
A further aspect of the project is the development of a sport/football based curriculum – not a curriculum for sport but an academic curriculum with sport and football as its inspiration providing source material for the broad range of academic subjects. Also importantly not a syllabus which implies adherence to a chronological programme followed by an age set – the Cruyff/Ajax/Montessori curriculum sets the framework in which the individual progresses at their own pace, guided and supported by the teacher/trainers.
The development of the curriculum is collaboration between the club and the Association Montessori Internationale involving the development from the existing international elementary and adolescent curriculum in use in Australia and the USA.
All of this operates within the context of a multi age group training and educational environment.
FOOTBLOGBALL: What demands does this set on the coach?
The demands on the coach in a child-centred rather than team-centred environment are immense.
Child-centred development means multi age groups, individual training programmes and monitoring mostly by observation not by testing. The coach has to be efficient in documenting progress and engaging others with different skills in guiding the development trajectory of the individual player. Squad construction, mentor group setting and pastoral support all need coordination. This creates a major burden in data accrual and analytics along with time management and communication.
As part of the analysis we have identified the need for a specialised Training of Trainers Programme incorporating both Montessori elementary (6-12) and adolescent programmes dovetailed with Cruyff inspired football coaching education.
FOOTBLOGBALL:: A complex mix of experiences and factors shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success. In the middle of this complexity is one subject that you are looking to challenge, the Relative Age Effect (RAE). The feeling I get is that you view this as something that represents social inequality. This creates an artificial environment in youth sport one that is the consequence of an adult constructed competitive structure leading to many negative outcomes. Comment?
KNOWLEDGE OF RAE & COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
RAE is a function of the widespread use of cut-off date eligibility rules. Cut-off dates are useful for administration – they make adults lives easier and because the discrimination, which arises from them, is invisible and everyone uses them changing the paradigm is challenging.
Whilst eligibility cut-off dates continue to exist, knowledge of RAE can be exploited for competitive advantage in a variety of ways, in squad development, player contract strategy and transfer scheduling. Knowledge of RAE can also inform scouting strategy and assist in developing football education. It will be clear, for example, that a multi-age group youth training structure goes some way to mitigating relative age effects and creates an environment in which otherwise invisible talent can emerge.
FOOTBLOGBALL: You recently went to the European Commission in Brussels and had a meeting with the head of politics and programming for sports. Would you care to elaborate on the subject matter of this meeting?
RAE AS SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION
Alongside my work in exploiting the knowledge of RAE I take the view that RAE is ‘systemic discrimination’ – I refer to it as ‘relative age discrimination’. It operates globally and advantages one cohort of individuals whilst disadvantaging another. As such it conflicts with basic ethical values of fairness and in particular it conflicts with the fundamental provisions of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
I have challenged the use, by The FA, of cut-off date rules for establishing eligibility within youth football in England. The FA governs all youth football and the imposition of universal cut-off dates by The FA establishes systemic relative age discrimination. I have asked the Commission to determine the use of such rules as illegal.
The meeting with the European Commission was in the context of my complaint. The complaint is being assessed by the Commission’s lawyers and if admissible will trigger a request for a response from the appropriate state authority – in this case probably the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
European Commission written guidance in the ‘Study of Discrimination of Sportspersons in Individual National Championships’ says ‘ Equal treatment requires abolition of both direct discrimination and rules which, …., in fact lead to unequal treatment.’ This is the core of my argument.
It’s my view that an ‘average team age’ rule can, over time, remove RAE and I have asked The FA to engage in piloting projects to explore the potential of such solutions.