The Polarisation of the Swedish Youth Football and Talent Development Debate


We need to reclaim the topic and discuss how to develop children and therefore the coaches – Calle Vredin, (Head of Youth Development Ulricehamns IFK, Sweden, 2015)

Recently on Swedish TV there was a debate on youth football and talent development.  Stefan Lundin who is head of Swedish Elite Football and well renowned professor and researcher Tomas Peterson went toe to toe. All that they succeeded in doing in my opinion was further polarising the debate.

Tomas Peterson has extensively researched talent development, talent identification and how it is carried out in Sweden. He has received much international attention for his work. He believes that the recent success of the Swedish U21 team (winning the European championships) is the worst thing that could happen for talent development in Sweden. Through his research he has come to the conclusion that a lot of Swedish “talent” is lost in the early selection process and we should place our resources in to keeping as many as possible in the system as long as possible. He accentuates this point by saying that Sweden should not have youth national teams. Stefan Lundin likened this point of view to turning Swedish soccer in to some kind of North Korean state and was very adamant to put forward the point “we work with education” (more on this later).  He further developed his point by saying that “In general all development is about competition (between individuals and teams) and we need to keep up internationally. We need youth national teams as this is also part of their education”.

To compound matters, researchers often do not, or are slow to, translate their findings into clear guidelines for coaches and coach educators (Cushion, C. J.; Jones, R. L. (2001) A systematic observation of professional top-level youth soccer coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior 2001 Vol. 24 No. 4 pp. 354-376)

Somewhere in the middle of this polarised debate many of the usual clichés entered the ring, such as Belgium (without reference to socio-cultural context).  Then the classic (no pun intended) music analogy was rolled out by Stefan Lundin “If you want to be a great soloist with an instrument you cannot begin when you are 16. You must begin early and train/practice”. This caused me to reflect on his earlier “we work with education” statement, one that had filled me with much hope. Now I was thinking what sort of education is he proposing or referring to with this statement? – One that engages our young people or just instructs them? One that provides them with affordances to help them discover and take ownership of the game or one that prescribes a strict curriculum. For me this music analogy is a well-used homage to the 10,000 hour theory that seems to get rolled out every now and then. Part of the baggage that comes with many interpretations of the 10,000 hour theory is early specialisation, less early engagement and more early deliberate practice. This topic is more than adequately analysed and dealt with in Richard Baileys recent article “Is it time to think again about early specialisation in sport?” I urge you to read it.

But let us take this music analogy at face value and respond accordingly. I would like to quote Richard Bailey when faced with this music analogy in relation to talent development in sport.

“The most famous music teaching method in the world is the Suzuki Method. It is based on early exposure to lots of different music, some for years, before focused practice”

Tests and auditions are avoided when a child begins with music as Suzuki believed that teachers who test for musical aptitude before accepting students in to their class are only looking for so called talented students usually children who have already started their music education. The curriculum is designed to present technical problems to be learned in the context of the music rather than through dry technical exercises. Just as every child is expected to learn their native language, Suzuki expected every child to be able to learn to play music well when they were surrounded with a musical environment from infancy.

In an extra chapter recently added to his book The Sports Gene David Epstein makes a reference to a study “Biological Precursors of Musical Excellence”. It was found that teenagers in a competitive music school who were deemed of “exceptional ability” had, prior to gaining entry to the school, sampled instruments and practiced less and had fewer lessons than students who were deemed of “average ability”.

Average students: 1,382 hours of play and practice on their first instrument prior to entering the school

Exceptional Students: 615 hours of play and practice on one instrument while sampling other instruments

Through my own research I have found that many elite Swedish clubs are still using “10,000 hours” as part of their philosophy. The original study from 1993 was led by psychologist K. Anders Eriksson. So how does a study originally based on a small group of violinists in Berlin become for some a way of explaining excellence in a dynamic sport like soccer?(If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach excellence then who is paying these coaches by the hour? Or an even more important question – who can afford to pay these coaches by the hour?) . In 2012 Anders Ericsson published “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists” in response to how he felt that his work had been depreciated, referring to the “10,000 hour rule” as invented. He has also later described the popular use of his work as the “internet version”.

Reforming Child and Youth Coach Education in Sweden

For me what is missing from this debate that will help us to reflect on the “we work with education” statement and something that will go a long way to narrowing this polarisation problem, is the Swedish FA’s new Coach Education and Player Development plan. The Swedish FA has reformed child and youth coach education asking us to respect the non-linear bio-psycho-social development of our young learners. The emphasis is on the young person, their perspective and how important it is to involve them in the process and not just lead and instruct them.

Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and therefore it must be considered individually (International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development, 2015)

The Swedish FA is translating both national and international evidence based findings into guidelines for coaches and coach educators.

“Children and young people who devote themselves heart and soul to football deserves responsible and knowledgeable leaders- We have high goals. A children’s rights perspective and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are the basis for the wording in our curriculum” Urban Hammar (Swedish FA Head of Coach Education)

We work with education

In 1915 Albert Einstein after completing his work on The Theory of Relativity sent his son Hans- Albert a letter which included the following paragraph.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign thoseThat is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

 Football is a dynamic sport and for me it demands dynamic learning. Our 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. This will have technical and pedagogical implications and shift the focus away from the idea of “coach managed learning” thus providing the space for a more player/learner-centred approach, helping the young player become their own learner. By moving from an instruction to a more “supporting the learner “based philosophy the dynamic between the coach and player becomes less of a one way conversation.  I have my own term for this- Coaching in Context: In the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child.

It is the societal expectations through professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Lynn Kidman (Footblogball Interview, March 2014)

Is there a way to challenge and transcend traditional structures, coaching habits and established practices around development and learning by exploring ideas that support the natural learning process of our young players? By promoting curiosity, engagement and encouraging young players and coaches to direct their own learning the Swedish FA has taken huge steps towards answering these questions. They encourage us to think critically, develop an informed opinion and be creative with our pedagogy to get people to reflect and think. It is an evolving curriculum. Let us help them to implement it.

We need to reclaim the topic and discuss how to develop children and therefore the coaches. We must focus on the elements of sport that children and young people value.


Cushion, C. J.; Jones, R. L. (2001) A systematic observation of professional top-level youth soccer coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior 2001 Vol. 24 No. 4 pp. 354-376

Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, Tesch-Römer C. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychol Rev 1993; 100:363-406


Footblogball- Interview with Lynn Kidman


International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Svenska Fotbollförbundets Tränarutbildning

The Sports Gene- David Epstein                                                                      

The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments- K. Anders Ericisson


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