Embracing the adaptive capacity of our young learners


This is part-two in a series of blogs that I will publish on the theme of helping someone become their own learner. You can read part one here. I continue to eavesdropped on some fascinating stories and exchanged learning experiences with many great people as I go “Ag Bothantaiocht”.

In a recent conversation I had with PG Fahlström (Institute for Sports Science, Linnéuniversitetet., Sweden) he spoke about a young team of 9 year olds that he had seen play. They had perfect width and depth and this (as it did with me) set off alarm bells. On further investigation it was noticed that the coach had code words that he would shout and the players would immediately organise accordingly. The players were not making their own decisions, all movement patterns were been steered by the coaches code words, something that had obviously been worked on in the training environment. What are the short term and long term effects of this type of coaching? Remember we are working with learners not the conditioning of young people for short term victories.

Pondering these questions brought to mind something that David Epstein (author of the Sports Gene) said in a recent interview. “In our pursuit of better players we are making better 10 year olds but not better senior players. The developmental pathway that makes the best 10 year -old isn’t the same one that makes the best 20 year-old”.

Partizan Belgrade Academy Director recently spoke about their philosophy. “In the past, boys started training at 12 or 13 years of age. They had previously been player on streets, fields, gaps between buildings, places like that. They showed their creativity and invention there- they had freedom to think, to play, show their full potential without pressure. And that’s what Partizan wants to do with its youngsters. We don’t want our youngsters copied. We want them to develop and to have the space to find solutions without any pressure”.

With the aim of helping our young players to become their own learner we ask ourselves what learning opportunities are on offer in our training environment? What conditions do we create that embrace the adaptive capacity of our young learners? How do we help our players to become perceptually attuned to the dynamics of the game?

One of the key parts in training design is the incorporation of affordances for players to explore. Mark Upton details this in his blog post “Learning Design, Playgrounds, Affordances and Variability”.

A key underpinning of affordances is perception-action coupling- By building in a range of affordances and enabling young players to explore, we will see the variability so crucial to learning. Equally, we will help players to become “perceptually attuned” to the dynamics of a sporting arena. Just as the child has no need to concentrate (be perceptually tuned in) when play equipment becomes standardized and repetitive, neither does the young player in a learning space that contains repetitive drilling. When they can execute the same pass to the same position every time, without having to worry about opposing players intercepting the ball, their perceptual sensitivity suffers. Equally, a well-designed learning space will demand heightened perceptual sensitivity and in the process help players to (often implicitly) become attuned to the key information in the environment that can be used to guide actions – “attunement to affordances”- Mark Upton

Here we promote the influence of context, something that is a central theme in my interview with Daniel Memmert. “A key point in using game forms in training sessions is that it “directly talks to the players”. This means that feedback is directly “coming from the game forms”, so that the coach has to give less feedback from the outside and less instructions that can reduce the player’s breadth of attention”.

I touch on this theme in a previous blog posts –“We take responsibility for WHAT but the concept of HOW the players must themselves fill with life” andHow do we help the young player organise information and action? 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 (a learning space) for a more player/learner-centred approach. The aim is to create a Learning Space, one that will help the player to become “perceptually attuned” to the dynamics of the game. The objective should not be that the young player learns a specific “drill”. It should be creating learning opportunities that teach the young players to learn to think for themselves, create opportunities for the individual to learn how to learn. It  is an ongoing process of adaption both for the coach and the player.

Dortmund’s new coach Thomas Tuchel places a focus on finding solutions. “The training environment should be about variability instead of repetition. Soccer is a complex sport and every match situation is unique. Therefore it is important to give the players the possibility to develop their ability to solve problems than develop automation”. Thomas Tuchel achieves this in his training sessions by setting constraints on time and space. “I allocate responsibility, but in return, I also expect accountability for both the individual results and the course we have chosen. I take responsibility for WHAT, but the concept of HOW the players must themselves fill with life. One of the cornerstones and principles of Tuchels methodology is “Learn to unlearn” meaning “RELEARN”

Your training sessions should offer affordances – possibilities for action, choice, challenge and variability to the young players/learners to learn and to re-learn.



6 thoughts on “Embracing the adaptive capacity of our young learners

  1. Very perceptive piece as ever Mark. Really important that the coaches approach doesn’t just teach kids to be good at doing drills but allows lots of room for unpredicatable outcomes as a means of allowing them to learn

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