“I am often surprised when I compare child and youth environments and see the stress that occurs there, with the real elite environments of adult sport. I myself have been involved in preparations for European Championship and World Cup games in table tennis and soccer with both the senior and junior national teams and with club teams. Unfortunately there is way more stress evident in child and youth sport” (Johan Fallby Footblogball interview December 2015)
Johan Fallby is Sport Psychologist at premier Danish soccer club F.C. Copenhagen. (http://www.fck.dk/) He is an ex professional table tennis player, representing Sweden at youth, junior and senior level. Johan is also the author of five books, two of which have proved to be a big influence on my learning process and coaching journey. Se på spelet (See the play) co-written with Andreas Alm and published in 2011 is about game intelligence in football and Spelarutveckling- Ett helhetsperspektiv (Player development- A holistic perspective) was published in 2004. Both books are included on the Swedish FA Coach education courses.
His new book ”Gör det bättre själv om du kan” (Do it better yourself if you can) has just been published.
According to the IOC consensus statement (see here) the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centrred. It seems that there is much within our adult organised competitive systems that no longer meet the physical and emotional needs of the child in sport. What is required here (and is missing from many discussions on youth sport) is the education of adults with regard to the child in sport. Johan Fallbys new book “Gör det bättre själv om du kan” (Do it better yourself if you can) reaches deep into the heart of these discussions. Aimed mainly at parents the book is also a great reference point for coaches, clubs and governing bodies. While putting to bed a few myths, Fallby discusses the nuances and complexities of youth development in sport, the factors that impinge on this development and how parents can become more informed so that they can understand and deal with these complexities.
Johan Fallby: Thank you for inviting me to be part of your blog. First I want to make it clear where I stand in relation to the purpose of this book. For me the emergence of many high quality elite athletes from Sweden is of great importance. If we are to achieve this I hope that I can contribute by helping to develop the level of competence within our sporting organisations. This is one of the key factors in relation to the process of continually developing elite performers. In this process the role of parents and coaches are of extreme importance. So the book is a guide in how to strengthen competence in clubs and sporting organisations by clarifying the role of parents and providing the tools to help clubs and organisations move in a positive direction. For we know that the coach and the parent are often the same person in both child and youth sports.
I have also created a Facebook page called “idrottsföräldrar” (sports-parents) that I hope will help spread ideas, thoughts and knowledge to sports of all levels in Sweden. I hope to reach out to associations, governing bodies, coaches, leaders, parents. If we are many it will be easier to spread the information and ideas.
It is also important to me that both science and my practical and personal experience can stand up well to the motto “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible”. With regard to soccer even during the early teenage years, we cannot predict who is going to be the best. Many things start to happen and it is not until after 20 years of age do we find out who has survived the journey to elite level. That is ten years, plus the glorious years of child football!
For this reason, I can see with very good support from both practical experience and science that early specialisation is not the most effective way to reach the elite level. It is a fairly complex discussion. At the same time I want to emphasise that it actually requires a large amount of playful sporting activities, different types of training at different ages and competitive experience in order to become proficient. What the book brings up is how we can do this because the likelihood of an elite career, or a child growing up developing good exercise behavior and habits should be as high as possible.
The debate around the child in sport has many different opinions. However, I stand firm in my approach, both practically and scientifically. For me it is important that it is easy in practice to take in the knowledge that will help us to develop sensible and reasonable sporting environments. That’s the goal!
Finally, I would also point out that discussions dealing with precisely these issues often become emotionally charged, negative and problem focused. However we should always remember that there are many clubs, coaches, managers and parents out there who are incredibly talented. With this book and the Facebook page I hope to give them more room to provide input and the possibility to influence the debate.
Footblogball: On first read what I am getting from this book is that you are giving us tools to help create a culture of trust within the child’s organised sports environment. If we (child, parent, coach, club) can trust each other in terms of a common purpose then many possibilities open up. Would you agree?
Johan Fallby: Absolutely! It is about creating an environment that consists of cooperation and trust. If all the people around the child send the same message, it is easier for the child to sort out and interpret. Within this cooperation there should also be opportunities for the child to take their own initiative, their own responsibility and pursue their own development. This means that the role of both coach and parent can differ from the traditional one that many expect from a sporting environment. I want to see the coaches, leaders, parents and children / athletes work together by creating a network that pulls in the same direction. In this way, children will be challenged at the right level and the opportunities to develop them into elite athletes in adulthood will increase. A positive experience in the early sporting environment also increases the possibility of the development of healthy exercise habits and behaviours for life. So there is no contradiction at play if the sports environment is based on sound principles of what children and young people are about. Unfortunately we often see child sport environments based on other principles and these are rarely examined or analysed properly from either a talent development perspective or a from a public health perspective.
“Be strong and work to eliminate this culture and ignorance from your club. Be curious and find out more about how a sports environment should look like for your child”.
Footblogball: The biopsychosocial differences between children as they grow have a major influence on their readiness to learn and develop. Development is very delicate and sensitive in the sense of how vulnerable and fragile performance, confidence and self-image can be for the growing and developing young learner. Let’s not forget that this all takes place in what is fast becoming an increasingly prestigious area of sport. Children do not develop in a linear fashion-we need to SUPPORT this. How would you suggest that a parent supports and communicates with the child with regard to this?
Johan Fallby: You should make it as easy and as practical as possible. There are five points that I consider to be crucial for parents in relation to children’s sport and development.
- It has been shown that the importance of parents as to how children in general come into contact with sports is relatively large. Therefore parents should ensure that their child comes in contact with a sporting environment that is also actively a playful one so that the child gets to experience how much fun it is to use their body through various physical activities.
- Once they are in contact with the sport, I think it is important that they are involved in creating a pleasant and positive environment along with the other parents. Make contact and create a network around the kids. If kids see that their parents feel comfortable in the environment this will increase their sense of security and in all likelihood help spread a feeling of joy. When the child is gripped by the sport and think it is fun you can start placing reasonable demands on the child.
- So the third point is that the child should be encouraged to always try to do their best (in relation to their age, maturity etc). For example, to “fight” well and fairly, try new things and experiment while playing the sport. Listening to the coach and collaborating with teammates are also an important part of the sport and their development. Sometimes it may be appropriate to tell the child to go to training even though they feel a bit tired. Depending on the age it can also be about getting them to pack their own bag for training, get them to learn to take responsibility.
I would like to point out that the “demands” I refer to are not about being better than others, making the most goals or winning, nor is it that the child should practice constant, or exercise more than others.
- I would like to stress that there should not be a focus on results. In fact the opposite. For the purpose of developmental it is best if parents do not engage in comparing their child with others. Each child has their own individual development curve and the most important thing is that as early as possible we help create a climate that can develop the child’s self-determination and motivation.
- The fifth point is about observing the club that the child is in. If it’s an unhealthy environment should you as parents try to influence the environment in a better direction or just leave the environment? It may, in serious cases involve physical or mental abuse but more than often it is down to bad leadership where the environment may be built on early specialisation or exclusion policies. Parents should avoid being caught up in the frenzy. There is very little to suggest that it would be of benefit to your child. Be strong and work to eliminate this culture and ignorance from your club. Be curious and find out more about how a sports environment should look like for your child.
Remarkably often I think parents who have themselves been really good (now I’m talking about the finest elite athletes in sport) understand that they should take it easy and support their child in a relaxed sensible and correct manner. It is probably because they themselves often experienced their parents in a similar way.
Footblogball: If we consider what for me are two very important themes in the book. The creation of a Motivational climate and the social integration of systems, the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sporting organisations, governing bodies, communities, cultures).How they interact and shape development should not be underestimated. The young player’s development process does not happen in a vacuum.
How can parents play a role in these domains to aid the child’s development of pro social behaviors (kind, generous, tolerant) and pro- learning attitudes (resilient, collaborative, creative)?
Johan Fallby: This question I think is related to the previous one. The basis of everything is for me to create a climate of self-determination and motivation in coordination with a good network around the sport. It will, together with the coaches and leaders create a positive environment and guide the child so that it will find its place in the sports environment and reinforce positive behaviors. Combined with a focus on performance it means that the environment is relaxed, safe and inspiring. This is also how good behaviours get strengthened. People thrive in these environments. This is how “easy” it is!
I am often surprised when I compare child and youth environments and see the stress that occurs there with the real elite environments of adult sport. I myself have been involved in preparations for European Championship and World Cup games in table tennis and football with both the senior and junior national teams and with club teams. Unfortunately there is way more stress, induced by grown-ups evident in child and youth sport. Why this is so is actually incomprehensible to me. It is from the “safe environment” that emerge our strongest “winners”. Anyone who believes that it is done by “survival of the fittest” should think again and try for example, to create a motivational climate instead. They will be surprised how effective it is.
In this case, I also hope that parents can help by creating an environment based on these principles. Get involved and influence the club to work with more modern methods if they discover that the system is still based on the negative aspects of early specialisation or exclusion. This is not an effective system. This is actually what the book is about in a practical way. It is important that somewhere science meets practice and that it will be helpful when transferred on to the pitch.
Footblogball: Can you please comment on the following quotes with reference to you book
“It is the societal expectations through professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport”-Lynn Kidman
Johan Fallby: Agree with this. It is above all ignorance in several areas which allow for many environments to work with methods that are not effective. People in all environments confuse growing children and youth sport with professional adult sport. It should be remembered that it takes tremendous effort to become an elite athlete. This should be respected, you do not rush it. Those who work long-term and are persistent increase their opportunities.
“Children see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Like their family backgrounds, they accept what they experience as the norm – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexities of adults when ‘running’ clubs do not affect them”- Dr Martin Toms
Johan Fallby: Children will always be influenced by what they see around them. How parents and coaches act is interpreted by kids as how things actually are. When adults don’t understand what is best, how can we expect the kids to understand? We will always get a response from children based on what we ourselves have taught them through our behaviour and actions.
I find it interesting that the problem stems from the so-called “social desirability”. Parents and coaches may say that they do not incite and stress, but in their behaviour you can see it clearly. They cannot understand this because of what has become the social norm. Similarly, the children always defend their parents and often their coaches as they are conditioned in to this system. Children will never stand up and say that enough is enough with regard to early specialisation. They do not even know what it means. Therefore, we need adults to take responsibility to promote a healthy sports environment. And of course we should not be too concerned that by doing this, elite athletes will emerge and go on to take World Championship Gold in the future.
. “….there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate. Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults. Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions”- Richard Bailey
Johan Fallby: It is often the less instantly recognisable environment that is best. If I remember correctly, Richard Bailey has also said that of all the “talent environments” that he has researched or read research on, that not one meets the criteria suggested by practical and scientific research today. There is simply a lack of knowledge. This is also my experience. The environment that beats its chest claiming to be a “talent factory” is usually a high risk environment. As they say, empty barrels make the most noise.
As a parent, I would be careful with regard to what environment I place my child in to. If your child wants to go far in their sport, they will spend many hours in training and competition. Therefore, I would put my child in the environment that truthfully, ethically and morally provides the best opportunities for development. That’s like choosing schools today. Do you want to choose a school where teachers have a lack of knowledge use old pedagogical methods and exclude children who at that moment in their development perform below average? Or, do you feel better about choosing a school that uses scientific evidence and best practice, educated teachers, and individual teaching plans? The answer is evident to me. That is the choice you can make for your child.
The book is at present only available in Swedish. There are plans for an English version.