Our ability to look at sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact with and shape development can go a long way to explaining participation and performance of our young learners/players. What are you looking at (performance criteria-maturity, awareness, strength speed, skill, decision making, passion, desire, communication)- Who are you looking at (what do you know about these young people, their background, socio-economic, socio-cultural situation?) – Where is this taking place (context, environment) – Why are you here (why are you coaching children)? These are all relevant questions that we coaches should ask ourselves as we engage with the young learner.
Per Göran Fahlström is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sports Science at Linneuniversitetet Sweden. His areas of interest are coaching, leadership, creating learning environments and talent development. He has published many articles on these topics. His research work with various National Governing Bodies is proving to be very influential with regard to the philosophy, construction and organisation of the future of Youth sports in Sweden.
Footblogball: I see learning as an ongoing process of adaption. This of course requires great patience and support. Many early environments support only those that can adapt at that point of time in their development thus disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt. Surely there is a risk that those who have better potential to succeed in the long run could well be lost to us forever. Despite evidence to the contrary why are we earlier than ever pushing children in to the “zero sum game” that is early talent identification?
PG Fahlström: One can say that there is an international “talent arms race” in operation. Countries, federations and clubs feel the need to demonstrate their excellence through good sporting results. This may mean that after a championship or tournament a Governing Body may think that “others” are performing better- “we have to win more medals, why can’t we beat Norway in skiing?” etc. That is one explanation. The second is that many adults think that today there is too much “curling” in childrens sport and that you have to start early to succeed. The third point is a belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve succeed. There is no actual evidence supporting a 10,000 hours model, but it is frequently referred to. This implies that we must begin accumulating those hours from an early age. In this way, it is believed that early specialization provides greater opportunities for elite success. These three factors together mean that when researchers/scientists enter the debate and argue that children should not specialise early, we are met with comments such as “there is too much curling” and “you have to make demands”. They say that children want and need to learn things. But I think they are confusing the desire to learn with the desire to invest and to compete at elite level. Children want to learn – but not all children want to compete. They might want to be as good as possible, but not necessarily compete to see if they can be better than others. I would like to point out that there is no evidence supporting the notion that you will be a better performer as an adult by winning competitions when you are a child.
Footblogball: Early talent identification is but a snapshot without a focus, a picture viewed through a subjective adult lens that more than often does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development. Should National Governing Bodies ensure that a greater importance of promoting an understanding of these complexities is introduced as early as possible in the coach education curriculum/pathway?
PG Fahlström: Yes. All children that play soccer are not, and should not be considered aspiring soccer stars. They are kids who play football – and perhaps also tennis, hockey, etc. Some of them will want to continue to play football and a very small number of them will eventually become elite players. It’s a very small proportion of active children who will become competitive athletes or even professional athletes. One cannot shape and form children’s sports around this small number and say that this is what the sport is all about. Therefore, engagement is more important than early selection and elite investment. If you have a good organisation then some will want to continue and try to become elite athletes anyway. It is less efficient to select early and to only place resources on those who are “best” in the early years.
Footblogball: But there here seems to be a need to standardise everything (talent id and training environment) where every step in the development pathway is prescribed.
PG Fahlström: All talent and selection systems are inclusive and exclusive. If you say that training should be a certain way, perform at a certain level, perform certain things, etc. it will fit / favour certain participants and exclude others. It will include those who fit in to the model and exclude those that develop at a different rate than the model “provides for”. This can be said of all talent systems. They will select those that fit into the model. These models are not flexible (see survival of the fittest or survival of talent) so they cannot meet the needs of different individuals with different development trajectories. Those who develop at a different pace, those who have other characteristics (such as a short high jumper, a long and “gangly” footballer) are liable to be removed because they do not fit into the standardised template. Some of them “survive” but the vast majority will be left outside the system because they are not considered talented or interesting enough to develop. Instead of developing models for the development of (unique) individuals we miss those who have great development potential and only see those that fit into the model. Research shows that the road to success is very different. Therefore, a good talent system needs to be flexible and support the various pathways to the elite level. This creates quite different demands on coaches and organisations. Coaches, managers, clubs and organisations need to be much better at meeting the needs of various individuals who want to get involved in sport. This is will of course also change over time. The type of sport that we experienced and loved as children does not necessarily fit in with children’s sport today. It does not mean that today’s children are lazy. The world is a lot different now than it was in our youth. Children these days live much different lives with different expectations. Sport must adapt to this.
Footblogball: It can be argued that traditionally we have been having a one way conversation with our young learners. Many traditional coaching environments that involve young children are based on measurement, control and ranking yet characteristics of positive learning environments are safe to fail, variability, autonomy, fun and problem solving. Skateboard parks are a perfect example of this. In my opinion we as coaches, researchers and learners have much to learn from this. The environment offers information as to “WHAT” the possibilities for action are but the concept of “HOW”, the young learners/players themselves fill with life. Could understanding this concept help us create a more child centred learning space within our coaching environment?
PG Fahlström: I believe that learning and the learning process should be built around the child’s own motivation. It may sound naïve but I think that everything we like doing is essentially built on desire, that we think it is fun regardless of whether it is playing the guitar, listening to music, going for a walk or playing a sport. This desire/motivation should be built on way more than meeting a standard requirement of doing things correctly. Training should build on this desire to test, experiment, mimic and develop. I often refer to this “skateboard-metaphor” where young skateboarders develop advanced skills without a coach or an adult steering the practice and without the government funding that many of our sporting organisations benefit from. They observe, mimic, test, experiment and learn from each other. This is all driven by high motivation and focus. Nobody needs to take a roll-call or lead the practice session. This is the type of desire that you can build on and develop in sport. This should be the basis for the design of children’s sport and even actually adult sports.
Footblogball: As a district coach educator here in Stockholm I always ask the participants to use the time we are together as a forum for discussion and debate, to challenge each other, to challenge themselves and to challenge me. Our aims should be that over time through critical thinking and analysis that we will be able to develop future discussions from a position of informed opinion and therefore influence our clubs and Governing Bodies in relation to how the future of youth athlete development should be formed. With this in mind I would like to quote world renowned Swedish Master chef Magnus Nilsson. “Anyone can learn to duplicate a technique, but that’s not creative expression. What’s interesting is true development. It’s not something that happens over, like, a couple of weeks or a year. To create true understanding of produce and technique, it’s a long process. Most chefs don’t even think about that as the chef’s job, and that’s not very constructive. It’s actually very lazy. “It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. Like what is is there and why? And if it doesn’t make sense, how can it be transformed to become greater.” Comment?
PG Fahlström: It is difficult this with “experience”. On the one hand, one should learn from their experiences. We can and should learn from our own and others’ mistakes. But there are also risks with experience. You think have learned how things are but really you have not tested other options. There is a saying that says, “people think that they have 25 years of experience but really it has been 1 year of experience repeated 25 times.” This we see a lot in sports, you do what you have always done. This of course gives one sense of security in knowing how to do things. There are coaches who have their coaching and leadership model, they have their coaching folder and use this in all the clubs they work with. When they have gone through their “coaching folder” in one club they change to another club.
There is a paradox, the more pressure and competition that coaches feel the more cautious and conservative they become. There is a saying that “invention is the mother of necessity” but often it is the opposite. Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different they do what all the others do. Then they feel that they cannot be wrong. The Swedish words for security and inertia (trygghet och tröghet) sound very alike and what is reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change. This is often reinforced by players who become coaches and coaches who become managers. So it is often people with the same experiences that control operations in our football clubs. If you have not played yourself or won anything as a coach then you don’t get a piece of the action. These coaches, often without any formal education use knowledge based on how it was when they played, what they thought was good rather than developing an understanding that in a training environment it is not the coach who “learns-out” different elements but it is the players that “learn-in”. The coach’s task is to create a learning environment that suits the different individuals who are training. They cannot just repeat what they remember from when they themselves were young. They should create an environment where children want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the kids much more than the coach can teach (learn-out). Creating a training environment where participants learn from each other. That is the trainer’s pedagogical role.
It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. What feels reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change.
On the Footblogball stereo