Changing the nature of competition


In a previous blog (Why are we talking about winning and losing when we should be talking about learning) I referred to The International Olympic Committee (IOC) efforts to advance a more unified and evidence informed approach by critically evaluating the current state of science and practice around youth athlete development. According to the IOC the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. (You can read my analysis of the IOC consensus statement here)

The Swedish FA have drafted a decision that from 1 January 2017 competitions for players up to 12 years of age will have no outright winner. Despite some interesting fall out and discussions from this decision the debate continues to be polarised.

This rule sets great demands on the coach and maybe even greater demands on coach educators.

The developmental environment of sport is ever changing. Our coaching methods, our curriculum and learning environment (The Learning Space) need to not only be adapted for the development of the individual over time but in some way must respond to the ever accelerating changes in our world, social structures and immediate environment.

Many confuse growing children and youth sport with professional adult sport. Children are not mini-adults. This often leads to environments based on methods that are not effective. There are many significant concerns with regard to how the child’s early competitive environment is organised. The adult view of competition prematurely intrudes on play. Coaching behaviours and methods can easily be more about the outcome. The coach may constrain the players towards the most effective way of reaching that outcome often robbing them of the space they need to learn. After all, each individuals true learning progression is hard to interpret if we are examining the learner (young player) through short term results over a short period of time.

To quote Stuart Armstrong (Player Pathway Manager Rugby England, twitter) from a recent podcast “you can’t adapt to an environment you don’t inhabit” and many of these environments that young children find themselves in are alien to their nature. “It robs them of the space they need to explore their strengths, their weaknesses, their endurance, their agility, their -capacity to think in movement in the immediacy of the moment, their kinetic ingenuity, and so on. It catapults them beyond their years and their abilities, deflecting them from testing their possibilities and recognising their limitations in relatively risk-free ways. It shunts their attention from the care and survival of others in concert with their own to a quest for dominance over others. It focuses attention on something altogether different, winning”. (The Roots of Morality- Maxine Sheets-Johnstone)

When I spoke with Stuart he told me that they are doing something similar in Rugby in England. All rugby from U7 to U12 will be played in festivals where all teams play the same number of games. There is no semi-final and final or outright winner. Children like to compete more than they like to win.” This is based on our own research into child motivations and is supported by additional research literature. The other reason is to moderate adult (coach and parent) behaviour which is markedly different in a tournament setting than in a festival setting. We also have evidence to suggest that this step also means that children play more creatively and expressively and coaches are less driven to use conservative strategies in order to win games.”

Many argue that we are telling kids that they don’t need to win, that life is competitive and we need to prepare them. But really it is about creating a “motivational climate”, seeing the learner, the learning process and environment as a main principle. Getting the motivation right (intrinsic) and building on that over time.

“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-olds isn’t the same one that makes the best 20 year-olds”.

As Johan Fallby (Sports Psychologist FC Copenhagen) pointed out when I interviewed him “It should be remembered that it takes tremendous effort to become an elite player, that should also be respected, but you do not have to rush to get there”. Those who work long-term and are persistent increase their opportunities of helping develop creative resilient decision makers.

In the early years the coach must reflect and ask the question- Is performance ability determining and driving practice or is practice (our pedagogy and quality of content) determining and driving performance ability?

For me the Swedish FA are placing a major emphasis on the fact that we are working with learners not tournament results. This new rule sets great pedagogical demands on the coach and for the Swedish FA even greater demands on their coach educators. We need to raise the bar!

Can we change the nature of competition?

Renowned Sports Scientist Ross Tucker reminds us in his excellent series on Talent ID and management (see here) that competition represents such a small portion of a child’s time in sport. That Training is the bulk of it and training offers a large opportunity to challenge many traditional mind-sets. Can we change the nature of competition?

With this in mind and in reference to my opinion expressed in the text above I initiated a discussion with three Swedish coach/youth coordinators who work with player development in what are considered elite environments. I am very grateful for the time and effort they put in to sharing with me both their experiential and empirical knowledge as together we challenge this polarised debate.


Andreas Georgson (Malmö FF Youth Coordinator) Twitter

Direct the focus to performance and the learning process

The opinion expressed in your teaxt above touches on much of what we are doing with regard to youth player development at Malmö FF

We are working hard to steer the focus away from short term results and instead work with performance goals that we the coaches set up and implement together with the young player. Your reference to the risk of developing the best 10 year olds instead of the best 20 year olds is very true and it is a challenge for us all.

We are looking for and want to develop a “winning mentality” in our players but we have a different definition of “winning mentality” than many others have. We believe that it is not those that have won the most games or tournaments as a child or in youth football that automatically develop the strongest winning mentality. We prefer to talk about how by using simple methods that we can help players to mentally prepare, concentrate, push themselves and learn every week at training and during matches. This we believe creates the conditions for developing a winning mentality as it creates the possibility for the players to influence their own development and gain control over their own learning. At the same time, we want our players to show the will to win every on-field duel and every game they are involved in but again we must emphasise that the result is not the most important element of their development at Malmö FF.

We believe that we can help the players to develop a desire to win without needing to stimulate them further through the creation of league tables at an early age.  I do not quite understand the fuss around the Swedish FA’s new rule with regard to competitions and league tables before the age of 13.

We are very aware of the problems that come with too great a focus on results at an early age and how because of this, football training and player development will be less effective in the long term. Hopefully the rule will have a calming effect on parents, players and coaches, and possibly direct the focus to performance and the learning process of our players instead of the match result. This rule alone does not solve everything but hopefully it is a step in the right direction. It certainly has ignited a discussion all around Sweden about the focus on results at an early age, which in itself is progress.


Peter Wennberg (Head Coach AIK Football U19, U17, U16) Twitter

The pedagogical framework for child sports that develops a “winner” is found in the game and never on the scoreboard.

It is true what you say…. We must focus on learning and develop the coach’s role by refining the pedagogy

On the subject of competitive sport and children I have many reflections. All children are different and strongly influenced by the environment they find themselves in. Children have a need to compete but asking children about “competition” in many ways can do them an injustice as the value of their answer corresponds to the same values of the environment that they operate in, a sort of self -fulfilling prophecy. The big question here is what sort of environment do adults want to create for children to grow up and develop in. For me the environment must have a focus on behaviour. Today in children’s sport including football there are attitudes and behaviours that do not create a positive development environment for children (and adults).

The coaches and players learning are not measured in a single match or tournament result. The match and the tournament are part of what is offered in learning how to play football, but the content of the game is far too important and interesting in terms development to be judged on the scoreboard alone. The match is a great opportunity for training.

I have never personally felt the need to correlate the development of the child in football with what is on the scoreboard. However, I have always felt the need to play the match and the tournament to find out the contents for learning the game.

The match situation sets pedagogical demands on me as a coach to help children to discover and learn the games features and functions. Pointing to the scoreboard after each match reduces both the players and my performance to a “fuzzy variable” that doesn’t necessarily give a true picture of the players learning. The pedagogical framework for children’s football that develops a “winner” can be found in the game and never on the scoreboard.

For the individual player it is very important to develop communication, insight and technique. This in my experience is best achieved when we focus on the “learning performance”. The day I relate the player’s performance to the result that is when there is a focus on learning to compete in the game. Which now means after 12 years of age. When they are children they should learn to compete through play by playing the game not by competing in structured tournaments.

I actually claim to be more elite orientated in all respects than those advocating competition and selection among children. I select in terms of pedagogy and interest before physical maturity. I advocate learning before trophies and medals. It develops more elite players in the end.


Daniel Bäckström (IFK Norrköping Child and Youth Coordinator) Twitter

I like the direction that you are taking the debate with your text. At IFK Norrköpping we are discussing on a daily basis many of these points. The simple fact that we should and do work together with many other football clubs in and around Norköpping, we get to understand that how we handle child and youth football has an effect and influences many clubs in our neighbourhood.

Five years ago we went from having quite a hard academy set up from 12 years of age to opening up for larger groups up until 14 (we have 30-40 players per year up to 14). The change was driven by similar motives as described in your text above and I am convinced that although we still have much to improve on, we are on the right path.

In our experience it is a development based environment that motivates as many as possible that gives good results when it comes to educating players for elite level performance. In the IFK Norköpping senior team there are players who have been ranked high all the way along their development path but also players who struggled along that path in the shadow of others. The most recent example is Alexander Fransson who in January was sold to FC Basel for the highest transfer fee in our club’s history. “Alle” was not one of the starting players when he was part of our U19 squad but his time came, he was a late bloomer.

The question of how we create a safe and motivating development environment is an ongoing high priority discussion and in a few years I look forward to evaluating the results of our work today. With Swedish FA Sports Psychologist Daniel Ekvall linked to our child and youth activities, we have access to the latest research within that area which of course is interesting. The demands are just as you described, we need to raise the bar, educate our staff and leaders and Daniel Ekvall’s role as an educator will be an important piece of the puzzle for us.


Playing on the Footblogball stereo


3 thoughts on “Changing the nature of competition

  1. Brilliant! Love all of this! So wonderful to be focused on the children and development… Here in the USA some lip service is being paid to this by USSF, BUT not enough discussion still. Bravo Sweden! Bravo! Bravo Horst Wein too! RIP…. He was promoting these ideas for many years and was a great advocate and pioneer for age appropriate development and performance.

    Thank you Mark! Keep fighting for the children.

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