A quiet revolution – Swedish youth football and the idea of avoiding exclusion


The developmental environment of youth 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 models are developed on the assumption that they can predict and control future out-comes when clearly it is not possible to do this just by knowing the existing conditions. Early “ability” that is identified as talent and used as an indicator of future ability and performance is a common example of this erroneous assumption.

A quiet revolution is taking place in Sweden. The Swedish FA has reformed child and youth coach education. They have translated both national and international evidence based findings into guidelines for coaches and coach educators. The emphasis is on the young person, their perspective, their learning, development and needs.  A common problem when presenting evidence based material is that the academic language is not appropriate for the dissemination of information. The language used in the new coach education curriculum ensures that the content is accessible for coaches, parents 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)

With the aim of keeping as many as possible as long as possible viable and playing football the municipality’s Skåne and Halland have decided to abolish their district teams. Traditionally seen as a shop window for scouts and National youth team selection the “District elite” selection process, training camps and national competitions are beginning to be viewed more as an optical illusion. It seems that the decision taken by the districts of Skåne and Halland is based simply on the idea of avoiding exclusion. Is this a reaction to a system and structure that is been understood as counterproductive and in conflict with development (biopsychosocial) and the young player’s natural learning process?

The idea of avoiding exclusion

“We took this decision for the sake of the children, it was a very easy decision. Our mission is not to exclude children and young people. We have a wide mandate and that is to protect football in Halland” says Johan Johqvist, Chairman of Halland District Football Association. Daniel Oredsson (Zone leader Hässleholm, Skåne) simply said that “our decision is based on the idea of avoiding exclusion.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in an effort to advance a more unified and evidence informed approach to youth athlete development organised a consensus meeting of experts in the field in November 2014.They critically evaluated the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development. In a research paper published May 2015 the IOC presented recommendations for an approach that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of healthy, resilient and capable youth athletes/people, while providing opportunities for all levels of sport participation and success. This statement is analysed is a precious blog “Investigating the Complexity of Youth Athlete Development and the IOC consensus Statement”

The International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development (2015) stated something that is very relevant to this discussion. 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.

Traditionally the most common models used in talent identification  is the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD). In the research paper The Standard Model of Talent Development and Its Discontents (Bailey, R.P; & Collins, D.) It is suggested that  “the apparent success of this pyramid structure is ultimately an optical illusion as there is no way of knowing who might have succeeded through different systems, and who were de-selected from the system but might have (under different circumstances) gone on to achieve high performance”.

Development is nonlinear, learning is nonlinear. Therefore, talent is nonlinear.


Many pyramid structures (SMTD) based on early talent identification discriminate against those born later in the sporting calendar year. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Relative Age Effect (RAE) and is one that often creates a false picture of early performance.

Relative age effect (RAE): A bias that seems to favour a higher participation rate amongst those that are born early in the selection period.

The decision taken by the districts of Skåne and Halland is about removing a system of selection and exclusion where statistics show that children born early in the year often have an advantage. The selection process is done at the cost of the wider group where focus is placed on those who have been identified as talented.  Sport Scientist Ross Tucker refers to in his excellent presentation on Talent Identification. We base our selection on the illusion of often seeing ability as a function of maturity. The result is that the majority of resources are provided to “better” performers who happen to be relatively older.

I would advise anyone involved in youth sport to watch Ross Tucker’s (twitter) presentations on Talent Identification, training, early specialisation. Start here

http://sportsscientists.com/2016/01/talent-id-video-series-1-fundamental-concept-and-definition/ and work your way through these excellent 6 episodes.


Hancock, Adler, & Cote in a study from 2013 suggested that RAE is more than just a physical advantage. The research suggested that there are also some powerful social influences at play.

Parents (Matthew effect) – The rich get richer. Those who are perceived to have ability are given preferential treatment and extra support. This in turn increases that ability which leads to more support.

Coach (Pygmalion effect) – The higher the expectation placed on people the better is their performance. Those who are perceived to have ability are given more attention. Others feel neglected.

Athletes (Galatea effect) – A player may see that she is able to perform better than her peers. This performance can be due to due to early maturation A player’s opinion about her ability and his self-expectations about her performance largely determine the performance.

Johan Johqvist Cairman of Halland football association says that we do not want a system that supports the exclusion of children. “I am convinced that under the present system we are losing young people that can become elite players. Having district teams is going against much what the research is suggesting”.

However, the next step is crucial. How will the available resources be used? With the aim of as many as possible participating as long as possible a more flexible framework will be needed. As a person moves from infant to adolescence and in to adulthood various transformations take place. Traits slowly appear and differentiate over time. Individual needs change at different stages of development. The importance of constraints such as motivation, strength, speed, peers and family vary, fade and emerge over time. Understanding this is critical.  In the blog post “Participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggageParticipation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage” there are suggestions for a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles. One that puts a focus on the learner and the learning process.

For me this quiet revolution that is happening in Swedish Football is challenging a narrow way of thinking. Level one of the Swedish Football Associations coach education curriculum, the one that most parent coaches will attend sets the agenda for the future by encouraging the development of a more “informed opinion” around the subject of the child in sport. I believe that the development of a more informed opinion is key in closing the gap in what has become a polarised debate. With more informed opinions come bigger questions. Hopefully this will lead to more informed decisions that help us navigate the complexity of working with children in sport. As Swedish FA head of coach education Urban Hammar says “We have high goals”. This of course sets even greater demands on coach educators.

Youth participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage. Today within youth sports programs we have many people who talk the talk but they don’t apply it. For to wave the flag with the slogan “As many as possible as long as possible” like many clubs do, then their model and its contents need to promote a more inclusive sporting structure.  At the heart of this structure there must be a commitment to learning, a commitment to creating high quality learning environments.

“We need a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles” (Mark O’ Sullivan & Al Smith; 2016)

References and Inspiration

Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D., The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259

Côté J, Vierimaa M. The developmental model of sport participation: 15 years after its first conceptualization. Sci sports (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scispo.2014.08.133

Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks (Robert M. Malina Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX; Department of Kinesiology, Tarleton State University, Stephenville, TX)

International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development (Michael F Bergeron, Margo Mountjoy, Neil Armstrong, Michael Chia, Jean Côté, Carolyn A Emery, Avery Faigenbaum, Gary Hall Jr, Susi Kriemler, Michel Léglise, Robert M Malina, Anne Marte Pensgaard, Alex Sanchez, Torbjørn Soligard,  Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, Willem van Mechelen, Juanita R Weissensteiner, Lars Engebretsen; May 2015)

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi ChowKeith DavidsChris ButtonIan Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations (Neeru Jayanthi, MD, Courtney Pinkham, BS, Lara Dugas, PhD, Brittany Patrick, MPH, and Cynthia LaBella, MD)

The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport (Jean Côté, Jennifer Turnnidge, M. Blair Evans, Kinesiologia Slovenica, 20, 3, 14-26; 2014)











9 thoughts on “A quiet revolution – Swedish youth football and the idea of avoiding exclusion

  1. Excellent article, Mark, as usual. Have long questioned the value of so called academies & development squads as I have seen late developers many times during a long coaching career (my sport is Gaelic Football). Usually though these late developers have persisted against all the odds stacked against them, how many more gave up having been subjected to ‘expert’ judgement at the age of 10/11/12? I know of a player who played his first game of senior Chship club football at the age of 33 in one of the top counties and has been an influential regular for the last 3 years!

    • Cheers for the comment. Played a lot of Gaelic Football myself. Ireland has so much potential for multi sport participation. it has unique potential where soccer, hurling, gaelic football, rugby. basketball can help young people develop creative skills for the sport of their choice

  2. The all inclusive concept is fine and should be applauded but it does nothing to solve the issues around developing skilled players. Regardless of age players will develop by training and playing with similarly skilled players and that should be encouraged. If players are selected on ability in a system that accounts for physical development rather than age, we will be moving closer to a new system of talent identification and player development.

    • If you read again you will see the framework for skill development is included in the blog. Talent is a highly functional relationship with a performance environment, but it is constrained by social factors, personal factors, etc
      Of course skilled players develop through training but what type of training? And when should training load be a focus. The problem is deliberate practice through drill and instruction starts at an early age when there is now a need for diversification and deliberate play.
      Also the idea of similarly skilled players must train together to improve – have you evidence? This mentality causes a problem especially at academy level as to maintain it you need to change in and out players on a consistent basis.

  3. […] A quiet revolution – Swedish youth football and the idea of avoiding exclusion by Mark O’Sullivan describes how Sweden is changing the focus of it’s youth football to emphasise on the young person, their perspective, their learning, development and needs. A message who are involved in teaching and coaching children should perhaps heed. […]

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