We may know what we are looking FOR but do we understand what we are looking AT?

it is nothing joined; it flows…..

Streams of consciousness around complexity of youth development, myths, fake fundamentals, coaching, coach education and the talent arms race.

The elimination of England and the success of Iceland at Euro 2016 has awakened many discussions on social media. Both Sweden and Ireland are wondering about the next generation. Holland are absent. Coaches, pundits and journalists are having the usual international “talent arms race” discussion.  Twitter is a constant source of analysis, myths, knowledge, debate, rumors, lies, damned lies and statistics, and of course humor.

iceland shirt


There have been so many articles written in the media about player development in Iceland. On the Second Captains podcast, football writer and historian Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson gave us an interesting and alternative insight in to what lessons we can take from Iceland.

“I think that the main point is that the investment and the infrastructure and the coaching hasn’t taken away from the fact that sometimes sport is just for the sake of sport. The fact that they have built football pitches at every school in the country means that there is no inherent strategy, you can play sport if you are unfit or don’t like it and all your friends do, it’s the fact that you can play football when you want where you want regardless of socio economic status or anything. I think especially as with England, the richest football association in the world by far but everything is sink or swim. They have their Wayne Rooney’s that come in at 16 blow everyone away and they discard the late bloomers. With England there is no Klose or Drogba who start playing professionally at 22. There is Jamie Vardy but that is the exception. It is not a system that creates freedom to make mistakes to learn to develop and I think that is what Iceland has done. Iceland has given kids the freedom to develop to grow to makes mistakes, just keep it fun. It’s not all about the end product. You don’t have to create footballers you can also just give kids the chance to play football at ten at night and I think that is the beauty of it. Kids can go home and come later at night and play football with their friends and just enjoy it”.

Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson is drawing our attention to the complexity of youth participation and development in sport. When we examine the literature and articles available with regard to the recent development of football in Iceland we can see that it is about various systems interacting over time to influence participation and development. I have discussed this in the blog Investigating the Complexity of Athlete Development and the International Olympic Consensus Statement.See link here.

This sentence that really caught my attention. “I think that the main point is that the investment and the infrastructure and the coaching hasn’t taken away from the fact that sometimes sport is just for the sake of sport”. It reminded me of a quote from an interview I did with Per Göran Fahlström (lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sports Science at Linneuniversitetet Sweden). “One cannot shape and form children’s sports around small numbers and say that this is what the sport is all about”. See link here.

Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson says that the strength of the Icelandic system is that it allows the freedom to make mistakes to learn and to develop. This is echoed in Todd Beane’s excellent blog. See link here.

“A child who is told to stand at one cone, run to another, or pass to a certain player is NOT making a decision. They are obeying the rules.

Design a training that actually demands decision-making and be prepared for a lot of poor decisions until our players perfect the skill of selecting the best options. We are not giving them complete freedom, but we are giving them the authority to play the game with intelligence

We must prioritise learning rather than teaching”.

Todd Beane’s thoughts are reflected in Per Göran Fahlströms Footblogball interview from January 2016 where he describes the trainer’s pedagogical role.

“They (coaches) 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”

But what of learning? Mary Helen Immordino- Yang is a professor at the University of Southern California. An excerpt from her book Emotions, Learning and the Brain is available at http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/05/31/why-emotions-are-integral-to-learning/

This line struck a chord with me.

“learning is dynamic, social, and context dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember, and learn”.

It flows directly in to some twitter posts I have recently seen. The referencing of research work done on teaching in the classroom environment and claiming that it directly applies to soccer seems to be quite common..

Richard Bailey (International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education) sums it up nicely when I discussed this topic with him. “One of the foundational principles of learning theory is that there is no necessary transfer across domains. What is true for learning reading, for example, does not necessary apply at all to learning skills”. Richard is well worth following on twitter.

Classroom research can be useful for coaches and inform them about stuff like metacognition but the sport of soccer is a completely different context. We also need to consider that a lot of learning in sport is implicit.



Head of Talent Identification at the English FA Nick Levett went on twitter to challenge some myths that seem to regularly cross his path.

So where does this race to the bottom (starting organised football as young as possible) mind-set come from? There are a few misconceptions that we need to examine.

It seems that this “start them early” campaign is driven by the idea that performance is a function of training time and that talent has all to do with practice. Yes, the flawed 10,000 hour’s theory (popularised in the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers) has raised its ugly head again. We know that practice is necessary but when should we practice the most? It is worth taking a look at Practice and Play in the Development of German top level Professional Football Players. See link here.

I have seen and heard coaches and journalists debating the need to select the best 8 year old’s and put them together with the best coaches so that they can be taught the `correct’ technique as early as possible. This is the promotion of a coach centred and instruction lead environment driven by explicit instructions. Yet, soccer especially at a young age also relies on implicit learning, which is difficult to achieve soley with direct instruction. This is a very important point taken up by Daniel Memmert when I interviewed him with regard to his book Teaching Tactical Creativity. See link here.

Coaching kids? Could your 1st responsibility as coach be to inspire them to play independently of you?

A key challenge for coaches is to design training and create learning environments that result in sustainable motivation. So that the learner will deliberately want to improve (intrinsic).

This fascination of doing as much football (in the organised practice sense) as possible as young as possible that Nick Levett refers to brings us into the domain of early specialisation. Driven by the 10,000 hour’s concept this is potentially harmful to kids in the long-term. Often leading to physical and psychological burnout.


The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports-A Meta-Analysis (Brooke N. Macnamara, David Moreau, David Z. Hambrick )

The “productification” of Youth Sports

Early competitive pressure driven by feeling of falling behind if you don’t practice drives the start age down and the training volume up in early years. This is more than often reflected in a coach centred philosophy where the training environment is dominated by drill orientated sessions. The child (just like those selected 8 year olds with the best coaches) is already seen as an investment for the future, a product. But the product needs to be developed. This is where the “Lords of Technique” step in. Selling the erroneous assumption that there is a typical or ‘normal’ way of performing an action. One size fits all “technique” coaches selling products and teaching fake fundamentals. 10,000 hour’s costs X per hour.

The perfect technique is a myth, it is really an average technique, one that we teach kids through monotonous repetitions of the same movement without context. There is no, one size fits all, there is no singular answer, there is no perfect technique.

“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 there and why? And if it doesn’t make sense, how can it be transformed to become greater.”- Swedish Master chef Magnus Nilsson

Early Talent ID

Part of this race to the bottom is early talent identification. Recently a hot topic of discussion on social media, TV and newspapers (usually when a country exits a tournament like the Euros 2016). Early talent identification is based on the assumption that early performance is seen as a good predictor of future performance. Again we are back to that previous reference of selecting the best 8 year olds and putting them together with the best coaches. We see speed, strength, co-ordination and size. These are all functions of maturity. I recently had a meeting with a young ambitious coach who was reflecting a lot over his role. I was very impressed (and somewhat jealous) that someone half my age possessed such a good knowledge of learning design for young kids. He had moved away from the isolated drill technique training of his previous club and already was seeing the motivational benefits of a more global approach. However, he was now employed by a club that had an academy selection policy for 9 year olds. I asked him if he could send me the dates of birth for the players selected to his academy team. 66% of the players selected were born the first 3 months of the year. This is often referred to as Relative Age Effect (RAE) and it does seem to give us a false picture of early performance. The difference between a child born in January and December is almost chronologically one year. For an 8 year-old that is one eight of their life. If we complicate things even further and introduce the influence of biological age then it gets even more complex. An 8 year- old can have a biological age of say 7 or a biological age of 10. So a child born in January with the biological age of 10 can be 3 years older than a child born in December. Early talent identification is often observed through a false lens where the coach sees ability that in reality is merely function of maturity. The club, the association or Governing Body then proceed to pump most resources in to performers that are relatively older.

Is the coach educator capable of delivering this?

Navigating the complexity of working with children in sport is demanding. We must have high goals and these goals must be expressed in the NGB Coach education curriculum. Is the coach educator capable of delivering this? This is a very important question that is asked in the research and analysis paper Developing expert coaches requires expert coach development: Replacing serendipity with orchestration (Abraham, A., Collins, D., Morgan, G., & Muir, B. 2009). See link here.

“This may sound obvious, but our experience is that often people have not recognised how they may limit the development of others. We are not suggesting that this has been a deliberate attempt to undermine the development of others it is just the reality of the situation. Sports have often been guilty of putting people in charge of major educational initiatives who simply don’t have the expertise to complete the task. This is often the reason why the short term fixes, that Druckman and Bjork (1994) refer to emerge. People without expertise try to fix the most obvious thing that is wrong and often fail to see the underpinning problems that are really the issue (Abraham and Collins, 1998). After all, we only know what we know, our decision making is constrained by personal theory which in turn is built on our personal ‘repertoire’ of experience (Gilbert and Trudel, 1999).”

What, Who, Where, Why

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 coaches should ask ourselves as they engage with the young learner.

So perhaps instead of thinking that we know what we are looking FOR (which we may well do), perhaps we need to understand what we are looking AT. Well, we are looking at children and children are not mini-adults.

I will sign off with this from the excellent John Kiely (twitter)

What do you believe?                                                                                                                        

Why do you believe it? Because it’s conventional; because it’s comfortable; because it’s been passed down in a path-dependent way; or because you have reflected deeply and it best fits your current state of learning and experience?

Are your beliefs flexible?

If not, why not? Because you are so certain of their truth that you refuse to consider they may be in error? Because you are emotionally attached to them? Because you have invested so much in them that even contemplating change is too uncomfortable?

If your beliefs are either set in stone; or chop and change in response to fads and fashion or gimmicks or shiny toys, maybe you need to review the ‘threshold of evidence’ necessary to motivate you to re-align your philosophy.






22 thoughts on “We may know what we are looking FOR but do we understand what we are looking AT?

  1. Much thoughts to consider for Most coaches that I meet in my position as a boys05 coach.

    But how could I start implementing these thoughts in a medium/big youth club where most coaches are former players saying “well, when I was a player we did this way and that worked rather well for us”.

    I quit football as a 10 year old because of boring training and coaches centered around their own kids. A now as an adult I have joined my son’s club to try make it funnier for all kids hoping to keep some of those “fringe” players at the club.

    I find it rather difficult to make people not always concentrating on results and look at our improvements instead.
    We finished last in without winning a match in our last cup but we let all kids play the same amount of time and the progress we have made as a team is huge. But even the kids get tired when we don’t win no matter how much you tell them “look at the progress we are doing”.

    We need a huge amount of work and time to change our clubs coaches mindset and I think this goes for most of the clubs in our long country…

  2. Some fantastic point throughout and some I feel we already take into consideration at my professional club, in which at the end of last season we didn’t release one player through the whole academy.
    I am a big believer in making sure the main part of coaching in the foundation phase is for the players to enjoy the game & learn within this structure. Most of our sessions therefore are variations of the game allowing players lots of touches and lots of decisions to be made with a football.

  3. Being a teacher I totally believe until you build positive relationships with players/ students you won’t start making good progress, whether that be socially, academically or in a sporting context. It’s refreshing to read a footballing blog like this.

    This is not a new TED talk, but I hope you all find it resonates with your own contexts:


  4. Lot of times heard statement is that because of RAE and starting ages… there should be performance grouping to keep it challenging and fun for everyone? Too easy/too hard –> no fun… (good coaches for everyone)

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