A Holistic View: Flexible framework, sound developmental principles and emerging information.

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

A holistic view on the complexity of youth sports. Various systems interacting over time to influence performance, participation and personal development



So let’s break this framework down

The Constraints Led Approach

The Constraints Led Approach I find is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of complex and emerging information to give us an understanding of skill learning during practice and play. Constraints whilst not always negative or limiting are boundaries that channel the learner to explore and search for functional movement solutions. Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time

Learning and performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental and individual (player) constraints. 



What are the factors that influence performance. participation and personal development?


  • Constraints change over time due to developmental differences.
  • Constraints decay and emerge over time meaning that their importance can vary.
  • Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time



The Individual/player


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.(The International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement)



The Environment

Human systems are made up of people and people make decisions for complex reasons; moreover, they learn, they interact and they live in complex environments which themselves are constantly changing (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)




The Task

Coaches have more control over the manipulation of task constraints than individual and environmental constraints.


For the purpose of retention and transfer, training should be representative of the performance environment


Learning organises the perception- action system with respect to what happened


Through exploration we can search for information. How often do we design training where we ask our players to explore and learn about our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses? Example: A winger deliberately testing a full back to inform what the best attacking strategy might be. (Ian Renshaw)

The Coach


Design the Task


To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must

  • Have a good knowledge of the sport
  • Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
  • Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
  • Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does NOT achieve this)
  • Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.

Nonlinear pedagogy

  • Players (Humans) are complex systems (Learning and performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental and individual constraints.
  • Repetition with Variability
  • Adaptability – No one size fits all technique
  • Representativeness (see here)
  • Focus of attention – External/Internal) see my interview with Daniel Memmert here!
  • Prescribe a task (problem) not the movement (solution)

For more on Nonlinear pedagogy read ‘The 7 principles of nonlinear pedagogy‘ by Mark Upton.


Design a task that simulates an aspect of the performance environment

A session can be designed to be deliberately flexible one that creates a framework where emerging information can help the trainer to coach what emerges. Using the logical structure of the game (Attack – Transition – Defending) and the principles of co-adaptability we can design with the aim of helping young players learn how to co-adapt (not react) their actions to the moves of other players and the ball.

Co-adaptability: Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on.

A game like the one below that I designed with Maths Elfvendal can afford many learning and coaching opportunities. Maths is the goalkeeper coach for the Swedish national team and IFK Norrköping. His integrated approach to goalkeeper coaching is a philosophy that I fully endorse. (more information here)

The task was designed to work on

  • Transition
  • Build-up of play
  • Counter attack

2 goalkeepers, 7-8 players

The “resting” goalkeeper begins the game by playing the ball behind the defensive line. The other goalkeeper along with the defenders immediately transition to attacking play and try and score in one of the two small goals. The resting goalkeeper should vary the position of distribution and type of ball (high. low…) so that the opponent is continuously faced with the problem of making new decisions.

What we were looking at was how the players re-organise themselves relative to the actions of teammates and opponent during transition. Communication (verbal, non-verbal) is a very important aspect of this.

Defensive actions: This task is very suitable for a team that wants to steer its high pressing in a certain direction while at the same time looking to close off passing lanes for their opponent’s goalkeeper. This may well force the goalkeeper to play a high risk long ball.

Attacking actions: This task is suitable for a team that wants to learn how to quickly play out and through their opponent’s high pressure.

Recommended further reading

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, Ian Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015 )

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

Embracing & Exploiting the Complexity of Player Development (Mark Upton, Cruyff Football Player Development Magazine)

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

The quiet revolution; Swedish youth football and the idea of avoiding exclusion https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/a-quiet-revolution-swedish-youth-football-and-the-idea-of-avoiding-exclusion/


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