State of Play: Child & Youth Development in Sport- Views from around the world

Sam basket

I recently wrote an article for the Irish Times about the role of the youth coach being more challenging than ever. I am very grateful for how the article has been received and thankful for the many messages of support I have been sent from various parts of the world. You can read it here

The biggest challenge that I feel we have ahead of us in child-youth sport can be summed up in the following sentence. As many as possible as long as possible in the best environment possible. Kids are being selected early in to environments that often demand early specialisation in one sport. Elite status is being hung around the necks of 7 year olds, clubs, coaches are promoting it and parents are buying in to it. The societal expectation that is today attached to youth sport is screwing up the learning process. Young bodies and minds are being turned away by and from the sport at a ridiculously early age. Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids

In Canada at the Ontario Soccer Summit Jason de Vos Director of Development at Canada Soccer delivered a powerful and stirring keynote speech on exactly this and more!


In Scotland Andy Kirkland (twitter), a sports scientist from the Scottish Institute of Sport and a lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Stirling asks the question “can we make Scottish football great again?” Andy is an outsider looking in. His journey takes him deep into the traditional heart of Scottish player development and then heads to Island to see if there are lessons to be learnt from there. Read it here.

In Scotland, he finds that there are many enthusiastic coaches who are eager to learn but who ultimately feel that they are just another brick in the wall of what is at best a flawed system.

“However, I do question whether it is possible for players to experience joy and fun in a club academy structure in which 9-year olds experience pressure to progress to the next level. This is a false economy because those who have fun and develop a love of the game will invariably perform at a higher level as they mature”.

Andy also examines the socio-economical and sociocultural constraints that are emerging because of modern academy structures.

“This system disadvantages players from the previous working-class hotbeds of football, because their families may not have the access to a car to take them to training and they may not have the where-for-all to support a performance lifestyle”.

In Singapore there was a sold out Youth Coaching Conference organised by the National Sports Institute (see here). Themes from the conference included, redefining success in youth sports. One of the markers of success is if the young athletes want to keep coming back to the next session of their own volition and are not forced to come.

There was a lot of focus on the types of relationships coaches have with their athletes.Prof Jean Côté specialises in Sport Psychology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, where he is also the Coaching Director in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies was one of the main speakers. He is an expert in the areas of youth sport, coaching, and positive youth development.

“Very often we think about the outcomes of sport. (But) what created those outcomes? Setting an environment that is positive for the kids, diversification, and play. The relational aspects of coaching, if we applied it well, it will lead to some very positive outcomes,”  Prof Jean Côté at the Youth Coaching Conference organised by the National Youth Sports Institute(NYSI).

In England head of coaching at Sport England, Stuart Armstrong (twitter) has begun an excellent series of Facebook live “walkabouts” where he discusses the 7 deadly sins of talent development. Check out part one (or sin one).   


In Sweden, the districts of Skåne and Halland along with some Swedish researchers and sports psychologists have issued a joint statement on how they will shape and form child-youth sport in the future.

Read the Swedish document here:En åsikt med insikt (1) (1)

English translation of joint statement by Skåne and Hallands Football Association read here: An opinion with insigh Skane and Halland Statement

The statement is called “An opinion with insight”. In line with trying to offer a sporting environment with a focus on happiness and well-being  Hallands and Skåne Football Association (HFF and SKFF) have taken the decision to fundamentally change how things work with children and youth in their respective districts.

Here are some of the main points

  1. During the last few years the following points have been debated in Swedish child-youth sports.
  • Early selection process
  • Permanent ability groupings
  • Loading teams with those who can perform best now at the expense of others
  • Publishing league tables
  1. Far to common use of anecdotes as proof for an argument (“I know a player that….”), adult based common sense (“it worked for me therefore it will work for everyone”).
  2. We believe that child-youth sport should be grounded in research and the best available evidence in combination with the child’s own views.
  3. If we want our children and young people to be active in sports then one of our main tasks is to create environments that promote happiness and well-being. specialisation.
  4. Team selection at the expense of others, permanent ability groupings (only the best can play with the best), early selection process. For us, these concepts/practices are not developing Swedish football and they certainly don’t care about a child’s development. Research clearly shows that children’s sports activities carried out under the influence of these concepts segregates children and young people and leads to large drop out. We wonder how it is morally and ethically possible to defend practices that advocate this?
  5. Naturally, early selection and exclusion are not the cause of all negative aspects in child and youth sport (there are many other things that also create problems)
  6. Trying to predict future top players goes against the best available evidence from research. Believing in this means that you are not only fooling yourself and your organisation but you are also fooling the children and their parents.
  7. We suspect that there is widespread silence behind much of the structured talent work carried out in Sweden today, where the elite camps at an early age is a central framework.
  8. We need to put more time and resources in to training our leaders and further develop the environments in which our players are active everyday i.e our clubs. The focus should be on giving our leaders the tools needed to create a sustainable motivational climate where all children and young people feel welcome while they develop as footballers and people. This is not the whole solution to the problems that exist, but we hope and believe that it may take us a big step forward.

The statement is signed by the following people:

Johan Johqvist     Chairman Hallands Football Association

Claes Ohlsson Chairman Skånes Football Association

Andreas Ivarsson Fil. Dr in psychology (sport, movement, health), Högskolan i Halmstad

Johan Fallby Sports psychologist (FC Copenhagen) and advisor

Magnus Lindwall Lecturer in psychology (health), Göteborgs Universitet

Youth participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage. At the heart of its structure must be a commitment to learning, a commitment to creating high quality learning environments. This places great demands on coaches, leaders and those responsible for educating them.

Children who throw themselves heart and soul into sport deserve responsible and knowledgeable leaders. So as the race to the bottom gathers pace I feel that there are two areas we must place a larger focus on if we are to develop a more informed opinion around what has already become a highly polarised debate.

  • Education of coach educators (see here)
  • Parent education on the child in sport

Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids. Develop feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. After which we should be aiming to work with as many young players as possible for as long as possible in the best environment possible


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