The Present is Never a Clean Slate

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In a previous blog, guest writer Phil Kearney (Twitter) summed up his article by suggesting that the skill acquisition specialist works at a variety of levels (individual athlete, coach-athlete interaction, club structure, broader socio-cultural constraints) and on a variety of timescales (a session, a season, a career), to develop individuals capable of skilful interactions. The concept of many interactions at different timescales through time seems central to this. Phil gives an eloquent definition of interactions (skilful interactions) based on the concept of football interactions first defined here on this blog. The term “interactions” refers to how an athlete coordinates his/her behaviour within the performance context, in relation to that environment, on the basis of not only the immediate physical and informational (i.e., situational) demands, but also on the basis of historical and cultural factors.

Skilful interactions are therefore seen as the totality of tasks making up the pattern of activity of a community (Ingold; 2000 p325), from (in team sports) the co-presence of teammates and opponents whose own performance have a bearing on the activity of each individual, the situational demands as well as historical and cultural factors.

As suggested in a previous blog post and hypothesised by Bailey & Pickford (2010), skills have history. However, when we take into consideration the ideas proposed above there is evidently a need to shine a light on the influence of historical and cultural factors and broader socio-cultural constraints. By reflecting on the idea that ‘the present is never a clean slate’ it can be suggested that we gain insight in to how historical and broader socio-cultural factors have had a profound effect on skilful interactions, how they are learned, developed, coached and how we structure our athlete development systems.

The present is never a clean slate

One of the main tenets of human complexity is that, for better or worse we find it hard to shake off history, leaving us vulnerable through time to an historical appeal that seemed perfectly logical at the time. It can be argued that our present and future possibilities in ways of evolving practice and development in sport are impacted by philosophical underpinnings that have evolved through the integration of diverse influences and have remained unchallenged and unchanged. Since many of these fundamental assumptions first emerged, research has moved our understanding forward leading to a need for the re-conceptualisation of the processes of athlete development and expertise in life including in sport. It can be argued that part of this re- conceptualisation process first requires the liberation of a practitioner from the dominant historical and cultural ideas and tendencies of a society, which will be discussed in more detail later.

The World That Concerns us

The world that concerns us is one that is continually novel and changing, a non-ergodic world. This implies that we cannot expect whatever data sets that exist today to reliably inform and guide future outcomes (Paul Davidson Uncertainty, International Money, Employment and Theory: Volume 3: Page 281). When we examine the obsessive search for a single, defined structure for environments to develop athletes in (i.e. I wonder which country will have their development plan heralded as the new way, the truth and the light after the 2018 World Cup?), this in itself seems paradoxical and the question is, why do we try to create generic models to find unique people? ( Att finna och att utveckla talang  – en studie om specialidrottsförbundens talangverksamhet, 2011).

So, what is the root of this constraining dominance that is the need to concern ourselves with issues of certainty and normalise ways as to how we structure development systems promoting the assumption that they can consistently be applied through time and in other environments?

This question is rather eloquently investigated by Jean Boulton in one of her blog posts .

We have taken over one particular form of science, one theory from physics – the idea that things operate like machines – into the social world as it gives us the feeling that we can predict the future and control outcomes. But in fact, the world operates more like an ecology than a machine – interconnected, quirky, evolving, organic, affected by the particularities of context and history.

A paradigm not based on a model of learning but a socio-cultural-historical constructed form of life

As with any social phenomenon, the extent to which history influences socio-cultural practices cannot be ignored. What is of interest is how some ideas filtered into cultural practices in institutional programs in education and sport (Rothwell, Davids, & Stone, 2017) and how they are sheltered by an ideological inertia therefore, requiring us to excavate the deep-seated often-forgotten foundations upon which traditional assumptions are supported (Kiely, 2018). The intuitively appealing logic of Frederick Winslow Taylor as captured in his book The Principles of Scientific Management describes Taylors production line ethos and systematized approach to industrial efficiency that has influenced workplace practice and behaviours, shaping training methods in later years (Lyle, 2002). For example, John Kiely (2012) in his paper Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven? suggested that at a deeper level, sports models such as periodisation share a deep-rooted cultural heritage underpinned by a common set of historically pervasive planning beliefs and assumptions and their shaping influence remains deeply embedded. The attraction of a sense of order and control from this mechanistic view has a culturally pervasive and historical appeal, leading to a dominant thinking that has been extrapolated in to sporting forms of life.

This fragmentation of task and reductionist nature of Taylor’s methods are reminiscent of Classical Thinking and the second maxim from Descartes’ “Discourse on the Method”: fragmenting a problem into as many simple and separated elements as possible (Mallo, Complex Football; 2015). Descartes’ dissertations echo Newton’s mathematical reasoning and their assumed universal relevance that also philosophically underpin Taylor’s system of scientific management. As suggested by Mallo (2015), while Newton’s theories of motion have helped us to build many essential mechanical structures they have also helped to form an atomistic interpretation of our world, a mechanistic world view. The deterministic nature (future state can be predicted from a previous state) of Newton’s mechanical systems is highly seductive as it suggests that the whole can be divided in to separate parts offering the promise of control and predictability.

Unchallenged influences bleeding in to athlete development environments?

I think that the problem is that people always want to separate things. It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them (Juanma Lillo; 2011,

Although not universal, isolation of knowledge in team sports has in the past been relatively common. Fitness coaches prepare the physical capacity of the athlete away from the sporting context and use tests to predict fitness before putting the athlete back in the game with little knowledge of other constraints that can affect performance. Technique coaches focussing only on relationship between player and the ball, the dichotomy of conception and execution in decision-making process models in some coach education programs and sports psychologists separating the subject and object. These are no more than sectoral and analytical assessments of individual parts of the process, and the truth is that the athlete’s progress will only take place when all the structures progress in balance (Seirul.lo, 2002).

In a recent interview in El Pais Portuguese football coach Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United and current Iran national coach reflected on his early years as a coach and studying the game. He understood while doing his thesis that, “in the end, what we were offering children in education was not football”. It was not based on a model of learning but a socio-cultural-historical constructed form of life that emerged from deeply embedded pervasive historical beliefs and assumptions, a model of learning that according to Queiroz “told us that the sum of the parts makes the whole. That has been a disaster for football”. Further elucidating the conception and execution dichotomy, Queiroz suggested that these reductionist methods promoted during his formal coach education missed out on a very important component, which is the freedom of decision. The training environment was essentially coach centred; “Because we became game directors. We did not want players with decision-making skills. And, those imaginative and creative players are built by stimulating freedom of decision”.

While in general sport-related phenomena (talent development, talent identification, participation, injuries, stress) are recognised as complex, the focus on one sub-discipline, which typically is drawn from physiology, biomechanics or psychology, may provide relevant research results, but might also offer conflicting practical information (Balagué, Torrents, Hristovski & Kelso, 2016).  We know that these factors change over (through) time, we also understand that components behave differently when they are isolated to when they are interacting in an entire network of processes (Noble, 2006).  Araújo (2013), called for a more holistic and integrated view on sport behaviour research, where psychology, physiology, biomechanics, neurosciences, and sociology address together sport phenomena. However, Balagué et al (2016) refer to an illusion of integration, that despite great advances and growth, sports science has mostly produced further specialisation and fragmentation (Hristovski et al., 2016).

Athlete development Form of Life

The world that concerns us is one that is continually novel and changing. “World”, of course, does not mean something outside as opposed to inside, the external world against the internal or mental world. It is rather the totality of life in the sense of an all-embracing framework of meaning in which a person’s experience, thinking and acting are embedded (Fuchs, 2007), shaped in a form of life. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the term form of life to describe the behaviours, skills, capacities, attitudes, values, beliefs, practices and customs that shape the culture, philosophy and climate of societies, institutions and organisations (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014). Rothwell, Davids and Stone (2017) noted that forms of life are founded upon specific socio-cultural, economic and historical constraints that have shaped the development of performance in a particular sport or physical activity. For good or bad, these dominant forms of life shape the culturally dominant climate in and around athlete development at all levels, both in how it is perceived, how training is designed and carried out and how development for better or for worse is understood. Swedish researcher Karin Redelius suggested that culture in a particular club or sports organisation is partly a result of a historical process influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders (Spela Vidare: Att vilja och kunna fortsätta om idrottens utformning och tillgänglighet, p. 33).

Therefore, athletes involved in organised sports should also be understood as an imbedded feature of their broader context, culturally defined, enabled and constrained.

Taking in to account historical factors and broader socio-cultural constraints, the question I am now reflecting on is, how can we design learning environments with the adaptive efficiency to work effectively not just at a moment in time but through time? Learning environments for as many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible.


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Att finna och att utveckla talang  – en studie om specialidrottsförbundens talangverksamhet, 2011

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