Designing a Learning Space: Football Interactions

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As a preface to this blog I would like to introduce a ‘typical argument’ that was so eloquently dealt with by Rob Gray (Twitter) on his excellent Perception Action Podcast series. I have added some extra points to this discussion.

  • You must know ABC before you can learn to write
  • Should you try to teach “Calculus” to a student without first learning them basic math first?

This argument is often used in relation to the idea that we need to teach the children the “basics” (basic technique) first through repetition and corrections with the goal of reducing variability before you can get good at a sport.

Some points need to be addressed

  • As highlighted by Rob, learning ABC and mathematics are very cognitive skills that require learning a lot of undeniable facts. As a new beginner, I’m not free to bring my own answer to 2 + 2 or which letter comes first in the alphabet. But this type of learning is completely different than learning perceptual motor skills where the building of declarative facts is not needed and the young player is free to bring his own solutions in a certain context.
  • Learning is continuous: The best youth coaches understand that young learners do not follow some predictable linear progression. Instead, these coaches look to create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.
  • The nonlinearity of human learning should help us understand that young players don’t necessarily need to start at the same place and don’t progress at the same rate. Skills stutter and stagger into young player’s repertoires, with variable trajectories that oscillate between skill expression and non-expression over several days, weeks, or months and even years. The simplistic linear approach of starting with A, moving on to B and then C, may suit the coach but not necessarily the learner. There is increasing acceptance that individual differences among learners need to be accounted for when we plan our training sessions and coaching interventions (Chow & Atencio, 2012).
  • Skills have history: If it is understood that movement solutions performed as solutions to a problem cannot be separated from the environment in which it takes place then it should be understood as hypothesised by Baily & Pickford (2010) that skills have history. Movement solutions performed in these early organised sports environments cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point. It is important for coaches to reflect on the idea that we should not lock players in to a “bio-mechanical template” because it does not take into full account of the physiological, psychological and social differences. ( Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction)

Rob Gray sums up his argument- Expert players have very little variation in the “outcome” of their action and this is what traditional coaches look at. They assume they have to coach the “basics” through repetition and no variation. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts in “skill acquisition and motor learning”. The problem is that the coach is looking at the result, not the process. While expert players have very little variation in the outcome of their actions, they have quite a big variation in the “process” that leads to the outcome. They can organize their movement to each unique situation. Therefore, the idea of ​​Bernstein’s “repetition without repetition” and repetition of variation and self-organization under constraints’s are basic ideas that coaches need to understand when designing exercise for young players

Designing a Learning Space

The following is a description of various principles and concepts some coach colleagues and I are using when designing learning environments for kids 8-12 years at our club (AIK in Stockholm Sweden). This is followed by a task skilfully designed by my colleague Linus Wennberg (Twitter) and implemented together with our colleague Alex Lomas (Twitter) at a recent player’s camp. The design emerged from discussions based on the concepts and principles shown below.

A philosophical Base

What is Football?

  • In Possession
  • Recovering the ball

How do we train football?

Football Interactions are how an athlete coordinates their behaviour within the performance context (the game), in relation to that environment, on the basis of not only physical and informational (i.e., situational) demands, but also on the basis of historical and cultural factors.

  • Football Interactions (dribble, drive, pass, shoot, movement without the ball …….
  • The best players have a high ability to connect perception and action and select relevant information to utilise football interactions for that situation
  • Therefore, training design should include information representative of the game to enhance the connection of perception and action and utilization through football interactions of relevant information.

In possession: Search, Discover, Exploit space and gaps. (Football interactions that emerge: Dribble, drive, pass, shoot, movement without ball)

Recovering the ball: Close space, minimise possibilities for opponent’s football interactions and win the ball. (Football Interactions that emerge: Press, tackling, movement without the ball)

Principles of Nonlinear Pedagogy


  • Representative learning – Are what the players doing and feeling representative of the game?
  • Repetition without repetition (movement variability) – Repetition with variation
  • Keep perception and action coupled – Information in the session design should reflect aspects of the real game
  • Promote an external focus of attention

 Some considerations for Learning Design

  • Boundaries – size and shape of pitch
  • Scoring – shape size and orientation of goals
  • Players – number and allocation
  • Start position of players
  • Start position of ball feed
  • Point scoring system
  • Additional rules and regulations

Design a Task that Simulates an Aspect of the Performance Environment

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4v4 (with Goalkeepers)

This task is designed to help players to implicitly understand the value of concepts such as width, depth (forward and back), ubication (body profile and position) and how to direct the young players attention to information to utilise gaps/space. We want to develop players with a better understand IN the game rather than just of the game. We can achieve this through the deliberate designing IN of key affordances with which learners can interact during practice (Chow et al, 2016). By making the learning space affordance driven learning opportunities can be designed ‘in’ to practice by including information representative of the game to enhance the connection of perception and action to encourage the utilization of relevant information through football interactions. Affordances are opportunities for action in this case football interactions (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014) and are related to an individual’s ability to use available information to regulate and organise actions to develop adaptable behaviours that support expert performance (Esteves, Oliveira, & Araújo, 2010). Football interactions (dribble, drive, pass movement off the ball) are tuned by environmental information to function specifically in each unique situation emphasising the need to understand the nature of the information that constrains movement. Through the designing ‘in’ of affordances the coach can educate the attention of the young player to enhance the connection of perception and action and utilization through football interactions of relevant information.

When working with young players (who in general want to be near the ball or have tendencies to always move towards the ball) we do not need to explicitly tell them to create width and depth. Instead, we can give value to the idea of moving away from the ball by deliberately designing the environment to be more compatible with the action capabilities of the young learners we help the player to learn through perceptual ‘attunement’ how to acquire the ability to scale information to their own action capabilities (i.e. calibration) (Fajen, Riley, and Turvey 2009).

If you are stepping in to the learning process, then you better add value.

  • Through task design and manipulation of task constraints (number of players, pitch size etc.) we can challenge players to answer the question- Is it harder to defend a large space or a small space? What implications does this have for the team in possession? The kids in the video decided that when in possession they had to try and create a large space (how large is of course uniquely situation dependent) to play in (they want to make it hard for their opponents to recover the ball). Here we are giving value to the idea of moving away from the ball. When the team in possession behave like this, learning how to optimise space, they are creating opportunities and opening up possibilities for football interactions. These affordances emerge and decay in the dynamic evolving environment.
  • When in possession, can you find time and space to receive the ball with the foot furthest away? Note no mention of left or right foot (we want to minimise any internal focus of attention). The focus (external) is on finding and creating space and the time. The idea of receiving the ball in time and space and possibly with the foot furthest away is situation dependent can implicitly develop the emergence of a good body profile while finding the time and space to do this implicitly develops the emergence of good positioning, all this while promoting an external focus of attention.
  • What are gaps and how do we exploit them? A gap between two players can give the player in possession the opportunity to use football interactions such as dribble or pass the ball through the gap depending on the situation. How players perceive and utilise football interactions on a similar affordance (a gap between two players) is subjective and highly individualised. Skills have history and learning is continuously shaped by interaction of task, environmental & individual constraints (Newell, 1986).  Gaps may well afford a player like Messi the opportunity to dribble through the gap or a player like Xavi to pass through the gap to an oncoming forward. These individual differences in perception and thus utilisation of football interactions is influenced by their unique personal “effectivities”, or put another way, capabilities to act on the possibilities invited by the dynamic affordances in the environment.

Skill viewed as an Interaction

Skill when viewed as an interaction is how learners affect change through the utilisation of affordances using football interactions (dribble, pass, off ball movement) as they search, discover and exploit information in response to what the game is asking of them. In other words, learning to become skilfully attuned to each situation that the game presents to them. This idea of ongoing adaption or ‘skill attunement’ elucidates the idea that coaches should create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.

The acquisition of skill by a young learner involves what Gibson (1966, 1979) referred to as ‘educate their attention’. The process of educating attention crucially involves the designing of tasks that simulate aspects of the performance environment and to selectively introduce the young player to the right aspects of the environment and their affordances. The young player is provided with the opportunity to learn what possibilities for action an aspect of the environment provides. Perceiving an affordance is to perceive how one can act using football interactions. This dependence of affordances on abilities and expressed in football interactions can help inform the coach about the young players, their learning process, the level of skills they possess and therefore how to design practice


Araújo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. (2006). The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,7(6), 653-676. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.07.002

Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2011). What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18, 7 23.

Bailey & Pickard (2010) Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance, Sport, Education and Society, 15:3, 367-382, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2010.493317

Chow, J. Y., & Atencio, M. (2012). Complex and nonlinear pedagogy and the implications for physical education. Sport, Education and Society, 1–21.

Chow, J. Y. (2013). Nonlinear Learning Underpinning Pedagogy: Evidence, Challenges, and Implications. Quest,65(4), 469-484. doi:10.1080/00336297.2013.807746

Davids, K., Araújo, D., Correia, V., & Vilar, L. (2013). How small-sided and conditioned games enhance acquisition of movement and decision-making skills. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 41 3, 154-61.

Davids, K., Güllich, A., Shuttleworth., R., & Araújo, D. (2017). Understanding Environmental and Task Constraints on Talent Development, In J. Baker, S. Cobley, J. Schorer & N. Wattie (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Abingdon: Routledge.

Development of Walking: 15 suggestions. Trends in Cognitive Science (2018)

Esteves, P., Oliveira, R. d., & Araújo, D. (2011). Posture-related affordances guide attacks in basketball. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 639-644.

Gibson, J. J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Newell, K.M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. In M.G. Wade & H.T.A Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control, pp. 341-361. Amsterdam: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology,26(4), 325-352. doi:10.1080/10407413.2014.958035




















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