The Phenomenon of Path Dependence in child-youth Sport



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.For many years a dominant feature of child-youth football training has been an approach where a session would progress from an isolated drill with explicit demonstrations of how to execute the ‘correct’ technique (Williams & Hodges, 2005),to eventually a game, with explicit feedback from the coach (O’Connor, Larkin, & Williams, 2018). As highlighted by Mckay & O’ Connor (2018) team invasion sports training session typically comprise of deliberate structured sequential patterns and repetitive drills. This structured, prescriptive coach -centered approach (Ford et al., 2010) has been the dominant paradigm in child-youth football coaching and can be described as a path dependency. The phenomenon of path dependence as highlighted by John Kiely (2017) captures the notion that often ‘‘something that seems normal today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, and survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice’’ (McWorther j, 2017).

In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Paul Krugman for a body of work illustrating the hidden path-dependent influences shaping industrial trade patterns. Krugman, amongst others, suggests path-dependent phenomena are pervasive in life. Operating not only within socio-industrial settings but whenever prior solutions become enshrined in practice and are routinely perpetuated, despite a change in the underlying circumstances from which those solutions arose. Put plainly, path dependence emphasizes that where we go next depends not only on where we are now, but also where we have been (Liebowitz SJ, Margolis SE, 1995).

John Kiely’s insights in to periodization are well worth checking out. They confront an inconvenient truth, especially with regard to linear periodization models made popular and turned in to a product by some ‘expert’ coach educators.

It is not an either-or argument,

A coach centered philosophy where the training environment is dominated by drill orientated sessions has influenced coaching cultures that advocate technique focused, direct instruction of athletes (Light, Harvey & Mouchet, 2012) and has contributed to coach’s assuming that players learn best through persistent repetition of movements (Hornig et al., 2016; O’Connor et al., 2017). This approach embodies a perceived priority of developing technical aspects that need to be mastered before game play (Evans, 2006 ). Previous research has also suggested that these overly prescriptive approaches to instruction as exemplified by this approach can be detrimental for learning (Ford et al., 2010 ), can result in significant motivational problems (Renshaw et al, 2012) and islikely to promote the false assumption that there are no other possible alternatives (Balagué &Torrents, 2011).

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 the coach from the dominant historical and cultural ideas (i.e. premature professionalism, ‘productification’ of childrens football by ‘gurus’) and tendencies of a society.

So, it’s not an either-or argument. It is about thinking critically how certain beliefs arise, why and by whom they are maintained and just maybe willing to accept an inconvenient truth as a great learning opportunity.

I will finish with a quote from John Kiely (2017):

Path dependence reminds us that the philosophical bedrock of many inherited doctrinal beliefs often remain shielded from skeptical scrutiny, sheltered by an ideological inertia. Sometimes, consequently, re-evaluating embedded belief systems requires we excavate the deep- seated often-forgotten foundations upon which traditional assumptions are supported.

Happy Birthday Marvin Gaye!


Evans, J. R. (2006). Elite level rugby coaches interpretation and use of game sense in New

Zealand. The Asian Journal of Exercise & Sports Science, 3(1), 17–24.

Ford, P.R., Yates, I., & Williams, A.M. (2010). An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviours used by youth soccer coaches during practice: Exploring the link between science and application. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(5), 483–495. PubMed ID: 20419591 doi:10.1080/02640410903582750

Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Gullich, A. (2016). Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 96–105. PubMed ID: 25440296 doi:10.1080/17461391.2014.982204

Kiely, John. (2017). Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Medicine. 48. 10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y.

Liebowitz SJ, Margolis SE. Path dependence, lock-in, and history. JL Econ Org. 1995;11:205.

Mckay, Jim & O’Connor, Donna. (2018). Practicing Unstructured Play in Team Ball Sports: A Rugby Union Example. International Sport Coaching Journal. 5. 1-8. 10.1123/iscj.2017-0095.

McWorther J. What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? Path dependence. 2011. Available from: Accessed 16 Nov 2017.

O’Connor, D., Larkin, P., & Williams, M. A. (2018). Observations of youth football training: How do coaches structure training sessions for player development? Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(1), 39-47.

O’Connor, D., Larkin, P., & Williams, A.M. (2017). What learning environments help improve decision-making?Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 22(6), 647–660. doi:10.1080/17408989.2017. 1294678

Renshaw, I. (2012). Nonlinear Pedagogy Underpins Intrinsic Motivation in Sports Coaching. The Open Sports Sciences Journal,5(1), 88-99. doi:10.2174/1875399×01205010088

Williams, A. M., & Hodges, N. J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(6), 637-650.





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