Towards an open conversation on evolving a purposeful and supportive culture, for players, children, coaches, parents, leaders and community in Irish youth soccer

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People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true –Steven Pinker

While the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have metaphorically been fumbling in the greasy till, having its governance rightly questioned and investigated, one should also ask the question when will child-youth soccer in Ireland come to sense?

The ongoing FAI conduct and governance investigations (see here) has encouraged many displays of “political enthusiasm” and calls for reform within Irish soccer. However, there seems to be no attempt to start an open conversation on evolving a purposeful and supportive culture in and around Irish youth soccer, for players, children, coaches, parents, leaders and community. Instead, generic linear pathways, early selection and scouting and a deep uncomfortable tension seems to be at present a dominant feature of the Irish youth soccer landscape.

Are we denying children the intrinsic values of ‘their’ sport, though the promotion of adult constructs such as earlier and earlier talent identification and a type of premature professionalism?

A Culture of Tension

The excellent work of Laura Finnegan (2019) has highlighted tensions that exists within the SFAI (Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland) and outwardly to the FAI (based on leadership capabilities, financial tensions and a lack of perceived organisational justice).Unfortunately, there is also tension spilling out on to the pitch. Recently referee Harry McCann (link) quit after four years of abuse and violent threats from parents and coaches.

The Race to the Bottom

A recent post by The Coach Diary on his Facebook group and twitter feedis worrying. It reveals a culture that is accelerating the race to the bottom(earlier and earlier talent identification), and a form of premature professionalism.

“it is vitally important that we start to identify potential players for next season. Player ID and Recruitment is an important part of managing/coaching a Premier / A team…..Please note that when we are attending the various tournaments / mini world cups over the next few weeks, please be as discreet as possible (no ******* gear) particularly in the early stages of the events. Checklist Be organised –cover all tournaments comprehensively. Be discreet and use your “eyes and ears”. Identify the best players only. Make a note of any distinctive features (colour of boots, first name, club shorts etc..) and try and obtain his name. Try and identify his parents. Use the network of people within the club and/or current or past players to see if anyone knows the parents/boy if we need to make contact after the 1st July. Use our own Mini World Cup to introduce the club to the player/parents. Can each Premier / A team manager please send me a weekly list of potential players that we may try and recruit (after the 1st July) in the coming weeks”.

As with any social phenomenon, sport coaching and player development practices are habituated by wider political and cultural contexts (Day, Carter, & Carpenter, 2013) that promote or nurture (Reed 1993) and influencethe norms of the player development process within a specific national sports culture (Araújo et al., 2010). For instance, as suggested by Dr. Martin Toms (2014), children see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Just like their family backgrounds, they accept what they perceive as the norm. I would argue that the ‘perception of norms’ within Irish youth soccer also influences adult coaches to willingly act as scouts to recruit young children and parents to accept these practices as the norm.All this despite the research revealing considerable data that show the ineffectiveness of early talent identification (Collins & MacNamara, 2018).So, while  there are anecdotal examples of great athletes being ‘talent spotted’ early in their development, we know that systems used to predict the future athletic success of pre-pubescent children are of questionable validity (Ford et al., ). Still, a dominant theme emerging from the numerous Irish media discussions on youth player development is the quite unimaginative and linear idea of the “best” must be with the “best” as early as possible.

A much clearer ‘pyramid’ pathway started to take form recently when the FAI implemented an U13 national league. Bailey & Collins (2013) referred to this “pyramid model” as the Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD). They claim that it is a structure that is based on erroneous presumptions. (i) Development and performance are essentially linear. (ii) Early ability that is identified as talent indicates future ability and performance. Despite an inherent paradox i.e. the implementation of a generic linear pathway in the hope of finding unique people, it is being touted by the FAI as “factors guaranteeing the correct learning and development” (2018). A bold statement indeed! The legitimacy of this development model/pathway, taking in to consideration the unique set ofsocial, cultural and institutional conditions and constraints evident in Irish sport, has rightfully been questioned (2018).

The reality is that an u13 league (presumably with the same teams as the u15 league will have 24 teams that means that 264 players will start a game at this level each week. In line with best practice we must keep more boys within the talent development system at this age, the manta of ‘as many as possible for as long as possible’ must be taken into consideration. Other players at this age must continue to receive quality coaching. Understandably the lure of being attached to LOI clubs might draw quality coaches from surrounding areas but the FAI must not forget about the schoolboy league clubs, they must be supported. Due to maturational factors, adolescence is an exceptionally difficult time to ‘select out’ players from an already narrow base (see insights on the Relative Age Effect here). There must be flexibility within the pathway to allow players to join later, links with schoolboy league clubs to allow flexibility for players to gain game time, the ability of players to get into the u15 squad without necessarily having come through an u13-u15 league.(

Richard Bailey (2014) reminds us that there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how these type of generic “elite” programmes work. “Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions”.

International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athlete Development

The phenomenon of youth development in sport has been transformed during the past two decades. Against the background of significant concerns, and, in an effort to advance a more unified and evidence-informed approach to youth athlete development, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) organised a consensus meeting of experts in the field in November 2014. A critical evaluation of the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development was presented in May 2015 (Bergeron, et al, 2015). As indicated in the IOC consensus statement, child-youth sports have become disproportionately both adult- and media- centered, reflecting an urgent need for us to question the culture, organisational structural mechanisms and underlying philosophy for developing youth athletes:

“There is also an urgent need to extend our views of youth athlete development to include the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, including the underlying philosophy for developing youth athletes, the systems of specific sports and interactions between athletes, coaching styles and practices, the effects on youth athletes from parental expectations and the view of youth athletes as commodities, which is often intrusive with a fine line between objectivity and sensationalism” (IOC Consensus statement,  2014)

Alan Byrne a Uefa B coach with a BSc in Sports Science and a MSc in Teaching & Learning echoes the sentiments expressed in the International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement.

“The biggest issue I see from a culture point of view at the moment is in the lack of any evidence-based practice in youth coaching practice. Presently we have a structure in place that promotes an ‘elite’ pathway from the ages of under13, officially. Unofficially though this approach creates an environment whereby parents place their children in single sport participation from a very early age in the belief that they are missing out on a place on this pathway. The evidence suggests this is not best practice and ultimately leads to burnout and drop out during early teenage years. Best practice is simply not being followed. We are now in a climate where schoolboy football sees children as commodities within a framework design for an by adults for adult outcomes. The environment is toxic with very little child centered coaching taking place. It is the adultification of schoolboy football. The governing bodies have done nothing to counter this, instead opting to shoehorn children into an adult orientated structure”. (Alan Byrne, Director of Coaching, Lourdes Celtic Football Club, Dublin)

Towards an open conversation on evolving a purposeful and supportive culture, for players, children, coaches, parents, leaders and community.

Player development programmes should be dynamic and interconnected due to the dynamic and multidimensional nature of sport talent. This implies taking in to consideration the potential to develop rather than to exclude children at an early age. Therefore, a central question should be how can we design environments around ideas of adaptive efficiency towork effectively, not at a moment in time, but through time? We must think in terms of creating not only a structure that will improve the environment today but a structure with built-in flexibility so that it can adjust to the tensions, strains, and unanticipated circumstances of tomorrow. This elucidates the importance of an idea central to this discussion. Flexible talent development frameworks should arise in interaction with the socio-cultural environment in which they are embedded, ensuring that any framework is inherently contextualized and co-created from the bottom up as much as the top down.

So, it’s not an either-or argument. Itis 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.

Where should the conversations begin?

  1. Start where people are at, not where you want them to be
  2. Within this debate the goal is to connect, collaborate and integrate. It is not about winning, it is about connecting.
  3. The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. (Make it law in sport)
  4. International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athlete Development (A useful and informed point of departure for a discussion)
  5. Make efforts to advance a more unified and evidence-informed approach to youth player development embracing both experiential and empirical knowledge.


Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259

Bergeron, M. F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C. A., . . . Engebretsen, L. (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. British Journal of Sports Medicine,49(13), 843-851. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094962

Collins, D., & MacNamara, A. (2018). Talent Development: A Practitioner Guide. New York: Routledge.

Day, D., Carter, N., & Carpenter, T. (2013). The Olympics, amateurism and Britains coaching heritage, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19, 139-152.Doi: 10.1080/13527258.2011.651742

Ford P., De Ste Croix M., Lloyd R., Meyers R., Moosavi M., Oliver J., Tilk K., Williams C. (2011) The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application. Journal of Sports Sciences 29(4), 389-402. [PubMed] []

Laura Finnegan, Jean McArdle, Martin Littlewood & David Richardson (2018) Somewhat united: primary stakeholder perspectives of the governance of schoolboy football in Ireland, Managing Sport and Leisure, 23:1-2, 48-69, DOI: 10.1080/23750472.2018.1513342

Reed, E. S. (1993). The intention to use a specific affordance: a framework for psychology. In R. Wozniak, & K. Fisscher (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 45–75). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



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