Re-conceptualizing Player Development at AIK Youth Football (MSA Ireland Presentation)

As part of a series of webinars for Movement & Skill Acquisition Ireland (Twitter), Dennis Hörtin (twitter) and I recently had the honor of presenting the work being carried out at AIK youth football in Sweden. You can check out the presentation here, with a really interesting Q&A.

The presentation focused on AIK youth football and their decision to remove its early selection model (see here), with a particular focus on the 8-12 age groups that are immediately affected by this decision. We delve in to the work of the AIK Research & Development department and offered some pedagogical principles to guide practice task design.

I have taken the liberty to add some extra notes to the presentation based on the numerous conversations and the great feedback we had after the presentation. Again, it needs to be made clear, this is no silver bullet.

Building a player development framework

Frameworks for youth player development need to be flexible (Bergeron et al., 2015), dynamic and adaptable to both, the cultural context, and that of the individual (Meyers et al., 2013; Vaughan et al., 2019). In other words, a player development framework needs to evolve in, interaction with the sociocultural context in which we are embedded. Avoid copy and paste!

“The problem is, when you copy a Dutch model or a Dutch way in to another country, it will not work. Our infrastructure is so unique for example”.  – Jan Verbeek (KNVB)on the Learning in Development Podcast (See here)

Inherent barriers to changing practice in sports organizations, shaped by socio- cultural-historical constraints reveal a trajectory, a path dependency (see here), which is often difficult to change (Kiely, 2017, Rothwell, Davids & Stone, 2018; Ross, Gupta, & Sanders, 2018).

We need to investigate form of life to understand these socio-cultural- historical constraints and to create our own knowledge about the means of transforming ways of action to develop a flexible player development framework.

 Form of life (What the AIK Research & Development department are continually investigating).

Form of life (Wittgenstein, 1953), describes the behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, practices and customs that shape the culture, philosophy, and climate of societies, institutions, sports organizations and player development programs in different societies (Rothwell, Davids & Stone, 2018). Karin Redelius (2013) captures the influence of form of life in Swedish youth sport, when she suggested that culture in a particular club or sports organization can be understood as partly a result of a historical process influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders, influencing type of practice design, who is considered talented, what distinguishes a good leader and what is considered success.

AIK Base

Working within a unified conceptual framework encouraged the coordination of shared principles and language that informed the ‘AIK Base’ framework, forming a coherent foundation for the club’s practice design and education programs.

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 18.57.25

Figure 1 AIK Base: AIK Research & Development

Practice task design

Coaches should see themselves as learning designers and what they do in practice is underpinned by a theoretical framework (at AIK we use ecological dynamics) as this will give them principles to guide their practice. This emphasizes the idea that young players are still on a learning journey. So, as Jason DeVos suggested in the Learning in Development podcast, “instead of player development pathway we should say player development journey”.

Regarding coach interventions and session objectives:

  • We encourage coaches to move away from theme-based sessions and design practice around  principles of play

In Possession: Search Discover Exploit gaps and space.

Recovering the Ball: Minimize opportunities for opponents to utilize space and gaps. Win the ball.

Coaches can check their design and reflect using the following diagram.

  • Ball-opponent-direction
  • Consequence (e.g. lose the ball, if you don’t win it back, opponents can score)
  • Information in practice task design should be representative of the game or aspects of the game


Figure 2 AIK Research & Development

We start where people are at not where we want them to be. The above ideas may help explain the principles of nonlinear pedagogy to parent coaches

  • Representative learning design,
  • Task simplification instead of task reduction. Modify the task while insuring that functional information -movement couplings are maintained
  • Repetition without repetition (movement variation)
  • The manipulation of constraints: Adjust task constraints (pitch size, number of players, starting positions, ball feed, rules)
  • Promote an external focus of attention: Reduce conscious and explicit control of movement (instructions should promote an external focus of attention to help players learn to learn how to exploit information)

Coaches and players are architects of a learning experience.

  • If the design is rich in representative information and tailored to the age and capacities of the young players then the first feedback should come from the design directly to the children. It is their behavior that the coach observes, and that determines the necessary interventions. However, if a coach must step in too often and explicitly instruct, then the coach needs to re-examine their design.

A key point is to use game forms in training sessions that “directly talk to the players”. This means that feedback is directly “coming from the game forms”, so that the coach has to give less feedback from the outside and providing instructions that reduce the player’s breadth of attention.(Daniel Memmert, Footblogball, 2015)

A great point brought up by Andrew Abraham (Twitter), was that all coach interventions have the potential to disempower the young players. This is something that needs to be considered carefully.

  • For me guided discovery is as much about the design as the questions and task manipulations. This is often forgotten. Interventions should help players focus their attention and intentions towards developing understanding in (Understanding of the game does not imply understanding inthe game)

Practical example

  • It is quite common that opportunities to design practice are constrained by environmental factors such as available pitch space, amount of goals on pitch. For example, AIK 8 and 9 -year-olds play 5 a side competitive games and the 10 and 11 year-olds play 7 a side. Due to the limited amount of pitches availabe in the municipality we can have up to 8 teams on a full-size pitch with only four available 5 a side and 7 a side goals. This is a common issue in Stockholm and indeed in many large urban cities.

Taking this in to consideration I would like to give an example of how a coach can design practice with limited field space and material.

You can check a video of these session designs in the presentation for MSA Ireland (see here)

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 13.36.18

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 13.46.35


Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, Chia M, Coˆ te ́ J, Emery CA, Faigenbaum A, Hall G Jr, Kriemler S, Le ́ glise M, Malina RM, Pensgaard AM, Sanchez A, Soligard T, Sundgot-Borgen J, van Mechelen WV, Weissensteiner JR, and Engebretsen L.International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med 49: 843– 851.

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

Redelius, K. (2013) Att vilja och kunna fortsätta – Om idrottens utformning och tillgänglighet (s. 19-40), i Spela vidare: en antologi om vad som får unga att fortsätta idrotta, Stockholm: Centrum för idrottsforskning.

Ross, E., Gupta, L., & Sanders, L. (2018). When research leads to learning, but not action in high performance sport. Progress in Brain Research Sport and the Brain: The Science of Preparing, Enduring and Winning, Part C,201–217. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.08.001′

Rothwell, Martyn & Davids, Keith & Stone, Joe. (2018). Harnessing Socio-cultural Constraints on Athlete Development to Create a Form of Life. Journal of Expertise.

Vaughan, J., Mallett, C. J., Davids, K., Potrac, P., & López-felip, M. A. (2019). Developing Creativity to Enhance Human Potential in Sport: A Wicked Transdisciplinary Challenge. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(September), 1–16.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford, UK: Blackwell


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