It’s time for better questions: Living up to the idea of as many as possible, as long as good as good as possible.

It’s time for better questions: Living up to the idea of as many as possible, as long as good as good as possible

There is an ongoing discussion within youth football around the subject of ability grouping. The practice of early selection and de-selection of children through ages and stages are now central tenets of player development programs around the world (Güllich, 2014; Rongen et al., 2018) and have become a common point of departure for these discussions. Often pyramid like in structure, these type of development programs have been termed by Bailey and Collins (2013) as the Standard Model of Talent Development. Lacking in both empirical and conceptual validity this model is based on the presumption that development and performance in sport are conceptually linear and predictable (Bjørndal, Ronglan & Andersen, 2017). 

Language precedes culture 

More recently these models have come under media scrutiny (Shannon, 17 November 2020) highlighting how there are many social norms and organisational pressures present within the facets of professional football that impinge on child youth football. For example, the use of words such as ‘elite’ in reference to children and youth has added to the development of a sensationalist artificial mythology in and around the culture of child youth sports programs (Kirkland, O’Sullivan, 2018).

Similar concerns were raised by the International Olympic Committee in a consensus statement on youth athlete development in 2015, highlighting possible negative influences on health and well-being. It was suggested that the ‘culture’ of youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centered, viewing youth athletes as commodities promoting a sensationalism that has an influential grip on adult expectations (Bergeron et al., 2015).

Indeed, language plays an important role as does acknowledging that learning and development cannot be fully understood without taking in to consideration the environmental, historical, and socio- cultural constraints that can influence learning and development. For example, many resilient beliefs and even the attributes and skills appreciated in young players are culturally embedded in traditional pedagogical approaches, organisational settings and structural mechanisms founded upon specific socio-cultural and historical constraints (Woods et al, 2020). There is a need to investigate which specific sociocultural constraints on behaviours that we need to amplify and which ones we need to dampen (Vaughan et al., 2019)?

In Sweden, the well-worn cliché “lika barn leka bäst” (children that are alike play best together) is something that I hear regularly in connection with ability grouping in child-youth sport. This for me highlights an important aspect of any youth player development program, how performance can be an unreliable index in relation to learning (Söderstrom & Bjork, 2015). 

The debate here though less polarized is still at time driven by anecdotal evidence with certain individuals referring to the players that ‘they’ have created!

Here, the idea of survivorship bias is something that is worth reflecting over

“You’ve been blinded by the unicorns and survivors, and misled by economic forces” – Ross Tucker (twitter)

Time for better questions- The learner and the learning process 

For a more nuanced approach and in order to place the child/youth/player at the center of this discussion from a long-term learning perspective, we need to turn the question around. 

When I am asked about ability grouping/selection-deselection (yes or no?), I now answer with another question.

What is your understanding of the learner and the learning process?

What is your understanding of human learning and development in a youth football context?

Re-conceptualising youth development

AIK Youth Football, took the decision in 2017 to reposition itself within the world of youth football (see here). This decision was underpinned by a long-term strategy; (i) promote the wellbeing of children; (ii) follow relevant guideline documents (e.g. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child); (iii) increase the development and promotion of players to our respective senior teams, as well as increase the number of players in the U16-U19 age groups. 

A research and development (R&D) department has been embedded in the club’s daily activities since 2017 to support AIK youth football in its endeavor. Its stance and work can be summed up as follows –

While it is understood that human learning is nonlinear in nature, implying that coaching methodologies should account for such nonlinearity, it should also be recognized that there is a need for our player development structures and models to account for this nonlinearity

If we really want to support the well-being and foster more and better players, then it is important to consider the complexity and non-linearity of human development. This requires an understanding of what learning and development is and what factors that can influence it?

Learning IN Development

The concept of Learning in development (Adolph, 2019) can help coaches, parents and organisations understand how different factors influence learning throughout development, helping us to gain an understanding of the non-linear and individualized nature of players learning in development.

  • Development describes the continuous changes (physical, psychological, skilled, social, cultural) in individual-environmental relationships.
  • Learning takes place in the midst of these developmental changes. Learning is what the player does about these changes.

As coaches, parents, clubs and governing bodies, we need to find a balance in our between both supporting and challenging young players during their learning IN development.

What specific soicocultural constraints on behaviours do we need to amplify and what do we need to dampen?

The aim with this piece is to stimulate a broad and informed debate within youth sport by emphasising the complexity and non-linearity of human development and the need to understand the dynamic interrelations between various components, if we are to truly live up to the idea of ‘as many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible’

Perhaps it’s time for better questions?


Adolph, K. E. (2019). An ecological approach to learning in (not and) development. Human Development63, 180–201. 

Bailey, R., & Collins, D. (2013). The standard model of talent development and its discontents. Kinesiology Review, 2(4), 248–259.

Bergeron, M. F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C. A., Faigenbaum, A., Hall, G., Jr, Kriemler, S., Léglise, M., Malina, R. M., Pensgaard, A. M., Sanchez, A., Soligard, T., Sundgot-Borgen, J., van Mechelen, W., Weissensteiner, J. R., & Engebretsen, L. (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. British journal of sports medicine49(13), 843–851. 

Bjørndal, C.T. Ronglan, L.T., & Andersen, S.A. (2017). The diversity of developmental paths among youth athletes: A 3-year longitudinal study of Norwegian handball players. Talent development & Excellence, 8(2), 20-32.

Chow, J. Y. (2013). Nonlinear learning underpinning pedagogy: Evidence, challenges, and implications. Quest, 65(4), 469-484.

Güllich A. (2014). Selection, de-selection and progression in German football talent promotion. European journal of sport science14(6), 530–537. 

Kirkland & O’Sullivan (2018). There Is No Such Thing as an International Elite Under-9 Soccer Player. Sports science and medicine. Retrieved from

Rongen, F., McKenna, J., Cobley, S., & Till, K. (2018). Are youth sport talent identification and development systems necessary and healthy? Sports Medicine – Open, 4.

Shannon (2020). Why Ruud Dokter’s ‘elite player pathway’ plan is not good for Irish football. Irish Examiner. Retrieved from

Soderstrom, N., & Bjork, R.. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. 10. 176-199. 10.1177/1745691615569000.

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 Psychology10(September), 1–16.

Woods, C.T., McKeown, I., O’Sullivan, M., Roberston, S., & Davids, K.  (2020)Theory to Practice: Performance Preparation Models in Contemporary High-Level Sport Guided by an Ecological Dynamics Framework. Sports Med – Open 636 . 


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