Relearn Long Term Player Development – A conversation with Dave Clarke

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Dave is one of the premiere college coaches in the NCAA’s highest division, head coach for women’s soccer at Quinnipiac University, a licensed Instructor for the United States Soccer Federation and also works with the US Soccer National Training Centre. Dave first appeared in Footblogball in November 2013- (see here)

Dave and I have remained in contact since and last week we had a very interesting conversation that we both decided would be interesting and challenging material for a blog post.

“We know that every system in the universe resists change to maintain a status-quo” – Andy Kirkland (Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence)

Footblogball: In a recent discussion you said to me that sport wastes a lot of time trying to convince people we are developing players when we are not? I can sympathise with this point of view. Here is my take. For any future player development, it is important that we look to the past, knowledge of environment, individual constraints, history of movement opportunities. Our society has become very affected by compartmentalism and reductionism and this is very evident in many development programmes that are selling in fake fundamentals as learning. Also, the cult of the individual coach in soccer selling in individual technique training (with little or no empirical foundation) to pre-pubescent kids as a business has done very little in my opinion. The erroneous assumption that there is a typical or ‘normal’ way of performing an action. Early competitive pressure driven by feeling of falling behind if you don’t practice enough drives the start age down and the training volume up in early years. In the race to the bottom the toxic word of talent regularly takes centre stage far too often and far too early.  Al Smith summed this up in one of our conversations when he said that “the biggest enemy of progress is an environment that allows any kid (or their parent) to define themselves as a ‘high performer’ – that’s just status anxiety masquerading as development”.

To quote Richard Bailey from an interview I did with him in November 2014 – “There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate.  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”.

If we took apart our present child/youth sports structures and began from zero building a development culture on the physical and emotional needs of children first, it would look a lot different than it does now
Dave Clarke: Player Development and especially the word development has become a dirty concept for me. It is a phrase thrown out there by clubs and coaches, but what does it mean? I understand what coaches want it to mean, but perception and reality are two totally different things.

Soccer in the US is a big business as it is in many countries around the world. Clubs promise players and their parents that they will develop their players. Do they? Do the clubs share their Best Practices? Their methodology? What is Player Development for a 10-year-old joining a club for the first time versus a player who is 16-17? How does this development take place? What does it look like? What is the evaluation process or review that takes place to ensure development occurs?

We use the term Development and no one ever seems to question whether or not we are truly developing players. Chelsea and Man City are facing each other in the English FA Youth Cup Final. The two clubs have spent millions on their Academies, on this crop of players, and used the term Player Development throughout and yet how many will play for either first team? How many will go on to accomplish great things in the game? Sure, some will go down the leagues and play lower level EPL or make a decent living, but I am sure those players all felt they were going to make the big time in their respective first teams.

The more I read about Player Development the more it seems we are not really bringing through the players in the manner we had hoped. By we, I mean Coaching as an industry. What are the real percentages? If we were a town school system being audited by the Department of Education we would be given a failing grade for the lack of progress of the majority of our students.

Clubs and coaches get by and develop reputations when one of their players makes it as a pro, reaches the national team, gets a scholarship, etc, but what about the other 99%? What happened to their development? We would not let a high school teacher away with helping his/her best student to get into the college of his choice to the detriment or lack of progress of the rest of the class. So why do we accept it in sport in general and soccer in particular?

We also accept clubs and coaches at their word when they say they developed players. Of course, they mean the one who makes it, but did they truly develop the player. Victor Wanyama is one of the best defensive midfield players in the Premier League as he is proving this season. Does the Spurs coaching staff get the credit for his development or should it go to Celtic who put him on the European stage in the Champions League? What then of the roles of Southampton or Beerschot or his four youth clubs in his development? Did his family or friends play a role? His teachers? Who develops a player such as Wanyama? Or is a process like school, the Kindergarten teacher every bit as a important to the Ivy league student’s educational process as his thesis advisor?

Footblogball: Another topic that stayed with me from our conversation was – Pro clubs should just set up leagues from U12-U16, let players play, no parents, no instruction, and it would still help bring players through at the same rate as the clubs and their Academies. I find this very interesting.

Recently I read an interview with an Elite NGB coach in response to criticism directed at National elite selection training camps for young teenagers. His response was something like how many elite players must come through our system before people understand that it works? Without reflection, this may seem quite impressive and indeed be interpreted as evidence that the system works (if that is how we evaluate a system). Every system will produce an output. On deeper analysis and reflection, we can also argue that there are many shortcomings. The system being referred to is now more or less the only system available. I have previously analysed this system in the article Survival of the fittest or survival of talent (see here). Has this system wrestled away other systems that used to emerge naturally to become the only lens through which talent is identified? The system seemingly both physically and emotionally is only meeting the needs of those that satisfy a certain criterion at a certain point in time. Just like Dr Martin Toms said, I too predict that if we colour every child’s hair green then in the future we will have green haired professional footballers.
Dave Clarke: I look back on my own playing career and how I was influenced by some coaches with great reputations for developing players. And yet, I feel that my most of my technical and tactical development was from street soccer, summer 7v7 events (playing up 2-3 years), and playing on my own. Yes, I received some good coaching, but most of my early development and later development as a player came from watching the game, watching other players, playing in free environments.

I think clubs and coaches have tried to replace free individual development with structured practices and the question must to be asked, has it worked? It hasn’t worked in Ireland or Scotland because there is a lack of technically skilful gifted players coming through compared to 20 years ago. And it doesn’t seem to be working in many other countries either.

Maybe clubs have to rethink their process and instead of forcing development allow it to happen organically.  One idea I would play about with is a 7v7, 9v9 or 11v11 version of the Dutch Street Soccer. Let the games replace training sessions. No coaching during the game – only coaching points before, at half time and after the final whistle. Instruction would be limited to telling players to try things – concepts like dribble until they lose it, take players on, score by dribbling around the keeper, can you chip him form the half-way line, take risks, don’t be afraid to give away the ball, turn in your own area, etc, etc, etc. – all the things players do in an unstructured environment which ultimately helps them become the players we pay to watch.

I would not let the parents attend the games – keep them in the club house, an idea I saw in practice at PSV Eindhoven. This way players will not be afraid to make mistakes, they won’t get yelled at to do things and will problem solves as they figure things out for themselves rather than be told what to do.?

At 16 or 17 the clubs can then take the best players from the leagues and start to coach them or teach them in the philosophy of the club. In terms of pure numbers it can’t be any worse than what is already in place.

Footblogball: Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids – As many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible.

The Race to the Bottom (adventures in early and earlier talent ID)

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 – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexity of managing an association does not affect them – Dr. Martin Toms (Footblogball Interview March 2014)

Recently English club Fulham FC posted on social media information about their Pre- Academy Talent Identification day.  Children as young as under 5 are invited. The introduction statement informed us that Fulham Football Club were in search of new talent. Also, stating the child’s preferred position was recommended when parents sent in their application.

Naturally this caused a huge debate on Social Media. What really surprised me was the type of questions asked and excuses pawned off in defense. Thankfully, the majority of comments on social media were very critical.

For me one vital element in all this was never discussed. The role of the parent.  After all it will more than likely be a parent filling out the application form and transporting their child (under 5!) to this Talent Identification day. How informed are these parents?  If we reinvented youth sports, started from scratch and placed the physical and emotional needs of children first, would it look like this?

As the race to the bottom gathers pace I feel that there are two areas we must place a larger focus on if we are to develop a more informed opinion around what has already become a highly polarised debate.

  • Education of coach educators (see link here)
  • Parent education

Here are some ideas that I use for my Parent Education Workshops. Though, for me the real value  is within the discussions that emerge as the material is absorbed.

As many as possible, as long as possible in the best enviroment possible

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  • This is a club for children, young players and their parents. Without parent support and involvement there is simply no club. We understand the importance of parents engaging themselves in the club. Therefore, it is vital that the club provides the parents with a clear and transparent picture as to how the club operates.
  • If we only see children as players, then we will view the family separate from the club. By this we mean that the family is expected to do its job and leave the football education solely to the club. If the club sees the young players as children, then it is possible to see both family and club as partners in the child’s learning and development
  • The coach and the parent are often the same person in many grassroots clubs

 

Create a culture of trust      

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If all people (coach, parent, leaders) around the child send the same message, then it is easier for the child to interpret.

 

 Create a forum to facilitate discussion – We are educating each other

  • Offer coach education to parents
  • Organise educational workshops to develop and facilitate discussion
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  • Recommend literature, seminars, events, lectures

 

A vision that drives our work

  • As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible
  • Participation, performance, personal development

 

Principles

  • Transparency
  • Motivation climate where development is central and the focus is on learning
  • Flexibility and patience – biopsychosocial development in a sporting context
  • Development does not happen in a vacuum. We the club are one part of a system (School, parents, peers, other sports organisations)

 

 The development process is nonlinear

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and we must support this

 

Therefore, we need……….

A commitment to learning and development

The culture of youth sports should be seen and understood as a good environment for learning. Not just the opportunity to learn skills that will benefit development in the sport, but even those that can be applied to life in general. The biopsychosocial differences between children as they grow have a big impact on their willingness to learn and develop

Children do not develop in a linear fashion and we must support that

Chronological age v Biological age         

Chronological age: The amount of years that have passed since birth

Biological age: ”Physical maturity” age. For example, a 9 year- old can have a biological age of 7 or 11.

 

Psychological

Development is very sensitive and will affect the overall mental state.

This affects

  • Performance
  • Participation
  • Confidence
  • Motivation

 

Social

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Development is also influenced by and dependent on the integration of organisational systems (family, team, sports organisations, societies, cultures). We may conceptualise sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact and shape development

 Let us not forget that all this takes place in what is fast becoming an increasingly prestigious area of sport

“I am often surprised when I compare child and youth environments and see the stress that occurs there with the real elite environments of adult sport. I myself have been involved in preparations for European Championship and World Cup games in table tennis and football with both the senior and junior national teams and with club teams. Unfortunately, there is way more stress, induced by grown-ups evident in child and youth sport. Why this is so is actually incomprehensible to me. It is from the “support environment” that emerge our strongest “winners”. Anyone who believes that it is done by “survival of the fittest” should think again and try for example to create a motivational climate instead.  They will be surprised how effective it is. (Johan Fallby (Footblogball interview Dec 2015)

 

Discussion

  • “It is society’s expectations of professional sport that has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport” -Lynn Kidman (Footblogball Interview March 2014)

 

  • “They see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Like their family backgrounds, they accept what they experience as the norm – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexities of adults when ‘running’ clubs do not affect them.”- Martin Toms  (Footblogball Interview  March 2014)

 

  • “There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how 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:” – Richard Bailey (Footblogball Interview November 2014)

References

Gör det bättre själv om du kan forskning och praktiska råd till föräldrar med idrottande barn  (Research and practical advice to parents with children involved in sport . available only in Swedish) – Johan Fallby. Available here.

International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development (Michael F Bergeron, Margo Mountjoy, Neil Armstrong, Michael Chia, Jean Côté, Carolyn A Emery, Avery Faigenbaum, Gary Hall Jr, Susi Kriemler, Michel Léglise, Robert M Malina, Anne Marte Pensgaard, Alex Sanchez, Torbjørn Soligard,  Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, Willem van Mechelen, Juanita R Weissensteiner, Lars Engebretsen)

The Brain in Spain (Sid Lowe, Blizzard issue 1, 55-64, 2011)

The Dynamic Process of Development through Sport (Jean Côté, Jennifer Turnnidge, M. Blair Evans, Kinesiologia Slovenica, 20, 3, 14-26; 2014)

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

Where you grow up matters for sporting success – that’s why Yorkshire cricketers are so good (Dr Martin Toms, 2015, https://theconversation.com/where-you-grow-up-matters-for-sporting-success-thats-why-yorkshire-cricketers-are-so-good-44157 )

Imposing set structures on complex phenomena – Stop making ‘common’ sense

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Traditionally we have been treating all systems like independent mechanical systems. We tend to reduce them to simplified sequential models. In a recent conversation with James Vaughan (TwitterTwitter) we discussed if we were creating environments that were more suitable in helping machines reach their potential rather than human beings? Humans unlike computers are synonymous with error. Predicting the future behaviour of a complex system (human, team) can be quite futile. Yet we still feel the need to develop a perfect algorithm, formula or model that can be applied with production line efficiency in attempt to forecast the future? This seems to have been absorbed in to the language of child/youth development within many sports organisations. Clubs describe their child/youth system as a talent factory or refer to players as products that have rolled off their talent conveyor belt. On closer inspection, we often see that the collective of successful senior players clearly emerges from frequently repeated procedures of selection and de-selection across all age stages rather than a long- term continuous nurturing process of player education and development.

It is NOT possible to predict everything that will happen by just knowing the existing conditions and projecting those into the future. So, are management principles, models and structures sold in as ‘common sense’ yet seem to only enhance efficiency in non-complex projects having a negative influence on the potential of young people? Many models are put forth as examples of how things should be done, inevitably influenced by a range of confirmation bias and hindsight bias. John Stoszkowski sums this up in a simple turn of phrase – “By trying to reduce this complexity to simplified models or rules, the complexity is lost, and the model is therefore as useless in explaining things”.

Our ongoing search for simple relationships that are easily and logically understood has created many optical illusions. The Standard Model of Talent Development (SMTD) and its apparent success as discussed in a previous blog is one of these. (Bailey, R.P: & Collins, D. The Standard Model of Talent Development and its Discontents, Kinesiology Review, 2, 248-259). Select some eggs. Put eggs in a plastic bag. Throw the plastic bag at a wall. Show the world the egg that doesn’t break – The system works! (see here)

Like John Kiely (Twitter) said in a recent interview “Talent is the graveyard of evidence. Nobody looks at the dead bodies”.

Despite 35 years of evidence against, learning styles still echo through the corridors of many of our sports education institutions. It sounds logical, it makes sense and and it gives the illusion to the teacher that it will be easier to predict future learning.

By arranging sequential units in “logical” order many models seek to control future outcomes. In skill acquisition if we continue to “logically” reduce a task we decontextualize it and eventually it is not that task anymore. These sort of mechanistic deliberate practice models seem to view the body as a machine, meaning that a certain input will provide a certain output. There is a presumption that human adaption is quite predictable and will follow a determinable path. The focus is to “learn out” instead of creating environments for learners to “learn in”. All this often at the expense of marginalizing the important issue of the complex nature of living systems and their interactions.

Simplified processing systems and models

“The player is likened to a computer which receives sensory information and acts upon it before producing output” (Broadbent, 1958; Marteniuk, 1976; Eysenck and Keane, 1990).

In sport, particularly invasion sports the metaphor of the computer seems to be programmed into the culture of learning and skill acquisition. Top teams are often reffered to as behaving like machines. The movements of top performers are seen as preprogrammed, often referred to as automised. This logically (that word again) implies that there is less effort required to perform the movement thus freeing up space for the processing of further information.

A common view is that a young player remembers similar situations that they were involved in and use their experience to evaluate and take a decision. The basic, implicit assumption of information processing (IP) is that motor learning and control is the domain of the brain. Learners come to know about their environment by representing it in the mind. Such representation is a result of a computational process involving information received through the senses.

The IP system is divided in to at least 3 levels.

  • Receiving sensory input
  • Perception of the input
  • Production of a motor output

However, as every situation is unique should it not follow that the young player recognises (not remembers) similar situations. In the ever – changing dynamics of the game we recognise the situation and adapt our movement live as the situation develops and unfolds in the environment.

I find my thoughts echoed in the excellent philosophical paper Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance (Richard BaileyRichard Bailey and Angela Pickar). It is suggested that skill learning in dance (or indeed any domain) is not a matter of processing information, but is imminent in the active, perceptual engagement of learner and context.

A player might recognise a situation and are conscious of the fact that they have had a similar perceptual experience before. How that player critically interprets the situation and acts will depend on a unique bibliography of movement experiences. How the situation is perceived in terms of their ability to act and/or their understanding of that ability (motivation, Self Determination Theory). “There is no generic movement solution – Skills also have their autobiographies in the sense that they embody the movement experiences of actors up to the moment of performance of the skills” (Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard).

There is no separation of perception and action, there is only perception-action. The learner makes up the content of what is to be learned and is understood within the organism -environment synergy.

This of course should be accounted for when structuring our pedagogical approach and training design. When working with complex systems (players) our training design should be about bringing things (systems) together and not taking them apart. We think in terms of movements not muscles and this implies that movement can be better controlled when the focus lays outside the body rather than inside it.

“…. people’s thoughts, choices and insights can be transformed by physical interaction with things. In other words, thinking with your brain alone – like a computer does – is not equivalent to thinking with your brain, your eyes, and your hands – as humans frequently do”. (Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Psychology, Kingston University & Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Kingston University).

To understand motor learning/skill acquisition it can be suggested that we need to understand:

  • What the individual brings to the table
  • What the environment affords the individual
  • What is the task

Skill is not a property of the mind. Nor is it a property of the body. If we are going to understand how people learn skills, we need to widen our focus to take in the total field of relations made up of the whole learner and the whole space for learning – Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard

Instead of attempting to predict the future it could be suggested that we look at strategies that can help learners to determine their future. By doing this we are saying that we are willing to adapt as we integrate vast amounts of new complex emerging information. We are willing to embrace complexity.

The future is unwritten.

References:

Richard Bailey & Angela 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

The Past and Future of Motor Learning and Control:  What Is the Proper Level of Description and Analysis? (Howard N. Zelaznik; Kinesiology Review, 2014, 3, 38-4)-

The natural physical alternative to cognitive theories of motor behaviour: An invitation for interdisciplinary research in sports science? (Keith Davids, Craig Handford & Mark Williams; Journal of Sports Sciences, 1994, 12, 495-528)

Why the best problem-solvers think with their hands, as well as their heads (Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Psychology, Kingston University & Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Kingston University) https://theconversation.com/why-the-best-problem-solvers-think-with-their-hands-as-well-as-their-heads-68360