Practice Repetition without Repetition (Part 2)

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A good start to this critical analysis piece is a great quote from Mark Upton in a recent blog. “We can’t be our best until you’re your best”- In this case- “I can’t be my best until you are your best”. I wanted to initiate a discussion in relation to something I have thought long and hard about. The use of a constraint in my last blog to set up learning opportunities embracing the principles of co-adaptability within a SSG. I have for a while been split between using the “no forward pass” rule or not. The intention is that it should be a very brief constraint used to “set up” the game as in dribble (identify free space or provoke to create space elsewhere) and get players tuned in to the role of the goalkeeper in the modern game.  Within the community of practice and research I am lucky to have some great minds to reach out to with the aim to initiate a discussion. Daniel Newcombe (Senior lecture @Oxford_Brookes and Hockey coach for Wales senior and U21 team, Dan Clements  (Head of Performance Hockey Wales) and researcher/coach James Vaughan (AIK Sweden, PDP).

Discussion outcomes:

  • It can be argued that the rule will change how the defenders defend and therefore make the affordances false. The players won’t be choosing when to carry and when to pass forward around the affordances in the environment(Daniel Newcombe).
  • The rule may create conditions that are less representative of the game. By limiting the options for the attackers, we are moving away from the principles of the game. Similarly in this valuable learning time we want them to have the chance to develop all of the aspects of their game that are related to this aspect (attacking play) – if it is on to pass it forward take that option as you would in a game (Dan Clements).
  • “We can only constrain what is in front of us”. This was an interesting point by James Vaughan. He was referring to the socio-cultural football environmental constraints that these young players train in. For example, if there is an “isolated drill” culture then the focus of attention may be on the performance of a technique as opposed adapting the best skill in a game situation. I often refer to this as friendly with the ball but a stranger to the game. James like me sees the value of the rule in a certain context as a way of helping adjust the young players focus of attention and create many 1v1’s in game contexts. However, we both feel that the points made by Daniel Newcombe and Dan Clements are important and central to our work in creating affordance driven learning spaces for our young players.

Deliberate design for a deliberate learning intent

We want players to detect information sources that are best suited to performance in that situation. By designing sessions that are affordance-driven young players can educate their attention and learn which sources of information to act upon and when to act, while also learning which sources of information are less useful or irrelevant for that particular task.

Therefore, training must not be based on the repetition of exercises, as the learning process requires an intention in the action to achieve a real educative purpose (Oliveira et al., 2007).


  • Practice repetition without repetition
  • Keep perception and action coupled
  • Training is affordance driven
  • Promote an external focus of attention
  • Representative Learning Design(see here)

It’s about helping young learners to engage with the value of what they do- (James Vaughan)

In many national coach education curricula, there is a tendency to give the solution to the problem in the theme of the session. This traditional methodology risks the development of an internal focus of attention among our young learners

In the following practical session, we analyse “Attacking play”- as ‘identify’, ‘create’, ‘occupy’ and ‘attack’ space. Attacking play is carried out through football actions. These Football actions are solutions (opportunities for action) and we should design training where young learners seek out and use these solutions (our invitations for action). The learners decide which football action should be used and how, where and when it should be executed. In this way training design is ‘affordance-driven’. Football actions can be composed of several elements – for example, when a player runs, dribbles and ends with a shot on goal. The action may also be a single element – such as a header duel with jumping and landing.


 Design the task not the solution.

These tasks should promote interactions between the footballers, as intelligence is developed when people collaborate and cooperate with other people to solve problems (Punset, 2007). Using the principles of co-adaptability at the scale of performance and learning the coach can try and “nudge” the young learners in to constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game. The relationships with teammates and interaction with opponents develops an interesting dialogue and an astute coach will observe and use this dialogue to create a learning space.

To understand “football action” one must understand the big picture. A picture that dictates that no action is isolated but is nested in interactions between team mates and opponents both within the game and from previous games.

Football actions are solutions and we should design training where young learners seek out these solutions. They decide which football action should be used and how where and when it should be executed. Training design is affordance driven -“we use constraints to afford” (Danny Newcombe).

Football action: Can be composed of several elements – for example, when a player runs, dribbles and ends with a shot on goal. The action may also be a single element – such as a header duel with jumping and landing.

4v4 Game- Developing Attacking Play – Finding Gaps

Score a goal by taking the ball over under control between the yellow or red cones line using football actions

8 players (mixture of 10 and 11 year olds)

2 of the players were regular goalkeepers for their teams. I discussed with the goalkeepers before the session the role of the modern goalkeeper (see here), their role in the build-up of play and what are the relevant football actions.

I want to create learning opportunities where the players can develop the concept of how we identify, create, attack and occupy space in attacking play. The training design should promote an external focus of attention. The players in the attacking team (with and without the ball) search for gaps to exploit (information).


I have observed that many young learners will pass the ball instead of accepting the better affordance of a gap in the opponent’s defensive organisation (inattentional blindness?). This gap often affords the opportunity for dribbling/driving the ball (or perhaps a penetrating pass in depth from the goalkeeper?) in to free space and thus threaten the opponents goal.

  • How can we manipulate the task so that the young players are forced to search and identify gaps to drive/dribble (in the case above the solution) the ball into so that they can create a goal scoring chance?
  • How can we manipulate the task to encourage young players to identify, occupy, create and attack space by accepting the best affordances (the solution)?
  • All this without diluting the affordance available

The defending team is rewarded with 1 point if they intercept a pass.

“This should see the defensive team subtly remove some of the passing options which should encourage the dribble more” (Daniel Newcombe). This will also make players decide to pass less as there is increased risk involved. Having set up this session design many times it can also be argued that this constraint makes the attacking team have a more deliberate intent with their passing. The attacking team takes less risks but may evolve the attacking play by using the pass to move the opponent (disorganise the opponent) to create gaps to dribble/ drive in to.

  • Red cones = 2 points
  • Yellow cones = 2 points
  • Points system can be varied depending on where you think the players need to learn to focus their attacking intentions. If you want players to attack central them maybe 3 points between the yellow cones and 2 points between the red.

Discussions with the goalkeepers:

  • Communication
  • Positioning – Open to receive pass (always offer depth)
  • Body profile – find position to receive ball with foot furthest away
  • Horizontal movement in support play
  • Vertical movement in support play
  • Identifying space/ gaps

Discussions with all players

  • Communication
  • Positioning – open to receive pass or give support in depth
  • Width and depth especially when the goalkeeper is in possession
  • Timing (ie movement in depth to receive pass from goalkeeper)
  • Using football actions to provoke and deceive (to disorganise opponents) to create space for yourself and others
  • Identify and attack space (dribble or receive a pass from goalkeeper)

I would like to conclude with a great quote from Mark Upton’s recent blog. “We can’t be our best until you’re your best”- this for me is a great reference point for the type of dynamic our training environment, the learning space should promote. This is what I was referring to earlier when I said that the relationships with teammates and interaction with opponents develops an interesting dialogue and an astute coach will observe and use this dialogue to create a learning space to help each player be their best.

Many thanks to James Vaughan, Daniel Newcombe and Dan Clements for a great discussion.

Footblogball quiz: Which band sampled this track on their early 90’s groundbreaking ablbum?

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


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.


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)