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.(https://talentdevelopmentinirishfootball.com/2018/03/04/football-tug-of-war-when-choosing-means-losing/)

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.

References

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

https://www.fai.ie/domestic/news/expressions-of-interest-sought-for-new-national-u13-league

https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/interview-with-dr-martin-toms/

https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/some-words-with-richard-bailey-ph-d/

https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/survival-of-the-fittest-or-survival-of-talent/

https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2017/01/25/the-race-to-the-bottom-adventures-in-early-and-earlier-talent-id/

https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/reviewing-the-reviews-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-seven-reports-into-fai-conduct-and-governance-38221062.html

https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/today-i-had-a-manager-attempt-to-strike-me-young-referee-quits-and-hits-out-at-fai-38244757.html

https://talentdevelopmentinirishfootball.com/2018/03/04/football-tug-of-war-when-choosing-means-losing/

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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Towards a Player-Environment Centred Approach- some theory and practice

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Those of you who are frequent readers of this blog will know that the pedagogical framework I propose endorses the importance of a continuous, intertwined relationship between decision-making and action, perception and cognition in football (e.g. Davids, Araújo, Vilar, et al. 2013). This is of course in conflict with the seductive computer metaphor of Information Processing (IP) which has framed ideas of decision making in skilled performance for many years. A typical example of IP would be a linear sequential model which would include:

Input- Decision making – Execution of decision

It can be argued that this separation of decision making and execution of decision is a dualism. Information Processing approaches work well for simple behaviours but fail to explain the issue of complexity where both the biological system itself and the environment it finds itself in are complex (Clark, Jane; 1995). Basically, IP fails to account for understanding IN the game (as opposed to just OF the game).

Taking this in to consideration it implies that coaches need to design a learning space to interact with learners and facilitate interactions (football interactions) between them and it is through these football interactions that coaches should become better informed how to design in future opportunities for interactions (Correia et al; 2018). This approach places great demands on the coach.

Relevant to this, is a recent discussion with Todd Beane on The Coaching Journey Podcast (see here for link). This podcast will provide listeners with some valuable insights into dominant flawed training paradigms, coaching myths (you can’t play until you learn the technique first) that fuel a cultural inertia in child youth football making it easier to persevere with and fall back on embedded habits and beliefs. This seemingly has a constraining grip on some coach education curriculums and even coach and parent understanding as to what learning is and what it can look like. Programs and ideologies based on the latest World Cup success story are also discussed. These are often turned in to commercial ventures and sold under the banner ‘this is what they do here, look at their success, you need to also do this’. All this while not taking in to consideration the socio-cultural and historical constraints that has influenced player development in that country. The idea that we can then drop a model from one country in to the coaching culture of another country and expect success is a highly flawed (yet profitable for some) approach.

An underpinning theoretical framework

This conversation, for me accentuated the importance of something that we are actively working with at AIK youth football. Player development pathways, coach education programs and session designs that are underpinned by research and experiential knowledge can help clubs and governing bodies to implement, more flexible structural mechanisms, become more aware of trends and commercial ventures that capture popular opinion (Moreau, Macnamara, & Hambrick; 2018) and provide coaches with principles to guide their practice.

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The area of overlap is the space that we should inhabit to inform how we design a learning space – Hopefully over time this space gets bigger.

Ecological dynamics (ED) informs a Constraints Led Approach (CLA) and is a powerful theoretical framework that can help us to understand that expertise and therefore learning can be best explained and conceptualized through how a number of interacting constraints— individual (e.g., height, weight, body composition, motivation, emotions, anxiety, self-confidence, fatigue), task (e.g., the goal of the task, rules that implemented, coaching styles and methodology) and environmental (e.g., temperature, light, altitude, facilities, social values, peer groups and societal expectations)—interact over time at different timescales to shape behaviour. From this we can argue that the attributes and skills that are appreciated in young players are culturally embedded in pedagogical approaches, organisational settings and structural mechanisms founded upon specific socio-cultural, economic and historical constraints (Rothwell, Davids and Stone; 2018) in which development in child-youth sport occurs Why does a player succeed in one environment yet fail to perform in another? Why are some players having difficulty adapting to the environment and why are some succeeding? Does your culture have an early selection/ talent identification bias towards bigger, faster stronger? This perspective from the point of view of training design proposes that understanding individual performance requires an appreciation of the types of behaviours that a performer’s environment affords (Gibson, 1979).

Approaches to Practice Design                                                                                  

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Traditional pedagogical approaches (that you find in many coach education courses) are underpinned by a culturally dominant planning paradigm. Essentially a rule based planning process, where the coach is taught to decide beforehand the specific theme, instructions, time length and sequence of each section of the session, the space, rules and conditions. To borrow from John Kiely (2012), a culturally pervasive planning heritage that seeks to control future outcomes (ex only coaching attack and not coaching defence to improve the attack- co-adaptability) through the decomposition of the overall process to a series of distinctly focused sequential units arranged in a predetermined order.

A more learner-environment centred approach as advocated in a Nonlinear Pedagogy embraces the idea of session design planning being underpinned by principles of play and allowing for a more emergent, adaptive and individualised approach. Emergent behaviours can be observed and worked on if the session is defined by principles of play. This notion of being more flexible and adaptive as a coach towards the planning and monitoring of a session where learning is characterised by effective perception- action coupling, sets great demands on the coach. By underpinning their session design with principles rather strict planning, rules and themes that are dictated from the outset, coaches are inviting the players to take part in the conversation, a dialogue of interactions.

So, while traditional approaches may just place a focus on attacking or defending, a more creative coach may apply the principles of co-adaptability to 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. A simple example would be in a session where the coach is working on high pressing the opponent’s full backs, and despite the early success one team solves the situation by pushing full backs up high, splitting the centre backs with a midfielder dropping in between. A creative coach would see this as a great learning opportunity and not over constrain the team in possession by limiting their interactions i.e. forbidding the full backs from pushing up. Instead the coach should challenge the pressing team to solve the situation by co-adapting.

Coach as a Designer

The coach can be viewed as a problem setter and therefore must be careful not to over constrain or under constrain the task. Welsh national team land hockey coach Danny Newcombe asks the question, ‘how much should the coach let the player know about the intention of the session’? Some learning designs may ‘under constrain’ (the game is the teacher) and others may over constrain (limiting touches in football) the young learner’s behaviour. For example, the idea of limiting players to 2 touch in football may lead to the defending team self-organising their behaviour around the rule in a way that is not representative of the game.

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 by providing instructions that reduce the player’s breadth of attention – Daniel Memmert (Footblogball interview)

Representative Learning Design

Representative design (Brunswik; 1956) is one of the principles that needs to be considered when applying a Nonlinear Pedagogy. Task constraints used in training design should be representative in order to promote learning to improve player and team performance. For example, the rule that everyone must touch the ball before a goal is scored is not a representative task constraint (Correia et al; 2018). In this case, the team in possession are not attuning to the information that will enable them to exploit an imbalance in the opponent’s defence to penetrate and score. Instead both teams are self- organising around a rule that is not promoting effective perception- action coupling.

A key limitation may be the biographies of coaches (and coach educators) who have developed abilities shaped by the landscape of traditional coaching practices and coach education programmes (Renshaw et al; 2018). For instance, if a session is planned (in the traditional sense) around the theme of ‘Overlaps’ it is possible that the coach or coach educator may judge the success of the session solely on the amount of times the player performing the overlap receives the ball. Thus, not considering the fact that a player overlapping can also destabilise the defensive organisation creating gaps for teammates to exploit. This focus on the idea that the overlapping player must receive the ball may well result in the defending team organising its defensive strategies in a way that is not really representative of the performance context but will solve their task under the present constraints. Therefore, the planned design, rules and feedback used in this situation is over constraining. Player interactions are highly constrained and the opportunity to educate the attention of the learner to perceive and utilize relevant information sources is compromised.

Another example worth looking at comes from a UEFA coaching course. The theme is ‘switching the play’. The session design is 7v7 with goalkeepers and two vertical corridors, one on either side of the pitch. The rule is that the team in possession must play the ball from one corridor on one side to the corridor on the other side before they can score a goal. This is another example of over constraining as the defending team may solve this by deciding that when the attacking team has the ball in one corridor they just occupy the other corridor. This brings us back to Danny Newcombe’s point ‘how much should the coach let the players know about the intention of the session’? Is it really necessary to tell the players that the theme of this session design is ‘switching the play’ as this is also giving away the solution! Maybe a better approach would be to constrain the defence. If the ball is in one vertical corridor then no player from the defending team can occupy the opposite corridor. This means that the defending team will interact in a way that is representative of the performance context. It also implies that the affordance to switch the play is offered to the team in possession who can still

utilize relevant information sources as they search for solutions (i.e. exploit gaps, attack centrally/out wide) to penetrate and score as they are no longer over constrained by a rule.

What football interactions does your culture promote or nurture?

What is argued here with regard to session design is that the dichotomy of ‘perception and action’ is non-existent (Gibson; 1979) and that opportunities for perceiving and acting on relevant information sources should be situated within the session design. Therefore, as learning is based on effective perception action couplings, the coach should ‘design in’ opportunities for action (affordances) that are representative of the performance context or aspects of the performance environment.

We also need to consider as pointed out by Reed (1993), that there are also socio-cultural and historical constraints, those actions that a culture promotes or nurtures. These can have also constraining dominance on coach education, practice design and player development. Movement solutions performed as solutions to a problem cannot be separated from the environment in which it takes place then it should be understood as hypothesised by Baily & Pickford (2010) that skills have history. Movement solutions cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point. For instance, a young player’s decision making can be influenced by socio-cultural historical constraints. Years of training dictated by explicitly coached patterns of play from an early age (PlayStation coaching) may lead to players learning to play the pattern as opposed the information. For example, a left back plays the ball in to a crowded central midfield (the practiced pattern) instead of exploiting the affordance of the space offered in front of him/her. Strict game models imposed top down early in a player’s development may in the future lead to players making decisions based on the game model as opposed to the information presented to them in the game.

As with any social phenomenon, sport coaching and player development practices are habituated by wider political and cultural contexts (Day, Carter, and Carpenter, 2013). It has been argued (Redelius, 2013) that culture in a particular club or sports organisation is partly a result of a historical process (path dependency) influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders. In turn this influences the way clubs and governing bodies implement structural mechanisms, how coaches design their training sessions, how young players are taught skills, how coach education and player development is shaped and delivered and how the theory- practice gap evident in child-youth football is dealt with.

Essentially what is proposed here is no silver bullet but a player-environment centred approach underpinned by both empirical and experiential knowledge that always considers player development in the context of the environment (Araújo et al. 2014; Gibson 1986) for – As Many as Possible, As Long as Possible As Good as Possible.

References

Araújo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. (2006). The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,7(6), 653-676. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.07.002

Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2011). What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18, 7 23.

Bailey & 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

Brunswik, E. 1956. Perception and the Representative Design of Psychological Experiments. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Clark, Jane. (1995). On Becoming Skillful: Patterns and Constraints. Research quarterly for exercise and sport. 66. 173-83. 10.1080/02701367.1995.10608831.

Kiely, J. (2018). Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Med (2018) 48: 753. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y

Moreau, D., Macnamara, B. N., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2018). Overstating the role of environmental factors in success: A cautionary note. Current Directions in Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0963721418797300

Newell, K.M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. In M.G. Wade & H.T.A Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control, pp. 341-361. Amsterdam: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Redelius, K. Spela Vidare: Att vilja och kunna fortsätta om idrottens utformning och tillgänglighet, p. 33 https://centrumforidrottsforskning.se/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Spela-vidare.pdf

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.

Renshaw, I., & Brendan, M. (2018). A Constraint-Led Approach to Coaching and Teaching Games: Can going back to the future solve the «they need the basics before they can play a game» argument? Ágora para la Educación Física y el Deporte, 20(1), 1-26.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.24197/aefd.1.2018.1-26

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

Vanda Correia, João Carvalho, Duarte Araújo, Elsa Pereira & Keith Davids (2018) Principles of nonlinear pedagogy in sport practice, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2018.1552673

 

Challenging the Race to the Bottom (As many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible)

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There is a clear need for the state and NGB’s to look at youth development in sport from a more ecological perspective.Our systems still do not account for the complexity and nonlinearity of human development. So, maybe research needs to be grounded in a broader ecological context?

One of the most read pieces on Footblogball is from January 2017  – The Race to the Bottom (adventures in early and earlier talent ID)  see here .

It is great to see  the same discussion getting even more exposure in January 2018. Prime time Swedish national television with successful NHL talent scout Håkan Andersson and  international TV (BT Sports) where ex pros such as Frank Lampard, Martin Keown and English national football manager Gareth Southgate contributed their knowledge and experience to the debate.

The NHL Ice Hockey Scout

Håkan Andersson is director of European scouting for  NHL team Detroit Red Wings. He   he has won four Stanley Cup Championships as a member of the Detroit Red Wings organisation. Recently he gave an interview on one of Swedens most viewed morning TV programs to give some insight in to scouting, talent identification and if we can really predict the future. After 27 years of experience he has some very valuable reflections and  advice for parents, players, coaches and Governing Bodies. 

I have done my best to give an accurate translation of the interview (added in sub-titles)

 

Ex Professional Footballers and England national team manager enter the debate

The Race to the Bottom phrase got name checked in a very interesting discussion on BT Sports where some ex pro’s, current English football manager and author Michale Calvin spoke about modern academy structures  in child-youth football and how they contribute to  a culture that is essentially treating children as mini-adults.

 

Many can talk the talk but few  walk the walk

There are many National Sports Associations and clubs displaying “political enthusiasm” and presenting their education based on best practice and scientific principles. However, using research to support policy or convince funders is markedly different to the notion of evidence-based practice (Holt, N. L., Pankow, K., Camiré, M., Côté, J., Fraser-Thomas, J., Macdonald, D. J., . . . Tamminen, K. A. (2017). Factors associated with using research evidence in national sport organisations). In this context, when referring to evidence based practice I am not just referring to  the quality of practice in training, but practicing and evolving a purposeful and supportive culture in and around this, for players, coaches, parents, leaders and community.  I feel that this more holistic point of view that embraces a broader ecological perspective is very important if we want to bridge the theory-practice gap. All this is characterized by using research to help inform decision-making at all levels. This places huge responsibility on the coach education courses (design and implementation) and the standard of coach educators employed by NGB’s. For reference see – The Coach Educator, the Coach and Coach Education.

To quote Jamie Hamilton (twitter) “we need to encourage critical thinking at all levels of the game”.

Many youth sport systems fail to account for the complexity and non-linearity of human development

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Recently a research paper  that I wrote with some colleagues ( James Vaughan & Dennis Hörtin) at AIK Solna in Sweden (who are going through an interesting period of informed evolution) and FC Barcelona was published. We stated that the “approach adopted by our group is found on the recognition that many youth sport systems fail to account for the complexity and non-linearity of human development”. We recognise that talent is not defined by a young athlete’s fixed set of genetic or acquired components. Talent should be understood as a dynamically varying relationship between the constraints imposed by the tasks experienced, the physical and social environment, the motivational climate and the personal resources of a performer (Araújo et al., 2006; Duarte et al., 2012; Hristovski et al., 2012).

To bridge the theory-practise gap, we utilised the Athlete Talent Development Environment (ATDE: Heneriksen et al., 2010; Larsen et al., 2013) which is based on Bronnfenbrenner’s ecological model to ground development within a broader ecological context.

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(Copyright Player Development Project 2016)

“. . . a dynamic system comprising a) an athlete’s immediate surroundings at the micro-level where athletic and personal development take place, b) the interrelations between these surroundings, c) at the macro-level, the larger context in which these surroundings are embedded, and d) the organizational culture of the sports club or team, which is an integrative factor of the ATDE’s effectiveness in helping young talented athletes to develop into senior elite athletes” (Henriksen et al., 2010 p. 160)

Future collaborations between AIK Stockholm (Research and Development department) and FC Barcelona (Methodology department) will not only investigate development at the task/practical level but also at the levels of society and culture.

As many as possible, as long as possible as good as possible.

The Draft

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Thanks to  Alan Dunton for the pic

 

References:

  • Heneriksen, K., Stambulova, N., and Roessler, K. K. (2010). A holistic approach to athletic talent development environments: a successful sailing milieu. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 11, 212–222. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.10.005
  • Holt, N. L., Pankow, K., Camiré, M., Côté, J., Fraser-Thomas, J., Macdonald, D. J., . . . Tamminen, K. A. (2017). Factors associated with using research evidence in national sport organisations
  • Duarte, R., Araújo, D., Correia, V., and Davids, K. (2012). Sport teams as superorganisms: implications of sociobiological models of behaviour for research and practice in team sports performance analysis. Sports Med. 42, 633–642. doi: 10.1007/BF03262285

Facilitating a space for exchange and learning in a community of practitioners and researchers.

Complex Sam

A major factor that influences all performers [at all levels] throughout their sporting careers is the quality and appropriateness of the coaching environment (Martindale et al., 2005, p.353). Against the background of significant concerns about the quality and appropriateness of the contemporary youth sport experience the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently presented a critical evaluation of the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development. The consensus statement called for a more evidence-informed approach to youth athlete development through the adoption of viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete’s perspective and needs (IOC, 2015).

Despite the research literature on athlete development being generally more humanistic and developmentally orientated (e.g. Côté & Lidor, 2013a) there is continuing emergence of non-flexible programmes promoting early talent identification and specialisation often characterised by selection and deselection through all ages and stages (Güllich, A., 2013) with a clear absence of critical thinking (see here). We may know what we are looking for but do we understand what we are looking at?(see here) There is a fundamental flaw in any youth sports system that does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development. For example; sub-systems of the human body develop at different levels and may act as rate limiters on performance (e.g., psychological (Collins & MacNamara, 2012), and social development (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Predicting the future behaviour of a complex system (young player, team) can be quite futile. Recently, in his book “No hunger in Paradise” Michale Calvin reported that of the 1.5 million children playing organised youth football in the UK only 180 will play in the Premier League. Clearly one should not shape and form children’s football around small numbers. Clearly one should not shape and form children’s football around a system that verifies its existence through survivorship bias.

There is increasing acceptance that individual differences among learners need to be accounted for when coaches plan teaching interventions in any learning contexts (Chow & Atencio, 2012). Learning a sports skill is a complex process that involves a multitude of factors. At the level of the learner, every individual is unique with differences in characteristics such as genetic composition, social-economic backgrounds, prior experiences (Thelen E, Smith LB, Karmiloff-Smith A, Johnson MH (1994). For the young learner, the game, learning the game and the culture of the game is a continuum of complexity. “The coach needs to understand the game but also other aspects that surround the game. The surrounding environment, society, culture, economy” – Joan Vila (Head of Methodology, FC Barcelona).

In this respect, talent is not defined by a young athlete’s fixed set of genetic or acquired components, but should be understood as a dynamically varying relationship captured by the constraints imposed by the tasks experienced, the physical and social environment, and the personal resources of a performer (Araújo & Davids, 2011)

Clearly there is a need for a model and principles that reflect the needs and meets the desire to create a holistic understanding of the sports coaching process and a fuller understanding of its complexity (Jones et al., 2002; Trudel and Gilbert, 2006). Since 1994, a constraints-based framework (see here), (incorporating key ideas from ecological psychology, dynamical systems theory, evolutionary biology and the complexity sciences), has informed the way that many sport scientists seek to understand performance, learning design and the development of expertise and talent in sport (Davids, Handford & Williams, 1994; Williams, Davids & Williams, 1999; Davids et al., 2006; Araújo, & Davids, 2011b; Passos et al., 2016; Seifert et al., 2014). An important feature of the contribution of the constraints-based framework to enhancing understanding of theory and application in the acquisition of skill and expertise in sport is a focus on enhancing the quality of practice in developmental and elite sport (Chow et al., 2016).

A key challenge for coaches is to cater for this abundance of individual characteristics during practice. Therefore, nonlinear pedagogy (grounded in the constraints-led approach) is particularly appealing in that it underpins a learner centred approach and the emergence of skills (Renshaw., 2012). Nonlinear pedagogy provides an appropriate framework for practitioners to cater for individual complexities and dynamic learning environments (Lee, M. C., Chow, J. Y., Komar, J., Tan, C. W., & Button, C.,2014). Training should be designed to encourage the interaction of the different capacities and systems of the young player to help them learn to adapt and develop the ability to learn how to organise their capacities and structures. Seirullo (2002) refers to as this type of training design as “prioritised” rather than “hierarchised.” where the young learner is a participant in the learning process as opposed to being a recipient. England Rugby coach Eddie Jones in a recent interview with the Telegraph newspaper makes a reference to this – “Professional sport to a large extent is educating players to be a recipient and it’s our great belief that to be a World Cup-winning team you need to be a participant.”

Mercé et al. (2007) suggested that football be understood as a “situational sport”. The dynamic of the game comes from unstable situations and big uncertainty caused by teammate’s and opponent behaviours, path of the ball, environment, etc. It is characterised by individual and collective decision making where the player/team adapts performance to each punctual moment. The emerging relationships with teammates and interaction with opponents develops an interesting dialogue (co-adaptability/ interdependence) and an astute coach will observe, reflect and use this dialogue to design a learning space (see here). The learning environment should offer possibilities for “football inter-actions”  to the young player independent of their changing abilities needs and concerns.

football 2 interaction

However, sports coaching research “needs to extend its physical and intellectual boundaries” (Potrac et al., 2007, p.34). There is a limited amount of research undertaken in the integration of theory, science & knowledge from the perspective of high quality applied practice in sport.

This theory- practice gap possibly can be attributed to: “the professional wants new solutions to operational problems while the researcher seeks new knowledge” (Bates, 2002b, p.404). We can refine the literature by accessing the ‘often missing voice’, those whose job it is to implement the ‘theoretical’ models into ‘live’ programmes; i.e., the coaches. Coaches’ experiential knowledge can provide insights beyond those found in traditional empirical research studies. The integration of experiential knowledge of coaches with theoretically driven empirical knowledge represents a promising avenue to drive future applied science research and pedagogical practice (Greenwood, Davids, & Renshaw, 2013).

Coaches who are willing to share their evidence-based practice will improve the quality of practical and applied work in sport. We need to recognise that we probably do not know as much as we think and there is a need to facilitate a space for exchange and learning in a community of practitioners and researchers in order to develop understanding and knowledge and propose improvements for the constructive transformation and evolution of both the coaching environment (practice and coach education) and the literature.

References

Araújo,  D.,  &  Davids,  K.  (2011).  What exactly is acquired during  skill  acquisition?  Journal  of Consciousness Studies, 18, 723.

Araújo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. (2006). The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,7(6), 653-676. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.07.002

Baker, J. (2017). Routledge handbook of talent identification and development in sport. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

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

Bush, A. (2014). Sports coaching research: context, consequences, and consciousness. New York: Routledge.

Chow, J.-Y., Davids, K., Button, C. & Renshaw, I. (2016). Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction. Routledge: London

Collins, D., & Macnamara, Á. (2012). The Rocky Road to the Top. Sports Medicine,42(11), 907-914. doi:10.2165/11635140-000000000-00000

Côté, J., & Lidor, R. (2013). Conditions of children’s talent development in sport. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information on Technology.

Greenwood, D., Davids, K., & Renshaw, I. (2013). Experiential knowledge of expert coaches can help identify informational constraints on performance of dynamic interceptive actions. Journal of Sports Sciences,32(4), 328-335. doi:10.1080/02640414.2013.824599

Güllich, A. (2013). Selection, de-selection and progression in German football talent promotion. European Journal of Sport Science,14(6), 530-537. doi:10.1080/17461391.2013.858371

Jones, R.L., Armour, K.M. and Potrac, P. (2002). Understanding the coaching pro- cess: a framework for social analysis. Quest, 54, 34–48.

Lee, M. C., Chow, J. Y., Komar, J., Tan, C. W., & Button, C. (2014). Nonlinear Pedagogy: An Effective Approach to Cater for Individual Differences in Learning a Sports Skill. PLoS ONE,9(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0104744

Mallo, J. (2015). Complex Football: From Seirul·los structured training to Frades tactical periodisation. Madrid: Verlag nicht ermittelbar.

Mercé, J., Mundina, J., García, R., Yagüe, J. M., & González, L.-M. (2007). Estudio de un modelo para los procesos cognitivos en jugadores de fútbol de edades comprendidas entre 8 y 12 años. EFDeportes. Revista Digital

Potrac, P., Jones, R.L. and Cushion, C. (2007). Understanding power and the coach’s role in professional English soccer: a preliminary investigation of coach behaviour. Soccer and Society, 8(1), 33–49.

Renshaw, I. (2012). Nonlinear Pedagogy Underpins Intrinsic Motivation in Sports Coaching. The Open Sports Sciences Journal,5(1), 88-99. doi:10.2174/1875399×01205010088

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist,55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.55.1.68

Thelen E, Smith LB, Karmiloff-Smith A, Johnson MH (1994) A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action: MIT Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Quiet Revolution Starts to Bring the Noise!

 

AIK Ungdomsfotboll logga

Swedish club AIK is based in Solna Stockholm and  is one of Scandinavias biggest football clubs. This week AIK released a public statement with regard to immediate changes that will effect how the future of  child-youth football will be structured  in AIK.

Below is am English translation of the statement: (Swedish version can be read here)

The debate around a healthy childhood and youth sport has been going on for some time and continues to engage many people with different backgrounds and objectives. Criticism (aimed at football clubs with academies) is often grounded in the children’s rights perspective with reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the documents by the National Governing Body for Sports (riksidrottsförbundet) and the Swedish FA (SvFF) book ‘Spela. Lek och Lär’ (Play the game, Play and Learn).

Based on this background, AIK appointed a working group as well as a reference group (including technical directors in Ice hockey and Floorball, Bayern Munich scout, researchers in child-youth sport and local politicians) to review the activities of children from eight to twelve years of age and the consequences it has for the rest of the club.

The purpose of this review was to determine if it is possible to organise the AIK youth football in a way that is even more consistent with the above mentioned governing documents and implement them in child and youth sport in a better way than how it is done today. The purpose is that these ideals should exist in harmony with our mission the education and development of tomorrow’s players and leaders for our own representation teams (Senior teams both men and women).

IMG_0347

 The club’s definitive goals, and specifically with this project are as follows:

-We want all children in AIK to feel good.

– Increase the development and promotion of players to our own senior teams as well as increase the number of players in the U16-U19 and F16-F19.

-We also want to follow relevant control documents in Swedish child-youth sport. In other words, encouraging children and young people in AIK to develop an interest in sports in general and in particular, and to keep them playing football in AIK for as long as possible and to continue playing sport as much as possible through life.

Vision: To be the leading club in Scandinavia no matter how you measure it .(Player development, participation, leader development and coach development)

Based on this review (conducted in 2016 and early 2017) a decision was made for a change of focus on the activities in child-youth football 8-12 years in AIK. The club will delay its academy selection until the age of 13. There will be no selection process in this age group. Instead training groups will be formed with increased support from AIK through a deliberate investment in resources to support the coaches working within this age group.

Practice Repetition without Repetition (Part 2)

image cla

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).

How?

  • 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 “In possession”- as ‘identify’, ‘create’, ‘occupy’ and ‘exploit’ space. This is carried out using football interactions. These Football interactions 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 interaction should be used and how, where and when it should be executed. In this way training design is ‘affordance-driven’. Football interactions can be composed of several elements – for example, when a player runs, dribbles and ends with a shot on goal. This may also be a single element – such as a header duel with jumping and landing. Football interactions are how players utilise affordances.

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 interaction” 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 interactions are solutions and we should design training where young learners seek out these solutions. They decide which football interaction 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 interaction: 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).

ATTACK PLAY 2

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?

Relearn Long Term Player Development – A conversation with Dave Clarke

mark sub
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.