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.

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

Some words with Richard Bailey, Ph.D. Physical Activity, Sports and Human development

RICHARD BAILEY

Richard Bailey, Ph.D, is a former university professor who now focuses on writing and public speaking. His work and interests meet on the intersection of physical activity, sports and human development. He received a doctorate of philosophy of education from University of Sunderland and has been a professor at a number of leading Universities in the UK. . He is co-editor of The Routledge Physical Education Reader, co-author of The SAGE Handbook of Philosophy of Education, and the author of Philosophy of Education: An Introduction and Physical Education for Learning: A Guide for Secondary Schools, among other books. He has conducted research on topics including gifted education, talent development, effective teaching and coaching, and the development of expertise.

“My interests include science, philosophy, education, martial arts and the insidious bullshit that threatens them”.

Catch him on twitter @DrDickB

Visit his blog http://talkingeducationandsport.blogspot.se/

Footblogball: Is there a conflict between how children learn and how modern youth sports elite programs (early selection, specialise and train hard) are carried out that is causing an imbalance?

Richard Bailey: Yes, I think 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.

Footblogball: Physical Education (as well as the arts) seems to have taken a back seat to other what are considered more important subjects in the school curriculum. With the concern for the rise in diabetes and the general health of children are we now reaping what we sow?

Richard Bailey: I don’t think this is necessarily true. Physical education and school sport was a major element of the last UK government’s education programme, and still carries a significant amount of central government funding.  It is true that physical education and the arts Have traditionally been marginalised within the school curriculum. And that is partly due to their inability to demonstrate value. But I think this is changing in many places.In answer to your specific question, I would like to see your evidence that there is a relationship between diabetes/general health and curriculum physical education. I do not think that relationship has been demonstrated.

Footblogball: Do you think that there is relationship between physical activity during the school day and educational performance? How does exercise effect brain activity in children? (I know VERY general question)

Richard Bailey: Yes. Exercise seems to stimulate the development of the neural networks that underlie thinking.  Activity also seems to stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, and more complex thoughts.

Footblogball: In your Psychology today blog “Leaning to move, moving to learn” there is a reference to questioning the standard ways in which schools organise and prioritise their various responsibilities. In reference to Youth sport organisations can we ask the same question?

Dr Richard Bailey: Yes.   I think they suffer from basically the same problems: inflexibility; lack of evidence; adult-centred.

Footblogball: My own personal coaching philosophy is “It is not how I coach but more about understanding how they learn”. Do you think that our coaching education programmes should place a greater emphasis helping coaches understand how humans learn? Surely if we develop an understanding for how our players learn then coaching becomes easier, your sessions become less coach-centric more player centred and it will easier for players to take control of the learning process?

Richard Bailey: Yes.  Although we do not know a huge amount about how people learn, and lots more research is needed in practical settings.  I also think planners of coach education programmes need to take their role more seriously, and design training that is much more challenging, and leads the participants to walk away better coaches.

Footblogball: Apparently 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses can be recognised by 14 years of age. This is not something that I have heard been discussed much within the context of athlete development and talent ID models.  Are we doing enough to identify this early on? Are we adults contributing to it with the demands and pressures that we put on kids?

Richard Bailey: I do not know what it means to say that 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses are recognised by 14 years of age. I very much doubt that is true, and I suspect it really means that the origins of many mental illnesses can be traced back to early adolescence.

But in answer to the question, I think sports doing almost nothing to identify and support mental health issues. Nor do schools.  And I have no doubt that intensive early training programmes can be harmful for both physical and mental health.  We are still very much in the dark ages as far as mental health is concerned, and it is not taken nearly seriously enough.