The Quiet Revolution and its Evolution (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to Become Law in Swedish Sport on January 1st 2020)

 

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In 2009 The Swedish Sports Confederation (RF) recommended that youth sports must be based on a child’s rights perspective, that is, to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Idrotten Vill, 2009).On the 1stof January 2020 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will become law in Sweden and therefore law in youth sport. Here I examine how this has come to be, why it was deemed necessary, how it will possibly be implemented and the possible consequences for clubs and organisations that do not follow its basic principles. I will also include some thoughts on some inherent system issues that need to be addressed if the Convention is to be successfully implemented.

Introduction

Sweden,with a population of just over 10 million (SCB; 2017),is one of the world’s leading sporting nations, relative to geography and population. More that 3 million inhabitants are members of a sports club and an estimated 2.4 million are actively involved in sports. There are about half a million coaches and sports leaders, the majority being volunteers. The Swedish Sports Confederation, known as Riksidrottsförbundet (RF), is an umbrella organisation for what is known as the ‘Swedish Sports Movement’. Within the sports movement are 72 special sports associations, 20,000 different clubs and organisations. RF only admits democratic and non-profit associations as members. The main task for RF is to work as effectively as possible for its members, so that they can devote maximum time to sport itself. RF represents the sports movement in contact with authorities, politicians and other decision makers dealing in grants, tax regulations, sports grounds and facilities, development of club democracy and leadership training.

Swedish sports clubs are publicly financed (Norberg, 2012), with roots in volunteerism and are characterised by a social value system linked to public health, democracy and education (Fahlén & Sjöblom, 2012). This model has in recent years been challenged by more commercially organised ventures (Center for Sports Research, 2015 p.7) and attempts to structure and professionalise talent development (Ronglan, 2015). Clubs that successfully develop elite players can enjoy both financial gain and recognition (Henriksen, 2011), increasing the pressure to identify and develop young players.

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement raising some significant concerns regarding practices in youth athlete development. The statement questioned the validity of early talent identification programmes, while also referring to the problematic nature of early specialisation, parental pressure, coaching styles, media sensationalism, and the view of youth athletes as commodities (Bergeron et al, 2015). It should therefore be understood, that player development is a complex process (Williams & Reilly, 2000). However, this complexity is often contradicted by the paradoxical nature of methods used to identify talent. Lund& Söderström (2017) argued that Swedish coaches’ talent identification is guided by what feels “right in the heart and stomach”; but what feels right is greatly influenced by their experience of previous identifications, interpretations of what elite football entails, and the coaching culture in which they find themselves. These subjective methods have been criticised due to selection on the grounds of physical development (Peterson, 2004) and a bias towards the selection of players born earlier in the age category year (Glamser & Vincent 2004; Helsen et al., 2005).Thomas Peterson’s critical report from 2004:Selektions- och rangordningslogiker inom svensk ungdomsfotbol(2004 ) referred to ‘a silent agenda’, indicating that selection on the grounds of physical development was already at work in groups of 5-12 year olds. An even more extensive study by Tomas Peterson examining the selection and ranking mechanisms in Swedish child-youth football was published in 2011.The study examined the Swedish Football Association’s (SvFF) education system. The system resembled “a pyramidal ladder, where each higher staircase is narrower than the previous one“. The results show that the likelihood of being selected for district and national team camps is greater the earlier in the year you are born. The young people who are selected early by their clubs are the ones being scouted by coaches and district and national representatives from the Swedish FA. A more recent example that echoes Peterson’s concerns is regarding national youth team selection carried out in 2018 under the guidance of SvFF. Radiosportens (Swedish Sports Radio) Richard Henriksson (2018) reported:

“- of the 100 players selected for the Swedish boy’s national youth teams for players born 1999, 2000, 2001, only two were born in the last monthly quarter”.

Despite the low predictive value of future performance in football (Williams & Reilly, 2000; Meylan et al., 2010) the identification and selection of the most promising young players to facilitate long-term development is a central tenet of talent development programs around the world (Güllich, 2013). So, despite lacking a scientific foundation, many sports organisations continue to invest time, effort and resources into early talent identification initiatives (Collins & MacNamara, 2018). P.G. Fahlström in 2011, brilliantly summed up this paradox when he questioned the use of these systems in youth sport in Sweden:

“-why are you trying to create generic models to find unique people?” (2011, p. 7)

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Figure 1: Child and youth sports in relation to ideals, governing documents, actors,adult sports, change processes (adapted from: https://centrumforidrottsforskning.se/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Barn-idrott-FNs-barnkonvention.pdf

 

Implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Swedish Sport

On the 1stof January 2020 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will become law in Sweden and therefore law in sport. This international agreement contains 54 articles and states that children are individuals with their own rights, not the property of parents or other adults. In accordance with guidelines set by RF, all sports for children must be based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as stated in the confederation’s statutes. All member clubs and associations of RF are obliged to follow these guidelines and it is a prerequisite for being a member.How this new law will be applied is still unclear and will depend on how it is interpreted in the court of law. However, through its incorporation the Convention receives the status of Swedish law and must be taken in to account by courts and other authorities in their decision processes and cases concerning children (Schiratzki, p. 30). There is an abundance of material available  on the Convention provided by The Swedish Sports Confederation-RF (see here) and UNICEF (see here). Local district associations in various sports, have since early 2019 offered and provided education to clubs, board members, coaches and parents on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in sport. During these education evenings, four main principles are highlighted indicative of how the whole is to be interpreted. Articles 2, 3, 6 and 12 are called the four main principles.

Article 2 deals with the equal value and rights of all children. No one is allowed to be discriminated against. The Children’s Convention applies to all children who are in a country that has ratified it.

Article 3 states that it is the best interests of the child to come to the forefront in all measures concerning the child. What is best for the child must be decided in each case and the child’s own opinion and experience must be taken in to account.

Article 6 underlines each child’s right to life, survival and development. The article is about the child’s physical health, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development.

Article 12 highlights the child’s right to form and express their views and to have them taken in to account in all matters that concern him or her. When their opinions are taken in to account, the child’s age and maturity must be taken in to account.

 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Swedish Football

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In 2014 the Swedish Football Association (SvFF) introduced the C Diplomaas the new first step for coaches beginning their education pathway. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is introduced at the beginning of the course book. The four main principles are interpreted from a football perspective.

Article 2

Football should be as open and accessible to all, regardless of sex, colour, language, sexual orientation or disability. This is a principle of non-discrimination.

Article 3

“Childs best” means adults and children together create an environment where children have fun, concentrate and do their best, but not pressed too hard by coaches and parents. It can also involve varied training where learning is central.

Article 6

All children have the right to develop physically, mentally, socially and athletically.

Article 12

All children have the right to participation, to influence training, to be heard and to make their own decisions

 

Selection, “Topping” and the UN Convention on the rights of the Child

RF’s (2005) definition of “topping” reads: “the best players are selected for matches while the less good players are not selected. It may also be that playing time in a match is unevenly distributed as the best players are allowed to play more than other teammates”. Selection means that the team is shaped on the basis that some children and young people are considered better than others and thus receive benefits during a match or tournament. These benefits can be, for example, a given place in the team, more playing time or a position on the field that is considered attractive (Redelius, 2002).

Henrik Persson (2019), an expert on children and youth sports at RF,believes that the way selection and “topping” is practiced in many youth sport clubs today is in conflict with the convention and does not believe that it will survive this change in the law. Children’s rights expert Kirsten Sandberg, who has been a member of the UN Children’s Rights Committee has suggested, that not complying with Article 12 can have tangible consequences for the clubs and associations that today “top” and select within their teams. She has also suggested that this type of selection should not happen until the children themselves can have a clearer opinion about whether they want to be exposed to it. Selection should be made on the basis that it is for the child’s and not the club’s best interests. Should the Swedish courts interpret the Children’s Convention in this way, Kirsten Sandberg claims that it would be illegal for associations not to offer the same training opportunities to girls as boys.

Lawyer Louise Hammarbäck runs the organisation Pacs (Protection and Action for Children’s rights in Sports), which works on strengthening children’s rights in sports. She told Sportbladet (2019) that no one today knows how the Swedish judicial system will interpret the new laws as they have never been tried in court, but it will definitely make a difference.

“It will make a difference because with national legislation there will also be criminal liability. This means that the Children’s Convention alone can form the basis of a judgment and I believe that many associations that have children and youth activities will be more cautious”.

Sports Minister Amanda Lind when asked in Sportbladet (2019) if the law will provide more concrete tools to deal with the key issues in child-youth sport answered:

“When the Children’s Convention becomes law, these issues will be high on the agenda.”

Some final thoughts

The debate on youth sport in Sweden is out in the open, often polarised and contradictory. In recent years discussions on youth sport have featured regularly on prime-time TV, radio and in national and local newspapers. One can hope that the current discussions, concerns and available evidence, as presented here, can help clubs, coaches, stakeholders, sports organisations at all levels, to move beyond the current stalemate. However, it is hard to imagine any changes taking place as long as structural conditions remain unaltered and unchallenged. For example, many clubs, associations and federations are still anchored to a traditional view of sport and competition, limiting their ability to think critically and differently, break routines and try new ways (Håkan Larsson, 2013).

Long-term athlete development involves highly complex processes in which there are an almost incalculable number of interactions that can influence the rate and magnitude of development of young athletes (Kirkland, O ‘Sullivan, 2018). Whilst 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., ).

The International Olympic Committee (Bergeron et al., ) has recognised that the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centered.There are many social norms and organisational pressures present within the facets of professional sport that are being perpetuated in youth sport. For example, the use of words such as ‘elite’ has added to the development of an artificial mythology in and around the culture of child youth sports programs (see here).Early talent ID programs, so called elite grassroots coach education programs and private commercial ventures, regularly been marketed using sensationalistic language, could well be aiding the preservation of these embedded habits and beliefs.

It can be argued, that the introduction of the UN Convention on the rights of the Child into law in Swedish sport, emerged as a response to some of the concerns highlighted here. Despite good intentions and strategical procedures displayed at operational system level through documents and guidelines, there seems to be a limited understanding of how to ensure that research and federal sports policies are implemented and used in practice. This knowledge gap remains problematic (Ross. et al, 2018; Fahlström, 2011).We simply cannot just make the Convention law and ‘will’ it into existence in practice and hope that the courts will take care of it. RF’s ambition that youth sports must comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child raises the bar. It sets new levels of expectations on coaches, many whom are volunteers, board members, clubs, coach educators and federations. Key to its success does not lay within the courts, but in each federations ability to enable knowledge mobilisation – the act of moving the research and federal sports policies into the hands of research users to effect change (Gainforth et al., 2014). Knowledge after all cannot be treated as an organisational asset without the active and voluntary participation of the communities that are its true owners.

Social systems like youth sports clubs are open systems, so a change in one area is likely to create changes elsewhere in the system. As with all social phenomena, sports coaching and the development of young people are influenced by broad political, social and cultural contexts, where abilities are acquired thanks to a history of interactions (Rietveld 2008a). For good or for bad, local interactions,if allowed to occur on a regular basis through proximal processes and their interactions,affect neighbouring agents and can eventually influence other systems and distal processes (Heylighen, 2009), making learning in the system inheritably social. Swedish researcher Karin Redelius (2013) captured this when she suggested that culture in a particular club or sports organisation is partly a result of a historical process influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders and how this affects the design of practice, who is considered talented, what distinguishes a good leader and what is considered success.

As already highlighted, there is a constraining dominance still at play that we need to overcome if the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is to help guide the future of Swedish sport. The grip of convention, as highlighted by Håkan Larsson (2013),on player development, pedagogical approaches, coach behaviours and coach education may well be fuelling a cultural inertia, making it easier to persevere with and fall back on embedded habits and beliefs. This could prove problematic when you consider the ambiguity of Article 3. The risk is that it will be an adult making the decision for the child based on their own personal beliefs and biases. It can therefore be argued that our current and future opportunities to develop youth sports are influenced by philosophical assumptions and culturally resilient beliefs that have been developed through the integration of various influences that remain uncontested and unchanged. These clearly need to be excavated and investigated. I believe that this is what P.G. Fahlström is calling for when he asked “why are you trying to create generic models to find unique people?” (2011, p. 7).

The aim of this piece is to stimulate a broad and informed debate within child-youth sport in general, by emphasising the need to investigate and understand the dynamic interrelations between various components from micro (pedagogy, practice task design, selection policies) to macro (cultural patterns), if we are to truly live up to the idea of ‘as many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible’. This slogan is very much central to the future development of Swedish sport and its long-term vision. The introduction of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in to law on January 1st2020 may yet prove to be a key factor in supporting this noble endeavour.

The Mighty Quark – Fade out for the Medaza Boys

References:

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

Centrum för idrottsforskning (2015). Retrieved from https://centrumforidrottsforskning.se/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Idrottens-pris.pdf

Collins, D., & MacNamara, A. (2018). Talent Development: A Practitioner Guide. New York: Routledge.

Cited in ref: Riksidrottsförbundet (2009) Idrotten vill– Idrottsrörelsens idéprogram

Cited in ref: SCB (2017). Manniskorna i Sverige. Retrieved from http://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/sverige-i-siffror/manniskorna-i-sverige/

Cited in ref: SvFF (2014). Svenska Fotbollförbundets Tränar – och Spelarutbildning;. Urban Hammar om nya barn – och ungdomstränarutbildningen. Retrieved from https://utbildning.sisuidrottsbocker.se/fotboll/tranare/

Den allvarsamma leken (2018). Retrieved from. https://www.expressen.se/sport/qs/den-allvarsamma-leken/

https://www.aftonbladet.se/sportbladet/a/ngE6VJ/tror-inte-toppning-overlever-nya-lagen(2019)

https://www.aftonbladet.se/sportbladet/a/oRrO87/svensk-idrott-bryter-mot-barnkonventionen(2019)

Fahlén, J. & Sjöblom, P. (2012).Good sport environments: A study of collective fundamental values and their importance for activity principles in Swedish club sport. Swedish journal of sport research, 1: 1-28.

Fahlström (2011, p.7). Att finna och utveckla talang. Retrieved from: http://www.rf.se/globalassets/riksidrottsforbundet/dokument/elitidrott/att-finna-och-utveckla-talang_sf.pdf

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] []

Gainforth, H. L., Latimer-Cheung, A. E., Athanasopoulos, P., Moore, S., & Ginis, K. A. M. (2014). The role of interpersonal communication in the process of knowledge mobilization within a community-based organization: a network analysis. Implementation Science, 9(1). doi: 10.1186/1748-5908-9-59

 

Glamser, F., & Vincent, J. (2004). The relative age effect among elite American youth soccer players. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 27(1), 31–38.

Güllich, A. (2013). Selection, de-selection and progression in German football talent promotion. European Journal of Sport Science,00(00), 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2013.858371

Helsen, W. F., Van Winckel, J., & Williams, A. M. (2005). The relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe. Journal of Sports Science, 23, 629–636.

Henriksen, K. (2011). Talentudviklingsmiljøer i verdensklasse. [World class talent development environments]. Viborg: Dansk psykologisk forlag.

Idrotten Vill (2009). Retrieved from: https://www.rf.se/globalassets/riksidrottsforbundet/nya-dokument/nya-dokumentbanken/rfs-verksamhet/idrotten_vill_2015_webb.pdf

Larsen, C. H., Alfermann, D., Henriksen, K., & Christensen, M. K. (2013). Successful talent development in soccer: The characteristics of the environment. Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, 2(3), 190–206.

Lund, S., & Söderström, T. (2017). To See or Not to See: Talent Identification in the Swedish Football Association. Sociology of Sport Journal, 34(3), 248–258. doi: 10.1123/ssj.2016-0144

Manchester City under-5 elite squad branded as madness (2018). Retrieved from: https://trainingground.guru/articles/manchester-city-under-5s-elite-squad-described-as-absolute-madness

Norberg, J. (2012).En översikt av det svenska elitidrottssystemet. I J. Norberg (Red), För framtids segrar. En analys av det svenska elitidrottssystemet. Stockholm: Centrum för idrottsforskning.

Peterson, T. Talangutveckling eller talangavveckling? 2011.

Peterson, T. (2004). Cited in: http://idrottsforum.org/articles/peterson/peterson040831.pdf

Redelius, K. (2002). Ledarna och barnidrotten: Idrottsledarnas syn på idrott, barn och fostran. (Doktorsavhandling). Stockholm: Lärarhögskolan i Stockholm. Tillgänglig: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:737/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Redelius, K. (2013) Att vilja och kunna fortsätta – Om idrottens utformning och tillgänglighet (s. 19-40), i Spela vidare: en antologi om vad som får unga att fortsätta idrotta, Stockholm: Centrum för idrottsforskning.

Rietveld, E. (2008a). Situated normativity: The normative aspect of embodied cognition in unreflective action. Mind, 117(468), 973–97.

Riksidrottsförbundet. (2005) FoU-rapport Toppningstudien. Hämtad 2014-04-17 från http://www.rf.se/ImageVault/Images/id_146/scope_128/ImageVaultHandler.aspx

Riksidrottsförbundet (2009) Idrotten vill– Idrottsrörelsens idéprogram

Ronglan, L. T. (2015). Elite sport in in Scandinavian welfare states: legitimacy under pressure? International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 7(3), 345-363.

Ross, E., Gupta, L., & Sanders, L. (2018). When research leads to learning, but not action in high performance sport. Progress in Brain Research Sport and the Brain: The Science of Preparing, Enduring and Winning, Part C,201–217. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.08.001′

There is no such thing as an international elite under -9 soccer player (2018). Retrieved from : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6243622/#ref8

Williams, A. M., & Reilly, T. (2000). Talent identification and development in soccer. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18(9), 657–667. http://doi.org/10.1080/02640410050120041

 

Towards an open conversation on evolving a purposeful and supportive culture, for players, children, coaches, parents, leaders and community in Irish youth soccer

Screenshot 2019-06-25 at 20.04.24

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.

 

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

 

Notes from a conference (part 1): AIK youth football presentation at CIF 30-year anniversary Conference.

Stockholm 15-09-2018

AIK youth football presentation at CIF (Centre for Sports Science) 30-year anniversary Conference.

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 Dennis Hörtin (twitter) and I were honoured to be asked to present the ongoing work and process of evolution at AIK youth football (link). The following is a description of our intentions with the presentation followed by some take home bullet points.

The debate in child youth sport in Sweden is open despite often being polarised and contradictory. One can hope that the current discussions, like those presented  by others at this conference, will help coaches, stakeholders, federal sports organisations at both national and district level and clubs to move beyond the current stalemate and enhance knowledge mobilisation. By this we mean that the act of moving research results into the hands of research users, needs to be a prioritised. However, despite good intentions displayed at operational system level through documents and guidelines there is clearly a need to bridge the theory-practice gap and take it in to active use. For instance, while acknowledging the underlying complex process of the act of moving research into the hands of research users, there is seemingly a limited understanding of how to ensure research and federal sports policies are implemented and used in practice.

The aim of our presentation was to stimulate a broad and informed debate within youth sport and in child youth football in general by emphasising the need to understand the dynamic interrelations between various components if we are to truly live up to the idea of ‘as many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible’. There seems to be an increasing frustration among practitioners and researchers with the inability of traditional methods, models and programs to provide explanations or solutions for persistent problems and misunderstandings in player development and how best to design learning environments in child youth football. The underlying narratives of these frustrations are captured by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a research paper published May 2015 stating that the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. This elucidates a need to address 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.

There is a constraining dominance at play here. The grip of convention on player development and practice, on coaching and coach education is seemingly fuelled a cultural inertia making it easier to persevere with and fall back on embedded habits and beliefs. One of the dominant narratives is the focus on the short-term maximisation as opposed the long-term optimisation. This is evident from the pedagogies used in practice to ideas around talent identification and player development. By suggesting that practice task design and learning environments and therefore player development can be re-framed for children we are saying that in essence, the development of children in sport needs to be grounded in research.

Therefore, at AIK youth football (twitter) we are viewing player development from an ecological perspective with the level of analysis being the player- environment interaction. We suggest that further research should look to develop a theoretical framework for child youth football that accounts for the complexity and nonlinearity of human development, essentially, for as many as possible, as long as possible, as good as possible.

Main points from presentation:

Earlier that day Jean Côté introduced his presentation as an ecological approach to looking at sport. We used this as a foundation for us to build our presentation on.

  • AIK considers its players and teams and wider ecology as complex adaptive systems
  • We start from where we are not from where we want to be
  • Implementing a Research & Development Department to merge in club knowledge + experience with knowledge from the research.
  • The goals: (1) The wellbeing of children (2) Align with key documents (UN convention on the rights of the child, guiding governing policy documents) (3) Facilitate an environment for the emergence of healthier people and better football players.
  • AIK views player development from an ecological perspective.
  • Grounded in the theoretical framework of ED coaches at AIK are encouraged to adopt A Constraints Led Approach (CLA). Individual- environment- task constraints don’t operate in isolation, they interact over different timescales. CLA is not a magic bullet.
  • CLA is not small sided games or game based session design. This is a common misinterpretation often leading to ideas of the game as the teacher – this can lead to over passive coaching. A game based approach doesn’t mean just play a game.
  • Implementing a CLA requires a deep understanding of the sport and skill learning, the individual (socio-culturally-psychologically) the environment (how we design training and macro form of life, the social, cultural, historical landscape).             Form of Life: The behaviours, skills, capacities, attitudes, values, beliefs, practices and customs that shape the culture, philosophy and climate of societies, institutions and organisations (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014).
  • Theme based sessions are too vague. Emergent behaviours can be observed and worked on if the session is defined by principles of play. Encourage coaches to design sessions that can shine a light on one behaviour without excluding the affordance for others.
  • Principles of nonlinear pedagogy can be useful for coaches to inform their session designhttps://footblogball.wordpress.com/…/designing-a-learning-…/
  • The player – environment interaction is the level of analysis- therefore we propose the idea of Football Interactions

Football Interactions (using a definition conceptualised by (O’ Sullivan & Kearney) are how an athlete coordinates their behaviour within the performance context (the game), in relation to that environment, on the basis of not only physical and informational (i.e., situational) demands, but also on the basis of historical and cultural factors. Football Interactions (dribble, drive, pass, shoot, movement without the ball …….
The best players have a high ability to connect perception and action and select relevant information to utilise football interactions for that situation
Therefore, training design should include information representative of the game to enhance the connection of perception and action and utilization through football interactions of relevant information.

 

Coaching, Interactions and The Workmanship of Risk

Killian Sam jpg

Adaptation of our knowledge, skills and understanding is a challenging and confronting process. David Pye’s idea of the ‘workmanship of risk’ emphasises the idea that this process should go on throughout our lifespan. Think of an artist working on a painting, a sculptor chiselling out the finer details or indeed a young player learning to become skilfully attuned to the multiple possibilities for action in each unique situation, the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making and learning. This is a rich description of how child-youth football environments should look in practice and elucidates the idea that interactions between coach and learner(s) are of the utmost importance as they constitute a learning system.

The best youth coaches look to create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.

What is skilful performance?

Successful performance (skilful performance) in sport is predicated on the constraints of an individual’s perceptual and action capabilities, selecting among affordances to guide football interactions (dribble, pass, off ball movement…) during performance (Araújo et al., 2006). Affordances are opportunities for action in this case football interactions (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014) and are related to an individual’s ability to use available information to regulate and organise actions to develop adaptable behaviours that support expert performance (Esteves, Oliveira, & Araújo, 2010). Football interactions are tuned by environmental information to function specifically in each unique situation emphasising the need to understand the nature of the information that constrains movement. Practice should highlight informational constraints to improve the coupling of perception and action in players and promote the utilization through football interactions of relevant affordances.

Environment Design for Skilful Performance – Design the task and coach around affordances

Skills or football interactions (dribble, pass, running off the ball) require extensive practice but the design of practice is of great importance in the sense that it needs to contain relevant informational variables (opportunities for football interactions) so that young learners learn how to become skilfully perceptually attuned to relevant information as perception plays an on-line role in tuning football interactions and therefore the young players learning. This links in with the ideas put forward by Araujo & Davids in 2010 when they suggested that the main focus of learning in sport should be on a process of ‘skill attunement’. Echoing Gibson (1966, 1986) this implies that the coach should consider perception and action jointly as continuous interactions rather than treating them as separate problems that can be solved independently and afterwards connected. From a coaching perspective, it can be argued that this is about educating the attention of the young learner. But just as importantly, this in turn means that the coaches focus of attention must also be educated! Here we challenge the coach to identify relevant information available to the learner, to skilfully educate the young player to attend to certain features of the learning context so that they can learn how this information can be utilised using football interactions. Design the task and coach around affordances.

Skill when viewed as an interaction is how learners affect change through the utilisation of affordances using football interactions (dribble, pass, off ball movement) as they search, discover and exploit in response to what the game is asking of them. In other words, learning to become skilfully attuned to each situation that the game presents to them. This idea of ongoing adaption or ‘skill attunement’ elucidates the idea that coaches should create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.

Skills Have History

The diversity of human motor behaviour should help us to understand how motor solutions emerge from a given set of constraints. This is particularly pertinent with young learners. Young children arrive at training each with their own unique individual bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities. Two kids living in a block of flats. On the 10th floor lives a single mother with a child that is taken care of by his elderly grandmother so that she can go to work. On the bottom floor a child of the same age gets to regularly play daily with his older siblings in the common garden area. The two kids are friends but the opportunities afforded to them to play, move and express their bodies are influenced by different constraints. If it is understood that 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 performed in these early organised sports environments cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point.

This is a simple example how constraints as highlighted by Rothwell et al; 2017 may influence a young player’s development and how they interact with a performance context and elucidates a key principle of ecological dynamics in player development. That is the interacting influence of task and environmental constraints on a young players’ ability to become attuned to the opportunities for action invited by objects, surfaces, features, terrains, and other people in a performance setting. This key principle as touched on earlier in this article is known as affordances in ecological dynamics (Davids, Güllich, Shuttleworth & Araújo, 2017).

The Workmanship of Risk

The essential idea of ‘the workmanship of risk’ is that that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making and learning. This is a rich description of how child-youth football environments should look in practice, emphasising patience and implying a mutual creation of meaning which arises from the “between”, or the system, of learner and coach (Fuchs; 2007). Unlike more traditional reductionist approaches the diverse range of the affordance landscape in expertly designed learning environments in child youth football is one ‘in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgment, dexterity and care which the maker (coach and players) exercises as the work is inherently more pleasing (Pye; 1986). So, the process of ‘making and learning’ through coach – player(s) interactions such as manipulation of constraints, using feedback or players themselves continuously adapting their football interactions in the deliberately designed environment is a coach bringing sensitivity to the different experiences, opportunities, biographies and histories of learners. This implies that the coach must have a deep understanding of the sport, skill learning, the individual (psycho-socio-cultural being) and the environment (learning space, broader social-cultural landscape). If you are stepping in to the learning process, then you better know how to add value.

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

Davids, K., Güllich, A., Shuttleworth., R., & Araújo, D. (2017). Understanding Environmental and Task Constraints on Talent Development, In J. Baker, S. Cobley, J. Schorer & N. Wattie (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Abingdon: Routledge.

Esteves, P., Oliveira, R. d., & Araújo, D. (2011). Posture-related affordances guide attacks in basketball. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 639-644.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.06.007

Fuchs, Thomas. (2007). Psychotherapy of the lived space: A phenomenological and ecological concept. American journal of psychotherapy. 61. 423-39.

Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Gibson, J. J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology,26(4), 325-352. doi:10.1080/10407413.2014.958035

Rothwell, M., Davids, K., Stone I. (2017). Harnessing socio-cultural constraints on athlete development to create a form of life. Journal of Expertise.

Pye, D. (1986) The nature and art of workmanship (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

 

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.