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.


State of Play: Child & Youth Development in Sport- Views from around the world

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I recently wrote an article for the Irish Times about the role of the youth coach being more challenging than ever. I am very grateful for how the article has been received and thankful for the many messages of support I have been sent from various parts of the world. You can read it here

The biggest challenge that I feel we have ahead of us in child-youth sport can be summed up in the following sentence. As many as possible as long as possible in the best environment possible. Kids are being selected early in to environments that often demand early specialisation in one sport. Elite status is being hung around the necks of 7 year olds, clubs, coaches are promoting it and parents are buying in to it. The societal expectation that is today attached to youth sport is screwing up the learning process. Young bodies and minds are being turned away by and from the sport at a ridiculously early age. Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids

In Canada at the Ontario Soccer Summit Jason de Vos Director of Development at Canada Soccer delivered a powerful and stirring keynote speech on exactly this and more!


In Scotland Andy Kirkland (twitter), a sports scientist from the Scottish Institute of Sport and a lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Stirling asks the question “can we make Scottish football great again?” Andy is an outsider looking in. His journey takes him deep into the traditional heart of Scottish player development and then heads to Island to see if there are lessons to be learnt from there. Read it here.

In Scotland, he finds that there are many enthusiastic coaches who are eager to learn but who ultimately feel that they are just another brick in the wall of what is at best a flawed system.

“However, I do question whether it is possible for players to experience joy and fun in a club academy structure in which 9-year olds experience pressure to progress to the next level. This is a false economy because those who have fun and develop a love of the game will invariably perform at a higher level as they mature”.

Andy also examines the socio-economical and sociocultural constraints that are emerging because of modern academy structures.

“This system disadvantages players from the previous working-class hotbeds of football, because their families may not have the access to a car to take them to training and they may not have the where-for-all to support a performance lifestyle”.

In Singapore there was a sold out Youth Coaching Conference organised by the National Sports Institute (see here). Themes from the conference included, redefining success in youth sports. One of the markers of success is if the young athletes want to keep coming back to the next session of their own volition and are not forced to come.

There was a lot of focus on the types of relationships coaches have with their athletes.Prof Jean Côté specialises in Sport Psychology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, where he is also the Coaching Director in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies was one of the main speakers. He is an expert in the areas of youth sport, coaching, and positive youth development.

“Very often we think about the outcomes of sport. (But) what created those outcomes? Setting an environment that is positive for the kids, diversification, and play. The relational aspects of coaching, if we applied it well, it will lead to some very positive outcomes,”  Prof Jean Côté at the Youth Coaching Conference organised by the National Youth Sports Institute(NYSI).

In England head of coaching at Sport England, Stuart Armstrong (twitter) has begun an excellent series of Facebook live “walkabouts” where he discusses the 7 deadly sins of talent development. Check out part one (or sin one).   


In Sweden, the districts of Skåne and Halland along with some Swedish researchers and sports psychologists have issued a joint statement on how they will shape and form child-youth sport in the future.

Read the Swedish document here:En åsikt med insikt (1) (1)

English translation of joint statement by Skåne and Hallands Football Association read here: An opinion with insigh Skane and Halland Statement

The statement is called “An opinion with insight”. In line with trying to offer a sporting environment with a focus on happiness and well-being  Hallands and Skåne Football Association (HFF and SKFF) have taken the decision to fundamentally change how things work with children and youth in their respective districts.

Here are some of the main points

  1. During the last few years the following points have been debated in Swedish child-youth sports.
  • Early selection process
  • Permanent ability groupings
  • Loading teams with those who can perform best now at the expense of others
  • Publishing league tables
  1. Far to common use of anecdotes as proof for an argument (“I know a player that….”), adult based common sense (“it worked for me therefore it will work for everyone”).
  2. We believe that child-youth sport should be grounded in research and the best available evidence in combination with the child’s own views.
  3. If we want our children and young people to be active in sports then one of our main tasks is to create environments that promote happiness and well-being. specialisation.
  4. Team selection at the expense of others, permanent ability groupings (only the best can play with the best), early selection process. For us, these concepts/practices are not developing Swedish football and they certainly don’t care about a child’s development. Research clearly shows that children’s sports activities carried out under the influence of these concepts segregates children and young people and leads to large drop out. We wonder how it is morally and ethically possible to defend practices that advocate this?
  5. Naturally, early selection and exclusion are not the cause of all negative aspects in child and youth sport (there are many other things that also create problems)
  6. Trying to predict future top players goes against the best available evidence from research. Believing in this means that you are not only fooling yourself and your organisation but you are also fooling the children and their parents.
  7. We suspect that there is widespread silence behind much of the structured talent work carried out in Sweden today, where the elite camps at an early age is a central framework.
  8. We need to put more time and resources in to training our leaders and further develop the environments in which our players are active everyday i.e our clubs. The focus should be on giving our leaders the tools needed to create a sustainable motivational climate where all children and young people feel welcome while they develop as footballers and people. This is not the whole solution to the problems that exist, but we hope and believe that it may take us a big step forward.

The statement is signed by the following people:

Johan Johqvist     Chairman Hallands Football Association

Claes Ohlsson Chairman Skånes Football Association

Andreas Ivarsson Fil. Dr in psychology (sport, movement, health), Högskolan i Halmstad

Johan Fallby Sports psychologist (FC Copenhagen) and advisor

Magnus Lindwall Lecturer in psychology (health), Göteborgs Universitet

Youth participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage. At the heart of its structure must be a commitment to learning, a commitment to creating high quality learning environments. This places great demands on coaches, leaders and those responsible for educating them.

Children who throw themselves heart and soul into sport deserve responsible and knowledgeable leaders. So as the race to the bottom gathers pace I feel that there are two areas we must place a larger focus on if we are to develop a more informed opinion around what has already become a highly polarised debate.

  • Education of coach educators (see here)
  • Parent education on the child in sport

Our starting point should be to embrace diversity and awaken a passion for sport in the kids. Develop feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. After which we should be aiming to work with as many young players as possible for as long as possible in the best environment possible


Stephen Rollnick-Bringing People Together. A Restorative Approach and Sport


After a recent blog post The Race to the Bottom, I was very thankful that Stephen Rollnick got in touch with the aim of initiating further discussions. Stephen is an  Honorary Professor at Cardiff University. Alongside William R Miller he developed many of the founding principles of motivational interviewing..

The conversations I have had so far with Stephen Rollnick zoomed in on our approach to coaching and the necessity of creating a learning space that builds relationships and gives young people the opportunity to develop a sense of self. Stephen has been highlighting for me a collaborative, goal-orientated style of communication with attention to the language of change. Something that I have repeated many times during my workshops is that if you want to change and develop a culture, then you must change and develop the language. These conversations have encouraged me to reflect again on the importance of creating a culture of trust. One that focuses on the development of the whole child by strengthening the quality of relationships with, in and around the child.

Digging deeper in to my blog archives I see that much of what Stephen and I have discussed is what the International Olympic Committee want us to address as reported in their Consensus statement on youth development. (See here)

The Culture of youth sports in general, has become disproportionally both adult and media centered. There is 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 (IOC Consensus statement on youth development)

In preparing this piece on the restorative approach and sport Stephen was very keen to acknowledge the work of Andy Williams, Deputy Head, Monmouth Comprehensive School, Monmouth, Wales. So perhaps we should allow the words of Andy Williams taken from his excellent article “Restorative Practice in Schools” to set the scene.

Restorative practice can help to inform our approach to leadership, learning, curriculum design and behaviour modelling. Decisions are made with reference to five core restorative beliefs:

  • Everyone has a unique perspective.
  • Our thoughts and feelings influence our behaviours. 
  • Our actions have a ripple effect. 
  • We have needs that connect us to people and purpose. 
  • The people best placed to find solutions are the people themselves.



The restorative approach has its roots in restorative justice, a strategy developed in the field of criminal justice to bring offenders and victims together with the aim to restore a sense of justice. Many schools worldwide have adopted this approach. This excellent video with Andy Williams Deputy Head, Monmouth Comprehensive School, Monmouth, Wales is an inspiring example of this.


Many of the conversations I have had with Stephen have swayed towards a much wider application of these ideas in sport, especially in the culture of youth sport. Essential skills are needed by the coach to help young learners navigate through the complexities of youth development.

As a student put it to his teacher: “Why is it that you only ask me how I think and feel when I have done something wrong?”

If we look at how the “Restorative Approach” is successfully applied in schools Stephen points out some strategies that are promoted strongly by leadership.

  • All students are encouraged to say how they think and feel.
  • Struggles with behavior are seen as no different to struggles with academic performance
  • Systems of reward and punishments, using merits and demerits, are often abandoned, on the grounds these are extrinsic motivators unlikely to be as effective as internal ones.
  • Relationship-building and a focus on peoples’ strengths hold the key to wellbeing, better performance and improving the culture of the setting. Self-determination theory Is often used as a guide, with its focus on student needs.

Now this got me really reflecting!

I was recently updating my UEFA A license with the Swedish FA. One of the guest speakers was Jan Ekstrand. Working out of Linköpping University as lead expert on the Football Research Group, Jan Ekstrand’s research is on the frontline of football injuries and prevention. His work has carried him across Europe to some of the world’s top elite clubs. During his lecture, Jan asked the question “Which are the most important factors to prevent injuries on elite level football?” Three of four of the most important factors revealed in his work are:

  • Leadership styles of coaches
  • Internal communication
  • Well-being of players

I sense that there is a common ground between the work of Jan Ekstrand and the ideas promoted by Stephen Rollnick that needs to be explored, especially within the area of expressing values and improving relationships to improve outcomes.

Essentially it is about bringing people together. A restorative approach empowers leadership with a clear message to convey to others. That message is simple. Relationships matter. Whether we are discussing change, conflict, injury prevention, player or team development, relationships matter. Stephen believes that Motivational interviewing skills can be very helpful. Even more so the skill of affirmation and empathic listening.

“Here’s some advice from Stephen on “bringing people together”which he has taken directly from the work of Andy Williams in a school setting”.

  • Go around the circle one at a time, using a talking “piece”; you can pass if you don’t want to say anything; no interrupting or cross-talk
  • Everyone has a right to be heard
  • Speak for yourself not others
  • Avoid the trap of blaming others (therefore the wording of your questions is essential)

As a practical example:

Review of a game that was lost (same principle for reviewing any game)

Questions might include any of these: What happened in the game? What did you notice that went well? How might we improve next time? What can I do to help others?  What I would like to practice more for next time? Then coach offers his points for improvement in practice (2-3 max), followed by request for suggestions.

How can we support the mental health and well-being of our young learners through the main aim of our  training environment (learning space) – learning. Stephen just like Andy Williams at Monmouth Comprehensive School in Wales. challenges us to diverge from a traditional “top-down” and “doing to” culture and use the restorative approach to develop the emergence of a “doing with” culture.

I will be taking part in a conference curated by Stephen Rollnick in Cardiff on July 14. Entitled “The power of words and better relationships. Motivation, behaviour change & culture change in sport”.

For more information


You can see an excellent video with Andy Williams here:

There’s an article by Andy Williams here:


Coaching, Learning and the Brain – Richard Bailey Research Survey


Footblogball is delighted to be able to present and invite coaches to take part in a new exclusive research survey by Richard Bailey (International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education)

This survey is aimed at practicing coaches in the UK and Ireland only.

This survey is concerned with coaches’ knowledge and experience of learning theories, especially those linked in the brain. It asks about experiences of coach education and professional development, and how they presented ideas about how players and athletes learn. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first survey of its kind, so your answers will provide extremely important and useful information. The survey gathers information on a number of topics that are necessary for us to develop a complete picture of coaches’ knowledge and understanding of learning and the brain.

  1. Background information about you and your sports coaching background
  2. About coaching and the brain – about your views and experience of brain – based learning ideas
  3. Ideas about the Brain and Coaching/learning – about your personal understanding of the brain and learning

The survey should take about 30 minutes to complete, and is entirely voluntary. All answer will remain anonymous and confidential. If you have any questions about this survey feel free to contact: Richard Bailey at

Thank you in advance for your participation in the survey

Survey Link

About Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is a former teacher in Primary and Secondary Schools, teacher trainer, coach and coach educator. He has been a full Professor at Canterbury, Roehampton, Birmingham and Liverpool in the UK and has directed studies that have influenced policy and practice both nationally and internationally. In addition to his position as Writer in Residence at the ICSSPE Executive Office he is an author and blogger.

Richard has undertaken funded research in every continent of the world. He has worked with UNESCO as Expert Adviser for Physical Education, the World Health Organization, the European Union, and many similar agencies. He has carried out research on behalf of the English and Scottish governments, numerous educational and sports agencies. He was a contributing consultant for both Nike-led Designed to Move and Active Kids Do Better initiatives, and has directed numerous scientific reviews, including the most comprehensive review ever published on the benefits of physical education and sport (BERA, 2007‐2008), the UK’s independent review of player development in sport (sportscoach, 2008‐2009), and the IOC-funded study of the contribution made by Sport in Education (IOC, 2004).

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

Children see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Just like their family backgrounds, they accept what they perceive as the norm – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexity of managing an association does not affect them – Dr. Martin Toms (Footblogball Interview March 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Create a culture of trust      


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


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

  • Offer coach education to parents
  • Organise educational workshops to develop and facilitate discussion
  • parent-2
  • Recommend literature, seminars, events, lectures


A vision that drives our work

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



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


 The development process is nonlinear


and we must support this


Therefore, we need……….

A commitment to learning and development

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

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

Chronological age v Biological age         

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

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



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

This affects

  • Performance
  • Participation
  • Confidence
  • Motivation




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

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

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



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


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


  • “There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes work. Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions:” – Richard Bailey (Footblogball Interview November 2014)


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

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

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

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

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

Where you grow up matters for sporting success – that’s why Yorkshire cricketers are so good (Dr Martin Toms, 2015, )

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Simplified processing systems and models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is unwritten.


Richard Bailey & Angela Pickard (2010) Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance, Sport, Education and Society, 15:3, 367-382, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2010.493317

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

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

Why the best problem-solvers think with their hands, as well as their heads (Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Psychology, Kingston University & Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Kingston University)

Representative Seminar/Workshop Design

Having attended many coaching seminars and workshops (and having given a few myself) I have in the last year started to reflect on their true purpose and use in their traditional form. Most seminars have some lectures (an orgy of power point presentations?) and sometimes there might be some practical sessions. More than often these are not even connected. Sometimes someone is selling a product. Many who are attending are looking for simple answers to complex questions (yes this is where the products come in). Those attending rarely get to take part. With all this in mind, I have been looking to adjust and adapt my own seminar/workshop design.

Here are some notes from a recent workshop.

Workshop Design:

11.00-12.00 Training session with 16 players aged 11/12 observed by 32 coaches

12.15- 13.45 Workshop + discussion + training design (players were also involved to give their input)

14.00-15.00 Training session 16 players aged 11/12 (led by some of the coaches)

15.15-15.30 Q and A

Session description: Passing – External focus of attention. By this I mean allowing the young players to explore the task by directing their attention towards the movement effects that are to be achieved.


6v2 (Developed this from a session I was involved in a few years ago at RCD Espanyol. I can also recommend Kieran Smith who has done some excellent work around similar session designs)

  • 1st line pass: To the side but not past the first press
  • 2nd line pass: To the side and past the first press
  • 3rd line pass: Splits the first press
  • Defenders try and close off passing lanes and break up the passes

Discussions with players due to emergent behaviors (no instructions given):

  • Body profile: Try to find a position where you can receive the ball with the foot furthest away from where the ball is coming from
  • Opening passing lines: If you can get in to a position where you can SEE the ball then it is more likely that you can receive it
  • 1st and 2nd line pass requires various degrees of width. 2nd line pass requires width and depth. 3rd line requires depth


4v4 Game

  • Dribble the ball between the red cones = 1 point
  • Dribble the ball between the yellow cones = 2 points
  • Use 1st, 2nd and 3rd line passes to build up play and create scoring chances
  • Can we use 1st and 2nd line passes to create possibilities for the more penetrative 3rd line pass?

Workshop & discussion: I began the workshop by getting the kids to share with the coaches how they experienced the session. I felt that it was important to not ask them what we did as I felt that their experience was of greater value for future discussions.

Here are some of their thoughts.

  • The emphasis was not on how we passed but more to who and where the pass was going
  • We constantly needed to adapt ourselves to every situation (yes! An 11- year old said this!!!
  • We needed to think more, make decisions. We were working on game understanding/insight
  • I sometimes did a simple pass and asked for the ball back so that I had more time to see what was happening. That way it was easier to find the most dangerous pass.
  • I never thought about HOW I was passing the ball
  • If we create width and depth and communicate a lot it was easier find a good pass
  • We can move the opponent by passing the ball. They become disorganised.

Investigating the Complexity of Youth Development                                                               

The workshop continued investigating factors that influence performance, participation and personal development in Youth sports.

 The Game is Complex : The coach needs to understand the game but also other aspects that surround the game. The surrounding environment, society, economy – Joan Vila (Head of Methodology, FC Barcelona)

The Culture is Complex: The culture of youth sports in general, has become disproportionally both adult and media- centered. There is 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. (IOC Consensus Statement on Youth Development). More information? see this link

Learning the Game. Yes! It is Complex: Learning involves retention and transfer. It is dynamic and context dependent and cannot be observed here and now. Performance at the point of instruction is not a good indicator of learning. Emotions form a critical piece of how and why people think and learn.

If we as coaches step in to the learning process, we better know how to add value!

I introduced the Constraints Led Approach as I feel that it is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of information.

I gave a simple of example of environmental, individual and task constraint. The coaches got in to groups to discuss these constraints and come up with some examples that were relevant to their environment.

Once coach came up with a very interesting constraint that she thought had a negative effect on her player’s motivation. She noticed that some parents spent more time looking at their mobile phones than watching their sons or daughters play. She said that she could see that this caused a lot of disappointment with some kids. Is this some sort of modern socio-cultural constraint?

Training/learning design and nonlinear pedagogy

How nonlinear pedagogy, a learner centred method can help coaches to design their practices.

Training should capture the inherent variability of the competitive performance environment. Leading performers to use information that is relevant. (Pinder, Renshaw, & Davids, 2009; Pinder, Renshaw, & Araujo, 2011)

We analysed one of the sessions from the Swedish FA C Diploma curriculum. I provided some information and challenged them to manipulate the task to achieve a certain goal.

Encourage players to create, identify and attack free space


3v3 game

A goal is scored if one team dribbles the ball over the opponent’s end-line

  • How can you manipulate the task constraints if you feel that players are passing the ball instead of accepting or picking up information about gaps or spaces to attack?
  • How can you further manipulate task constraints if the defending team plays a high-pressure game and the team in possession because of the previously added constraint have difficulty building up play?
  • For more information see this link

The other session design was the one I did together with Swedish National team coach Maths Elfvendal (see here). I had a video of this session and asked the coaches to analyse the session as if they were “shining a light” on

  1. Goalkeeper
  2. Defenders
  3. Attackers

This also gave us a good chance to discuss co-adaptability.

Click on the video near the end of this blog link

Some of the attending coaches organised themselves and the young players to take these two session designs.

Afterwards there was a Q n A.