I recently started the Learning In Development podcast series together with my good colleagues and friends Mike Whyatt (twitter) and Britain Thomas (twitter)
Over the coming weeks I aim to publish these podcasts on this blog and include some of my own personal notes and refelctions from the discussions.
To kick off, we invited in Jordi Fernandez (twitter) and Isaac Oriol Guerrero (twitter) from FC Barcelona as guests. We discussed the culture of coaching, coach education, player development and some of the culturally pervasive beliefs around learning in development that we need to unearth and investigate.
While the aim of this series of podcasts is not to present the ‘silver bullet’ answers, it is hoped that after listening we will leave these discussions with better questions (I know that I certainly have).
Challenging a culturally dominant planning paradigm that underpins many coach education programs around the world.
Coach decides the theme, breaks the session up in to fragments, decides how long each part will be and their sequential order
Can liberating coaches from these culturally resilient paradigms improve coach development and ultimately player development?
Are we over structuring our sessions? How much is too much? Are theme-based sessions giving away the answer?
A training session is just the expression of the coach and what he thinks his role is.
How the coach does a session is an emergent behavior of all the influences of context, of culture of society that ends up with me doing this as a coach. We need to understand how the role of the coach is perceived and why it’s perceived this way in this very context.
Most coaches have the intention of, “I am going to session to train solutions”. The coach’s planning, design, timing, interventions will therefore be related to their intentions, to the idea of “I am the provider of solutions”
If we understand that coaches have a bigger impact in society, a bigger impact in the development of the child and that there is nothing measurable in front of you, yet right now they measure what happens in the weekend (the result).
If we develop a context where these coaches see that the actual impact happens in 5 years’ time or even longer, that might change the mentality of the coach, and then the coach can attune him/herself to new possibilities within that session. If we change that lens from how the coach watches the session or sees his/her role then we can change many of thise things.
Explicit top down game models being introduced earlier and earlier, where the coach gets the kids to practice predetermined passing patterns that they regurgitate in competitive games. Are children therefore only learning a model of the game as opposed to the game?
In the pay to play model (USA, Canada) there are parent expectations that are underpinned by what their understanding of what coaching is. So. a more passive coach may be viewed as someone that is not coaching. Coaches do identify themselves as providers of solutions.
Within each team there can be 20 different game models because of the players.
For us the most important thing is to observe the natural behavior of the players. In our work we try to use certain constraints around elements of space and time so that we can be open to observe the natural behaviour of the player. If we are very focused on one game model then we are only focusing on pre-determined established model for the player (a one size fits all approach).
Should coaches see themselves as designers (architects of an environment)? The first feedback to the players should come from the session design and how the players interact (with information) informs the coach how he interacts with the learning space to add value.
We have to challenge the status quo especially with regard to the idea of what feedback is. We of course need to change this.
Can we design context to create situations where the player decides so that they can connect their intentions with actions? This requires patience as the player has to analyse their own feelings and emotions and we cannot be judging their actions too early. (players need to be given the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their behaviours)
What coaches are doing with players is more or less what governing sports bodies, or federations or coach education institutions are doing with the coaches. It all comes with the culture of certainty and needing control. If we change the paradigm but implement it the same way that we have always done then we will probably still have the same issues.
It is not just the player that is learning, the coach is also learning and serving the community. We need an approach from both directions so that we are able to act on what is in front of us and not on what is established or what we think is right or wrong.
We can possibly learn more (about football) from attending a seminar on culture than one given by a professional coach
Those who only know about football, don’t know about football(Cesar Menotti)
The action is something that is isolated, when you are doing interactions, you are doing something because of your teammates and opponents. These interactions are situational, and also framed by cultural
Learning is an active, ongoing process that happens in development
The role of the coach is to optimize their players, through their own optimisation (the coaches own learning in development).
Language that you use in your club material, in your daily interactions, can help your coaches to adjust their lens
The cultural context (for good and bad) plays a part in inviting certain coach behaviours that we see today
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., 2011). 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?
Start where people are at, not where you want them to be
Within this debate the goal is to connect, collaborate and integrate. It is not about winning, it is about connecting.
The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. (Make it law in sport)
International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athlete Development (A useful and informed point of departure for a discussion)
Make efforts to advance a more unified and evidence-informed approach to youth player development embracing both experiential and empirical knowledge.
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
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] [Google Scholar]
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.
Richard Shuttleworth is someone who I am lucky enough to consider a colleague and a friend. When I started to become curious about skill acquisition and coaching from a more academic/theoretical perspective, it was Rick’s many articles and various social media video clips/presentations that helped me to bridge my own personal research-practice gap. In the last few years I have had the pleasure of presenting theory and practice together with Rick at various seminars and symposiums. Most of his work is associated with Rugby but Rick has vast experience of working in other sports such as Olympic sailing, soccer, archery and land hockey. As a world-renowned coach, coach educator and skill acquisition expert Rick’s insights are of great value to any coach at any level in any sport.
This week Rick and I discussed an excellent interview with ex NBA star Kobe Bryant. I suggested that Rick should comment on the interview and that we make his notes publically available on my blog. I am very happy that he agreed to share his personal notes on how we as coaches can gain a greater understanding of the learner and the learning process.
Advice from KOBE BRYANT | Skill Learning & Coaching | Shared Opportunities | Think Global & Play Local | Spice it Up | Basic Tactical Actions to Problem Solve
Advice from KOBE BRYANT | Skill Learning & Coaching | Shared Opportunities | Think Global & Play Local | Spice it Up | Basic Tactical Actions to Problem Solve
Stresses importance of valuing anecdotal evidence of a true legend of the game as to what is important for a learner to experienceso they can develop the skills and learn to use them to achieve their aspirations and dreams.
Don’t always try and impose your perspective and realism of the world or situation and what excellence is, simply try and observe and listen to the learners’ behaviour (interpretation of) and in it which determines how you guide
Importance of learning simple tactical actions through socially fun task related interactions(under constraint) to amplify the skills needed to solve problems now and potentially for the future demands of the game. (see example here)
Embrace your own and your learners’ curiosity, imagination in everything we do so that learner learns to authentically move, feel, express and perceive the world and situation for what they think it really is (transfer effect).
Learn when to get out of the wayof the learning process (as a coach) enable the emergence of self-determining learning moments through learner-task-environment interactions and don’t feel you need to manufacture them,
Support learning by passing on ideas to receive their read on it and use questions to support their tactical thinking of how it can provide opportunities.
Never be condescending or abusivein delivering information to learners as it only reveals your own personal frustration with your inability to facilitate learning.
Support learners with skills to pick up relevant informationfrom everyone around, team mates, opponents, other coaches, teachers, friends and parents and use to better your own capabilities.
Two other things worth knowing about Rick:
He has just completed his PhD so now he is Dr. Rick!!! So, a big congratulations.
Human systems are made up of people and people make decisions for complex reasons; moreover, they learn, they interact and they live in complex environments which themselves are constantly changing (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)
Humans are not systems that behave like machines. They are dynamic, not static and not predictable in their behaviour. Humans (in this case as individual athletes and sports teams) are complex adaptive systems
“Complex from the perspective they are comprised of multiple systems that interact in non-linear and unpredictable ways. Adaptive, from the perspective that they are capable of spontaneously modifying behaviour in order to accommodate unexpected change or sudden perturbation” (John Kiely; Periodization, Planning, Prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be!)
Cultural beliefs and assumptions
“It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them “. This line from innovative coach Juanma Lillo (once mentor to Pep Guardiola) explains his thoughts on clubs, coaching and society. Traditionally, through a reductionist approach we have been spoon fed the illusion of predictability and control.
Let’s take the example of trying to perform a technique exactly the same way through repetitive drills. By narrowing and standardising everything we have been placing a focus on decontextualized technique training. Here, the learning process is emphasised by the amount of time spent rehearsing a specific technique and usually involves the use of explicit teaching methods with verbal instructions. This does not simulate the performance environment and may narrow the focus of attention for the learner. We challenge this pedagogy and promote the influence of context. Daniel Memmert’s takes this approach to task in his excellent book “Teaching Tactical Creativity”. Coaches should avoid obsessing over correction of technique at a young age as this is likely to induce a more internal focus.
“We know from studies that technical training is not as effective as combined technical-perception training. It is important that children experience in which situations or constraints they have to evaluate which technique they use. Only then they will be able to apply those techniques in real complex game forms or the real match” Daniel Memmert, (Footblogball interview; July 2015)
Reflecting on a previous blog, Maths Elfvendal and I challenged the traditional approach to goalkeeper coaching. The role of the goalkeeper is broken up in to its structural components and it is proposed that the goalkeeper needs to work in isolation. We suggest the need for a better understanding of the goalkeeper’s functional role in the modern game. This will help coaches in designing a more integrated goalkeeper training, therefore meeting the needs and the demands of the role of a modern goalkeeper. We need to design training sessions that allow for a variation of solutions to emerge as opposed to the same solution being repeated time and time again.
From my experience as a coach educator I see that many blame the failure of the performance of a technique on the fact that the young learners whom they assume will react in the same way did not behave like they should. The reductionist approach seems to be focussed on teachers and coaches as they attempt to organise, control and manage the complexity of working with young children in sport. However, it does not work as well for the learner as learning is highly individualised.
In the excellent book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition the individualised differences in learning are discussed. Some constraints that can have a profound influence on the young learner are suggested.
These constraints change over time due to developmental differences. These variables have an impact on each individuals training (and learning) response.
“… the potential to shift the dominant paradigm from that of the still-dominant mechanical world view towards a view of the world as interconnected: where variation cannot be ignored, where new eras and behaviours can emerge, where change is not predictable and understandable in simple single-dimension relationships”. (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)
A flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information. One that puts a focus on the learner and the learning process.
The Constraints Led Approach
A Constraints – Led approach, I find is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of complex and emerging information to give us an understanding of skill learning during practice and play. Constraints whilst not always negative or limiting are boundaries that channel the learner to explore and search for functional movement solutions. Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time
It is important that the coach can identify rate limiters (lack of strength, flexibility).
Physical environment: Light, wind, surface, temperature
Socio-cultural: Family, support networks, peers, societal expectations, values and cultural norms.
Rules, equipment, playing area, number of players involved, teammates. Opponents, information sources
Coaches have more control over the manipulation of task constraints than individual and environmental constraints. Representative Learning Design (discussed in a previous blog) and manipulation of task constraints are cornerstones of nonlinear pedagogy.
The constraints that need to be satisfied by each learner will change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Constraints decay and emerge over time meaning that their importance can vary.
“We need a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles” (Mark O’ Sullivan & Al Smith; 2016)
The coach education courses are coming thick and fast. Nearly every weekend from January to May I will be delivering to coaches either of the first two stages of a fantastic curriculum developed by the Swedish FA. Each group I work with is unique. Coaches between the ages of 16 and 55 sit in the same room discussing, personal experiences, training design, how we meet the child’s physical and emotional needs and the many issues that are presently polarising the debate around child and youth sport in Sweden. Opinions come in many shades as experiential knowledge and socio-cultural factors are so varied. This leads to many rich and rewarding discussions and hopefully with the material provided during the course helps guide the coaches (and me) towards developing a more informed opinion.
One thing that I have been reflecting on from leading these courses (with the aim of deepening my understanding of how the learner learns and how learning occurs) is the praising of effort by coaches. Richard Bailey in his Psychology Today article “The problem with praise” refers to a rationale that is commonly expressed by coaches during these courses. One of praise bolstering self-esteem and criticism harming it. “In effect this is the “gas gauge” theory of self- esteem, in which praise fills up the tank with good feelings and social approval and criticism drains it”. Later in the piece Bailey delivers a crucial line that us coach educators need to take with us in to the classroom, “poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”.
We need to discuss the how, why and what of coaches praising effort. What do they say and how is this interpreted by the learner? Why do they say it? What IS that effort, does it lead to learning and if not how can we “nudge” or guide the leaner to find a way?
“Always try to praise the effort, not the outcome. That’s the lesson that parents and teachers often take from my work. But it’s the wrong lesson, or it can easily become so” Carol Dweck
Praising effort has for many been interpreted as central to the work of Carol Dweck. This interpretation has created many misunderstandings. Recently Dweck has spoken out about the common misconception in equating growth mind-set with effort. “It really is about learning” she said. When we are stuck between a rock and a hard place “we need a learning reaction”. We need to vary our approach to learn and improve. We can reflect on what we have done, the effort that got us here but we must be willing to investigate and develop new strategies. We need to seek out help from others. We need to learn to thrive in the storm of the challenge embracing setbacks on our way to learning. Navigating this storm is complex. A young player may display a growth mind set but suddenly a “trigger” can propel him/her back to a fixed mind set. This also applies to the coach.
I must ask myself how good am I at understanding these triggers and recognising a fixed mind-set reaction?
Dweck outlined a few common reactions to these triggers.
Anxiety in the face of new challenges
Negative voice in head
Looking for excuses
Defensive to criticism instead of showing an interest in learning
Envious and threatened by others when looking at their performance
Any of these sound familiar?
“Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them” Carol Dweck
The process of helping our young players to learn to be learners is a complex one. In the training environment I want young players to become attuned to key sources of information so that they can become adaptable and creative and transfer this to the competitive game. Equally as important, as a coach I also need to be attuned to key sources of information in and around the young learner’s social environment how it is influencing them and what signals they are sending us.
Part of the art of coaching and designing a learning space is very much down to understanding these triggers that can constrain learning. When we feel development is being hindered or has stalled then we need to identify why this has happened so that we know what constraints are impinging on the learning process.
These constraints may change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Many of these “boundaries” that can influence performance, participation and personal development emphasise the individual nature of development over time. For example, changes in structural constraints caused by growth can be a delicate and sensitive time influencing the overall psychological state. Growth can be fast and disruptive where specific parts, tissues and organs have different growth rates. Just as important, Dr Martin Toms points out that there tends to be a focus upon the biological and psychological yet “underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up”. What are the “triggers” that can emerge from there?
All this implies that the young learner may only be receptive to change (learning) at specific periods of development. How we respond to this is critical.
I see a reference to these triggers in a previous blog, Talent: A challenging concept that more than ever requires a more humanistic approach to support its emergence. Al Smith from my fastest mile identified a big problem associated with the label “talent” in children’s sport. Simply the weight of expectation that comes with that word, particularly for the parent more than the child. This weight may trigger an unhealthy reaction from the young player.
“Everyone thinks only of themselves, they think only of themselves as a way to cope in their incredibly tough competitive situation. We must have a regular dialogue with these children. It is very important in their early years that through warm relationships they experience love and kindness” Tommi Hämäläinen (Talent development at Finnish Ice Hockey club HIFK)
These triggers are “rate limiters” and identifying them is key. We need to adapt to our learners needs and also understand them better as people.
” From other discussions with coaches, I get the feeling that praise is easy to give but in most cases lacks the connection to learning and as a result the athlete misses out on information relevant to learning AND effort and how these two are related”. Kristoffer Berg (Swedish Floorball Association/ http://www.innebandy.se)
“poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”. Praise them like you should.
Our ability to look at sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact with and shape development can go a long way to explaining participation and performance of our young learners/players. What are you looking at (performance criteria-maturity, awareness, strength speed, skill, decision making, passion, desire, communication)- Who are you looking at (what do you know about these young people, their background, socio-economic, socio-cultural situation?) – Where is this taking place (context, environment) – Why are you here (why are you coaching children)? These are all relevant questions that we coaches should ask ourselves as we engage with the young learner.
Per Göran Fahlström is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sports Science at Linneuniversitetet Sweden. His areas of interest are coaching, leadership, creating learning environments and talent development. He has published many articles on these topics. His research work with various National Governing Bodies is proving to be very influential with regard to the philosophy, construction and organisation of the future of Youth sports in Sweden.
Footblogball: I see learning as an ongoing process of adaption. This of course requires great patience and support. Many early environments support only those that can adapt at that point of time in their development thus disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt. Surely there is a risk that those who have better potential to succeed in the long run could well be lost to us forever. Despite evidence to the contrary why are we earlier than ever pushing children in to the “zero sum game” that is early talent identification?
PG Fahlström: One can say that there is an international “talent arms race” in operation. Countries, federations and clubs feel the need to demonstrate their excellence through good sporting results. This may mean that after a championship or tournament a Governing Body may think that “others” are performing better- “we have to win more medals, why can’t we beat Norway in skiing?” etc. That is one explanation. The second is that many adults think that today there is too much “curling” in childrens sport and that you have to start early to succeed. The third point is a belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve succeed. There is no actual evidence supporting a 10,000 hours model, but it is frequently referred to. This implies that we must begin accumulating those hours from an early age. In this way, it is believed that early specialization provides greater opportunities for elite success. These three factors together mean that when researchers/scientists enter the debate and argue that children should not specialise early, we are met with comments such as “there is too much curling” and “you have to make demands”. They say that children want and need to learn things. But I think they are confusing the desire to learn with the desire to invest and to compete at elite level. Children want to learn – but not all children want to compete. They might want to be as good as possible, but not necessarily compete to see if they can be better than others. I would like to point out that there is no evidence supporting the notion that you will be a better performer as an adult by winning competitions when you are a child.
Footblogball: Early talent identification is but a snapshot without a focus, a picture viewed through a subjective adult lens that more than often does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development. Should National Governing Bodies ensure that a greater importance of promoting an understanding of these complexities is introduced as early as possible in the coach education curriculum/pathway?
PG Fahlström: Yes. All children that play soccer are not, and should not be considered aspiring soccer stars. They are kids who play football – and perhaps also tennis, hockey, etc. Some of them will want to continue to play football and a very small number of them will eventually become elite players. It’s a very small proportion of active children who will become competitive athletes or even professional athletes. One cannot shape and form children’s sports around this small number and say that this is what the sport is all about. Therefore, engagement is more important than early selection and elite investment. If you have a good organisation then some will want to continue and try to become elite athletes anyway. It is less efficient to select early and to only place resources on those who are “best” in the early years.
Footblogball: But there here seems to be a need to standardise everything (talent id and training environment) where every step in the development pathway is prescribed.
PG Fahlström: All talent and selection systems are inclusive and exclusive. If you say that training should be a certain way, perform at a certain level, perform certain things, etc. it will fit / favour certain participants and exclude others. It will include those who fit in to the model and exclude those that develop at a different rate than the model “provides for”. This can be said of all talent systems. They will select those that fit into the model. These models are not flexible (see survival of the fittest or survival of talent) so they cannot meet the needs of different individuals with different development trajectories. Those who develop at a different pace, those who have other characteristics (such as a short high jumper, a long and “gangly” footballer) are liable to be removed because they do not fit into the standardised template. Some of them “survive” but the vast majority will be left outside the system because they are not considered talented or interesting enough to develop. Instead of developing models for the development of (unique) individuals we miss those who have great development potential and only see those that fit into the model. Research shows that the road to success is very different. Therefore, a good talent system needs to be flexible and support the various pathways to the elite level. This creates quite different demands on coaches and organisations. Coaches, managers, clubs and organisations need to be much better at meeting the needs of various individuals who want to get involved in sport. This is will of course also change over time. The type of sport that we experienced and loved as children does not necessarily fit in with children’s sport today. It does not mean that today’s children are lazy. The world is a lot different now than it was in our youth. Children these days live much different lives with different expectations. Sport must adapt to this.
Footblogball: It can be argued that traditionally we have been having a one way conversation with our young learners. Many traditional coaching environments that involve young children are based on measurement, control and ranking yet characteristics of positive learning environments are safe to fail, variability, autonomy, fun and problem solving. Skateboard parks are a perfect example of this. In my opinion we as coaches, researchers and learners have much to learn from this. The environment offers information as to “WHAT” the possibilities for action are but the concept of “HOW”, the young learners/players themselves fill with life. Could understanding this concept help us create a more child centred learning space within our coaching environment?
PG Fahlström: I believe that learning and the learning process should be built around the child’s own motivation. It may sound naïve but I think that everything we like doing is essentially built on desire, that we think it is fun regardless of whether it is playing the guitar, listening to music, going for a walk or playing a sport. This desire/motivation should be built on way more than meeting a standard requirement of doing things correctly. Training should build on this desire to test, experiment, mimic and develop. I often refer to this “skateboard-metaphor” where young skateboarders develop advanced skills without a coach or an adult steering the practice and without the government funding that many of our sporting organisations benefit from. They observe, mimic, test, experiment and learn from each other. This is all driven by high motivation and focus. Nobody needs to take a roll-call or lead the practice session. This is the type of desire that you can build on and develop in sport. This should be the basis for the design of children’s sport and even actually adult sports.
Footblogball: As a district coach educator here in Stockholm I always ask the participants to use the time we are together as a forum for discussion and debate, to challenge each other, to challenge themselves and to challenge me. Our aims should be that over time through critical thinking and analysis that we will be able to develop future discussions from a position of informed opinion and therefore influence our clubs and Governing Bodies in relation to how the future of youth athlete development should be formed. With this in mind I would like to quote world renowned Swedish Master chef Magnus Nilsson. “Anyone can learn to duplicate a technique, but that’s not creative expression. What’s interesting is true development. It’s not something that happens over, like, a couple of weeks or a year. To create true understanding of produce and technique, it’s a long process. Most chefs don’t even think about that as the chef’s job, and that’s not very constructive. It’s actually very lazy. “It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. Like what is is there and why? And if it doesn’t make sense, how can it be transformed to become greater.” Comment?
PG Fahlström: It is difficult this with “experience”. On the one hand, one should learn from their experiences. We can and should learn from our own and others’ mistakes. But there are also risks with experience. You think have learned how things are but really you have not tested other options. There is a saying that says, “people think that they have 25 years of experience but really it has been 1 year of experience repeated 25 times.” This we see a lot in sports, you do what you have always done. This of course gives one sense of security in knowing how to do things. There are coaches who have their coaching and leadership model, they have their coaching folder and use this in all the clubs they work with. When they have gone through their “coaching folder” in one club they change to another club.
There is a paradox, the more pressure and competition that coaches feel the more cautious and conservative they become. There is a saying that “invention is the mother of necessity” but often it is the opposite. Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different they do what all the others do. Then they feel that they cannot be wrong. The Swedish words for security and inertia (trygghet och tröghet) sound very alike and what is reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change. This is often reinforced by players who become coaches and coaches who become managers. So it is often people with the same experiences that control operations in our football clubs. If you have not played yourself or won anything as a coach then you don’t get a piece of the action. These coaches, often without any formal education use knowledge based on how it was when they played, what they thought was good rather than developing an understanding that in a training environment it is not the coach who “learns-out” different elements but it is the players that “learn-in”. The coach’s task is to create a learning environment that suits the different individuals who are training. They cannot just repeat what they remember from when they themselves were young. They should create an environment where children want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the kids much more than the coach can teach (learn-out). Creating a training environment where participants learn from each other. That is the trainer’s pedagogical role.
Recently while working as a guest coach for a group of young players I noticed an interesting behaviour that seems to be quite common among young players today. The coach was working on 1v1 with a focus on attacking. He set up a simple exercise.
Red A passes the ball to blue A and immediately applies pressure.
Blue A and Red A are in a 1v1 situation where Blue A tries to score and Red A defends.
On completion the same action is performed by Red B and Blue B
I then suggested that a game situation (in this case it was 6v6) where the emphasis was on taking on an opponent in 1v1 situations. After observing this game situation for 10 minutes we went back to the original exercise -with a slight adjustment.
Both 1v1’s occur at the same time
The goalkeeper will immediately evaluate the most immediate danger and get drawn to that situation
What I am interested in is how the player reads and responds to the ever changing dynamics of the game, the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances through high quality adaptive behaviour
The goalkeeper has reacted (See diagram above), moved to his right and closed off the most immediate danger If the attacker on the other side sees this then he should know that he has an almost free shot at an empty goal. On every occasion the attacking players were so concentrated on the ball and trying to beat their man they didn’t see the opportunities that were opening up behind the defender.
I asked the goalkeeper to leave his goal while both 1v1’s were in progress. I froze the play and asked the attackers if they noticed anything?
I had noticed earlier in the session that the players despite showing good technical quality in 1v1 attacking situations kept their focus almost entirely on the ball and some focus on their direct opponent where they were taking most of their perceptual cues. In the game situation the players often dribbled passed one player and straight in to another defender ( the more physically advanced players got away with this) or into a space already occupied by one of their own players. Despite the fact that the actual dribbling technique was very good it seemed that quite often the decision making and awareness around that technique was poor.
My point was that I wanted the players to understand the value of being aware of the events that were unfolding in the wider view behind their direct opponent . This would help them become better at organising information and action thus becoming better decision makers. I described it as almost looking in to the future- you want the future to take place behind the defender in the 1v1 and you want to influence it as much as possible.
Nick Levett (Talent Identification Manger at the English FA) in one of our recent discussions gave a very good description of this- “They are recognising the local and global picture of the game and finding the techniques to solve the problem. I would rather that they had that in their locker than a technique and then try and work out how to use it, when that situation may not occur perfectly, ever, for them to do so”.
In the dynamic sport of soccer if we remove things from their context they are no longer the same thing. If we for instance want to evaluate the performance of a particular player we have to evaluate it in relation to those players around that player. Recently I was analysing the performance of a much coveted elite youth player. This is a very hard thing to do at youth level as many validate the process through results and form their analysis upon this. In youth soccer even if something is done well it does not guarantee that it will finish up well and vice versa. Take for example the young kid who is told by his coach to “get rid of it” launches blindly a hopeful long ball/clearance that results in a fast attacker running on to it and scoring a goal. Another young kid tries to play the ball out of defence, he succeeds a few times but on one occasion slips and this allows the oppositions forward to take the ball and score a goal.
The young player in question felt that he had made the correct decision on one or two occasions when the opponents almost scored a goal. These incidents could easily have been interpreted as his fault.
Here is an example of one of those situations.
Blue centre forward runs on to long ball behind the Yellow backline
Goalkeeper reacts quickly and clears the ball before the forward can reach it
The player I am analysing (left centre back) immediately calls for the backline to push up and get a compact shape in relation to the ball. The reason for this is that he knows that while the ball is travelling in the air neither team has control over the ball. The player shows good game intelligence in understanding this and wanting his team to be in a good position to defend or attack depending on who wins the long clearance. The player sees that the clearance is going to be met by an opposition player first. He wants his defensive line to drop a step just before the clearance reaches the opponents foot. This way they are already in a good position to deal with a long ball.
The Yellow left back pushes up in a straight line while the rest of the defence pushes up at an angle in relation to the ball. A long ball is played between the left back and left center-back creating a possible 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper.
Remember that 3 of the back 4 reacted correctly (pushing up at the correct angle in relation to the ball and dropping a step before the clearance reached the opponent in anticipation of a long ball behind them. They were already in a good defensive position to recover.
The left center back in a risk/reward decision making process managed to recover and minimise the goalscoring possibility for the attacker by closing off a big part of the goal (see red area), while at the same time closing off or delaying a central pass to another attacker (see red area). This forced the player to shoot into a very narrow area of the goal where the goalkeeper stood. The end result was an easy save.
What I am interested in is how the player reads and responds to the ever changing dynamics of the game, the organisation of information and action through perception and decision making. There should be an understanding that skill is the technical and tactical dimensions of the game working together as complimentary pairs. Skill development is an ongoing learning process of adaption. Even if a correct decision is made for one situation but something in the system (the team) creates an imbalance (in this case the left backs poor decision making) there needs to be an immediate process of adaption (organisation of information and action through perception and decision making) if the system is vulnerable to threat.
The player I analysed showed great ability to organise information and action and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances through high quality adaptive behaviour.
“Adaptive behaviour is key to the survival of the human race and specific to football, a trait of high quality players”. (Mark Upton)
Footblogball is back with another Essential Interview. This time it is with Steve Lawrence who discusses Cruyff, Ajax, Montessori. and RAE. In this interview Steve Lawrence gives us a fascinating insight in to how we can look to challenge tradition and structure the future of youth sport to create a better learning environment for both the young player and the coach.
Graduate from Cruyff Institute Amsterdam (Master International Sports Management 2012). Founder The Football Analytics Lab™ owned by Milk Studios Ltd, London.
Consultant to Cruyff Football and Ajax.
Author of the original master plan for the London Olympics, researcher into relative age effects in football and author ‘The Age Advantage in Association Football’, inventor ‘average team age’ rule for team sport.
Married to Lynne Lawrence FRSA, Executive Director, Association Montessori Internationale. Two sons, Tom, a social anthropology graduate working in social media and Jamie a professional footballer with AS Trencin.
Architect in private practice (Carrick, Howell & Lawrence) for 33 years, graduate from Bath University (B.Sc. 1978 & B.Arch. 1980)
FOOTBLOGBALL: Much of my blog is about exploring ways to create a learning space, a space that promotes development, one that is sensitive to the conditions required to aid the evolution and emergence of an intelligent well balanced and healthy person and player. From my brief correspondence with you I believe that you are also exploring avenues that can lead to similar outcomes especially through your work with Montessori educational philosophy and Ajax academy. Can you briefly explain how this will be structured?
SPATIAL DEVELOPMENT MANIFESTO
The project emerged from an exercise in 2012 to establish a ‘Spatial Development Manifesto’ for Cruyff Football defining the key characteristics of a Cruyff inspired ‘Football Development Centre’. We realised that there was a great deal of synergy between the ideas of Johan Cruyff and the philosophy of Maria Montessori. This is hardly surprising as both are leaders in fields of child development and both had an analytical eye that went back to first principles and then rethought paradigms on the basis of those principles. We see the result of Maria Montessori’s thinking in the tens of thousands of schools worldwide and the results of Johan Cruyff’s thinking in the acclaimed football academies of Ajax and Barcelona where he was instrumental in creating a youth player focussed environment. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that their lives in Amsterdam overlapped by 5 years and that Johan attended schools influenced by Montessori’s thinking.
In developing the study we identified the following key characteristics:
Child-centred pedagogical principles inform all aspects of the football development centre. A football development centre is seen essentially as an ‘educational environment’.
The facilities encompassed within a centre constitute a prepared environment for children – this is a quintessential Montessori idea. The environment is designed around children, for children and the spatial planning is maturationally appropriate, child-sized and fit for purpose.
The spaces envisaged are intended to accommodate ‘dynamic movement’ of all kinds, in 3D space, at the highest performance levels and follow the principle of ‘design following function’.
The facilities are intended to be flexible in their ability to encompass technological apparatus for assessment, measurement and monitoring.
Whilst a significant proportion of facilities are designed around participation in high performance activities an over-arching idea is the incorporation within the design of facilities for observation.
Children are naturally predisposed to develop themselves, furthermore their inherent natural instincts take them on an optimal path proceeding at a rate according to individual characteristics and adapted to their environment.
Developmental advancement for these motivated learners depends on two fundamental components:
The provision of a prepared environment.
The provision of appropriate guidance.
The characteristics of such a Cruyff inspired Football Development Centre are that the environment is optimally prepared for high-level athletic and technical football performance.
And that provision is made for maximum information feedback to trainers and others responsible for the children so that optimal guidance can be given.
FOOTBLOGBALLl:How can this philosophy and its contents help clubs build more inclusive sporting structures, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist?
A PHILOSOPHY BASED ON OBSERVATION
Whilst the individual performance and training spaces are the principle working components of the Centre the facilities for observation constitute the defining parameters for a ‘spatial planning backbone’ and fall into 5 categories:
Visible observation by spectators.
Visible observation by students.
Visible observation by technical staff and trainers.
Invisible observation by technical staff and trainers.
Observation by technology.
A further aspect of the project is the development of a sport/football based curriculum – not a curriculum for sport but an academic curriculum with sport and football as its inspiration providing source material for the broad range of academic subjects. Also importantly not a syllabus which implies adherence to a chronological programme followed by an age set – the Cruyff/Ajax/Montessori curriculum sets the framework in which the individual progresses at their own pace, guided and supported by the teacher/trainers.
The development of the curriculum is collaboration between the club and the Association Montessori Internationale involving the development from the existing international elementary and adolescent curriculum in use in Australia and the USA.
All of this operates within the context of a multi age group training and educational environment.
FOOTBLOGBALL: What demands does this set on the coach?
The demands on the coach in a child-centred rather than team-centred environment are immense.
Child-centred development means multi age groups, individual training programmes and monitoring mostly by observation not by testing. The coach has to be efficient in documenting progress and engaging others with different skills in guiding the development trajectory of the individual player. Squad construction, mentor group setting and pastoral support all need coordination. This creates a major burden in data accrual and analytics along with time management and communication.
As part of the analysis we have identified the need for a specialised Training of Trainers Programme incorporating both Montessori elementary (6-12) and adolescent programmes dovetailed with Cruyff inspired football coaching education.
FOOTBLOGBALL::A complex mix of experiences and factors shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success. In the middle of this complexity is one subject that you are looking to challenge, the Relative Age Effect (RAE). The feeling I get is that you view this as something that represents social inequality. This creates an artificial environment in youth sport one that is the consequence of an adult constructed competitive structure leading to many negative outcomes. Comment?
KNOWLEDGE OF RAE & COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
RAE is a function of the widespread use of cut-off date eligibility rules. Cut-off dates are useful for administration – they make adults lives easier and because the discrimination, which arises from them, is invisible and everyone uses them changing the paradigm is challenging.
Whilst eligibility cut-off dates continue to exist, knowledge of RAE can be exploited for competitive advantage in a variety of ways, in squad development, player contract strategy and transfer scheduling. Knowledge of RAE can also inform scouting strategy and assist in developing football education. It will be clear, for example, that a multi-age group youth training structure goes some way to mitigating relative age effects and creates an environment in which otherwise invisible talent can emerge.
FOOTBLOGBALL: You recently went to the European Commission in Brussels and had a meeting with the head of politics and programming for sports. Would you care to elaborate on the subject matter of this meeting?
RAE AS SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION
Alongside my work in exploiting the knowledge of RAE I take the view that RAE is ‘systemic discrimination’ – I refer to it as ‘relative age discrimination’. It operates globally and advantages one cohort of individuals whilst disadvantaging another. As such it conflicts with basic ethical values of fairness and in particular it conflicts with the fundamental provisions of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
I have challenged the use, by The FA, of cut-off date rules for establishing eligibility within youth football in England. The FA governs all youth football and the imposition of universal cut-off dates by The FA establishes systemic relative age discrimination. I have asked the Commission to determine the use of such rules as illegal.
The meeting with the European Commission was in the context of my complaint. The complaint is being assessed by the Commission’s lawyers and if admissible will trigger a request for a response from the appropriate state authority – in this case probably the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
European Commission written guidance in the ‘Study of Discrimination of Sportspersons in Individual National Championships’ says ‘ Equal treatment requires abolition of both direct discrimination and rules which, …., in fact lead to unequal treatment.’ This is the core of my argument.
It’s my view that an ‘average team age’ rule can, over time, remove RAE and I have asked The FA to engage in piloting projects to explore the potential of such solutions.
As part of my Coaching in Context philosophy (in the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child) I propose some suggestions to help coaches design their training sessions to optimize learning.
Non Linear Training Design
Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format
Access to advanced content for the more interested learners (or those who are ready)
Provide learner choice for parallel content
You make the learning experience deeper by providing relevant links to other game situations etc.
The learner takes the path that works for him/her. Multiple paths with multiple solutions.
The coach can set a goal of what he would like his players to learn but he does not decide what is to be learned on the way to the goal.
If we take my “Coaching in Context” training session from a previous blog.as an example we can analyse it with reference to the 6 points above on non-linear training design.
Clear Headline: Passing and Control- “See the Ball”
Short Explanation: If you can get in to a position where you can see the ball it is easier to receive the ball.
Advanced learning: You need to think about when should you move into space so that you can “see the ball” and what you are going to do when you receive the ball. As a team we need to create width and depth
More Detailed Information for further/deeper learning
Control with correct foot-Body shape,
Creating passing alternatives ( Left , Right, Forward)
Identify, occupy, use space
Control with movement
Communication ( Verbal, non- verbal)
Scan the field while catching glimpses of the ball
Make a decision before you receive the ball
Passing to create a goal scoring chance
Passing our way out of trouble.
Move the ball to move the opponent
Multiple Paths: Perhaps the learner starts the passing and control excercise from the point of view of communication (verbal, non-verbal) prompting others to communicate with him.
Parallel content: In this case it could be a defensive action say closing off the passing lanes. (Stop your opponent from seeing the ball). When I did this session as part of a workshop for BK Azalea in Goteborg Sweden I was really impressed how towards the end of the session the young players (born 2004) started working on parallel content. It added a real competitive edge to the session making it even more game realistic.
At the end of the session I asked. What did we work on and what can we take with us from today’s training? The aim of the session was to work on improving the “passing”. The answers the kids gave reminded me of the fact that as coaches we may have aims with what we are trying to achieve in our training session, but that does not necessarily determine what is to be learned.
Here are some of the answers I got:
Control with the correct foot
See the ball
When defending stop your opponents from seeing the ball.
Create width when you have the ball
Fitness ( we had to move a lot more than usual )
Dribbling ( movement created more space to dribble)
The coach can set a goal of what he would like his players to learn but he does not decide what is to be learned on the way to that goal.
The aim of many traditional drills is to develop technique while games or modified games contextualize technique and develop skills. Skill is the application of technique under pressure. Mark Upton also provides us with a good definition of skill.
Skill = adapting movement to “fit” the game context – Mark Upton
This stresses the importance of “coaching in context” as decision making is based on perception, what is seen and the information taken in by the young player. This allows learners to become attuned to game contexts and adapt their movements accordingly.
If we value learning, we respect that it is not a race. Then the potential for a transformation away from the conventional football education paradigm is extraordinary. Yet with how many coaches does this register? There are many well-meaning attempts to promote excellence among our young players but it more than often happens in the parallel universe of a result orientated environment. Is it any wonder that the development of talent can get lost in the traditional conveyor belt of talent identification? Especially when during this very important learning period talent and winning/ beating an opponent are not recognised as distinct concepts. We must respect the fact that learning and development are non-linear. If we want to create a learning space for our players, then we must create a space for them to learn.