From Fundamental to Functional: Investigating the Concept of Physical Literacy

If we are to embrace the concept of Physical Literacy, then it should be viewed not as an end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual

PL PIC 2020-01-03 at 17.51.26

” There is a lack of any empirical evidence related to PL. And this is undermined by the fact that nobody can agree what it means. So, all of the claims should be treated as conjectural. In practice, the claims made about PL and health are based entirely on claims made about fundamental movement skills and health”. (Richard Bailey)

We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting the concept of physical literacy with health outcomes. Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. So, if the concept of physical literacy is to be woven into health education, sport and recreation, in both policy and practice, then it needs to be positioned in order to take in to account various multi-level biological psychological, social, cultural, historical and environmental influences. If we are to embrace the notion of Physical Literacy, it should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual



Physical Literacy is not a new term, it has been referenced as early as the 1900’s and again in the 1950’s (Corbin, 2016, p.15). The term has gained increased attention within physical education, sport and public health literature, evolving to mean different things to different people in different contexts (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019). Broadly speaking ‘literacy’ means becoming educated (Richards, 2016, p.1). Lounsbery and McKenzie (2015) identified the similarity of the terms “physically literate” and “physically educated” and, from a definitional perspective, found little difference. Hardman (2011) suggested that a physically educated person is a physically literate person. Often referred to in metaphor form, likening movement fluency with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), the term physical literacy has lacked a clear theoretical foundation, enabling various interpretations and definitions of the term. Young, O’Connor and Alfrey (2019) have suggested that over time, it is likely that physical literacyhas progressively evolved into something it originally was not. This adaption of numerous definitions and interpretations across different countries, disciplines and organisation (Shearer et al., 2018), has arguably led to a lack of consensus as to how to employ it in practice (Hyndman & Pill, 2018; Jurbala, 2015).

Despite lacking direct empirical evidence connecting it to health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019), many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019; Jurbala, 2015).

Physical education in the United Kingdom provided the platform for the emergence of the original conceptualisation of physical literacy (Whitehead, 2001). Margaret Whitehead first discussed the term in a 1993 paper (Whitehead 1993, August). More recently she has defined physical literacy as ‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life’ (IPLA, 2017). As a concept it has gained traction in recent years in both academic and nonacademic domains (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017) and has been adopted into sport systems in North America (Roetert & Jefferies, 2014). It has been highlighted as an important component of physical activity and sports programs, often underpinned by the assumption that sport represents an ideal means for positive development among youth. While research has largely supported sport as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, leading to success within sport and other domains in life (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017), it should also be understood that participation in sport does not necessarily guarantee positive outcomes (Fraser- Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005).

Publications on physical literacy are often produced by government funded organisations and departments (Lynch, 2019, p.78), and in general are underpinned by the strong correlation in the research evidence between health and physical activity (Lynch, 2013). Interestingly, children in countries that promote physical literacy (USA) are according to Curran (2014) “among the unhealthiest in the world” (UNICEF, 2007), which suggests how the concept of physical literacy is implemented may be a form of reactive panic rather than proactive, strategic forward planning (Lynch, 2019, p.50).So, while the concept of physical literacy is beginning to become part and parcel of many national physical education programs, what is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aims (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018).

Despite lacking empirical evidence how it can be employed to stimulate participation or be a functional basis for activity programs, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow (Jurbala, 2015). In the Netherlands physical literacy has been promoted as a stepping stone to elite performance (Way et al., 2014, p. 23), while in Canada as “the cornerstone of both participation and excellence in physical activity and sport” (Way et al., 2014, p. 23). In the UK physical literacy has been described as an aim that every child needs to achieve (Sport England, Strategy, 2016), framing physical literacy as a set of capabilities or achievements. This can be seen in the stage- based models of motor development that underpin many government sports policy programs. These policies are seemingly grounded in the hypothesis of a causal chain of increased motor skill, where early mastery of fundamental movement skills (FMS) are viewed as a prerequisite for increased activity, development of complex sport skills or improved physical fitness. However, Holfelder and Schott (2014) argued that while high levels of FMS relate to higher levels of physical activity among children, they are of low predictive value for level of activity in adults. They further suggested that there is a need to consider the multifactorial complexity of development of movement skills such as, perceived competence, socio-economic status and others (Holfelder & Schott, 2014, p. 389).


Physical Literacy: What’s in a Name

In a commentary on physical activity and health (2016), Thomas L. McKenzie and Monica A. F. Lounsberyreferred to a lack of consensus with regard to what constitutes physical literacy. If international physical activity/fitness experts are uncertain what physical literacy is, how can we expect policy makers, school teachers, coaches and the public to clearly define it? McKenzie and Lounsbery (2016, p. 1) asked the question “What’s in a name? Is physical literacy simply a rose by any other name?”.They argue that, as many cannot discriminate among terms such as physical activity, physical fitness, and physical education, adding yet another term (physical literacy) may only add to the confusion


Physical Literacy: What’s in a Metaphor

This metaphor of likening movement literacy with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), is in itself problematic. It has promoted in the media the notion that children should be taught physical literacy in the same way that they learn to read and write (see here). Designed to appeal to educators and policy makers (Jurbala, 2015), the metaphor arguably captures the dumbing down of the concept of physical literacy, something which Almond (2013) has criticised. Like click bait to capture public attention, the metaphor also positions physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which seemingly influences how it is being carried out in practice. This highlights a tendency to over-simplify, by promoting the view of body-as-object (Lloyd, 2012) using generic assessments of physical literacy (Tremblay & Lloyd, 2010), that reflect the traditional standardised testing of reading and writing. Lundvall and Tidén (2013) identified similar conflicts with physical literacy in practice in the Swedish PE curriculum, noting the need for approaches to move away from the traditional normative assessment where students are catagorised, towards the development of embodied knowledge, where learners learn to reflect on their development and potential.


Different Perspectives on Physical Literacy

Definitions of physical literacy have seemingly resulted in an oversimplification of the concept (Whitehead, 2010), bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). For example, physical education content being based primarily on the development of fundamental movement skills and little else. In the light of this, Almond (2013) called for a broader discussion to clarify what is implied by associating fundamental movement skills with physical education. However, some value has been placed on Whitehead ‘s own definition (Edwards et al. 2017),which has been refined over the years from its original definition in 2001.

As appropriate to each individual’s endowment, physical literacy can be described as a disposition to capitalize on the human embodied capability, wherein the individual has the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/activities throughout the life course. (Whitehead, 2013, p. 29)


According to Allan and colleagues (2017), physical literacy can be viewed from two different perspectives: (i) The holistic approach (Whitehead, 2001), and (ii) the performance- orientatedapproach, where physical literacy principles are implemented within the programming of curriculums for national sports organisations (Higgs, 2010). Whitehead’s holistic approach (2001) to physical literacy conceptualises all human conditions as an integrated whole, focusing on the embodied dimension of human existence through enriching experience (Whitehead, 2007).This promoted the notion of embodiment, emphasising the inextricable relationship between mind and body, thus rejecting the Cartesian view of mind and body as separate entities. In contrast the delivery of physical literacy within North American sport programming focused almost exclusively on the body and performance (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). Whitehead took the stance that human potential can be achieved through rich interactions between the individual and the environmentand sport represents just one context in which embodied capacities are both challenged and celebrated (Whitehead, 2001, 2007).  So, physical literacy should be seen as a journey (Green et al. 2018) extending beyond sport and physical education, throughout an individual’s lifespan (Whitehead and Murdoch, 2006)

The performance-oriented approach that has seemingly been favoured by governing bodies, is concerned with the mastery of movement skills as building blocks for more complex skills throughreductionism and thedecontextualisation of movements from the environment (e.g., Lloyd, 2011).It has been suggested that this approach aligns closely with the concept of deliberate practice(Allan, TurnnidgeandCôté, 2017).As suggested by Roberts, Newcombe and Davids (2018), these reductionist approaches, with an over-reliance on fundamental movement skills have been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey. Whitehead’s (2007) holistic approach argued for a move away from these types of curriculaand strategies, promoting diverse interactions with the environment delimited by individual constraints, cultural norms and opportunities to interact with the environment (Whitehead, 2013).


Health and physical activity

This strong correlation between health and physical activity in the research is influential in how policy makers construct their programs in response to various health problems. For instance, Quennerstedt, Burrows and Maivorsdotter (2010) suggested that Health Education is guided by obesity discourses, which is now recognised as a world-wide problem (Cale & Harris, 2019). Anarina Murillo and David B. Allison (2016)when contributing to a discussion on obesity asked the question: “Are there any successful policies and programs to fight overweight and obesity? (2016)”. They argued that public policies dealing with this matter despite the best of intentions, might have limited success if these programs do not take in to account the social norms, values and culture of the targeted community. This, as highlighted by Rogers and Collins (2012), signifies a need to determine which programs have proven successful and for whom. So, despite many efforts at the local, national, and international levels, there is little evidence that existing programs are both effective and sustainable.

Lynch and Soukup (2016) have previously highlighted a problem regarding physical education practice and policies. They argued that many discourses have been underpinned by the idea of the “body as an object”, an ideology that has been referred to as ‘healthism’. This has led to the perception of health problems as individual problems that can be unproblematically dealt with through individual effort and discipline (Crawford, 1980), while failing to recognise the social and environmental influences. It has previously been argued that healthism can form a belief that caused guilt for those who do not fit the “exercise = fitness = health idea (Kirk & Colquhoun, 1989).


Health andPhysical Literacy

In 2012, Vandorpe et al. (2012) claimed that there is no direct empirical test of the effect of physical literacy on health. However, in recent years there seems to be increasing interest in physical literacy in the field of public health [Dudley, Cairney, Kriellaars,  Mitchell, 2017].  Cairney and colleagues (2019) presented a model of physical literacy as a determinant of health, with the aim ofstimulatingincreased discussion and further empirical research.They identified a need to open up to a broader perspective regarding the links between education and health at a population level. The example question they posed; “what community-based infrastructure is needed to support diverse and meaningful movement-based experiences for children?”- echoes the need for a more holistic and culturally sensitive approach to the implementation of physical literacy in government funded programs.

Acknowledging that health behaviour is closely related to social and cultural factors” (Ruskin, Fitzgibbon, & Harper, 2008), recognises the interactions between many dimensions (physical, social, emotional and mental) and that health is dynamic, a constantly changing state (QSCC, 1999). Therefore, when promoting wellbeing it has been proposed that we need to view it as multidimensional in nature (OECD, 2017). This implies that curriculums (and strategies) regarding youth development, need to be connected to the child’s world and everyday interests (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer, 2015), “where children are learning through their interactions, as well as adopting and working through the rules and values of their own cultural group” (Arthur et al., 2015, pp. 99–100).


We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially (Lynch, 2013), we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019). Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. Physical literacy as suggested by Jurbala (2015), should be viewed as an avenue to reject traditional approaches to skill development, where it has often been viewed as a brief window of opportunity instead of as a journey throughout a lifespan that extends beyond organised sports and physical education.Therefore, we should view ‘skill learning’ as a dynamic and developmental phenomenon, where, as argued by Clarke (1995, p.173), “we understand that we cannot limit our focus to one period in the life span, or to tasks that are not rich in context and complexity and real in their adaptive significance. Motor skill behaviour changes over a life span and it is that window that ultimately provides the view”.

If the concept of physical literacy is to be woven into health education, sport and recreation, in both policy and practice, then it needs to take in to account that learner’s individual differences, movement preferences and nonlinear rates of development are as much a function of social milieu in which they have developed as their physiology, anatomy or psychology (Uehara, 2014). This calls for a shift in perspectives, from ‘fundamental’ to ‘functional’. From the pursuit of the reductionist application of physical literacy (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018), to one which facilitates the emergence of greater functional relationships between the learner/individual and the environment (Renshaw & Chow, 2018).


Main points

  • There is a lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes
  • Despite this, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow.
  • What is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aim
  • The metaphor of likening physical literacy with language literacy is problematic. This has positioned physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which influences how it is being carried out in practice.
  • This has led to an oversimplification of the concept bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings with an over reliance stage- based models
  • This has been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey.
  •  Despite lacking direct empirical evidence, many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally.
  • For physical literacy to influence health outcomes it needs to impact on physical activity,
  • Sports governing bodies, policy makers, sports clubs, coaches and coach education need to promote and facilitate rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts that invite different opportunities or affordances for action.
  • Physical Literacy should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual


Quiz question: Who had a huge hit with a cover of this song?


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Richard Shuttleworth: Understanding the Learner and the Learning Process (Notes from a Kobe Bryant interview)

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 12.04.57

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.

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 12.03.07

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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

Rick’s Notes

  • 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:

  1. He has just completed his PhD so now he is Dr. Rick!!! So, a big congratulations.
  2. He is crap at pub quizzes.


Participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage

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.

“It is not about maintaining a specific set of wiring connections it is about trying to maintain the capacity to perform a specific function – Learning organises the perception- action system with respect to what happened” (

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.

  1. Physiology 2. Morphology 3. Aptitudes 4. Needs 5. Personality 6. Attitudes

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.

CLA BLOGThe 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

Individual Constraints:

Physical aspects: Height, weight, limb length, genetic make- up, strength, speed,

Functional aspects: Motivation, emotions, fatigue, anxiety

It is important that the coach can identify rate limiters (lack of strength, flexibility).

Environmental constraints:

Physical environment: Light, wind, surface, temperature

Socio-cultural: Family, support networks, peers, societal expectations, values and cultural norms.

Task Constraints:

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)

 References and inspiration

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi ChowKeith DavidsChris ButtonIan Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: Evidence-led or tradition-driven? (John Kiely; International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2012, 7, 242 – 250

Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be! (John Kiely)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015)

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

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

The Newtonian Paradigm (Jean Boulton, May 2001)

Complexity and the Social Sciences (Jean Boulton; June 2010)

Daniel Memmert: Interview Footblogball ( July 2015 (

Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists

Endless twitter conversations!



Growth/Fixed mind-set? It is really about learning

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”.

dennis 2

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.

  1. Anxiety in the face of new challenges
  2. Negative voice in head
  3. Looking for excuses
  4. Defensive to criticism instead of showing an interest in learning
  5. 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/

“poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”. Praise them like you should.

Per Göran Fahlström – One cannot shape and form children’s sports around small numbers and say that this is what the sport is all about

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.

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

 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.

It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. What feels reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change.

On the Footblogball stereo






Steve Lawrence – The Future Learning Space?

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.


Steve Lawrence

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)

You can follow Steve on twitter

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?


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:

  1. The provision of a prepared environment.
  2. 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?


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:

  1. Visible observation by spectators.
  2. Visible observation by students.
  3. Visible observation by technical staff and trainers.
  4. Invisible observation by technical staff and trainers.
  5. 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?


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?


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.


pep coach

Turn the curriculum on its head. Replace it with game centered concepts with questions and problems as defining themes.

In the blog post ” Development Model or The Emperor’s New Clothes”  I referred to the problems with the  linear model associated with more traditional structured coaching and how it can have a negative effect on learning.

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

  1. Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format
  2. Access to advanced content for the more interested learners (or those who are ready)
  3. Provide learner choice for parallel content
  4. You make the learning experience deeper by providing relevant links to other game situations etc.
  5. The learner takes the path that works for him/her. Multiple paths with multiple solutions.
  6. 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 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

  1. Control with correct foot-Body shape,
  2. Creating passing alternatives ( Left , Right, Forward)
  3. Identify, occupy, use space
  4. Control with movement
  5. Communication ( Verbal, non- verbal)
  6. Scan the field while catching glimpses of the ball
  7. Make a decision before you receive the ball
  8. Passing to create a goal scoring chance
  9. Passing our way out of trouble.
  10. 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:

  1. Passing
  2. Control with the correct foot
  3. Movement
  4. Communication
  5. Create space
  6. See the ball
  7. Patience
  8. When defending stop your opponents from seeing the ball.
  9. Create width when you have the ball
  10. Shooting
  11. Wall pass
  12. Fitness ( we had to move a lot more than usual )
  13. 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.