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Breaking the Machine

This article is shared by Player Development Project

The machine that is premature professionalism in youth sport is a growing problem. Environments created to replicate professional sport, ‘elite’ pathways at 8-years-old and coaches removing autonomy from the environment by exerting total control are modern issues. 

In this article, Player Development Project Editor & academy football coach, Dave Wright challenges the status quo and asks how we can break the machine that coaching is at risk of becoming.

The world of sport is constantly evolving and new technology creeps into all sporting codes. Youth players wear tracking devices and GPS, while data can even now be captured via a players’ boots. It’s common for all of us to have instant feedback on our wrist in the form of step counters or smart watches. Much of this technology adds value, but how often do we question what slows us down?

If we reflect on contemporary football environments we have huge advantages when it comes to the ease of filming a session on a smartphone or iPad, various pieces of software to plan sessions and applications like Google sheets, WhatsApp or Dropbox to share content amongst staff and players.

Without question, these significant technological advancements can make life easier for many people, whether in sport or business.

However, after coaching for 17 years and reflecting on how I would plan and deliver when I began my coaching, compared to environments I have experienced in the last five to ten years, things are very different.

We now live in a coaching world where data analysis, an obsession with sports science and marginal gains prevails, and development by numbers is often dominant. Without context, some of these metrics can often be redundant and, I believe, a distraction to the core focus of what sport really is: a human activity. Another consideration here is that there are very few youth development environments where all of this may actually be relevant.

A grassroots soccer school or holiday program should be based on fundamentals of fun, skill acquisition, learning the game and social interactions. Often we see branded soccer schools franchised out, attached to a Premier League or La Liga club but with no direct affiliation and parents are sold.

Referring back to the fundamentals of what sport is about and what coaching can be, if I was to provide my own definition of what I believe sport to be, it would be driven by a number of key words:

  • Games
  • Play
  • Fun
  • Challenge
  • Skills
  • Competition
  • Winning
  • Losing
  • Health
  • Social

To summarise, (and after a great deal of thought) my definition would look like this:

“Sport is an activity driven by the human desire to play, to compete and to learn. The benefits that positive sporting environments can bring are physical health, mental well-being, life lessons and shared experiences. Overcoming adversity, learning from results and making social connections for life can fuel the fire for sport to be at the forefront of someone’s everyday life.”

When I reflect on my own childhood and the many sports I played and loved, I think back on success and failure, I think about friends I made, finals we won, games we lost, tours we went on and, as a result, a lot of stories. More than anything, I think about the love of sport that was fostered through enjoyment. I still coach football, still play golf and cricket. I am fascinated with many sports, an avid fan, player and coach.

As coaches, we have a role to play. We all remember our best teachers, and we never forget our worst. If we think about common traits of what some of those great teachers may have had when passing on positive classroom or sporting experiences, they may be along the lines of the following:

  • Character
  • Leadership
  • Inspiration
  • Discipline
  • Standards
  • Fun
  • Relatable

None of these attributes are driven by numbers, stats or science, more so they are driven by empathy, communication, trust and expectation.

I’ve worked in a variety of football environments in various countries and also schools. As time has gone on, many of those have become more complex than ever. For example, I have worked in an environment where sports science tested children under the age of nine. Whilst I appreciate the importance of periodisation, managing load, physical fitness and catering for this in a long season, what relevance does a speed test have with an U9 footballer? In my view, the time spent testing the child, is time lost where they could be mastering the ball or playing the game.

In a blog for Myfastestmile, Mark Upton wrote:

Are we already at Sport™? Certainly adult performance contexts have been for some time. Yet increasingly child and youth sport? And what does it say about a society that allows its children to be treated as commodities in a bid to maximise financial profit for adults?

Mark’s point is spot on. An elite, high performance, professional environment is anything but the same as a youth, community, development or even professional academy environment. More and more professional clubs are seeing this, and focussing on enhancing their foundation phase (9-12) programs with a focus on tournaments, more games, futsal, street football and play.

The reality is most coaches are working in amateur environments with players who play for the love of it. Unless you are working with full-time, paid adult professionals, (who still need autonomy, support and freedom to fail) the key drivers behind a coaches purpose has to be more about a positive experience and learning environment than marginal gains or premature professionalism.

Competition is a part of life, but collaboration is perhaps a better skill to teach our young people. Creating a competitive environment has benefits, but defining what that competition looks like is crucial. If that means bringing your best effort to every session, competing with yourself, improving every day, working hard, embracing failure and working towards personal developmental targets, then that’s healthy. However, we have to ensure our young players don’t define themselves purely by those targets and purely by the game they play. It’s easy for a player to attach their identity to their sport and have nothing left beyond that. See the work of Dr. Suze Brown and Player Development Project Lead Researcher, James Vaughan for more on this.

If we learn how to better work together, then surely more people have more chance of achieving their goals and living a more fulfilled life. Our young players live in a world driven by social media, social comparison, a capitalistic culture in which status is revered and perception appears more important than reality. Children are evaluated, compared and instructed in our education systems. Then when we task them with problem-solving we get frustrated and take over when they can’t. Is this because we cannot let go of control and our default setting is to tell players what to do?

Being aware of these socio-cultural influences on youth development and redefining our environments, moving from comparison, statistics and constant evaluation to self-reflection, purpose and process over outcomes and results as a constant focus has to be a consideration in breaking down some of these barriers.

So how can we reject this movement and break the machine?

  • Accept that children are playing sport for more than just the dream of playing professionally. Coaches have a huge opportunity as leaders, mentors, teachers and supporters of young people to positively influence lives. With this position comes responsibility and privilege.
  • Understand that sport is a vehicle for social good. Through sport, children can create bonds for life, and a love of the game as well as learn real life lessons.
  • Don’t over complicate your environment. Too many voices and too many messages can create confusion and complexity where it doesn’t need to exist.
  • Consider that what we see on TV or at professional football matches is the end of a long, hard journey for a tiny minority of football players on the planet. Only a fraction of a percentage of players globally will reach this level and whilst we always want our players to maximise their potential, we also want to ensure that we are focussing on what they need, not what we (adults) want.
  • Avoid selection by numbers. Statistics and sports science should be supplementary to the game, the sessions and an additional resource to call upon when making informed decisions. Hard data never tells the whole story.
  • Encourage your players to collaborate, work hard for each other with a growth mindset at the heart of their intentions.

I believe it’s easy for coaches to focus on being a master tactician, to have opinions on what players should do, or see what players can’t do. As Professor Stephen Rollnick said in his Masterclass Discussion with James Vaughan, coaches can often be guilty of being ‘deficit detectives’ focussing on where players fail, as opposed to affirming or questioning what a player tried to do or what opportunity they saw.

Sport has an opportunity to provide experiences for young people that create positive stories, but it is also guilty of failing many athletes. Whether that’s the grassroots coach who believe’s he is the next Mourinho, or whether it’s professional clubs failing to prepare a former professional for life outside of the game, there is still work to be done in player welfare and mental health.

It’s difficult to be a master facilitator, to put your own agenda or motivation to the side and create an environment that encourages fun, failure, resilience, persistence, and purpose. It takes time, it takes trust and it at times it won’t look pretty. Development and learning is messy, and at times chaotic – but that’s part of the fun.

However, if you’re approaching your work with a positive approach, by the end of the journey you’ll be able to be optimistic that your players will still be playing, and always look back on the time they had under your guidance, in an environment you created.

Image Credit: Deposit Photos

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