“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)
Humans are dynamic, not static, they are not predictable in their behaviour. Humans are not systems that behave like machines. Humans (as individual players and teams) are complex adaptive systems.
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. Here, the learning process is emphasised by the amount of time spent rehearsing a specific technique. There is a pedagogical emphasis on explicit instructions with the assumption that learning is movement reproduction. By eliminating key information sources we are narrowing and standardising everything, placing a focus on decontextualized technique training. Coaches should avoid obsessing over correction of technique at a young age as this is likely to induce a more internal focus which may narrow the focus of attention for the learner. We challenge this pedagogy and promote the influence of context.
“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)
The reductionist approach seems to be focussed on instructors 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.
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.
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
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).
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 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.
Creating decision makers: The role of Representative Learning Design in creating a learning space
We want to help our young learners to develop understanding IN the game as opposed to just an understanding OF the game. Training sessions should be deliberately designed by coaches for play with purpose. By this I mean play with a deliberate “learning” intent.
In my role as district educator for the Swedish FA coach education courses I try to help the coaches to understand what information and invitations may be available to the young player in a given game context. So if we are playing a 3v3 game where the task is that we want the young players to identify and attack free space, I ask them what information should the young player be seeking out and what invitations are being sent or communicated to him/her by opponents and teammates actions?
A key challenge for coaches is to design training and create learning environments that result in sustainable motivation. Recent research in coaching is highlighting the importance of players experiencing and developing game understanding (i.e., technically, tactically, mentally and physically) by learning to play via learning environments that contain the key information sources present in performance or match environments. This will of course have technical and pedagogical implications. By moving from an instruction led approach to a more enabling and supporting role we can meet and support the skill acquisition and basic psychological needs that underpin a nonlinear pedagogy and self-determined motivation. Adopting such an approach is not easy; perhaps not as easy as setting up static drills where little game knowledge is required by coaches.
To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must
- Have a good knowledge of the sport
- Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
- Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
- Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does NOT achieve this)
- Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.
The challenge for the coach is to design individual learning environments that ultimately lead to highly skilled technicians with highly developed game intelligence. It is proposed that this can be achieved by following the key principles of Nonlinear Pedagogy, one of which is Representative Learning Design.
For the purpose of retention and transfer, training should be representative of the performance environment. It should be designed to contain key information sources that are necessary for the learner to become attuned to the appropriate affordance for action, that is “footballs action” (pressing, dribbling, shooting). Affordances are about action they are invitations, possibilities for “footballs action” in the environment. If they are to be perceived there must be information about them.
To understand “football action” one must understand the big picture. A picture that dictates that no action is isolated but is nested in interactions between team mates and opponents both within the game and from previous games.
Every “footballs action” involves a decision
Every technique is functional, situation- dependent, infinitely variable and highly individual (Rene Maric, Mark O Sullivan, Ian Renshaw and Keith Davids ).
How a player sprints during an isolated running drill and how that player sprints when performing the football action of pressing are not the same. The movements of team mates and opponents provides information that drives our own movements but also players require them to communicate and share information with each other verbally or with hand gestures.
Example, consider the options for an attacker when two defenders are converging and closing the gap between them. What are the possible affordances offered to the player in possession?
- The player can dribble the ball between the two defenders
- The player can pass the ball in depth between the two players to an oncoming or dropping forward
These are just two of the affordances offered. The information has been communicated and now a decision must be made and carried out using “footballs action”. What determines the choice of a “footballs action” by the player in possession is that player’s “effectivities”, or put another way, his or her capabilities to act on the possibilities invited by the dynamic affordance in the environment.
A fast/explosive player may see this as a possibility to dribble the ball though the gap between the two converging defenders
A slower player may know he/she lacks sufficient pace to exploit the narrowing space and pick up on the affordance to pass the ball through the gap to an oncoming or dropping forward.
How the player is perceiving and acting is very important here. Often referred to in the research literature as the role of “agency”. Players can choose to accept or reject invitations provided by affordances. In a dynamic sport like football it may be necessary to delay or to even stop an invitation that you have begun to address, and perceive how through another action you can change it towards another path.
The player in example 1 above may delay his action by slowing down for a split second. This was a “football action” typical of the great Johan Cruyff. As soon as the approaching defenders would respond to him by also slowing down Cruyff would suddenly explode in to action. The use of creativity, deception and disguise to generate uncertainty in their opponents are all traits of top professional footballers.
The player in example 2 may have perceived the information and decided to play a penetrating pass between the two defenders to an oncoming forward. However, due to a problem in communication the forward may have timed their run incorrectly and ran in to an offside position. Thus, the emergence of new information for the player in possession to perceive and a new path with a new decision to be carried out. A second oncoming attacker may have been perceived by the player in possession (think Pirlo) who plays a pass between the two defenders. The oncoming attacker receives the ball and attacks the space in front towards goal. The “offside player” is now onside and may well provide an extra passing option for the attacker in possession. Here we are entering the realm of “the perception of shared affordances (for others and of others) as the main communication channel between team members”. (Shared knowledge or shared affordances? Insights from an ecological dynamics approach to team coordination in sports (Silvia P, Garganta J, Araujo D, Davids K, Aquiar P; 2013)
Representative Learning Design is essential to develop understanding of team mates action capabilities and of course opponents. Only then can we see the through ball into the space of an oncoming forward. The weight and direction of the pass is therefore informed by the knoweledge of how quick the team mate is.
Guidelines for coach adopting the ideas of Representative Learning Design
- We promote the influence of context. The use of game forms in training sessions that “directly talk to the players”.
- Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. Using the principles of co-adaptability (One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on). Through effective game design, the coach can try and “nudge” the young learners into constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game.
- Manipulation of time and space task constraints to facilitate change in the perception action coupling
Training sessions should offer affordances – possibilities for action, choice, challenge and variability to the players/learners to learn and to re-learn.
The use of questioning and context in creating a motivational climate
Questions are a useful tool in generating feelings of involvement, relatedness and the promotion of self- determination behaviours. Questions in learning environments, that contain the key information sources present in performance or match environments can be a powerful tool. Questions can be directed at both groups and individuals and should be formulated to open the learner up to new perspectives or information to guide their perception and action.
Football is a game of constant decision making based on communication/information. Every training session should have as many aspects of football as possible. The aspects used should interact and should also influence each other.
Examples of how to design effective learning environments using Representative Learning Design
Generating uncertainty and becoming attuned to key information sources
Using the principles of co-adaptability
Preparing for uncertainty – creating competitive stress