Fundamental movement is crucial to well being and player development. PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses some of the myths around specialisation and the advantages to looking outside of conventional sport to ensure your players get educated in fundamental movements.

On June 18th, 2016, Nick Levett (FA Talent Identification Manager & regular PDP contributor) highlighted some of the myths that still dominate football development: The myths of specialisation.

Fundamental movement

These myths can lead to some pretty harmful consequences, particularly physical and psychological burn out.

physical and psychological burn out

I’ve experienced both: I played football and only football throughout my teenage years, battering the same joint and movement patters I ended up with OsgoodSchlatters (I’d say 50% of the boys I played with in the Academy suffered from Osgood-Schlatters at some point). Osgood-schlatters is an inflammation of the area just below the knee where the tendon from the kneecap (patellar tendon) attaches to the shinbone (tibia). In my case the tendon tore a piece of bone off the tibia, but basically this was a symptom of physical burn out – I was 13.

Its pretty scary to think the myths highlighted by Nick are still influencing kids today, my experience was 17 years ago.

In my opinion this comes back to something I’ve written about before cultural assumptions: These are assumptions about the way the world works, often based on nothing but a common belief built up over hundreds of years. As an extreme example we once believed that the earth was flat. This seems pretty stupid now. But in the future people will look back and laugh at ideas like this one: “Playing other sports is going to prevent you from being a footballer”.

As Einstein said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environments”. In other words few people are willing to go against the group consensus and swim upstream.

However throughout history the worlds best thinkers, innovators and game changes have swum upstream. These people aren’t handcuffed by social norms when it comes to their thinking or how they view the world. So instead of building their reasoning on false cultural assumptions (like the myths above) the game changers questions these myths, deconstruct how they have been taught to see the world and start with a blank slate. Examples could be Rinus Michels, Sir Issac Newton, Johan Cruyff, Albert Einstein and Elon Musk.

This style of thinking is often called reasoning from first principles, and it means going back to fundamental principles to avoid cultural assumptions.

Movements First Principles 

Above Nick said “We need to give our kids a movement education that equips them for all sports” and I agree, but I think it helps to go beyond sport and critically reflect on the worlds movement cultures, good and bad.

At the beginning of 2012 my body said enough, I’d picked up another injury playing Futsal in Colombia in March 2011 and I wasn’t recovering. This was when I started to reason from first principles; I went back to basics, I changed my diet and started yoga and pilates. Over the next 3 years with the help of Stephen Heron (Futsal-Whites physio) I became increasingly aware that most football and futsal players suffered from similar muscle imbalances. And it was these imbalances that led to most injuries. Stephen also introduced me to a man who was critically reflecting on the worlds movement culture:  Movement philosopher and phenomenal movement practitioner, Ido Portal. 

Following Ido’s ideas and with Stephens guidance I move better now at 30 than I did at 15. In the video Ido reflects on movements first principles, current movement culture and how movement is learnt, the four key take away points are:

  1. We are all teachers whether we like it or not, we are teachers every time someone sees us move, especially when kids copy us. This has massive implications for us as coaches and parents.
  2. Being a teacher and a movement role model is part of human culture; we all start as a student of movement and we are all destined to be movement teachers. I believe some cultures have a richer movement culture than others and we can see this in their football.
  3. Movement complexity has been an essential part of our evolution and brain development – we should be the best movers on the planet. If we don’t encourage a variety of movement opportunities are we short cutting our players (holisic) development?
  4. Our dominant movement cultures – Gym, Sport, Dance – place too much emphasis on aesthetics. This is reverse engineering and it usually fails, Ido explains:

“It is similar to a nose that is not meant for breathing. And of course it has a price, you end up empty, you end up sick and you end up immobile because you are not pursuing movement, you are pursuing just the looks of it…Can you flip, can you invert can you crawl? Or is it just aesthetics?” – Ido Portal

Do we (football coaches) place too much emphasis on aesthetics, on technical excellence rather than functional excellence? Do we attempt to reverse engineer technique?

I know I have been guilty of focusing on players technique and balance (aesthetics) in the past: Thomas Muller is my check for this, he looks like a stiff breeze would blow him over – not particularly balanced and technically awkward at times – but one of my favourite players.

I think its time to recognise the importance of a more holistic approach to movement education, one that encourages not just multiple sports but dance and martial arts too. A more holistic movement education will decrease the likelihood of physical and psychological burn out while increasing the opportunity for creativity.

The concept of affordances (opportunities for movement)  in ecological dynamics and skill acquisition suggests that we all exist within a dominant form of life, an ecological niche which provides our movement opportunities. These ideas also suggest that creativity emerges when affordances from one context (for example martial arts, dance, capoeira, samba) are applied to another context, like the football pitch.

This requires players to reason from first principles, swim upstream and try things that aren’t  common on the football pitch.

As an example of an innovative game change on the football pitch check out Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Many of his unique passing techniques and movements have been adapted from his martial arts background. For more on Zlatan and affordances click here

At the AIPAF (International Congress for Applied Psychology in Football) conference in Bilbao recently the key take home message was that coaches and practitioners need to:

  • Practise self-reflection
  • Work to become more self-aware
  • Embrace change and uncertainty

Doing these things will free us from the tyranny of our cultural conditioning and allow us to reason from first principles. If we can do this we will see though the myths surrounding football and do whats best for our players.

In short, we all need to swim upstream a little.

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