Player Development Project Lead Researcher, James Vaughan recently attended the third annual International Congress for Psychology Applied to Football. He shares his notes from this prestigious event where some of the best thinkers in player development shared their ideas on the state of the game.

An Introduction

The AIPAF is partnership between academics and professionals who are dedicated to improving player development. By combining the stories and experiences of forward-thinking compassionate coaches, clubs and psychologists, AIPAF aims to forge a new path for player development by critically reflecting on current practice and club structure.

The III International Congress held in Bilbao in May aimed to address the gap between what people now believe, or what is wanted for players, and what is actually done in football academies. The conference abstract explained it this way:

“Many leaders of football academies, in their projects, speak about the need for long-term vision, speak about a personal and professional development of players, everybody speaks about creative players or ‘thinking players’. But neither the structures nor the contexts change to facilitate that process. Having consensus on these values, what is it happening in practice?” (AIPAF, abstract, English version)

By sharing personal experiences, beliefs, prejudices, theories and values this conference sets the foundation for innovative club leaders and practitioners to contrast and question their world views with those of others, in a search for the way forward.

This created an extremely open, challenging and uncomfortable development environment. Throughout the weekend the humility of the speakers was pretty amazing.

The humility of the speakers reminded me of an article posted on the PDP blog – ‘Key Characteristics of the Worlds Best Coaches 2.0‘ which explores the idea that the most innovative minds have one very important thing in common: they understand that they don’t know everything (and that’s ok). Some examples of this way of thinking include:

“To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.” – Isaac Newton

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.” – Richard Feynman

“Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.” – Niels Boh

Elon Musk has his own version: “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

To me, the speakers at the AIPAF conference embodied this kind of humility.

The Academy: Creating a Learning Culture in a Football Club

This article is based on notes translated from Spanish and transcribed from a live discussion at the AIPAF III International congress of Applied Psychology in Football in Bilbao in May, 2016. My aim is to stay true to the discussion, so I have attempted to keep the language used in the live event and limit my interpretations to a minimum.

The first section of the conference looked to address the following questions: Where is professional football training going? How has that influenced clubs and especially how has it influenced the academy?

Guest Speakers:

  • Joan Vilá (Head of Methodology, FC Barcelona)
  • Jose Manual Sevillano (Academy Director, Athletic Club de of Bilbao)
  • Ruben Jongkind (Implemented ‘Plan Cruyff’ at Ajax with Johan Cruyff and former Head of Talent Development at Ajax Amsterdam)
  • Sergio Navarro (Head of Methodology, Villarreal FC)

Interviewing the Guests:
Eduardo Rubio (Head of Academy Coach Development, Milton Keynes Dons FC)

Q: Where do you think future of the game is going? 

Q: What is your role (as an academy director) in the club of the academy?

Ruben Jongkind:

  • I think we need to understand both macro-factors and micro-factors. Society and the economy are changing and we need to be aware of all of this.
  • We must appreciate the economic influence on our development environments as well as many other factors.
  • In the future people will pay attention to each other as open systems.
  • The environment is much more complex than we recognise, as is the game.
  • Modern coaches need to be able to communicate with specialists and have an open mindset. They must also have empathy.

Jose Manual Sevillano:

  • We must see training sessions as the places where players have the chance to develop themselves as people – which often contradicts professional football.
  • First we have to generate a common language and a common approach. We focus on the development of the player as an open system.
  • We need to generate and create spaces for these open systems to interact.

The wider environment – or macro system – of western culture, with its economic incentives and stories of competition, evaluation, status and ego, often shapes people (human systems) that are more closed rather than more open. We are therefore less likely to share ideas and help each other and are more likely to display controlling behaviours and experience controlled forms of motivation. Being more closed on the football pitch leads to a narrower breadth of attention, leading to one-dimensional decision-making and an inability to explore available affordances and experience moments of creative play.

Q: How would you define your role?

Jose Manual Sevillano:

  • We have a responsibility to adopt to the needs of the club and society. We have to commit to reaching each player as a person and individual so the result is good people.
  • The main focus of training, therefore, is the individual. We then promote this to help the team, even society.
  • The tension between the individual and the collective is crucial. We need to establish a dialog with the player to improve them as a person, and optimise weaknesses. Above all you want good people.

Sergio Navarro:

  • I would add that we are trying to change a society with certain habits (or values) so this is complex.
  • First we need responsibility then coherence, because it is simpler to say than to do. We start to generate good ideas but people want social acknowledgement.
  • I might say: I love training football but I hate professional football.
  • Responsibility and commitment to our society, and ourselves we have been lucky to get these boys and girls in our hands.
  • Give encouragement to be a little bit better every day, we are dreamers and the human aspect is neglected: it is about coaches and players.

Q: How do you create a learning environment for the coach?

Sergio Navarro

  • Do not give answers to the coaches, ask more questions. We need to create a space of coherence and we need creativity.
  • A person is dynamic and changing over his or her life. We need a space so players can practice and we have to generate that with the coaches. If we are thinking about players who are aware of that space we need players who are aware.

The idea of ‘creating space’ comes up frequently and this can be thought of as creating an environment free of the socio-cultural constraints that control thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For young players this may be a space free of the constant struggle for social status. Helping players become open, engaged and immersed in the challenge of training or a match is a good example of providing space and freedom from controlling socio-cultural constraints.

Another way of thinking about this is providing players with autonomy support. Autonomy can be thought of as the freedom to express ourselves; often it has been considered that autonomy supportive coaching environments can lead to creative expression because humans possess an innate tendency towards creativity. However, autonomy provides players a space in which to express themselves, and this can lead to expressions of ego – showboating, for example – rather than moments of creativity. Rather than players being immersed in the game they are thinking “what can I do now to show how good I am and get more status?” This is what happens when players develop within a wider environment focused on economic incentive, competition, evaluation, status and ego.

Q: How do we create this environment?

Sergio Navarro:

  • Generate trust and space for trust.

Q: What do you do to practically to achieve this?

Sergio Navarro:

  • Work with 3 or 4 coaches at a time and ask, “what is football for you?”. Then for 3 hours they give their view. This is a process that allows autonomy.
  • The main objective during this process is for the coaches not to think of me as a boss and for me to find out what type of player they want to develop.
  • Guess what they said: fast, understands the game, makes decisions, has autonomy. But then the club wants results, so do you think the training are coherent with these goals?

Joan Vilá:

  • First you need an idea (playing style/philosophy) and in our case this is based on humility, effort, fairness, respect and teamwork.
  • This is your starting point. We are lucky because the directors are very clear on this idea, and we have people who are loyal and help us grow towards our idea.
  • The first question is “what are the objectives of the coach?” There will be common ones with the club’s idea (playing style/educational approach) and also separate objectives, and we need to gather these together and put them into training. (Creating an autonomy-supportive environment.)
  • A challenge and commitment is to work together! And the club must protect the coach’s interest.
  • This is why is it sometimes tricky to bring continuity to a project because you have a boss, and sometimes they change, or their boss changes and their priorities change.

Q: When we speak about learning, how do you develop the talent of the coach?

Joan Vilá:

  • I think the aspects of the organisation have a massive impact on the behaviour of the coach.
  • The coach needs to understand the game but also other aspects that surround the game. (The surrounding environment, society, culture, economy.)
  • To develop the coach we develop the environment. (We change the stories of success and what is valued in society and the club – this is where FCB excel.)

Q: How do we develop the individual player?

Joan Vilá:

  • We cannot remove the individual from the collective, but at the grassroots level the individual is the focus.
  • This is complex regarding the content and also the schedule (the annual training plan); we need to profile the player. The team is made of players – it’s a sum of cells, it’s organic.
  • Is talent born or made? Every person has a talent in every framework and structure (formation or playing style) and it is the job of the coach to find this.
  • When we are improving the player we are doing this for the individual and the team. We are also working on values, trust, responsibility, commitment to the team; maybe this is simply not to lose the ball, when we try to get the ball back it’s a commitment to the team. This is something we work on in every single training session.

Q: How do you create a learning environment for your new coaches?

Sergio Navarro:

  • My job is to make coaches see what we they haven’t seen. (To raise self-awareness.)
  • First we hold group meetings to talk about points that are essential, then individual meetings to talk about aspects that they would like to tackle.
  • Generate a space where coaches will question their own learnings. How can we teach and create a new environment for the coaches.
  • We have kept the same coaches for two years and the conversations are ongoing and the challenge is to make people feel comfortable and uncomfortable – this helps them understand teamwork. We get rid of the hierarchy.

Q: What is the role of academies? What is the purpose?

Sergio Navarro:

  • First you need an idea of playing and of the club. For example, ask ‘are we a training club?’ First the club needs a strategy and then from the style of play you identify key characteristics for the players.
  • Football is disappearing from the streets; we need free games. We need street football, (varied affordances and different surfaces). We are losing hours of movement at schools.

Q: Players need patience and commitment. How do you create patience?

Sergio Navarro:

  • Well if coaches are only contracted for one year they will only focus on that year.

Joan Vilá:

  • Patience needs a wider perspective.
  • You develop the subject, the player, you periodise the task: the player and the ball must love each other.
  • We want to have the ball so we can enjoy ourselves; we want to have the ball otherwise we only run. With this idea in mind there must be an enjoyment, we all want to win but no one needs to focus on this.
  • We also have to work on the individual aspects of the game to make them aware of the collective aspects. All these aspects are individual but they aid to the collective and the natural want to win.

Jose Manual Sevillano:

  • The first consideration at Bilbao is social responsibility, so there is a responsibility for all our players, especially those who not all will become professional.
  • Each player will have to be the best they can be as a player and a person.
  • We want to give them training so they can be prepared for life.

Q: How do you create that learning culture?

Jose Manual Sevillano:

  • Every decision is made for the sake of the player; the player is at the heart of the process. We need to anticipate the future, values such as respect, how to communicate, how to manage your emotions.

Q: What defines success and what weight is put on results?

Joan Vilá:

  • In terms of training, the most important thing is to look back and be satisfied with the work done.
  • We have a fantastic game, a tool to optimise to our capacities as humans and we can work and practice everything, enjoy, compete and work on all the values that human beings need for society.
  • Training means after the training you do something better than you could do before.
  • You need to value what the player means every minute, help them be better people and better players. The coaches must have the idea of pleasure with the game and enjoy it. The result in training development is not the same as in professional football.
  • The aim should be to work with the seriousness of the child who plays.

Ruben Jongkind:

  • According to Johan Cruyff we should acknowledge a player independently of the t-shirt he is wearing.
  • The process is much more important that the result; however, this result could be the total footballer, who can inspire others and be responsible in society.
  • Success is the pleasure of the travel, the journey, to have a common approach and to be part of something.

Player Development Project Summary:

What do we need to understand as coaches?

We need be aware of the macro-factors and micro-factors that shape player development. In other words we must consider what may be influencing our players before they even get to training. We must appreciate that money, status and ego (as well as many other factors) are powerful socio-cultural constraints that often create controlling development environments. By the end of my PhD I hope to have a clearer understanding of the relationship between macro- and micro-factors and how they shape our learning environments.

Yet for all of us, within our training sessions we need to focus on the development of the player and the teams as open systems. We need to generate and create spaces for these open systems to interact, because this space and interaction can inspire creativity and we need creativity. A person is a dynamic and changing system. We also need to be aware of the tension between the individual and the collective, the team. In accepting this tension we embrace the discomfort and uncertainty that leads to human development and creativity. One way of understanding this could be that we develop the individual to help the team, and what is learned here is to benefit society; we want good people first and then good players.

A quote that stayed with me from the Congress was this: “The first consideration at Bilbao is social responsibility, so there is a responsibility for all players, especially those who not all will become professionals.”

The key takeaway point: Why we coach

In football we have a fantastic tool to make positive social change. Coaches and clubs should be working together to promote the values that shape creative young minds and socially responsible people. While this sounds quite serious, the best way to do it is to work with the seriousness of the child who plays; this mindset opens the door to creative moments for us as coaches, and our players. We must also remember that success is the pleasure of the travels and the journey, to have a common approach and to be part of something. This is what we hope to provide at PDP.

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