The environment surrounding the player must be understood to ensure we help players achieve their potential. PDP Lead Researcher and PhD candidate, James Vaughan discusses the holistic view of player development that the PDP team has been working on as a result of over two years of conversations, interviews, research and experience.

Ruben Jongkind is the former Head of Talent Development at Ajax and now works for Cruyff Football. He and Johan Cruyff worked together to implement ‘Plan Cruyff’ at Ajax between 2011 and 2013. When asked about creating a culture of learning and development (at the 2016 Conference for Applied Psychology in Football) Jongkind gave three key points that resonate with some of the most recent research in player development.

  1. The player development environment is much more complex than we recognise.
  2. We need to understand both macro factors and micro factors.
  3. In the future people will pay attention to each other as open systems.

This article introduces a view of player development that not only incorporates the practical wisdom of Jongkind and Cruyff, but is also founded in recent research on player development. It is a view of the environment that accounts for some of its complexity and illuminates both macro and micro factors. It is a view which suggests that the individuals and the sociocultural contexts which make up our environments are best thought of as complex adaptive systems.

The image above is a framework adapted from an innovative approach to athlete development research pioneered by Kristoffer Henriksen (Southern Denmark University) and colleagues. In the PDP version above we have incorporated the themes that have continuously emerged in conversations and contributions over the last 24 months.

The research behind the model

Henriksen and colleagues created the original Athlete Talent Development Environment (ATDE) and described it as a holistic ecological approach to player development. The ATDE was defined as:

 “. . . a dynamic system comprising (a) an athlete’s immediate surroundings at the micro level where athletic and personal development take place, (b) the interrelations between these surroundings, (c) at the macro level, the larger context in which these surroundings are embedded, and (d) the organisational culture of the sports club or team.” (Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler 2010, p. 160).

The ATDE originates from Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model of human development and responds to the call to for the ecological perspectives to be integrated with athlete development research:

  “According to ecological psychology, such as Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 2005) bio-ecological model of human development, sport specific, holistic life skills evolve through the person’s embeddedness in an environment that, consequently, affects his or her development.” (Larsen, Alfermann, Henriksen, & Christensen, 2013, p. 191)

This approach is an attempt to transform the ecological perspective into a framework that can account for sociocultural constraints (Uehara, Button, Falcous, & Davids, 2014) as well as the task, individual and (material) environmental constraints that shape learning and development. However, perhaps the most important element of this approach is the recognition that people, environments, contexts and cultures are dynamic, complex and adaptive systems.

 The player-environment system

Complex adaptive systems are characterised by disequilibrium and they adapt and change in response to interactions with the systems around them. The open, dynamic and adaptive interactions of these systems create a reference point to understand how change and creativity occur. Every system (in us humans, or in our environments) is embedded in larger system and the resulting interactions create the ever-evolving processes of self-organisation, growth and change (Montuori, 2011). Using an over-simplification to provide some clarity, we might say that the more open the system (the player) and the more open the surrounding ecology (their teammates), the more potential there is for adaption and creativity. However, how we give meaning to, and understand the term ‘openness’ is open to debate and is shaped by the scientific lens used.

As an example, consider a team in possession. Both the player on the ball and surrounding teammates determine the opportunity for actions; actions that may be more expected or more unexpected. For the unexpected to happen, the player on the ball has to be ‘open’ to the possibility that something unexpected is possible. It’s also helpful if this player’s teammates are also open to unexpected possibilities, because if they’re not, we have (a crude example of) an open player operating within a relatively closed system (team). From this perspective we might say that certain playing styles are more open than others, but the ‘openness’ will be subject to a complex constellation of deeply contextualised constraints and an individual player’s worldview.

“Within the framework of nonlinear pedagogy, a skill and more generally talent, is not a trait possessed by individuals alone but a property of the athlete-environment system subject to changing constraints.” (Hristovski et al. 2012 p. 27).

As an example of how multiple lenses result in very unique views, consider the different levels of scientific analysis (lenses) we might use in an attempt to understand human behaviour.

It could be argued that these levels of analysis represent the systems within systems that form humans and contribute to our behaviour. Too often, we limit our view of human behaviour, taking only one perspective and discriminating against the other views instead of incorporating them. Ecological approaches and systems thinking is more about integrating perspectives rather than isolating them:

“General systems theory allows scientific enquiry to draw on very different sources, in very different ways, locating creativity as a phenomenon that occurs in the context of multiple systems and therefore involves a network of connections.” (Moutuori, 2011).

When we designed the PDP environment we attempted to stay true to the concepts in the research:

  • The macro and micro systems are embedded within each other like Russian dolls, they are distinct but inherently interlinked; their boundaries should be viewed as semi-permeable (with information moving both ways) like cells in biology. This is because people, narratives, values and motivational climates move between these systems and those within them. The words ‘youth culture’, ‘football culture’, ‘national culture’ and ‘general sports culture’ are all labels to explain emergent themes or narrative categories.
  • The sociocultural systems within the macro and micro environments – education system, media, FIFA, role models and school, family, peers, football clubs – are distinct but adaptive, interacting with each other and sharing information (narratives and values) with the surrounding macro system. Their boundaries are semi-permeable and the chasing arrows depict them as dynamic, changing and evolving.
  • The words ‘sporting narrative’ and ‘definitions of success’ are key narratives that emerged from the macro-environment to infiltrate the micro-environment and shape the systems within.

Why take this view of player development?

A wider, holistic view raises awareness of the sociocultural constraints that shape coaching contexts and each player’s life-long development. This view provides a platform for us to critically reflect on the environment around us, enhancing our self-awareness and providing a point of departure to not only design better coaching sessions but also influence our environment and those environments around us. An ecological approach also becomes important for understanding creative development because from this perspective we can recognise that:

  1. The social embeddedness of creative acts is essential to their genesis, frequency, and originality (Amabile, 1996; Hristovski, Davids, Araujo & Pessos, 2011) and…
  2. In an ecological approach the emphasis is placed on the larger ecosystem in which creativity emerges (Moutuori 2011).

There are two practical applications to consider:

If we know our sociocultural context is obsessed with extrinsic rewards, power, status, money, conformity, competition and traditional thinking we know we must bring balance by promoting self-direction, autonomy, collaboration, benevolence, tolerance, creativity and humility within our training sessions. Read more here.

How exactly we do this will depend on a deep understanding of the sociocultural context. What the PDP environment really does is to provide a framework to explore and understand your cultural context and uncover our biases and blind spots.

As Stambulova and Ryba (2014) have said, coaches working within one cultural context, too often, only focus on the content – the ‘what’ (session plans, skills, tactics) – taking for granted the culturally constituted methods of delivery or the ‘how’ of coaching.


“We have generally been unwilling to explore the extent to which we are shaped by our culture, and in the case of encouragement and promotions of creativity, we have focused on individual factors rather than attempts to change social circumstances.” (Montuori & Purser, 1997, p. 4)

Uncovering our cultural bias is really about developing self-knowledge and self-awareness. It’s impossible to overcome our own blind spots when we don’t know they are there. This can be an uncomfortable, humbling, embarrassing, frustrating and infuriating, especially for that coach ego. But the goal is to cultivate curiosity and get to the place of: “wow I’d never thought of it that way before!” This can be the birthplace of creativity. Understanding the four principles of player development, might help you to create high-quality training sessions that are demanding for your players, whilst also ensuring a positive learning environment.

The first step is to question everything (a key characteristic of the world’s best coaches) and to recognise how the environment beyond football shapes our thinking, our behaviour, and our human development.

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