Duarte Araújo, Christina Fonseca, Keith Davids, Júlio Garganta, Anna Volossovitch, Regina Brandão, and Ruy Krebs

The Big Idea

Essentially, this publication is a position paper.  The topic of the paper is the development of sport expertise.  The more conventional understanding of the interactions between an individual and a specific performance environment is to seek explanations for such expertise based mostly on what is going on “inside” the player (referred to as “organismic asymmetry”).  The less conventional understanding—and the position taken in this paper—is that too little attention is given to the environment-performer interaction to explain expertise development.

This position takes the reader through a less traveled path of a bioecological framework for understanding the dynamics of multi-level subsystems necessary to expertise acquisition in Brazilian football.  Their primary evidence for learning more about informal, unconventional environmental constraints on expertise are document analysis and verbal reports from existing and past football experts.

Brazilian football is ideally suited to be the best example of player-environment interactions given the storied history and playing style of high level of football skill in Brazil.  In this look at Brazilian football in the context of ecological constraints, it is possible to see how talent development programs can change their practices; this change can capture the principles of unstructured play to guarantee that their players are open to the positive influence of informal environmental constraints.  That’s how meaningful practice contexts can be designed.


  • Sport scientists are increasingly interested in elevating the impact of environmental constraints on the development of sport expertise.
  • Hence, there is ever-more research on the influences of sport expertise and: cultural importance, instructional resources, familial support, sport maturity, and depth of competition.
  • Intriguing for the authors of this position paper are the possibilities of employing Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model as a framework for understanding ecological constraints in football as experienced by youth players.
  • Brazilian football is the illustrative example used in the discussion of the way Bronfenbrenner’s four nested sub-levels of environmental interactions function.
  • This paper strives to examine how early experiences of world-class footballers can develop expertise with little formal coaching, without constructed facilities, and with little parental support.
  • They argue that even without the typical institutional supports customary for expertise development, there is still early football specialization because of the young athletes’ continuous adaptation to uncertain environmental constraints.
  • Because of the number and kinds of environmental constraints encountered, the early specialization results from self-generated, non-guided discovery learning during play.
  • In pelada, Brazilian children carry out real football ball-and-feet play in the context of changing ecological constraints.
  • Given the free-flowing nature of pelada, it is a useful un-structure for the design of practice constraints in modern sport development.
  • In the end, these researchers offer seven design ideas for improving football practice contexts.

The Research

What is the role of ecological psychology in understanding sport expertise?

There is little question that in any sport, there are three variables significantly influencing skill acquisition: coaching, practice, and play.  But there are many differences of opinions on the amount and type of practice and play activities necessary at different stages of expertise development.  Fortunately, there is increased research attention given over to understanding the social, historical, and other external interactions on skilled performance.  The modern consequence is that instead of exclusive bias toward dominating internal mechanisms at work, it is increasingly clear that there are both internal and external constraints interacting in performance.

To qualitatively study these interactions, the authors of this position paper hang their study on Bronfenbrenner’s biological framework.  Their paper proceeds then to review this model, including discussion of Brazilian football in the context of: Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model as microsystemmesosystemexosystem, and macrosystem.

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model

If we want to understand sport expertise, then any model or theoretical framework must be evolving.  It also must be integrating multiple disciplines.  Bronfenbrenner’s contribution to a more inclusive grasp of the interactions necessary for expertise development is analyzing how lifelong human development is shaped by the environment.  His model is especially crucial for understanding youth, including policies and practices for positive youth development.

More specifically, applying this bioecological model to youth sport development finds us highlighting four interactive dimensions.  They are: 1) process (e.g., the quality of practice for the individual); 2) person (e.g. body type); 3) context (e.g., parent involvement); and 4) time (e.g., a practice session, a career).  The focus of an ecological approach is the way in which individuals adapt evolutionarily in functional contexts.  And the constant interactions between individual and environment are equally contributing to human behavior and performance.  This is what is referred to as a functioning dynamical system.

Bronfenbrenner described the nature of the environment and the role on informal constraints on the development of sport expertise as four nested interacting sub-systems: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem.  The backdrop for discussing these sub-systems is the nature and significance of Brazilian football.


What is meant by this microsystem is simply the pattern of lived experiences, including activities, social roles, and relationships between persons and the environment.  The illustrative examples of a microsystem using Brazilian football would be such effects as practices, facilities, types of playing surfaces, or even kinds of ball materials available for exploring play opportunities—basically anything that contributes to on-going development.

Let’s take practice as an instance of potential expertise development.  Typically, when we think of football practice, we imagine deliberate practice.  This means that the practices are intense, concentrated, and aimed directly at improving performance.  This is the common approach to skill development.  But deliberate practice can also be a negative—namely burn out and drop out.

But in the last decade or so, there is some accumulated research that even though well designed deliberate practice is critical to improve performance play, there is evidence that deliberate play and unstructured practice may be just as helpful—maybe even more so.

Deliberate play or unstructured practice aren’t focused on skill acquisition.  They are for enjoyment, where adaptive skill, creativity, role-playing, and improvisation are at the center of the chosen activity.  Think of what Americans call “pick-up games,” especially in the sport of basketball.  Street games or backyard games may at first be considered trivial insofar as elite sport development. But there is something intriguing about the freedom-generated in the experiences of a kind of more spontaneous play over planned-out, structured practices.

At the core of Brazilian football is the intriguing fact that most ball-kicking youngsters receive little, if any, structured coaching even in their mid-teens.  While this may traditionally appear to be a great loss within international football circles, for Brazilians such street-based ball play affords youth development opportunities unknown in structured practices.  Such a non-system, after all, has produced an exceptional history of football success, Brazil’s national teams winning five World Cups, and individual players who have achieved tremendous success in international play.

When elite Brazilian players are interviewed about their early experiences, unstructured play almost becomes the common denominator.  The consensus from these interviews is that “unstructured football played on the street improved skill learning.” Especially helpful, they report, is such street play gave them pleasure, passion, and wide-ranging experiences and opportunities to play outside the reach of coach judgments.  Rinus Michels (FIFA Coach of the Twentieth Century) argued that unstructured football on the streets is a natural learning environment.

The beauty of this kind of play are the many ways the youngsters are challenged by the ever-changing environments, including for example the locales (beach, tennis courts, dirt fields, street), field dimensions, facilities (stones, shoes, or bags as goals), balls (stuffed socks, avocado seeds), team conditions (numbers such as 5 on 5 futsal-like, and intuitive team equalizing).

In other words, pelada.  About which Pelé said: “That it is necessary to grasp these opportunities with one’s fingernails.  All those experiences, and that conviviality, helped me a lot in my preparation.”  What this is, is diversification within specialization.  It is recognizably football, but under differing quasi-disguises.  Brazilian football players grow up experiencing a range of games, contexts, surfaces, and cultural situations.  It is within these experiences that football in Brazil evolves through unstructured practice without coaching, exhibiting the play element of what some thinkers call the joy in being a cause.


The mesosystem is simply the relationships existing between two or more microsystems (settings).  For example, in this level there would be the family environment, or the socializing or community service by way of the wider-than-training activities of the sport club.  Parents usually provide resources supporting player development even though the development comes primarily from unstructured practice.  Here’s Pelé again:

My first experiences with the ball were promoted by my father.  Since I was a boy he taught me some tricks and motivated me to perfect my natural talent.  It was him who encouraged me to improve the heading skills and to kick with the left leg.  If you don’t work hard you will get nothing, said my father.


The exosystem is defined as the linkages and processes between two or more settings.  What Bronfenbrenner is getting at, for example is something like the idea of demographics.  This includes the birth location of the athlete.  If a youngster is born in the city, there may be no conventional practice facilities within a reasonable distance.  Instead, they use the street amid car traffic, or on an undeveloped surface with a slope, or on an abandoned, trash-cluttered property.

Children born in rural areas and smaller towns apparently have a greater likelihood of becoming a professional athlete.  It is supposed that this demographic leads to more social support and more plentiful and safe recreational spaces.


For Bronfenbrenner, the macrosystem in the highest level of interaction.  He means something like the sporting culture of a nation.  Regarding international competitive success, for example: Canada with ice hockey, Kenya with distance running, Jamaica with sprinting, Australia with cricket—or Brazil with football.

Economic disparities between countries will produce differing approaches to sport expertise development.  When compared to roles of coaches and families, they will differ between countries with emerging economies compared to countries with lower socioeconomic classes.  Brazil is an example of the latter.

The problem though, is that we don’t know much about this macrosystem’s environmental constraints—other than the obvious comparisons between the sports of the wealthy and of the poor.  The Brazilian sportswriter, Rodrigues Filho, pointed out that in Brazil since the introduction of football in the 1930s there are two different and antagonistic contexts of learning and practice.

In the higher social classes, the play was on manicured grass fields with British coaching and specialized instruction.  In the lower social classes, there is no access to football academies, or coach education, or adequate facilities.  Instead, and by way of street pick-up games the youngsters may emulate and imitate professional soccer player moves, but with their microsystem environment interactions (sock-balls, irregular playing surfaces and areas), they are challenged by these constraints, thereby changing the professional movements into new movement forms.  As the skills of these unstructured -practice-produced youngsters began being accepted into some of the football clubs of the higher economic class football clubs, they often performed more skillfully than the orthodox coached players from the football academies.


The researchers briefly list seven constraining characteristics useful for the design of practice constraints in modern sport development programs.

  1. Not relying on formalized games and training drills, exclusively.
  2. Designing fun and enjoyment (rather than work as in deliberate practice) into programmes.
  3. Creating learning environments that encourage search, discovery, and exploration in movements.
  4. Enhancing adaptive behaviours by creating opportunities for learners to satisfy different constraints (playing in different weathers, against different age groups, genders, number of players, and so on).
  5. Varying equipment and facilities for practice, sometimes keeping the environment very simple and uncluttered, varying surfaces, footwear, ball types, other creative modifications.
  6. Not conceptualizing an idealized target movement pattern as “the” way to perform a skill.
  7. Making sure that skill practice is “repetition without repetition.”
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