To set the scene for the following discussion on socio-cultural constraints, we start with Ruben Jongkind’s comments made during May 2016’s NextGen Talks. Ruben is the former Head of Talent Development at Ajax Amsterdam, and after working with Johan Cruyff on ‘Plan Cruyff’ he is regarded as a leading authority on Johan’s philosophy.

Ruben Jongkind’s comments give a clear example of how socio-cultural (macro) factors influence player development within academies. While most of us are well aware of the problems with a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality, Ruben’s comments provide a deeper insight, highlighting why the need to win is still impacting player development in some academies. He points out that the problem starts when the focus is placed on the team and not balanced with the needs of the individual.

“When the team is the focus within the academy you start to run into problems: The first is the economic incentive within clubs. For example, the salary differences between youth coaches working in academies and coaches working with the first team are huge. The difference is maybe 10 or 15 times more to work with the first team.”

Ruben explains that this extrinsic economic incentive taints the coaching process, leaving learning secondary to winning:

“I can imagine that if your first passion is football and helping or developing children is secondary, then it could be that you want go where you can work in football and earn more – this makes sense. So how do you become visible to make this progression? Well in a fixed culture, with a fixed mindset, the only way to do this is by getting results. And if you get into this cycle you will put the best players (or the most effective) players on the pitch to increase your chances of winning. If those results are rewarded by media, peers or most importantly club management then this is an incentive for other coaches to do the same thing – then we get into a vicious cycle.”

Ruben said that he and Johan Cruyff tried to remedy this difficult challenge, explaining, “Johan Cruyff was really a champion of trying to bridge this economic gap (between the academy coaches and the first team coaches), or at least do something with human resources in clubs to filter people who are really passionate about developing children into the right positions.”

These ideas were discussed in even deeper detail at the AIPAF congress in Bilbao 12 days later and we will now explore a particular session relevant to these themes. In an attempt to stay true to the live discussion at the AIPAF conference, I have again aimed to keep the language used in the discussion and limit my interpretations to a minimum. The links to PDP and my research are in italics.

The following discussion aimed to address ‘Self Questioning & Learning’ and figure out ‘What (as coaches and leaders) do we need to learn today?’. Echoing Ruben’s comments, this discussion highlighted the need to understand the role society and culture play in our lives, how they limit our development and the development of our players.

Guest Speakers:

  • David Priestley (Psychologist at Arsenal FC)
  • Pilar Ruize De Gauna (Sociologist at UPV)
  • Martin Littlewood (Psychologist at Everton FC; St John Moore University of Liverpool).

Leading the round table discussion: Javier García de Andoin

Q: What do we all need to learn today?

Pilar Ruize De Gauna (Sociologist at UVP):

  • We live in a society that is not focused on education, it is focused on competition; society is focused is on what we have, not what we are. This is a society that is de-humanising us. This may be the moment in history where there is the highest level of de-humanisation.
  • Throughout the conference it was recognized that ego-orientated societal values (such as status and power) shape most clubs, making it hard for them to display the humanistic values (evolution, growth learning, self-direction) that would shape good learning environments for their coaches and players.
  • We are pushing society not to think, not to learn (constraining creativity and stopping people from reaching their full potential). We need to recognise the interrelations between people, where is the person? Are we ourselves an educational agent?

My research would suggest that we are all educational agents; we transmit our values in what we say and do, whether this is conscious or not. Most people transmit the values instilled in them by their cultural upbringing. Growing up in the UK, I was surrounded by structures, behaviours and contexts based on status and ego (the same seemed true for the players I studied in Melbourne). Having these dominant values surround me, I grew to endorse them myself. Contexts founded and surrounded on these values promote controlling behaviours, controlling environments; decreasing motivation and creative expression. This also made my coaching very controlling in the beginning.

Pilar Ruize De Gauna continued:

  • Where is ethics in society? Not just aesthetics. At what cost do we want success? Would humanization not lead to success?
  • When I think about the results, what am I putting at risk?
  • How have we been educated? Where do we put our attention?
  • Is education enabling comprehension in all areas of life (i.e. is it holistic)? It is key to create an understanding of ourselves in the world. Learning technique is not learning the human aspects of life, these human aspects are what make us different from a robot.
  • What a coach can do is help people generate knowledge about themselves and know themselves. Sometimes we need to teach people about the dark corners of society. This is part of education and a catalyst for change.
  • So how are we understanding and creating these learning processes, this is speaking about processes where the learner is growing and contributing to the world, not just the game, or a match. Where the learner is contributing to society.

We must embrace the uncertainty in football to help our players embrace the complexity of life and the world around us, specifically the world’s complex problems.


Q: How do we reconcile that a culture based on results dominates over a more humanistic culture? How do organisations become more human?


David Priestly (Psychologist at Arsenal FC):

  • The tyranny of results in professional sports has dominated for too long and I’ve tried to detach myself from this.
  • My conclusion is that players and coaches in professional clubs wanted someone to help them and simply listen to them – that says a lot about the environment.
  • I think I’ve been lucky to be involved in organisations that care for people and that must come from the top. Those with the power dictate the culture. If they set a tone that is more human, that helps.
  • As a younger person I was very unaware of the ‘system’ and therefore just coming into a club wasn’t very effective.

Becoming aware of the system may be understood as appreciating the role society and culture play in our lives, especially how they limit human development.

Q: How do we help players transition into the professional game?

Martin Littlewood (Psychologist at Everton FC and Liverpool St John Moore University):

  • Simply raise self-awareness and make them aware of the environment they are in. Raise awareness of who they are in life.

Q: What are the conditions to make the transition into professional sport/football?

Martin Littlewood:

  • A culture that is open and transparent with individuals who are attempting to co-create knowledge and focus on developing individuals.

Q: What are the best practices and the key ways to work and improve in sport?

Pilar Ruize De Gauna:

  • We need people with mature human development (self aware and therefore not too ego orientated), people who can critique the moral consequences of what we are doing. A good education makes you question things and develop your judgment.
  • A person needs to have values that humanize them; people ask what are those values. Well not everything is valuable for learning and there are values that are de-humanizing us and turning us into objects, not subjects.

We recommend that education be built on 5 virtues:

  1. Integrity
  2. Solidarity
  3. Equity
  4. Sharing
  5. Love and happiness
  • A key idea in learning is to “To give and to receive – learning is a never-ending process”.
  • A key questions we must ask: What moves learning, what is the engine of learning? How do I create learning environments, as not all contexts are learning contexts?
  • Good coaches don’t give answers but inspire actions through questions and session design. “The action of tomorrow is yet to come” – emergent creativity

From a motivational perspective self-determination can move learning. Self-determination is enhanced by environments that help people experience feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Q: What are the best practices and the key ways to work and improve in sport?

David Priestly:

  • Sport is bubble-like and I like to pop that bubble, I invite storytellers to come in and share their stories. A humanistic space is messy and more dysfunctional and therefore creative.

Q: How do you work with coaches?

Martin Littlewood:

  • As an example I am working with a young coach who is aiming to change the way he’s engaging players within his development. He is trying to take a values-based approach to coaching.

Player Development Project Summary

My latest research suggests that a values-based approach is essential to the future of coaching, especially if we want to develop creative players, good people, responsible citizens and the next generation of leaders.

The first step is to understand the values that currently dominate the thoughts and minds of ourselves and our players. These are some of the socio-cultural constraints that limit learning and creative development. These values are often so deeply embedded in our organisational structures, our coaching approaches and our school systems that it is difficult to see them and locate their origin.

However, it is worth noting that both Ruben Jongkind and Pilar Ruize De Gauna eluded to a specific origin: highlighting the negative effects of the current economic system, with Ruben clearly highlighting issues with economic incentives in clubs and Pilar expressing a wider concern around an over-emphasis on competition at the expense of leaning and education:

“We live in a society that is not focused on education. It is focused on competition; society is focused is on what we have, not what we are. This is a society that is de-humanising us. This may be the moment in history where there is the highest level of de-humanisation.”

Coaching for creativity is not just what happens on the grass, it is constant self-reflection, challenging who you are and how society has shaped you, for good and not so good.

Coaching for creativity starts with understanding (and I believe working to change) the socio-cultural constraints (macro factors) in society that crush creativity in our players.

Coaching for creativity requires a combination of self-awareness and activism, a healthy disrespect for establishment thinking balanced with a humble appreciation of tradition.

“Sometimes we need to teach people about the dark corners of society. This is part of education and a catalyst for change.” (Pilar Ruize De Gauna)

It is the tension created between these opposing ideas that can create the conditions – disequilibrium – for our own creativity. Just as, on the pitch the player must balance the needs of the team and the team’s playing style (system of the team) with their own self-expression; this tension may be the birthplace of creativity.

Coaching for creativity may be based in this idea:

Good coaches don’t give answers but inspire actions through questions and session design. “The action of tomorrow is yet to come.” (Pilar Ruize De Gauna)

This all starts with the appreciation that some values promote conditions conducive to creative moments and others do not. The first step is to figure our what we value.

“What a coach can do is help people generate knowledge about themselves and know themselves.” (Pilar Ruize De Gauna)

For more on this journey of self-reflection, check out the Key Characteristics of the Worlds Best Coaches 2.0

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