A young player will experience many challenges on their player development journey, many of which are outside of their control. PDP Editor & UEFA A licensed academy coach, Dave Wright highlights the importance of truly understanding the player as an individual, outlining the benefits of an approach that helps us understand how constraints shape players’ non-linear development.

As adults we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about systems, statistics, formations, results, tactics, outcomes and all the organisational factors that go on when working in a team, school or club. A child’s view of their own sporting experience is very different. It’s generally about fun, friends, competition, play, learning and a love of the game. That’s easy to forget if you’re an all-too-serious adult.

Al Smith, (Co-founder of myfastestmile) has referred to this narrative as ‘the machine metaphor’ in a previous Masterclass Discussion with Player Development Project. He explained how the human element is often being forgotten in youth sport due to our adult lens preferring hard data over accepting the human complexities of player development.

When it comes to coaching and player development, the player must sit at the centre of the environment. Every individual in your group must sit at the centre of the environment. A challenging task indeed, but it can be done. Whilst the idea of player centred coaching is not new, it is evolving and we are starting to understand that there is so much more complexity to the process than just the happenings on the training ground. This article reflects some of my personal learning experiences in coaching and the benefit of interviewing many coaches and researchers for Player Development Project.

Alongside my own experience, Player Development Project has developed a holistic model of how we see the process of development (see below).  Credit must go to contributors such as John Alder, Mark Upton, Lara Mossman, Ruben Jongkind, Mark O’Sullivan, Al Smith, Steve Lawrence, Nick Levett and our own team members, James Vaughan and Dan Wright as well as many of the interviewees we have spoken to over time.  For more detail on the model, I recommend James Vaughan’s article in Issue 16 of PDP magazine.

An ecological illustration of football player development by Player Development Project.

Why is a holistic view important?

Simply, because sport and youth development is about so much more than just what happens on the pitch. It’s about understanding the cultural influences around every player. For example, the national football culture can dictate style and expectation. England is very different to Brazil just as Spain is very different to Norway or Germany.

The educational landscape can also contribute to this. What influence does a child’s day-to-day schooling environment have on them? This is a place where they are constantly assessed, boxes are ticked and, traditionally, instructions given. Children may have to wear a uniform and conform to rules, so how does this affect their ability to self-organise, be creative or autonomous when they come to your session and you ask them to undertake a group task or work independently? See Sir Ken Robinson‘s work for more on this broad topic.

As a coach, a fundamental factor in ensuring a pathway for your players to maximise their potential and engage them in loving (and staying in) the game is to know and understand them. Not just as a player, but as a person. Every time your players participate in the environment you are charged with creating, there are numerous forces at play – environmental factors that will account for their mood, their perspective, their ability to take on information, their technical capability, their energy, their emotional state and more.

Some of these environmental influences are starting to be recognised as socio-cultural constraints. Socio-cultural constraints can be any kind of social or cultural influence that shapes the player’s view of the world or their perspective on any given day (such as the educational example above). Each socio-cultural constraint may emerge at both the macro and micro level, as illustrated in the image of the PDP model. Another way of looking at this is through the concept of ‘transdisciplinarity’ – a seriously big word and an idea relatively new to me, but one that immediately made sense once I got beyond the language. PDP’s Professor William Harper summarised it best in his recent review of the work of Rushiella Songca, (University of South Africa) for the PDP Research Review library:

“In academic-speak, transdisciplinarity is other than traditional disciplinary fields of study.  It in no way erases these disciplines.  But it is, as Songca says, “across the disciplines, between the disciplines, and beyond and outside the disciplines.”  It, as a way of seeing, traverses all the disciplines—there are several thousand academic disciplines and uncountable sub-disciplines—and it zigs and zags, crisscrosses, and moves laterally.  In its coherent randomness, it covers the distances between disciplines in its attempt to understand the larger world that typical disciplines have divided up into ever-smaller units of study.

The virtue of transdisciplinarity is its role of integrating what we do know by way of forging bridges between disciplines.  What is particularly special about such mutual learning is that it derives not from what we know, but from what we do not know. What we know, even collectively, is traditionally what we call knowledge.  But what we don’t know is what sets us on the road to understanding.”

I know the above explanation helped me in my own coaching view. I imagine it as a web that links everything within the environment together. Attempting to comprehend the complexity within my own environment and embracing the process as a mutual learning experience is a huge stepping stone in accepting that I don’t have all the answers. In understanding our players we can ensure we know how to facilitate learning for each individual in the group. It also means we can create a safe environment that encourages openness, challenge and diversity. Embracing this (at times messy) journey will also help you in relaxing and appreciating that your session doesn’t need to look like a textbook, cone driven, linear practice of perfection straight from the latest coaching manual of X’s & O’s.

Every time you are with your players, it’s important to take the opportunity to reflect on what you really know about them. What is their context? Some key questions you could set yourself over the period of the season that would help with this are:

  • Do I know my players’ dates of birth? Is relative age effect at play within the group?
  • What are their favourite school subjects, football teams and activities outside of football?
  • What are their parents’ names, background and jobs?
  • What is the player’s home or family life like?
  • Do they have brothers or sisters and how old are they?
  • Where do they live?
  • Does the player play other sports?
  • Does the player have any health conditions?
  • Is the player having a growth spurt? Many young players will suffer at times inexplicable dips in performance due to factors beyond their control because they are going through rapid rates of growth, or perhaps not growing at all (yet!)
  • What school does the player go to and what is the quality of that environment?
  • What success, adversity or challenges has the player had both on and off the pitch?

If we understand these factors, we can show empathy in our approach and get a broader view of the players’ context.

I have been privileged to work with young players who have had all kinds of environmental influences that effect their day-to-day lives and development on the pitch. These range from transport issues, to pushy parents, living on council estates, broken homes or conversely, coming from solid families, private schools and affluent areas. Neither is perfect and each of these come with potential challenges, but, regardless, these elements all shape the individual.


As an example, I worked with a young player diagnosed with an ongoing illness. He had to overcome a huge change in his life to just play on, let alone deal with being in a high pressure environment. He soon learned to self-manage his condition and took it in his stride, showing fantastic resilience along the way. During this process, he had some poor performances, suffered anxiety, required medical attention and had to adapt to his new condition in everyday life. This would be tough on anyone, let alone a child. I also learned over the course of 12 months that this player was the youngest of four children with 3 older brothers, one of whom is a national champion in his own sport.

As I learned more about this player I started to understand him and his context. The reasons for his attributes were slowly being revealed and from a coaching perspective it all began to make sense. I was understanding his ‘why’. His game understanding was excellent, his leadership was strong and his desire to defend was fierce. He was totally unafraid of a physical challenge, in fact he thrived on it. Not surprisingly, the player had also played rugby, was good at other sports and was active in his learning, always recording his post-match reflections after the game. By choice, he was also doing extra sessions away from training to improve his ball skills. This myriad of considerations said to me that I was working with a child who was resilient, engaged, a determined learner and is a player who loves to be challenged.

Because I got to know this players’ context, I was consistently able to talk to him about how he was going on and off the pitch, ensure sessions helped with his strengths and weaknesses, could push him when he needed it and support him when he was having a bad day. This is one example in a group of players, every single one of whom I have had to get to know on the same level in order to provide them all with the best opportunity to enjoy their football experience, grow and learn.

This perspective on these players and others I have worked with means that when we take to the training ground or the pitch on match day, I am understanding the influences that could potentially effect the performance on the day. More important than the outcomes, however, is the fact that I had an appreciation of the story of the person I was working with. This view meant he was one player in a group of individuals at the centre of all my session plans, all my pre-game preparation and their individual learning plans. That group of players are then all part of a dynamic, constantly evolving and often stormy system where their team mate’s worlds can then have a direct effect on their own.

Al Smith of myfastestmile discusses the machine metaphor & the impact of story telling.


Look Before You Judge

These socio-cultural or environmental influences also play an enormous role in talent identification and recruitment. How often do we hear stories of players overcoming adversity or going on trial at multiple clubs without success* before emerging late? How often have you heard the term “not at the level” or “not technically good enough” when talking about children? These are dangerous terms without a broader view. It’s easy to judge what you see on the pitch, but without context is it relevant? A quote from Mark O’Sullivan sums it up exceptionally well:

“This is a human activity with all of its baggage. It’s important we don’t forget this. The word, understanding is very important. When we talk about talent identification, we know what we’re looking for, but we don’t understand what we’re looking at” – Mark O’Sullivan

Jamie Vardy, Michail Antonio and Ademola Lookman are all examples of players who have emerged later in the professional game, but without a doubt there will be many more out there who have been missed or overlooked for higher honours or simply lost to sport forever due to a short-term view of player development and systems at all levels designed by adults for adults – which can be ruthless.

Along the way, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of our own coaching bias in this journey. Perhaps in your coaching environment you have a problematic parent, a child who never concentrates when you’re talking (consider that maybe they don’t need you in that moment) or regularly struggles technically?  If you look closely enough, many of these factors may be beyond their control and it’s up to you to guide and work with them within these constraints, not write the player off because of your frustration. After all, the player can’t be judged because of their parent, perhaps there are extenuating circumstances in their lack of concentration (or you’re talking for too long and disengaging them). And, just maybe, because they are merely 12-years-old they have not yet reached a level of technical competence because, quite simply, they are still a child.

If we are going to facilitate an environment for young children to fall in love with sport, have fun, continue to learn, grow and develop then this holistic approach is one we must take. As Ruben Jongkind said when discussing the future of player development in Bilbao in 2016:

“We need to understand both the macro factors and the micro factors. Society and economy are changing, and we need to be aware of all of this” – Ruben Jongkind

The players’ journey can be a rocky road, but if we take the right approach, children will want to stay involved in sport for as long as possible. And we all know that in a modern age full of screens, gaming consoles and social media that this has to be a good thing.

Through sport, children enjoy the opportunity to learn so many lessons that apply to life. Achievement, failure, team work, adaptability, winning, pride, overcoming adversity, purpose and more. If we create environments with the player at the heart of it that includes challenge, but is driven by understanding then we can help them navigate through the ups and downs, ensuring they develop as people and players. Adopting and accepting non-linear pedagogy means that the coach embraces the learning process from their own and the player’s perspective, resulting in an ability to work with the many forces at play.

Take a long-term view. Know your players, know their story, know their context and then put it into practice.

Photo Credits: Depositphotos.com

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