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27 July 2021

Blowing the whistle on traditional sports coaching

Professor of Motor Learning

27 July 2021 • Viewing time: 1 minute

Over-specialised training methods are driving young people away from sports. Our researcher has created a new gameplan.

Did you know that some aspiring footballers are selected, recruited and trained in youth academies before they’re even five years old?

Kick after kick, header after header, these young players are drilled and instructed in the highly specific skills and motions they need for the professional game. 

This painstaking focus comes at a high price. Mental and physical health problems are common in football academies, as are high dropout rates. You’ll find a similar story in other sport youth systems too.

So why are these coaching methods still in use — and what’s the alternative? 

The mind as machine — a brief history

A lot of education and coaching is based around the idea of ‘programming’ the brain to do something automatically — a bit like a machine. 

This can be traced back to the Second World War. During the arms race, scientists and engineers rushed to find people to use advanced weaponry, radar, submarines and code-breaking equipment like early computers.

Fast, reliable training was essential. Early computer designs drew inspiration from the workings and processes of the human mind. In turn, scientists studied the mind as though it were a computer. They created rigid programmes to automatise behaviour, based on intensive action, instruction, correction and repetition.

After the war, many of these scientists moved to university campuses. From there, they took their theories into mainstream education.

Does practice really make perfect?

You can see the influence of the WW2 scientists in the deliberate practice theory, which is an approach adopted by many coaches and sports organisations across the globe. It maintains that 10,000 hours of focused, intensive practice is needed to create an expert in a given field.

To get this expert-level experience, athletes are siloed into individual sports when they’re very young. They receive intensive training based on demonstrating, rehearsing and optimising certain motions or routines, with regular instruction and feedback from coaches. 

These highly structured, disciplined and prescriptive sessions can take their toll on younger players. Many of them drop out of their academies due to physical and psychological problems, and some stop playing sports altogether. Those that persevere can become over-reliant on coaches.

This method might have more credibility if it were a winning formula for creating professional sportspeople. But it isn’t. There are around 1.5 million youngsters in the youth football system at any given time. Only 180 of these will make it to top-flight level. That’s a 0.012% success rate.

In short, the system does a huge disservice to talented young players. Our coaching framework — which we call ecological dynamics — provides a much-needed alternative.

Young girl playing football
Our new coaching method puts children first

Humans and their environment

Children are natural movers — they love to run, climb, jump and interact with their environment. 

Ecological dynamics puts this centre stage, with a strong ‘children first, athletes second’ ethos. 

Working with ‘learning designers’ rather than coaches, young sportspeople are set challenges and problem-solving exercises that allow them to explore and gradually develop their own movement and abilities with different media and equipment.

The trainees are also involved in co-designing their learning agenda. This allows them to focus on the specific issues they might struggle with like pre-match nerves, or becoming more skilled in actions like jumping and landing, or catching, hitting, passing or throwing a ball.

In doing so, they develop skills for a wider range of sports and master a wider range of movements. This prepares them for the real world of competition — with all its tackles, opponents, quick decisions and unpredictability.

An international movement

My work in ecological dynamics is part of a wider research community that stretches from Sheffield across Europe, through to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Together, we’ve shaped the practice of national sporting institutes, government departments and professional sports organisations. These include the FA, the English Institute of Sport and the International Council for Coaching Excellence.

Ecological dynamics has been used to train Olympic athletes, to enhance talent development and to upskill coaches. English Rugby Union, Welsh Judo and GB Women’s Hockey coaches have all adopted our concepts, as have Australian Rules Football to USA Figure Skating.

The next stage is for our framework to enter mainstream education — trickling down from university campuses to school playing fields until coaching by instruction is far less prominent.

It may be some time before the full-time whistle blows for traditional coaching. But when it does, the winners won’t just be budding professional athletes, but all kids who love to explore their environment through running, jumping, climbing and moving.

A swimming coach watching his team swim
Ecological dynamics has been used by professional sports coaches all over the world

Staff

Keith Davids

Professor Keith Davids

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Joseph A Stone

Dr Joseph Stone

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Martyn Rothwell

Martyn Rothwell

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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