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.