10 posts

Ministry of Football

Al Smith

Mar 10, 2016

In our latest hangout we caught up with Mark Carter, the Director of Ministry of Football. MoF is a youth football programme that takes an innovative approach focussed on providing young people with environments that support their holistic learning and development needs through the game.

Their methods are informed by Mark’s varied and extensive international experience as a coach and educator and we thoroughly enjoyed discussing both what makes MoF special and the theories and experiences that underpin their approach.

As an example of their thinking, they constrain the ability of coaches and parents to talk at the kids too much by playing music during games. We thought this would be a step too far for the hangout but Mark’s video dropped out early on to give us something of a related communication constraint although we’re sure you’ll enjoy hearing from him all the same.

Mark is always looking for ways to improve and develop what they do at MoF so we know he would welcome hearing from anyone interested in discussing or even getting involved in their work. You can check out the MoF website at and connect with Mark on twitter @MinistryOfFooty.


the less travelled path of the learner’s journey

Al Smith
Feb 5, 2016

I remember feeling deeply bewildered for a good fifteen minutes or more whilst the aisle filled with people shuffling, as politely as they could muster, for the exit. I glanced at Sue and we shared a silent pause but before either of us could summon a word the slow, careful, deliberative movements and dysarthric drone of Herod drew us calculatingly back to the stage.

“Ttthhhee mmmooooooonnn hhaaaaasss aaaa sssstttrraaaannnggee llloooooookkk ttooooonniiiigghhtt. Hhaaass sshheee nnooott aaa ssttrraaannggee llooookk?”

I’ve always felt strangely indebted to Steven Berkoff, and the wonderful cast and crew of his interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, for an experience that remains the first to surface in contemplative thought whenever I’m feeling deeply uncomfortable in a public place. The feeling has to reach deep down inside me to conjure the memory but each time it comes it continues to surprise, delight and inform with every retelling.

On this particular time around I’ve come to understand with deeper appreciation the sheer beauty of what was executed on that stage in Glasgow some twenty years ago and the reason why it’s etched in my mind. In creating a vehicle of palpable theatrical power Berkoff invited his audience to experience in visceral terms the story that lay at the heart of the play — that of the cleaving of the patriarchal bond under several of its archetypal guises: between father and daughter; King and subject; man and woman.

By lulling his audience, at least those who could bear it, into an uncomfortable alliance where time slowed and senses numbed, Berkoff was able to deliver a blow filled with the sheer force of nature that must come to bear on that strongest of ties that subserves and sustains the patriarch. The ferocious intensity with which the prophet, Jokanaan, entered the scene was wrought large by the laboured pace at which the audience had now come to view the world. His wild gestures of arm and tongue bore witness to both the strength and fragility of Herod’s hold on his daughter as she sought to position her guile in the role of kingmaker by pitting her pater against his heretical foe.

You see I’ve been thinking a lot about identity of late and I’ve come to realise that patriarchal power is getting in the way of progress in both my inner and outer worlds. Some eighteen months ago I reached a crisis in my professional career and exited stage left to walk into the long grass and take a deep breath of fresh air. Amongst the revelations that were to follow this momentous upheaval was a growing awareness of my own latent patriarchy. In accepting that I was no longer the household bread winner and recognising my dependence on the woman who fills my life with love and kindness I began to surface an uncomfortable truth about my manhood.

Ever since my working class childhood in the west of Scotland I’ve carried within me a manhood that’s measured in strength and stoicism — an independence and invulnerability that belies deeper needs and begets an unnerving ability to be alone in a crowd. This functional facade has seen me through all manner of challenges but in so doing has also built a void of meaning that I can no longer contain. The emancipation of my patriarchal urges has been a hugely liberating experience that has opened me up to new ways of being whilst leaving an inviting space for a new manhood to fill.

Through this journey of self discovery I’ve travelled into varied and fruitful terrain that has prompted a reimagining of the purpose behind my passion for sport. For many, sport is the ultimate domain of the patriarch, although in this sense like many others I’d argue that sport is simply a mirror of wider societal dynamics. Nonetheless, at a personal level I’ve come to realise that my patriarchal urges were fuelling a desire for status that drew me up the food chain of high performance sport but paradoxically drew me away from the necessary discomfort and vulnerability that are crucial to the learning that sits at the heart of any journey to excellence. I’ll return to this tension between elitism and excellence at another time, but what this current revelation has brought squarely into focus for me is a growing awareness that the biggest blocker to progress for many in the sporting domain is the latent patriarchy that sits within our sporting organisations and keeps us from getting vulnerable enough to go into that space where the learning is — from getting comfortable with staying there no matter how much we realise that its never going to get comfortable.

So what exactly is it that we need to get comfortably uncomfortable with? Discomfort in itself of course is not the answer, although a great many leaders of the ‘rocket up the arse’ mould would have you believe otherwise. For me all journeys to excellence are journeys of learning, and at its heart there’s a necessary tension on the edge of learning between the known and the unknown — between the certainty of where we’ve been and the uncertainty of where we’re going. The trouble is that uncertainty doesn’t sit well with the patriarch and in too many of our sporting organisations the patriarchal urge for control leads to the ever more elaborate means of providing an illusion of certainty that secures the status quo.

With subtle sweep of hand the patriarchal organisation paints itself as upholder of greatness and champion of progress, whilst all the while stifling learning and innovation by ensuring compliance with the hierarchy through a careful coercion and control that serves only to protect the powerful. The allure of the algorithm is its latest enchantment with the beguiling promise of a future bestowed if only you’ll comply with the predictive power of its pejorative prose. For a certain future is an enchantment indeed that we seem destined to seek despite our better knowing.

But what other way might there be? If not the comforting illusion of certainty then how might we better face an uncertain future. I wonder if this is of those special moments where sport can offer up a lesson to life. For the very best of sporting champions and sporting leaders have grasped the paradox of performance and purpose. Theirs is the less travelled path of the learner’s journey — in putting the process of perpetual improvement in the service of their purpose they enable performance to emerge by being vulnerable enough to embrace the uncertainty and let learning lead the way.

And for organisations seeking to break the patriarchal bond and travel the learning path I would offer the thoughts of an insightful sporting leader who signalled the seeds of change when he described his challenge thus: “we need to change the perception that athletes need to earn the right to be part of this programme to one where the programme needs to earn the right to be part of the athlete’s journey”. In this I see hope for a better future and a place where my own maturing manhood might emerge.

Whilst not wishing to hold a mirror to the theatrical majesty I bore witness to in Glasgow, in some small way I think we’ve been trying to do something of this ilk with relearn — the learning events we’re running for those who share our passion for learning in sport. Whilst its jarring to see someone disengage from the stage you’ve crafted for their pondering, I take some comfort from knowing that such experiences, if they can be borne, can hold long in the fire and surface when the need arises to bring meaning to the emerging stories of our lives. I’m sure my evening with Berkoff holds many more mysteries that it is yet to reveal and hope to remain both able and grateful to receive them whenever they are bestowed upon me.

be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!


In the final quarter of 2015 we set forth on a most excellent adventure. Our aim was to bring together a diverse group of practitioners to explore the future of learning in sport. At myfastestmile our primary passion is to understand how people learn so that we might support others in the curation of learning environments that help people be their best. We established relearn so that we can work towards co-creating that future by exploring an alternative approach to professional development that is rooted in our emerging principles.

With the benefit of that first experience behind us, along with the feedback of those who were brave enough to join us in that first step, we are now planning a series of relearn events for 2016 that will begin on January 27th with relearnSouth.

relearn SOUTH

Following the successful launch of relearn in October 2015 this will be the first in a series of relearn events in 2016…

One of our key reflections on the relearn launch event was that we made a lot of assumptions about how much people attending already knew about our principles and approach through previous social media interaction and we’ve wondered since about what impact that had on what people brought to and took away from the experience. We also underestimated the desire people would have to join the conversation and left too little time to fully explore the issues that were raised.

To improve on our offering this time we’ve extended the duration of the event from two and a half to four hours and decided to share more details here of our underlying principles and therefore approach to facilitating the learning experience of those who join us on the night. We hope that by doing so we will inspire you to bring your game to the challenge that relearn represents.


For Bill and Ted the task of completing a school history assignment did little to inspire them. It was only by circuitously following their passion, with some gentle guiding from Rufus the cosmic meddler, that they were able to embark on a journey to ‘excellent’ (queue air guitar riff) that involved travelling into uncharted territory and making unexpected discoveries that led them to new levels of insight and awareness of what had come before them. The story of these happy hapless travellers is allegorical of much of what is wrong with formal education in many of its current guises and also much of what might be done to improve matters given what we are now learning about effective learning.

We’ve spoken at length in blogs and hangouts about what we think is wrong with current approaches to the curation of learning in sport and we’ve gathered, through our collective experience, insight and networking, an emergent view of what we believe to be a more fruitful if messier and less travelled path. Along the way we’ve converged on a number of principles that shape our thinking and guide what we do. Whilst we draw on a wide range of sources from the sciences and the arts to inform our practice much of our approach is anchored to the combined tenets of self-determination theory, dynamical systems theory and, in its application to sport, constraints based learning theory.


For us, the expression of these theories is framed jointly by the notions that behaviour is goal directed and learning is dynamically situated. To be effective in helping people bring their game we believe therefore that a learning environment must meet three core needs:

  1. create space for engagement by tapping into personal curiosity
  2. provide an opportunity for aspirational exploration in problem setting
  3. enable people to connect their efforts and resources to problem solving

Our approach to relearn is based on these principles and therefore, like the adventures of Bill and Ted, it can appear somewhat messy and unstructured at first glance. It may even look like we don’t know what we’re doing, because at times we won’t, but we’ll definitely know why and we’ll have a pretty good grasp of how — the what is up to you. You see, at relearn we predominatly see ourselves in the role of Rufus (minus the time travel!) and therefore our aim is to faciltate for the people in the room an exploration of their collective interests and a gentle guide through the process of discovering new insight by sharing the story of their experiences whilst listening to and learning from the stories of others.

We frame this process as a transition from monologue to dialogue and always aim to follow it with a focussed attempt to explore solutions to the problems we’ve been collectively marinating in so that people have new ideas to take away and try. Or in the language of our principles we start by providing people with an opportunity to engage by sharing a story about why they’ve come; we then explore how we might collectively aspire to improve by aligning to the issues of common interest and clarifying the challenges we face; finally we shift attention to problem solving by shaping an opportunity to connect to the insight and expertise of others in the room.

Of course, we hope to add value to the conversation ourselves wherever possible by sharing our own experiences, insights and ideas but we actively seek to avoid falling into the traditional educational format of playing the sage on stage as it would feel not only like a betrayal of the very principles we hold to but more importantly would deny people the opportunity to give to and draw from the collective capabilities of the community of learners we hope that relearn will foster. We were delighted to draw an eclectic mix of attendees to the launch event with conversations striking up between grassroots coaches and skill acquisition researchers or PE teachers and performance directors. We see this as a great chance to look at the issues we all face from a variety of different perspectives that offer new insight and opportunity.

We also aspire to make learning as much fun as it was for Bill and Ted when Rufus stepped in so we invite you then to be excellent together and join us at relearnSouth for a rethink of learning…

relearn SOUTH

Following the successful launch of relearn in October 2015 this will be the first in a series of relearn events in 2016…


an Aussie, a Scotsman and a Kiwi walk into a hangout

Al Smith
Dec 11, 2015

One of the most enjoyable parts of the work we do involves the challenge of bringing theory into practice. We believe its hugely valuable to have strong theoretical underpinnings to our work but equally we’re extremely pragmatic about aligning only to theoretical frameworks that help us to make sense of what’s going on in our world.

The concept of embodied cognition from ecological psychology is one that we‘ve been repeatedly drawn to and …often times… got ourselves tangled up in. To our great fortune in such times of need we’ve been able to draw on the advice of those far better informed than us to help make sense of the theory so that we might better consider its translational value.

…enter Dr Andrew Wilson stage left…

In order to delve deeper into this world we recently caught up with Dr Andrew Wilson. Andrew is an ecological psychologist who researches, blogsand tweets about motor skill from an ecological perspective. What ensued was a rich and challenging conversation that we found to be hugely valuable in furthering our understanding of this important area of research. We hope it will prove to be of interest to a range of practitioners as well as any current or aspiring ecological psychologists who are eager to play their part in bridging the theory to practice gap.

We started by asking Andrew to compare and contrast the basic tenets of cognitive psychology versus ecological psychology through the lens of characterising expert behaviour in football:

Andrew then introduced us to the Biomotion Lab at Queens University, Canada in order to elaborate his theory by way of some visually striking point light displays of biological motion that you can view here.

We discussed the difficulties of translating research findings from domains far removed from the complexities of motor skill in sport, such as learning theories based on becoming expert at interpreting medical images.

We explored the potential value of an emerging theory of learning from ecological dynamics that describes the process of becoming expert as a team by developing shared affordances for action or in Andrew’s words helping players to ‘see the same game’.

Andrew then finished up by sharing some insights from the five years of graft that went into developing an ecological understanding of expert behaviour in throwing.

We covered a lot of ground in a fairly short space of time but found the discussion fascinating and hope you do too…


a time to lead, a time to follow

Al Smith
Oct 7, 2015

I spent the day today delivering a leadership development workshop and have come away feeling increasingly like there’s something missing in the conversation.

Whilst there’s no shortage of views on and approaches to developing leadership hardly anyone is talking about or offering development opportunities in followship. So much so that my spell checker has just told me that the word doesn’t even exist!

At myfastestmile we believe that anyone journeying to excellence must learn both how and when to lead and how and when to follow for its in this sense of fellowship that we can find a common purpose and truly co-create a future that helps us all to bring the best of ourselves.

It seems to us that it will be those who are brave enough to enter this liminal space as fellow learners who will best ready themselves for the challenges posed by the social age that we’re all moving into. That’s why we’ve decided to establish ‘relearn’.

We’re passionate about learning and development in sport and love to talk with other people who share our passion. Through ‘relearn’ we aim to curate a learning space where people can bring their ideas and experiences of coaching and its development to a community that shares a common desire to put learning at the heart of what they do.

We’d love for ‘relearn’ to generate a sense of fellowship for those who engage with it and hope you’ll join us in bringing it to life.

relearn | a rethink of learning

we believe its time to rethink learning and development in sport and we’re finding that this view is shared by more and…

born of frustration

Al Smith
Oct 6, 2015

“stop, stop talkin bout who’s to blame, when all that counts is how to change” Born of Frustration by James

England’s recent failure to progress beyond the “group of hell” at the Rugby World Cup has prompted the usual round of recriminations but perhaps more surprisingly a significant number of calls for restraint and balance in assessing the progress made by Stuart Lancaster’s England side and the future of a man who appears to be universally liked within the game.

It is doubtless of little solace to Lancaster and his side that judgement has fallen somewhat kindly on them in the immediate aftermath of their very public purging as their ambitions were bent on a very different ending. So quite where did it all go wrong? Did the players simply need to be better coached or are there deeper issues at play in the way that players are developed in the English game? If coaching and learning are indeed at the heart of the answer, then the problem is a complex one that won’t lend itself to the usual recipe of solutions.

Whilst Lancaster has been rightly commended for the seismic shifts he’s made to the culture in his England side the reality is that these changes are in large part disconnected from the rest of the game. It would not have done for the England coach to suggest that a home tournament be no more than a stepping stone on a longer, tougher and more fruitful journey to sustainable success but this is just the predicament that England Rugby now finds itself in and the decision about what to do next could not be a more important one.

Players are the product of the culture from whence they came and this current crop of England stars were bred in a wider sporting world that has dazzled with data but has been largely bereft of beauty. To turn that ship around requires equal doses of foresight and fortitude as well as a recognition that future solutions must be born of and fit for people operating at all levels of the game and must celebrate a diverse culture that includes thriving provincial rugby clubs as well as players who are thriving overseas.

The route to an answer for rugby, or for any other of England’s troubled sporting teams, does not however lie in the abandonment of the analytical advances that have given us new insight into the workings of the human body, the interaction of man and technology or the biases that bewilder our best judgement. Data in itself is not the issue but in its wielding there are problems a plenty. The illusion of certainty that comes with the worst abuses of data analytics can be a powerful force for authoritarian control and the protection of historical hierarchies by those compelling people to subordination and compliance with the allure of the algorithm. Its tempting even to suggest that this is a problem predicated on patriarchal power given that the growth of women’s team sport (exemplified most recently by the success of the England Hockey team) seems better adapted to the need to balance art and analytics, but that is perhaps an argument for another day. Whilst many cultural barriers to change remain deeply entrenched, it is becoming clear that even in the most ambitious of data driven performance domains common sense and human holism are returning to the fore.

In the wider context of sport development in the UK, the question that must be addressed is whether young players are layering the right kind of learning on to the storybook of experiences that they are led through as they journey the ranks of their sport. To meet this challenge, leaders must keep one eye on the present and one eye on the purpose for this is where learning meets its destiny. It is increasingly apparent that the long game here requires a different kind of thinking to the prevailing view as this is a challenge akin neither to pyramid building nor the provision of public transport despite a common need to see past the immediacy of what happens next and into an ambitious version of the future.

For too long the solutions to the human challenges of our times have been drawn from the toolbox of the mechanical makers who figured out how to execute a perfect plan with precision processes to deliver products rather than develop people. However, there is now a new kind of maker in town with both the attitude and the aptitude to meet the prevailing needs of the social age. The future of learning deserves to be co-created by passionate people who put holism and humanity at the heart of what they do.

Whether the decision makers who pass permission to those who seek to shape that future for sport recognise the need to turn and meet the prevailing tide or choose to bunker down and protect what looks distinctly like a crumbling edifice to the ways of the past will in large part write the history of the likes of Lancaster and his men. We can only hope that they’ll be remembered for the right reasons.

relearn | a rethink of learning

we believe its time to rethink learning and development in sport and we’re finding that this view is shared by more and…