Sport Systems – fragments of thought #9

innovation in player development – breaking the shackles of a mechanistic paradigm

Mark Upton
Aug 25, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8

I have been thinking about what meaningful innovation in player development environment and systems looks like. The obvious leap when talk of ‘innovation’ arises is toward the adoption of technology and data (perhaps interactive screens in class/meeting rooms, tablets, or online performance management platforms that clock training hours of young kids who like to play football). I’ve traversed that path on my own journey and found their utility is heavily modulated by the developmental paradigm they are used within.

I think the more exciting innovations in this space are going to come from those whose thinking deviates from the fundamental assumptions, beliefs and practices that make up the mechanistic paradigm of learning/education/development mentioned by Carol Black in the last fragment. In doing so they will create space for new possibilities and re-imagining developmental environments…perhaps informed by evidence but often having to forge ahead into the unknown.

“the absence of data does not preclude possibility. If you are talking about new outcomes and behaviors, then naturally there is no prior evidence. A truly rigorous thinker, therefore, considers not only what the data suggests but also what within the bounds of possibility could happen. And that requires the exercise of imagination – a very different process from analysis”

– Roger Martin & Tony Golsby-Smith

In fact there are such people already getting busy with innovating school and sport environments. These are inspirational figures who are embracing the messy nature of innovation and the inherent tensions when challenging the status quo.

  • Vista High School piloting a personalised-learning approach, moving away from a prescriptive curriculum that denies students choice in what/how they learn.
  • Fellow blog contributor Sporticus experimenting with a Game Sense approach for a term of cricket at his school, rejecting the ‘sport-as-techniques’ culture in PE (reductionist & not representative of the game)
  • Joey Peters embracing and adapting to the ‘emerging game’, placing much less focus on detailed plans, learning objectives and standardization.
  • Mark O Sullivan & Dennis Hörtin are involved with AIK Football Club in Stockholm and spoke to Stuart Armstrong about the clubs bold decision to raise the age before children formally become part of the club’s academy, going against the world-wide trend of the “race to the bottom”. After catching up with Mark recently he also explained how they are mixing ages and genders with positive signs. (Disrupting one of the most prevalent influences from the schooling system – that kids must be sorted and grouped by age, with the assumption they will all progress in a homogeneous manner within that grouping and justifying testing/grading to track actual v expected progress)
  • Debbie at Salisbury Rovers showing great courage in withdrawing the junior teams from standard league formats, instead creating alternative opportunities for young players to experience competitive football in an environment free of adult norms and obsessions around winning and judgement/comparison.
  • Michael Beale, formerly of the Liverpool academy, re-imagining what an academy environment could be with a heavy focus on creating a “community” feel. This is strongly opposed with the “elite training facility” approach where the walls, literally and metaphorically, create a highly “contained” and often sterile environment (again comparisons with schools – often one of the great disconnects is between a school and the local community it resides within).
  • A football academy that has cultivated and deliberately maintained a connection with its community is Athletic Club Bilbao – “There are no barriers. It’s all part of our philosophy. Every day a lot of people come here to see the boys. Go outside right now and you can see a child kicking a ball around with his father. It’s normal here. There is a warmth” – José María Amorrortu (Sporting Director)

There will be many further examples of creative sports leaders on a mission to remove the shackles of mechanistic player development approaches. Indeed part of the “LIFE in Sport” project we are co-creating with governing/funding bodies of sport is helping them to enable more of this. I might expand on that a little further in the next fragment…