Religion has sometimes been described as the antithesis of science but last weekend at a sports conference in Cork Institute of Technology, there was almost a religious fervour for the findings and possibilities that a new school of sports and coaching science has to offer.
Coaches, speakers, students, and pracademics from all over Europe, and even New Zealand and Australia were in town for the inaugural Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland conference, with high performance personnel from renowned institutions like Manchester United, England rugby, Olympic-winning GB hockey, swimming and golf intermingling with local soccer, GAA and basketball coaches, all curious for ways to upskill their coaching and further arm themselves to challenge the old orthodoxies.
There were a multitude of takeaways from such a simulating gathering but if there was an overriding one it was essentially this: Coach less through drills and orders, and coach more through games and questions.
One of the first speakers was Mark O’Sullivan, a coach education officer for the Swedish FA and a consultant to Canadian soccer but as he’d remind delegates when quoting Máirtín Ó Direáin, he was back among his people, being a native of Cork.
At AIK, the Stockholm club where he works routinely with youth players, they collaborate and link up quite a bit with FC Barcelona where the emphasis is likewise on developing players and decision-makers through games.
To illustrate his point he juxtapositioned two video clips. The first was of a 10-year-old kid robotically going around a series of cones, making stilted moves he’d rarely use in a game. The next was of a warm-up game, with every kid, all seven or under, dribbling a ball and simultaneously playing a game of tag, trying to strip a vest tucked into the back of their shorts.
There was no coach in the frame, no coach instructing or ordering them to what foot or side of the foot to use.
Instead they were just doing it organically: Left outside, right outside, left inside. (One kid, when shown the video back by O’Sullivan, remarked in pleasant surprise: “But I’m not [supposed to be] left-footed!”
And all the time they were looking up and engaged and having fun, not waiting in a queue, disengaged, having no decision to make or chance to be creative. As another speaker, Dr Nick Winkelman, the IRFU’s head of athletic performance and science, would put it: “Let the players show what they know before teaching them what you know. Let them teach you before you teach them.”
It was a recurring subtheme of the conference. Professor Keith Davids, one of the world’s foremost academics in the area of skill acquisition, noted how in skateboarding and surfing, the leading proponents have no coaches.
They learn from trial and error and from their peers.
All sports and athletes and coaches, he felt, could learn from that culture of exploration and peer observation.
Davids, mind, like leading fellow speaker and skills acquisition coach Ric Shuttleworth, did still see some merit in some drills being used sometimes. They view the learning and coaching process as a continuum, from highly-specific, drill-like activities to highly-varied, more game-like activities, and at certain times the player needs a bit of the former. The problem is a generation or two of coaches have been conditioned to use that end of the spectrum as their default when the research shows most of the good stuff is learned at the other end of the continuum.
His name didn’t come up at the weekend’s conference, just as Davids’ or Shuttleworth’s is hardly likely to surface on any discussion of the RTÉ soccer panel, but the conference was in effect validating Eamon Dunphy’s thesis about the merits of street football.
Back in the day there were no cones or drills, just a couple of coats for goalposts and away they played. They learned the game from playing the game, from trial and error and from observing each other, not from being drilled and ordered around like some unit of mini-cadets.
Although Dunphy’s utterings of this subject can sound like a rant and a lament for a bygone era that’ll never return, the CIT conference and its promotion of what they term constraint-led coaching was in essence a shout for the return of some of that era’s values and methods.
n interesting observation in Michael Calvin’s recent book and documentary No Hunger In Paradise was the splurge of players from south London being recruited by and playing for Premier League clubs. In that area of London there is a high density of ‘cages’, the soccer equivalent of urban America’s basketball playgrounds. From playing cage — street — football, the likes of Wilfried Zaha tend to have more tricks and be more creative than players who have come through more regimental, drill-oriented programmes.
As we’ve said, Dunphy wasn’t in attendance or in the conversation at last weekend’s conference, but another child of his beloved streets of 1950s Dublin made it down to Cork.
Mickey Whelan, coach to the 2011 All-Ireland winning Dublin footballers and now a coach to the county’s senior hurlers, was one of the delegates, at 79 years young, the living personification of the motto Michelangelo coined when he himself was 87 — Ancora Imparo. Always Learning.
Whelan has spoken in these pages before about the genius of an old schoolteacher of his called Mossy O’Connell who would take him and his classmates to the Phoenix Park and let them play. You could say technically he was the referee or even the coach, but more than anything he was just a guide. He might come up to Whelan during a game and quietly enquire: “Mickey, did you notice John there on your right that time?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Okay, so how might we notice him the next time?”
“Exactly! Look up. You have more time on the ball than you think.”
And that was it. A quiet, subtle intervention. No need to stop the rest of the game to give a mass demonstration or lecture. Just a couple of questions that made the player figure out the solution for himself and feeling more empowered and confident than he would from just obeying someone else’s instruction. Don’t tell. Instead just ask and nudge.
Back then they didn’t have the term guided discovery like Davids would regularly use, but that’s what O’Connell was practising. And that’s what Whelan would in turn practise, and in doing so transform a bunch of startled earwigs into probably the best decision-makers and clutch performers in Gaelic football history, and in the process create the environment for a Zaha-like skateboarding free spirit like Diarmuid Connolly to experiment and thrive for both club and county.
The irony is that this type of coaching — and the theme of last weekend’s conference — is called the constraints-led approach. As one of the conference’s leading organisers, Dr Ed Coughlan, noted in a question to some of the keynote speakers, the term seems almost a paradox, the word ‘constraint’ implying a form of restriction when the approach is encouraging creativity.
One of those speakers, Winkelman, would implicitly make the valid point that a constraints-led approach differed to a merely games-based one by throwing in a constraint or a condition into a game. By limiting one behaviour — say, no soloing in football — it was encouraging another behaviour, like heads-up passing — to emerge.
Whatever you call it, it is the way of the future.
Street players are on their way back, baby.