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A couple of articles ago I wrote a piece on structuring a training environment to maximise the development of talent (which you can read here), well today I witnessed a talent development environment which on the face of it had no structure at all, but was clearly churning out incredibly skilled athletes.


Structurally unstructured

I was walking past the National Theatre alongside the River Thames in London and those of you who know this famous landmark will know that it is a rather stark, cubist construction, revered as much as it is reviled. One of the by products of it's brutalist architecture and design is that it has many open areas surrounding it and under it which make for excellent skating. One such area known as the “undercroft” has been a haven for skaters in the heart of the city for many years and has recently been protected from being developed upon after an intervention by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

I stopped and watched a group of 6 or 7 skaters and one lad on a BMX, riding along rails, hopping over obstacles and performing some frankly incredible acts of skill that defied gravity. It brought to mind a question I had been asked by a friend and fellow coach not a week before - “so who teaches kids to skate?”

Something struck me – for these kids this is the ultimate talent development environment.

They have the perfect balance between peer support and peer challenge. I'm afraid I don't know the skating jargon, so apologies for not naming tricks correctly, but I witnessed one skater who can't have been more than 14 perform a trick of such daring bravery it made me shudder. He built up some speed, hopped up to clear a wall that came up to his shoulders and span 360 degrees in the air without the board even leaving his feet, only to land the other side and glide seamlessly away.

As I gave him an impressed thumbs up another skater rolled past and said “I can do that” and so he did - adding his own little flourish to the finish. Thus began a fascinating game of “one-upmanship” between the two skaters. On each run they attempted to add a new element to the trick. Before long others had joined in, each bringing something new to the party and calling out new challenges for each other. Most impressively there was no sense of animosity between any of them, the feeling was of total support for one another even when one bettered the previous trick. When one skater failed the others encouraged him to go again, they challenged each other to be more ambitious and to push the boundaries.

They did fail – regularly and in one case spectacularly (fortunately whilst I was watching nobody got more than a graze), but it didn't matter to them. Failure was seen as another opportunity to try again, to find a different solution, to experiment.

They also have the perfect level of environmental challenge to allow those problem solving skills to flourish. The environmental constraints lead them to find new technical solutions and more creative ways of interacting with their boards or bikes and with the obstacles around them, much in the same way that practitioners of Parkour or Free-running find new ways to interact with their environments.

There's no coach, no teacher, no structured supervision or being told what to do and how to do it - just a supportive group finding ways to solve problems by building new skills.

The other big thing that struck me was the sheer level of enjoyment on show; no pressure, no tension, just skating for the sheer unadulterated joy of it. It was fascinating to watch – an environment of seemingly unstructured practice, that actually had brilliant development structure running through it.

It got me thinking about what other learning environments have this same sense of structured-unstructured practice and how we could make better use of it to develop skills.


Futsal and Street Football

Brazil has a long tradition of football excellence, continually producing extremely skilled footballers generation after generation and nearly all of them developed their skills on the streets. In Brazil football is played everywhere from the back streets of the Favaelas to the beach and it is played with everything from a ball to a tin can – it is the epitome of “jumpers for goal posts”.

Brazilian kids play small sided games in small spaces, there is no room for 40 yard passes or lumping the ball up field and hoping for the best. Skill is king, keeping possession, dribbling, moving the ball to a teammate and finding space and above all making decisions.

Steve Payne of The Telegraph recalls being at a youth tournament in Brazil:

“We walked two miles past stray dogs, goats, chickens and cats for a communal breakfast. Back at the school, they changed and then, carrying water and balls, walked another mile to play. Those youngsters, and the hundreds of others taking part in the event, might have been living in dirty rooms, but the smiles on their faces when they took to the field were as wide as a palace.

They played every game with unbridled joy, knocking the ball around, dribbling, taking pride in the way they showed off their repertoire. Win or lose, they walked back to the school, took turns in the cold showers, bedded down in the sauna-like conditions and then got up and started all over again the next day.”

Barry Ferguson, formerly of Rangers and Scotland :

“I wasn’t allowed to play with a ball inside because my dad used to threaten to toe me up the a*** if I smashed anything, so I’d take a pair of his old socks, roll them up into a ball and cover them in masking tape. Then I’d try to do overhead kicks with it on the couch.

I’d be out there with my mates building goalposts out of scrap wood. We would borrow a lawnmower from someone’s dad and cut the grass ourselves. Then we’d nick a bag of sawdust from somewhere and put down lines. It was just a field we were playing in but, for us, it felt like we were running out at Hampden.

Now I look at these 10-11-12-year-olds who are already signed up with clubs playing pro youth football and I wonder what they would have made of us.”


So What?

There is a school of thought that says learning technical skills requires technical instruction, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that harnessing the power of structured-unstructured practice could unlock rapid skill acquisition.

As coaches I think we have to ask ourselves if we are over coaching our young athletes – are we creating excellent u11's with little regards to how they will develop as they mature? Do we create environments whereby technical skills and decision making are learned in the right context – how close is the training environment to the competition environment?

If we can can bring the element of 'play' back into sport how many more kids could we inspire to start the sport, stay in the sport and above all excel in the sport?

As Barry Ferguson says:

“These days it’s as if the coach is trying to be the star, setting up drills that are so OTT and so complicated that half the time the kids don’t know what’s going on. I’m now watching passing drills where the youngsters are standing freezing cold in long lines getting one touch every minute. That drives me crazy.

By the time the kid gets his turn he’s either standing there, shivering with his sleeves over his hand, talking to one of his mates about how bored he is or daydreaming about what’s for dinner that night. You can see them losing interest in front of your face.”

Let's move away from those environments and embrace systems that allow kids to develop skills whilst playing the game, with challenge and support from their peers, parents and coaches to find solutions to problems and above all to encourage their creativity in finding those solutions.

If we can do that, maybe we can bring the huge psycho-social benefits of sports to a much wider audience.

If you've experienced this type of development/learning environment, let us know in the comments below.