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Interview with Sports Scientist Mark Upton

Espanyolfootball : Many coaches think that the young player must learn the action   ( motor skill ) before introducing other things like perceptual demands . I feel  that this is one of the great conceits of coaching . I believe that we should never underestimate a child’s ability to learn complex movements and patterns quickly once they are provided with the correct environment  . What is your opinion ?

MARK UPTON : That is certainly what evidence-based theories would suggest, and I agree. From early ages we learn and couple perceptual information with motor skills (ie crawling/walking) and so it is a somewhat “natural” way that humans learn. This has to do with adapting to, and surviving in, our environment – thousands of years ago that helped us avoid being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger! Nowadays we can use this dynamic to our advantage –  by creating an environment in practice that “resembles the game” (contains similar perceptual information), we know children will adapt to that environment and function effectively. Yet this adaptation may take a while to occur, and can be impacted by many other factors, so we as coaches must be patient. 

A great benefit is that learning can be more “implicit” in this type of environment and hence result in a player that seems to play “naturally”, and whose performance may be more robust against the pressures and stresses of competition.

Another point to make is that human learning is highly task specific. So the task of passing the ball in a pre-planned way in a “drill” is a very different task from passing the ball in response to positioning/movement of teammates and defenders in a game. The less these tasks resemble each other in terms of perceptual information, the less likely there will be transfer from one to the other. So the notion young players MUST learn motor skills (“techniques”) in isolation first is somewhat flawed.

 Hopefully it is now clear why street/park games that children love to play are so valuable – children are engaged and adapting to an environment that “resembles the real game”. It should be no surprise that elite/expert players developmental histories contain large volumes of this activity – and why it is a concern that it seems to be declining in modern day society.


Espanyolfootball : In your experience do you feel that many coaches set up sessions for success rather than learning ?

MARK UPTON : That idea is from a quote by Mark Guadagnoli – a golf coach/skill acquisition expert. He stated in his book Practice to Learn, Play to Win – “people unwittingly set up practice for immediate success rather than setting up practice for long term learning”.No doubt that is ingrained in the coaching culture of many sports and continues strong today. It is hard to determine exactly when/where/how that culture started and has since evolved. It certainly reflects the absence of an understanding about the “science of learning” – whether that be learning to play football or human learning in any other domain. It also reflects the strength of “tradition” in coaching in that it has lasted all these years despite some challenges from evidence-based frameworks and methodologies. 

 I think it continues based on at least 3 things. One is the belief that “perfect practice makes perfect performance” (a belief that is also held by many players and severely limits them realising their potential). The other is to do with the sense of “reward” a coach feels when he/she sees things “working” in practice that can be directly linked to their doing (ie instructions/demonstrations). Another is socio-cultural pressures to conform to these traditional practice approaches, even though the coach may suspect there are more effective methods.

 The “setting up practice for immediate success” is related to the first question as well – isolated technical drills are more likely to see players improve and “succeed” in shorter periods of time (ie within 10 minutes of doing the drill). But as we have discussed, the compromises that have been made to achieve this “success” (removing perceptual information and “resemblance to the game”) restrict long-term learning and transfer to performing in a match environment.

 Having said all that, there is a place for “success” or “confidence” training – especially close to competition days. So coaches must be able to distinguish between activities intended for “learning” versus “confidence”. Long-term, quality learning activities are going to help the player develop the skills to play the game at a high level – leading to higher “self-efficacy” (how effective you believe you are in handling and performing specific tasks) and general confidence.



 Espanyolfootball : Technique / Tactical drills should only be  used  for correction . The game is used to teach . Discuss

MARK UPTON : That is highly dependent on a number of factors, primarily what you are trying to correct. Generally if there is an urge to “correct” a skill (on or off the ball) it is felt that more repetition of that skill is required – which a game perhaps cannot provide. Whilst this may be true, there are ways to “manipulate” a game or activity to 1) increase the repetition/frequency that a player is exposed to performing the skill, and 2) find the “challenge point” for that skill (not too hard, not too easy). This can be done using a constraints-led approach. 

 Unfortunately  in a team sport practice environment, it is often unrealistic to create/modify activities purely for an individual players needs. That is sometimes why coaches resort to isolated technique drills for correction, as they can be done with just the coach and that player – but may not necessarily be the most effective for learning.

 It is also a reason why using video for enhancing game intelligence – particularly off the ball – can be valuable. Video of matches/training is a way to “recreate” scenarios without requiring that player and others to be physically involved. Showing and pausing a video clip at a certain point and having players explain “what they would do next” if they were one of the players in the clip is a good approach. Obviously it has its limitations (you should be questioning how much transfer will occur based on what what Isaid earlier!) but my experiences with young players at the elite level of a team sport (aussie rules) shows it can be of benefit.

Espanyolfootball :  In a recent interview I did with Sports Psychologist Dan Abrahams he stated Coaching is environment and culture driven    . What is your opinion on this statement ?

MARK UPTON :  Reading those comments from your interview with Dan, I would agree. So far we have talked about “environment” from a practice/activity design point of view. But that is certainly only part of the “mix”. Whilst small sided games are inherently engaging and fun, those things and many other “soft skills” as Dan describes, are more about how the coach and other stakeholders (players, parents, administrators) behave and communicate. And this goes beyond just the training ground or match-day. So they are all inter-related and need to come together in somewhat of a “perfect storm” if optimal environments/cultures are to be provided for children and youth. This is what we should be striving for.

 Also, whilst we want to develop football skills to a high level, in child/youth programs there should always be a focus on developing life-skills and an overall positive experience. Such a small % of players go on to earn professional status that it is a “duty of care” to ensure all participants benefit in some way, shape or form. I understand that is easy to say yet much harder to achieve – so as Dan said, these “soft skills” need to be given as much, or higher, priority in coach education and development interventions as the technical, tactical & pedagogical content. 

 Clubs & governing bodies should also be selecting coaches whose beliefs and philosophies align with this approach. Sometimes a coach who may have less experience and appear less credentialed could be the better choice for child/youth teams if their philosophies and motivation for coaching align.


Espanyolfootball : There is continuous talk amoung coaches with regard to talent identification . I have a problem with the words  “ Talent Identification “ as I feel it implies short term , identifying the best talent now. Tendency to misread success, what we are identifying is often a temporary advantage.

I am proposing a Talent Observation model – long term , development orientated , less stressfull .

As Michel Bruyninckx said in a recent Footblogball interview

Player development is about learning NOT performing. It is a continuous follow up of the development of mental, physical, technical, cognitive and tactical skills.  

The talent Observation model takes into account the fact that  even though now the player fulfils many of the necessary criteria needed to suggest great potential  it is not a guarantee  of fulfilled potential in the future. Many other complex factors come in to play over time ie social influences , maturation . Do you agree with this model suggestion ?

Mark Upton :This is an incredibly complex topic – whole books have been written on it! So I won’t dive into it too much. I certainly agree that observations and assessments of “talent” at a single or narrow point in time are flawed. I like the idea of longitudinal monitoring to account for all those factors you mentioned. Developmental “trajectory” or “slope” (achieved by plotting some measure of performance at one point in time and then again at a later point in time, say 12 months on) could be an indicator – an upward trajectory/slope in performance could tell us that the player, for whatever reason/combination of factors, has the ability to learn and improve. This is certainly one element of talent. 

 In terms of Talent ID the reality is we aren’t very good at it and likely won’t be in the near future. This becomes a big problem when youth players, who are determined to realise their potential, leave the game or are denied opportunities due to being excluded from so called “talent programs”. Who knows if they could have gone on to become elite players? RAE is the most obvious evidence we have for this.

Our brains grey matter that has been growing through our childhood shrinks dramatically in our teen years while at the same time white matter . made up of axon fiber connections between brain cells  increases. This white colour comes from myelin  and is a key factor in regulating the speed in neural circuits so that they combine at the right time. football  is a flexible circuit activity where the player must understand and solve many problems and apply the right skill to these challenges .

Espanyolfootball : If 6-12 years is referred to as the “golden age “ for player development then could we not describe , with all that is happening in the brain , the teenage years as the” Golden Age ” of  brain game development ?  This  “ golden age of brain development “ I feel should be looked at as a time of great learning opportunities  for the young player  to develop and refine the technical , tactical , cognitive and physical at the same time.  What do you think ? 

MARK UPTON : There are elements of my answer to the first question tied up in this one. Certainly we should be striving for integration, rather than reductionism, in player development from early ages all the way through to the end of a players career. We know the brain remains “plastic” throughout a persons life so I don’t think we should ever underestimate the capacity for players and people in general to develop/learn throughout their life. I also appreciate that child/youth stages provide a great opportunity to “get it right first time” in terms of creating a holistic development environment, and can help avoid having to change or correct deficiencies later on.

 I also think the youth stage of development needs to prioritise opportunities for players to develop resilience/grit. This will be particularly important for those going on to professional careers, based on the notion “talent needs trauma”.  A “smooth ride to the top” may in fact see a “rapid descent to the bottom” shortly afterwards as players may not have learnt to deal with the adversity and challenges that inevitably will arise. Just like the decrease in street/park games, the evolution of some societies/cultures could be having a detrimental impact on development due to the desire to excessively protect and pander to youth. This can also be a result of players being labelled “talented” and developing a mindset of ego/entitlement rather than growth.