Assessing the traditional coaching approach – the effect on player development & decision making

And were back! it has been a very busy last 8 weeks for me since my last blog post. 2 heavy filled masters assessments combined with continuing producing series 1 of The Sports Coaching Podcast has taken up all my time!

My latest assessment was a presentation for a module entitled ‘optimising learning and development’. As evident in the title the module is around exploring how to optimise the learning environment to best develop the players/athletes that you are working with. The task for the presentation was to highlight a ‘real world tactical or technical’ problem a player I have worked with was facing in the enviroment, and explore a ‘popular concept in this area to comprise an intervention solution’. I chose to explore the topic of ‘Donor Sports’

Now for obvious reasons I cannot explain my problem or the intervention solution, as this is still being marked, however, I do want to summarise some of the research around this area to provide a useful read for any coaches out their involved in youth development settings!

So Donor Sport, what are they?

A donor sport may be described as a additional sport that has common or similar ‘affordances’ with the players main sport. (Wormhoudt et al, 2017) In other words, an ‘affordance’ can be described as an opportunity for action (Stafford et al, 2018). If we take my sport football for example, in simple terms, football offers affordances to ‘dribble with the ball’ or ‘create space’. An affordances can literally be anything, but for the purpose of this blog I will group them as tactical, technical and movement affordances, to keep it simple.

So a donor sport, can promote general and specific skill development, through these similar affordances (or opportunities for action) offered between sports (Stafford et al, 2018). For example, if we wanted our athlete to develop the specific football skill of ‘passing a ball’, then we could put them in a donor sport such as futsal, because futsal offers similar opportunities for action for a player to ‘pass the ball’, thus allowing specific skill development to take place. In contrast, lets say we wanted to develop a general skill such as ‘turning ability’ so our football player can use this skill to ‘evade the defender’, then we could put them in a donor sport such as parkour, as parkour offers the opportunities for action to quickly twist and turn to negotiate different obstacles.

Affordance overlaps for general tactical and movement skills between the sport of parkour and invasion sports (Stafford et al, 2018)

The whole idea is that the donor sport can be used to ‘donate’ specific or general skill development, which can then be transferred to the athletes primary sport (Strafford et al, 2018).

So where does this come into today’s topic?
The Athletic Skills model

The Idea of Donor Sports emulated from a dutch ideology called ‘The Athletic Skills model’ (ASM), which ‘proposes a more nuanced to expertise attainment in youth development’ (Strafford et al, 2018, P2). The ASM infers that ‘young athletes players should become versatile and adaptive movers first, before they become expert athletes’ (P2). Furthermore “specific youth sport programmes should be designed to include experiences of various physical activities (including donor sports) to cultivate athletic skill development through exploratory practice & guided discovery” (P2).

This begins to question the tradition methods of coaching practice (which in fairness is beginning to move out of the football game now). Traditional coaching methods involve drill-based repetitive practice (i.e anything that doesn’t represent the game) for example getting to players to practice side-foot passing in sessions where coaches ‘prescribe’ often a single solution, as opposed to allowing the player to explore and create several solutions (in this example, side-foot passing, outside of the foot passing, back-heel passing etc.)

So what is the effect of this approach?

To understand this we need to consider a topic called ecological psychology, and this approach to decision-making. Ecological dynamics theory suggests that we perceive the world based on our ability to act within it (Philbeck & Witt, 2015). For example, a walker with a heavy backpack stood at the bottom of a mountain is more likely to perceive the mountain as ‘taller’, than a walker without a backpack, the theory here is that the walker has ‘less ability to act’ within that environment, and therefore this affects their perception of the environment (Profitt, 2006). On a side note, I did research into this topic for my undergraduate dissertation and would direct anyone who has interested in this to click on my ‘research interests page’.

Ecological psychology suggests that he constraints from the task, environment and individual (action capabilities) determine the affordances offered – Newells Constraints model (1986, taken from Balague et al, 2019, P3).

Our knowledge of our action capabilities (i.e what we can do in that environment) and the constraints that the task & environment present creates these affordances (opportunities for action) ultimately affects how we make decisions. For example, if an individual possesses the action capability to dribble with the ball, then they are likely to perceive the affordance to dribble past a defender, and thus make that decision!

*it is important to note here that the ecological dynamics approach to decision making is a different school of thought to that of ‘information processing’ (which was used in my previous blogs on tactical periodization & the Ajax philosophy around how we make decisions).

Lionel Messi has an high perceptual-motor repertoire, which explains why he perceives affordances (in this example, playing the ball through James Milner’s Legs)

We may call an individuals available action capabilities that they have in ‘ their locker’ their perceptual-motor repertoire. The way I usually explain this is the number of solutions within the athletes repertoire to the performance problem. For example, lets take the performance problem of ‘how do I score a goal’. A player with a high perceptual-motor repertoire might have several technical solutions in his locker, such as shooting with the laces, inside of the foot, outside of the foot, volley, chip etc, and be able to choose one of these technical solutions for this performance problem. A player with a low perceptual-motor repertoire might only have one or two technical solutions available, for example laces or inside of the foot.

One could suggest the 4 main phases & sub-phases of football are ‘macro phases’ that present the same performance problems (i.e there is always the performance problem of how do I attempt to score? in the attack phase

However, when we think about football, or invasion sports for that matter, it is a dynamic ever-changing game, organised chaos. A game model can simplify football into 4 main ‘macro like’ phases that are always the same, and present the same tactical performance problems. However, when we think about the ‘micro phases’ of the game such as 1 on 1 situations, these may present similar performance problems, but they are never exactly the same due to the dynamic nature of the game.

It is easy to provide performance solutions for these ‘macro-like phases’ i.e score a goal by getting into zone 17 to score (as per my playing model, see page), but ultimately, in micro-like phases, there will be a need for players to be creative for solutions! Side-foot long and short range passing might be an appropriate technical solution to ‘maintain possession’, however, in one on one situations that might not cut it!, our player might need to be creative, and for example create a technical solution, such as an outside of the foot pass for example, to solve a particular problem. And this is where today’s topic comes in!

If we are for example, getting players to work on a closed skill, such as side-foot passing, and prescribing them this solution (i.e you must pass with the side foot as opposed to pass how you want), then this reduces the players perceptual-motor repertoire, as they have no experience in being creative or adaptable

The problem with traditional coaching methods is that we are ‘prescribing solutions to players’, we are getting players to repeat closed skills (such as side foot passing for example) and perform that in a game. These traditional coaching approaches reduce ‘perceptual-motor adaptability (a balance between consistent behaviours [i.e side foot passing for several performance problems] and functional variability [creativity such as outside of the foot passing in these situations]) & Behavioural Variability (Seirfert et al, 2018, P2). In other words, we are removing ‘creativity’ from our players! as traditional approaches force players to reproduce single solutions in games learnt in training.

But why is this a problem?

To understand this we have to go back to the start. Ecological dynamics suggests that we perceive affordances (opportunities for action) based on knowledge of our action capabilities. If a player has a reduced repertoire, & lacks the ability to ‘create adaptive solutions’, then they will perceive less affordances (opportunities for action) as opposed to a player with an increased repertoire.

We don’t want to take away creativity in coaching, and the traditional approach of ‘prescribing solutions’ does this!

Evidently, the problem is that we are constraining our player with regards to development, we are limiting their technical and movement potential! But the point I really want to emphasise here is that it effects the players decision making. Remember, the players repertoire (i.e the action capabilities that they can produce) determines the affordances (opportunities for action) they perceive. To put it simply, if the player only has the technical solution to produce a standing tackle in his repertoire, and this isn’t a suitable solution for tackling the player for the ball (i.e it might require a slide tackle), then the player doesn’t perceive that affordances, reflecting his decision not to tackle the player with the ball.

If you have ever wondered why your player hasn’t made a decision in a game (not pressed the opposition, not taken a shot at goal, not dribbled with the ball etc.) its probably because they didn’t perceive the accordance to do so, based on their reduced perceptual-motor repertoire!

So how should we as coaches design and implement our practice?

I use the ‘Coaching Planning Practice & Reflective Framework (Muir et al, 2011) as a basis of what we should consider in our practice.

The CPPRF model (Muir et al, 2011)

In terms of our practice/learning structure (i.e what our session consists of) ideally we want this to represent the game in some shape or capacity. We want players to experience the tactical performance problems that they will experience in the game, because ultimately they need to learn how to develop solutions to these problems, and perform these in the game. Again this links with the tactical periodization approach (see blog 2), where training must represent the logical structure of the game. Any task constraints (rules) that we add in practice should not promote specific skill solutions (i.e side-foot passing). We want to guide the players towards creative adaptive solutions to each performance problem, remember creativity is king!

In terms of Coaching Behaviours (i.e how we as coaches act, what we do, what we say in training), we want to limit explicit feedback, correction & instruction! Sometimes the best coaching is not providing any feedback at all! We want to implicitly guide players towards creating solutions (i.e guiding them to perform side-foot, outside of the foot etc passing, not explicitly telling them to perform this), again, because we want to promote that creative adaptability, and increase a players repertoire.

Finally, as coaches, I would recommend that you look to implement ‘Donor Sports’ into practice schedule. Donor Sports can increase can increase the players perceptual-motor repertoire in the players main sport (Travassos et al, 2018). Players increase perceptual-motor coordination, exploration and adaptability through developing sports specific and general tactical, technical and movement solutions through experiencing specific and general tactical problems in the donor sports, due to the affordance overlaps between sports (Strafford et al, 2018).

To summarise!

I realise that I am making this point from this particular angle, and there are a whole lot of other reasons why the traditional approach to coaching isn’t as effective, however, I believe that it is important that, particular in youth development, we are developing athletes with an ‘all-rounded’ perceptual-motor repertoire with perceptual-motor adaptability and behavioural variability.

Remember, Creativity is King! we want to promote creativity and adaptability in sessions! Prescribing players with solutions limits their technical ability, which though an ecological dynamics lens, effects their tactical decision making!

If you have any questions or want to learn more about this topic, please feel free to contact me!


Balagué, N., Pol, R., Torrents, C., Ric, A. and Hristovski, R., 2019. On the relatedness and nestedness of constraints. Sports medicine-open5(1), pp.1-10.

Muir, B., Morgan, G.A.R.E.T.H., Abraham, A.N.D.Y. and Morley, D.A.V.I.D., 2011. Developmentally appropriate approaches to coaching children. Coaching children in sport, pp.17-37.

Philbeck, J.W. and Witt, J.K., 2015. Action-specific influences on perception and post perceptual processes: Present controversies and future directions. Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), p.1120.

Proffitt, D.R., 2006. Distance perception. Current Directions in psychological science, 15(3), pp.131-135.

Seifert, L., Papet, V., Strafford, B.W., Dogliani, A. and Davids, K., 2018. Skill transfer, expertise and talent development: An ecological dynamics perspective. Movement Sport Sciences, (4), pp.39-49.

Strafford, B.W., Van Der Steen, P., Davids, K. and Stone, J.A., 2018. Parkour as a donor sport for athletic development in youth team sports: insights through an ecological dynamics lens. Sports medicine-open, 4(1), p.21.

Travassos, B., Araújo, D. and Davids, K., 2018. Is futsal a donor sport for football?: exploiting complementarity for early diversification in talent development. Science and Medicine in Football, 2(1), pp.66-70.

Wormhoudt, R., Savelsbergh, G.J., Teunissen, J.W. and Davids, K., 2017. The athletic skills model: optimizing talent development through movement education. Routledge.

1 Comments on “Assessing the traditional coaching approach – the effect on player development & decision making”

  1. Pingback: Technical Coaching – Should coaches follow a technical framework/ guidelines when teaching sports-specific skills in skill acquisition? – Sam Holmshaw – Football Coach

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