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“The more I’ve understood as a coach the more I go back to how I was coached at Arsenal,” she tells the Leaders Performance Institute. Ludlow’s 13-year stay in north London coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history. Between 2000 and 2013, she lifted 26 major trophies, made 356 appearances, and left as the club’s record goal scorer having found the net on 211 occasions.
A different era, but Ludlow, who immediately embarked on her coaching career, has increasingly used those times as a reference point in her work.
“I always say of my time at Arsenal that we were never coached.” she continues. “I’d say: ‘we don’t do shape, we don’t do structure, although we do drills that repeat every now and again. There’s principles in it, such as we can’t touch the ball more than twice etc.’ It was guided discovery coaching, as you’d term it now.”
Ludlow joins the Leaders Performance Institute on Zoom a few weeks after leaving her post at the Football Association of Wales. She served as Head Coach of the senior women’s team between 2014 and 2021 and also took the reins of the under-17 and under-19 teams. She is currently serving as a technical leadership consultant with Fifa and has found a slot in her diary to discuss approaches to coaching the next generation of player.
She says: “People say as coaches we’re not teachers but I disagree with that. I say we have a coaching skillset that brings out the best ability of an individual, and we have a way of working to do that, but we teach as well. Every time my national team players came in I’d teach them a game plan.”
We also broached the topic of coaching the next generation with Martin Diggle, Head Coach of Development at the academy of English Premier League Champions Liverpool, and Dr Scott Drawer, the Director of Sport at Millfield School in Somerset. We also checked in with Dave Slemen of Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport.
Changing the narrative of talent development
Diggle speaks of using technology as a learning tool. “Some players thrive on the ability to see themselves play, others not so much,” he says. “It needs to consider how the individual player is going to respond best whilst considering their stage in the development process.”
“However,” he continues, “I still believe that the basics are the most important. What I mean is players need to ‘learn by doing’ supported by coaches on the grass where they have access to good feedback. This is something we should never lose sight of.
“My view is that in order to learn to play the game, you need to play the game – a lot. That sounds simple, but maybe playing hasn’t been given the same attention as training or designing another new coaching practice. Most coaching has not been wrapped around the game – it’s wrapped around training. Most academic research across sport has also been conducted within training environments, isolated from the part the game plays within the development process.
“I believe that a huge amount of focus for coaches, and therefore players, has been taken away from the game, with marginal gains from performance environments filtering into youth development. When I hand experienced coaches a blank piece of paper to write down what they think are the most significant or contributing factors to developing young players, most people write ‘the game’. But there is potential misalignment between that recognition and the time individual coaches spend studying, making sense of, and thinking about how they design the optimum games programme for young players. I think we’ve got to change the narrative.
“As coaches we need to be open-minded, respect new ideas and see the value of looking outside of our sport for transferable learning but I think you’ve got to be careful. Whilst some concepts are transferable, we all need help in making sense of how we transfer concepts into everyday practice.
Diggle’s stance is grounded in science. “I took a lot of time going back to study and understand the science of child development from first principles,” says Dr Drawer, who previously worked at the Sky Performance Hub with the Tour de France-winning Team Sky, and has been at Millfield since 2018. “If anything, my big take home from that is, I don’t think young people are learning differently in any sense. It’s just the environment around us has changed tremendously and also our understanding of learning and development and what that looks like.”
Despite the growth of neuroscience in sport, and the knowledge that a person’s brain keeps developing well into their early 20s, Drawer is not convinced that such disciplines are dramatically changing the way we educate and develop young people in a practical yet. “The tech environment and our understanding about learning and development has changed, but I don’t think that changes the reality of what we are doing to support how people may learn just yet.”
“I think there is a danger that people are after the next new thing,” says Diggle, “and I think that we get a little bit confused about what ‘innovation’ means. In my opinion, seeking out and wanting to understand new things is really important, but you’ve also got to be skilled at distilling all of that information and making sense of the bits you should add within your context, the things that are genuinely going to add value because, typically, when you add something new, you take something away. The question I always ask is: ‘what you put in, is that of greater value than what you’re going to take away?’”
He says that too often coaches and teams can jump from one idea to the next unless they are operating from a base of strong principles in youth development. “I think you’ve got to be really skilled at making sense of the amount of stuff that’s at the fingertips of both the players and coaches and recognising what matters most.”
“If it’s not linked to the bigger picture it’s highly unlikely to be effective,” says Slemen of the coaching environments he has witnessed. “It’s OK to occasionally go explore new ideas in order to keep motivation high and keep people interested – you want people to better themselves – but it can be a risk.
“Time is a finite resource – if you could do everything you would,” he adds. “What do you prioritise? If you haven’t got the basics that make up 90% of your work you can forget the remaining 10%. Unfortunately, that’s not always interesting, doing those basics every day, but that’s the reality.
“The flipside of that is how do you keep people stimulated and motivated? It might be doing the basics, but it might be doing them in a way that people can still feel like they’re developing and learning. There is a balance to get there.”
Slemen also echoes Diggle’s views on innovation. “It is important to understand that innovation is not technology – innovation is more of a mindset in how you work. People put them together too often.”
Unwrapping the decisions that people make
Ludlow’s approach to guided discovery includes checking her players’ understanding each step of the way. “It’s my skillset and the bit I enjoy,” she says. “I could give the defensive unit a ‘defending wide areas’ clip and pose the question: ‘should we have forced them away?’ Then we’d get an answer from them such as ‘so-and-so fullback needs to force them back’; but then it’s a case of asking ‘what’s the reason for that?’ Then your next question. It’s the building blocks. Throughout camp, I’d be checking thought processes so that if we know the fullback is going to make that decision, what’s the centre-back doing because of that decision? What’s the forward doing? What’s the goalkeeper doing?
“It’s the constructivist approach in the sense that you’ve got a little bit of information but now you need to check where’s that come from. Why has that thought process appeared? Where has it come from? And is it built on the right things? The bits I’ve found that cause you a problem when you try and get results is when you haven’t checked it. The kid might have come up with the right answer. It’s a bit like coming up with multiple choice questions. My kid could guess and I have no idea if she understands the right thought process.” Then, by the time the match approaches, “I’d hand it over to them.”
She freely admits that her Wales teams were often technically inferior to the opponents they faced, which meant game plans had be executed to the smallest detail. “It’s about acknowledging the players you have in your environment and understanding you can get them to understand the majority of a game plan in a short space of time.”
For Ludlow, learning and confidence also went hand in hand. “It’s balancing all the things that come into it. it’s not only how they learn, it’s their confidence levels. How can we use the learning environment to build that because confidence levels with females is always an issue and how do we build confidence as a group as we get closer to the game?”
“The really skilled coaches,” says Diggle, “people who are really good at what they do, when each day brings its own set of circumstances, you’ve got to unwrap the decisions that they’re making and the
choices that they’re choosing to make and what sits behind it. That’s why I believe that the people are as important as the information itself.” Does this paragraph work? This was more to do with coach development.
Skilled coaches also know when to empower their athletes. “The concept of player empowerment has been used widely for the a number of years,” he adds. “What that actually means in practical terms alongside other coaching methods when working with a group of under-14s, under-16s, under-18s – that’s where the real art and sophistication of coaching comes in. Player empowerment can look very different, and can quickly become confused if people are not skilled enough to make sense of that.”
There is a balance to be struck, just as there is providing young athletes with support services. Diggle believes that less can be more when it comes to young athletes. “People always ask how can we develop leadership capabilities in young people, then we surround them with more staff than we’ve ever surrounded them with before – and all of those staff have the right intentions and want to help – but, if you’re not careful, it can be counter-intuitive.”
Then there is the “professionalisation of youth sport,” as Drawer terms it, which has seen expectations rise around child athletes, particularly from their families. “I think the future in this space is us trying to push that to the side and just remember why people engage in sport,” he says. “There’s a real bigger purpose around what people try to do that because they love it, they connect with their social and peer groups, they happen to have a bit of talent, and they keep getting better at it. We often put too much pressure on them at that age to be successful.”
That said, coaches are increasingly aware of their ethical and moral responsibilities. “The reality is that a lot of these young players won’t have careers in football, the evidence tells us that. So our responsibility is to ensure that we develop players on and off the pitch and develop skills that transfer to their wider lives,” says Diggle. “I think the most talented, experienced coaches have always understood this and maybe didn’t get the recognition they deserve.”
The importance of time
How can a coach developer be sure that coaches are developing the right skills? Diggle says: “The best people seek out feedback. I still think there is a lack of that across the coaching fraternity and it’s hypocritical because that’s what we expect of the players day in, day out.”
“The best leaders, athletes and coaches are always trying to get better,” says Slemen. “It should be a development and coaching environment. That doesn’t mean that you’re not laser-focused on winning in the moment when it matters and you’re facing the consequences of that, but people tend to separate them. An athlete or coach should be looking to develop every minute – until they need to focus on winning.”
“I don’t believe coaching is about a single event,” says Diggle. “I believe coaching is about a series of linked events. Learning is a story. It’s on and off the pitch. The better the coach, the more you, as the coach developer, have to immerse yourself in their world, to see the subtleties of how they work, in order to offer meaningful feedback. The very best coaches understand this, and therefore will not seek you out if they don’t think that you’re going to offer anything of meaning or are prepared to take the time to respect their work.
“Things take time,” he adds as we begin to wrap things up. “We shouldn’t underestimate some of the simple approaches that were adopted years ago and still are, in many ways, the most innovative approaches to learning and development for players and coaches.”
Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.