posted 28 Apr 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 8
Thinking inside the box
Some of the world's greatest sporting heroes are British footballers. David Beckham, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand are some of the most talked about sportsmen, frequently adorning the front covers of magazines and receiving the industry’s highest accolades across the globe. Craig Simmons and Stuart Smith describe how the Football Association in the UK is using knowledge-management techniques to spot and develop elite players from an early age using methods such as the Four Corners Model.
If you are one of the millions of supporters that will sit down to watch this summer’s European Football Championships, consider for a moment the following questions:
- How does a young player, aged six or seven, progress from the local park to the major arenas of world soccer and onto your TV screen?
- To nurture these talents, how can coaches and their teams of backroom staff pass on their expertise and knowledge to these players?
- How do coaches and players make sense of the volumes of information made available to them?
In many ways these are classic knowledge-management problems and this article aims to highlight how the Football Association (the FA) has been using knowledge-management concepts in one aspect of its work – supporting the professional clubs’ development and coaching of England’s next generation of young elite players.
This article discusses many issues that KM practitioners will be familiar with in their own organisations and highlights lessons from this sporting domain that could be of use in the corporate world. The article also poses some key questions for knowledge-management practitioners in general.
The Football Association
The FA is the sport’s National Governing Body (NGB) and is responsible for all affiliated football in England. The FA’s website, www.thefa.com, is the best way to find information on the association, appreciate its role and see in detail the vast scope of its activities. These range from grassroots participation for a primary-school-aged player to the senior England team, and from a local community ground-improvement grant to re-building Wembley Stadium.
Role and history of the Football Division
The FA’s Football Division is responsible for the structure and development of community football; all England international teams; coach education; sports medicine/science courses; and professional clubs’ support programme. This case study focuses on the knowledge-management practices in this division.
The player-development framework
As indicated in the introduction, the development of young professional players is far more systematic than the average soccer fan might imagine. The romantic image of a young boy being talent spotted while playing football in his local park and selected for his home-town team the following week is some way from the truth of modern professional football. In fact, to play at the highest level for club or country not only requires natural talent but also a dedication, discipline and work ethic that very few people possess. In addition, the coaching players receive throughout their formative years is highly important.
The FA supports the professional clubs’ development of the country’s best young footballers and aims to meet the highest possible standards. By building on the best traditions of the English game and learning from techniques employed abroad, the association has proposed a framework that can support clubs up and down the country.
After considerable research, it became obvious that the FA had to address the following issues if it was to maximise the potential of England’s young players:
- Elite young players required a development process to protect and nurture their special talents;
Technical development could not be viewed in isolation to the player’s overall educational, psychological, physical and social welfare;
- Effective school/home/club links needed to be established;
- The Premier League and Nationwide League football clubs needed to have more access to the very best players;
- Young and gifted players were being over exposed to competitive football with too little practice time;
- Enhanced facilities, coaching and medical provision were required;
- Competitive matches needed to be seen as part of an integrated player-development programme;
- Better qualified coaches were required to work with elite young players;
- Compulsory in-service training needed to be a requirement for a club’s staff;
- The registration of gifted young players carried a responsibility for the clubs to provide expert tuition, medical provision and educational support.
These key issues formed the basis of the recommendations agreed by the Football Association in November 1997 involving the creation of licensed Football Academies and the enhancement of centres of excellence.
Many of the knowledge and development issues listed above are analogous with situations we find in many organisations. Similarly, an understanding and appreciation of KM tools and techniques has helped The FA begin tackling these issues, as is the case in other organisations.
Children are currently scouted by professional clubs at a young age and are then developed through the academy or centres of excellence. These structures vary from club to club. However, each of the 36 academies has squads at every age group from under nines through to under 19s, with the 56 centres of excellence recruiting from 11 to 16 years of age. In addition, many clubs run local development centres and Community Coaching Schemes. These act as a link between club and community, and are a cost-effective local scouting network for the clubs.
In professional football, the drop-out rate for young players is high with only a small percentage ever making it to the top of the game. A recent study reviewed the progression of a 17-year-old school leaver joining a professional club into a 20-year-old contracted professional. The study demonstrated that 20 per cent of players recruited at 17 were still contracted beyond their teens.
The growth in the use of sports science, psychology and technology has had a major impact on the football world. As with other industries, the information available to managers, coaches and players has grown exponentially. A casual glance at any newspaper will reveal innumerable statistical measures by which players are judged beyond the usual goals scored, etc. Top clubs use computerised systems to track their players’ performances during the game and players can get their own statistics – such as distance covered, pass completion and interceptions – as soon as they leave the pitch.
However, traditional approaches to player development still dominate, and much of the coaching literature talks of coaching philosophy and ‘craft’ knowledge. To express this in familiar KM terminology, this craft knowledge could equate to tacit knowledge, with the accompanying statistics and papers being the explicit knowledge. Many professional coaches and players simply do not have the time or inclination to study the volumes of scientific data emanating around the profession. Knowledge-management practitioners in all organisations will be familiar with this sentiment.
The culture of professional football can be quite closed. As such, this tightly interconnected social network offers both strengths and weaknesses for knowledge management. Tightly constructed networks are often difficult to innovate in, which may explain why innovation in the English game is perceived to occur slowly. Conversely, the dense social network means that knowledge flows quickly around it. The game is alive with rumours, story and opinion; once an idea takes hold it spreads quickly and the game is as prone to fads and fashions as with any other industry sector. To make sense of this, we have begun to investigate the language and tools of knowledge management, complexity and social networks.
In some ways the closed culture gives the professional game strength. The experience of club scouts, coaches and managers is invaluable for spotting the talented boy in the local park. They see the potential where the layman would just see a child chasing a ball. Coaches and ex-players also have the tacit experience of what it takes to be a professional player.
The flip side is that the closed culture and patterning potentially lead to the slow adoption of new ideas and possibly an inability to spot talented players that do not fit previous patterns. In addition, the tacit knowledge, which may have served the ex-professional well, may no longer be valid if the context of the game has changed. One example here is how the game and its players have become more athletic.
To overcome some of these barriers and disseminate its work, information and knowledge back into the wider football community, the Football Association uses a number of knowledge-sharing strategies. These include:
- Knowledge-dissemination models;
- Extensive training (including online learning), seminars and conferences;
- Knowledge agents;
- A technical journal - Insight magazine
These areas are discussed in greater depth in the following sections.
The Four Corners Model and toolset
The FA has developed a number of structured approaches to conceptualising and disseminating knowledge and information to make sense of its research and experience.
One example of this is The Four Corners Long-Term Player Development Model. This model (see figure 1) consists of technical, psychological, physical and social components. Each corner of the model reflects a wide aspect of a player’s development that has to be considered. Although the priorities will vary during the player’s different ages and phases of maturity, the model provides a basic framework for coaches to work within. In addition to the four main components, there are a number of additional ‘contributions’ from a wide number of people, such as parents, teachers, schools and local clubs.
The model is deliberately interlinked, which means that activity in any one corner will produce a reaction throughout all aspects of the model. For example, a practice technique may impact physical balance and co-ordination while producing increased confidence and enhanced social standing within the group. Quantifying these interlinked reactions is difficult, but the key message to communicate to coaches is not to consider any of the programme’s aspects in isolation. We will return to this inherent complexity later, but it is interesting to note that this acknowledgment that player development and knowledge acquisition are complex processes is often missing from employee-development programmes that we see in some large organisations.
The Football Association has developed a version of the model in which the corners are populated with information, data, summaries of the latest research, and current thinking in coaching and sports science. The model also provides practical examples and case studies wherever possible to illustrate points and help coaches who wish to use it. By clicking on any of the corners, coaches can drill down and find the information they require.
When working with or designing development programmes for young players, experienced managers or coaches can call on supporting information from all of the disciplines within the model. A profile of the player is created based on this information and a plan for long-term development can be drawn up. This profile produces the ‘whole child’ concept, which describes holistic development and is recommended for the beneficial impact it has on a child who happens to play football.
Variation in technical and physical ability among young players between the ages of 8 and 21 is vast. When you add in other socio-cultural factors the complexity becomes overwhelming. The Four Corners Model provides a distillation of the research carried out by The FA and a sense-making method for coaches to navigate the complexity.
Managing change while making sense out of these complex situations is a vital requirement for player development. All contributors have to recognise and provide for the ever-changing needs of individual players. This is very difficult and may be one possible reason for the high player drop-out rate.
To help coaches make choices when designing development plans for players, The FA uses the following set of heuristics or rules of thumb. Coaches can consider these when prescribing any particular activity for a player’s development. The coach needs to understand:
- Why a specific component, such as training, is being prescribed – For example, a player needs to work on his weak foot because...;
- What is required to achieve the desired outcome – For example, what technical drills can we give a player to meet this?
- How to apply it – How are the drills actually carried out?
- When is it appropriate – When is the best time to do this?
The coach also needs to be aware of the impact that this action will have on other features at this particular phase of development, for example will the lack of control on a weaker foot affect the player’s confidence? Heuristics like this are relatively easy to communicate within the coaches’ formal education. When used in conjunction with The Four Corners Model it encourages the coach to recognise that interaction of all the developmental factors is unavoidable and that no aspect can contribute in isolation.
When written down, the heuristics look very straightforward, almost commonsense. However, it is this skilful communication of flexible commonsense that organisations often find difficult, especially if they become overly prescriptive through rules and methodologies.
With all of these complex factors in mind, structuring the player-development pathway has to be flexible and constantly reviewed for changing demands. Figure 2 provides another visual mechanism for communicating the development pathway.
The size and shape of the circles in the diagram represent the four corners as different points in time. These are a reminder that the changing needs of the individual player, which can vary enormously, are based on a continuum, but have recognised windows for specific and appropriate activities. Establishing and prescribing the point of maximum developmental effectiveness for every player in each corner is an almost impossible task given the complexity involved. However, the model provides a sense-making framework and a set of heuristics to guide coaches and help them make appropriate decisions.
Before the academies were introduced in 1998, the structure of elite football at a young level was different in the UK. Clubs introduced centres of excellence in 1984, supported by The FA that established a National School at the Lilleshall National Sports Centre. Each year, the 16 ‘best’ 14-year-old players were selected to attend the school on a full-time, two-year basis. The school was discontinued in 1999 with many big clubs setting up their own academies.
The school had employed some of the staff and current FA national coaches. In addition most of the national coaches are experienced professionals with vast knowledge of the professional game. To support The FA’s coaching programme, members of the Football Division act as internal consultants or knowledge agents to the wider aspect of English football.
National coaches and development advisors contribute to The FA’s teaching programme (for professional and amateur coaches) and visit professional clubs to carry out seminars, in-house training and coaching clinics, and to generally network. The clubs often collaborate with The FA on particular issues regarding player development. A current example is how both clubs and the FA are looking at the appropriate development programmes for children at primary-school age. In this example, the Premier League is holding a seminar, which will include FA development staff, where the latest thinking on the issue will be aired and discussed.
The importance of the knowledge-agent role at The FA cannot be underestimated. They fulfil important roles, such as:
- Two-way communication – As detailed above, the culture of English professional football is quite closed. Therefore, those with the network credibility, and the technical ability to reconfigure new information in a way that the network understands, are best placed to disseminate and advocate new approaches and ideas. The most telling example of this is the relationship between The FA and the 92 professional clubs that disseminate some of the highly technical sports science between them and create practical outcomes from the research. The club advisors and coaches are also well positioned to inform The FA of current thinking and practice that is occurring in the clubs and academies;
- Connectors – The coaches and advisors act as connectors within the structure of the game. For example, they are able to link coaches together who have similar problems. It is interesting that football clubs often co-operate off the field despite being rivals in a league;
- Passing on lessons learnt – Coaches and advisors are able to make use of narrative techniques to pass on lessons informally (as well as formally through presentations and journals) and to assimilate lessons from the club practitioners who operate at the coalface. This informal transfer of tacit knowledge is critical. There are few players and coaches who will read large volumes of sports-science research. Likewise, nearly all of a young player’s development comes through verbal and practical interaction with coaches and other players. The knowledge agent’s role is therefore vital for verbally communicating messages among academy coaches and junior players.
Professional soccer is an industry that still operates a traditional apprenticeship system in terms of training its main employees (players). The rates of development differ for each player, but on average most elite players will have been contracted to, or at least coached at, a professional club by the age of 14, if not before.
Most will begin to break into the first team at around 20-21 years of age and will not reach their peak until their mid-to-late 20s. This is a process of continuous development and learning stretching across six to seven years, and possibly longer. Compare this with most other occupations that a young person might enter today and we see that few people ever undertake this level of training and development.
A young player’s apprenticeship takes numerous forms, including on-the-job training (competitive match play, for example), extensive off-the-job training (such as coaching and physical conditioning) as well as cultural induction. Young players generally learn by doing. However, a small amount of their football education is classroom based or through documentation. The players are given the space in training to try and fail, thereby developing their skills through their apprenticeship. The knowledge from their coaches is transferred through interaction during coaching sessions and practice games. Most of the knowledge is tacit and will always remain so. The most successful coaches are those who can communicate principles and ideas to players in a language and format that they understand – the craft knowledge.
The vital aspect of development is the player’s ability to learn. Regardless of the elements a programme focuses on at any time, learning is paramount. Nigel Pearson, ex-professional player and national coach for the Football Association offers the following points that provide an insight into some of the thinking behind a coach’s approach to learning: “Learning is not just the ability to mimic – although this may be beneficial at times – but to understand and apply. Coaches, parents and teachers need to be mindful that players may not learn in the same way as they do, therefore a variety of teaching techniques and styles will help address the challenge appropriately. Some individuals may develop better in the technical and physical corners [of the model] if allowed to stay in or around their psychological and social comfort zones. However, it is important to recognise what the parameters of these comfort zones are.”
To effect beneficial change, a degree of challenge becomes a requirement of the development programme. This feature applies to all of the changing demands placed on the individual player and may be generated by a number of people: the player, parents, coaches and significant others may influence their thinking, although not solely in a football context.
It is interesting to compare this approach with some of the training approaches taken in modern organisations. How many of us have experienced one-size-fits-all systems or presentation-skills training? How many young employees would recognise the benefits of on-the-job coaching and mentoring in lieu of formal qualifications? When designing our KM strategies and programmes we need to remind ourselves that a flexible multi-faceted approach is far more likely to succeed than a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach. Such is the complex nature of knowledge.
Knowledge management and complexity
As indicated earlier, the development of an elite football player is a genuinely complex phenomenon. By adopting some of the language used in organisational complexity theories and knowledge management, The FA is beginning to make sense of its range of development activities in a new context. In other words, without formally recognising it as such, The FA has always carried out knowledge management and has already achieved many of the aims that corporate practitioners would like to see in their own KM strategies.
The FA is starting to investigate whether creating an environment that helps ensure a fully fledged professional emerges from all of these essential development phases is perhaps the strategic role of knowledge management.
The Football Association carries out several important roles within professional football, which includes advice on player development. To assist in this task, The FA is using knowledge-management tools and techniques to help it support professional clubs in their development of the next generation of professional players.
The FA provides formal knowledge-sharing mechanisms through its training courses, seminars, conferences and its technical journal. However, the cultural aspects of English professional football mean that organic approaches to knowledge sharing such as storytelling and knowledge agents, for example, appear to be as effective as the formal ways of sharing knowledge. This is especially true when passing on tacit playing knowledge to the next generation of players and coaches. The reality is that a professional player or coach is unlikely to find or learn much about their trade from an intranet or other KM system. The same could perhaps be said of other professions or organisations.
Football’s profile and popularity means that almost everyone has an opinion or view, whether they watch the game or not. This cultural patterning on this scale means that coaches and scouts need to guard against their selection criteria being too heavily influenced by past or prevailing patterns.
Tools such as The Four Corners Model provide one method for achieving this. Likewise, experimentation with KM techniques can also provide a way to avoid patterning.
The Four Corners Model provides a way for The FA and coaches to make sense of complexity without attempting to deny its existence. The model is holistic and recognises the complex nature of human development. In this age of management and leadership by competency frameworks, a model such as The Four Corners can provide a more appropriate tool for development, recognising as it does the complex nature of knowledge acquisition and development.
While undoubtedly in possession of natural gifts, professional players undergo extensive learning and development before they reach the highest echelons of the game. Professional football is therefore one of the few professions to continue to use a medieval apprenticeship model for professional player development. Of course the potential rewards are great for those who make it, but is this a model that other organisations or individuals are prepared to return to, adopt or adapt to reach a high level of competency?
As player development is an ongoing process for the Football Association and the clubs it supports, the following rhetorical questions highlight some of the areas that need to be addressed in the future and will also resonate with corporate KM practitioners:
- A player’s opportunities, experiences, lifestyle and serendipity will influence the outcome of a development programme. But how can these factors ever be managed and by whom?
- The Four Corners Model offers guidelines for reference and is supported by extensive subject-specific information in each domain. But can the development process be over structured?
- In attempting to simplify complexity, do we alter the shape of the very thing we are trying to understand?
- There are many contributions to a player’s development but how responsible for their own development is the recipient within the framework?
The final point is about the fundamental nature of knowledge and knowledge management. Are professional footballers knowledge workers? They don’t use computers as part of their daily job. They don’t work in an office. They don’t generate explicit information. They don’t even have to remember many academic facts, and yet they undergo a knowledge acquisition and development path spanning many years.
We would argue that the answer to this question is a definite yes. Yet traditionally much of knowledge management has focused on information-management and knowledge workers as white-collar graduates and a managerial/professional class. This downplays the importance of tacit experiences and practices, the essential craft knowledge, which has implications for all governments, organisations and industries who by focusing too heavily on formalised knowledge (usually through formal education), risk marginalising certain occupations and losing the very knowledge they need to keep.
Acknowledgements to Nigel Pearson and John McDermott at the Football Association, and the Insight journal. The football content within this article is the copyright of The FA. For permission to use any part of it please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- In this context ‘elite’ generally means those players capable of playing at a professional level.
- There are a total of 92 establishments, 36 academies and 56 centres of excellence; one for each football club in the Premier and Nationwide Leagues.
- The Football Association produces a quarterly technical journal, Insight in which several papers on all aspects of coaching, player development and technical issues are published. ‘Craft’ knowledge and ‘coaching philosophy’ are terms frequently used in the journal to describe the tacit knowledge required when delivering coaching sessions.
Craig Simmons is player development adviser at The Football Association. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Stuart Smith is associate director at woodholmes.ksa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org