Reviewing the performance environment to nurture player development

Producing the world’s leading academy system

Developing professional football players is a complex process. Following an independent review of young player development published by the English Premier League and the Football League in 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has turned the lenses on improving home-grown talent in England. The EPPP continually references the need to develop an elite environment within academies to ensure that home-grown players prosper. By further understanding the impact the performance environment has upon perceptions of performance, coaches, practitioners and academy managers can further understand the organisational adjustments required to create an optimal performance environment for player development.

The performance environment in youth football

Pain and Harwood (2007) examined the performance environment of the England youth U18 and U17 teams, and the following factors were determined to specifically influence the environment: planning and organisation, physical environment, tactical factors, development and performance philosophy, psychological factors, physical factors, social factors and coaching. However, this line of inquiry has not been pursued within academy football since the implementation of the EPPP initiative.

Snapshot of the performance environment in a category 3 status academy

Within Category 1-3 status academies, football clubs are required to offer set hours of coaching and games to players in the under 9s to under 18s age groups. This is in line with the notion that the development of talent is contingent on highly structured and effortful activity (Simonton 1999).

The findings below are the perceptions on performance of the coach and the players of an age group in the youth development phase in a Category 3 academy. The youth development phase represents the age groups between U12-U16 on the performance pathway. The findings were broken down into pre-game, psychological and team/social factors of the performance environment to give a more insightful understanding of specific aspects within the performance environment and also to fall in line the remit of the practitioner as outlined by the organisation.

The results below were collected from responses to a performance environment survey (PES) (Pain and Harwood 2008) which players completed after each game for a three-week period. Respondents to the PES were prompted to rate the perceived impact on performance based on an 11-point scale (from -5= “extremely negative” to +5 = “extremely positive”, with 0 = “no impact”).

Pre-game variables of the performance environment

Pre-game variables:
1. I was physically ready going into the game
2. I was mentally ready going into the game
3. Other commitments interfered with my preparation
4. The squad had good continuity leading up to the game

 

The pre-game results show that players felt physically and mentally prepared going into development matches and this positively impacted upon performance. Other commitments interfering with preparation were said to have had no impact on performance, whilst good continuity within the squad also led to positive performance perceptions.

Psychological variables of the performance environment

Psychological variables:
1. I fully understood my role in the team
2. I experienced nerves in the game
3. I was confident in my abilities
4. I used a consistent pre-match routine
5. I was relaxed going into the game
6. My friends and family were a positive source of support
7. I lost composure in the game
8. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve personally in the game

 

The psychological results from the PES show that players felt that understanding their role, confidence, using a pre-match routine, being relaxed, friends and family and goals within the game positively impacted upon performance perceptions.

Social variables of the performance environment

Team/social variables:
1. We had a player(s) who was a positive team leader
2. We had good team cohesion on the pitch
3. The team where fully committed to the game
4. We had strong coach/team relationships
5. Socially we were strong off the pitch
6. Socially there was disruption caused by some players
7. The team was confident of success
8. The team communicated well on the pitch
9. There was trust and confidence between teammates
10. The team showed strong resilience demanding situations

 

The team/social results from the PES show that players felt that having a positive team leader, good team cohesion, high levels of commitment, coach/team relationships, confidence and strong social relationships, trust and resilience positively impacted upon performance perceptions.

Review of the performance environment

The above results provide a snapshot of the pre-game, psychological and social aspects of the performance environment. In order to provide further validity to the results from the Performance Environment Survey, focus groups within the squad were conducted to gain a greater understanding of the results, such as what behaviours led the players to perceive that particular variables positively impacted the performance environment and whether the survey results correctly portrayed their perceptions.

Further ecological validity can be sought when mirroring the performance environment findings to the implementation of the Elite Player Performance Plan. Since its inception, academies within the EPPP have introduced their own bespoke systems to enable them to forward plan the work of the academy and to track each player’s progression against individual performance objectives set by the academy manager and his/her coaching team (Premier League 2011). A significant number of academies, including the one studied, have adopted clearly defined macro, mezzo and micro cycles regarding the individual development priorities for each player across the four-corner model (technical, psychological, social and physical). This further investment in youth programmes may provide a rationale for high performance perceptions within the pre-game, psychological and team social variables. However, to truly demonstrate this link, further investigation is required into the organisational strategy and “on the ground” delivery of the academies operating within the EPPP linked to the effectiveness of creating an optimal performance environment.

Furthermore, interesting implications of the findings from the performance environment are the similarities and differences between coach and player perceptions, in particular, the contrasting perceptions of the players’ experience of nerves in the game (among the psychological variables of the performance environment) and of the team showing resilience in demanding situations (among the team and social variables). Both suggest that the coach perceived this as negatively impacting performance, whereas the players perceived this as positively impacting performance. Working with the coaches and players to further understand what behaviours have led to the differences in perceptions and what positive behaviours, thoughts or actions will transcend into an alignment of perceptions may improve performance and therefore support the development of the player.

Author’s note: The snapshot findings from this case study are taken from the research project submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Applied Sport Psychology. The methodology utilised as part of this submission included semi-structured interviews with coaches, focus groups with players and detailed analysis of the responses from the performance environment survey with two teams within the youth development phase. To read these findings please contact the author.

References

Pain, M & Harwood, C (2007), “The performance environment of the England youth soccer teams”, Journal of Sport Sciences  25, pp. 1307-1324.

Pain, M & Harwood, C (2008), “The performance environment of the England youth soccer teams: A quantitative study”, Journal of Sport Sciences 26, pp. 1157-1169.

Premier League (2011), Elite Player Performance Plan, Premier League.  London.

Simonton, D K (1999) “Talent and development: An emergenic and epigenetic model”, Psychological review 106, pp. 435-457.