Leeds School of Social Sciences

The Southampton Project

A revolution has been developing in the world of sports coaching. New theories from psychology about how we learn new skilled actions has led to a new understanding of how best to coach those actions and shape that learning. This approach comes from James J Gibson’s ecological approach to perception and action and has a few names; the constraints-led approach, nonlinear pedagogy, and ecological dynamics.

Football boot on top of football on pitch

I am an experimental ecological psychologist based in Psychology here at Leeds Beckett University. I have been working for 15 years on developing and expanding the ecological approach, and to see it more widely understood and appreciated. Beginning this year, I am embarking on a very exciting collaboration with researchers and coaches which will be based at Southampton Football Club. The goal is to develop a club-based Learning Lab centred on ecological approaches to skill acquisition and coaching, and to embed this Lab in an ecologically minded club-wide ecosystem.

I want to talk here about how it came about, what I've been up to over the past year to get it moving, where we are now and where I want to take this in the near future. In line with my general theory of how to get a new collaboration up and running, Phase 1 has been about getting all the members involved doing things we can achieve now, with the resources we have at hand, to establish the collaboration and get us moving. In Phase 2, I want to open things up a little to begin getting additional resources in place.

How We Got Moving

Several years ago, I was contacted by Malcolm Frame, who heads up the Psychology team at SFC. He's been interested in ecological and embodied theories for a long time, and he collects contacts with people like me. We had some good chats, swapped some papers, and thought of a few ideas. I went to visit the club in 2019, got shown around, and had some good chats with key people in the club. By the end of the day, Malcolm and I had ideas for three projects that would be worth trying to turn into something, although we had no real plans yet about how to actually make them happen.

Then a pandemic kicked off, so nothing happened for a while.

In September 2020 I was back in the office and so I got back in touch with Malcolm. In the interim, the club had made several appointments of very ecologically minded people to key leadership positions (in particular Iain Brunnschweiler and Mark Jarvis), and all of a sudden, our ideas were landing on fertile soil. It was time to get serious and specific.

Building the Initial Team

Malcolm and I had decided that there were three key projects that were the right things to pursue first. First and foremost, we needed a project about coaching ecologically; coaching development is obviously the main interest of the club. Second, we wanted a project about ecological/embodied cognition approaches to sports psychology (this is what Malcolm has been trying to build during his time at SFC and what the club was keen to support him in). Third, we (well, I) wanted a project around ecological approaches to skill acquisition, because that's a research topic I can get my teeth into and it's also another key part of the ecological approach.

Phase 1

I spent Sept-Dec 2020 reaching out to people who could help with these projects. In short order I was in touch with 5 key people, and we were planning our first research collaboration and how to fund three PhD positions.

The initial research project is a qualitative ethnographic study of the current state of the club culture. We were able to set this up quickly thanks to the involvement of Mark O'Sullivan, who has done this work at a club in Sweden. The framework is called Learning in Development (O'Sullivan, Vaughan, Rumbold & Davids, 2021). Mark is leading this along with Dr Will Roberts at University of Gloucestershire, and Professor Keith Davids at Sheffield-Hallam University. This research is being funded by the Centre for Psychological Research (PsyCen) here at Leeds Beckett.

We were then able to fund three PhD positions, thanks to funding from Southampton FC, support from the University of Gloucestershire, and matched funding from Leeds Beckett.

  • Ecological approaches to sports coaching: interviewing now for an October start. This will be directed by Will with support from Keith and Iain. Huge thanks to the Sport and Exercise department at Gloucestershire for working hard to find ways they could help fund the PhD.
  • Ecological approaches to sports psychology: this will get re-advertised shortly for a January start. It will be directed by Dr Amanda Wilding at Bournemouth University, with funding from Malcolm's psychology department at SFC.
  • Ecological approaches to virtual reality in sports: This is the one I am running, with matched funding from Leeds Beckett (thanks to my Director of Research Brendan Gough for all his support). Dr David Alder, from the Carnegie School of Sport, will be the second supervisor, and we have appointed a strong candidate to the role, John Connolly, who starts 1st October. We'll be working with Future Performance Technology, in particular CEO Ciaran Toner, and using their VR platform. PsyCen also helped fund this project by purchasing the VR equipment we required.

So Phase 1 is effectively complete: we are up, rolling, and we have got literal buy in from the club and from multiple universities.

Phase 2

My main job now is to build on this rapid success and create something that is sustainable and able to grow. Phase 2 is about funding the next round of research that builds off the three themes we have established with the PhD projects. The key thing we have now that will hopefully enable good chances at funding is access to the club and its people and resources; that's the kind of thing that looks good in grants these days. Once we have a literal physical place in the club that is active in research, integrated into the club's life, and sufficiently resourced, I want us to become a place where people can come to us with ideas for research that need access to what we have to get funded. I want this project to become a hub for a wide community of ecologically minded researchers and practitioners.

This project will also begin collaborating with the increasing amount of football-related research taking place here at Leeds Beckett University. This is coordinated by Dr Stacey Emmonds in the Carnegie School of Sport, and I’m looking forward to working with her to help make Leeds Beckett a home for sports research.

Keeping in Touch

I will be providing regular updates via my Twitter feed and blog, and if you are interested in being involved in future plans or promoting the project, please email me, I am always happy to help. I will be a guest on Rob Gray’s Perception-Action podcast in a few weeks time, talking about the project.