Southampton launch 'unique' Learning Lab based on ecological approach

Southampton say the Lab is "not a room at the training ground – it IS the training ground”

Southampton say the Lab is "not a room at the training ground – it IS the training ground”

SOUTHAMPTON have launched a “unique” Learning Lab that will embed a “research culture focused on modern ecological approaches” in their club and Academy.

The Lab is a partnership between the Premier League team and Leeds Beckett, Gloucester and Bournemouth Universities.

Southampton say it will be a space where "research and practice come together in the life of the club and Academy” and that the Lab is "not a room at the training ground – it is the training ground.”

It will be led by Malcolm Frame, who heads up Southampton's psychology department, and Andrew Wilson, an ecological psychologist at Leeds Beckett University.

Initially it will be the home for three PhD studies:

  1. The use of virtual reality in sports coaching (led by John Connolly, of Leeds Beckett University and Southampton FC).
  2. Ecological approaches to coaching (led by James Grant of Gloucester University).
  3. The Southampton FC psychology model (led by Steve Rowles of Bournemouth University).

Wilson explained: “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 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.

“The reason it is happening is that it (Southampton FC) is a curious club. They can’t spend their way past Manchester United, so they’re hoping to invest and research their way. A big part of that is if we’re going to develop we should do it properly and well and there’s a big push to do it ecologically.”


So understanding what the Lab will do requires an understanding of the ecological approach to learning and skill acquisition. This can sometimes seem an abstract and theoretical principle that is distant from practice - to the layman at least.

Rob Gray, Associate Professor of Human Systems Engineering at Arizona State University, has done good work in explaining and exploring the ecological approach, via his Perception & Action Podcast, his writing and his YouTube videos. You can watch one of them below, which was published last November, in which Gray explains how variation is key to the ecological approach to skill acquisition.

He's talking about cricket, but the principles apply to other sports, including football.

“The traditional approach to skill acquisition is that there is one ideal technique, one ideal way to bowl or hit that we are going to teach you through repetition," he said. “We are going to have you repeat this over and over until you have it down. Movement variability is treated as noise.

“The alternative is that there is not one optimal way to swing and everyone needs to find the one that works for them. You repeat an outcome, but not by repeating the movement.

"Movement variability isn’t noise, it’s good. The idea is that we still want the same outcome - consistent performance - but we achieve that not by producing one repeatable swing but by multiple repeatable swings.

“We get that by adding much more variability in practice. The purpose is adaptability - to learn how to solve different movement problems, to learn how to move according to different conditions. You want variability there right from the start. We want to start you off with problem solving, to be a movement problem solver and to be adaptable.”

Gray says that in football there is often “fake agility” in the drills that are taught.

“Instead of playing against another player we have you dribbling round cones,” he said. “There is no information, the eyes are down and I call this fake agility."

Wilson has also written extensively about the ecological approach on his own blog.

In some ways, there are parallels with street games, which former England rugby coach Brian Ashton has spoken and written about on this site.

"By a street games approach, I mean giving players a sense of engagement by encouraging experimentation and sharing decision-making and planning," Ashton has said.

"It means integrating players fully, with the objective of the coach becoming a resource to be used as and when both parties feel the need. So not a looming figure dominating the landscape!"

Paul McGuinness, Leicester City's Head of Player Development and the former Under-18s coach at Manchester United, has talked a lot about these themes too.

"Footballers are experts in calculating time, space, speed, spin, in pressured environments," he has said. "They do this by play, a series of experiments over years. Einstein said, ‘Play is the highest form of research’.”

Germany recently launched new regulations that transform the way football is coached and played by U11s, underpinned by fun and learning through play.

“The new forms of play are intended to offer children better opportunities to play football in such a way that they are often on the ball and have fun doing it," the DFB explained.


Southampton explained: “The Learning Lab is aimed at developing a greater understanding of how humans learn, acquire, and use new skills.

"Developing potential into excellence is a core goal of Southampton Football Club and the Learning Lab feeds directly into this aim. Though ultimately players are the end beneficiaries of the project, anyone invested in the club’s ability to develop talent, on and off the field, should gain from the Lab.

“The Learning Lab will combine a unique blend of expertise and an approach to high performance not seen before in the footballing world, bringing together cutting-edge technology and contemporary research with a goal to promote more effective and efficient development of footballing talent.

“The club will play a central role in the Learning Lab, acting as the hub of the research and its implementation. Southampton Football Club is creating a space where research and practice come together in the life of the club and Academy.

“The Lab is not a room at the training ground – it is the training ground.

Southampton’s Director of Performance Support, Mark Jarvis, added: “We’re excited to launch the Learning Lab. This is a unique endeavour, bringing together a great set of partners.

“We want to create a positive impact on practice and solve performance problems by both producing innovative tools and practices. Learning is key to the development of players.

“Ultimately, we hope that the Learning Lab will create a positive impact and legacy not only for people across our club but also across the wider coaching, development, and academic communities to understand how we can learn and acquire new skills.”

Dr Wilson said: “This project is unique: we’re embedding a research culture focused on modern ecological approaches to learning in a Premier League club and Academy.

“This creates a remarkable opportunity to effect real, positive change, and so I’m very excited about the launch of the Lab. There’s a great deal of creative and innovative work being done about learning, both in academia and in practice, but there’s been a real need for a hub that can support, promote, and develop this work.

“That’s what the Lab is intended to be! I’m looking forward to getting to work and expanding the network of collaborators involved in the project.”

In February, Southampton launched a new Technical Development department headed by Iain Brunnschweiler, who will also be heavily involved with The Learning Lab. The club's Academy will be part of the Technical Development department.

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