TGG Podcast #39 - Inside the Southampton Learning Lab
Written by Training Ground Guru — June 8, 2022
In April, Southampton announced that they were launching a “unique” Learning Lab that would embed a “research culture focused on modern Ecological Approaches” in their club and Academy.
TGG decided to find out more by welcoming two members of the Learning Lab Board onto our podcast. They are Iain Brunnschweiler, who is Head of Technical Development at Southampton, and Dr Andrew Wilson, who is a Reader in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University.
You can listen to the pod via the player below, or read an edited transcript after that.
ORIGINS OF THE SOUTHAMPTON LEARNING LAB
ANDREW WILSON: Four or five years ago I was contacted by Malcolm Frame (Head of Psychology at Southampton). He reaches out to people like me because he’s very interested in ecological and embodied cognition ideas and had come across a paper of mine.
We had some conversations about the Ecological Approach and about some of what he was trying to do at Southampton. Eventually, I went down to the club and we started talking about trying to create something that would take these ideas and embed them into practice.
We got to the point where we had some ideas we could potentially start moving on with and then Covid arrived. When I reached back out to Malcolm after we’d been through the first lockdown some key people had come on board at the club who were interested in getting really engaged with what learning is and how best to serve their athletes and develop their coaches.
IAIN BRUNNSCHWEILER: The Learning Lab is the brainchild of Malcolm Frame and Dr Andrew Wilson - they had been thinking about this for a long time.
A couple of years ago myself and Mark Jarvis (Director of Performance Support) - we work closely together on a number of projects - met up with Malcolm, who has some unbelievable ideas and is an incredibly smart guy.
The idea was to try and help bring all of Malcolm and Andrew's concepts and theoretical underpinnings into the context and reality of the Academy.
I have the privilege of being on the Learning Lab Board. The five members of the Board are myself, Malcolm, Andrew, Mark and Edd Vahid (Assistant Academy Director). We have a blend of academic rigour, coaching knowledge, sport science and medical knowledge, and psychology knowledge. We are all a driving force in different ways.
The Learning Lab is not a room at the training ground, it IS the training ground.
WHAT IS THE ECOLOGICAL APPROACH?
ANDREW WILSON: There was a psychologist called James Gibson who was working in the United States from the 1920s through to his death in 1979 who was particularly interested in perception.
He developed what is known as the Ecological Approach to perception and action and that is the grounding for these ideas in skill acquisition. The basis is the notion of direct perception, that as we’re going through the world there is perceptual information that is deeply informative and enables us to be very closely coupled with our environment.
In the 1980s, after Gibson's death, his students and their students started to do the science and ask slightly different questions about where behaviour came from.They started to find that all the good stuff in cognition wasn’t just happening in the brain, but it was happening in a brain that is in a body that can move around and that’s in a world offering opportunities to actions.
When you make that switch you also change how you think about learning. Under the traditional approach, learning is the acquisition of knowledge that gets implemented in mental representations - in other words you remember things you have learned and bring these to bear.
In the Ecological Approach, learning is when we shift in the relationships we form with our environment.
WHY DOES THE ECOLOGICAL APPROACH MATTER TO FOOTBALL?
ANDREW WILSON: This got connected up with skill acquisition in sports through the work of Professor Keith Davids (Professor of Motor Learning in Sport and Human Performance at Sheffield Hallam University) and his collaborators.
He brought these ideas and insights together and started asking questions about learning and skill acquisition. In the Ecological Approach, skill acquisition is no longer about acquiring knowledge but about learning how to become more skilfully connected to your environment through perception. There is a lot going on and it’s not joined up yet, which is why we’re doing what we are at Southampton.
Traditionally, coaching and learning has been about things you can verbally express, with a focus on developing specific technique. This is inspired by the idea that motor control is learning to perform the same movement over and over again.
However, there has been a growing understanding in the motor control literature that this is NOT how people move or learn to move. People don’t do the same thing exactly EVER. This turns out to be a good thing, because if you’re swinging a hammer to bang a nail in, every single time you will have to adjust yourself a little bit depending on where you start, or the background conditions and noise, or your arm getting tired.
You’re trying to produce a movement that’s tuned into the current task demands and these fluctuate a little over time. People don’t move in a robotic way time after time and that’s a function, not a bug.
The catchphrase is repetition without repetition, from a guy called Nikolai Bernstein. One of the studies he did was with blacksmiths and he found that every single movement they performed was slightly different. This actually becomes a hallmark of expertise.
This is one of the big insights in ecological psychological - that learning is about becoming more and more attuned to the opportunities for action in your environment and more and more skilfully engaged with your current task environment. You’re learning to move in response to that attunement.
DOES THE ECOLOGICAL APPROACH MAKE THE COACH REDUNDANT?
ANDREW WILSON: It doesn’t make the coach redundant but it does pretty radically alter their role. It changes from being the source of knowledge, or the correct solution, to being a designer of environments and constraints. Their job is less about making the person move in a particular way and more about creating training environments that allow the person to explore and find the solutions themselves.
This is another big idea in the ecological approach - that you can’t just take a learner and plonk them down in the middle of a football match and expect them to learn the game, because there is far too much going on.
In the Ecological Approach coaching is about the development of constraints and you are trying to create a smaller version of the game. This will still have all the interesting stuff from gameday going on, but you will have constrained it, so there are only a few of those elements available.
You’re trying to make it so that there are opportunities to act that will be available on gameday, but you are practising skilfully engaging with a restricted set of those opportunities.
So one of the key jobs of the coach - and this is very hard - is to figure out how best to constrain the environment, so you’re still offering all of the opportunities to learn how to perceive and act in the gameday context, but not overwhelm the players.
The role of the coach then becomes about designing training environments and evaluating how well they went. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Then you rework them in collaboration with your players. It’s less a position of authority and more a central node in a network.
Also, that idea that you can decompose a skill down into its parts and train the parts in isolation and get an improvement in the overall skill? The Ecological Approach says no, this is the wrong way to go about things.
If you train people to get good at hitting lights on a wall, they are going to get really good at hitting lights on a wall. But a big line of evidence from the transfer of learning literature is that that learning doesn’t transfer very far.
You get really good at learning what you’re learning how to do and it doesn’t take too much of a change in that task for all that learning to go away and for you to have to start all over again.
SOUTHAMPTON LEARNING LAB PHD PROJECTS
IAIN BRUNNSCHWEILER: It is our intention, initially through the deployment of three PhDs, to interrogate our coaching and learning environment, both on and off the pitch at Southampton.
What’s really interesting to me is that we want to do research that matters, not research for the sake of research. If we don’t learn stuff and adapt our practice or adapt our ability to make decisions off the back of this project then it’s failed.
In total we’ve got three PhD students - one who started in October, the other two started in February, so it’s very fresh.
ANDREW WILSON: Over the last 18 months or so Malcolm Frame and I have started to bring other academics in, to help flesh out the Learning Lab team. We’ve recruited three PhD students who are in place and starting to do their research and embed themselves in the club and be involved in coaching activities.
IAIN BRUNNSCHWEILER: Of the three PhDs, one is trying to validate a psychological model and look at how well it informs practice and player development; the second is looking at our coaching and learning environment and whether what we’ve got written down in our Academy player development framework and session design principles and coach development work is being represented on the ground and how good it is, based on current academia in the learning space; the third is about virtual reality.
We’ve got some sub-projects as well, some of which are being deployed by internal members of staff. We have a coach placement who’s doing a dissertation and I’m doing a piece of research in collaboration with Loughborough University, looking at matchday observations and coding coaching.
The PhD that’s really informing practice currently is that second one. A research team has interviewed coaches across the entire Academy pathway, performance support staff across the pathway, and some senior management, and those interviews have been analysed for themes. Those themes have been a part of a current review of our practice and we’re updating our Academy Performance Plan at the moment and some of those themes are informing what we’re going to go at for the next cycle.
The PhD on virtual reality is the one I personally know the least about, so I will be really intrigued. There is some utility in it, in that we’ve got players putting on their Oculus headsets and doing their scanning and looking at the virtual reality and the idea is to find out is there a place for this.
One of the objectives of the Learning Lab is to test and check current tech and see if it’s got a place at the club.
ANDREW WILSON: I’m the director of studies for the VR project and have a PhD student who is working on it. I like the technology but am intrigued by its limitations as well.
We are using a VR platform and one of the things we are looking at is scanning behaviour and decision-making in the context of receiving a pass and having to do something with it.
VR has got good enough and cheap enough now. With immersive VR when I move my head the whole scene moves. You can also create rich environments that are relevant to learning how to play football. You can present people with quite rich, dynamic, interactive scenes and have people interact directly with them.
However, one of the complicated things is that the only thing virtual environments show you is what you programme into them. If you don’t programme in the right things you are going to be teaching people to couple their movements to stuff that doesn’t exist when they get out into the real world.
The power of VR is you get to make it look any way you like; the limitation is that if you don’t make it look the right way you won’t get any transfer. So can we use this tech for transfer out into the real world? And what is helping or hindering that transfer?
FUTURE OF THE SOUTHAMPTON LEARNING LAB
IAIN BRUNNSCHWEILER: Many of our coaches have already been involved with the initial piece of Learning Lab research. I think we have a really open-minded coaching team who genuinely want to get better.
That doesn’t happen by accident, it pre-dates me. We have a really curious coaching team who have a nice blend of being confident in what they’re doing but also humble enough to know there’s probably a way they could do it a bit better.
As a senior management team we’re saying, ‘Look, if we’re not getting better we’re lagging.’ One of the competitive advantages any organisation can have is to learn faster than another organisation, so that will be our ambition.
ANDREW WILSON: We are now in the next phase of development with the Learning Lab, thinking what to do next. What more research programmes can we bring in? How can we find ways of integrating the research activity with the activity of coaches and players? How can we form bridges of dialogue so people are talking to each other and sharing that practice?
At the moment we’re focused in on the Academy for pragmatic reasons. The first team has limited time to be involved. Eventually the goal is to create something that becomes part of the day-to-day life of the Academy and of the club as a whole.
The idea is to develop a club culture and ethos that is broadly oriented in the same direction. You come into the Academy at eight or nine years of age and your experience as you progress will be broadly consistent. It’s going to take time to create that kind of ecosystem.
There is unique potential for what we’re building. We’ve got really good buy-in from a lot of key players at lots of key positions in different parts of the club. There’s a lot of willingness to investigate this as an idea and interest in thinking this might be a way to develop coaches and players to be the best they can be.
I hope we can serve as a hub of activity for ecological things and that people doing this kind of stuff around the world can come and join us and we can join with them. That has been the thing this field has really been lacking.
The goal is to create a community hub to bring this together and that is going to be a really unique aspect of this project.