Wednesday 8 September 2021

Introducing...The Southampton Project

I am embarking on a very exciting and potentially game-changingly huge collaboration this year, with Southampton Football Club and a bunch of ecologically minded researchers. 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'm working already with a lot of really good people, and key people in the club are fully on board with this (which is why it's now something rather than nothing!) 

In this post, I want to talk 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 my initial focus has been on getting all the members involved in doing something we can achieve now, with the resources we have at hand, so that we can be moving and doing the things required to target additional funding and resources. In Phases 2 & 3, I want to open things up a little to begin getting those additional resources in place; if you are interested in being involved, feel free to drop me a line.

How We Got Moving

Several years ago, I was contacted by Malcolm Frame, who now 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. Stupid pandemic. 

In September 2020 I was back in the office, things were still weird but at least were more predictable, and so I dropped Malcolm a line to see if we could pick up where we had left off. Turned out we'd gotten lucky. The club had made several appointments of very ecologically minded people (in particular Iain Brunnschweiler and Mark Jarvis) to key leadership positions, and all of a sudden our ideas were landing on fertile soil. 

(Let me note a key point here in this era of knowledge transfer grants and pushes for collaborations with industry - if Mark and Iain weren't already in post, we would not have been able to create anything yet. Developing these kinds of collaborations depend very heavily on buy-in from the key industrial partner, and in my experience it' very hard to create that buy-in from the outside.)

So, suddenly, I was in a situation where things could actually kick off (pun intended :) So I do what I always do - I went looking for people who could help and asked if they wanted to come play. 

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. 

The goal of these projects was to get us moving and start producing outputs we could show to the club and say 'hey look, we're achieving things'. In addition, they would be vehicles for establishing formal collaborations between the club and various universities. Leeds Beckett, where I am, is very hot on matched-funding PhDs just now as this sort of vehicle, so I applied for and got approval for one based with me. I'm not a coach or a sports psychologist though, so I needed better people to help lead. 

Over the years I've developed a network of ecologically minded researchers and coaches, mostly via Twitter, being on Rob Gray's podcast, and chats with people. I reached out and started getting names of good people to talk to, and then I spent Sept-Dec 2020 reaching out to people and chatting. Turns out people were all lovely and all very interested; people connected me with other people, and then other people, and after speaking to everyone I locked us down to developing three matched-funding PhD positions, one for each project. We were also able to set in motion an initial research project at the club that could get up and running right away.

Phase 1

The first half of 2021 was spent identifying specific funding for the PhDs and getting moving on the first project. 

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) and essentially, the first thing to do is figure out where the club and it's people currently are in their approaches. Mark is leading this along with Will Roberts and Keith Davids, and I was able to source funding from my Centre for Psychological Research (PsyCen) to pay for an RA and other costs. This is happening now, and I will blog it in more detail once I get better at understanding qualitative ethnography :) Do read Mark's paper though, he's been producing some great stuff lately and he's a real asset to my team. 

We have three PhD positions set up; two should be starting in October 2021, and one in January 2022. 
  1. Ecological approaches to sports coaching: interviewing now for an October start. This will be directed by Will Roberts at the University of Gloucestershire, with help from Keith and Iain. Huge thanks to the Sport and Exercise department there for working hard to find ways they could help fund the PhD.
  2. Ecological approaches to sports psychology: this will get re-advertised shortly for a January start. It will be directed by Amanda Wilding out of Bournemouth University, with funding from Malcolm's psychology department at SFC. 
  3. 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). I've just confirmed David Alder from Carnegie will be the second supervisor, and I've appointed a strong candidate to the role, John Connolly, who starts 1 October. We'll be working with Future Performance Technology, in particular CEO Ciaran Toner, and using their VR platform. 
So Phase 1 is effectively complete: we are up, rolling, and we have got literal buy in from the club and from multiple universities. 

Phases 2 and 3

My main job now is to build on this rapid success and create something that is sustainable and able to grow. I am therefore drafting plans for the next Phases. Details to come, but the basic plan is this:
  1. 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 it's people and resources; that's the kind of thing that looks good in grants these days. I'm going to be fairly selective at this stage, and focus on projects coming from the core team I have established, at least in the first place. My reason is not to be evil and keep all this to myself; Phase 2 needs to enact the overall strategic goal of creating an Ecological Learning Lab, in which the research is all aligned with itself and with the broader club culture. I need to make sure I prioritise projects that fit this strategic goal. 
  2. Phase 3 is when I want to open things up some more. Once we have a literal 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.


I'm so excited about this project, I can hardly even. The positive energy and wild enthusiasm from everyone who's involved so far has been a blast of fresh air, and the fact that the club (in the form of key people such as Mark Jarvis) is deeply interested in doing this right and fully on board with the ecological mindset is just amazing. I also want to really thank my internal research support resources, my Director of Research and PsyCen - they've been generous with support and money and are a critical part of why this is working. We're going to do some good things!

I will admit I'm nervous as hell though. This is the biggest thing I've ever tried to manage, and although it's something I really want to do it makes me sweat a bit. I'm doing a course on research team management (thanks Leeds Beckett staff development!), I'm working with really smart and committed people, and I have a lot of clear ideas. But the scale of this is intimidating, to be honest, and I don't think that feeling is going anywhere soon. 

Much more to come! Please stay tuned to the blog and my Twitter feed for more, and setting up a proper social media presence for the project is on my to-do list. If you are interested in being involved in any way, please feel free to drop me a line. I'm always happy to chat and find ways to bring people into the fold, although that may not be anything immediate. 

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