A few weeks ago, Southampton FC launched a forward-thinking programme that caused a few raised eyebrows across sections of the football industry. Announced in early April and reported on in-depth by Training Ground Guru, the Saints Learning Lab is a pioneering new research partnership between the club and various connected academic institutions and thought leaders.
Described by the club as a "unique" proposal that will help foster a "research culture focused on modern ecological approaches", it appears to be a detailed, well-thought-out scheme. However, for the everyday football fan, these buzzwords might sound a little confusing. What exactly is a learning lab? And how are Southampton hoping to boost performances across the board using this new approach?
In this article, we'll provide you with all the detail you need to understand this brand-new project. We'll explain what Southampton's new Learning Lab is, and we'll dive into the values underpinning it. Ultimately, we'll consider whether other clubs are likely to follow suit, as innovators within football continue looking for new ideas of how to push the game forward. But first, we're going to spend a short while examining Southampton's forward-thinking credentials as a club.
Southampton FC is a club known for innovative thinking. Given their limited budget in comparison with other Premier League sides over past few seasons, the Hampshire-based club has consistently had to think outside the box in order to compete on the pitch. This mindset can be seen in the unique medical and sport science facilities at their Staplewood Training Campus, which according to Sports Medicine and Science Manager Mo Gimpel "challenges the norm. You won't find another one like it in this country."
Southampton's player recruitment and development over the past decade has also been, on the whole, very impressive. The quality of their youth system is evidenced by the number of England internationals who have graduated from the Southampton Academy in recent years, including Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, and James Ward-Prowse. Meanwhile, their scouting model has allowed them to discover hidden gems such as Virgil Van Djik, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, and Graziano Pelle.
Therefore, it wasn't a huge surprise to see the recent announcement of a brand-new "unique" academically-driven research project at the club. The new Learning Lab at Southampton is designed to generate a "research culture focused on modern ecological approaches" in the club and Academy. But what does that mean in practice? Let's get stuck into the details.
The Learning Lab is a partnership between Southampton FC and a network of universities: Leeds Beckett, Gloucester, and Bournemouth. These organisations will work together to create a space where "research and practice come together in the life of the club and Academy."
There will be two key figures heading up this new project; Malcolm Frame, the head of Southampton's psychology department, and Andrew Wilson, an ecological psychologist at Leeds Beckett University. The job titles of these two men give a good indication of what the Learning Lab will initially be focused on — psychology, ecology, and forward-thinking sports coaching. In practice, these values will manifest themselves in the three PhD studies that the Learning Lab will be the home for:
The use of virtual reality in sports (led by John Connolly, a Leeds Beckett PhD student embedded in Southampton's academy)
Ecological approaches to coaching (led by James Grant, an academic at Gloucester University)
The Southampton FC psychology model (led by James Rowles, a PhD researcher in sports psychology at Bournemouth University)
"I want this project to become a hub for a wide community of ecologically minded researchers and practitioners," said Wilson. "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."
An 'ecological approach' is central to the Learning Lab — but what exactly does this mean? Essentially, it's all about switching up our approach to taking on new information, and thinking about how we can learn skills in a different way. The work of academics like Rob Gray (Associate Professor of Human Systems Engineering at Arizona State University) has been highlighted to shine a light on the "ecological approach" to skill acquisition.
"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," says Gray. "We are going to have you repeat this over and over until you have it down." In football, we see this in the way that young players are drilled again and again to control or pass the ball in a certain way.
But according to Gray, and the like-minded professionals at the Learning Lab, there's another option. "The alternative is that there is not one optimal way to swing and everyone needs to find the one that works for them," he says. "You repeat an outcome, but not by repeating the movement. 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." But how does this idea translate to football?
According to ecologically-minded coaches and academics, certain football coaching drills are designed to teach players "fake agility", for instance by dribbling around cones that are laid out in a straight line. This kind of agility may seem useful in the moment, but it doesn't really equate to any matchday scenario. At the Southampton Learning Lab, club-affiliated professionals will be using the high-end research facilities on offer to try to devise new approaches to skill acquisition that move away from this tendency and at their core are more "ecological".
The main point of developing a more ecological approach to skill acquisition in football is that it provides players, particularly young players, with greater flexibility and open-mindedness. In the eyes of those responsible for Southampton's new project, refusing the urge to drill and hammer home certain ideas again and again could be beneficial, because sportspeople can learn a lot from opportunities for experimentation and individual decision-making. Moving the emphasis from having an all-powerful coach that dominates everything to using that coach as a helpful resource for learning, can be a decisive shift.
In the world of football, these ideas are already being implemented, with Paul McGuiness, Head of Player Development at Leicester City FC, insisting that players should be given more freedom in this sense: "Footballers are experts in calculating time, space, speed, spin, in pressured environments. They do this by play, a series of experiments over years." At the brand-new state-of-the-art Leicester City FC Training Centre, these values are helping forge a new generation of talent in the east Midlands. But at Southampton's research-heavy Learning Lab, those steps are being taken to the next level.
The Learning Lab has only just been launched, so it's difficult to judge how much of a success it will be. However, those responsible for launching the project seem incredibly confident about the potential results of the ecologically-minded research and coaching programme.
Ultimately, while high-performance football is of course the aim, it's not solely about sport, as the club's official statement explained. "The Learning Lab is aimed at developing a greater understanding of how humans learn, acquire, and use new skills," said Southampton. "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 cutting-edge nature of this concept means that it's possible other teams will follow suit; however, many more traditionally-minded football clubs may be reluctant to switch up their approach to skill acquisition in such a way. After all, Southampton described their new Lab as "a unique blend of expertise and an approach to high performance not seen before in the footballing world." Director of Performance Support Mark Jarvis was clear in his view that this idea is likely to expand beyond the walls of Southampton's Staplewood Campus: "We hope that the Learning Lab will create a positive impact and legacy not only for people across our club but also the wider coaching, development, and academic communities to understand how we can learn and acquire new skills."
It's fair to say that the ambitions are sky-high! And why not? This research and development project could signal a new path forward for football clubs when it comes to producing the best footballing talent around. If it pays off, the next generation of Academy graduates at Southampton could be a group of players that view the game in a completely different way. With the Learning Lab heavily involved in another newly-launched branch of the club, the Technical Development department (which includes the club's Academy), it will be fascinating to see what impact these new structures will have on the pitch in the years to come.
Southampton's new Learning Lab is just one example of a wave of innovation being seen across British and European football. Whether it's outside-the-box recruitment or data-led set piece coaching (as implemented by Brentford FC in recent seasons), various different clubs are challenging traditional ideas and principles within the game, and achieving success as a result.
Our recent deep dive into Roberto De Zerbi's high-flying Brighton & Hove Albion side offers insight into how the Seagulls have used a data and analytics-based approach to player scouting and staff recruitment to find hidden gems from across the world, and develop a style of play that allows them to compete at the top table. Take a look here for more information.
Or, if you want to keep your attention on the Saints for now, check out our guide to the Southampton FC training ground Staplewood Campus for an in-depth look at the various facilities the club has for first team and academy training, sport science and medicine, strength and conditioning, rehabilitation, and player relaxation.