The other day my team had to play an away game at a field in Brooklyn called “Pier 5”. The field is literally located on a pier that shoots out into the East River, which separates Brooklyn from Manhattan. All around the field are large nets that stop balls from flying into the water, the perimeter of the pier is lined with aesthetically pleasing and architecturally modern fencing. The main soccer field is a little narrow, the lines are yellow and confusing, the yellow lines intersect with other white lines from the various other fields, the turf is hard, matted, beaten down and the wind is always blowing hard! My point isn’t to complain about the field but rather bring your attention to what your players actually have to deal with on a subconscious level by playing on an unfamiliar field. As coaches we tend to look at the field and say, “the wind will be a factor, the pitch is narrow, the ball may bounce a bit and make sure you understand which lines are the correct ones”. All these observations are valid but can we look deeper into what playing on an unfamiliar field means in terms of perception, skill execution, spatial awareness and overall performance? This article examines why playing away is more difficult than playing home from a neurological perspective. Home field advantage is home field for a reason and the reasons are more than just the obvious of crowd support and motivation, the reasons extend into our neurological make-up.
The first thing I want to look at is the way people process information on a subconscious level. I can’t stress enough the importance of processing information on a subconscious level, especially in a sports context. The reason the subconscious mind is so important in elite sports performance is because the conscious mind is far too slow in the processing of information and the capacity or amount of information the conscious mind can process is far less then subconscious mind, in fact it’s not even close. Novice athletes who lack sufficient training get stuck processing information (conscious mind) and fail to execute an appropriate action on the field. Example, soccer player holds the ball to long and loses possession or has an opportunity to shoot but doesn’t. On the other hand, top players are able to instantly ingest large amounts of information, sort the information, couple together only the essential cues while discarding all the non-essential cues, chunk the information together and execute an appropriate action all in a split second, subconsciously. The elite athlete is like any other expert; they operate outside the constraints of the conscious mind when needed. You might be asking how this relates to playing an away game or home game? Yes, I can get more into how top athletes and experts in all areas are able to function at such high levels, but the reason I bring up cues, the chunking of information and the subconscious mind is because it directly relates to familiar and unfamiliar environments, meaning playing at home and away! After that game my team just played away at the field on the “pier”, one of my players said to me, “coach it was harder to play because I couldn’t look around and get a quick reference point to where I was on the field”. I thought about what he said and it made a lot of sense. The field was located out on the water, making reference points even more difficult, multiple lines further confused the issue, the dimensions of the field are different then our home field, the turf was beaten down and the wind was strong. These subtle and not so subtle factors may seem small, but they throw off the subconscious mind, the essential cues that the players normally used on the home field had now changed. I guarantee that same player who struggled for reference points at the away field knows every inch of the surroundings at our home field. Does he know the surroundings at the home field consciously? I doubt it, but subconsciously he knows every inch of the home field surroundings and uses this information subconsciously for spatial reference points, his subconscious mind chunks all the information and cues together so fast he doesn’t even realize it is happening, but it is. On an unfamiliar field players do not have this advantage, they are forced to adapt and adapt quickly in order to be successful, but there is no doubt a learning curve. There is also another thing that may be in play here, from a neurology standpoint the human brain is guided in spatial awareness by something called grid cells. Grid cells essentially help people judge space and assist us in navigating space. Grid cells help the brain perceive space as actual grids. When playing on a field with different dimensions and less reference points, the grid cells may be thrown off just slightly. I am a person who knows a little bit about adapting and learning to judge space and time in different ways. I was born with no depth perception and can only see the world as flat. This was a problem in sports and especially with things like driving a car at night. My brain was forced to pick up different cues to help me judge distance, depth and speed. When driving a car my brain would use other objects to help judge distance, but when it was dark I often misjudged where the next traffic was located because there were no other objects I could use at night as distance markers. In baseball I couldn’t tell what direction a ball hit in the air was traveling. The point is that the brain will adapt to a certain extent but playing on an unfamiliar field with different dimensions requires adaption.
The real question is how can you make playing on an away field easier? My wish would be to train on the away field for a few days? If that is not possible, at least get to the field early and have the players walk the field and check out all the areas they would normally be covering on the field. Maybe have a little longer warm-up that involves really using every inch of space on the field. If the field is a different size then your home field, mark your home field out the same exact dimension as the away field and train on it all week at the new dimension. If the away field is grass, make sure you train on grass a couple of days that week (if it’s turf do the same). However, the brain remembers quickly and the more well-rounded experienced players you have less you have to worry about when it comes to adapting. Example: when my team plays away on hard and choppy grass fields, many of our Brazilian players need no time to adapt, they have already had years of playing on fields like that in Brazil. Their brains are already hard wired for these conditions, their skills etched into their long-term memories. The subject of playing home and away from a scientific/neurology standpoint is very interesting, it involves more than just motivation and a home crowd. Hopefully this article made you think about it just a little differently! Remember to check out www.soccersmarttraining.com for my online cognitive soccer coaches diploma course.