Building a Flexible, Fluid & Intelligent Soccer Brain
When I speak about the soccer brain, I am talking about a players ability to make intelligent, ultra-fast decisions, in real-time, during the actual game. However, making the right decision is only half the battle, the player must also possess the technical ability, to execute the proper technique at high speeds, based upon the decision. The million dollar question is, how do we as coaches, develop our players soccer brains? I will skip the in-depth confusing scientific explanation, and stick to what I believe is the foundation of developing the soccer brain. First, train the players in small areas, forcing them to find fast solutions to keeping possession of the ball, in confined areas. Second, constantly change the small area training environments, forcing players to experience new situations in practice. Third, players must play the real game, it sounds simple, but there is no substitute for the real game. Fourth, ball mastery must be undertaken, how to do this can be the subject of much debate. I prefer not to take team training time to do this type of work, players can often work on these skills outside of training. However, some technical skills sets can be learned and improved during games, this is especially true with constraint based training in ever changing environments. Examples of constraint based soccer training, that can lead to the development of unique technical & tactical skills sets, include beach soccer, futsal, cage soccer and playing the game on different surfaces.
Before getting into specific soccer development ideas, I want to give you some general background information, in regards to highly skilled people and athletes. Let’s start with the fact that highly skilled people have vast amounts of experience in their specific domains, establishing habit-worn paths of knowledge in the brain. For example, a typical soccer player in Brazil, will play 4-6 hours per/day on the street, from 5-14 years of old. This adds up to 10,000 – 14,000 hours of soccer, if you’re a Malcolm Gladwell fan, the 10,000 hour rule is met, before the player even enters the pro club. The fact is, experts in their respective domains, possess abilities that are far superior to the average practitioner, in the same domain. However, experts are not necessarily better at things outside of their domain of expertise, but inside their skilled domain, they are geniuses. Below is an excerpt from an article by Sally Jenkins, which appeared in the Washington Post, May 2018. It will give you some insight into why some athletes are superior.
“Think about the processes involved as James scans the court while moving down the floor. The optic nerves absorb and transmit small peripheral details, then shift to a sudden zoom focus as he throws a glancing no-look bounce pass that hits Kevin Love in the hands mid-stride. Then his attention broadens again stereoscopically to capture the whole floor. The cognitive flexibility to go in and out of those states fluidly is highly learned. And yet little short of magic……To manage all those systems, that is a form of intelligence,” Faubert said……Elite athletes have an Inner Brain GPS. They know exactly where they are on the field, they know all the players involved in the game, and they view this as one structure of which they are actively a part of. The athlete is not rebuilding a picture, they are playing in the structure fluidly, and within this structure, they are masters of knowing the likelihoods of things going on inside the structure…….Most magical of all is what’s required to build those spatial maps in James’s head. In 2014, researchers John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser won the Nobel Prize for explaining how the brain navigates. They answered a simple but profound set of questions: How do we perceive position, know where we are, find the way home? They discovered the brain’s “inner GPS” that makes it possible to orient and plan movement. O’Keefe found that a specific cell in the hippocampus throws off a signal to mark a specific place. The Mosers added to this by showing that neurons in the entorhinal cortex fire in fields with regularity. When they drew lines corresponding to the neuronal activity, here is what they saw: a grid. LeBron James has a geometric projection in his brain that acts as a computational coordinate system. And so do you…….He’s not recording like a videotape,” Fenton said. “He’s not rebuilding. He doesn’t rebuild a picture of what is going on. He watches it evolve continuously and fluidly. There is a flock, and it’s moving down the court, and everybody has a place. All these birds form a structure, and the structure is important. We call it a flock. He calls it a play.”
The bottom line is that becoming a highly skilled expert takes a long time, people who are experts in a particular area, are able to group together information incredibly quick in their field of expertise. They bypass their conscious mind, as the grouping of essential information is performed all in their subconscious mind, in a fluid real-time state, which is a million times faster than conscious mind could perform this task. The experts only focus on the essential information, while discarding the non-essential information. Even the eye scanning and frequency patterns of experts are different than novices, as the novices tend to focus on the non-essential cues, their entire processing of information is too slow. While the expert is so quick, as the subconscious mind takes over, putting them in state often called “flow”, they have increased game intelligence, superior anticipation, better field vision and overall enhanced levels of performance.
I wanted to keep my explanation as simple as possible, when it comes to why experts are so talented in their domains, because ultimately this is a short book on coaching soccer. But the methods I outlined for developing soccer players, coordinate with the message science has told us. A number of years ago, the Philadelphia Union implemented methods from the book “The Talent Code”, into their academy. The underlying message from the “Talent Code”, stressed the importance of meaningful repetitions in player development. I agree fully with the idea of meaningful repetitions, but the idea of what a meaningful repetition is in soccer, was never defined. My four pillars to developing the soccer brain are not all-inclusive, I did not get into constraint based training, or specific gridding training ideas to program the players inner GPS. But do I feel strongly, if you start to implement the types of trainings I recommend, your players improve. Try and get stay away from the Weil Coerver technical training exercises, that have players performing already learned techniques, between all sorts of cones. That can be done by the player themselves, outside of team training if needed. I recommend you transition into trainings where players are making decision after decision, in game based trainings.
Developing the Soccer Brain
- Small Area Possession Training: this will build the neural pathways in the brain, as the player is constantly involved in the play, at high speeds.
- Changing Environments: players will develop different skill sets, both technical and tactical, when placed in different environments. I would encourage you to look at my work on constraint based training to find out more about environments.
- Play the Real Game: there is no substitute for playing the actual game, for a wide range of reasons. The real game is where strategy from the small-area games, and ball mastery can be implemented into the 11v11 setting. It will also build the players GPS.
- Ball Mastery: the player can do this in isolation, and apply in game settings. The argument can be made that technique is also developed in games as well, especially when it comes to the development of special skill sets, in unique environments over time.
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