The Future of Soccer Player Development is Above the Neck

Is the future of player development going to be above the neck? What does “above the neck” mean exactly? To me, it means that the next great advances in player development, will be in the area of the brain, above the neck, not on the physical side. At this point in time, strength and fitness coaches have taken the physical component just about as far as they can, but the brain has received little attention, yet the brain has huge potential when it comes to increasing sports performance levels. The important question for coaches is, how can we in a real and meaningful way develop the soccer brain, so players can reach their highest levels of performance? The answer I came up with, may surprise you, it centers around what happens during the milliseconds before we make a soccer decision on the field. You may be thinking this is pretty obvious stuff, the player takes in current information and makes a decision based upon the information, but there is a catch, and it may not be that simple. What if you are not actually consciously in control of the decisions you think you are making, is it even possible for your brain to make decisions before you are consciously aware of what you chose to do? You may think you are making a conscious decision, but that decision may have already been made 0-7 seconds before it became known to your conscious mind, in soccer the decision would most likely be made in milliseconds. The premise of this article is, that you may not be in as much control of your actions, as you think you are. All this might sound a little like science fiction, but the reality is, it may be very true, and if it is indeed true, it gives us even more reason to re-examine how we develop soccer players.

Imagine you are at an ice cream shop, trying to decide what flavor you should order. You stand there contemplating, and after 6 or 7 seconds you blurt out, “I will take the chocolate chip please”. You think it took six seconds to come to that decision, but in reality, unconsciously your brain decided many seconds before you were even aware. It might sound strange, but the latest research in neuroscience makes a convincing case for why this is true. The first neuroscience example is from an experiment done by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The Scientists hooked patients up to an fMRI, as they asked them to press a button with either their left or right hand, the only condition was that the participant had to track when they made the actual decision to press the button, at the same time scientists monitored the micro patterns of activity in the fronto-polar cortex. Remarkably, the Scientists were able to predict the hand that the participant would use to press the button, up to 7 seconds before the participant was even aware what hand they would use to press the button. This experiment alone challenges most conventional wisdom about the decision-making process. Another experiment came to a similar conclusion, but it involved participants performing a mental task, instead of a physical task. Participants were instructed to either add or subtract a set of numbers, as data was collected using a fMRI. The results from this experiment re- enforced the previous experiment, showing that the decisions the participants made, whether to add or subtract, were detected on the fMRI up to 4 seconds prior to the participants even being consciously aware of the decision they made. This leads to the question, can this be translated to soccer and player development?

I am a coach that is obsessed with understanding player development from an information processing or cognitive standpoint, so experiments like these spark my interest, causing me to further research the process of decision-making, and how it all relates to the game of soccer. Ultimately, it is my goal to help every coach make the connection between science and player development, in a meaningful simple way, but before I connect the dots from the previous research to actual realistic training methods, let’s look at a little more data on the topic that will further help fill in the gaps.

Implicit Memory

The first important concept that ties into how sporting actions are carried out and decisions are made, is called “Implicit Memory”. Implicit memory is something that your brain holds knowledge of, but cannot explicitly access. An example of this would be a golf swing, if you were to over-think your swing, putting the focus on internal performance cues, it would most likely mess the swing up. This is because the body is designed to carry out motor acts naturally, without the conscious mind interfering. Your subconscious mind holds all the directions your body needs to perform sports movements or actions. This was proven by Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001), in their research pertaining to external and internal cues and body movements; they determined that internal focus or cueing “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement.” Instead, if a person’s focus is shifted to the end result of the movement goal, the “motor system [can] naturally self- organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.” An example of shifting to an end result of a movement goal would be, shooting at a specific area of the goal, instead of focusing on the technical cues of the shot, like keeping your ankle locked or making sure your plant foot was pointed at the target. By using the end result as the barometer of success, it lets the body perform in a natural state, free from constraints of the mind, success is measured by if the ball went into the goal through the desired target area.

 

The idea of implicit memory goes as far back as the 1600s, when a researcher named René Descartes, deducted that all of our experiences with the world are stored in memory, but not all of these memories are accessible by the conscious mind. This idea was again re-visited in the 1800s by the famous Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus believed that many of the experiences we live through are stored but not consciously remembered, however the experiences stay with us in our subconscious mind, and these experiences can be retrieved. A good example of this, is a study that was conducted with people who had anterograde amnesia, these are people that have no ability to consciously recall new experiences in their lives. The study involved teaching the group to play a video game called Tetris, when asked the next day about the game, they had no recollection of the experience, they couldn’t even identify seeing the game before. But when the participants were asked to play the video game, they showed vast improvement, just as much as non-amnesiacs. The study proved that even people with anterograde amnesia displayed implicit memory with newly learned skills, as they improved at the video game, even though the knowledge gained was not accessible to their conscious mind. There are many examples of implicit memory and the power of the subconscious mind. One example is the chicken sexers (identifying the sex of infant chickens) of Japan. The mystery of the chicken sexers came about because nobody could explain how the job was accomplished. The deciphering of infant chickens was based on subtle visual cues, but even the best professional sexers could not explain what the cues were. They would just look at the chick’s and instinctively know to throw the males in one bin and the females in another bin, but the difference between the male and female chic’s couldn’t be explained by the sexters. What the master sexters found out was that the only successful way to teach the skill, was by simply saying yes or no when the chick was thrown into the bin by the apprentice. After weeks of yes and no feedback from the master sexter, the apprentice was able to learn the skill, as their brain was trained on an unconscious level. The same held true during WWII when expert British plane spotters tried to train others how to detect the enemy planes flying overhead. The expert plane spotters could not explain how they did it, rather they just had to tell the apprentices yes or no, as the planes came in, letting the apprentice’s subconscious minds learn the skill. Yet another great example of implicit memory and the subconscious mind, comes from an article the NY Times had written about experienced United States Soldiers who were deployed in Iraq, having served multiple tours of duty. These battled tested soldiers were able to look down a street in Iraq and predict with incredible accuracy whether or not there was an IED (improvised explosive device) present. When asked how they were able to know if there was an explosive on the street, they were unable to answer how they knew. They literally had no idea how they were able to do it, they just felt it. They said things like, “it just felt right” or “it just felt wrong”. However, only the experienced soldiers had the ability to predict with accuracy, if there was an IED explosive threat on the street. Inexperienced soldiers were not able to predict with any type of accuracy if a street contained an IED. How can we explain this? It goes back to the processing power of the subconscious mind and the conscious mind, the subconscious mind can process a minimum of 10 million data points in any type of situation, compared to your conscious mind that can only process around 75 data points! Using those number’s, we can deduct that 99.99 % of the observations you make are subconscious. The experienced experts subconscious mind has almost superhuman abilities in their area of expertise, their decisions and actions may be already decided before they are consciously aware of them. Just think about some of Lionel Messi’s incredible feats over the years, how quickly does he process data or better yet how quickly does his subconscious mind process data? The last example of the incredible power of the subconscious mind is demonstrated in a study containing novice and expert chess players. The novice and expert chess players were shown a chess game that was already in progress, after a couple of seconds a curtain was put over the board and they were asked to set up a new board replicating exactly the game they saw. The novice chess players were able to recreate and set-up some pieces but not even close to the entire game. However, the expert chess players were able to recreate the entire game with pinpoint accuracy. The expert players were even able to understand the strategies that both players were attempting to execute, in the game they recreated. When asked how they re-created the game the experts were not able to give an answer, but they instinctively just knew how to do it.

 

These examples demonstrate how expert’s subconscious minds are superiorly developed in their fields of expertise. Experts are able to organize & chunk essential information together quickly, overcoming the limited capacity constraints of the conscious brain. They are also able to instantly discard all non-essential information while quickly and skillfully recognizing patterns and small details. The expert’s vast levels of experience in their respected areas allows this to happen; their subconscious minds are so well trained and experienced it even frees up room for their conscious mind to work more efficiently. The novice performer will always be at a large disadvantage because the novice’s subconscious mind is not developed like the experts.

Sports Specific Context

Based on these examples, it is very clear that the subconscious mind and implicit memory play important parts in our everyday life. So let us now look at the subconscious mind using a sports specific example now. The fastest baseball pitch on record is Nolan Ryan’s 100.9 miles per hour fastball. The pitcher in professional baseball is located 60 feet, 6 inches away from the batter, this gives the batter 4/10 of a second to swing at Ryan’s fastball. That is barely enough time for light signals from the batter’s eye to work through to the retina, activating a response from cells along the visual system in the head to the motor areas, which contract the muscles to swing the bat. This process of events happens in less the 4/10 of second, or nobody could ever hit Ryan’s fastball. However, conscious awareness takes around 5/10 of a second, this means that Ryan’s fastball travels too fast for batters to be consciously aware of, demonstrating that complex sports movements or actions can be performed unconsciously. As we look at the information, it makes a compelling case, that the subconscious mind plays a very large role in the process of executing sporting actions, movements and the making of decisions.

The question every coach and player wants to know is, what is the difference between the top level players, compared to lower level players, and can it be taught? The theory of perception action coupling in sports will give us some important clues to this question, as we work towards the answer. During practice and games players will pick up cues and associate those cues with actions. When a player combines multiple cues together, it is called “Perception-Action Coupling”. As the player couples together cues, it triggers a specific action, the result of that action is immediately evaluated and processed (based upon success & failure) by the brain, which will guide future actions and decisions. This process is also referred to as vision, processing and action. In essence the player see’s what is happening on the field, processes the current information, then decides upon what action to take, and finally the action is carried out. Lower level players often get stuck processing each step too slowly. Higher-level players go through these three steps without hesitation, never stopping or delaying. Players that take too much time to scan, process and act will give away possession, fail to take opportunities, get caught ball watching and find themselves out of position disrupting the teams play. Another major difference between high-level and low- level players is, high-level players see and process only the important cues, meaning they absorb only the essential information, they are able to instantly and subconsciously filter out all non-essential information. Several studies of high- level tennis, table tennis and cricket players show how skilled they are at ignoring non-relevant cues, while focusing on only the important cues. This allows them not only to perform better, but their anticipation and ability to read the game is far superior.

When we analyze high-level players it provides us with important clues into the secrets behind their elite performance on the soccer field. Is it possible that top players are benefiting from even saving a fraction of a second on the ball, allowing them to make better decisions? A recent neurology study supports this idea, indicating that people will make better more accurate decisions, when allowed as little as an extra fragment of a second, to make their decision. When a top player selects the proper angle to receive the ball, times their run, uses correct expert technique, scans and does the things top players do, these actions will result in saving them a second or two on the ball, this preparation combined with the use of proper technique, allows the high level player to take an extra fragment of a second to make the final decision (pass, shoot, dribble). Gaining this fragment of a second, will most likely not even be noticed by the average spectator, but it can make the different between a lower level and higher level player. I hear younger players talk about the next level of the game being so much faster; but is it really that much faster? As the levels go up the players tend to be better athletes for sure, but what makes the game faster is everything else the top player is trained to do, most of which is before the ball even gets to them. I remember the great Liverpool FC midfielder Steven Gerrard commenting on a skilled player from Mexico saying, “He is so good because he has done all the work before the ball even gets to him”. He makes a great point for why cognitive soccer development is so important in that statement; Gerrard is speaking about soccer intelligence with nothing to do with the physical aspect of the game.

The Bayesian Inference Theory

Let’s look at another theory of implicit memory and the subconscious mind in action. We will use the example of tennis player returning a simple shot, the series of events goes something like this. The opponent hits the ball as the returning player will need to judge where the ball will land and how it will bounce. The player will use a combination of sensory visual and auditory data to help perform the return shot. However, the real time data is also combined with past experiences, in order to best predict where the ball will bounce or land. Past experiences help to answer questions like, where did most of the prior similar type of shots land that were like this shot? But let me stop right there for second, past experiences matter, and variety of past experiences matter a lot. This is an important cornerstone of cognitive sports instruction and development, it means that the more diversity and variety of training experiences a player has, the more tools the player will have in order to solve problems on the field. In contrast, if every soccer training session was 2-touch only, the experience would not be diverse enough to develop well-rounded players with the ability to problem solve using a variety tools and solutions. The player simply would not have developed the proper tools to play the real game, which requires more than playing 2-touch. Let’s jump back to the tennis example, after seeing the ball served and recalling past experiences, the last step in the process would be for the brain to take in all the external factors, which include things like the direction and force of the wind, the make-up of the playing surface, the weather, crowd noise and anything else that would be considered external in influence. The brain would then take all these factors into account, along with current data and prior experiences to make an instant decision about what action to take. As you can imagine, there is very little time to think in these sporting situations, so players must be well rehearsed and trained, if they hope to be successful. Becoming a high-level player doesn’t happen overnight, it takes quality and diverse training experiences over time. When we look at the patterns of high level performers and experts, all the way from the chicken sexers and plane spotters to battle tested soldiers, they are all able to instantly pick up on indicators or cues that others do not, allowing them to sub-consciously read and gain predictive information. A top level tennis player may be observing the opponents grip, hip position, shoulder position and much more even before they hit the ball, while the lower level player might be solely focused on racquet speed and racquet position. Top-level players will also be able to recognize patterns quicker, as a result they can anticipate and react much faster than the lower level player. Research does indicate that information usage may be related to a performers’ visual search patterns. One of the differences between expert and novice players may lie in respect to the location, distribution and duration of eye movements. The expert over time has gained the experience and knowledge of where and what to focus visually, even if they don’t consciously realize it. The Bayesian Inference Theory helps us understand how the brain may work in sports specific situations that combine sensory input/data, drawing on past experiences and accounting for external factors, all this must be done in a split second to make a successful decision.

Deliberate Practice

Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University is a leading expert in an area called Deliberate Practice. Anders has found that becoming highly skilled in a field has more to do with how one practices compared to just the number of repetitions a person performs. Meaningful deliberate practice should not be easy or take little mental effort; deliberate practice requires hard work, mental bandwidth, concentration and focus. Anders also concluded that many highly skilled people break the learning of skills into smaller chunks while getting feedback from a master coach. Simple feedback from a master coach is consistent with the plane spotters and chicken sexters of Japan. Deliberate practice also focuses on continuously training the learned skill at more and more challenging levels, building neural pathways. Working from simple to complex is logical in the learning progression. In the context of soccer training we can use the example of learning a 1 v 1 attacking move; the initial stage would be learning the move at a very slow rate of speed, breaking the technique down into stages or chunks and then putting it all together once each stage is mastered. Once the skill is ready for whole practice, the player would gradually increase the speed of execution of the skill as proficiency increases. The next step would be to add cones that act as visual cues and spatial indicators for the player to execute the technique on. The cones force players to figure out space, timing, speed and proper angles. Example: The player has to execute the 1v1 scissors move skill, while dribbling at the cone. In order for the player to be successful, he must dribble at a certain speed, execute the move at the proper distance, the speed of dribble needs to be factored into timing of move and the proper approach angle must be taken in order to get past the cone successfully. All these factors come into play just by having the player add a simple cone to the execution of the skill! The next step in the learning would be to add a passive defender, then 70% effort defender and finally a full pressure defender. The last stage of learning the 1v1 move is to understand when to use the move in a real game at speed; this is done in game realistic exercises. The last part involves actual strategy in the use of the skill. The player who has mastered the technical component of a skill can then start adapt the skill when needed. The more technically skilled a player becomes, the more potential for increased game intelligence, because the focus is not on the technique itself, it can shift to strategy. Also, the athlete who has mastered a certain skill will also be able to read that same skill coming from an opponent easier. Maybe your defenders or keepers won’t ever use the 1v1 scissors move, but it may help their defending ability if they learn to recognize it coming at them. This would be considered learning predictive information that would help the defender or keeper anticipate the attackers next actions. Also, players that are technical will have the ability to save time on the ball by using the correct, efficient and proper technique, thus allowing for greater game intelligence.

It is important to note that during the learning process, the presence of a master coach who provides feedback will serve to increase the effectiveness of learning; this is a very important component to learning. The entire theory of “Deliberate Practice” is based off of the observations of highly skilled experts in all different types of fields. Deliberate practice focuses on teaching and embedding skills into a student’s long-term memory; it clearly shows that experts learn to organize their knowledge in more practical and useful ways than non-experts. Elite athletes are without a doubt superior in rapid encoding, recall, retrieval and recognition of patterns in their respective sports. They are also superior in the advanced prediction & anticipation of the actions of opponents, they have the ability to chunk together indicators and cues in order to form patterns quickly in their minds, which overcomes many typical memory and processing capacity constraints. What that means is, elite athletes can organize and process meaningful information in their sport subconsciously without having to think, it just happens in a fraction of a second. The entire process bypasses the conscious mind, which is too slow in the processing information. This is why a skilled person in a particular field is able to learn new skills in that field much quicker than a person from outside the field. The experienced skilled person already has the plasticity and synapses in place used to process the familiar information; while the novice learner must build their neural networks in order to increase their ability to organize and process information instantly. There is little question that “Deliberate Practice” when done correctly challenges the brain and enhances cognitive development and skill development.

Rapid Skill Acquisition

Deliberate practice contains importance lessons for all coaches and players in the area of skill acquisition. Rapid Skill Acquisition is about executing a large number of repetitions in many different challenging environments, while using total immersion to hard wire neural pathways in the brain. This means that the trained skills will be stored in the long-term memory faster, compared to if it was practiced only on a part-time basis. A skill starts to become automatic as it leaves the short-term memory and is placed into the long-term memory; this is best achieved by using RSA Total Immersion Training. Example: If you had the chance to learn a new skill and practiced it once a week for eight weeks, it would not be as effective compared to total immersion training of eight consecutive days of practice. In order to learn the skill even better in that eight days of total immersion training, break-up the practice sessions into short bursts of intense practice, followed by sleep or settling time and repeat the process. Sleep consolidates and encodes what we learn during the day.

Part II of this article will be out soon: “Practical Way’s to Develop Soccer Intelligence”

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