Below is an introduction to my latest work called “Constrained”. If you are a coach looking to be challenged and pushed, then this book is for you.
Connecting Academic Theory to Training Session Design
I wanted to begin the conversation about coaching and player development at the very foundation, and for me this starts with connecting of academic theory to practice session design. There are two main academic theories that are used to explain skill acquisition and decision-making, they are the ecological dynamics theory and the cognitive processing theory. I subscribe to the ecological dynamics model because it can be quantified mathematically, and it makes more logical sense to me, especially in a sporting context. My entire soccer methodology is built upon the theory of ecological dynamics, so it is important to grasp the basic concepts of ecological dynamics, in order to understand my practice session design.
Basics of Ecological Dynamics
Light reflects off an object, the reflection of light plus the rate of change provides us with real-time information. If a person throws a baseball at your head, the ball will reflect light, as the ball gets closer, the reflection of light from the ball becomes bigger (rate of change). The information from the reflection of light will tell the person the speed and direction of the ball that is propelled towards their head. This formula works when the object is moving and the performer is stationary when the object is stationary and the performer is moving, and for all the combinations of performer and object movements. The person who had the baseball thrown at their head, will automatically couple their physical actions in real-time to the information from the reflection of light. Ultimately, the person will move their head, coupling their physical actions to the current information from the reflection of light and its rate of change. People do not need to be trained to move their head out of the way from the baseball, this is purely the interaction between the human and the environment. This can all be proven by mathematics using the theory of “Tau” formulated by David Lee. The environment itself is information-rich, it holds all the information the athlete needs if they are attuned to the right areas.
The next part of theory of ecological dynamics relates to the decision-making process. Ecological dynamics tells us that players are not making decisions based upon the retrieval of past memories, or by saying if A + B then the player executes action C. The game is so fast that players need to change their intentions for action many times in a fraction of a second. When Xavi is dribbling trying to penetrate the defense, his intentions for action are always changing, as invitations for actions are opening and closing at ultra-fast speeds. Ecological dynamics views decision making as a real-time feedback-loop between the environment and the athlete. Information from the environment specifies invitations for action, which are called affordances. These invitations or opportunities for action are athlete-specific and emerge and decay quickly in the game. Let me give you some examples to illustrate the point more clearly. A player that can do a bicycle kick may look at a crossed ball as a chance to perform a bicycle kick. But a player who has never done a bicycle kick will look at the same crossed ball, and not see that opportunity for action, because they don’t have that skill or affordance. This is the difference between player affordances, perceived affordances, and opportunities for action. A slow player will not see the same opportunities for action compared to a faster player when dribbling the ball. Ecological dynamics understands that the environment itself holds all the information needed for players to make decisions in real time. If we accept that players are constantly perceiving, and in real time opportunities to perform actions open and close specific to each athlete, then we see decision-making as a very fluid in the moment process, it not something that is based upon memory, calculations, or patterns. Also, players who are perceiving the same affordances opening, we call that a “shared affordance”. If Messi see’s space for the striker to run into, and the striker see’s the same space, and they both coordinate their physical actions to exploit the defense together, this is called a shared affordance.
The ecological dynamics framework views athletes and sports teams as complex adaptive systems that operate in conjunction with the environment in a circular-loop. The sport of soccer is complex, dynamic, and chaotic in its purest form. The game is not meant to be separated into pieces and taught in sections. If you are separating the four moments of the game (attacking organization, attacking transition, defensive organization, defensive transition) and training them in isolation, it becomes less game-representative. The information the athletes are perceiving is less real than the actual game, and the coupling of the physical actions to this information is not as useful. However, I will present to you what I feel is representative enough in practice session design, and what is not. The goal is for players to practice in environments that are “game representative”, not separated into individual moments, and allow players to couple physical movements to high-quality game representative information from the environment.