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08.17.18Sneak Preview From the Coach’s Guide to Teaching: On ‘The Ability to Decide’

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I mentioned in a tweet yesterday that I had finally started making progress again on a book I’ve been working on for some time called The Coach’s Guide to Teaching. A lot of people wanted to know more about it so I thought I’d share an excerpt.  This is the introduction and overview to the section on teaching players to be effective decision-makers, a key challenges in coaching. First there’s a discussion of the science of decision-making and then there are a series of recommendations for ways to structure and design training accordingly.  This excerpt doesn’t get that far but maybe I’ll share more later. At least it give you a taste for some of the topics. Let it not be said that it is not nerdy enough.

The Ability to Decide

Like basketball, hockey and rugby, soccer is a ‘group invasion game.’ It requires coordination among a group of individual to maintain possession of a ball and advance it into an opponent’s territory. Doing so requires skill, finesse and power, but also intelligence and insight. It requires decisions, made at speed and under-pressure. Only then can the goal be reached.

In other words, skill alone is insufficient. Players may have speed, power, guile and technique, but in the end the mental game—individual decision-making and the ability to participate in shared, coordinated decision-making–is the most important proficiency of all. This is the game’s defining characteristic.

It is also probably the hardest thing to teach.

“At the highest level,” a former premier league player told me, “players don’t run faster, they think faster,” though if we’re talking about the very highest levels, it’s probably more true that players must think faster and run faster. Anyway, the distinction is not so simple. Part of being ‘fast’ is making better decisions (where to position oneself and at what angle to run) and making them a little faster than the player standing a few feet away[1].  Even speed, the most purely physical aspect of sport, relies in part on decision-making[2].

A key fact to recognize in player development is that the importance of decision-making increases dramatically over time. Young players can dominate based on exceptional skill or outlier athleticism, but there is always just one of him or her and 11 of them. Soon enough the opposition will learn to contain a stellar individual. The skills of a budding star will only shine if his or her decisions—and his or her teammates’ decisions–get them to the right spot at the right time.

But decision-making is not a faucet; you cannot simply decide to turn it on. It requires understanding, pattern recognition and perception- things that are products of experience and teaching, even if the causal connection is not always obvious.

To decide quickly and effectively you must see quickly and effectively. You must recognize the signal—their center back is too deep–in a hundred noisy details and do so before a window of opportunity that may last a fraction of second closes.

This central, and often hidden, role of perception raises questions.

1) Can certain people ‘see’ things faster or slower than others?

2) Can people be taught to see better?

The answers appear to be yes, but not a simple yes. You cannot just tell players to look and expect that they will see. The eyes must be trained to understand. “People can be misled into thinking [vision] is a very easy, simple process because it occurs so quickly and automatically,” the cognitive scientist Irving Biederman notes, but in fact much of how we see is learned behavior- but learned without our awareness of the process.

Any parent who has taught their child to drive has experienced this. A car inches out from a side road.  Your foot moves quickly to the break, but not your aspiring driver’s. It’s not that he doesn’t know to react, it’s that he has not yet seen the problem. He’s no dummy, your driver, and he’s not reckless but he doesn’t yet know where to look and what to focus on.  He is sorting through a thousand extraneous details while you are locked in on the few that matter most. You see more signal and less noise, and in those slivers of a second your anxiety reminds you that tiny differences in perceptive efficiency are highly significant under performance conditions.

Perceptive efficiency is the product of spending more time in environments rich in the visual signals you see in the game and learning to attend to the details that are signal rather than noise. It takes time—probably measured in years–to wire a brain like that[3].

And we have to start early. Focusing on decision-making at the age when it suddenly appears necessary will almost assuredly prove too late. The arc of learning is long and this creates risks: Coaches, for example, may under-emphasize decision-making and its antecedents during the most critical developmental years because it does not yet appear necessary to success- which many coaches conflate with winning (a topic I discuss in chapter X). And, when limitations in decision making emerge, years later, we will not likely trace problems back to teaching decisions made years earlier.  We may in fact be more likely to blame the players.

For these reasons coaches—especially those of younger players–can believe they have succeeded while neglecting the most important factor in a player’s long term success and never know it.  Players make decisions all along whether we guide them or not, and haphazard, ill-informed decisions accrue into habit just as readily as good ones. Unlearning years of poor decisions, however, is a far more difficult task than learning to make sound ones in the first place. Players learn habits even when they are accidental and this explains why some of the players we coach the worst are those who are dominant early on. They win games by doing what no one else is physically able to do, not necessarily what is smart or what will succeed in 5 years, and coaches often respond by encouraging them to rely on what is unsustainable or even counter-productive in the long run. In the end we can all think of these players. Remember how they used to dribble past everybody. What happened to them? Did they lose interest? Did they lack the heart and motivation? Or does the answer, just possibly, start with us and our coaching?

The Trials of Young Xavier and the Ketchup-Thin Margin

Imagine a young player. Call him ‘Xavier.’ He is out there in the ranks of players in your area. He is small and slow of foot, not without skill perhaps but seemingly always caught from behind and pushed off the ball by bigger, faster players. In possession, he looks to play the ball into a space where no teammate ever seems to be, then turns and plays the ball backwards- to the annoyance of the other parents (and maybe his coaches): For crying out loud, Xavier, don’t play it backwards!

Would his club invest time and effort in Xavier as much as it would his speedy teammate, who flashes forward to catch up to his own heavy touch and blasts home the winning goal?

Would the club teach its super-athletes to do the more tactical job of creating space between lines when they could happily feast on a seemingly never-ending supply balls over the top? Would it tell them not to do what works now in favor of what will matter more later? If so, would Xavier be on the field with them?  If he were given the chance to play with teammates who understood how and why to be in the space where he had been looking at all those times, he might not always play backwards. But would he have long since been farmed out to the periphery of the club’s attention, checking into space to wait in vain for passes from the other players whom no one takes very seriously.

This morning, in fact, young Xavier is out there, waiting to receive, turn, and strike a pass that cuts out two lines of the defense. But the most ‘skilled’ player on the field is on his 12th consecutive touch, juking elaborately past yet another opponent. By the time he looks up the defense is set and Xavier’s run has become irrelevant. Why, our star thinks, is Xavier standing there?

Soon enough even Xavier may come to ask this question- and perhaps cease making his runs. Why would he continue? Skill at a tactical game is hard to spot when not everyone is playing the same game[4]. How many players’ ability to play in combination goes unseen because those around them do not play in combination?

So if it turned out that with water and sunlight—that is to say attention, teaching, opportunity, faith, high expectations– Xavier might emerge a few years later, speed and size having evened out a bit, as Xavi[5], rarely touching the ball more than two or three times at a stretch but slicing opponents apart with perfectly weighted passes. At how many clubs would he get that water and sunlight?

Please don’t answer out loud. We both already know the truth.

The physical demands soccer puts on players are notoriously intense.  As the most-played game in a shrinking global world, competition for spots on the field at the elite level is unsurpassed- so much so that every elite professional club manages the diets of its players. One Premier League manager[6] allegedly lost the locker room when he refused his players access to ketchup (too sugary).  And yet despite the ketchup-thin margin between each player and his potential replacement, the game’s most dominant players always include a variety of those who are wiry despite the benefits of muscle, small despite the benefits of size, and comparatively slow in a game where speed is king.  The likes of Xavi and Pirlo and Kante tell us that the brain is the game’s ultimate source of competitive advantage.

The ability to decide is, in short, both the most important attribute of a great player and the sorest test of his or her coach, not only because it requires the discipline of future-focus- an interest as much in long-term development  as on winning now- but because decision-making skills are so difficult to teach.

What Kind(s) of Thinking?

One reason it is difficult to teach thinking is that it is difficult to recognize when thinking happens. This might seem like an absurd statement but as David Eagleman points out in Incognito, the Hidden Lives of the Brain, the thinking we are consciously aware of accounts for only a tiny proportion of our cognition. The great majority of it goes chugging along without our even knowing it.

During the rest of this chapter I will try to describe how thinking happens in a soccer setting. The first task will be to differentiate two cognitive processes that are often referred to interchangeably: decision-making and problem-solving. One (problem solving) is slow and the other (decision-making) is fast. Decision-making is by far the cognitive process players use most frequently during a match but problem solving is an important teaching tool. It develops the associations that support faster thinking during the game and it allows for coordination among players.

Next we’ll study the mechanics of perception, which is the first step in both decision-making and problem solving. As I’ve mentioned, it is more complex and subjective than most people realize. “Half our brain is dedicated almost exclusively to vision,” observes Biederman. We can be “misled into thinking it is a very easy, simple process because it occurs so quickly and automatically.” But expertise, in many ways, is knowing what to look for and where to find it.

A study of professional pianist Daniel Beliavsky and his student Charlotte Bennett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVvY8KfXXgE) shows this connection. Sight reading a piece of new music—processing cues, deciding how to act on them, coordinating his decisions with physical motions—Beliavsky’s eyes, consistently move precisely to the phrase just ahead of the one he is playing, going first to the treble clef and then the base clef- something we know because he is wearing a pair of vision-tracking glasses as he plays. The range of vision—where he looks–is narrow, steady and consistent. Much steadier than Bennett’s. She scans a wider range of the visual field and is not as consistent in where she directs her eyes. This is perhaps unexpected. Beliavsky, the expert, is taking in less information to guide his decisions than his student. But this is because he knows exactly where to look to find the right cues in a given moment, and he locks in on them earlier. His perception captures more signal and less noise. What’s more he does this unconsciously. In fact it becomes clear that neither knew much if anything about what their eyes did as they played before watching the video, but Beliavsky’s relative expertise is still clearly reflected in his subconscious knowledge about where to look. His mental focus is in fact visual focus: knowing what to look for and where to find it and unconsciously sustaining his concentration there.

It’s not hard to see the connection to athletes. We might suspect that it is better to see more of the game. In some cases maybe it is. But in many cases the mark of the expert is knowing exactly where to look for the most important signal and having an unconscious habit of looking there steadily and consistently.  A recent vision-tracking study of Cristiano Ronaldo shows him doing essentially this in keeping a ball from a defender-focusing on cues from the hips and knees of the defender, locking in on the key data in a methodical way and reacting with a deeply encoded skill. And totally unaware that he does any of this  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSL-gPMPVXI). We will return to this video later.

A study by psychologist David Berliner revealed a similar trend among teachers. Watching videos of classrooms, novice teachers failed to perceive them accurately. Veterans looked less—their eye movements like Beliavsky’s were steadier and narrower—but saw more accurately. With experience they had come to know where to look to reliably see the important variables. Experts see differently from novices.

The second step in decision-making involves connecting an associated action to a pattern perceived in the environment. You see something—a body moving quickly in your peripheral vision–and it triggers an action you’ve learned—rotate your body and shield. The faster the response required, the more the brain relies on actions stored in long term memory and connected by association. But the process often involves adaptation as well.  It can be hard to recognize that this process is happening but linking associations to perceptions can yield a surprising amount of variability and even creativity.

Another form of decision-making involves the coordination of individual decisions within a group.  While the speed of problem solving gives it limited applicability for individuals during live play, a form of coordinated decision-making that acts like problem solving occurs constantly during games. This is a mildly strange idea- individual players infrequently engage in problem solving during live play but teams constantly solve problems during games. By learning from and anticipating the individual decisions of players around them faster than the opposition and in a coordinated way, good teams are trained to understand, predict and react to one another optimally[7].

Our last stop may be an unexpected one. Knowledge forms the foundation of all higher order cognitive functions including critical thinking, problem solving and decision-making. “Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable,” writes University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham. “Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).[8]

It’s important to note that while the role of knowledge as the basis of understanding, critical thinking and even creativity is all but consensus among cognitive scientists, popular opinion—and often the opinion of educators—leans the opposite way: that learning facts is a “lower order” activity, a waste of time in a world where you can Google anything. The assumption is that problem-solving and critical thinking are abstract skills that can be applied across different domains once learned. They are, in the words of a cognitive scientist, ‘transferable.”

I understand why this idea is so compelling. The notion that, once learned, critical thinking could be applied flexibly from one setting to another is a beautiful idea. Unfortunately it is also at odds with the realities of brain function. Critical thinking and problem solving are heavily context specific. Because you can think critically about organic chemistry does not mean you can apply that thinking to art history- or to midfield play for that matter. You can think critically only about those areas where you have knowledge. To think critically about Napoleon’s decisions at Waterloo you need to know about Napoleon’s personality and motivations, his relationships with his generals, the nature of the English and Prussian commanders, and their position on the field on June 18, 1815.  Without this knowledge you could try to think critically about why he attacked and whether it was reckless, but in the end you would mostly be guessing. And guessing is not critical thinking.

As Willingham notes in the quotation I referred to earlier, for it to be useful in thinking, knowledge must be encoded in long term memory. Short term memory–active processing capacity—is preciously small[9], trying to remember or think about one thing reduces our capacity to think about any other thing. In other words it’s very difficult to think deeply about ideas we are trying consciously to hold in our thoughts[10] in part because holding them there uses up our ability to do other things. The more we want our players to think well, then, the more knowledge they must carry in their long-term memory and the more we have to help them keep their short term memory free to perceive.

[1] Speed is also confidence in and clarity about decisions. Who closes a space at full speed while wondering should I be closing now?.

[2] Cruyff also made this point: Speed is often confused with insight. “When I start running earlier than the others I appear faster.”

[3] The fact that some people learn it by accident or luck does not mean this is an effective way to develop the greatest number of learners

[4] Johann Cruyff described a version of this.  “Someone who has juggled the ball in the air during a game, after which four defenders … get the time to run back, that’s the player people think is great.” Instead, he noted, “Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.”

[5] Xavi, aka Xavier Hernandez is “Highly regarded for his humble persona and team ethos, [and] viewed as being the embodiment of the tiki-taka passing style of play, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest central midfielders of all time. He is also considered by many to be the greatest Spanish player ever.”

[6] Paolo Di Canio. Ok, there may have been other reasons why he lost the locker room.

[7] A colleague who coaches basketball at the collegiate level recently sent me an interview with one of the Navy SEAL’s was responsible for the raid that captured Osama Bin Laden. In describing how the team successfully reacted to the disastrous crash of one of its two helicopters as they landed at Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, he noted: “I think what SEALs are good at is what I consider pickup basketball. You know… We all know how to move efficiently and tactically. And we can communicate clearly. So when something goes sideways, we’re able to play the pickup basketball and just kind of read off each other.”

[8] If you don’t believe Willingham, here’s the National Research Council on the topic: “Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem or context, in or out of school.” Cognition is not a transferrable skill and is always context specific. http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_070621.pdf

[9] Long term memory by contrast is essentially unlimited

[10] Even creativity appears to be much more closely linked to knowledge than most people understand.  In fact many cognitive scientists think that creativity is a sudden association between something you perceive and an unexpected connection in long term memory: It starts with the strange connection of two disparate ideas one of which is in your memory. Look at them playing 4-3-3 at Old Trafford. It’s like Napoleon at Waterloo!

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