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02.27.20For Coaches: The Importance of Perception-Based Questions

Decision-making starts with the eyes…

Thanks to all the supportive folks who’ve been asking “Hey, how’s that coaching book coming?” The answer is: slowly. But it’s coming. I was chatting with a friend about how to ask better questions of athletes and it reminded me of a section on the importance of using questions to train athlete’s eyes. As Todd Beane of TOVO Academy puts it: ‘I see because I understand; I understand because I see.’

Here’s a short excerpt on that idea:

Emphasize Perception— One of the most powerful ways to accelerate the quality of athletes’ decision-making is to ask questions that shape their perception. It turns out that apparently mundane things like where an athlete’s eyes go and what he or she looks at are the core of strong decision-making… sometimes they are the decision for all intents and purposes. When you don’t gather the right information, you make the wrong decision, so when we use a phrase like “I see” to mean ‘I understand” we are closer to the truth than we realize.

The challenges of seeing correctly are multiplied when athletes are required to see well quickly. ‘Decisions’ made in less than 6 tenths of a second generally happen before the brain can have a conscious thought and require an almost direct coupling of perception and action.

How do major league hitters manage to connect with pitches that arrive at home plate faster than they can have a conscious thought? It’s not about reaction time. They are reading visual cues from the pitcher as he delivers the ball: where is his arm channel? How fast are his hips rotating? The perception–slider–becomes the action–swing–before the conscious mind can engage. If his eyes aren’t attending to arm channel and hip rotation the decision is going to be poor. Interestingly, however, most hitters appear to have no idea they are doing this.

In a match you receive a ball under pressure and flick it into the space just beyond a defender before you even realize you’ve done so. You can do this because you have to have seen a lot of similar situations in the past and you know–unconsciously–where to look for the space to pen up. You can read the visual field quickly and instantly react.

You succeed not only because of what you see in that moment but because of what you have seen and paid attention to over the course of years- the aggregation of a thousand mundane decisions about where to look at what to focus on.

Some important things to know about perception as a coach

  • Perception is not automatic or objective. What we see is subjective and we fail to see a great deal that is right in front of our eyes. Alternatively we can see something and react to it and not realize it.
  • We are unaware of the great majority of our own actions regarding perception. We are rarely conscious of where we are looking when we play for example.
  • Surprisingly experts look at fewer things during performance than novices. In many ways the definition of their expertise is that they know where to look.
  • What we think of as poor decisions are often failures of perception instead.
  • Perception for an athlete is heavily visual but not exclusively so; auditory and sensory perception are also relevant

If expertise is, in many ways, knowing what to pay attention to, using our questions to guide players to know which things to look at, with what purpose and when gives them the tools to gather better information and thus make better decisions. That said, talking about how to train the eyes necessarily includes guess work: can coaches teach athletes unconscious behaviors by making them conscious? As far as I can tell no one knows for sure.

Certainly we can now study and understand what elite athletes do with their eyes while they perform. There is a famous video of Cristiano Ronaldo dribbling up on a defender with eye tracking glasses on for example.  The glasses show how his glance scans from the defender’s hip to knee to foot to knee (again) to determine which way he is leaning. This is his process for reading a defender. There are similar studies showing that the best foul shooters in basketball look at the back of the rim. But whether it will work to tell athletes, “Look at your opponent’s hip, knee and foot,” “Look at the back of the rim,” is another question. Possibly we could make athletes better by wiring their looking correctly. Possibly we could make an unconscious process conscious and merely disrupt the brain’s systems and slow them down.

I think it’s worth trying. If nothing else the upside is immense. What made almost every elite athlete elite was the happenstance that something or someone along their learning journey caused them to be in the habit of looking in the right place at the right time during all those years of development. Could we take out the happenstance and help all athletes be that lucky? Can we make athletes see more by asking more perception-based questions during training? I think we can.

There are four questions in particular I’d like to propose: I’m sure coaches will come up with more and better on their own.

What do you see? This question–used during a stoppage or perhaps film study–asks a player to describe the visual field. Since they can’t describe everything they must prioritize and this tells you what they are conscious of, what seems important to them. 

Consider Caleb, a center back, who has failed to drop off his man when a player with the ball attacked the midfield line in the middle third of the field.

You stop and ask him: “Caleb, What do you see?” Perhaps an ideal answer is “There’s no pressure on the ball.” If you get that answer you job is easy. Caleb knows what he should be looking for. Now you can reinforce the perception-action coupling.  “So what should you do?”

If you ask “Caleb, What do you see?” and get an reply of “Stewart has space” you’re a bit farther away. Perhaps you say “Ok, why does that matter?” Maybe this helps Caleb get to, “He can play forward anywhere.”

But on the other hand if the answer to “What do you see?” is “The Stewart with the ball,” things are very different. It tells you Caleb doesn’t know what to look for. Now you know you have to teach him where to find the signal. “The important things for a center back to notice are…” Or, “the most important thing in this situation is…”

Similarly, if Caleb’s answer is, “We’re out of position” or “The midfield isn’t helping” or “I don’t know,” you now know the problem is that Caleb does not understand the cues to read. In short, asking “What do you see?” is diagnostic. It helps you to understand what players think is important in the visual field and what they don’t.  This is important because in many cases coaches questioning begins by revealing the important perception. As in: “Stewart has space and time. What should you do?” A player who can answer this question knows the solution if the coach identified the problem. This is different from being able to identify the problem himself.

Where should your eyes go? And What should you look at? These questions remind Caleb of the importance of looking actively not passively and retaining mental focus. And they assess his understanding of what to look at. However, they are a bit more focused that “what do you see?” because they ask the athlete to generalize to specific cues or principles (and are best if we have actually discussed those cues as a team). They also could have multiple answers because Caleb might have to be attending to multiple things. A decent answer to What should you look at? might be: “The player with the ball and the one I’m marking to see what he does. Also I am scanning to see if any other players are trying to separate me and the other center back.” Perhaps that allows me to talk about when or help him be efficient. “Glance quickly to gauge pressure on the ball then you can scan for…

What will tell you…? This question is a more explicit effort to discuss cues. You might ask, “What will tell you whether to drop or press?” or, “What will tell you how to shape your run?”  Answers like “How the defender is facing” or “Whether the second defender is too loose” are the sign of a player who has learned to watch the inner game.

In many cases asking these kinds questions of Caleb is at least as good as asking him, ‘What should you do?” They start with the eyes and work to the decision. They are most useful when a coach has taught players various preferred options and is asking them to decide which one to use or how to adapt them.   On a good team the principles of play and the game model are shared knowledge. Perception questions ask players to learn how to decide among and adapt them.

There’s a flip side of the coin here. If you are thinking about and teaching visual cues you can also train your players to use them to deceive the opposition. Once you start asking “what will tell you which way to play?” and the answer is, the way the defender is facing, your players know what good opposition will see and you can train them to exploit that. Your defenders can manipulate cues; your forwards disguise runs to look like they are resting and then suddenly snap into action, pretend to be looking away when in fact they are waiting for the defense’s eyes to drift.

Showing the Problem.

Perception-based questions only work if we are all looking at a recreation of the moment when the decision was made.

Recently I watched a training session at an MLS academy with a group of coaches taking a high-level license course. The goal of the session was to create and exploit numerical advantages, a topic that required sophisticated decision-making. Players were directed to try to create overloads but it didn’t seem like they were making a lot of progress on finding opportunities to create numerical advantages. It looked like they were just playing and every so often the coach would gather them in a circle and ask a question like, ‘How did we do there?’ But what ‘there’ meant was unreliable. It was unclear for example which moment from the previous four or five minutes of play the coach was referring to. Even if the coach was able to clearly identify a moment and cause everyone to remember it reliably, they would all remember it from a different perspective and with different levels of accuracy and objectivity. Christian might have failed to spot an opportunity when Claudio was in space and the opposition might have been unbalanced but in retrospect it was all but impossible to describe to Christian what he had failed to perceive.

What was missing? What needed to happen for group problem solving to work? One thing is the problem itself. If you want to solve a problem, it has to be clearly visible to everyone in the discussion in the same way so they can understand it and analyze it. So one of the simplest but most important things a coach can do in training is to recreate the situation he or she is discussing so players can see it. This becomes even more important as we begin to understand the critical role of perception. We need to look at the situation together with athletes when we are giving feedback so they can connect the things we ask them to do with the things they see while playing. It’s hard to make good use of perception-based questions as in the previous section, for example, if we don’t have a specific situation to perceive.

Showing the problem is not just important when we want to stress perception and decision-making. It’s important for accountability and objectivity too. Let’s say Jose has the ball under pressure and his midfield partners Dylan and Sal are in poor supporting positions. Jose is on an island. He loses the ball and the counter is on. This is an ongoing issue for Dylan and Sal. They allow themselves to be hidden too frequently and don’t appear to understand how to provide support. “Pause,” I say. “When Jose had the ball there, where were his midfield partners in terms of support?”

“I was open,” says Dylan and though he was completely hidden behind a defender, from a teaching perspective you are stuck. He remembers–or chooses to remember–where he was differently. Recreating the situation will help him see that his movement leaves something to be desired for reasons of accountability as much as perception–standing in his position behind a defender, he cannot convince himself he was better positioned than he was.

Sal on the other hand wants to understand how to support better. He’s not questioning the accuracy of your feedback. But what can you tell him? “You gotta get out from behind the defender” is pretty abstract. How? To where exactly? It will help him more if you can show him where and how to decide. The key to making progress with both players is to recreate the scene. Jose was here. Defenders were here. You were here Dylan. You here Sal. Now let’s talk about how we could change the outcome.

One key to being able to do this is mundane but critical: having a consistent cue you use to tell your players to stop exactly where they were. For it to work they will most likely to be in on the reasons for it. You’ll want to explain that when you say “pause,” for example, they should try to hold their position-that doing so is how we get better and that it’s a big deal to stop as quickly as they can. They should know not to try to cover for themselves and correct their position a little. It’s worth explaining that If they can do this it will keep you from having to waste time repositioning them–they’ll play more and learn faster.  Two keys are to have a consistent signal and to practice the task of responding to the signal a few times giving feedback on your team’s follow through to make sure it’s sharp (“Yes, good. Everyone stopped quickly there. Thank you.” or “Remember: when you hear the signal, stop right away. We’ve got to be a little better at that.”). Getting this system right will pay you back a hundredfold.

If you must recreate a situation that is no longer there, consider using an idea Steve Freeman, director of Black Watch Premier, uses. “If I have to rebuild it, I make the players do it. I ask them, ‘Ok, ‘Where’d the ball come from? Where was the second defender? Where was your support?’ etc. These questions force players to be aware and to watch as they are playing. Otherwise they can’t rebuild the scene.” One key to being able to use Steve’s idea is another theme of this book: shared vocabulary–everyone has to know what a first and second defenders are for you to ask where they were. In fact the whole process of looking at a problem together will be accelerated by shared technical vocabulary. When you say, “Pause, what do you see here?” ideally players will the concepts you’ve taught them and answers that describe those concepts will help other players to see and use those ideas: Esteban is between the lines. We have an overload on the wing. If the only tactical concept players can describe is that it’s helpful to create width when attacking, the discussion will be less replicable.”

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