Mind Games Part 2 – Helping To Develop Player Intelligence
In Part 1 of this series we discussed the notion that player intelligence and speed of thought was at least as important as physical speed and tended to be undervalued by coaches. The general response to that piece was: “Yes but how do we coach it?”
That’s a tough question and I would not claim to have the key to that but here are a few thoughts. I would welcome any ideas anyone might have as to how to develop game intelligence. It is one of THE key questions.
Awareness of what is happening on the field seems like a prerequisite for success. Great players have the ability to scan the field and know what they are going to do before they receive the ball. Many of you will have seen this video of Frank Lampard.
Or this Xavi clip
Does it work?
Yes it seems to. Get Jordet at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences studied players in the EPL over 64 games. The exact analysis can be see in his presentation here. The findings were unambiguous. Those players who scanned most frequently tended to have pass completion rates about 50% greater than those who scanned much less frequently. That’s huge.
Of course we do not know anything about the quality of these passes but the research certainly seems to suggest that being aware of the activity around them helps players make better decisions on the field?
So how do you train it?
At the risk of offering too glib an answer I think you just do it. I think you just make this a part of almost every exercise and over time it just becomes second nature to the players. I have seen arguments that suggest that having players check their shoulders in unopposed passing exercises is silly and actually somewhat unintelligent and I have definite sympathy for that view but I still disagree for a few reasons:
What we are trying to do here is form habits and the sheer volume of repetitions may help solidify the habit.
Multitasking is really hard. Even without opposition when we are asking a player to move, organize their body, glance around (or check their shoulders) and control the ball that is really difficult for them. So difficult, in my opinion, that this may be most easily learned initially in an unopposed enviroment (although we would obviously want our players to be “aware” in opposed situations as well).
In the Gordet research Gerrard and Lampard scanned about 0.6 times per second for the entire game. That’s exhausting! Like any type of fitness, this ability to concentrate has to be trained and developed over time. Scanning in unopposed activities (with a periodized progression if you want to take things that far) may help with that.
In my opinion awareness and visual checking should be emphasized all of the time until it becomes second nature. You can make it more challenging in a host of ways that involve a decision based upon what is seen. Personal experience has suggested this works and players will develop the desired habits even if the approach seems very basic.
Other coaching aids will help too.
- To the extent that players can play facing forward as much as possible their field vision will improve. Body position is vital and for me it’s also one of those every time in every position kind of things – it’s just gotta happen. Playing with an open body shape has to become habit.
- Playing in small areas will also help develop awareness. If the area is just big enough to allow the players to have some success but small enough to make them struggle a little natural adaptation will occur. The constraints of space and time “force” the players to make quicker decisions. It’s either that or your second touch is a tackle. Other commentators such as Wayne Harrison have produced excellent guides to awareness training and I recommend checking them out.
The last thought I have to offer is an intriguing one because it impacts youth sports in so many ways. I cannot prove to you that positive coaching improves the decision making of young players but there is compelling evidence from the field of psychology that negative reinforcement does the opposite.
Negative feedback has been shown to increase the amount of time people need to make decisions
This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve! Take a look at this TED talk.
Consistently negative feedback has also been shown to narrow the area of focus. It makes us less able to absorb larger amounts of information. Again, this is clearly not the desired effect. And, as Ledgerwood points out, once we put the negative in it’s hard to take it out.
It is a sobering thought that helping develop player intelligence may be as much a function of not screwing them up as it our best efforts to make it happen?
I would not pretend to know the best way to train this but what I do know is this is a crucial skill. Jordet’s research confirms what intuition tells us. I would love to hear your ideas on how to coach awareness.
So let’s say, either by luck or by judgement, that your players have become expert at constantly scanning the field. Now what? They can see the field but do they know what they are looking at?
Scanning is essential but a player can only make good decisions based upon what they see if they have a framework from which to make those decisions.
Which brings us to the $64,000 question: how do we develop game intelligence or decision making? Many commentators have produced excellent methods for doing this. The works of Bert Van Lingen and Horst Wein should probably be read by everyone working with young players. My favorite approach, however, is one that I might dub the Portuguese Way which we discuss in the next part of this series.
Other recommended reading: