Constant practice and how the human brain learns


I have been reading a lot about football coaching recently and it has led me to believe that there is a growing school of thought that for training drills to be truly effective they must mimic as closely as possible the game of football, with opposition and stress. I agree to a point, and can’t fault the logic, but if you study the way our brains actually learn, then repetition is the key, and maybe it’s a little too soon to discard constant practices in favour of ‘random’ and ‘variable’ drills?

Lets accept that the definition of Constant, Variable and Random drills is:

Constant – players repeat a certain drill many times in a row with no change in difficulty or interference. An example might be two players standing 10 yards apart, and simply using the inside of their feet to pass, control and pass back.

Variable – where the size or conditions of the drill ask the player to think a little more. So passing to each other in a small area, with other pairs of players also passing a ball in the same are. There is movement, decision making and bodies in the way which causes interference, but still no opposition as experienced in a match.

Random – where the drill mimics the game of football as closely as possible. So with opposition. With a defender trying to tackle or intercept. Pressure on the player to act quickly.

So back to how the human brain learns. There are basically three types of memory. Before any brain scientists pull me up here, I totally accept that I am simplifying.

Sensory memory – lasts for a fraction of a second, and consists of sight, sound, touch, smell. Millions if not billions of these memories are fleetingly made and lost as quickly every single day.

In order for a sensory memory to become anything that you are even remotely aware of consciously, you need to pay attention to that sensory memory. To test this theory, I want you to take a quick test with me. It is ideal to test this in an area that you are not completely familiar with if you can. When I say ‘go’ I’d like you to glance around the area you are in right now and see how many red items you can see in 5 seconds. Only 5 seconds, then come back to this article please. Ok, GO!

You’re back? Good. We’ll come back to this in a second …

Sensory memory is anything that crossed your ears, eyes, nose, mouth and taste and thousands and thousands of things so every second. Fractions of a second per item,
and most of it is gone without you ever knowing it was there in the first place.

This leads us onto short-term memory. This is a section of our memory that can hold between 3 and 7 items of memory for around 20 seconds at a time. If we pay no attention at this stage, when a sensory memory has made it to short-term memory, then it will also be lost. Attention is the key once again, and without repetition in our conscious memory the memory doesn’t survive.

In order for a fleeting, fraction of a second memory from your sensory memory to even be conscious to you, it is essential that you paid at least some attention. If you paid zero attention to a sensory memory, it will not make it into your short-term memory.

In that 5 second look around your area I asked of you before …you would have taken in thousands and thousands of small items that were immediate forgotten.

Now, please don’t look away from this screen. Can you recall any of the red items you saw in your area?

A few I would imagine, assuming there were any, because you were asking your mind to seek out and pay attention to items that were red. Don’t look away from this text now please … How many blue items did you see in that previous 5 second scan? Harder to recall I’d imagine? Now, if you are in your favourite comfy chair in the living room then you will be able to remember a few because the blue items would have benefited from multiple periods of your attention over a period of time, and that leads us neatly onto how long-term memories are made. Through repeated attention being paid, as many times as possible.

In order for us to remember something for longer than about 20 seconds, and start to code that memory from short-term memory to long-term memory, you have to pay some attention to it. The more attention you pay, the stronger the coding into long-term memory. The queue of short-term memories being made and quickly lost is constantly moving, especially in this digital age where there is always a ping or a bleep to distract you and become the latest piece of short-term memory made, leaving another to be lost. There is a constant conveyor belt of 20 second (max) thoughts, being destroyed by a lack of our attention to them.

You know that feeling that we have all had when you ‘forget where you left your keys’ right? You don’t actually forget where you put them at all. You fail to make a sufficiently strong memory to be recalled. If you walk into the house and dump your keys with no attention paid at the time to where you dumped them, then you don’t make a memory. Therefore there is nothing to remember later. If you have a place that your mind associates with keys, and you consciously make a point of always putting them in the same place, you will never lose your keys again. Your brain, with every placement, makes a stronger connection between the coffee table and your keys for example.

So back to football. The more you repeat something, the more you strengthen the neural pathways in your brain that leads a fleeting memory into a short-term memory, and more importantly leads a short-term memory into a long-term memory . This is especially true with 5-11 year old who are said to be in the ‘golden age of learning’. The first time they pass a football with the instep, and aim at another player they are creating a neural pathway and every time they pay attention to repeating that technique, they are strengthening that neural pathway.

So repetition and attention build what we call ‘muscle memory’ and surely only constant practice, while paying attention to that technique, and lots of repetition can help a player successfully master a technique? You could argue that during a game a player is passing, but their attention is being divided many ways at a time, and therefore mindful attention on the technique of passing is less.

So I would suggest, as an example, that asking a 7 or 8-year-old to make 100 passes with the instep every training session (with occasional intervention from the coach to correct technique if necessary) must surely be a great way to get the correct technique into the players muscle memory? So much so that when they need to make a pass in a game that correct technique is the default reaction. Then, when the correct technique appears to be second nature we can move that player on through the use of variable and random practices to start to replicate the game of football.

A fantastic book on attention and the human brain can be summarised neatly by this video – – It is worth watching and explains better than I how long-term memories (longer than 20 seconds) are made.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions or counter-ideas on this in the comments?