Constant neural circuits v flexible neural circuits & how that affects football coaching

I am reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle at the moment, and felt inspired to write a blog post about the difference between constant neural circuits and flexible neural circuits because I have always believed that there is far too much shouting from the sidelines in youth football, from well-meaning coaches and parents offering a slew of instruction, when silence might be the best option. This book explained why for me more eloquently than I could have!

Neuron

I have always believed that that if your goal is to develop player for the long-term, and not just a winning team for today, then young players need to have lots of opportunities to try new things and learn through the repetition of making lots and lots of decisions.

Often coaches go straight to a command style, and ‘tell’ players what to do, and I think that we run the risk of creating predicable, almost robotic players if that is how we continue to coach them. Players need to experience the game and make decisions for themselves in order for deep learning to flourish. 

So back to the book. I got to Part III called Master coaching and read stories about the study of how top coaches in all sorts of genres act while they are coaching. I then came across a comparison between a violin tutor and a Brazilian football coach, which perfectly explained it for me …

The violin teacher was offering a constant stream of verbal instruction to her pupil, as they played while the renowned Brazilian football coach set up a game of Futsal, and then sat back and said nothing. He just let them play.

This wildly different coaching style was achieving the same result. There is only one-way of playing the violin correctly, so it is necessary to fire a very precise set of constant neural pathways, very precisely and often in order to improve so the coach was constantly tweaking and refining technique on the fly. Daniel Coyle said “if you were to see the neural pathways associated with a violinist, they would ‘look like an oak tree; a solid trunk of technique growing straight upwards. When a violinist players an A Minor chord, it will always be an A Minor chord and not a smidgen off”

However, of a football player’s circuitry, Coyle said “the ideal circuitry is varied and fast … if ideal soccer circuitry was rendered as an electrician’s blueprint, it would look like a gargantuan hedge of ivy vines; a vast, inter-connected network of equally accessible possibilities (a.k.a fakes and moves). A footballer is not learning a constant skill, and needs a huge number of flexible neural circuits to fire in order to perform.

So the Brazilian football coach allowed the requisite neural circuits to fire by letting the players experience the game, and by giving them the opportunity to get repetition of touches, decision making and the game. No intervention was deemed necessary, because he had set up the practice (Futsal game) to deliver the required outcome. For kids, I believe that this idea of letting them play without interference is not only beneficial, but also more enjoyable.

So when I tried to take this learning and look at my current football coaching through that lens, I started to think about the constant, variable and random practices that are taught on the FA Youth Award modules. I can see a pattern for intervention forming in my mind now.

Constant practice is designed to just do one thing well. So for example, passing back and forth with a team-mate, to hone technique. Because there is a right way to do that, perhaps more intervention from a coach would be appropriate here?

Random practices however, such as a small-sided games, needs little or no intervention because the players are practicing the game of football, and need to be left to experience situations and to make decisions and learn from them. Flexible neural circuits are constantly firing, and although we can’t see it happening, they are learning as a result.

I would recommend The Talent Code to any coach. I have just ordered another of Daniel Coyle’s book’s, The Little Book of Talent, and can’t wait to get stuck into that next!

 Agree? Disagree? Got another take on this? As always please join the conversation in the comments!

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Simplify, paint pictures & repeat

keep-calm-and-simplify-8

Maurice Saatchi, co-founder of one of the most successful advertising agencies of all time said ‘simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there for longer’ and having spent around 20 years working in the communications industry I have had my fair share of experience and training on this from a business perspective. Saatchi also said ‘it is easier to complicate than to simplify’ but that is surely what we as youth coaches must do if we are to offer the maximum chance of learning to our young players?

I have spent 20 years trying to explain complex ideas in an easy-to-understand way, and when I started coaching youth football I realised that my training in business could be of huge value to my newfound passion. Simplicity is a form of genius in my eyes, and the 140 characters that you are allowed per tweet on Twitter is a fantastic measure of how well you have simplified. If you can’t articulate your idea in 140 characters, the chances are you need to further simplify. Young players have a limited attention span and so getting across key messages, in a very concise, easy to understand way is vital. I could waffle on for hours to my 7-year-olds about the four phases of play for example, but how much would they take in and would the key messages be lost in the noise? Less is more.

As an example, lets imagine you were trying to teach the four phases of play to a seven year old. It is likely too complex an idea (from a tactical perspective) for them to grasp with their limited attention span. So your only realistic opportunities is to scrap it all together, or to take what you consider the very essence of the four phases of play and condense it, to be a few simple pointers that might help your players understand.

Phases of play

The four phases of play:

  1. Attacking
  2. Defending
  3. Transition to attack
  4. Transition to defend

I simplified to this:

  1. When we win the ball we attack as quickly as we can
  2. When we lose the ball we defend as quickly as we can

By definition, when we win the ball we become the attacking team and when we lose the ball we are the defending team, so I thought it was OK to drop all of that detail and to focus simply on communicating two, hopefully simple, concepts. What we do as an individual when our team win the ball and what we do when our team lose the ball. As the players develop and become exposed to more complex tactical coaching, I hope that this rudimentary exposure at an early age will prove to be a platform on what to build.

I then try to design sessions that help players practice skills that they will need to operate successfully in all four phases, but only explain two of them as key points in every match, namely when we win the ball and when we lose the ball. For example, in training yesterday we played a game which was designed to help players practice attacking quickly as a team. The game itself was loosely based on the FA’s ‘Waves’ game. I set up with a 5-a-side pitch, and a goalkeeper in each goal. A team of three players start at one end, and another three at the other, and on the coaches instruction they try to work the ball forward as quickly as possible as a team, and score a goal at the opposite end.

Before they start that exercise and a couple of times throughout the game, I ask them to visualise that they are playing in a game and that when I shout ‘go’ or ‘play’ they have suddenly won back possession. That is hopefully the starting point of the game in their minds. The practice was set up with a pitch in the approximate dimensions they will experience on match days, with interference from the team playing from the other end, and the stress of the other team scoring first which spurred them on to try and play more quickly. Incidentally, this practice led into a 4v4 game in which the players were encouraged to think about the last game, and how quickly they could attack as a team when they won the ball.

Finally, repetition is how humans take short-term memories and transcode them into long-term memories. Without repetition, ideas are lost because long-term memories are not made. At every training session I ask the players what they remember about our formation (diamond), what we ask of our wing-backs (attack quickly when we win the ball, defend quickly when we lose it) and a couple of other key, simplified points around respect, teamwork and fun.

 

Do you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions about this? If so, please leave in the comments!

P.S. I set this blog up in the hope that I would get contributions from coaches, so please do send me anything you would like me to publish, or add your comments on this blog post in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching kids how to make the space to receive a pass; an idea and request for new ideas

I’d be really interested to hear ideas from coaches who have found a simple way to help kids understand why and how they should create space for a team mate in possession.

Last year while coaching an under 7s team, I came up with a concept I call ‘Invisible lines’ which has had moderate success, but I can’t help feeling there is a far simpler way to articulate the idea?

The aim of Invisible lines is to help the team in possession make space, so that their mate on the ball can pass. This is not a coaching drill as such, more something I explain and demonstrate before a keep-ball/ Rondo type drill.

I ask the kids to imagine that there is an invisible line between the ball and them at all times, and that to help your mate who has the ball, its great to try and find some space that also has a clear invisible line between you and the ball.

I demonstrate this concept by showing them this pitch layout on the iPad.

Invisible lines

 

I then develop a Q&A with the players, and ask them what pass ‘Player 2’ can make in this position?

I ask what could the other players do to help Player 2 find a pass? I encourage them to show me on the iPad where players 3,4 and 5 might move to in order to make space.

Finally, I set the players up in the positions on the diagram. I ask player 2 if he can make a pass, which of course he can’t, and then in turn ask players 3,4 and 5 what they could do to help in that situation.

As always, I’d be very grateful if you could share your thoughts, ideas and feedback in the comments.