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!

Simplify, paint pictures & repeat

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retreat line in mini soccer is a good thing … do you have a different view?

retreat line

In mini-soccer, the FA introduced a rule concerning goal kicks. The rule reads “Law 16. Goal Kick. Procedure. A player of the defending team kicks the ball from any point within the penalty area. Opponents must retreat to their own half until the ball is in play. The defending team does not have to wait for the opposition to retreat and has the option to restart the game before should they choose to. The ball is in play when it is kicked directly out the penalty area.”

I think that it is a good thing for the age group I coach (under 7’s) for the reasons I will explain below. Others disagree though. It is a rule that divides opinion, and I’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments?

Pro retreat line.

The biggest benefit of the retreat line is that it encourages players to play football, with the ball on the ground. Imagine the scenario without a retreat line … a goalkeeper looks up, ready to take a goal kick, and all four of his outfield players are marked. In that scenario, the goalkeeper is likely to try and kick it long. The understandable rationale being that if the ball is going to be lost then it is done as far away from their goal as possible.

I believe that the retreat line offers the goalkeeper an easy pass, to feet, and encourages the team to pass and move from there. Not only does that encourage the passing of the ball, it offers all players more touches of the ball, which will aid their long-term development. More touches = better ball mastery. Or as your parents used to drum into you, practice makes perfect. The whole reason that mini-soccer was introduced was to offer more touches of the ball to each player.

Too often in the past, English coaches would encourage defenders not to play with the ball. Cries from the touchline of ‘get rid’ directed defenders to lump it forward the big lad up front, and that tactic robs the other defenders and the entire midfield from a touch of the ball. That is one thing if you are a Premiership manager trying to set up to play to the strengths of the players you have, but if you are trying to develop young players, then I think it is better to encourage them to receive and pass the ball more often.

As with many things in youth coaching, I think it comes back to the fundamental motivation of the coach. Are you trying to win this game, or develop the players in it for the long-term? If it is the former then your thinking will be about getting the players ready for that game, if it is the latter, you will see the game as another opportunity for the players to develop skills.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

If you wish to submit an article to be published on the blog, then please email it to me at mike_nicholson@hotmail.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Possession. My ideas and thoughts after completing online FA Licensed Coaches Club course

84wilshere1209

The FA Licensed Coaches Club recently released 6 new online CPD courses, to support coaches who are qualified to either level 1 or level 2. These courses take around one hour each to complete, and consist of watching coaching videos and then answering questions and they count as 1 hour towards your CPD quota.

I have just completed the possession course, aimed at 5-11’s and run by Pete Sturgess. The most interesting idea that I took out of the session on possession was the idea that players have to be completely comfortable with the ball at their feet before they can start to play with their head up. It makes a lot of sense, and I have probably been guilty in the pass of encouraging players to keep their head up before they are comfortable with their head down. I will definitely appraise my thinking on this very important topic as a result, and will probably encourage a head up approach far less for the under 7’s I coach.

The three video sessions showed Pete at St George’s Park, surrounded by coaches and with a team of boys to instruct. The games helped players practice keeping possession of the ball individually rather than passing when put under pressure. I had only just written a blog post about how England internationals seem to be far less comfortable on the ball when put under pressure than their Spanish or Brazilian counterparts, so the timing was interesting. I had long thought that coaching in England had produced a crop of players uncomfortable when pressed on the ball, so it was interesting to see how we can help players become comfortable keeping the ball at an early age.

The first game took place inside the centre circle of an 11-a-side pitch.  There were around 6 boys inside the circle with a ball, and 6 boys outside the circle without a ball. When the coach said play, the boys outside the circle went into the circle and tried to win a ball, while the boys in possession had to try and keep possession for as long as possible. It encouraged the players in possession to be creative in the ways that they can keep the ball away from an opponent without trying to carry out a specific shielding technique, and it is always great when you can give players the empowerment to improvise. To solve problems. Just keep the ball is the instruction. I think I would add coaching points when needed to show how to shield the ball, but I really liked the session and can see great value in it.

What are your thoughts about keeping possession under pressure, and how to best coach that to young players? Do you have a view on how coaching hasn’t prepared the current crop of England internationals to be more

 

 

 

 

 

 

At what age do you move your squad from a policy of everyone plays the same time, to pick the players to win?

trophies

At some point in a player’s life they will have to face the harsh reality that the better players will play more football. The question is when?

I coach at under 7’s level, and rotation is definitely the ethos that I believe in for this age group. The benefits of this policy are many. Firstly, it promotes harmony and reduces conflict throughout the squad and feels fair to all concerned. It shows that the team is set up for the good of all, and not for the individual. You are unlikely to get negative hassle from parents complaining that their child isn’t getting enough game time, and most importantly, you are giving every player the same opportunity to develop.  If your primary motivation as a coach is to develop players for the long term, then I believe that this is the policy that best displays motivation.

The advantages of picking players to win the game are perhaps obvious. If you have a lethal finisher, or a beast of a tackler, it is understandable that in a tight situation you would want them on the field.  However, if they spend the entire match on the field it is in the place of another player and players develop through playing & training, not sitting on the bench. The gap between the players who are better and weaker is likely to grow, if the better players play more and the weaker players play less.

So if you agree with this so far, the question is at what age do you change the priority from development to winning?

The golden opportunity for development is up until the age of 11 in boys, as 95% of their neural pathways are set by that age. So does that mean that from 12 onwards the coach should focus on building winning teams, and concentrating on the better players? Is 12 the age that players should be moved into teams that match their ability level?

Personally, I think 12 still feels too young but I would love to hear the thoughts of other coaches on this subject! Players move to 11v11 football at U14 age, so maybe that is the right time?

Please write your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

Should coaches give players more time with the ball?

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While on an FA Youth Award course, I came across an interesting idea that makes an awful lot of sense to me.

It was apparently a strategy implemented by Dutch clubs such as Ajax, in which the youth players were given 10,000 touches of the ball every day in the belief that more touches would equal better mastery of the ball. You can read more about the Dutch way in a Guardian article here. It makes sense, although despite Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in Outliers about 10,000 hours being about the number of hours it takes to achieve mastery, I am not totally convinced on the number. What I am convinced about however is that the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is as true in football as it is in most walks of life, and so the more touches of the ball a player gets, the more likely they are to progress. I believe that if you give two identical players separate training opportunities, and the first gets 1,000 touches of the ball a week and the second gets 1,500 touches, the second player will progress more quickly.

Pretty obvious stuff really, but it does beg the question should the vast majority of the time you have with your players each week be with the ball?

I see and hear training sessions in which players queue in preparation to carry out a skill or game, and others in which running without the ball in encouraged. On the FA course I was on there was a youth coach from Chelsea who said he’d get shot if his bosses ever saw boys standing around, waiting. So thinking of the 10,000 touch rule at Ajax and the practice makes perfect rule of life, should we be making sure that more minutes in our training sessions are spend actively with the ball?

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts below, either agreeing or disagreeing, which you can do by just adding a comment.

You can follow me on Twitter @YouthCoachMike if you’d like to hear next time somebody posts, and if you would like to contribute to the blog with an article of your own, please email it to me at mike_nicholson@hotmail.co.uk

Thanks for reading.