For players to become more skilful, coaches need to build associations between skills, decisions and the game to be played; because what you live, you learn.
I think it’s beneficial to start with some explanations of how I see practising and playing games and how they fit together to complement player learning.
I see practising as the attempt to replicate as precisely as possible a skilled action that has been found to be successful. Therefore practising in the narrow sense of repetition helps make skills more reliable, but not necessarily more efficient or adaptable to unpredictable circumstances.
In contrast, playing in games with their distinctive conditions and the unique decisions that have to be made, allows players the opportunity to experiment with their skills and deal with things that aren’t perfect and repetitive. This may prove to be more advantageous to skill and tactical development in the long run.
There are a couple of reasons why games are a good idea:
- A games and play approach may anticipate problems that the reality of game-play may throw up, encouraging the execution of skills. In turn, this will help players build strategies for meeting those challenges. When in practising mode, youngsters may find the inability to execute a particular skill frustrating and as a failure, but in play mode a similar event may be viewed as interesting, enlightening and informative. It's important to develop skills and understanding and get them as right as much as possible. But more importantly is the ability to put them right when they have gone wrong.
- The second function of play needs a bit more explaining. It involves know-how as opposed to knowledge. Know-how links to experience and living through things. In both the adult and youngsters mind, know-how associates itself around recurring situations, circumstances and predicaments. The brain constructs purpose built packages of competence crystallised out of these regular patterns of experience and behaviour. The skills acquired remain closely associated and allied to the details of the situations in which they have been developed. In other words, the more we do something the better we get at it.
Sounds good, but it does get trickier. The know-how that learning through immersion delivers is smooth, fast and effective within its parameters, but relatively inflexible when learners move into different unrecognisable domains.
Put simply: if you just do one thing, you’ll get good at doing that one thing. Simple repetition may not help when it comes to skills that have to be put to use in unpredictable situations. In these scenarios this kind of mental organisation could actually be a handicap especially in ever changing and uncertain situations, much like those that often prevail in a game of football.
Inside the brain things are connected because they have tended to have happened together, in both space and time. This helps when you're learning football as the movement of the ball, your teammates and the opposition are all interrelated and the spaces are fluid.
Clearly what's required is a new form of learning which is capable of taking the separate packages of expertise to bits (for example: dribbling, turning, passing, receiving) exploring how they are all interconnected and putting together a new general layer of know-how made up of combinable skills. Luckily for coaches, human beings have discovered how to create a more powerful and flexible superstructure of conceptual thought. The way this is done is through certain kinds of play.
Children, as it turns out, treat themselves to a kind of learning beyond success. When they have successfully taken on board new things and have gained adequate mastery, they're able to go through play to explore it further or even undo what they've just learned.
Through this process children possess the ability to search inside their memory and link their new ability with other pockets of expertise. In this way, the mind rewrites what it has learned, segmenting out and making available explicit notions and skills that are common to different areas of expertise, thus making the links and associations necessary for expertise to flourish.
These highly productive periods of learning can also give rise to appearances of incompetence as the youngster sorts stuff out. These phases are temporary and should be supported by the coach. Such processes start at around four years-old and remain invaluable throughout life. It's through improvisation and embellishments in the slipstream of competence that flexibility and creativity emerge.
It's this that marks the difference between the simply proficient and the virtuoso performer. When attaining a level of expertise that permits playfulness, youngsters will take into account their ability to respond to unusual challenges, and even re-write the parameters of the game without breaking its laws.
So play creates another level of connections in the learning brain that allows the know-how of different tactics and skills to integrate and become available to one another. Skills from different areas of expertise can form alliances and associations, allowing more complex learning, problem solving and decision-making to occur. This can also accelerate the extent to which we can predict and solve problems within games of football more effectively.
When individual expertise needs a boost it's possible to identify the element in need of support and work on that, rather than having to wait while the whole domain is gradually retuned through further experience.
Hence the use of individual challenges within the game:
- A challenge to a midfield player may be: try to look for opportunities to change the point of attack.
- The challenge for a defender could focus on: try to change your marking position as the ball travels.
- A challenge for the strikers could be: try to be in a position to see the goal before you receive the ball.
- A challenge for a winger could be: try to lose your full-back before you receive the ball.
All these challenges with a different learning focus could be going on in the same game of football and based on individual needs.
With the development of these concepts, learning can be targeted more carefully and can focus attention on the particular component skill or concept that is in need of re-thinking or re-jigging. Resultantly, the players’ learning power is enhanced further.
These challenges can be supported by the right questions. For example:
- With this challenge try to let the ball run across your body and play forward.
- The supporting question could be: how does the pass you receive help you to do that?
Open ended questions such as the list below are always useful and aid the development of greater understanding.
- How will that help?
- How can you see?
- How many do you need?
- How will you know?
While working in this way with children and young players, adults need to understand what is going on so they don’t mess it up. So the following should always be taken into account:
- A failed experiment can be just as valuable as one that delivers smooth, quick success. Both provide invaluable information to the learner and what may look like regression to an adult may be of inestimable significance in the youngster’s development as a learner.
- This process of learning beyond success takes time; and how much time it takes, and what kind of activities need to take place for it to happen cannot be predicted or controlled by anyone. It's totally dependent on the individual: what state their brain is in when they start and their own set of shifting priorities as things move along their development pathway.
So playful experimentation, though essential and critical for player development, cannot be taught and its progress cannot be hurried. If the brain is force-fed with too much information and ideas faster than it can integrate them, it ends up with a hotchpotch of half-digested knowledge that lacks the depth and intricate interconnections that keep the different domains and disciplines of natural development tied together.
As a result, the unifying potential of individual development is lost to the impatience of those who must cover their curriculum.
Things to remember about young players:
- Young players aren't broken so don't need fixing.
- The best youth coaches are those who react, respond and behave properly and take the proper action when things go wrong.
- Youngsters need courage to take on new challenges as it can be easier to stick to what you know.
- Learning new things can be tough, emotional and frustrating.
- Good self-esteem will always aid learning. Part of experimenting is being prepared to go out on a limb, to have a go even when you're not quite sure what to do.
- Slow learning is not bad learning; sometimes the slow burn is better. Going over things again and again by wrapping it up in different coloured paper each time helps the learning process.
- Learning is what you do when you don’t know what to do.
- Mistakes and successes when experimenting and practising are necessary information to aid learning.
- Humans learn new things by being open-minded to change.
- Humans can visualise future events – and can remember stories that link past, present and future together.
- Humans learn by making links and associations with the past.
- Understanding how to evaluate what went well, what could be better and what needs to change helps players learn more effectively.
- Players don’t necessarily need help when they get stuck.
- Human beings learn best on the move picking up cues via their senses. As they go along the brain then translates these into its own language.
- Human beings learn best through trial and error – it tends to stick better.
John Allpress provides player development consultancy to a number of professional football clubs.
This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in April 2012.