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  • Writer's pictureJoe Campos

The Game In Spain Is Mainly In The Brain - Part 1

Last Spring, I was in Spain watching a Valencia CF academy coach working with a team of 10 year olds. It was a fantastic, high-energy session and naturally included lots of rondos and positional games with overloads (e.g. 5v2, 6v3, 7v4). But, something in particular grabbed my attention. The questions. In the larger format games, the coach would occasionally freeze the game, focusing on one player without the ball and ask a simple question: "What does your teammate need from you?" The teammate he was referring to is the one with the ball. The player would provide an answer. Then, without confirming the answer was correct, the coach turns to the player with the ball and asks, "What do you need from him?" Sometimes the answers lined up, sometimes they did not. If they did not line up, the coach would ask one player why they needed a particular action or position from their teammate and ask the other player why they did not provide what his teammate needed. All the other players were watching carefully and quietly. They knew their turn on the hot-seat was coming.

This happened repeatedly during the session. Each time, the questions were the same. "What does your teammate need from you?" "What do you need from your teammate?" Sometimes the coach was more emphatic in his questioning, sometimes less so. But always the same questions. The difference was always the answers. Two simple questions, but a seemingly infinite number of answers.

The players seemed to know better than to hesitate or get long-winded in their answers. Their coach wanted quick, brief answers. Hesitation revealed ignorance or worse, inattention. The coach had no patience for hesitation. He wanted instant answers. After listening to their answers, the coach provided a few tactically relevant suggestions and a bit of encouragement, but then focused his attention on the entire group and on a recurring theme: informed decision-making. "You have to tell me why!", the coach would say sternly. "Tell me your reasons for being in this space. What did you see? What did you think would happen next?" There was a bit of prompting by the coach. Trying to coax the players' short term memories and reasoning, he explained he wanted their answers focused on five factors: 1. the position of the ball; 2. the positions of the opposing players; 3. the positions of teammates; 4. the location of the open space(s); and 5. what the player thought would happen next.

Time and time again the coach came back to the same five factors. And each time once play resumed, I could see the players' behavior changing for the better. Little heads were swiveling faster and deliberately as they worked to take in more information during play. Players without the ball moved much more quickly and were better at finding open spaces. Players with the ball suddenly had more and better passing options. Still, some players were noticeably not quite on it as well as others. Predictably, those players got the questions at the next freeze. Everything the coach was doing was obviously focused on raising each player's ability to intake and process information. Watching it, I was impressed by the coach's patience and how he would return over and over again to the same concepts without showing frustration. The process seemed complicated, but crazy simple at the same time. What do you need from your teammate? What does your teammate need from you? Extremely simple questions. Explaining and defending decisions, that's the hard part.

More often than you would think, the coach was genuinely surprised by a player's answer. "Stop!" the Coach shouted. Approaching one the players, he said, "Why are you in this space?" Without hesitation the player answered, "I wanted to be here because he [the teammate with the ball] was going 1v1 with their best defender and I though he might lose it there or need to make a shorter pass, so I wanted to be ready to receive it or help him win it back." The coach hesitated, nodded and then responded saying, "OK, OK, that is a good reason if you were anticipating that possibility. I didn't think of that. Good job! I wanted you to be somewhere else, more forward as a passing option, but your thinking makes sense. I understand why you went there. Very smart."

I quickly realized something else was going on here, something deeply intellectual and cultural. The players were certainly having fun playing, but everything came back to thought and analysis. It was collaborative. No one had a monopoly on the answers, not even the coach. There was implied recognition that everything happens quickly and no one is collecting 100% of the available information or processing correctly the information that was collected. Occasionally the coach would get an answer from one player, and ask another player if they would have done something differently. If the answer was yes, then the coach challenged that player to explain why and to base it on evidence relating to the 5 factors. Sometimes a mini-debate would ensue about whether one decision or another should have been made, but in the end the coach always accepted an answer that was based on perception of information collected and processed in the run of play. Even though I was watching only one session, it was obvious this was not a one-off session. This was obviously how they always train!

Of course, none of this was happening without an underlying framework. These players were training within a possession-based philosophy and their style of play reflected a a common understanding of how to play. After all, they were part of the Valencia CF youth academy so obviously they were being trained the "Valencia way." That was the framework. This is a critical point because all the decisions the players were making and on which they were being evaluated were happening within that framework. The players were most certainly not operating in a tactical or philosophical vacuum.

After the session ended, I approached the coach. I wanted to ask him about the questions he had been asking the players. "Why should the players' answers about their decisions focus only on five things? " I asked. "There are other factors to consider like weather, the score, etc., right?"

The coach's answer was very simple. "There are many things going on in a game. Weather, the score, the parents and spectators shouting and screaming, the condition of the field and many other things. My purpose is for the players to focus on the most important things and train them to constantly observe these things, process them and make many quick decisions every second they are on the field. The truth is that as a coach I cannot see or sense as much as the players can. I cannot give them specific rules they must follow in every situation. Every moment in the game is perceived differently by the players on the field. I can give them a basic structure, show them the important positional relationships that can make them successful - teammates, defenders, the ball, etc. - but in the end the players must learn to quickly absorb information like a sponge and make decisions supported by reasons. If they can tell me their reasons, then I know they were thinking and using evidence and also instinct."

This all makes sense of course. It is all about game intelligence. But the really interesting thing for me is how the coach was teaching this. In U.S. coaching license courses, a lot of emphasis is placed on asking questions for which, typically, the coach already has the answer and is just trying to coax it out of the players. "Guided Discovery" questioning taught in most U.S. license courses is a very different approach. It suggests the coach is the guide, already knows the answers because they and is helping the players arrive at those answers. Almost no emphasis is placed on the process of data collection by the players.

One expert describes guided discovery as follows: "The essence of this style is a coach-player connection in which your sequence of information and questions causes responses by the player. The combination of information and question by you elicits a correct response, which is discovered by the player. The effect of this process leads the player to discover the sought tactic or technique." Notice the phrase "your sequence of information and questions" referencing information supplied by the coach as the guide. Also, note that the objective is to "lead the player to discover the sought tactic or technique." The implication is that the coach already knows the correct answer because the learning objective was pre-planned and all that is needed is to guide the player to figure it out. This is often called Convergent Guided Discovery because the goal is for all players to converge on a single correct answer.

What I was watching from the Valencia coach was vastly different. He was creating a more free flowing session but within the club's methodological and philosophical framework. For him, the real guide was the information that the player perceives. There is not a single correct answer, but a range of possible answers ranging from good/effective to poor/ineffective, but always with reference to a dynamic variable - the context of the play. The game is always changing and the actions of teammates, opponents and the ball and not always predictable. This means that a player's choices of decision in the heat of the moment are also inherently unpredictable. Rather than focus on a pre-determined correct answer, the coach was focusing on the process of decision-making.

In Spain, the style of coaching is typically a command or directive style. The coach tells the players what he or she wants them to do. What I was watching was different, but not entirely. Instead of the coach telling the players what to do, he was very much directing them to think and to collect data. The tone was very much command, but there was obviously an element of discovery in how the players were making decisions. I'm not sure what to call it this coaching style. Command Discovery?

Of course, it would be incorrect to say that the coach had no concrete learning objective. There was an obvious theme to the session and specific learning objectives. But there was also a great amount of freedom given to the players to solve problems in the course of the game. But there was always a catch: the players must explain and justify their decisions based on what they observed. This is deliberate intelligence training, focusing on (a) spatial awareness for real-time ingestion of key information and (b) contextual real-time application of that information. Intelligence training requires showing players the kinds of information they need to collect and process and then challenging them to actively collect that information, process it, make decisions and then prove their decisions and actions were based on information they collected and processed. It is never a problem if a player makes a poor or different decision, so long as they have evidence-based reasons for their decisions. With intelligence training and practice, players will over time make more and better decisions and fewer mistakes.

Most of us are already aware of U.S. Air Force Colonel Boyd's famous decision-making loop, the OODA loop. Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. It explains how rapid, information-based decision making happens for fighter pilots, business executives, soccer players, anyone. The faster you go through your decision-making loop, the more you disrupt your opponent's loop. As you act, your opponent must restart their loop by observing the new information created by your speedy decision. And soon they are rushing through their loop to catch up, making poor decisions based on outdated information. The operation of the OODA loop is easy to understand. Less clear is exactly how to teach someone to instinctively and rapidly make decisions this way.

In February 2017, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm released a remarkable research paper that should be of interest to every soccer coach and youth club director. Researchers found that in adult soccer players, executive cognitive functions are a major predictor of success on the field. The players who made the best decisions and had the most success, were also the players who had the highest capacity for executive cognitive function. Perhaps more importantly, the researchers found that the same pattern in young soccer players. In other words, the better players were the smarter players.

What does that mean? Well, what we we largely describe as game intelligence comes down to being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing at the right time. If we drill deeper, we might say its about the decisions made by the player that caused them to be in the right place at the right time or to do the right thing at the right time. Those decisions are executive cognitive functions. Drilling deeper still, those decisions depend on cognitive processes that regulate thought and action, especially in non-routine situations. Those cognitive processes can include scanning ability, attention, cognitive flexibility, multi-processing, and working memory. Effectively and consistently training these cognitive processes in young soccer players can make all the difference in the development of game intelligence.

According to Predrag Petrovic, who led the study group, “Young players who have still to reach full physical development rarely get a chance to be picked as potential elite players, which means that teams risk missing out on a new Iniesta or Xavi.” In other words, we coaches need to pay more attention to how and why our youngest players are making decisions. Let's not worry about how fast or strong they are today. Instead, find new and better ways to train our players to be faster and better thinkers!

Without a doubt, the number one trait Spanish coaches seek and develop is game intelligence. Above everything, intelligence. This is something that American coaches are increasingly saying they want to develop, but what we can learn from Spanish coaches is how to do it. We must consciously and deliberately train our players to think. Session design should be revamped to put more emphasis on information collection and processing. The game is in the brain! Go back over the questions you typically ask your players. Are you looking for answers you already know? Are you presupposing the answers and using Guided Discovery just to have players agree with you or reach the same conclusions you have? Are you leaving room for the possibility that the players can make sound decisions you cannot or could not have anticipated? Are you evaluating whether your player can efficiently and rapidly absorb information, process it and then make smart decisions in real time. Odds are, your questions are all wrong. Maybe you should keep it simple. "What does your teammate need from you?" "What do you need from your teammate?"

As you'll see in the video below, the game in Spain is always in the brain.

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