Athletic competitions, when you get right down to it, consist of a series of problems or puzzles. The coach’s job is to be sure the athlete has enough tools to solve every problem and to teach the player how and when to use them.
Let’s use soccer as an example. When a ball is coming to a player, they go through a mental checklist of their tools – their skills, experiences and patterns they’ve learned over time. From the checklist, the soccer player decides, “I can use this touch, this turn and this surface of my foot to solve this problem.”
However, when faced with complex situations, players don’t have enough on their checklist to really solve the problem. Worse yet, relying on what is already on a checklist can discourage the player from adding new items to their toolbox. Some experts have argued that relying too heavily on an existing checklist will lead to mindlessness and complacency.
But it does reduce the likelihood of errors, and we all know errors lead to bad things. However, which is more important: developing intuitive, confident players, or creating safe, error-free players.
Putting players in situations where they have to find new solutions – ignoring the checklist – can lead to errors. But it can also lead to the player learning important new lessons, and, hopefully, storing them away.
The inability of young players to anticipate what’s going to happen next is frustrating. Coaches with years of experience playing and watching games, can’t seem to understand why they don’t see the obvious run, or predict where the ball is going next.
With young players, the coach’s first job is to explain what intuition is. It would be fascinating to get a read-out of what is going through the heads of young players. My guess is much of it has to do with an opponent’s hairstyle, not messing up, wishing mom or dad would stop yelling, or a puppy.
Maybe the simplest and best way to introduce the topic is to talk about Wayne Gretzky. They don’t have to know who he is to understand what he said.
“I didn’t skate to where the puck was,” he said. “I skated to where it was going to be.”
But how did he know? His experiences taught him to recognize patterns and how to get ahead of the pattern. Plus, he was, well, special.
Here are some tips from The YSC Sports Mental Edge Blog on how players can learn from experiences to improve their decision-making.
• Start to pay attention to your initial response to situations. What does your gut tell you? How often do you follow your gut? What kind of results do you get?
• Silence your inner critic. If you tend to ignore your intuition, it may be due to self-doubt or over analyzing. Try to listen to your intuition without judgment and follow it without hesitation. Trust yourself and be willing to take risks.
• Increase your focus to help with pattern recognition. Make sure you attend to the information around you. Having information will help you make the best decisions possible.
The Value of Chaos
Putting players in drills in which they move the ball in a specific pattern is popular in youth soccer development. Having players pass the ball here and run there, introduces a lot of important elements of the game – body shape when receiving the ball, passing accuracy, timing and different types of runs, to mention a few.
It does nothing for intuition, though. The kids aren’t thinking about anything except where they are supposed to pass it and where they are supposed to run.
If you want to replicate real game situations, create utter chaos. Throw them into a chaotic situation and let them use their tools and their brains to solve the puzzle.
So when training your team, it might make sense to ask yourself if the session adds to their tool box, forces them to anticipate and asks them to get out of chaotic situations.