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The Blog

Creating Decision-Makers

In his role as as district educator for the Swedish FA, coach educator, Mark O’Sullivan tries to help coaches understand what information and invitations may be available to the young player in any given game context. In this article Mark examines representative learning design and decision-making.


So if we are playing a 3v3 game where the task is that we want the young players to identify and attack free space, I ask them what information should the young player be seeking out and what invitations are being sent or communicated to him/her by opponents and teammates actions?

A key challenge for coaches is to design training and create learning environments that result in sustainable motivation. Recent research in coaching is highlighting the importance of players experiencing and developing game understanding (technically, tactically, mentally and physically). This is best applied by learning to play via learning environments that contain the key information sources present in performance or match environments. This will of course have technical and pedagogical implications. By moving from an instruction led approach to a more enabling and supporting role we can meet and support the skill acquisition and basic psychological needs that underpin a nonlinear pedagogy and self-determined motivation. Adopting such an approach is not easy; perhaps not as easy as setting up static drills where little game knowledge is required by coaches. To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must

  1. Have a good knowledge of the sport
  2. Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
  3. Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
  4. Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does not achieve this)
  5. Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.

The challenge for the coach is to design individual learning environments that ultimately lead to highly skilled technicians with highly developed game intelligence. It is proposed that this can be achieved by following the key principles of non-linear pedagogy, one of which is representative learning design.


Representative Learning Design

For the purpose of retention and transfer, training should be representative of the performance environment. It should be designed to contain key information sources that are necessary for the learner to become attuned to the appropriate affordance for action, that is ‘football action’ (pressing, dribbling, shooting). Affordances are about action they are invitations, possibilities for ‘football action’ in the environment. If they are to be perceived there must be information about them.

To understand ‘football action’ one must understand the big picture. A picture that dictates that no action is isolated but is nested in interactions between team mates and opponents both within the game and from previous games.

Every Football Action Involves a Decision

Every technique is functional, situation- dependent, infinitely variable and highly individual. As a consequence, isolated physical training that only focuses on specific aspects of fitness is limited in terms of developing football specific aspects of fitness. For example, how a player sprints during an isolated running drill and how that player sprints when performing the football action of pressing are not the same! Isolated strategic (11 v 0) and isolated tactical drills lack inter-individual communication of essential information. For example, the movements of team mates and opponents provides information that drives our own movements but also players require them to communicate and share information with each other verbally or with hand gestures.

For example, consider the options for an attacker when two defenders are converging and closing the gap between them. What are the possible affordances offered to the player in possession?

  1. The player can dribble the ball between the two defenders
  2. The player can pass the ball in depth between the two players to an oncoming or dropping forward

These are just two of the affordances offered. The information has been communicated and now a decision must be made and carried out using a ‘football action’. What determines the choice of a ‘football action’ by the player in possession is that player’s ‘effectivities’, or put another way, his or her capabilities to act on the possibilities invited by the dynamic affordance in the environment.

A fast or explosive player may see this as a possibility to dribble the ball though the gap between the two converging defenders. A slower player may know he or she lacks sufficient pace to exploit the narrowing space and pick up on the affordance to pass the ball through the gap to an oncoming or dropping forward.
How the player is perceiving and acting is very important here. Often referred to in the research literature as the role of ‘agency’. Players can choose to accept or reject invitations provided by affordances. In a dynamic sport like football it may be necessary to delay or to even stop an invitation that you have begun to address, and perceive how through another action you can change it towards another path.

The player in example 1 above may delay his action by slowing down for a split second. This was a ‘football action’ typical of the great Johan Cruyff. As soon as the approaching defenders would respond to him by also slowing down Cruyff would suddenly explode in to action. The use of creativity, deception and disguise to generate uncertainty in their opponents are all traits of top professional footballers.

The player in example number 2 may have perceived the information and decided to play a penetrating pass between the two defenders to an oncoming forward. However, due to a problem in communication the forward may have timed their run incorrectly and ran in to an offside position. Thus, the emergence of new information for the player in possession to perceive and a new path with a new decision to be carried out. A second oncoming attacker may have been perceived by the player in possession (think Pirlo) who plays a pass between the two defenders. The oncoming attacker receives the ball and attacks the space in front towards goal. The ‘offside player’ is now onside and may well provide an extra passing option for the attacker in possession. Here we are entering the realm of “the perception of shared affordances (for others and of others) as the main communication channel between team members”. (Shared knowledge or shared affordances? Insights from an Ecological Dynamics Approach to Team Coordination in Sports (Silvia P, Garganta J, Araujo D, Davids K, Aquiar P; 2013)

Representative learning design is essential to develop understanding of team mates action capabilities and of course opponents. Only then can we see the through ball into the space of an oncoming forward. The weight and direction of the pass is therefore informed by the knoweldge of how quick the team mate is.


Guidelines for Coaches Adopting the Idea of Representative Learning Design

We promote the influence of context. The use of game forms in training sessions that ‘directly talk to the players’. Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. Using the principles of co-adaptability (One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on). Through effective game design, the coach can try and “nudge” the young learners into constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game.
Manipulation of time and space task constraints to facilitate change in the perception action coupling
Training sessions should offer affordances – possibilities for action, choice, challenge and variability to the players/learners to learn and to re-learn.

The Use of Questioning and Context in Creating a Motivational Climate

Questions are a useful tool in generating feelings of involvement, relatedness and the promotion of self- determination behaviours. Questions in learning environments, that contain the key information sources present in performance or match environments can be a powerful tool. Questions can be directed at both groups and individuals and should be formulated to open the learner up to new perspectives or information to guide their perception and action.

Football is a game of constant decision making based on communication/information. Every training session should have as many aspects of football as possible. The aspects used should interact and should also influence each other.

Examples of How to Design Effective Learning Environments using Representative Learning Design

A special thank you to Ian Renshaw (co -author of Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition) who helped and challenged me while I was formulating this piece.


Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, Ian Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015 )

Shared knowledge or shared affordances? Insights from an ecological dynamics approach to team coordination in sports (Silvia P, Garganta J, Araujo D, Davids K, Aquiar P; 2013)

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

Daniel Memmert: Interview Footblogball (footblogball.wordpress.com) July 2015 (https://footblogball.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/teaching-tactical-creativity-dr-daniel-memmert/)