Frenkie De Jong is one of Dutch Football’s brightest stars. PDP Lead Researcher James Vaughan examines a recent interview with De Jong and shares some brilliant research around knowledge and learning, helping coaches understand how to create a learning environment and difference between telling and doing.

In a recent interview, one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in European football talks about the secret of becoming a good football player. Ajax’s Dutch international Frenkie de Jong explains:

“Good players play on intuition.

When I am on the pitch I play on intuition but I think a lot about the game as well.

With my intuition, it is not just that I receive the ball and always think ‘I’m going to do this’ straight away, even though it just happens that way sometimes.

Most good players play on intuition. Everyone has a little but I don’t know if you can learn it.

Sometimes I’m planning. I’m always searching for the pass. I’m always looking to see my teammate. ‘Is he free?’ Then you already know what to do. But sometimes the situation can change. Then you have to react and use your intuition.

I try to have a picture when I receive the ball and know where everyone is.”

There’s a lot to unpack in de Jong’s explanation but we’ll start with the nuance between ‘playing on intuition’ and ‘thinking about the game’.

‘Thinking about the game’ is having knowledge ‘about’ the game. It’s being able to talk tactics and discuss what happens on the pitch, it might be making sense of magnets moving on coaching boards or the arrows drawn on session plans. It’s being able to verbally show that you understood what coach said and it might result in coaches monologue running through your head. Having declarative knowledge allows players to give the ‘right’ answer during the Q&A, its understanding ‘coach talk’ and it’s virtually worthless if we want to develop abilities ‘on’ the pitch.

Declarative knowledge

Declarative knowledge is the knowledge I have about the number 8 position at Football Club Barcelona. I can passionately bore you as I recite the details of positioning myself in a ‘pocket of space’, ‘between the lines’ as the centre back receives the ball with time and space to pass forward. I can espouse the need to orientate my body so I can receive on the ‘back foot’ and simultaneously see the movements of teammates while assessing the gaps between defenders (critical information). In almost autistic detail I can recall the scenarios in which I might play behind the back four, or into a teammate’s feet (are the back 4 dropping or holding a high line?). I can bore you with all the details of who, how and when.

But if you put me on the pitch I can’t do any of this, I can’t do what Iniesta did, the knowledge is worthless once I step in-to the game. I can talk the talk but not walk the walk, I can tell you ‘about’ the critical information (triggers and cues) but I’m not perceptually attuned to it ‘in’ the game.

And we are in danger of educating a generation of players to talk tactics without the perceptual skill to see patterns and pictures and play, as de Jong calls it… intuitively.

Critically talking about football is not the same as becoming attuned to the changing patterns and pictures in the game.

This is a massive problem when we consider the ‘way’ many of the worlds most enlightened coaches work today, so much emphasis is placed verbal instructions or players demonstrating their learning through discussions and Q&A’s in which they verbally explain their knowledge.

Intelligence in football is demonstrated through skilled movements and interactions on the pitch, not just discussions off it. However, we seem to be enthralled by the educational emphasis on declarative knowledge. If Julie can recite the session plan with aims and learning outcomes at the end of training she must have learned something relevant to football… right?

Having knowledge about the game isn’t a bad thing for young players, but without ‘knowledge in the game’ it’s worthless: it’s all icing and no cake.

Dennis Hörtin (of AIK) and I have discussed these ideas all year and he rightly points out that instructions and coach talk have value when the receiver’s skill and understanding are at a level ‘high’ enough so that value is added. In other words, the instructions do not negatively influence the level of function, but instead, provide ‘candles in the dark’ to use when navigating the performance environment. However, the candles won’t help if we are educating players to close their eyes and play inside their own heads.

Understanding the nuance between knowledge in the game and knowledge about the game represents one of the biggest blind spots I’ve come across in coach pedagogy, grassroots to elite.

It’s a blind spot for many coaches because it’s a blind spot in coach education and it’s a blind spot in coach education because it’s blind spot in sport science and it’s a blind spot in sport science because sport science has been dominated by reductionist approaches that disregard the role of environment and context, whether that be social and cultural contexts or affordance landscapes.

One way of understanding the prevalence of blind spots is to examine the sociocultural conditions that underpin them. A useful concept when doing this is the concept of path dependency.

Path Dependency

Once a system (e.g. education system) is set on a development path, the historically derived modelling (things like; flat earth theories, Taylorism, the 10,000 hour rule and information processing models of the human mind) shape organisational structures (elitist academy structures, standardised testing and evaluations in schools) and constrain the course (Djelic & Quack, 2007) of  future development.

For example, when flat earth theory dominated our thinking, few people wanted to sail off to explore new lands for fear of sailing off the edge of the earth.

“Our obsession with declarative knowledge comes from the path dependent domination of cognitive psychology which is linked to the two biggest disasters in the history of psychology, one is behaviourism and one is the information processing model of the human mind, unfortunately, both dominate HR practice to this day (Professor Dave Snowden, minute 13:19).”

What does this mean for football? Here’s a video from the SvFF (Swedish footballs governing body) with a verbal explanation (subtitles added by Mark O Sullivan) on how to do a pass fake in football.

This is an attempt to verbally instruct (declarative knowledge) a skilled movement with no cues, triggers or environmental information to inform the movement. This is as a classic example of educating players to ‘play inside their own heads’ and is reminiscent of swimming on the side of the pool.

Snowden highlights the outdated focus on cognitive psychology saying: “the concept that consciousness (or decision making) resides in the brain is a primitive greek concept that we really need to grow out of, consciousness (decision making) is a distributed function of the brain, the body, its tools and its environment” (minute 10:03)

As de Jong says:

“Most good players play on intuition. Everyone has a little but I don’t know if you can learn it.”

People don’t’ know if players can learn intuition, skill adaptation or creative moments because the pedagogy focused on declarative knowledge doesn’t develop these attributes, leading most of us to assume that intuition (creativity) is innate and not learned.

Knowledge in the game: Knowledge of the performance environment

Ecological psychology and ecological dynamics place the emphasis on knowledge ‘in’ the game, illuminating the importance of environment and explaining decision making as an embodied experience or distributed function. In other words, it’s not just something isolated to your brain but a constant interaction between brain, body, tools and environment. While this actually sounds really intuitive the majority of pedagogy was developed from the isolated ‘playing in your own head’ approaches that lead to the video above.

What we must understand is that: “Not only is the athlete an active agent, but also that the environment is an active part of a system, facilitating specific behavioural outcomes”.
(Araújo & Davids, 2016, p. 2).

Knowledge in the game refers to players ability to instantaneously, intuitively and skilfully move and interact in response to changing patterns of critical information in the game (performance environment): changing spaces, gaps between defenders, the movements body positions and orientations of teammates and opposition that invite certain football interactions: pass, dribble, shoot.

Players become aware of and attuned to critical information by spending time in football environments whereby this information is rich and readily available – players don’t become attuned to critical information or discover affordances standing in lines or talking about tactics or recalling last week’s learning outcomes for this week’s Q&A.

‘Learning about affordances entails exploratory activities’ (Gibson, 1988, p. 5).

Standing around talking is not stimulating exploratory activities. It can have other benefits, but exploratory activities involve the exploration of novel movement solutions and the sampling of diverse movement opportunities. This can be across disciplines: sport, dance, martial arts and in general play (Côté & Ericsson, 2015; Davids, Güllich, Araújo, & Shuttleworth, 2017).

As young players’ perceptual systems develop they can experiment with novel solutions and discover the affordances currently in reach. In other words, ‘as new action systems mature, new affordances open up and new “experiments on the world” can be undertaken’ (Gibson, 1988, p. 7).

Depending on their stage of development each player will be open to certain affordances and closed to others. Maybe I can hit that ball over the top but I can’t dribble between defenders into that gap.

In skilfully designed training sessions players of varying abilities can work through tasks at their own pace, sampling certain movements, exploring their creative potential (Santos, Memmert, Sampaio, & Leite, 2016) and discovering affordances relevant to them.

Again, this won’t happen while standing in lines or huddling in groups whereby one or two players (adept at basic recall/repetition) answer from last sessions smörgåsbord of learning outcomes or parrot back the topic of today’s session.

What de Jong call’s intuition van Dijk and Rietveld (2017) call skilled intentionality, which can be thought of as:

“Considering the skilful responsiveness to multiple nesting and nested affordances simultaneously. i.e., the responsiveness to a whole field of relevant affordances” (p. 9; italics in original)

To help us appreciate the importance of knowledge in the game and move our coaching towards an approach that is able to foster intuition, skill and creative moments we must look beyond declarative knowledge. The theoretical framework of ecological dynamics and the practical application of non-linear pedagogy can help us do this but first, we must acknowledge our blind spots and recognise the need to re-educate ourselves and move beyond the primitive Greek traditions of current coach education.

To be clear, I am not criticising the use of Q&A’s, athlete-centred approaches, guided discovery or engaging discussions (they are crucial in developing need supportive motivational climates and group cultures). I am simply questioning the relevance of these approaches when attempting to design coaching sessions to develop skill and creativity (what de Jong call’s intuition and what van Dijk and Rietveld (2017) call skilled intentionality).

What I’m saying is we shouldn’t be surprised if people (we) think intuition (or creativity) can’t be learnt if our methods are outdated.

The earth isn’t flat anymore.


“You then match that partial recognition against patterns stored in your brain, your body and your tools and your environment. If you don’t know it, the concept that consciousness resides in the brain is a primitive greek concept that we really need to grow out of, consciousness is a distributed function of the brain the body its tools and its environment… stored within that context tools can fundamentally change the way we see the world.”

“We are pattern based intelligence, not information processing machines, there have been two disasters in the history of psychology one is behaviourism and one is the information processing model of the human mind, unfortunately, both dominate HR practice to this day”

Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

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