At times – I think that it’d be fair to say – I harbour a tendency to overthink things. To look for meaning when perhaps none is there. To grasp at the straws of linear causality in a desperate attempt to clarify the opaque correlations that I have become so hell-bent on establishing.
I am aware of this; I am, however, also aware that in a broader context, this penchant for convolution is by no means the most debilitating or toxic of afflictions. Indeed, it barely registers stock on an index of myriad other – and dare I say immeasurably more damaging – flaws whose share prices constantly jostle for position as a reminder to me daily of the fragility and value of my own self-worth. I charitably, if somewhat optimistically, indulge to label these weaknesses as ‘idiosyncrasies’. Charity, after-all, begins at home. Or so I’m told.
The justification that I prescribe to myself in order to rationalise this condition is itself revelatory. The key word is rationalise. That’s what I’m always seeking to do. To make sense of things; to apply logic and reason to whatever conundrum may present itself.
It’s a pretty simple idea – or at least it should be. I can still vividly recall my secondary school English teacher, Mrs Edwards – who appearance was always as immaculate as it was elegant – demonstrating this to me during one of her classes. “It isn’t like anything,” she interrupted as I clumsily attempted to contextualise the motivations of whichever Shakespearean character we happened to be analysing by utilising an apparently inappropriate use of the word. “It either is or it isn’t.”
Well quite. It either is or it isn’t. Make the choice. ‘Show some conviction, boy!’
Now, I’d be inclined to presume that Mrs Edwards would agree that within her domain of expertise there certainly does exist room for interpretation. That’s what makes art Art. Brian Eno, with his own typically minimal brand of clarity, succinctly describes Art as ‘anything that you don’t have to do’.
As I have mentioned before, I don’t consider football to be an art. Sure, art exists within the objective framework of the game, but the governing and overarching objective of scoring goals to win the game means, that unlike writers, painters or musicians, everyone is trying to achieve the same outcome. If we can then allow ourselves to move forward with the idea that football is not to be interpreted subjectively then the question quickly becomes, how can we understand the game objectively?
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The idea of analysing football from an objective and rational viewpoint is one that I have been desperate to explore. And I’m coming at this from a coaching perspective. How can I be sure that what I’m teaching in training sessions is effective? How can I explain the reasons behind every exercise? How can I influence the player’s performance in game situations?
Somewhat ironically, considering the quantity of at times admittedly pompous verbiage that I have submitted to the topic, it would appear that the answer to these questions has in fact been there all along. A classic example of a failure to see the wood for the trees. As I say, my weaknesses are legion.
Raymond Verheijen’s Football Action Model, which can be examined more closely in Verheijen’s book, Football Periodisation, breaks football down beautifully. By way of logical analysis of the game, Verheijen deduces that a football match is comprised of a collection of Football Actions.
Football can be defined as an intensity sport, the outcome of which is primarily determined by the speed, quality and quantity of the Football Actions that a team can successfully execute during a 90-minute game. It would therefore follow that in order to train players to perform in this way, an acute understanding of the Football Action Model will be required.
The great thing about all this is that it’s really simple. A Football Action comprises of three sequential stages: Communication, Decision Making (game insight) and Decision Execution (technique). What’s also fantastically user-friendly about this model is that the characteristics and components of each stage can be analysed individually using real life examples.
In football – as in life – we are bombarded with stimuli. How we interpret or communicate with these stimuli will go a long way to determining the various paths that we choose to walk throughout our existences. When you find yourself waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection, whenever you’re selecting your groceries from the supermarket, every time you open the curtains and assess the weather conditions to help determine the forthcoming day’s sartorial choices. In all of these seemingly humdrum scenarios you are interpreting stimuli.
It would then follow that the ability to select the most effective or pragmatic option will be entirely derived from one’s familiarity with the stimuli that they are faced with. If you are unaware of the saturating effects of rain water on leather, then your choice of jacket may well end up being unsuitable for the average Glasgow stroll. It is our ability to interpret the stimuli – in this case, rain – that enables us to make better choices.
In a football training context this means exposing the players to as many game realistic stimuli as possible. It should be the coach’s primary focus to familiarise the players with myriad scenarios – in attack, defence and transition – in which they are forced to recognise stimuli and engage in active communication with their environment. The ball, the team-mate, the opponent, the space.
These stimuli of classical Sacchiism should be ubiquitously present. When the full-back sees their wide team-mate move inside towards the centre of the pitch, they know to stay close to the touchline to provide width to the structure. This concept of non-verbal communication is paramount. Players are interacting with each other’s movements and body language. And they must become literate in this parlance.
Every situation is different. Players must learn – aided by guidance from the coach with regard to game principles – how to arrange and prioritise the messages decoded from these stimuli and quickly select the most appropriate course of action. Like a pedestrian deciding whether or not a driver has seen them by estimating the field of view of the individual behind the wheel before stepping onto the road. Our decisions are derived from our ability to recognize, interpret and ultimately communicate with the stimuli that surrounds us.
We’ve recognised, understood and interpreted the relevant stimuli. We now need to make our decision. The key thing here is to understand that at this stage of the process we are extremely susceptible to bias. Our biases come in many forms and offer up one of the primary barriers to the successful execution of an action.
Even though one may know that the weather forecasts a 75 percent chance of rain, one may select to wear the leather jacket ahead of a more practical waterproof one due to the subconscious desire to show off the tailored cut of the on-trend designer. The early morning sunshine seemingly confirms this irrational choice.
Players must therefore be taught to become what Gerd Girgerenzer describes in his Ted Talk on the subject, as risk literate. For example, a centre-back may decide not to fire in a pass to the striker’s feet based on previous experiences of playing with a forward who was often unable to receive a firm pass whilst being pressured from behind.
Now place this defender in a team that’s central striker is a specialist at exactly this. The number 9 is extremely adept at receiving and beating the pressuring player allowing the team to attack from an extremely dangerous advanced platform. Now picture the training session: the defender is on the ball and the 9 creates a passing lane and signals that they want the ball to feet. The defender opts out and instead plays a far less valuable horizontal pass along the defensive line. The coach must remove the bias from the defender’s interpretation of the stimuli (the ball, the team-mate, the opponent, the space) and instruct them to make the vertical pass.
This is, of course, just one example of an infinite number of stimuli arrangements that the players must attempt to recognise. The coach must be proactive in shaping their player’s interpretations through communication of their game principles. Simply put, this is why different teams play in different ways. Sam Allardyce will prime his players to decide to regain their compact defensive shape as quickly as possible when the stimuli indicate that possession has been lost. Roger Schmidt’s players would have other ideas. Their decision-making based upon communication has been shaped in a different way.
Once the appropriate decisions have been made, they must be executed. This is otherwise referred to as the player’s technique. Picking up the example of the centre-back’s vertical pass, the player must now be able to make the pass successfully to complete the Football Action. The pass must be played with the appropriate firmness and accuracy for the striker to receive in their preferred manner. The ability to achieve this success comes from the player’s familiarity with playing a pass in this particular situation. Passing is a football action, but no two passes are exactly the same. They each have their own personalities and carry with them a unique genetic code.
And this is the great benefit of viewing training through the lens of the Football Action Model. By assessing the action of passing as being the result of a previously considered communication and decision, we are able to see that training technique in isolation is counter intuitive. By amputating the Decision Execution stage from the body of the Football Action Model, coaches would appear to be demonstrating a wanton disregard for the game itself.
By simply instructing players to perform isolated and unopposed technical drills, coaches are in fact conditioning players to ignore their situation and surroundings in the game environment. It’s like making somebody repeatedly practice walking for ten metres in a straight line and then asking them to navigate a crowded and busy intersection without first explaining what the traffic signals mean.
I work in a bar and I can assure you that it is not simply my ability to pour a perfect pint that enables me to deal with the situation that I am presented with on a busy Saturday night. I’m navigating my way through a dense forest of stimuli that each carry their own message that must be interpreted and understood. Who was first in line? Are they a regular that might simply want their single whisky? How can I complete the order in the least number of trips up and down the bar? The solutions to these questions can only be achieved by considering the environment first. Technique is downstream from communication and decision-making.
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Verheijen is clearly confident that through his objective analysis of the game of football, the empirical evidence supports his models. And it would appear to be difficult to argue with him. It is difficult because of the lack of evidence that would support such an alternative viewpoint. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop an inordinate number of coaches from disregarding Verheijen’s evidence and placing significant emphasis on isolated and unopposed football and fitness training methods. What these coaches need to be comfortable with, then, is the fact that what they are teaching to players is entirely subjective and not grounded by any specific, football related evidence. To me, that seems like a pretty dangerous game.
I suppose that the key issue here is that I’m looking at this from a skeptical perspective. I have no reason to believe in Verheijen’s models other than the fact that they are supported by football specific empirical evidence. I’m always ready to be – and in fact rather enjoy being – proved wrong. The question that I would have for coaches that disregard this objective model of Football Action Theory is simply this: why?
By Jamie Hamilton. Follow @stirling_j