MULTI SKILLED – KNOWING THE BRAIN

By Anthony Hudson
Oct 8th, 2008

In the first of what we hope will become an invaluable series of articles, Anthony Hudson, son of Chelsea legend Alan, gives us an insight into what happens on the pitch and training ground –  seen through the eyes of a former professional player, and one of the most highly regarded young coaches in the game.

I worked with an Under 10 team recently and in our first session, I pulled a kid to one side who was playing right back.  I noticed the whole time he was in the game he never left his little ‘self-made area’, which only allowed him to move 3 or 4 yards in any direction, regardless of where the ball was and what was happening in the game.

‘Andrew, what do we want to do when we get the ball?’
‘Um, pass, combine?’
‘Yeah, pass, combine, but what else do we want to do?’
‘Um….score a goal!’
‘Yes, score a goal. So, when you get the ball, wouldn’t you like to go and score?’
‘Yes but, I’m not allowed to go up there!’

I was completely shocked and ever since then I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Somewhere along the line this kid has learned, that firstly he is a defender, and secondly as a defender he is not allowed to go forward. What a crying shame! And how many more kids have these restrictions put on them, and how are they able to enjoy and express themselves under such conditions?

As coaches we have a huge amount of influence over the players we work with, whether young or old. And to aid us we have so many resources for learning at our disposal!

Is it just enough to learn and practice the technical and tactical side of the game? No question it’s extremely important, but what if we can’t communicate effectively what we want, and can we read our players, is what we are seeing and hearing really what’s going on, do we know how to truly listen to them? What good is all this technical and tactical knowledge if we can’t best help our players?

The Multi Skilled Coach

Just as cross-training is invaluable to any particular sport that someone participates in, the same type of ‘cross-training’ is true with coaching. As coaches we must constantly seek to become much more ‘multi-skilled’.

Working and learning in areas such as psychology, physiology, nutrition, human development, learning languages, fitness, self development, mentoring, counseling are all subjects that can aid us into becoming a more effective influence over the players we work with. Not only that, all these factors that influence our coaching environment are so interesting and enjoyable to experience – the many joys of being a coach.

The Brain & How People Learn

We know today that people learn in many different ways. Some are more visual than others, others learn best by hearing, some by feeling and doing. For example, one player may be able to do exactly what you’re asking him to do the first time you ask, but another may need to see it performed a few times first, before giving it a go.

The brain is absolutely amazing; and in a learning, coaching environment – hugely underestimated! We can access so much insight about the brain and in particular – how players learn. Study of the conscious and sub-conscious mind can go a long way in aiding us to become more effective as coaches. Dr Emile Donchin (University of Illinois) says ‘that 99% of all learning is non-conscious.

Your students are learning without knowing it.’ Interesting, so that means that what we do, how we speak, what we say, how we dress, our body language, our facial expressions, the environment, the posters we put on the wall, the affirmations, the diagrams, all of these things effect the learning of the players we work with – without them being aware of it.

So when I’m making a coaching point or a team talk to my players, I may think that what I’m saying sounds effective and constructive, but there are players that may not even be listening to my words, there’re focused on my body language or the expression on my face, reacting to the tone of my voice, or noticing the other players, their expressions and what there thinking. Their sub-conscious mind is feeding off and taking in, all that I am doing.

So, are we aware of all the factors that can influence our players to a better state of learning? The factors that can aid us into better ‘teaching’? And are we doing enough to affect these variables and to try and accommodate all the different learning styles of our players?

As a kid, people told me to keep practicing and practicing. And I did. But a Saturday afternoon visit to a live game, with thousands of screaming fans, the emotion, the passion and the professional players, did something to me that no amount of words from anybody – about practicing -could do.

I would leave the stadium with an unbelievable enthusiasm and I couldn’t wait to get out there to play and practice. So, for me, a situation where I’m emotionally involved, when I can hear and feel the crowd, and the ‘smell’ of a game day, is a much more powerful stimulus than someone telling me, ‘if you want to be a professional and play in front of thousands of fans, in big stadiums, then you need to go and practice!’

The stronger effect of the two has impacted all of the senses – visual, auditory, smell, feelings, imagination, and on and on.

Now, we don’t all have the opportunity to affect all these learning senses so strongly, but if we can gain a better understanding of our players and how to really reach them, we will find creative ways to gain the desired, positive effect!

Negativity / Confidence

It’s very interesting to watch players and see how they behave both on and off the field. Confidence can make a player and just as easy, (the lack of it) can tear one down. Is what we are saying to our players really helping them?

I remember a time from my youth which I feel much can be learned from as a coach. When I was a kid, my coach kept telling me that I used to make bad runs. He kept on and on, telling, pointing, pointing and telling. I used to hear him on the side say, ‘he makes some terrible runs’. Well, not only did this affect me in a negative way, (both psychologically and physically) it was totally inaccurate.

I knew exactly where I should be going, I knew how to create space for myself, I knew where I needed to go to put myself in a good position to receive the ball – I knew all this. The problem was, at certain times and in certain areas, I didn’t want the ball. I didn’t want it anywhere near me.

Confidence and specific training – these were the areas that needed attention – not my understanding of the game. And the way to find that out is through awareness, a little curiosity and by communicating.

Portuguese legend, Eusebio said, when asked his views on the qualities of a top coach he responded: ‘It is someone who is able to talk to the players and get the maximum out of them. The ability to communicate is essential!’

In learning about the brain, there’s a certain stem, or the ‘reptilian brain’ that dominates our behavior under stress.

‘Under threats, anxiety, negative stress and induced learner helplessness, the brain operates differently. There is increased blood flow and electrical activity in the brain stem and cerebellum area and decreased activity in the mid-brain and neo-cortex. That means the brain has ‘minimized’. You get more predictable, rote, knee jerk reaction behaviors when the brain senses any threat.’ (Brain Based Learning, Eric Jenson).

Consider the characteristics in the last sentence – are these not the exact type of characteristics you least want your players to have when playing a game?

For football players this type of reaction can lead to restricted breathing, tensed muscles, impaired judgment and decision making, which always result in a negative outcome, i.e. losing the ball or ‘messing up’. And these negative outcomes are more often than not labeled by the coach as ‘poor technique’ or ‘there just not good enough’. So we know now, there’s a little more than meets the eye and we have to dig a bit deeper.

‘Young players need freedom of expression to develop as creative players….they should be encouraged to try skills without fear or failure.’ Arsene Wenger

For better or worse, what we do know is that we have a very strong influence over the state of our players. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to become more aware of all the different factors that play a part in bettering every player we work with.

As coaches we may want to ask ourselves:

•    Do we engage enough curiosity in our players?
•    Are we engaging them emotionally?
•    How effective is our feedback? Do we give enough feedback, if so, when and to whom?
•    Are we allowing our players to set goals for themselves?
•    What kind of language are we using?
•    Are we providing hope every time we are in contact with them?
•    Do we reinforce positive beliefs and affirmations?

It is truly amazing – how fortunate we are, to be able to learn and to help others become better and to reach their dreams!

A special thanks to Malcolm Cook, Director of FreeFlow Coaching, a mentor/coach educator that really lives everything that he preaches and inspires coaches like myself to become better. Thank you

You can read the original article with Anthony here and also check out his website at www.anthonyhudson.com

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