New post from our friend Andreu Enrich. As always, worth the read!
The present text emerges with the aim of bringing light to the famous dialectic between mechanisms and principles. These two concepts: mechanisms and principles often have been taking as antagonists, and we had high-performance coaches who were advocating for more mechanisms and other coaches who were in favour of less mechanisms and more principles. Well, first of all let’s see what is the meaning of this two concepts and then we will explain how we can dissolve this apparent dialectic.
When I say “mechanisms” I mean the predetermined patterns of movement that we, as coaches, teach our players to do inside the field. It’s about providing a set of instructions that must be taken given a particular context. Actually, it’s not about deciding; it’s more about executing or obeying. For example, we tell to our left defender that every ball he receives, he should play along the line, if possible. Or we can tell our midfielders to overload the right-hand side every time we build-up.
Mechanisms are movements that can be easily written on a whiteboard and can be easily clicked on our game analysis software. What most of the coaches do when visualizing a hockey game is precisely to detect patterns of movement (to detect mechanisms) and, later on, to prepare counter measures (other mechanisms) to beat them. It’s like a chess battle. Very Cartesian.
Mechanisms, structure, discourse, modelling the reality. The more resources we spend in “automating” our game, the more mechanisms we will determine and provide to our players. The total set of mechanisms that we establish is the way we play, according to some coaches.
But we have principles as well. Principles are guidelines that orientate our decision-making process. It’s less aggressive. It brings more autonomy to the subject. A principle is an interpretative tool that, once applied in a particular context, provides the meaning and the proper response. You can’t draw a principle on a whiteboard, or more precisely, you can draw in many places. You can click principles on a video, but you don’t know exactly where and when you’ll find them. If we can relate mechanisms to syntaxis, we can relate principles to semantics.
For example, “Draw and Pass” is a principle. The player will match any particular situation with this principle and will take the proper decision. “Face the Play”, “Stick to Stick”, “Hit & Hope”, “Give & Go”, “Line over Line” or “Guard” can be other principles that we normally use in our teams. None of this principles tells you where, when and how you will do it.
So, the question that arises is, what should we do as coaches? Should we create our game style based on determined mechanisms? Or should we put the focus on building up principles? Well, the solution is the synthesis, and we will reach it while using deconstruction.
“Deconstruction” is a philosophical concept that comes from Heidegger, but Jacques Derrida was the one who made it famous. Don’t try to read these two guys unless you want to solve your insomnia without drugs. Briefly and roughly, “deconstruction” is the art of dismantle structures; is the process of analyzing the underlying structures of any discourse with the aim of discovering something fundamental that is not obvious. Yes, it has a creative factor, is not a fixed method or technique.
In my opinion, what coaches should do when taking over a team is to deconstruct the current style of play. Teams are never a tabula rasa (blank slate), and this is the first mistake we can do: try to build-up something ignoring what is already there. In this process of deconstruction, we should try to discover the underlying principles that rule the current game style. Sometimes these principles are ignored by the players (they don’t know what they know). These fundamental principles are based on their experience and the historical and cultural background they had. This is not an obvious process. If the coach is too “mechanism-oriented”, he will only attain the top of the iceberg, and he will be missing something important.
Once the former principles are highlighted, the first question is if we can keep these principles or we should get rid of them. We should try to keep as many principles as we can, cause these principles are the substance that conforms the identity of that team. But of course, we can introduce new ones and deactivate some others, if needed.
The next step is to start forging new principles. To forge a new principle requires time, patience and the capacity to seduce. First of all you should explain the new principle to your players, explain what and why. Convince them. And then you must prepare a good program for the “how”. You should start from the source of the principle, in a very micro and simple way, and progressively apply this principle in more complex and global situations. Training program & tasks design.
Once new principles are adopted by our team, the last step is to determine new mechanisms according to the new principles. Mechanisms where these principles will naturally take place. But wait a second, Andreu. Do we need mechanisms beyond our principles? Yes, I claim. They both should coexist. Actually, we should take mechanisms as movement patterns that allocate our players in a particular context where they will naturally apply our principles. For example, if one my principles is “Hit & Hope”, I should determine a mechanism that allow me to have players in certain areas of the field (from where I would like to smash the circle?) (how many players do I want there?). I can design a mechanism that create this desired context where my principle will naturally operate. Following that example: “When we have the possession in opposite half, one of our midfielders should stand in front of the free-man”. This mechanism will support our “Hit & Hope” principle. This is the proper way to use mechanisms.
Don’t try to establish mechanisms if there is not any awareness of principles in the team. Don’t try to build-up a game style only with principles. Don’t try to impose your “default” set of principles everywhere you go. Don’t try to apply new principles without the proper assimilation process. Preparing mechanisms against your opponent’s mechanisms is wise. And finally, try to have differents sets of principles with different mechanisms related, so you can variate your style of play depending on the context and opponent. That is great!