“Coaching on Principles” by Andreu Enrich

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Yesterday I received an email from a PhD student regarding the “Principles”, his question was regarding the way we as coaches apply the principles into our daily practise, how we do it and how we achieve that our players understand the game and then play effectively following our game principles. I will try to answer his doubts with the present article, I hope you can find it interesting as well. The more we can share and exchange, the better for our sport.

How can we achieve a certain level of coordination between the decision-making of 11 different players inside the field? How can we develop an intelligent game? How do we organize our game principles? And how do players learn them?

If we address the first question, in the theory there are two models that try to explain the intelligent coordination between team players: the cognitive perspective and the dynamical-ecological perspective. I don’t want to bother you with long theoretical explanations, so I will be very short and precise:

The Cognitive Perspective assumes that between the perception and the execution of the action there is a cognitive process. Once a particular situation is given to the player, the player compares it with its mental representation and finds the correct answer, that afterwards is executed. If these mental representations are shared among the players, their behaviours will be coordinated due to this shared understanding of the game.

The Dynamical-Ecological Perspective assumes that between the perception and the action there is not enough time to call a mental representation from the memory. This perspective considers that players are directly perceiving the environment with “opportunities to act” (affordances) attached. These affordances are what we colloquially say intuition.

Even from the dynamic-ecological perspective, the previous “learning” is needed, if so, players will become more sensible to certain stimuli and will tend to find the information in more relevant parts of the context. Briefly: training and principles are needed in both cases.

Among the academics there is a consensus that both perspectives coexist, and its importance is related to the time available in the decision-making process. If the player has enough time between perception and action, the player can recall mental representations easily. If a player is forced to perceive and execute immediately, here we just have affordances and pure intuition. Both positions are vigent, complementary and constantly coexisting.

However, and sadly, many teams are just coached in the execution of certain techniques and in the imposition of certain forms of order. From this old paradigm, the coach is the center of the process and players are just in charge of executing the protocols in a certain way. There is no autonomous decision-making, just obedience.

When we achieve an intelligent team, the initiative of each individual is significant for the rest of the team. This initiative is also coherent with the game model and its principles. We need decision-making, a constant problem-solving under pressure and constraints. This is the way our brains develop!

In my opinion, a good coach is the one who tries to explain the internal logic of the game, the most convenient principles and where are the significant sources of information during the action.

Principles are abstractions. Abstractions that, based on experience, allow us to find commonalities through different situations. These abstractions are ideas that help us to organize and categorize the complex reality. From concrete to generic. Principles not only help us to organize and identify, but also help us to anticipate and to expect, which is really crucial during the action.

Principles should be organized. They follow a structure. For example, I use to organize my principles around the 4 phases of the game: offensive, defensive transition, defense and offensive transition. But also I organize them hierarchically, for example, the principle “Progression” includes sub-principles like “Give and Go”, “Guard”, etc.

In the process of teaching, we should start from the most inclusive principles and then break down the system gradually. These “core” principles are the ones where the player, later on, will include the next ones. This is what is called “Progressive Differentiation”.

Training tasks should be significant. By significant I mean with a high degree of functionality/transference. We need a focus point. The focus of the training task should be clear, we can’t tell our players to put the focus in 10 different principles. This is what is called “Sequential Organization”, and its reference in football would be the tactical periodization.

In training tasks, players should face contradictions between principles as well (bringing them to zone of proximal development). For example, you design a SSG where players receive points after every successful regain after loss, but the design of the game makes that almost impossible. Once the conflict appears, they should try to resolve it and synthesis. That conflictive process creates a better understanding of the game.

However, training tasks should be funny, players shouldn’t fail in more than 20% of the cases (the rule of 80/20 is commonly used in dog training). If so, they will be motivated and then the predisposition for learning will be higher, which is a very important factor.

We shouldn’t punish the error of the player. In apprentices, the fear of losing the ball is so big that the player focuses all the attention on that objective (in his survival). That diminishes the perception, reduces the cognitive resources available and also increases the stress level in the body, therefore worse motor skills.

The best way to develop our players in game principles is with the use of Small-Sided Games. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use exercises without opposition, videos or conversations about tactics with our players. Every resource can be useful if well used, but the main teacher is and will be the game, in the form of SSG with a proper design.

Andreu Enrich
FIH Level 4 Coach
EHF Mentor