We Football coaches are out of control. We don’t want to lose, but we can’t stop taking shortcuts in training. We want our goalkeepers to make both the routine and the big saves, but we can’t seem to find the time to properly train them. We want to be successful, but we can’t stop imitating, simulating and moving like puppets on a string following every word and action the newest coaching success story presents. We can’t even control our attention. Look at ourselves; we’re multitasking like never before. Always switching our focus from Blackberries to iPhones, to email and texts and then back to the internet; all the while none of these really have much bearing on helping us better develop our craft.
These behavioral problems aren’t just vexing and embarrassing. They’re destroying us and our profession. Complacency and stubbornness are the top two causes of preventable losses in the game of football. More than half of the coaches who retire, leave the profession or are forced out between the ages of 25 to 44 do so as a result of irrational or uneducated decisions, compared to just 5 percent in other sports. In football, impulse control takes a toll across all age groups. Children born today might actually be the first generation in the history of football to have shorter career expectancy in the game than their predecessors. They will also face greatly diminished Player Development prospects, as runaway participation numbers the world over contributes to an unprecedented and increasingly unsustainable qualified coaching debt load.
More Numbers: A smart move?
More players can make you better, right?
According to the rampant growth in recent participation numbers and the reciprocal growing number of elite-level playing opportunities (i.e., academies, clubs, teams, etc…) you would think the two would fall hand-in-hand.
However, I disagree and from my experience which is firmly rooted in the heart of this modern blossoming of football growth, I actually believe the opposite is true; more players and more specifically: more elite-level playing opportunities, is actually hurting the game’s proper development.
This is not because more kids shouldn’t be playing, because they should. In fact the more kids that are playing the game, the better the game will be. However, the growth in qualified coaches and trainers to continue developing these higher-end players is in no way consistent with the growth of the number of players themselves. It is for this reason we end up with very talented players with tremendous potential going untapped because they never have the opportunity to be trained by the properly qualified coach of which they need.
Controlling the Growth of the Game?
One of my hobbies is audio recording technology. You know, the home studio type of software and outboard gear…anyways…there are times when I need to hear something that only appears for a very short, minute, micro-second of time in order to determine if it needs to be edited out or changed or whatever… The program that the audio file is recorded on has an interface with the ability to change the rate of playback without altering the pitch, so I can whiz through the parts that I don’t need and still be able to slow down and hear the important stuff that I do.
There are many times when I’m doing this that I think to myself,
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a similar interface in our brains, so that we can travel at Mach speed through the drudgery and stretch out the champagne-in-the-hot-tub moments indefinitely?”
Well, in a way, we do have that very type of mental machinery and if we’re clever, we can consciously manipulate it to “actually” and “realistically” make time go slower or faster at will.
This skill, when mastered, becomes quite the strength of both the coach and player, as it allows them additional opportunities to make crucial decisions that can potentially make or break their careers.
Patience is Key
Researchers have long recognized the benefits of “psychological patience” on cognitive brain function. Over a decade ago, scientists at the Salk Institute in California discovered that exercises stimulating patience in decision making actually increased the rate of generation of new brain cells. This led to a search for the types of mental activities that afford the greatest benefit. So far, the meditation rituals of Zen Monks seem to be winning and its positive effects for Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers has been quite evident.
Never-the-less, it isn’t just those whom study the lifelong teachings and disciplines of the Zen Masters who can remain cognitively active throughout both their playing and coaching career; starting as a player, and then continuing on perfecting the skill and giving you potentially a 50 percent edge compared to other sedentary coaches. This is according to researchers in Great Britain who followed the cognitive activity levels of over 9,000 footballers beginning at age 11. They found that footballers with the highest cumulative mental activity levels scored better on cognitive tests of brain function compared to mentally inactive players. The study, published in March of 2013, shows the benefits of the proper type of cognitive exercise on brain function and follows what researchers call a “dose response,” meaning more mental exercise (a higher dose) produces a greater benefit for the brain.
Control Time to Control the Game
Let’s add a little background to this whole picture, shall we? Unlike the microprocessors in computers, human brains don’t have a central timing mechanism inside them which allows them to directly measure how time flows. Instead, our brains subconsciously keep a record of the number of things that take place. If we make an educated assumption that the rate of “things taking place” is more or less steady and constant, then that total should more or less correlate with the amount of time that has passed. Of course, in practice that’s a very faulty assumption. Things happen at tremendously varying rates. For example, when you’re lying in a hammock by the beach, pretty much nothing happens all afternoon. Yet, when your car is skidding on ice and into the path of oncoming traffic, a lot of things seem to be happening all at once. That’s exactly why our perception of time will vary so much. Minutes can feel like hours and hours can feel like minutes.
Researchers at the University College of London investigated this very idea directly by showing test subjects one of two things. They either showed them a series of randomly changing stimuli or they showed them a simple, unchanging and static image. After each subject was shown one of the two respective pieces of the experiment, they were then asked to make a guesstimate as to how much time had elapsed while they were being shown what the experiment called for them to see. Interestingly, those who watched the changing stimuli were much more accurate in their estimation of elapsed time. This finding supports the notion that the brain uses changes in the external environment to gauge the passage of time. Next, the subjects were shown a video clip which was played back at two different speeds. They estimated that both clips took the same amount of time to play, even though the clip that was played at a faster speed actually took less time.
The researchers concluded that “temporal statistical structure in the environment provides an important cue to elapsed time,” but they also noted that “the bias induced by unnaturally structured stimuli is a counterpart to the improved accuracy gained when the environment accords with expectations.”
In other words, since the brain keeps time by recording the things that are going on in the outside world, it is possible to fool yourself if you are able to violate the expectations of how often these things in the outside world happen.
Scrambling Your Words With Friends
An important study published in 2006 in the Journal of Gerontology, followed a group of previously sedentary men and women ages 60-79 over six months. Half the group participated in daily cognitive exercises while a comparison group restricted their activity to their normal daily routine. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the participants’ brains were obtained before the study and again after six months of the study.
The brains of the group engaged in daily cognitive activity not only showed a resistance to the normal age-related decline in volume; but their brains actually increased in volume.
This increase included a measurable growth in both grey and white matter, suggesting a capacity for improvement in both cognitive function and reaction time. In other words, an investment in daily mental exercises has a similar effect on an athlete or a coach’s brain as an individual whom is purchasing a new computer with a larger hard drive and a faster Internet connection speed.
Doctors have long recognized that exercise leads to substantial health benefits for the body. The new research shows that exercise is also good for the brain.
Cognitive exercises that benefit the brain include sustained activities that require memorization and recall, as well as short and quick mental calculations; examples such as Sudoku, Crosswords, Jumbles, Words With Friends and Scramble With Friends.
The Time Hack
The simplest way to exploit this phenomenon is by just relocating to an unfamiliar environment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it before: how the first few days of when you’re vacationing in a new place seem to go on and on and on, while the second half seems to speed by in a blur. This happens because when we find ourselves surrounded by something novel, our conscious mind is continuously engaged by the types of things that normally are just generic parts that blend into the background. Even the salt and pepper shakers on a restaurant table will become different and interesting. Your mind becomes so busy processing new sights and sounds that your inner time keeper assumes that a large amount of time must have already passed by. Never-the-less, by the time we’ve been ensconced in our new surroundings for a few days, we’ve already begun to slip into a routine and the novelty factor has already begun to wear off. At this point, time starts to revert to its normal velocity.
As coaches, I’m sure we’ve all experienced this when we’ve taken a new coaching position. In our profession it is called the “honeymoon period” and it usually lasts much longer than the few days I explained in my previous example.
Now, looking at it from a realistic perspective, you don’t have to buy a plane ticket to slow down time. There are other psychological states that will also increase the density of conscious perception. One of the most common examples is Fear. When we face a fearful situation, our body’s natural fight-or-flight response mechanism will kick in. When it does, our body sends a surge of noradrenaline to the brain which helps it to focus its energies on its awareness of the immediate environment. When this occurs, we notice more things and we also remember them clearer and thus; as a result – we experience that slow-motion type of effect that is seen in so many action movies.
Footballers have reported a similar phenomenon when they achieve the psychological condition commonly known as “flow” or “the zone.” In these athletic situations, once again the brain’s make-up for determining its conscious awareness of the surrounding environment is working at peak efficiency; gathering sights, sounds and other external perceptions of which the brain will then store within its memory. In their book Sports Psychology for Coaches, Damon Burton and Thomas D. Raedeke put it like this:
“Athletes in flow are completely focused and absorbed in their performance and their heightened focus makes them aware of everything going on around them that relates to their performance. The problem with flow can be somewhat elusive. Flow happens only when athletes let it happen, rather than trying to make it happen. The harder one tries to get into flow, the more elusive it is.”
In a separate interview, Burton said the exact same-thing can be applied to coaching.
So, after going through all of that, we’ve come to realize that athletic flow is impossible to achieve by conscious will; travel is expensive and being really frightened is not a state that many of us aspire to be in. So, the question becomes; is there a practical way for football coaches to slow down time?
Well, one approach is to simply try to surround yourself with as many intense, unique coaching experiences as possible. This will give your internal perception-driven clock as much material as possible to calculate. This is called, “The Time Hack,” which is described as a means to challenge one’s perception of time.
To look at this in even further detail, a writer named Matt Danzico conducted a year-long experiment on himself which tested this very idea. Each day, Danzico engaged in a new experience to better help himself understand how his perception of time would speed up or slowdown in relation to each event. In his experiment, Danzico completed 49 different activities, ranging from lying down in the middle of a street to making prank calls and even putting his hands in the water of the East River of New York City.
I have often wondered, though, if he might’ve fallen afoul of the “time-flies-when-you’re-having fun” effect. His view of time dilation — that the best way to make time crawl is by being incredibly bored — was made most memorable by the character Dunbar from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Dunbar attempts to prolong his own existence in the face of his inevitable death by deliberately practicing acts of boredom. To better understand how this helps bring everything together, let’s crack open and look into a section of this book; where Dunbar is sharing a hospital ward with the story’s protagonist, Yossarian:
“Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll’s. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.”
I know we’ve all experienced this sensation, you know the one; that feeling of being trapped in a moment that’s seems to be going nowhere. Ironically, isn’t that the exact opposite of what Danzico is after? But…wait a minute…that’s not possible is it? I mean, Dunbar and Danzico can’t BOTH be right, can they?
To be honest, YES…I think they can – and here’s why: the concept of time when you’re bored stretches on and on only when you are the one who is involved in it. If you were to look back at that long afternoon of boredom at some point in your past when you were lying in bed and just staring up at the ceiling, it seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye. Alternatively, time just rushes by when you’re having fun — or when you’re approximating an athlete’s state of flow — but when you reminisce about it, you actually remember a longer period of time seemingly to have elapsed.
In short, I think that Danzico, not Dunbar, is on the right track. Regardless, if nothing else, Danzico will surely come away from the experience having lived a much more interesting life.
Inception; was it more than a movie?
Many people I talk to think it’s one of the most confusing films of recent memory; however, I feel it is one of the most creative and well-written ones to have hit the theaters in the last decade. Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, admittedly is one of those movies that if you blink to many times in sequence you’ll miss something of importance and will be lost for the remainder of the film. However, the film’s underlying framework dabbles in the some of the same constructs of what we are discussing in this blog.
While Inception seems to concentrate on knowledge and intellectual methods, there is an element of intrigue as to how emotional and motor aspects can enhance the way we experience time.
One of the ideas I’ve implemented as a coach and have also seen used in the movie, is to free myself from the constraints of time through pre-match visualization and relaxation; as well as by allowing myself to enter into that timeless realm where we can surrender our ego.
I’ve had discussions with other coaches whom have had success with such uncommon tools as chanting a mantra, listening to orchestra music on compact disc or even doing repetitive yoga in order to alter their experience of time; more as preparation for a match, training-session or a meeting than anything, but still a skill that is recognized as needed and found to be useful by other successful coaches besides just I.
Well, what about introducing an emotion into the equation? I know that fear can be considered an emotion in the same context that one might consider boredom as such. Yet, as broad and general as these two terms are, they both tend to form borders that encompass important and vital emotional and knowledgeable areas.
As coaches, if we’d take the time to sit-back for a spell and think of all of the things we’ve already mentioned and how many of them have a lot in common with an athlete’s sense of flow or “being in the zone,” we would find ourselves becoming caught up in a well-trained pattern of automatic behavior that seems effortless; leaving our conscious minds in a state of semi-rapture. Obviously, there’s a lot more study that needs to be done in this area, especially where emotion and thought automaticity combined with deliberate intention, all merge together. Not only is it a psychological state in which time seems to slow, but it seems to be one of the most profoundly pleasurable states that we’re capable of as human-beings.
…and…after covering all of that, I think we’re ready now to discuss those 7 Wonders of the Football Coaching World:
Self-control is one of the hardest things to achieve in not only modern life, but also in the course of our football playing and coaching careers. Over the course of my career, I’ve come across seven keys that help me to resist the temptation to take shortcuts in my coaching and to push through always striving to better myself and looking to succeed.
#1:) Name your problem. Admit to yourself that you’re not happy with your behavior and how it is affecting your coaching. At the same time, frame your challenge positively. The way you view the task ahead of you determines your mindset and your likelihood of success.
#2:) Choose your battles. You have limited reserves of willpower. If you use them up on one thing (e.g., forcing yourself to work late) you will not have them for another (allowing yourself to slow down your perception of time and relax into the ‘zone.’).
#3:) Rest. You have less willpower if you are tired or distracted.
#4:) Practice. You can increase your overall ability to manipulate time by exerting it more frequently. Coaches who exercise these skills not only improve their mental and overall health, they get to practice overcoming inertia every time they lace up their boots.
#5:) Burn Your Ships. Remove options. To reduce the attractiveness of something — and hence the amount of willpower and reciprocally; ‘time,’ required to deny yourself it — move the choice further away. Put less responsibility on your plate. Delegate some responsibilities to others and freeze your “pride” into a block of ice.
#6:) Stay cool. Avoid making coaching, management or any sort of administrative decisions when emotionally aroused; whether by disappointment, anger, frustration or want. Especially “want.” A study published in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching found that coaches, who watched talented players on opposing teams too much, were more prone to seek immediate gratification when it came to making choices about tactics, personnel and game-time decisions.
#7:) Face the truth. We all tend to overestimate the strength of our own willpower and thus our own ability to slow our perception of time. We then, unfortunately, put ourselves in situations where temptation is more than we can resist. (“Sure, let’s go direct now that we’re down a goal with 60 minutes left — we’ll just switch back to possession once we regain the lead.”) One recent study found that the more highly test subject’s rate their willpower, the more likely they were to succumb to temptation.
Just as physical activity strengthens our muscles, bones, and heart tissue, there is something about mental exercise that strengthens the connection between our perception of time and time itself; which is in and of itself the ultimate “wonder” of the coaching world; getting into the ‘zone.’
This makes controlling the flow of time one of the smartest moves a football coach can make.