As any parent will confirm, children are full of questions (it has been estimated that between the ages of two and five, children ask around 40,000 questions) which seem to multiply the moment that you answer any one of them. This is a natural element of their growth process and it is through this process that they learn about the world around them.
Children should be asking questions not least because it is a sign that they are actually learning to the extent that they will remember it later on. As Ian Leslie writes in his book Curious, “when people learn something rapidly they often learn it superficially; that is, they are more liable to forget in the long term.”
How the adults around those children respond to their questioning has a direct impact.
Someone whose questions are answered will learn and think up of additional questions that will eventually lead to them making mental links with other subjects. By answering such questions, one is essentially fueling their cognitive abilities. On the other hand, if those questions go unanswered, then the child quickly learns that it is useless asking questions and stops doing so. Sadly, that will be the only lesson that they learn.
It is easy, then, to see why it is important for coaches to absorb this information. Sadly some coaches regard questions as a threat to their authority when in truth they should be encouraging them.
In today’s game, one of the most important attributes of a player is their intelligence; how they react to different situations and their ability to read how the game is flowing. For some, this ability comes naturally – just as some have a natural aptitude for certain academic topics like maths or languages – but that does not mean that the rest cannot learn.
Indeed, that is where a good coach becomes vitally important because they are the ones
who realise that their responsibility lies beyond teaching players how to carry out specific skills but in fueling in them the desire to learn more about the game. These are the coaches who will challenge their players on why they made certain decisions during a game and who will be ready to answer any resulting questions. It will make them better players and, by being willing to answer questions, help to motivate them which is a handy by-product of the players knowing why they are doing things.
It is through this process of probing the players into thinking and asking questions about the game that coaches can help their players gain a level of insight that would have otherwise been impossible for them to achieve.
This is not exactly a novel idea. One of the maxims that underpins Ajax’s (as well as most of Dutch football) development program is that of getting players to fill in at various roles rather than pigeonholing them into a fixed one.
The logic behind this is that such a move allows the players to gain a different perspective. A midfielder might get to understand why a striker might want a ball to be delivered early or why they can’t make certain runs. In other words, it places in front of them a completely new way of viewing the game and urges them to start asking what they need to do differently to solve whatever new problems they’re faced with.
It is, essentially, a way of feeding players’ curiosity and making it an inherent trait of their academy. It challenges them to look beyond the boundaries of ‘their’ role and gets them to think how each action fits into the overall tactics; and how differing tactics require different things from them.
There is proof of this. In 1946, a Dutch psychologist by the name of Adrian de Groot studied chess grandmasters and amateur players. What he found is that masters have stored in memory more positions than amateurs meaning that they can instinctively recognise the patterns emerging from their opponents play. This gives them a huge advantage because they have more time to think about what their own next step should be.
Unlikely as this might initially seem, there is a direct link with football. The talent that we most admire in the greatest midfielders – Xavi or Pirlo, for instance – is their ability to ‘read’ what is happening around them. Despite the incessant pace at which modern football is played, they somehow always seem to find the time to pick the right pass.
In an interview that Blueprint for Football had done with Geir Jordet, professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, he spoke of players’ perception and their ability to visually examine what is happening around them. Through his research Jordet shows that a player’s ability to ‘know’ where others are on the pitch is neither accidental nor solely the function of his skill. Instead, it is all down to how much he looks at what is happening around him before he gets the ball.
“What I've done,” he said, “which I don't think many people have done, is to actually go in and analyse exactly what happens with some of the best players in the world in the seconds before they get the ball. And there is so much activity going on.”
“There is so much looking, there is so much searching and there is so much exploration. That is why I find the players who explore the most actively in that period before they get the ball they also perform better when they get the ball. I think that there is a need to focus a bit more on that side of the game then what people usually do.”
Therefore, whilst master chess players can look at a chess board and immediately recognise what play each player is trying to execute, the best midfield players can take a look around them to realise what is going to happen.
Neither level of expertise comes about through incident or, much less, is through an innate ability. Instead it comes about through specific training and their desire to question what happens after each play. Indeed, Jordet recommended specific exercises to help players achieve such perception most of which include placing the players in situations where they have to ask themselves what those around them are doing.
In other works, it involves getting them curious about what others are doing and how their roles fit into what is happening.
This article was largely inspired by Ian Leslie’s book ‘Curious’ and by discussions with the author himself who kindly agreed to be a beta-reader. A first part of this article will focus on the need for coaches to foster their own curiosity.
For full disclosure purposes it is noted that a copy of Curious was provided by the books’ publisher. Also, a small fraction of any book purchased by following the links in this piece make their way back to Blueprint for Football.