Thursday, August 21, 2014

The ‘Holistic’ v ‘Isolated’ debate

Just like there are many different philosophies on how to play soccer, there are also different philosophies on what is the most effective way to coach soccer. Many coaches, and indeed countries, still hold the belief that soccer must be broken down into its many small components and that these components should then be practised in isolation until the techniques are deeply ingrained: I call this the ‘isolated' approach.
Supporters of the isolated approach believe that the best way of improving a player’s ability in, for example, passing with the inside of the foot is to take passing with the inside of the foot out of its natural game context and practiced it in pairs or in lines; their reasoning is that this isolated training provides the opportunity for ‘repetition’. However, this type of practice removes the realism required for proper learning, as there are no longer ‘game-specific resistances such as opponents: it may look a bit like soccer, but it isn’t really soccer.
In terms of Perception-Decision-Execution, isolated training only touches on the Execution; by removing the Perception and Decision, it is Execution without relevance.
Research has shown that this type of ‘drills-based’ practice (i.e. repetition without decision-making) is not the most educationally effective way to teach soccer. Players may learn to ‘perform’ the techniques, but do not learn how to ‘apply’ them in the game.
This makes sense if you think about this a little longer: a player who looks great performing a prescribed technique on the training pitch but does not recognize when to use it during the game has the same problem as the player who sees the right moment to use it but lacks the technique to execute it.
In order to reach a level of excellence in soccer, one needs thousands of hours of purposeful practice.
Purposeful practice for soccer is practice that develops the players’ technical and perception/decision-making skills, as well as the required soccer fitness, in conjunction with each other instead of developing the individual components in isolation.
I call this the holistic approach to coaching.
The isolated approach is successful, and perhaps necessary, for specific sports, such as golf and gymnastics. However soccer demands the holistic approach as by its very nature, it is an incredibly complex game, with unpredictable situations where the player is regularly required to rapidly select from a wide range of possible options and execute them under pressure.
Daniel Coyle, in his much-acclaimed book ‘The Talent Code’, explains the difference in the brain processes involved in, on the one hand, activities like golf and violin-playing, compared to activities like soccer.
‘Skills like soccer are flexible-circuit skills, meaning they require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever- changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics and figure-skating, on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance.’

Example - Two ways of teaching a child to solve a 60-piece jigsaw puzzle
Method one (isolated approach):
lesson 1: Take one piece out of the box, close the lid, and then take that piece to the child. Ask her to keep looking at the piece until she is totally familiar with it. Then take that piece away and put it back in the box.
lesson 2: Take another jigsaw piece out, close the lid, and take the second piece to the child. Again, ask her to keep looking at the piece until she is totally familiar with it.
lessons 3-60: Repeat the process until she is familiar with all the separate jigsaw pieces.
lesson 61: Finally, empty the whole box of pieces on the child’s desk, and take the box away. Ask the child to arrange all the pieces into a rectangular picture.
Method Two (holistic approach):
lesson 1: Put the jigsaw pieces together according to the picture on the front of the box. Take the complete jigsaw to the child’s desk and ask her to familiarize herself with the whole picture.
lesson 2: Take the complete jigsaw to the child’s desk and ask her to familiarize herself with the whole picture, focusing mainly on one quarter of it.
lesson 3: Take the complete jigsaw to the child’s desk and ask her to familiarize herself with the whole picture, focusing mainly on a second quarter of it.
lesson 4: Take the complete jigsaw to the child’s desk and ask her to familiarize herself with the whole picture, focusing mainly on a third quarter of it.
lesson 5: Take the complete jigsaw to the child’s desk and ask her to familiarize herself with the whole picture, focusing mainly on the final quarter of it.
lesson 6: Take the jigsaw apart, put the pieces on the child’s desk and ask her to put it back together.
Which child do you think would finish the jigsaw quickest? It is feasible that the 6 lessons of the ‘holistic’ approach would be more successful than 60 lessons of ‘isolated’ because the child has always been presented with the ‘big picture’. Therefore the child can see the links and make the connections between the pieces much more quickly and efficiently.
Here lies another problem with the ‘isolated’ approach: there are so many elements to the game of soccer, that the coach can end up with a list of, say, 60 separate elements to work on. If the coach then proceeds to address them all individually in an isolated way, the whole training program becomes totally removed from the real context of soccer. To compound the problem, by the time you work on the 60th ‘jigsaw piece’, the players have forgotten what the first piece looks like!
Repetition is of course important in developing players, but we must strive for:
Repetition of soccer-specific situations with a focus on a particular aspect.
The players must always be playing soccer by perceiving-deciding-executing, and the relevance to the ‘big picture’ must always be apparent. The coach makes this happen by designing training exercises with game-specific resistances, by manipulating things like:
  • The number of opponents
  • The number of team-mates
  • The size and position of the goals/targets
  • The size of the space to work in
  • The objective of the exercise

These are all usually absent in isolated training. However, this is not to say that there is absolutely no place for isolated training. In specific circumstances, for a specific player, when the coach has exhausted all holistic means to improve the player, the only remaining solution is to work individually on ‘technique’. Isolated exercises should be the last resort for certain players, when necessary, not the fundamental basis of training for all players.
In terms of teaching players, there are two main ways in which the holistic approach is implemented:
    1. Training Session Content: Clear guidelines are provided to assist coaches to design game-related and soccer-specific exercises which maximize learning and lead to the development of the kind of players we need
    2. Coach Intervention: modern soccer world has developed a clear process by which the coach can plan and conduct training sessions that use a task-based approach to give players real learning opportunities; fundamentally, we believe that if the players are challenged to solve problems at training, there is a greater likelihood that they will be able to solve problems in the game.
This approach also aims to drastically reduce the amount of time players have traditionally spent standing still in training, while coaches give one long-winded speech after another. When conducting training sessions, it is important for the coach to remember ‘it’s all about the players’. The focus should be on helping the players to improve. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the most common method employed by coaches in USA is to constantly stop the training session to give long-winded speeches to the players. I have even observed this happening in the warm-up stage and in the ‘training game’ at the end of a training session.

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