I am always aiming to become a better player and because of this my enthusiasm for playing and training has never dropped. The fact there is always room for improvement gives me motivation and something to aim for.
In order to improve I have read a lot on learning effectively. Through applying this knowledge to my training, I have seen significant improvements in my game every season. My most important skill has been my ability to learn.
Players often train in the same way they or their coach have seen or experienced without considering the evidence for the most effective approach. Whether working with professionals or amateurs and at youth or senior level, getting the most from training is crucial to succeed. In this post I will discuss the most effective learning strategies, based on research, and how they can be applied to futsal training.
Commonly, to improve in a specific area the skill, play or concept (i.e. the material you want to learn) it is recommended to focus on repetition. This is often applied through ‘drills’, where one skill or movement is isolated and practised repeatedly until perfected before moving onto the next topic that needs work.
Rapid and observable improvements are made with this type of training and this probably provides the reason why these more traditional methods are so popular. However, improving as quickly as possible by itself does not necessarily mean effective training. Methods that achieve this, such as blocked practice mentioned above, often see improvements that reverse almost as quickly as they were made once you move on to something else and don’t transfer well to competition.
It is easy to be deceived by visible gains made in practice while the later deterioration is not so obvious. In fact research has shown that many methods that produce the most rapid improvements in immediate performance result in the least retention long-term. Increasing retention will save time having to re-cover the same things, an inefficient use of training time.
Of course the end goal of training is to improve performance in competition and not in practice. So, in addition to ensuring long lasting improvements are made, they also need to be transferred to the competitive environment where every situation and context is different. The idea is to learn the material quickly but not in a way that would hinder either of these aspects. In summary, effective learning will maximise retention and transfer.
To find the best way to learn there has been a lot of research on motor (physical) learning that can be utilised. In my opinion even the research on acquiring academic knowledge has value. On this point it is reasonable to expect the learning strategies will work equally well for both types as academic and physical skill learning take place in the brain.
A great piece of skill in futsal is executed by the body through the muscles and nervous system. However, they’re only carrying out the instructions sent from the brain that are dependent on knowledge stored there and relied upon to execute the action.
Motor patterns that have been refined over time are located in the brain not the muscles. Without forgetting that many of the requirements to produce a skill in a game have no physical component such as decision making aspects including awareness, anticipation and planning. This is why the principles of effective learning are the same if you want to speak a second language, carry out a surgical procedure or improve your futsal game.
Research shows the general principle of effective learning is the more mental effort required and longer it is required to learn or remember something, up to a certain point; the learning will be more enduring and better retained. The increased cognitive exertion embeds learning deeper in the brain.
Coaches often desire training where errors are as infrequent as possible. But, if the wish is to maximise effort to strengthen learning, the training will have to be challenging. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of training that is demanding the players’ maximum effort. It should be made clear to the players that these errors are necessary and beneficial for their development long-term.
If they are not aware of this they could become demotivated or anxious. Worrying about not making mistakes will occupy crucial working memory capacity needed to find solutions during play. The knowledge of the beneficial nature of errors will also help them when they do their own training in the future.
The tasks should be at a level so that the problems can be overcome with increased effort to ensure optimal learning. The frequency of errors can be a guide to setting the optimal level. Too few and learning is not being maximised, too many and they will not learn from finding successful solutions. When the tasks draw players out of their comfort zone they will be motivated to give 100%.
There are three characteristics of practice that increase the effort needed and have been shown to make learning more durable and transferable. These are spaced, interleaved and varied. Long-term, training with these features will give much better results but, with the caveat that it will be more effortful and short-term progress less evident.
Spacing is where a break is applied between reviewing something again, ideally just at the moment it is about to be forgotten or lost, and so it demands effort to retrieve. Interleaving is alternating between covering different topics at the same time and a topic is concluded before it has been covered completely in an individual session. It is the opposite of blocked practice, where one topic is covered before moving onto the next one. Varied practice is where the topic is covered under different conditions and contexts.
Spacing will reinforce learning by requiring more effort when recovering a topic. As the learning is strengthened the spacing can be increased, increasing the efficiency of the training schedule. By varying and interleaving, problems are presented as they happen in a game, not in an orderly sequence but unpredictably and in a rapidly changing environment.
Training must prepare players for this. To transfer to competition learning must be flexible with the ability to assess context and apply and adapt the skills appropriately. I will now look how these principles can be used for futsal training.
Let’s take the example of set plays. Instead of rehearsing them every training session it is much better to wait until the players are just a bit unsure about some aspects before going over them again. This applies the spacing principle. The interleaving principle could be implemented by creating an exercise where it begins with a set play but then there is a continuation of the exercise which covers another topic that needs improvement. For example, an exercise could start with a corner but once the ball goes out of play a new ball is immediately introduced and the exercise transforms into a 2v1 counter attacking situation. After this the exercise is restarted. To make the practice varied the same set play should not be repeated over and over again. Specify that the players cannot use the same set play two times in a row or alternate between kick-ins and corners and from different positions or sides.
Let’s take a look at another example. The aim is to improve the players’ shooting which, from my experience, is usually not achieved effectively. After a game where my team has missed a lot of chances I have many times been involved in sessions where we do lots of shooting practise but without noticeable improvement in future matches. Rather than focusing on shooting for one session or a few sessions in a row, shooting for part of session could be worked on until some improvement is observed and then allow a lapse of time, i.e. spacing, and work on it again. The spacing can increase over time.
To implement the interleaving and variation principles an exercise must recreate lots of shooting within realistic game situations. An example would be a 3v3 game plus a floater in half court with a maximum sequence of 5 passes before possession is awarded to the other team. This would ensure there are lots of shooting opportunities because of the overload, pass restriction and proximity of the goals.
This exercise is interleaved because the shooting is integrated within an open game situation which necessitates covering many other game concepts at the same time. Each shooting situation will be different (variation principle) so each time the player will be required to assess and adapt the type of shot they will use according to the circumstances.
To increase the variation different types of shooting could be worked on. For example introduce a rule that players must shoot on the 1sttouch or 2nd touch, though don’t do this exclusively as it takes away the opportunity for the player to practice the decision making element of shooting.
It does not matter that there is no control to guarantee all types of shooting are being covered as variation ensures all types of shooting will see improvement. In one study a group of children spent 12 weeks practising throwing beanbags into a bucket. The children were split into two groups. One group only practised throwing into a bucket 3 feet away and the other group mixed it up by throwing into buckets 2 or 4 feet away. At the end of the study the groups were tested on throwing beanbags into a bucket 3 feet away. The mixed group performed much better even though they had never practised at that distance unlike the other group.
It is common for a coach to plan training so that one week or one session we work on one topic, i.e. positional defence, and after that has reached an acceptable level, another topic is covered. The structure of the individual sessions should also reflect these three principles. So they should be spaced, interleaved and with varied topics within the same sessions, micro-cycles and macro-cycles.
I have covered previously how the use of small sided game (SSGs) or integrated training is the optimal coaching methodology, supported by research, for training invasion sports such as futsal. The ideas that have been discussed here have relevance to this and it can be seen why they are so effective.
SSGs recreate real game situations and this type of training intrinsically has the characteristics of being spaced, interleaved and varied. With SSGs an environment is created where there is a time lag between when a similar situation is repeated (spaced), different skills are worked on simultaneously (interleaved) and there is a wide-ranging of situations covered (varied). Further, the similarity to situations faced in competition means there will be better transfer of learning to match performance as aligned with the training principle of specificity, basically you get better at the skill you practise.
One simple and excellent way to coach related to this is to setup a normal 5v5 game in the training session and the coach freezes it when they see an error to make corrections, without focusing any specific topic. One minute the coach might correct positional defence and the next attacking transitions. This way of training features the three principles and when I have been coached in this way I have found it very effective.
Another useful tool to improve learning is low-stakes testing which is a type of ‘retrieval practice’. Testing allows the player or the coach to know what they have understood, areas that require more work and evaluate their training or coaching to modify it in the future. It also forces the player to try to recall what they have learned and this process of recalling helps embed the learning. This is not high pressured testing where the coach uses the results to make comparisons or rankings. This would create anxiety which is not beneficial for either learning or performance.
Testing could be implemented through questions on paper or, more effectively, through the use of video. This can be very useful where on-court training is restricted due to time constraints or fatigue. This theoretical learning will only have transfer to performance with on court practice but it could speed up the learning process.
Reflection is where the player reviews their training by asking themselves questions. Some example questions might be; What are the principles and key ideas of what I learned? What other game concepts does it relate to? How would these concepts be employed and adapted in different game situations? Many coaches find this useful at the end of a session but it could also be done 15 minutes before the start of training to discuss what was covered in the last session. This would reduce the need to recover what was done previously and get the players mentally prepared for the training.
Reflection is also probably the reason why slightly delayed feedback has been shown to improve retention. In the period before the coach provides their comments the player will consider for themselves how it could have been done better and this mental effort will embed learning deeper.
It should be noted that retrieval practice is not recommended for learning futsal techniques (eg. passing technique). Future skill execution will be much better if skills are performed without conscious thought or knowledge of the technical (biomechanical) points and learned from natural practice. This type of practice is more suited to learning tactical concepts.
Traditional approaches to training often aim for perfection, to be well-ordered and free of errors. This is the best way to improve immediate performance in practice but not in competition, the ultimate aim of training. Research shows that the most effective learning occurs when tasks require a lot of mental effort.
The effort required is what instils and ingrains the learning deeper which has the effect of making it more long-lasting and durable. By introducing disorder and encouraging mistakes, a natural consequence will be challenging the player to give their maximum.
Three characteristics of training were identified that increase the difficulty of learning. Coaches can design their training with these in mind to make learning, or recalling previous learning, challenging so that it will be more effective. This can be achieved by configuring the task constraints with these characteristics in mind, creating exercises that ensure effective training and learning. This type of training will make the learning more durable and transferable to competition.
There is a need to move away from mindless repetition to intelligent repetition, based on what is known about how people learn. As the saying goes, it is not practice that makes perfect but perfect practice.