How do you learn the first touch skills of Iniesta? – context & practice design

(Originally posted on a previous blog on 24th March, 2015)

It’s taken a loooong time for me to get around to publishing this blog post. In the last few weeks I’ve got some positive feedback regarding some of the content below, so hopefully by sharing more widely it will help others.

I can’t remember exactly what my thinking was when first considering the analysis below. It was generally going to be about the functional role of “movement variability”, which is quite a large topic that I won’t attempt to cover in any depth in this post. What sparked the specific analysis of Andrés Iniesta was this video below, suggesting that if you train this way it will develop a players first touch skills to be akin to Iniesta and Xavi.

Combined with viewing an U/14 academy drill that was similar in terms of mindless & de-contextualised repetition, and purporting theirs as an “elite” development environment, the time was right to inject a does of reality

Before we go any further, I’m not claiming any of the following is revolutionary. It is more a case of common sense that is not so common!

I have heard John Allpress and others talk about the fact that football (and any invasive team sport for that matter) is a game where players experience many similar situations but none that are identical. This should frame the need to understand how these situations/contexts vary, subtly or significantly, thus informing practice design. Based on the above examples and many others I see, this is clearly not happening to the extent it should be.

Task Analysis…

Winding back the clock to past experiences in Performance Analysis, I started with a question…

“what are the contexts/situations players are faced with when receiving a pass (’1st touch’)?”

How ‘context’ is defined, for tasks on or off the ball, can get quite scientific by way of a task analysis to understand key “information” sources that are present in the task dynamics. In simpler terms, I considered variables such as length of the pass being received, height of 1st touch, pitch location, direction attacker is moving/facing, and the spatial relationship between attacker and nearest defender. There are others that are relevant not mentioned here.

I didn’t have time to analyze a number of games, so just looked at the first 10 touches of Iniesta in a Barcelona game. This is enough to convey the message. The first graph below illustrates the length of the pass being received on the horizontal axis and the height of the 1st touch on the vertical axis. We can see a relative cluster of data points, but with enough spread to suggest that indeed the context is rarely the same — based on JUST these 2 variables alone.

We can extend this to more variables as seen in the next graphic below, demonstrating exactly where on the pitch the first touch occurred, where the closest defender was positioned, and the ball indicates what direction the pass came from, and hence the direction Iniesta is moving/facing.

(number 1 represents the first time in the game Iniesta received the ball, through to number 10, his tenth reception of the ball. These occurred across the first 15 minutes of the game)

Again, we see some similar situations but none identical. There are some that are markedly different, for example the 4th reception of the ball where there is no defender in the vicinity.

Given the variety of contexts likely to occur (in just this single skill/task alone), a player will have to display adaptable movement/coordination each and every time to control the ball and direct it into a space that allows the next touch or pass to be effective. This variability in coordination is seen in the below images showing Iniesta just prior to/whilst making his 1st touch (might have to play a bit of “where’s wally” to identify him in some of these images)

The movement required “emerges” from moment to moment, in fractions of seconds, based on the “information” present. Learning to attune to the key “information” sources (defenders positioning as just one example) and calibrating with movement/action is the essence of information-movement coupling and the key to adaptive behaviour. The pre-planned and identical movements seen in the earlier video are far removed from this.

Practice Design…

Now we come back to where we started in terms of the activities in practice that may best facilitate learning. The range of contexts/situations defined by the collection of variables in the task analysis above should be present in a practice activity, thus representing a “problem space” for players to search and discover functional movement solutions. This brings us to the idea of “repetition without repetition”, and Nicholai Bernstein’s insights…

“in learning an action, one repeats not the means for solving a given motor problem, but the process of its solution, the changing and improving of the means”

Comparing the drills shown/mentioned at the start of this post with these ideas, we see something of a conflict. As a “learning designer”, it is now up to you to decide which approach you believe gives young players the best chance of developing the 1st touch expertise of Andrés Iniesta…

Wrapping Things Up…

This is just scratching the surface of movement variability, information-movement coupling etc. Hopefully it has also given a little taste of another way for Performance Analysis to provide value — that is to inform ”learning design” based on principles of skill acquisition & motor learning. Academies and talent development squads can get caught in the trap of using Performance Analysis in exactly the same way as the senior/1st team — which may not in fact be optimal when the objective is longer-term player learning and development.

Mark Upton is co-creator of myfastestmile and the Coaching Science Manager at the English Institute of Sport.

Embracing the complexity of learning to help people be their best. http://myfastestmile.com

Embracing the complexity of learning to help people be their best. http://myfastestmile.com