[Agility Lab] Perceptual Expertise: Is it Just The Coaches Job?

When it comes to agility we see a range of things mentioned under the ‘perceptual-cognitive’ component. You will only find some in certain sources and they are all inter-linked.

Pattern Recognition: Seeing familiar movements and structures in the oppositions or your teammates movements. These act as a cue for you to retrieve your memory of what is likely about to happen

Situational Knowledge: Similar to the above, the knowledge you retrieve once you have recognised patters of movement.

Identification of Postural Cues: This can work on different levels. From identifying the movements of an opposing player when in a 1:1 (what I call micro or local postural cues) to identifying the movements of a collective group (which links to the recognition of a pattern).

Anticipation: I would describe this as a smaller and less complete version of pattern recognition. The athlete picks up information from what is in-front of them, it may not fit a ‘pattern’ yet but they are able to decipher and anticipate what some likely next moves are. I wont revisit this as think its far too broad to be useful.

Shared Team Affordances/Mental Models: The shared understanding between team-mates. Who will be where, when and what to do. The tactical skills to work as a unit, links back to situational knowledge.

Individually Calibrated Affordances: The athlete’s ability to know what they are capable of doing with the information they find. “Is the space makeable?”

Some of these can also be framed by different decision-making theories, for example an Ecological Psychology, Information Processing or Naturalistic Decision-making lens. Essentially some suit more than others, but as I frequently say, a discussion for another day.

The way that I frame these to understand them is to think from big to small, or what I like to call macro to micro (I also like global to local). I am going to pull a few of those above terms out to move forwards. I have displayed the below terms from macro to micro.

· Pattern Recognition

· Knowledge of Situations

· Identification of Postural Cues (at a micro 1:1 level)

· Individual Affordances

To give an early insight to my conclusive thoughts, the higher up the component is, the more it is predominantly the technical coach’s remit. The lower down the list, the more it becomes about the individual in smaller situations such as 1:1’s which has the potential to be much more in the S&C’s remit. It is also worth mentioning, that there is a bit of a trend for those at the top of the list to be more associated with traditional decision-making frameworks such as information processing and those at the bottom with ecological dynamics. Mainly because of the greater influence of the athlete’s physical attributes on the lower component of individual affordances.

Don’t technical coaches cover all of these?

My experience of watching team sport practices is technical coaches have a lot to deal with. They are thinking about the whole and developing shared mental models/affordances of the group. All of which are the primary components of team performance. This means each player likely gets less exposure to focussed ‘micro’ situations where they need to link their ability to see with what they can do. In these situations, the rate limiters change from the groups cohesion and shared practice to the individual’s ability to find information and execute a successful outcome under pressure.

In Rugby, do your outside backs really get exposed to a sufficient volume frequency of high-speed problem-solving activities? If not, will they optimise their performance (and minimise injury risk) in those try scoring opportunities?

A quick rugby example: Technical coaches have players out on pitch practicing different phases in a moderate size game. Players all working as a unit to identify patterns, make relevant decisions and become better at working together. Then a situation arises when an outside back receives a ball, breaks through a gap within the defensive line and has two defenders to beat for a try scoring opportunity. In my experience what happens next? The whistle gets blown, the ball carrier goes to ground, and another phase is set up. The coaches are less concerned with that individual’s exposure and more concerned with ensuring the team is exposed to working as a unit. Quite rightly by the way.

Of course, there are other elements of training, and I would also reinforce that all coaches have different philosophies and styles, changing what athletes get exposed to. It certainly won’t be consistent. The key is that YOU spend time with your coaches, think critically about what athletes are getting exposed to. If you find gaps, have the knowledge and skills to close them.

In football, you might have players who are poor at picking up postural cues to track opponents’ movements and effectively protect space. Will they every get better at that if they are always splitting their attention between watching the opponent, looking at the rest of the pitch, where the ball is and the wider situation? Of course, it needs putting back together, but to optimise the performance of the car you need to sometimes break things down into its components.

The other reason this makes sense is because looking at things through an ecological dynamic’s framework, what players perceive is related to what their physical capabilities are (action capabilities). As S&C’s if we change their physical attributes and they are never exposed to high velocity, high perceptive demand problem solving, they might actually be getting worse at it. Or at least, there is some performance left on the table as they haven’t had an opportunity to work out how their affordances (what they can do with the information they see) have changed based upon their new physical abilities.

If you think you are in this situation, you need to have a good knowledge of the game as what you want to expose players to needs to have some situational specificity. Defensive vs offensive, with the ball or without the ball etc. The situation drives intent, which drives what information they look for and what they do with it. It isn’t as simple as just run a 1:1.

So is it the coaches job? Yes, but it is your job too. Gone are the days of ‘I just get the players strong’ What you do influences what decisions they make, so you can dramatically improve transfer of their new performance characteristics on pitch if you help the players understand what new powers they have and how it may influence their options. But of course, it depends, and you need to decide what fits your coaching environment.