Remember when you first learned to drive? Remember the thought and concentration that went into the first three-to-six months? There are a lot of moving parts (no pun intended) to driving a car safely. Novice drivers may consciously go through their internal checklist: seatbelt, adjust the mirrors, put the car in drive. Maybe they had a drivers ed teacher and hear that voice in their head. “Hands at ten and two.” Most won’t admit it, but their grip was close to white-knuckled, and yours probably was too.
Moving down the road, there may be a second set of checks, decisions and actions. Look at left mirror, rearview mirror, lighten up on the gas, check the right mirror. Reaccelerate, check the car in front of you, left mirror again, foot off the gas and coast. Car in front, right mirror, apply the break. And so it goes...
Fast forward to where you are now in your driving career and some of you may get home from a workday and suddenly realize you don’t even remember the drive home at all. You effortlessly do the task with minimal conscience thought. All the above things still happen. They happen over and over, but they’ve become automated.
There are exceptional circumstances that bring you out of automation. Consider a high-traffic day with a big back up and stop-and-go traffic. Think about a drive in a new area and you may find yourself paying much more conscious attention to what’s happening around you.
This analogy has a lot to do with sport. Consider the new player learning the game and/or your system and scheme. The checklist, the conscious thought, the white knuckles. Consider the point of automation and pattern recognition as players have seen situations so many times they simply react.
A good or experienced linebacker facing an inside zone play will just move, feel and fit. They know the pattern. Another reason I like the analogy is that driving to work is never the same. From the weather to the other drivers on the road with you, each trip is unique. However, patterns and experience mean you devote less conscious thought to the process.
Similarly to each drive being unique, I have been a big proponent that sport is chaos. There are rules and patterns, but each moment is unique and no two plays are the same. Still, experience, learning and knowledge build comfort and automation within each unique experience.
It’s challenging to think about automation playing out on the football field. Coaches often talk about being locked in and highly focused in each play. Going back to the driving analogy, going 70 mph in thousands of pounds of steel and aluminum should also demand full focus, yet we do it effortlessly.
SIDE NOTE: When talking about technique, we often say each technique is different. There are micro-changes and adjustments that happen each time you do it. Again, think of driving and the constant adjustments to the steering wheel you make even when going straight on the same road you always travel.
Another thing that happens in driving just like sport is the learning process of what is the most important information. What do we really have to pay attention to? And what is it that breaks the pattern you are comfortable with and forces you out of automation?
I’d venture to bet most have had this experience: You are driving and completely on autopilot. Suddenly, a flash of red jumps in front of you, and you find yourself snapping back to full attention, eyes wide, tight grip, muscles ready. Through experience, you know brake lights mean something important and attention is needed, now. As players progress, this happens in sport as well. What information is useful? What information is ‘more’ important in the sea of chaos? These items start to jump out.
Instead of seeing everything and trying to process it all, we see patterns. Again, using our linebacker example, the offensive line is moving in unison to the right. We know the pattern, but suddenly, the brake lights flash. An H-Back or offensive linemen is pulling the other way instantly grabbing our attention, It ‘snaps’ the player out of the uniform pattern and they now know something is up, redirecting their attention to this important, useful, game-changing information. Just like the new driver, we all know younger, newer player misses this information.
So why consider any of this? What was presented above is not new, just my favorite analogy to bring the thought process to life.
For the high school coach and above, take this idea into consideration when designing practice. Are your players in the drivers ed parking lot or on the highway? Doing walk-throughs or key read drills are a lot like drivers ed in the parking lot. When we remove everything from the game except what the player is supposed to look at, we water down what the player needs to do in chaos. It may be a good starting place, but remember our favorite question: What makes it difficult on game day? The challenge on game day is players have to see the right thing through the chaos. And let’s not forget, offensive coaches are trying their hardest to deliberately challenge your eyes.
These traditional drills may teach players what to do and how to do it but don’t demonstrate the player’s ability to do it on game day. When we add in the rest of rush hour traffic (the full game, the rest of the offensive line, pass threats and eye wash) players are white-knuckling it on the highway. This is because they are struggling to find the crucial information in the noise. Removing the noise does not help but getting comfortable in that environment will. It’s not until we accumulate enough time behind the wheel that we become automated in that new, challenging situation.
This is why drills with lots of chaos and information are a critical step. Coaches should strive to create situations to acclimate players to the realistic demands of information recognition, decision-making and automation plus ‘break lights.’ This better allows us to bridge the gap from parking lot to real driving, and in turn, game day performance.
For youth coaches, patience is a virtue. Players will sometimes be a step slow in connecting what they see to physical movement. That does not mean take away the traffic. It means be realistic in expectations. Consider their grade and learning pathways. For some patterns, recognition and problem solving are still very much developing skills. So, expose them to information, small sided games and context to allow them to start to see, think, feel and process. Keep it positive, encourage them to explore the game and keep critical feedback to a level that matches their cognitive development. If I am just learning patterns in school with a simple number and colors, processing the pattern of an offensive line running Power may be a challenge. Youngsters don’t drive on the highway. Some of them are only ready for a go-kart. But go-karts can be a ton of fun and a great experience if the environment is correct.