Can This Machine Build a Better Athlete?

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Say hello to Footbonaut, a new machine for training soccer players. (Click the video to see it in action.)

It’s a space-age beauty: built for the top German professional team Borussia Dortmund, it feeds balls from eight angles, and has 72 colored panels that light up to make targets. Reacting to a series of beeps and flashes, players receive and pass, over and over.

Footbonaut has been widely praised as the future of soccer training. Its inventor says it “allows you to work on any weaknesses and ensures that you play at pace but with precision.” and that after 15 minutes in the cage a player “will have received and passed on as many balls as he would in a normal week of training. Repetition and intensity are crucial if you want to conquer a particular skill, whether that be playing football, tennis or learning the piano.

So the question is, is it true? Is this a glimpse of the future of training?

No.

Here’s why: great soccer players are great because they can identify and anticipate an unfolding series of patterns — body language, movement, position — and do the right thing at the right time. In other words, soccer is not played in a standing position with beeps and flashes.

Plus, merely achieving intensity should not be confused with learning. As Aspire Academy coach (and all-around brilliant guy) Michael Bruyninckx points out, using sweating as a parameter is misleading, because exhaustion slows learning. Then there’s the fact that only one player can use it at a time (compare that to non-technological beauty of the tiki-taka drill, which involves the entire team).

So while Footbonaut hones useful skills, it doesn’t develop whole soccer players any more than writing haikus can develop a skilled novelist.

This speaks to the tricky nature of adding technology to the learning environment — whether it’s Footbonauts or iPads in classrooms. Technology is seductive, but it’s extremely rare that a machine can adequately duplicate the immersive intensity of a well-designed practice session in the real world.

In my experience, the recipe for high performance is always the same: technology makes a fine spice for learning, but you should never mistake it for the main course.


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5 Responses to “Can This Machine Build a Better Athlete?”

  1. Hi Daniel

    First of all can I say I loved the books and the blog is fantastic – informative and interesting.

    Great post and I agree that technology can be very seductive indeed for many coaches and athletes. And I agree that the footbonaut does not expose the player to the trigger cues that they will use during the game.

    This is an area of particular interest to me and something that I have focused strongly on developing in soccer players for a number of years and is relevant in most sports, particularly invasion type games (soccer, basketball, American football, rugby, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, etc).

    Awareness is hugely important in soccer and other invasion games. Indeed, I believe it is the difference maker as it is the major contributing factor to players making the correct decision in any given game situation. Fundamentally, if they are not aware of the game picture around them, and their relationship with 3 key variables in particular, then the chances of making the correct decision or, more precisely, the optimum decision are reduced to almost zero with no more than a lucky guess pulling the occasional “rabbit out of the hat” for them.

    Most coaches in soccer, and in the other invasion games, forget or don’t even realise that we play a cognitive sport. Sure it has a huge physiological component but it is a cognitive sport played in a complex dynamic environment, and results are determined more by the quality of decision making than a players strength or speed. We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies. However, because we can more easily assess and offer statistics for physiological attributes, and demostrate subsequent improvements in these areas, compared with the cognitive aspect of performance, which remains largely neglected and underdeveloped, it is easy to see why coaches and the sports in general focus on these “controllables”.

    I think the footbonaut does offer some value in that it will get the player used to, and more comfortable, with taking their eye OFF the ball and scanning their environment. However, it is important that once the players have developed this ability, to the point that it has hopefully become habit, that the coaches then show the players the cues that they need to be aware of and base their decisions on during performance, which would be done in practical field-based activities. If the players don’t have the habit of consistentl and near continuous visual exploratory activity (fancy scientific term for having a look around you!) then they will never be in a position to maximise the use of the trigger cues that the game offer them.

    The thing is this sounds easy – just having a look around you. And the common perception is that players do this all the time but the fact is they don’t. The truly elite players do it far more frequently than the good players, and the good players do it far more often than the average players. Largely it is this awareness that makes the fundamental difference because, by and large, all players at any given level are pretty much equal in technical ability (sure you have your occasional outliers like Messi who are just supremely better than the rest). It is consistently better decision making that separates them. And this can only be good if you have good situation awareness (something that has it’s roots in aviation but has been shown to be equally relevant if you are flying a plane, driving a car or playing sports) which is a trainable skill whose first level is basic perception – looking around!

    So, because of this, I think the footbonaut can offer some value – albeit limited.

    I prefer to use practical field-based exercises that emphasise this element of performance along with other cognitive elements such as attention, concentration, attentional bandwidth, multi-tasking and focus of attention – all whilst they are working with teammates and even against opponents. This way they are developing these essential attributes, whilst still working on technical and physiological aspects, in an environment that exposes them to the trigger cues of the game. By doing this we can also train the players to recognise these cues both earlier and more quickly, as well as diminishing what I call “cognitive lag”.

    These methods offer far more value from an ecological perspective and don’t require an expensive investment in fancy technological facilities and you can have a look at an example here:

    http://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/sport/leaguedivision1/4612109/Jags-title-bid-in-in-safe-hands-thanks-to-Kev.html

    But we love technology nowadays, don’t we?!

  2. jjosullivan says:

    like to think that technology in football will become more prevalent of course wont replicate match situatios but i feel that players constantly working on touch ,vision,awareness, balance passing and shooting of course a player will become more comfortable in match situation particularly if practising with both feet..also there is a fun and competitive nature to this,,,ok 1.25 million is alot but isrelevant to which clubs can afford and maybe can be scaled down version at lower cost and possibly giving same benefits..Watch out for system i have developed which is similiar but more interaction and movement and can be used by whole team..WWW.SIMUPLAYER.COM..well worth a look coming soon….

  3. pt says:

    “great soccer players are great because they can identify and anticipate an unfolding series of patterns”

    and bad players are bad because they lack the basic ball control skills needed to do anything with the ball. “Identifying and anticipating the unfolding series of patterns” is a meaningless ability if the player lacks the skill to control the ball and pass it where it needs to go. The tika-taka drill is great if you have 5-10 friends who will regularly practice with you.

    I’m actually surprised you do not see the value in this. This is deep practice. Much like the Russian tennis players start by practicing without using balls to develop technique, this machine removes the game situation to focus solely on developing technique. I’m positive that the Spartak tennis coaches would approve of this machine…”Technique is everything.”

  4. A couple of great points and my thoughts are that PT is correct when he says “Identifying and anticipating the unfolding series of patterns” is a meaningless ability if the player lacks the skill to control the ball and pass it where it needs to go” but I think at the elite levels technical ability is pretty much a given. The difference maker between the players is the ongoing decisions they make throughout the game and this is based on their awareness, recognition and anticipation skills. If getting to the top level only required technical ability then all of these freestyle footballers would be playing at top EPL clubs as they undoubtedly have an abundance of ability with the ball. It is the cognitive attributes that largely determine who makes it at the professional level and who doesn’t. This is not to say that I don’t see the value in the footbonaut or other similar training but just that it alone is not the answer.

    J J O’Sullivan I had a quick look at your Simuplayer, quite interesting. There are no contact details available for you on there though and it’d be great to chat with you a bit more about it.

  5. James says:

    Mr McGreskin’s comments reminded me of an episode of American Science Frontiers where Alan Alda improved his putting significantly in moments using ‘Quiet Eye’ focusing techniques.

    Professor Joan N. Vickers, University of Calgary, has been studying how experienced and successful athletes use their eyes to improve performance. In a nutshell, less is more.

    There was a section where some of the defense’men’ from the Canadian Women’s Hockey team had there eyes tracked to find where there attention was. The experienced defensepersons moved there eyes very little, instead they had a steady gaze, first one part of the ice, then another. The inexperienced player’s eyes tended to flit here and there and back again.

    The ‘Quiet Eye’ skill is learnable. I have used it. My experience is that it quiets the mind and increases confidence in seconds. Why would that be?

    Here is the transcript http://www.pbs.org/saf/1206/resources/transcript.htm

    The steady gaze she describes reminded me of the ‘Clint Eastwood’ look you talk about in your book when students get into a focused learning state. You can find more about Dr. Vickers here. https://www.ucalgary.ca/hpl/vickers

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