Here’s a great article at AOL News from a couple months back that has actual NFL players talking about the difficulties of learning an NFL playbook, the strategies that they use and the way that their minds have to translate the language of different systems. In several places there are echoes of topics that we’ve talked about on the blog lately. It’s always nice to hear the intuitions of players confirm the findings of science.
Here’s Trent Dilfer on the process by which a play goes from something that he “knows” on a conscious, cognitive level, to something that he “owns”, which is much deeper. It’s also pretty clear from the way that he and other players talk that they engage in some serious information chunking to economize the process of play memorization and recall:
Dilfer said it’s a three-year process to own a particular playbook. Owning a play is different from memorizing it, Dilfer explained. “Owning it to me goes from knowing it to understanding it to it becoming instinctive,” Dilfer said.
How does one own the plays? “If you’re not spending an hour every day in your playbook, you’re cheating your teammates,” Dilfer said. He stated quarterbacks should study three hours per day, given their extra responsibilities in commanding an offense.
It can take a while just to lock down a playbook’s language. “A lot of coaches use numbering systems,” Dilfer added. He said odd numbers are typically used for plays to the right, even numbers for plays to the left. Many offenses use T and D words for formations: T for Trips, where three receivers are lined up on one side, and D for double sets, such as double tight ends.
Also, there’s a great section where players discuss the hazards of constantly changing offensive systems, and the way it can stunt a quarterback’s growth. The references to “clutter” are a clear parallel to everything that we know about the way that experience and expertise smooths and refines the neural pathways involved in executing a skill. A player like Alex Smith, who has switched coordinators so many times, never develops expertise within a system, and so is never able to play with a truly quiet brain:
It’s no secret that quarterbacks carry the most responsibility to know a playbook inside and out. That’s why moving frequently from one offensive system to another can doom the career of so many young quarterbacks.
“It’s not that they can’t learn the playbook,” Dilfer emphasized. “It’s not an intellectual capacity issue. It’s the ability to learn it and play without thinking. A cluttered mind slows an athletic body.”
No two players serve as better examples of that than quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Alex Smith….
…”[Campbell] and Alex Smith have no chance,” Dilfer said of their ability to reach their potential. While each player’s talent isn’t in question, it’s the lack of opportunities to keep even one playbook for more than two consecutive seasons that has harmed their careers. Dilfer was on the 49ers in 2007 and recalled that Smith’s competency to digest a playbook shouldn’t be questioned.
“Alex is smarter than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Dilfer said. “He’ll learn, he’ll be able to spit it out and act as if it’s second nature to him. But deep down, his brain is so cluttered with so many different coaching points, plays, words and concepts there’s no way he can play fast.”
Everything said above echoes the research cited in this post from a little ways back about expert, clutch performers and how their brain activity patterns differ from novices. It’s all about the player “owning” whatever he’s trying to execute, and having less neural clutter:
Still another way of describing what happens is through the lens of neuroscience and brain activity. Some of the best research around the brain activity patterns of experts has been done by Brad Hatfield at the University of Maryland. His research around expert marksmen (marksmen are easy to study with brain imaging equipment because their heads don’t move while they perform) has shown that their brains are, in fact, ‘quieter’ and more economical than the brains of novices. In effect, they tune everything else out so thoroughly that only the most essential brain areas associated with the task are turned on and working. Novices, on the other hand, exhibited not only more brain activity, but activity that suggested communication between areas of the brain associated with motor control and areas associated with conscious, cognitive thought and analysis. Several studies on athletes and clutch performance of skilled tasks have associated a certain type of quiet, focused brain state with successful performance. In effect, a quiet brain is an expert brain, and a quiet brain is a clutch brain, too.