Training Cognition in Soccer

This article was originally posted at DanAbrahams.com. and is a guest post to Dan's blog. Read the Original Post. 

Dan Abrahams is a global sport psychologist helping people to high perform. Dan’s book "Soccer Tough 2: Advanced Psychology Techniques for Footballers" introduces soccer players to more cutting edge tools and techniques to help them develop the game of their dreams. 


One of my main passions as a football psychologist is to help our industry move forward by helping coaches become better at the psycho-social aspect of developing players. I believe all soccer coaches need to be psycho-social coaches. In this article English FA Skills coach Dom Edwards talks about a model of coaching that he is learning, developing and using with young up and coming players.

Coaching is a humanistic process and therefore it is about people and I believe that if we are to develop as coaches we must be able to justify why we work in the manner that we do. Therefore, researching coaching and understanding various strategies should be becoming more and more important to modern coaches.

If we want to meet our principle aim of developing the person then we must create sessions that allow the learner to explore and understand the process of learning. One way in which to do this is to use the ‘Cognitive Acceleration’ (CA) approach. This blog entry will try to offer a brief explanation of the approach and answer how it can be useful within our roles as coaches.

The CA Approach

CA is an approach that has been used in schools for lessons such as science or maths, however there is not a reason to suggest that we cannot set our football sessions up in the same way. A science lesson for example offers problems to solve and the opportunity to experiment and record/share ideas. If this is the way learning is developed within education then we as coaches must be able to recognise the importance of the method within sport.

CA recognises there are stages in intellectual development and that we must transition from concrete thinking(facts and descriptions) to abstract thinking (any thinking which involves a mental process such as explaining ideas).

It requires a mediator (in our case a coach) to ask questions that allow guided self-discovery. A mediator however could also be a child within the group as it may be effective between peers to promote ideas and allow them to have ownership over their own learning.


Structuring a CA Session

A potential session structure to develop abstract thinking may be as follows…

  • SET THE SCENE: link the activity to current knowledge and explain the task. E.g. ‘I know you have focused a lot on dribbling and passing the ball so I am now going to challenge you to think about how we might attack in football’.

  • CHALLENGE: should always be set just above current level of knowledge (zone of proximal development). E.g. ‘Explore the different ways we attack in football – what are the benefits of attacking in each way’.

  • GROUP WORK: A current key trend is that in training we often put our teams into small groups to discuss their ideas and this is part of the CA ideology. This is because the coach cannot always be the mediator for each child in the group and so the children can discuss ideas (social construction) with others. When the coach is moving between groups they should accept all ideas as important without too much comment but share these ideas around the group with the original question in sight.

  • PLENARY: once the group has solutions they share their ideas. Coach doesn’t give solution but asks other groups if they agree and why. In this way I believe coaches should really be moving from question and answer to ‘Question and Discussion’. The discussion continues until there is agreement. Coach leads group to the answer through questioning.

  • META COGNITION: during group work and the plenary, the teacher asks questions that reveal the thinking process, which has shown to be effective in securing knowledge. The learner has to articulate a line of thinking – making the process available to others. Questions such as ‘what makes you think that?’, ‘Can you explain to the group why you think that?’ are used here. If working within a large group this may be particularly useful to teach others how their peers arrived at an answer.

  • BRIDGING: knowledge in isolation from the learners secure knowledge is usually lost, therefore the learner needs to bridge new learning to existing experiences (in our setting the learner must practice what they have learnt in a game based scenario). In football coaching terms ‘bridging’ may be incorporated by using the whole-part-whole methodology where players are encouraged to try what they have learnt in a small sided game.

After reading the above structure of a CA lesson/session you may be asking ‘So what does this mean to us as coaches?’

The answer is that through an understanding of using this method we can develop the future player who not only understands football as a game but can also understand their own learning and are able to articulate their ideas in a positive manner. To many, particularly those coaches who work within the grassroots, developing players who are good learners is a very worthwhile skill to teach.

In my next blog post I will share an example of a session plan focusing on how to develop the players understanding of attacking using the cognitive acceleration approach. With a justification of why I used the particular technique at that given time to meet my goal of developing the child as a player but also as a learner.

Any questions/comments or if you have tried this approach: @domiedwards

Dom Edwards is an English FA Skills Coach based in Cornwall, England

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Dan Abrahams

Dan Abrahams is a global sport psychologist who works alongside some of the leading players, teams, coaches and organisations in the world. He is known for his passion and ability to de-mystify sport psychology, as well as his talent for creating easy to understand and simple to use techniques and performance philosophies. A former professional golfer and PGA golf coach Dan has a First Class Honours degree in psychology and Masters degree in sport psychology. Academically he is visiting lecturer at several universities and he holds registration with the HCPC (meaning he is legally safe to practice as a psychologist). Dan works in all sport but specialises in football/soccer and golf. He is Lead Psychologist for England Golf and he works with players from leading amateur through to Tour players. In football/soccer psychology he is regarded as a leader in the field. He has some of the leading turnaround case studies in Premier League history and he has written two international bestselling books. One of these books, Soccer Tough, has been heralded one of the most important books in football. He currently works with players, teams and organisations across 'Planet Football.' Dan also works in the Corporate Sector delivering his sport psychology techniques and philosophies to individuals and groups.