Improving the cognitive cycle

By: Dan Abrahams

Sport psychologist Dan Abrahams examines the importance of the cognitive cycle and how coaches can help their players perform at their best

“Think quickly. Look for spaces,” said Xavi Hernandez. “That’s what I do: look for spaces, all day.”

Xavi Hernandez was recorded as being the greatest searcher of space in football. Dr Geir Jordet, a Norwegian sport psychologist whose main body of work is focused on visual scanning in sport, recorded Xavi at 0.83 searches per second. In other words, Xavi was relentlessly engaged in visual searching.

This data gives us an indication into the make-up of elite footballers, but it’s not the whole picture. Visual scanning is one part of the equation. What research has shown is that as the game unfolds, footballers engage in a ‘cognitive cycle’. They search, they decide, and they execute.

The cognitive cycle = search-decide-execute

Footballers visually explore their environment – on space as it emerges and dissolves, on the movement of the opposition and team mates, on the ball, and on the relationship between the three – then they make a decision based on what they’ve seen, and then they execute based on their decision.


This cognitive cycle happens thousands of times a game and the best players are the ones who do it quicker and more effectively than everyone else. Football may well be a physical game, but without the ability to loop through the cognitive cycle with speed and accuracy, players are more athletes than footballers.

The activities you do in your sessions – the rondos, keep-balls, small-sided games and possession games – help players keep their cognitive cycle razor sharp. But that isn’t enough. Even players at the very top level of the game need to be deliberate in their efforts to retain a speedy and accurate cognitive cycle.

So how do you help players improve their cycle, and how do you help the very best maintain their speed and accuracy? Here are some ideas…

Firstly, help players to be deliberate with their search behaviours. Ask them to consider how often they scan their environment. Challenge them to look up and around more. Just by having the conversation you direct their attention towards this vital cognitive component of the game.

If Xavi holds the record for visual searching, can you challenge a player to get closer to his scanning capacity? I did this once with a player at a club where the training ground had built-in cameras around the pitches. We set objectives related to his scanning, and he committed to watching himself back after training to see how often he was scanning. He found that he wasn’t as engaged in his environment as he had thought (and this was a player at the very highest level). His initial feedback was simple but important – looking up and around more felt uncomfortable to him – a sure sign that he had the capability to improve his scanning and absorb more information.

Of course, looking up and around is one thing but taking in relevant information to act upon is another. Coach questions can prompt players to consider the meaning of the clues and cues that are appearing and disappearing in their environment.

The decision part of the cognitive cycle tends to be more automated than the search behaviour. Most decisions happen without conscious thought, largely as a consequence of the thousands of hours of playing and coaching that players have engaged in. Whilst football is a free-flowing sport, it still contains structure and rules, and so players have seen and retained thousands of defensive and attacking plays. Their brains are wired to make instant decisions.


But the presence of automated decisions doesn’t mean players can’t improve their ability to make quicker and more accurate decisions. Doing so is strongly mediated by their ability to pay attention to small pieces of information that provide clues as to how play is going to unfold. These small details can include noticing which way other players are looking, briefly considering whether the opposition is engaging in repeated patterns of play, and checking the body shape and weight shift of a player who may be about to set off on a run.

This is tough to coach, but possible. It can be conducted on the pitch, in training, by asking players questions related to what they’re looking at, and what environmental information they’re seeing that’s influencing the decisions they’re making. But it may be preferable to coach this away from training in front of game footage, saying something like: “Notice how the striker got away from you there. It looks like you had scanned that location, but what were you looking at, because you didn’t spot his run quick enough? Can you tell me more about what you’re scanning for and what you’re striving to detect in those situations?”

The word ‘detect’ is a pertinent one. A powerful way to help players become more engaged with the information in their environment as they play (and to consider its meaning in greater depth) is to look to support their ability to be a great detective. Xavi was a great detective of the information sources in his environment that gave him clues as to how play was about to unfold. By taking time to ask players about what they’re striving to detect on the pitch, you can help players think deeper about the rich changing pattern of information that they see as play unfolds.


Whilst we want to help players engage in conscious search behaviours, and we want to challenge them to consider the meaning of the information in their environment (as it emerges and dissolves), the final part of the cognitive cycle – the execution of technique –  should be automated. Rarely do we want players to pay attention to or to steer their actions.

This technical automation is a result of the millions of touches of the ball they’ve had over their lifetime in the game. It’s a consequence of all the passing activities, the rondos, and the keep-balls.

However, purposefully engaging in some form of technical practice is something all footballers should consciously continue to do. Isolated practice is necessary to retain technique and touch.

Professional golfers will practise their fundamentals every day. They’ll work on their stance and set up religiously in every practice session. Professional tennis players will engage in activities that help them to repeat their basic forehand and backhand motions. Both sports require automated motions that can be repeated under pressure time and again.

The advantage isolated practice has is that information is stripped away (there is no disruption from other players), allowing players to focus on their fundamentals. They can place their attention on the feel of a perfect first touch, on the sensations of a weighted and carefully flighted pass, and on the timing of a 1v1 challenge.

Simply by starting to have conversations with your players about the cognitive cycle, you’ll help improve their ability to work at it. Don’t underestimate the importance of players, even at the very top level of the game, sharpening their cognitive sword.