Teaching players how to learn

By: Dan Abrahams

Sport psychologist Dan Abrahams explains how coaches can help their players to learn rather than simply perform

The distinction between learning and performing is challenging but it’s important for coaches to grasp the difference. In this article I’m going to help you differentiate between the two, and give you some ideas to help your players to learn rather than simply perform.

Let’s look at a basic example. A box drill – 6v2. Six players on the outside popping the ball around, trying to evade the pressing of the two players in the middle. Three reps of two minutes each. That first rep perhaps starts a little slow, some mistakes, some errors in ball control and passing. In the second rep things get better – the ball is starting to work quicker, bouncing its way from player to player, one touch, sometimes two, but moving quickly. The third rep is a masterpiece – fast feet, ball shifting lightning-quick and finding its player every time. There’s a vast improvement from rep one to rep three.

The coaches watching from the outside think: “That’s great, the players are learning!”

But are they really?

Well, very possibly not! What you’re seeing on the pitch is probably not learning, what you’re seeing is simply an improvement of performance. To learn is to acquire knowledge or skills, and this isn’t necessarily happening when players start to do things better during an activity. Your players aren’t getting better at football per se, they’re simply improving their performance in that activity. And there’s an explanation as to how they’re able to improve performance without actually learning. What you’re witnessing is a psychological phenomenon called the ‘fluency effect’.


In simple terms, fluency is the ease with which we process information so we can generate understanding. In our box drill example, when players are exposed to the same stimuli over and over they start to recognise patterns, process these patterns more efficiently, and act quicker.

In football terms, players on the outside of the box are getting better at keeping the ball with each rep because they’re becoming more familiar with the actions their team mates are producing. They’re anticipating quicker and making quicker decisions. To affirm: you’re watching them perform better at the task they’re doing rather than getting better at football in general (in other words, learning).

So how do we help players to actually learn rather than to just perform better?

Somewhat counter-intuitively, psychologists have found that reducing current performance can actually increase future learning. If you create conditions within an activity that cause footballers to struggle to perform well, this struggle is what can create a broader, more robust skillset – a skillset with greater flexibility and durability.

Psychologist, Robert Bjork, calls these conditions ‘desirable difficulties’. The difficulties that have the best evidence base in psychological research are: spacing, interleaving, and variation.

Interleaving and spacing in a footballing sense refer to switching between activities between reps so that players experience different tasks and gaps between the same tasks. For example, interleaving a passing activity and a shooting activity – having players engage in a passing rep for two minutes, then a shooting rep for two minutes, then back to a passing rep for two minutes. Rather than the training formula: ‘complete task A and then complete task B’, you ask players to complete a rep of task A, then a rep of task B and then a rep of task A again and so on.   


Variation refers to an activity that provides varied skills. For example, a small-sided game provides a range of skill challenges that a player has to meet. But you can create more ‘desirable difficulties’ for players by introducing more variation in the tasks they have to accomplish. A few examples include: a player has to use his or her left foot only for the first five minutes of a small-sided game. A player has to release the ball within three seconds of receiving it. A player must return to a specific position when he or she doesn’t have the ball. Coaches can create a number of conditions in a game to vary the tasks players face.

Let’s now apply these ‘desirable difficulties’ to our 6v2 box drill.

Rather than have players complete three reps back to back, coaches can create a condition where players have to complete another activity or exercise in between the three box drill reps. For example, in accordance with the conditions of interleaving and spacing, they can complete one box drill rep then go for a light jog or do a basic passing activity, before returning to do the second rep of the box drill. When they do return for their second rep coaches can ask players to change position to increase variability.

The inclusion of some of these ‘desired difficulties’ (interleaving, spacing and variability) means players will feel like they’re starting again as they begin a second rep. They may feel uncomfortable, and their experience of the activity may feel more chaotic than orderly. They’ll find it tougher to get into a rhythm. They’ll be forced to pay greater attention to the task, specifically, to their technique and to the clues, cues and triggers that emanate from their team mates.

In short, they have a greater chance to learn because they have to figure out how to perform well in a constantly varied environment. They have to think. And when human beings think, they process information at a deeper level. And that deep level is where learning occurs.