Thomas Tuchel bringing skill acquisition theory to life at PSG

A video of Thomas Tuchel explaining the evolution of his coaching methodology with specific reference to the use of deliberate pitch modifications to create emergent behaviours has stirred interest in the use of constraints-led coaching in football.

Whilst Tuchel does not make specific reference to skill acquisition theory, his use of a diagonal shaped field is an example of constraints in action. The constraints-led approach hypotheses that movement behaviour is emergent from an ongoing, dynamic search for stabilisation of movement solutions within a performance environment.

Therefore, the performance environment can be deliberately modified or manipulated (hence, ‘constrained’) to enable specifically desired emergent behaviours. In this case, as Tuchel believes that playing diagonally is an effective behaviour to achieve success in football, he has constrained the playing field to create conditions in which that behaviour can emerge, both more frequently and with greater success for the performers.

A fundamental point to acknowledge within this use of constraints is that Tuchel’s session design remains, simply, a football game. This is crucial, because by retaining the key aspects of football (i.e., score goals and stop goals), the session remains representative. This means that the training looks and feels like the real game – the academic concept of representative learning design. In essence, because the information within the training environment represents the same information within the performance environment, transfer of learning between the two can occur.

Another key element of skill acquisition theory that Tuchel touches upon is the limiting of prescriptive verbal instruction. There is significant research to suggest that coaches providing explicit or direct instruction during practice can limit the performers skill development.

This is particularly critical when performers can perform skills unconsciously (as Tuchel’s elite professionals can do), as at this stage in the skill acquisition process skill  is being developed through self-exploration and self-organisation, and verbal instructions can restrict this process.

Therefore, this academic research suggests that coaches should design practice environments where the desired behaviour emerges naturally, rather than being prescribed or directed verbally by the coach. Tuchel addresses his reasonings for this directly within the video.

A final argument in favour of this limited verbal input is that skills and movements learnt implicitly are less susceptible to choking under pressure, which is particularly crucial given the high-tempo, highly pressurised environment of elite football.

Whilst these concepts have been prominent in skill acquisition research for some time, it is encouraging to hear a coach at an elite level put them into practice in a real world environment. It demonstrates that constraints-led theory, and associated pedagogy, not only has a place in youth development but also in senior, elite football.

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