The Playmaker's Advantage - Introduction

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to our new book, The Playmaker's Advantage, available now online or at your favorite local bookstore.

© 2018 by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson

How hard could it be? I was an adult, a dad no less, with a reasonable understanding of the game despite never having played soccer. They were a pack of nine-year-olds, veterans of at least two to three seasons of battle on fields with reduced dimensions and shrunken goals. Besides the color of their jerseys and shoes, they were open to nearly any of my suggestions as to our strategy, tactics, drills, and motivations to get the Saturday morning win and the red Gatorade that would follow. 

As a rookie volunteer coach, I researched and debated the best formation, attacking style, and starting lineups. Just feed my plans and knowledge into their curious heads, and we would surely hoist seven-inch-tall plastic trophies at the end of the season. Armed with a clipboard detailing each drill with its allotted time, I blew the whistle to start my first team practice.

An hour and a half later I realized that young brains vary from adult brains on many levels. So many concepts, so many skills, and so many rules were like foreign language lessons to my future superstars. Explaining to one of them that “you were in an offside position when the ball was kicked” only resulted in a blank stare. My coaching advice to another that “we should not all chase the ball” was similar to saying, “Don’t chase the man handing out free ice cream.” 

Putting down my clipboard, I knew the practice had to be redesigned on the fly. I was trying to teach them calculus before they had mastered addition and subtraction. Despite the seemingly logical explanations and directions from me, they kept making the same mistakes. The mental workload was evident in real time on their faces as they struggled to transition from instructions while standing still to decision-making in motion.

Yet, when I rolled out the ball and just let them play, out came flashes of athletic genius. What seemed to be innate skills of anticipation, elusiveness, creativity, and goal scoring suddenly appeared in a few players, but not all. This talent continuum looked much like a bell curve: some kids clearly got it and some didn’t, with the rest somewhere in the middle. 

For those who played effortlessly, the game flowed through them. They were at ease on the ball, almost toying with those trying to stop them. Movements were smooth, passes were crisp, decisions were advanced for their age. Athletes like these are the playmakers, the ones that teams are built around. Coaches search for them like lost lottery tickets. Parents dream that their offspring have this sixth sense.

For me, it triggered a lot of questions. What is going on in the brain of each young athlete—especially in the playmakers? How do they learn the thinking, movements, and emotional skills required to succeed in and enjoy their sports at such an early age? How does that body of knowledge grow over time? Why do most kids stay at an average performance level while a few excel to the highest levels of a sport?

Over the last decade, several theories have emerged to explain the elite-versus- novice difference; genetics, 10,000 hours of practice, unequal access to opportunities, and the sheer “luck” of getting an outstanding coach at the right time—these are just a few. While these variables may combine to contribute to an athlete’s growth, more detail is needed to understand why they work. Inherited abilities can provide the gifts of speed, power, and size but do they also offer learning efficiency, better working memory, and perceptual-cognitive maturity? Years of brute-force drills will improve skills, yet there are exceptions on both sides of the equation. Environmental advantages set the table for a rapid rise, but not all privileged kids excel.

As you might have guessed, I believe it all starts with the brain, as does my coauthor, Dr. Leonard (Len) Zaichkowsky. As a professor, researcher, and consultant for almost four decades at Boston University, Len pioneered performance psychology as an interdisciplinary science, integrating the study of the brain with observed behavior. While my curiosity originated as a parent and coach interested in the workings of my players’ growing minds, Len has been asking similar but more rigorous and researched questions across three hundred published academic papers and speeches. Together, we wanted to create a resource, founded in science, that was accessible to millions of athletes, parents, and coaches. We partnered up as a writer and a professor to search, read, and summarize dozens of research studies, interview the scientists who wrote those papers, then validate those findings with today’s best coaches to be sure theory can survive at practice. At the beginning of every interview for this book, we would ask our expert scientist, author, or coach for their definition of “playmaker.” While there were similarities in their answers, each adds a unique context that we knew we had to share with you. We picked a cross section of these definitions and added them to the ends of several chapters.

While you will find our collective voice throughout the chapters, Len will provide his unique perspective based on his lifetime of research and consulting on these topics, in the sections affectionately named “Doc Z’s Brain Waves.” 

So, What’s Going On? 

Every action we take on the playing field, court, or rink originates with an instruction handed down through the central nervous system to the individual muscles. Millions of signals happen effortlessly and mostly unconsciously until something goes wrong. A bad pass, a missed tackle, or a forgotten assignment triggers instant awareness within us, no doubt because of the immediate reaction from our coach and negative reinforcement from our fans. 

A sporting competition comes down to the sum of our neural decisions stacked up against our opponent’s overall total. Assuming physical preparation is equal, if we make correct choices to pass, shoot, and defend, then we will prevail. If they consistently outthink us, it won’t matter if we can bench-press more weight or run a faster forty-yard dash: we may win the battle of conditioning but lose the war on the field.

Moreover, there is a difference between raw physical readiness and expert motor skills. A finely tuned world-class physique cannot weave a puck through four defenders or place a ball in the top corner of the goal without the intricate set of commands needed from the brain. Yet, we spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to grow muscle and increase speed when the payoff would be much greater by focusing on cognitive instructions and decision-making quickness.

Of course, the science of strength and conditioning is well researched and documented. However, the science of the brain is still at a fundamental level insofar as how we learn skills, how we perceive our environment, and how we make fast decisions. We are still learning why some of us can’t master a move, why we miss obvious cues, and why we end up making poor choices on the field. To be blunt, the cognitive side of sports is hard.

This book is our attempt to dig deeper into this unfamiliar territory between the ears. To limit the possible universe, we will focus on team-based sports even though individual sports have similar questions. And while these concepts can help all athletes, much of our discussion will be centered on aspiring playmakers ages ten to twenty-two. Their natural development within the mega youth sports machine provides a useful observatory to assess different paths and approaches.

As coaches and parents, we are primarily teachers. But before we can teach, it would help to understand our students as learning creatures whose web of neural connections is forming and fragile. Once understood better, this cognitive domain offers the next big leap in training, as it is the emerging athlete’s only remaining unconquered curriculum. To borrow from the title of the book by Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore about UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “You haven’t taught until they have learned.”

Our journey through this material answers two fundamental questions:

  • What does it take to become a playmaker and why don’t current coaching methods, thousands of hours of practice, and inherited abilities always produce the necessary underlying skills?
  • What is “athlete cognition” and how can it be identified, measured, and improved?

© 2018 by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson