Exploring cognitive acceleration in football

This blog post will be a work in progress as I explore the background, research and evidence to a successful cognitive acceleration (CA) programme used in schools for teaching of English, Maths and Science - and see how that model fits with how we plan and deliver Ministry of Football skill development sessions.

Link: Let's Think CA programme for schools

(Latest updates at top of page, scroll down for earlier posts)

02/02/14 Learn through filming and reviewing video of a session

Here is a session we ran for our Futsal Club in February 2015. The reasoning pattern was 'Understanding Space'.


Overall, it was great to be filmed and to watch the session from the point of view of the two cameras. In total we had over 2 hours of footage. It can be awkward watching yourself coach on film, but beyond the initial discomfort there is SO much to learn.

For my own delivery and the way I teach, here is what I think I need to improve:

  • I very much lead discussions, and at times there is little room for children to take the discussion their own way. Several times during the session there were children with their hands up who wanted to contribute but I felt I didn't have time for their comments or ideas as I wanted to move the session on my own agenda. This may have the positive result of increasing active learning time and game time, but it is at the expense of verbal discussion and sedentary collaboration - both of which can be very useful to learning and progress.
  • When I go in to question the group, I need to be much clearer on the exact wording of the question I am using, and plan it better in advance of the intervention. There were times when the wording of the question was disappointing and didn't quite have the effect on learning that I had wanted.
  • Some of the best coach-player interaction in the session happened when I talked one-to-one with children rather than when I lead a group discussion. I found the children in the one-to-one chats, especially if they happened in the middle of an activity so their heads were engaged in the activity, were able to better or more easily express their ideas (and I felt I had more time to listen).

Overall, as a session, I was pleased with the way it went. I think the children got a lot from it, they enjoyed it, and they started to try new ways of coping with the changing environment. In particular, the constraints of the environment meant they had to look about them in order to be successful. There was lots of collaboration and social construction, both verbal and non-verbal - and it was interesting to see different groups, children and teams try different things in order to succeed. The player reflections at the end of the session were particularly useful in identifying what the children took from the session. It was great to hear one child say he practiced "using my brain to help me know where to dribble".

I thought the meta-cognition and bridging stages of the session worked a lot better than previous attempts at a CA session (example below), and there were clear links between learning in the first part of the session and the 5v5 Futsal games at the end. There was evidence in the Futsal games of children seeing passing options that were further from them than they have previously considered. In addition the strategy of lifting the ball over defenders in order to find a faraway but well-placed team-mate was used often. This is a tactic that is particularly useful in the constrained area of the Futsal pitch, and it was a tactic that the children developed on their own without any direct guidance from me. I had not foreseen this outcome of the session.

The weakest part of the session I think was the Preparation stage. In hindsight, watching the children move through this activity on video, it is clear that they are not actually taking snapshots or pictures and basing their movements on these pictures. Instead most children are playing with their heads up constantly, and this allows them to change their minds about where they dribble or "make it up as they go along".  There is nothing wrong with this, but the activity needed to be more intense and challenging in order to really stretch their "picture-taking" and "picture-interpreting" skills. If I was do the session again, I would use defenders for the preparation stage, perhaps children individually or in pairs trying to get through a defended zone with the ball. The children need to be constrained by time in order to force them to take the kind of snapshot pictures that they might have to take in game situation.

It was interesting that in a whole lesson on Understanding Space, hardly any of the children directly mentioned 'space' in their discussions or reflections. There were comments and ideas about gaps and movements, but generally the spatial understanding that I wanted the children to explore happened indirectly. I wonder whether 'Understanding Space' is in fact too broad to be useful as a reasoning pattern, and whether infact a schema of 'Making Decisions' would be more appropriate for this session. In the CA English there is a schema of 'Intentions and Consequences' and this may be a better umbrella under which to explore the ideas of interpreting spaces and movements in order to make better decisions.

I have been pondering a lot recently how social construction and collaboration happen within a physical team game like Futsal. It seems to me that many decisions we make, and many of the pair or small group strategies that are experimented with in a game are not the result of a verbal discussion. Rather, in Futsal it is common for a pair of children to try a 'one-two' passing move or similar as a natural action rather than a planned one. Communication and collaboration on the field of play may be partly verbal but it is often more about facial expressions, body language, slight movements of the body, and of course movements around the pitch. These are the clues that allow us to collaborate with each other. Words as such - although helpful - are not necessary. Football is an international language in itself. An able footballer can join a game with people who speak another language and still be able to understand what they are trying to do and experience success (and enjoyment) together in the strategies they try to use. I think therefore that the social construction stage of a CA Football or Futsal session actually happens constantly within the game environment. The role of the coach may be to help the children use better, clearer and more positive 'communication' within their team - but this doesn't need to be done with words.

At an individual level, I am unconvinced that decision-making within the game happens in a way that we totally understand yet. Certainly when I play football or futsal I do not have an internal verbal discussion about what to do or where to move. It is almost like I am on auto-pilot - focused and absolutely present in the moment, and often making good decisions - but my brain is working at a speed beyond words and words as such disappear from the mind. Even when kicking a ball against a wall, we can experience this. The ball may return from the wall and look set to bounce a little in front of us. We have a decision - take a step forward and volley the ball back, or take a step back and get it after it bounces - for example. When left alone to take a natural course, this decision just happens. It is almost like the mind is within the body, and decisions are made by the body itself. This idea of 'The Embodied Mind' is something that I enjoying reading about, and is greatly in my thoughts as I continue on my journey exploring CA in Football.


26/10/14 How does a typical MoF session fit with the key stages of the programme?

The first practical step in the process has been to explore how a typical MoF session links to the key stages of the CA programme. Below is the session we used to make the comparison. It is not a session plan, rather notes on what actually happened. It is by no means a perfect session, and there are certainly things I would do differently if I was to run a similar session again. 

Indoor area size: 20m * 15m - 12 children of medium ability mainly from school years 4&5 - Sunday 26 Oct, 6pm-7pm

The Preparation stage  (6pm start)

Arrival activity = one ball each.

Task: Can you “split dribble”? In other words can you dribble through the gap between two other dribblers? Brief demo and go. Music on.

Children arrive during this activity. Coaches welcome each one, and they join activity. Coaches assess group numbers and mix of abilities and decide to keep group together for session.

Music off for interventions.

Progress: Can you split dribble, then turn back through the same gap?

One point for a split dribble, three points for a split dribble and turn back through the same gap.

Then music on.

Coach: “How can you stop others getting three points?”. No need to stop activity for this, just turn down music, offer the question to the group, turn music back on.

No praise given.

Children put into bibs during the activity. Four teams of three children in each team.  Important: No need to stop activity for this, just go round and put bibs on. Coaches decide on mixed ability/random teams (rather than grouped by ability).

The Construction stage  (6.08pm start)

Quick check: What does ‘unpredictable’ mean? “Today we are going to explore how being unpredictable can help you in football”.

Four teams of three children each (coloured bibs on). Large square area, 20m * 15m.

A small pop-up goal in each corner of square, with a coloured bib tied to net. One blue goal, one white/yellow goal, one green goal and one red goal. Two 3v3 games go on in same area.

Game: A team of 3 players start in their coloured goal with the ball. They need to choose another coloured goal, and they get a point if they can score in their chosen goal. They do not tell their opposing team which goal they are trying to score in. If they score a goal, then play re-starts with the other team with the ball in their goal choosing a goal to score in. If opposing team win ball, they try to score.In the above example, the Red team start with the ball at their goal. They must choose another coloured goal to score in, but not tell the opposing team which goal they have chosen. If the White team win the ball then they see if they can score in the Red goal.

There are two games going on at once in the same area – the Red team and playing the White team and the Blue team and playing the Green team.

Coach: Let’s game commence with instructions only, no Q&A, technical info or challenge at this point. Music on.

Later, music off, coach stops games to bring children in:

Question: If you are the defending team, what helps you work out which goal the attacking team are trying to score in?

(Actual answers: What way they are looking / Where they dribble / Where players run to / Where they are pointing / Where their shoulders and hips are pointing).

So coach challenge: How can you use these signs to fool the other team when you are attacking? For example, can you give all the signs as if you attacking one goal but then change to attack the goal you really chose?

No praise given for answers.

6.22pm: Drink break: When you come back from a quick drink, get with your team and practice pretending to attack one goal, but then changing to attack the goal you really chose.  Important: Coach gives task for after drink-break so children are not idle – they have something to do straight away.

When all children are ready and back from drink break:

Replay 3v3 game. Coach stops game briefly – perhaps once for each of the 4 teams – either to show what they did that worked well, or to ask other teams what they could do to make it work better. Important: These stoppages are not lengthy, and it’s not necessary to stop both 3v3 games, usually just one at a time.

The Conflict stage  (6.32pm start)

Two 3v3 games, both played on same pitch, with two goals at each end of pitch.

Change teams from previous game, so now Reds v Green and White v Blue.

Important: No lengthy explanations needed. No challenge given. Coach just stops music, switches teams and ask that they play a normal 3v3 with no GKs and that they can score in either end goal. Music back on.

Later, music off, children into whiteboard.

Review of 'Being Unpredictable' on whiteboard.  Ideas already on whiteboard from last group plenary:

What way they are looking / Where they dribble / Where players run to / Where they are pointing / Where their shoulders and hips are pointing

Coach asks: What else can you do in this game to make your attacks unpredictable?

(Actual answers: Use skills, change direction. Elicited: Change speed)

These ideas are added to the board.

Coach quick demo: Slow pace passing to sudden change of speed.

Challenge: Can you use these ideas to help your team be unpredictable?

Back to 3v3 games with a switch of teams/opponents. Music on.

6.42pm: Drink break: When you come back from a quick drink, get with your team and practice passing and moving slowly and then suddenly increasing speed and tempo. How do you know when the sudden change of pace will happen? Who starts this change of speed? Important: Coach gives task for after drink-break so children are not idle – they have something to do straight away.

The Bridging stage

Bridging is seen here as taking what has been learnt and using it in a normal game.

Therefore the set-up is 3v3 game.

Each game has its own area. Teams may or may not use GK, it’s up to them. (They do use GK).

During these games, one or two children swapped between teams to make teams roughly equal if one team is struggling.

Coach interventions are minimal. There is one stoppage of all children to demonstrate a couple of good examples of an individual using something from the whiteboard to make their play unpredictable (looking one way and passing another / pointing one way but playing out another with a sudden change of pace).

End of lesson: A brief review of what we covered in the session.

Brief post-session thoughts on how the session fits with the CA model

  • I think MoF sessions do very well at the first three stages of preparation, construction and conflict. This model fits with what we do naturally.
  • Group collaboration takes time away from physical activity, as children need time to discuss and explore ideas. They can do this physically sometimes too of course, but making an idea work in an opposed game is tricky and learning is perhaps lost without time taken to reflect. The challenge is that the more time allowed for sedentary verbal discussions, the less time is available to play and learn by playing.
  • The stages of meta-cognition and bridging are difficult for me to align to MoF sessions. Learning in football could be bridged to learning elsewhere, especially of other sports - however this is not within the current remit of MoF. The bridging that happens naturally in MoF lessons is taking learning in smaller or modified versions of the game into a fully opposed normal version of the game.

Back to top

  By Mark Carter, February 2015

Copyright Ministry of Football 2020 - All Rights Reserved

Mark Carter

07772 716 876

Copyright Ministry of Football 2020 - All Rights Reserved

Mark Carter

07772 716 876