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Associative learning

Associative learning is one of the three ways the brain learns. The other two ways are: imprinting and instrumental learning. Associative learning has been discovered and made famous by Pavlov. For that reason it is also called Pavlovian learning. With associative learning the brain creates a probabilistic relationship between two sense impressions.

Associative learning is very important in football as it is the underlying learning principle of game intelligence. Players with a lot of game intelligence have learned many associations between certain position of their teammates and opposing players. A lot of training a team involves building up the right set of associations. Associations steer our behavior unconsciously. That’s why most players play at their best when they are in the flow. When they don’t think about it and just act. That’s why you see players make the wrong decisions when they suddenly have more time to act than usually. Instead of relying on the associations build in the unconsciousness, they overthink the situation and make mistakes.

Youth development works best when they are trained to build as many correct associations as possible. Associative learning explains why it is so important to have the right trainers and develop in the right team. Because they brain learns as easily negative associations that hinder the achievement of your goals as they learn positive associations. So for youth development it is good to think really hard about which trainer and which team will build the best associations and hence improve the game intelligence of the player the most. One reason why the football academy of Ajax is producing so many great football players has to do with that their programme teaches the brain to build up associations that proof to be very valuable in their career.  

Of course, the scouts of Ajax also has a great eye for talent.  Yet, associative learning also explains why some scouts are better than other scouts. And why different scouts see different things when they watch the same player. The reason why top scouts are also very valuable is that their network of associations has been proven to have a high correlation with future success.

Associative learning is also the reason why it is best to have multiple scouts watch a player and why besides watching a video of a player it is also important to go and a live match. Watching videos triggers different associations than watching a player live. Top video scouts and top live scouts both have a network of valuable association. But because these are different networks and different associations both inputs are especially valuable as they are also independent. A player that is liked by both the video scout and the live scout has a bigger probability of future success as a player where the live scout and the video scout differ in their opinion.

Drills with and without context

Due to associative learning drills with context are much better than drills without context. Football is a thinking sport. That means that pattern recognition by the unconscious mind is crucial for success. Especially as this builds game intelligence. Game intelligence and pattern recognition are created mostly through associative learning. So if you do a drill without context, for instance indiscriminate dribbles or passing for passing’s sake, the brain will build dribbling associations without the correct patterns to recognize. So that means that the player will learn the dribble technique, but his brain won’t know when to dribble and when not to dribble because he lacks the game intelligence to recognize the correct pattern.

When you do drills with context, that enables the brain to learn to right patterns. Learning how to pass so to exploit space at the same time, not only teaches the passing technique, but also teaches how and when to pass according to patterns as they develop on the pitch. So drilling with context builds the right associations, while drilling without context teaches incorrect associations. To be clear: it is not that without context the brain doesn’t learn new associations. All sense impressions lead to new or updated associations. That is the reason why drilling without context actually teaches players the wrong associations and thus decreases their game intelligence.

Changing associations

Fortunately, associations can easily be changed. All sense impressions build up associations. So the more new experiences you have, the faster your associations change. Repetition is key here. Creating the right associations is one of the reasons, besides fitness and technique, why players train as much as they do. A team with a lot of new players often performs less well than a team that has played together for a long time. Again, the reason is that the new players haven’t yet build up the network of associations that are required for the strategy and tactics that the manager wants to deploy. A no look pass only works when the right associations are in the brains of both players involved in that pass. 

Pavlov has made an interesting observation that besides new experiences hypnosis might also be a great way of changing negative associations. More and more sports teams are working with hypnotists to improve their play. Hypnosis sound really out of the ordinary. But that is because most people think of hypnosis in a very narrow sense. The famous hypnotist Derren Brown has defined hypnosis as the ability to get people to play along with your story. Influential talk always consists of hypnotic language patterns. So actually talking to players in the right way, as great coaches and managers do, also change the associations players have.

Unfortunately, associations also explain why a manager sometimes can’t seem to reach his players anymore. Associations build an expectation. And what we experience is much more influenced by what we expect to experience than by the data that actually reaches our brain through our senses. Over the years if players have the same manager each and every year, their associated expectation of that manager becomes stronger and stronger by the day. That is perfectly fine as long as everything works out great, because then the players only need to hear half a word the manager says to understand what he wants them to do on the pitch. But as soon as the old way of playing starts to fail and the manager decides to change his tack, then suddenly the old association block the players from understanding, and even literally hearing, what the manager has to say. Bringing in a new manager can then in fact work, for the reason that the players don’t have an associated expectation of the new manager. It then becomes easier for their brain to actually listen to what the new manager has to say, instead of filling in his words based on previous associations.