The Playmaker’s Advantage

This post is not about watches – it is about raising your mental game to the next level…  A getAbstract summary of a book entitled “The Playmaker’s Advantage” by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson. In all honesty, after reading this you probably dont need to buy the book; but if you decide to – please consider buying the book using this link so I get a referral!


Sports consultants Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson suggest that athletes’ technical training and their mental & emotional training as equally important. They examine top athletes in several sports to determine what makes someone a “playmaker,” the team member who can see the field and make quick, effective decisions. The authors focus on developing team athletes between 10 and 20 years old and discuss how neuroscience explains what makes someone a truly elite athlete. They draw from detailed, complex research as they debunk multiple coaching myths. While their text can sometimes be dense, their stories and athlete interviews make the academic elements relatable. Their main messages include:

  • Don’t yell at your kids from the sidelines
  • If you want soccer stars, introduce your kids to many sports, and
  • Achievement in team sport, correlates with achievement at school and in the workplace

What Makes a “Playmaker”?
In 2003, the Atlantic Coast Conference named Mia Hamm the greatest female athlete and ranked Michael Jordan as the greatest male. In 2004, when Brazilian soccer legend Pelé listed the 125 best-ever players for FIFA’s 100th anniversary, he put Hamm on the list.

Pelé didn’t name Hamm because she was a high scorer, though even 10 years after retiring, she still holds the NCAA women’s career record for assisted goals. Instead, these rankings honored Hamm as a playmaker. She embodied an overarching desire to win, was relentless and exacting on the field, and performed well under competitive pressure. Her former coach, Anson Dorrance, noted her remarkable speed and her focus in high-pressure games. Hamm always kept team goals foremost. She was known for her selflessness.

“A sporting competition comes down to the sum of our neural decisions stacked up against our opponent’s overall total.”

Hamm, Jordan and other playmakers exhibit a “sixth sense” – no matter their age. This “athletic cognition” marks their ability to make the right, smart choice under competitive pressure in all game situations. Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called Al Horford a playmaker due to Horford’s composure and selflessness on the court. When the Basketball Hall of Fame inducted former Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman, it wasn’t because of his high scores. It was because he led his era in the “highest proportion of available rebounds.” Rodman was great at helping other players score.

“Brain processing speed emerged as the difference maker between experts and novices.”

“Perceptual-Cognitive Advantage”

Coaches and sports organizations have historically tracked athletes’ physiological traits. At Nike’s national final football trials for the best high school players, the 166 invited players had the requisite high SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction, quickness) score. Zach Whitman, who analyzed player metrics for 13 years, found a direct relationship between physical skills and keeping a job in the National Football League. But few athletes, no matter how skilled, turn out to be playmakers.

Coaches track and train players for physical fitness. But their age-old metrics can’t rate an athlete’s prowess in “knowledge, awareness and decision making.” This “perceptual-cognitive advantage” turns out to be a greater indicator of athletic success than speed, strength or quickness. While trainers and coaches know a playmaker when they see one, they must find and develop training routines that produce these crucial strengths.

“Finding new ways to connect the dots defines the playmaker’s job. Seeing patterns and solutions where others don’t is part of the cognitive mystery that is hard for even [playmakers] to describe.”

“Brain Processing Speed”
Working at his Lifelong Brain & Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois, Dr. Arthur Kramer undertook one of the first steps toward this goal. After years of studies, he concluded that physical training builds cognitive abilities from the body’s molecular level to its systems level. He and his team tested the speed of people’s reactions to visual cues. They concluded that “expert” athletes have greater “brain processing speed” than either less-experienced athletes or people who weren’t athletes.

“Expert soccer playmakers use a more refined visual search pattern than novices to pick out the best next action, often to the point of subconscious reaction time.”

Kramer tested athletes and others on a simulated street scene that they moved through on a treadmill. Subjects who held conversations during the test had more “virtual collisions.” This correlates to the reasons coaches and parents should never yell distracting directions at young athletes from the sidelines. They need to concentrate on the game.

Researchers who combined eye-tracking systems with mental exercises found that “cognitively fatigued” athletes missed cues they’d normally notice, such as an oncoming defender. When athletes’ brains grow tired, perception falters. Cognitively stressed athletes have weaker physical performance and less-adept technical skills.

“While expert playmakers get better at these quick, intuitive decisions, talented kids apparently use the same TTF [take the first option] strategy.”

Physical and Mental Exhaustion
A United Kingdom Ministry of Defense test found that soldiers who trained physically and mentally at the same time could increase their “time to exhaustion” by 126%. This relates directly to the final minutes of an athlete’s game, when making quality choices is crucial.

“The learning needs of a U10 soccer team are drastically different from those of a high school varsity team, yet many U10 coaches model…high school coaches.”

While exercise physiologists define fatigue as occurring when muscles lack sufficient “oxygen and glycogen,” researchers believe intense mental effort also induces fatigue. Office workers aren’t physically active at their desks, but a day of in-depth analysis and decision making can tire them mentally and lower their acuity.

Researchers define athletes’ mental processes on the field, their  “neural mechanisms,” in three broad areas: search, decide and execute. Playmakers start by searching for options and “cues.” With that visual information, their memories recognize on-field patterns, and they decide what to do. Then they must utilize their hard-earned skills and perform at an elite level while executing their decisions.

“Sharing my expertise with parents in youth sports….most parents were badly misinformed about how young athletes develop…treating their kids as ‘short adults’.”

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s father encouraged him to anticipate the puck’s movement. Instead of teaching Gretsky to follow the puck, his father taught him how to determine where it would go next. Gretzky learned to skate where the puck would be. This makes up one aspect of playmakers’ skills: They can act before their competitors. Gretzky’s experience illustrates how coaches can teach this skill to their players.

“Well-intentioned ‘encouragement’ from the sidelines, be it positive or negative, disrupts a player’s automated sports cognition flow, creating just enough hesitation to lose the moment.”

Pattern Recognition
Tests of “five visual functions” showed that while elite and other athletes perform better than people who are not athletes, no significant difference separates the two groups. Playmakers may differentiate themselves in how they utilize cues and recognize patterns. Italian researchers found that top basketball players predicted the results of uncompleted jump shots faster and more accurately than coaches or neutral observers. When researchers asked these three groups to predict the results of penalty shots in soccer – a tactically different sport – their scores were equal.

Recognizing patterns on the field is part of what defines a playmaker, since those patterns help determine an athlete’s subsequent course of action. In a series of cumulative studies, scientists fitted players with “eye tracking glasses” that focused on what the athletes perceived. The researchers also recorded the players’ pupils’ “continuous focus shifts, or saccades.” In an initial set of studies, players watched videos and said what they’d do first in the circumstances they saw and what their next choices would be. Researchers found that as players gained experience on the field or court, their intuition usually provided the best choice first and most quickly.

“We’re after those intangible improvements in…awareness and decision making that reveal themselves only subtly in competitive team situations.”

This is the “take the first” (TTF) option response. Those who used a spatial search strategy and sought “spaces to exploit” rather than a functional strategy – like “dribble, pass, shoot” – selected from a shorter list of options, and those options were of higher quality. In a 2017 study, talented young players using the TTF strategy pursued fewer higher-quality options when coaches cut their decision-making time. Playmakers’ ability to make lightning-fast decisions and instantly change options as necessary derives, in part, from their knowledge of repeated patterns.

Grit refers “to the ability to self-regulate, control your stressors, maintain concentration, believe in yourself, be determined, handle pressures and failures, stay motivated and committed.”

Advanced players tested on field pattern “recognition and recall” performed far better than novices, even when tested with different sports that shared similar tactics. When researchers removed certain pivotal players from the simulated field, the difference between expert and novice athletes disappeared. The test no longer showed the “connected network of player positions.” Contrary to the popular belief that children should concentrate on only one sport, kids who play “multiple, related sports” develop broader, deeper pattern recognition skills.

The “Holy Grail”
Decision making matters greatly in fast-paced, competitive sports. Veteran Australian Football League (AFL) player and now coach John Longmire believes an athlete’s holy grail is making immediate, “intuitive” choices, and then performing perfectly in pressurized moments. To train athletes to make good decisions quickly, Australian professor Damian Farrow recommends taking a page from Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), whose books help many kids learn to read. Seuss “is the master of manipulating cognitive load to get it to an optimal challenge point.” Teaching a skill in a new, different way – like the rhyming repetition of Dr. Seuss – helps athletes adapt to using the skill in stressful game conditions. Farrow defines skills as the use of “technique under pressure.”

“A coach needs to understand how growing athletes learn skills, as well as understand what is happening in their brains as they acquire sport skills.”

“Deliberate Practice”
Technical skills matter. But dull practice makes players “behave like cows.” The goal of training is to increase individual and team skills, knowledge and mental capacity in competitive games. Instead of repetitive drills that build physical skills in isolation, Florida State University’s Dr. K. Anders Ericsson found that coaches should create more diverse deliberate practice activities that mirror game competition and offer a chance for “pure play.” Coaches can achieve this by changing the type of challenges – or the time constraints – in drills. The 1993 study by Ericsson and his colleagues that incorrectly became the basis for the 10,000-hours-of-practice rule did not address sports. It was meant to deliver the hopeful message that most people can substantially improve at something if they learn to practice correctly.

“Intense physical and mental effort will induce fatigue, but the athlete’s perception is critical in determining whether she will stop or keep going.”

Often in traditional practices, coaches touch the ball more than anyone else as players line up. Farrow recommends that coaches, even volunteers, engage young players, letting them touch the ball as often as possible, making practice fun. Joy makes a difference. He recommends reducing structure and letting “the kids play.” Farrow created a technology training situation for the Australian Football League’s Bulldogs that included the “athletic cognition cycle of search, decide and execute.” Analyzing data enabled a new training structure that had a substantial effect on the team within a couple of weeks. The Bulldogs soon tallied one of the most surprising upsets in the history of the league.

Grit and Determination
Contrary to popular belief, the supposedly advantageous “relative age affect” – said to boost child athletes born in the first three months of the year – does not hold up when young athletes become elite. Another myth-buster: Young athletes from small to mid-sized cities perform better than those from large cities. But no one can pin down the precise combination of psychological factors that combine to produce a playmaker.

“Becoming a playmaker is a marathon not a sprint.”

Dr. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, regards grit not as being inflexible in the face of tough times, but as functioning with high resolve all the time. Duckworth and Iowa State professor Marcus Credé agree that the self-reported results concerning grit have little utility. Credé says many things add up to elite athlete status, including “motivation, confidence, metal toughness, anxiety control” and seldom failing to perform up to expectations. Research has yet to determine if elite athletes’ single-mindedness springs from these elements, or whether performing consistently well at a young age cements their confident belief in their abilities.

“The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.” (Coach Anson Dorrance)

Independence and a “growth mind-set” are another subset of traits researchers believe are important in top athletes. Outside of the lab, however, parents tend to clear obstacles for their children. This can erode a child’s independent thought and problem solving. Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, a growth mind-set expert, emphasizes that no one can maintain such a mind-set in all situations, but along with discipline and hard work, a growth mind-set can help “potential come to fruition.”

Two UK research projects with superb athletes found nearly identical clues to greatness. They showed that top athletes usually link their strong desire to succeed in sports to a “foundational, negative, critical, life event” that happened early in their lives. These playmakers show greater selfishness, obsession and perfectionism, and they prioritize their sport over the rest of their lives. One cold, spring morning in 1994, Dorrance – Mia Hamm’s coach at the University of North Carolina – saw her at a distance: a lone, exhausted figure performing a difficult drill. He concluded that the “final measure” of a playmaker is “what you do on your own.”

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