Let’s talk about neurology (again). Specifically, let’s talk about the way the human nervous system deals with learning a new strategy – either a movement strategy or a new way of applying what knowledge you already have.
Technically speaking, learning is a relatively permanent change, a product of a change in the architecture of the body’s nervous systems. Performance is another matter altogether; it is a temporary change in behaviour observed during supervised practice. It depends on many factors including the environment and the level of ambient stress.
Now, let’s talk about football – and more accurately, about this weekend’s past match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. Both teams are acclimating to new personnel, and thereby learning new tactics, methods and movements.
David Moyes’ arrival means the entire club is adapting to a new way of doing things, while the Whites have replaced a once-in-a-generation player with a wide array of disparate talents like Erik Lamela, Andros Townsend, Paulinho and Roberto Soldado. Each new player is now – and still – adapting to Andre Villas-Boas and the way he thinks about football and demands it played.
To expect instant change, or a team to understand implicitly a new motor learning strategy within months is unrealistic – for someone to retrain a learned behaviour, it takes anywhere as much as 400 repetitions. Add to that the communication barrier – message, language or mode – and suddenly it becomes reasonable to expect any particular situational play to take months to consolidate.
Occasions of exquisite performance, such as Manchester United’s 5-0 triumph over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League last week, can occur despite a lack of learning. Sometimes, circumstances transpire to create an atmosphere in which performance can occur despite a lack of learning. The learning will occur as each player’s reps increase, with the most benefit coming from time spent on the field in matches, rather than the training ground.