David Parkin is one of the great coaches in Australian Football history. After a storied playing career, he went on to a very successful coaching career winning four premierships. However it was not only his success that set him apart. Beginning as a physical education teacher he rose the ranks of this profession too, becoming head of the School of Physical Education at Deakin University in Melbourne. He was thus uniquely placed to introduce teaching and learning research into the process of coaching Australian football, as well as being a pioneer in player empowerment. Like all innovators, and all coaches for that matter, he didn’t always get it right… the first time. I recall him speaking at a conference about one of those times. After careful consideration he designed a drill to train the players decision making ability. At practice he brought out footballs of two different colours. He then explained the drill to the players that when they received a ball of one colour they had to kick it as quickly as possible. When they received a ball of the other colour, they should handball it as quickly as possible. “Everyone understand? Then off you go.”
After some time the players became very proficient at the drill and practices ran like clockwork. As it turned out though, the only problem with the drill was it made no discernable difference to players’ decision making skills once they started playing games. Parkin was perplexed. In practice the players were great, but once they got into games, their skills broke down. Luckily his daily working environment was with experts in the fields of teaching and learning in sport, so he took the problem to them. After some discussion it became clear that the problem was one of cue recognition. Simply put, the decision on whether to kick or handball in a match is dependent not on the ball but on the environment in which the player found himself. It turned out his drill was teaching the players to respond to cues that they did not encounter in a game situation. Parkin quickly scrapped the drill and worked out something else. Judging by his success, the next drill he designed presumably worked well.
I was reminded of this story when I read a blog on The Talent Code blog, that introduced the Footbonaut machine shown in the video below. The highly expensive machine for training footballers seems to me to be a 21st century version of David Parkin’s original ‘Coloured Ball Drill’. Footbonaut feeds balls from eight angles, and has 72 colored panels that light up to make targets. Reacting to a series of beeps and flashes, players receive and pass, over and over. It allows for lots of repetitions, based on lots of ‘decisions’ in a short period of time but none of the cues are game specific. If none of the cues are specific, one has to ask the question, “What are they actually training here?”
My answer would be simply, ‘Not football.’
For the record, I have the same opinion about serving / spiking machines.