“Football is a game you play with your brain” – Johann Cruyff
That quote, from one of football’s greatest ever players, is the opening statement by which Play with Your Brain: A Guide to Smarter Soccer for Players, Coaches and Parents, predicates itself upon. The book serves as a wonderful guide for anyone involved in the beautiful game to learn how players can become better, smarter soccer players. Author of the book Travis Norsen gives TheMastermindSite.com an exclusive interview about his thoughts on the book and what players, coaches and parents can learn from reading his guide. Be sure to check out the book on Amazon.
RHYS: Hi Travis, thanks so much for doing an interview on your book. To start, I’m just curious to know what inspired you to write Play With Your Brain?
TRAVIS: Well, the immediate impetus was just to try to lay out clearly a handful of basic, big-picture things that I wanted the 12-year-olds on the team I was coaching to understand. Of course, these are things that I was already trying to teach and explain at practices. But as every coach knows, it can be difficult to effectively convey these big ideas clearly and systematically in the heat of the moment at a training session. I mean, imagine how terrible a practice would be if the coach interrupted the play every ten seconds to deliver a 5-minute lecture on why Johnny should have passed just now instead of dribbling, why Sally should have been facing a slightly different direction to receive that ball, etc.
In the lead-up to writing the book, I just felt increasingly trapped between, on the one hand, wanting my kids to understand the game more deeply, and, on the other hand, knowing that they would never really be able to get that big-picture vision that I wanted them to achieve, just from practices and games. The book was an attempt to solve that problem by providing an alternative way for the kids to learn the big ideas, away from the practice field – as homework!
RHYS: It’s funny enough you say that, because that’s exactly why I wrote Coaching 9V9 Soccer. It started out as a guide for my players to understand the game and their role within our team. By the end of the season, they were firing on all cylinders and each of them understood their role more than what ever could have been achieved at practice. So for you, what sparked this idea of – practice isn’t enough. I need to add something more for my players to do outside of practice?
TRAVIS: A relevant part of the story here is that my day job is teaching college physics. I’ve found over the years that spending class-time lecturing – which amounts to just explaining the things that are presented in the textbook – is really ineffective and inefficient. The pacing of the lecture is never going to be right for all students simultaneously. Different students will need to process the new information at different rates, so any given lecture will be too slow for many and too fast for many more. Plus, let’s face it, lectures are just boring. And if all that basic information is already in the textbook, which we ask students to buy and read anyway, why would we waste their time reading it all back to them again during class?
So, in my day job, I’ve moved to a style of teaching in which I really expect (and ensure, by giving them some kind of pre-class check-in assignment) that students read the book before class. Of course, most students only half-understand half of what they read, which is fine and an expected part of the model. Half-getting something means you’re aware of the concepts, but confused about some aspects and maybe not yet confident about applying them correctly in practice. But that is great progress! Getting to that point before class means we can spend our time together during class targeting the confusing points, practicing the application of the concepts to new problems, making higher-level connections to earlier ideas, etc. By shifting that first exposure to the big ideas to pre-class reading (which is better anyway because then everybody can do it in their own time and at their own pace), it allows us to get farther, and have more fun doing it, during our interactive time together.
So, you can see how my motivation for writing Play With Your Brain was basically that it started to feel like my team’s training sessions were a lot like my physics classes, but without that pre-class exposure to the big ideas that we would then work to solidify and implement “in class”. It felt like we weren’t getting as far, and weren’t having as much fun, as we could. So I took a stab at writing what amounts to a textbook for our “soccer class”.
RHYS: I think that’s really great because it inspires students who do the work and read before class, to then come into class full of questions and full of hopefully inspiration about what they’ve just read in wanting to learn more. So do you think that’s worked at the youth soccer level?
TRAVIS: Well, that remains unclear. I wrote the book in the winter of 2019-2020, right before covid appeared on the scene. I sent copies to all the kids in my cohort when it was published in the early spring (which incidentally was a very fun and cool thing to be able to do during that weird and scary time). But then our spring season was completely cancelled as, basically, was the fall. I did run some informal outdoor pickup games for kids during the summer and we were allowed to run training sessions (but no games) in the fall, but for a variety of covid-related reasons, it wasn’t really the same as a real season with the full team. Anyway, my big plan of using the book as a kind of textbook for the season, still hasn’t really been tried.
Anecdotally, though, my sense . . .