Ludwig Wittgenstein made his thoughts rizomatic rather than arboreal.   In other words, instead of starting from the roots and working in a methodical way to bring things under one rule, a rhizome approach is a network with diverse forms, no particular foundation, for ever increasing connections, but following lines in much the same way as an evolutionary tree.   I have taken this analogy and applied it to learning.   As the above diagram portrays, learning comes at us from many directions, in many forms and no particular structure to it.   We just LEARN.


Training harder after being given positive feedback about your performance; using the same training routine because you had been successful in the previous game; getting to training early because you had been fined for being late.

These are examples of how words and circumstances can affect a player’s behaviour.

Examples of other behavioural learning principles could be:

Being anxious about speaking up in team meetings because you may have been ‘put down’ in the past; training with your friend again because it helped you to do well in the last game (associating); training harder when the Coach is watching; feeling apprehensive when approaching a ground where you performed badly in the past (linking).

Behaviour can be described as actions which can be observed and are therefore measureableBehaviourism explains how learning is strengthened by the effects of external events.   An example from above; “the coach is watching me, therefore, I will practice more intensely.”   The coach is the external event who is affecting my behaviour (I am working harder because he is watching me).

Behaviour; actions which can be observed and therefore measurable.

A definition of learning is that permanent or relatively permanent changes in individuals that result from instruction or experience (Krause, Bocher, Douchesne, McMaugh. 2010).   Has the player learned something from the training session which will result in him/her repeating the learned skill consistently in future games?

Conditioning in behavioural learning:

Playing many ‘one and two touch’ passing sessions in training, conditions the players to pass quickly; to increase ball speed; to support the receiver; to improve the first touch; to ensure accuracy of passing.   Players are conditioned into these skills by repeatedly performing them thus allowing learning to take place.

It is possible to condition a player’s behaviour by using external cues.   For example, when she crosses the white line (the cue) onto the playing pitch she can switch on to become more competitive, more aggressive in her behaviour.

Behaviour in players can change at the sight of, and contact with the coach.   How is the coach perceived, with anxiety or pleasure?

How is the Coach perceived, with anxiety or pleasure?

Behaviourism holds the view that psychology should be an objective science and people should study behaviour not mental processes.   In other words behaviourist believe that what the person does is measurable; and therefore is an indicator of what is happening in a persons minds (cognitive psychology/philosophy disputes this).

Behavioural learning is used extensively in football and relatively permanent changes are made due to this.   For example, by continually repeating patterns of play, such as ‘switching the play,’ from a midfielder, will result in the player automatically looking for this move during in open play.

A player can be trained to ‘switch play’ by repeating the move in practice sessions.

Behavioural explanations of learning.

As explain above, behaviourism believes that external factors lead to a response that becomes a learned behaviour.   Permanent or relatively permanent changes in the player result from instruction or experience and these actions are observable and thus measurable.

A player may respond to a certain move which has been coached in training sessions which in turn leads to a learned behaviour.

In a training session the coach may ‘rewind’ the situation, when a coaching point has been made, and observe whether learning has actually taken place. 

Classical Conditioning:

Classical Conditioning employs the Law of Contiguity, which basically pairs a neutral stimulus with one that elicits a predictable emotional or physical response.   After repeated pairings the neutral stimulus will come to elicit the response on its own.   This is demonstrated in the experiment by Pavlov where he paired the sound of a bell to the smell and serving of food to a dog.   The dog automatically salivated when it smelled the food, however, after repeated exposure to the smell of food and the simultaneous sound of the bell, the dog would salivate when the bell sounded even though no food was being served.   This can be likened to when you hear a song from the past and it triggers a memory of where you were, or what you were doing, at that particular instance in your life.

This type of behavioural classical conditioning is used by psychologists and counsellors in order to recover positive resources for their clients.

An example of this is seen in the NLP (neuro linguistic programming) therapy where a player who is going through a ‘bad patch’ can be guided, by a counsellor, to recover moments of past achievements.     These positive and confidence provoking memories, recreated in the players mind, can be physically ‘anchored’ in order for the player to retrieve them when required.

A player can be guided to recover past positive resources.

Operant Conditioning in Coaching situations:

The consequences of behaviours are critical to motivating and reinforcing associated behaviours.   A footballer needs to get feedback from the coach in order to motivate him whether to continue to practice a skill or to discard it.   If the skill is productive he will continue to carry on practicing, if it is non-productive he will discard it.   The coach needs to give detailed information when teaching a specific technique or play, using reinforcement by saying ‘well done’ is usually not enough.

The knowledge of the results of their learning is vital for a player in order to assess their progress.   Many movements which the players initiate voluntarily and instinctively can also be conditioned and reinforced.   For example, if a player moves wide to the touchline (during free play) in order to create attacking width; the coach can then reinforce and condition this type of movement so that it occurs more often.

Knowledge of the results of their learning is vital for a player in order to assess their progress.

Operant conditioning would insist that the coach reinforces the desired action the instant that it happens in order to be effective.   During practice sessions, halting the play the instant a coaching point occurs is a behavioural technique which is often applied by coaches in order to reinforce a desired action.

A coach’s ‘chain of activity’; antecedent – behaviour – consequence (ABC) is a framework the coach can look to for guidance in his session.   For example, the full back moves wide to create space (antecedent), the centre back looks to receive the ball from the keeper and play forward (behaviour), the striker comes off his marker in order to receive the ball high up the field (consequence).   The fullback breaking wide is the precursor for the centre back to act by receiving and playing forward to the striker who has observed the movements of his teammates has consequently received the ball ‘up-field’,

Shaping Behaviour.

When a particular skill is targeted the player should work in increments in order to achieve the target, it is vital that feedback on the player’s progress should be given.

An example: a newcomer to the game often finds heading the ball difficult and intimidating.   The targeted skill could be making a ‘defensive clearing header’ when the team has conceded a corner.   The player works in small steps towards the desired target.   First she serves herself the ball and heads towards a partner standing a few feet away; the next step may be for the partner to serve the ball for the learner to head back.   Another step may be to spring as she head’s the ball; introducing an opponent into the practice could be another incremental step towards their overall target.   Feedback should be given at every stage until finally the player reaches the stage of attacking and heading a ball away during a full game.

A complex skill such as a performing a defensive clearing header requires several skills.   These include an awareness of opponents, the timing of the leap, the execution of the heading technique and a certain amount of courage to attack the ball.   This would be difficult for a novice footballer to achieve by attempting to execute the skill as a whole, however, it is much more achievable by working incrementally towards the desired target.

Working incrementally towards the required target.

Type of Practice.

Distributed practice, means that training sessions are regular, and are thought to be more effective in the learning process as opposed to massed practice where learning is crammed into a single session.   It is proposed that distributed practice leads to better retention of the coaching points which have been practiced.   In other words, by practicing four times for one hour per week is more likely to be beneficial that practicing for two hours twice per week.

‘Disributed practice’ is more effective in learning than ‘massed practice’.

Social Learning Theory

Although behaviourists such as Skinner proposed that for psychology to be scientific, behaviour had to be observable and measurable, social scientists such as Bandura acknowledged that mental factors also contributed to human activity (this will be discussed in the presentation on cognitive learning in football).

Conclusion- Behaviourism.

Behaviourists maintain that learning is based on the belief that external factors rather than internal processes lead to learning.   Behavioural approaches are widely and effectively used by football coaches because they are efficient in teaching new skills and behaviours quickly.

Behavioural methods provide a powerful teaching tool for football coaches, and should be used responsibly.

Behavioural methods provide a powerful teaching tool for Coaches.