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Dynamic Systems Theory: Its Influence on Drill Selection for Coaches and Physical Trainers.

We are honored to have Dominic Adams, the Fitness Coach for Sant Cugat FC (Juvenil A), provide his insight on applying Dynamic Systems Theory in Spanish Football.

Do you remember what motivated you to be a physical trainer or coach? One of the intentions for most coaches is to optimize the ability of their players. With this youthful passion, we immersed ourselves in the theoretical and tactical elements of the game to better ourselves for our players. With this investment of time and money, we naturally cling to and identify with the knowledge we have received. This identity investment has its pros and cons. The positive side is that we have gained tremendous insight on how to coach or develop players. On the contrary we ingest this knowledge so passionately and it becomes part of our identity so much so that a refusal or critique of a beloved methodology is received as a critique on you as an individual. The only constant in football is change. This means at some point in your career, you will be challenged about your methodology. It’s important to separate the individual from the content, and be open to critique and numb to offense. New studies dispelling old methods must be taken into consideration. Old studies that have yet to be proven wrong must remain.

In short, dynamic systems theory is the understanding that in a system, there are many different structures that constantly interact with each other to bring about a response or action based on external stimulus from another system or environment (Smith, L. B., & Thelen, E. 1993). Applying this theory to football, professor Francisco Seirul.lo Vargas proposed interpreting the player as a hypercomplex structure made up of different structures. Some of these are the conditional, coordinative, cognitive, socio-affective, emotional-volitional and the creative-expressive structure. The cognitive structure allows the player to recognize and use information from the environment and the coordinative structure is the ability to perform a desired movement. Conditional structure encompasses what we know as the parameters of traditional physical preparation (speed, strength, endurance etc.). Socio-affective structure allows you to interact with the rest of the players that share an activity. The emotional-volitional structure allows the player to build his self-image and become aware of his capabilities. The creative expressive structure allows the player to project himself in the game.

Based on this expansive model of the footballer, as physical coaches our initial investment has been strictly in the conditional structure. With this knowledge, we must apply it in a holistic way. In football, the above structures are always engaged. We know the cardiovascular system is needed for the game so, we train the cardiovascular system to increase the performance level of the player on match-day. We must regard all structures (not just conditional) as parameters that can improve performance and strengthen them. I think of these interacting structures as the foundation pillars of a house. For stability of the building, they must be equally strengthened and positioned at the ‘right interval’ from the other pillars. Failure to be conscious of this psycho-physical connection can lead to partial development of our players.

"When using a VO2 max. test to measure Aerobic Capacity, what we really do is no more than a small type of very sectoral and very analytical assessment of part of those processes that relate various interaction processes of two or three structures or systems of a determined structure. This knowledge allows us to observe the human being and give a real value to each of the specific aspects since we sometimes consider them to be more important than they really are for the progress of the individual, and the truth is that the athlete's progress will only take place when all the structures progress in balance" (Seirul.lo, 2002).

A football action is an execution of a decision. In isolated training, the decisions are already made. Repeatedly executing technique in isolation only engages the coordinative structure in a non-specific way. Surpassing the cognitive gateway to decision making and finally expression via the coordinative structure does not prepare our players for the game. The key to maximum structural engagement is context. Drills must be created to mimic the reality of the game situation being trained. The past few weeks we have been working on changes of direction. To fully engage all the structures, I added a game situation after the small circuit. The circuit is connected to the game, and the team that finishes first and enters the playing area, begins with the ball. The team that completes 6 passes can attack the goal. With this set-up, I’m engaging the conditional (specific changes of direction), the coordinative, the socio-affective (the race between the teams), the cognitive (3v3, many decisions must be made in a brief time, and player is always exchanging information with the environment), emotional-volitional and the creative-expressive (Tight areas call for creativity). This drill is reduced, so the structures aren’t as engaged as they normally will be in a game. I use a spider chart to subjectively account for how engaged the structures are, and I compare them to the other drills in the week to make sure I am always involving as many structures as possible.

3v3 Training Exercise

  • Short changes of direction.

  • The first team that enters starts with the ball.

  • Complete 6 passes and finish on goal.

  • Passive recovery, change sides and repeat.

(Spider chart comparing drills from a training week. The 3v3 drill is represented with the red.)

Conclusively, there is no one way to prepare a team for the rigors of a season, but we must all be conscious of creating drills in attempts to engage all “pillars.” This concept should be applied by the physical trainers to contextualize the conditioning. Engagement of the structures must be present as early as the warm up, all the way through the session. Again, we must think in spectrums, there are physical parameters that are hard to program in conjunction with the others, but can be eliminated by using creativity when designing drills. With this approach, we think in spectrum's, and not extremes.

Thank you for reading!

Be sure to follow Dominic Adams on Twitter: @CoachAdamsTT


Seirul-lo, F. (2003). Sistemas dinámicos y rendimiento en deportes de equipo. In 1st Meeting of Complex and Sport. INEFC-Barcelona.

Thelen, E. and Smith, L.B. (1994). A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action, MIT Press

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