Predictive theory

Predictive Theory (PT) is a theory by philosopher Andy Clark that states that our brain is a Bayesian brain that foresees the future. Basically, there are two parts to the brain. The first part processes sense data. The second part processes our expectation of what we expect to sense. The brain then checks to see whether our predictions of what we were about to sense fits what we actually sense. If that is the case, everything is okay. If there is a discrepancy between what we sense and what we expect to sense, then the brain tries to reason away the differences in favor of our expectations. The brain thinks that the discrepancies can be explained by us not seeing, hearing or feeling correctly. This is the neurological basis of confirmation bias. If we sense what we don’t expect to sense, our sensory data is ignored in favor of our expectation. Yet, if the discrepancy keeps consistently popping up, and the brain fails to reason it away, the brain finally gives precedence over the sense data and updates our learning about the world in light of the unpredicted sense data. Finally the brain starts to adapt our expectations in light of the unexpected things we hear, feel and see.

Associated with PT is the bottleneck problem. We can measure how much data comes in from our sense organs. It is about 1 Mbit/s per sense organ. We have quite a number of sense organs, two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth and our skin. So before you know it, you have about 10 Mbit/s in data coming from the senses into our brain. On the other hand we can make a good estimation of how much data we would need to stream our real live world if we were to make an exact replica of it in a virtual reality world. That would take thousands and thousands of gigabytes. Or to put it differently: what we think that is reality as it comes to us through our senses, can’t be really input from the outside world. Our sense of reality is just too rich for it to have passed for 100% through our senses. It is much more likely that most of what we experience is actually made up by our brain based on our expectation of what we are going to experience.

What our senses really do according to PT is error detection. Rather than try to capture all the data that is out there, our senses are meant to spot the things that are different from our expectation and parse that to our brain. So rather than having our brains compare a complete reality both in our expectation and our sense data, it is much more economical to only have the complete world as our expectations and our senses alerting us to what is unexpected, or an error according to our expectation. Then the brain still goes on to reason away these differences and in the case that fails, the brain is still going to update its learning so to adapt its expectations, but there is less of a bottleneck problem this way. A lot of the selective attention issues can be explained by PT this way.

What this means for football

PT has a lot of implications for football. First of all for your practice. If your practice is too predictable, your players are not going to hear what you actually have said, but rather what they expect you to say. That means that if you do start to change things, they won’t notice it. Also remember that people like what they know, but they learn from what they don’t know. So make sure you have quite a lot of surprises for your players during practice as that makes the brain rely more on what it actually senses rather than what it expects.

In my opinion, this phenomenon is in large part also responsible for the cases where a manager becomes ineffective for a group of players. He has been too predictable in the past. While he was winning with these predictable patterns, everything was okay. But as soon as the manager started losing matches and he wanted to change things around in the strategy, players literally failed to hear him because they heard what they expected him to say rather than what he actually said. Many coaches are frustrated about how players don’t do the assignments on the pitch during the match that the coach has given them. But the responsibility for this lies with the coach. If your player didn’t learn it, you didn’t teach it.

Most importantly, it shows how important good opposition analysis is. Before the match starts, your players will have an expectation of how their opponent will play. The staff has an important role to play in building up this expectation with analyses, videos and explanations of the play style of the opponent. If players enter the match with the wrong expectations, they literally don’t see what the opposing players are doing. Now and then bad errors happen on the pitch that might make the team lose, where people off the pitch ask themselves: “How in God’s name could he not see that coming?” Well the answer is: his brain did not expect that to happen, his senses let his brain know that there was an error in the expectations, but the brain reasoned the errors away and went about its business.

Of course, players with more game intelligence have this problem less. Their brains are able to expect more and have better expectations in the first place. That is the reason why game intelligence is such an important skill to develop. It helps the player overcome bad suggestions from poor opposition analysis and adapt to the new situation on the pitch.

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