Play with Your Brain – Travis Norsen Book Interview

“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 (from observing and talking with kids and parents in the summer and fall) is that the book has been extremely helpful to a handful of kids, moderately helpful to others, and no use at all to some.  In particular, I’m pretty sure a lot of the kids never really looked at it at all, or never made it past the first couple pages. That’s to be expected, though, since it really wasn’t being advertised as any kind of requirement for team-participation, given the circumstances.  There were also some kids who told me they had read it and loved it and learned from it (and who were maybe a little more receptive to my in-person coaching points because I was just reminding them of something they had previously read and understood) but whose overall level and style of play didn’t seem to have changed much.  But then there were a few kids on whom the book really seemed to have a dramatic and positive influence – kids who just clearly had taken it all in and, practically overnight, started playing better and smarter as a result.  So, I see a lot of promise and potential and am excited to actually test out the original plan at some point soon when things return to normal. 

RHYS: You mention again this concept of being a “smarter” soccer player, and that’s ultimately what the book is all about. But what exactly does it mean to play with your “brain”? Why is this important for players to understand? 

TRAVIS: Well, maybe here I should make sure readers know that the title is based on Johan Cruyff’s famous statement: “football is a game you play with your brain.”  And I’m a little hesitant to even try to interpret the true meaning of a profound and poetic comment made by one of the game’s most influential players and thinkers.  After all, I’m just some random guy who found Cruyff’s words inspiring. But, OK, I can tell you what the statement means to me.  It means, I think, that you need to step back, survey situation and the available options, try to make a rational decision about what to do, and then recognize and learn from how things play out.  That applies at the micro-level, in the moment while playing — e.g., the ball just came to me, now what do I do?  But it also applies at the macro-scale.  For example: what style of play should the team adopt, and why, and what role do I (as an individual) need to play to make that style actually succeed?  

I say some things at the beginning of the book about how I think soccer is unique, compared to other sports, in its cognitive demand on players.  But in another way soccer is just the same as everything else.  If you want to succeed at anything in life, you better be using your brain.  If you want to become, I don’t know, a great chef (or even just learn how to cook tasty and healthy meals for fun), you don’t just go into the kitchen and do whatever randomly feels right in the moment.  Instead, you put some thought into what you like and what you don’t like, you do some planning to make sure the appropriate tools and ingredients are available, you do some research about different cooking techniques, and you critically assess the results and learn from both your mistakes and your successes. Basically, anything you want to do in life, you should want to do well, which requires that you approach it seriously and scientifically.  Soccer is no different.  That’s what playing with your brain means to me.

RHYS: That’s awesome to hear you say so succinctly. I definitely want to ‘play with my brain’ with my website for example and perhaps I’m doing it seriously enough. But not scientifically enough. And maybe that’s what’s going to take me to the next level. So that’s a really interesting insight. In your opinion, what is the number one brain-centered skill or aspect of the game that players don’t do enough of?

TRAVIS: I guess I’d say it’s one of the things I just mentioned:  critically assessing the results of what you’re doing so you can learn from your mistakes.  For example, I think most youth soccer players – and especially the better ones – learn early on that they can score goals by just dribbling toward the goal and knocking it in.  And, when they’re playing 3v3 on a tiny field against opponents who are more interested in chasing butterflies, that isn’t wrong.  But, at some point, as they move up to 7v7 or 9v9 (let alone 11v11) on a bigger field, and start playing against opponents who will actually play some defense, that just doesn’t work anymore.  But it takes too many kids too long to figure this out and really buy into the inescapable truth that soccer is a team sport.  (And unfortunately there are many, who could have been great, who never do.).

Kids are smarter – better able to see and figure out what works and why – than we give them credit for

RHYS: Absolutely. I really got a clear sense from the book of just how much emphasis you put on the game as a team sport in particular. And as the book points out, there may be many moments where players don’t really understand how to involve their teammates for the betterment of everyone. For example, in the book, you give several examples of when the decision to pass the ball backwards to a teammate is the best option. Why do you think young players are so afraid to pass the ball backwards? 

TRAVIS: I mean, at some level it’s just the natural default.  If you want to drive from New York to Los Angeles, you point your car west and step on the accelerator. If you want to get the ball into the goal at the other end of the field, you face that way and dribble (or kick) the ball forward.  Duh. But this is one of those things that, at least once you get beyond kindergarten level soccer, just doesn’t work.  So to me the real question is not why young players have the default tendency to want to always go forward (that, I think, is pretty clear) but rather why so many continue doing this ineffective thing even well after it should have become obvious that it doesn’t work.  Part of the issue there is just that too many players don’t use their brains enough – don’t actually monitor, self-critically, what’s working and what isn’t so they can figure out how to do things that work better more often.  

Older (say, high school) kids should I think be able to recognize this kind of thing for themselves even if nobody has helped them see it. For younger kids, though, it’s less realistic to expect them to have that level of self-awareness.  They need their adults to help them recognize, for example, that the reason the other team just scored is not really because our goalie couldn’t stop the shot, but because our team gave the ball to the other team at midfield. And so at the end of the day I think the main reason that so many kids are so hesitant to pass backwards is that their adults have failed them.  I mean, it’s disturbingly common for parents or even coaches to yell at kids for playing the ball backwards, even in situations where any soccer fan with a pulse knows it’s obviously the right thing to do.  

I generally think kids are smarter – better able to see and figure out what works and why – than we give them credit for.  It takes time, and they need support, but they really can do it.  But no kid who has half-figured-out for herself that passing backwards to a wide open teammate is actually better than booting the ball forward to the other team, is going to keep going down that road of discovery, if, when she does this, she hears her dad yell from the sidelines “What the hell are you doing?  We need to go FORWARD!”  So to me, this kind of thing is a real tragedy.  It’s debilitating not only for kids’ soccer development, but for their cognitive development more generally, when they’re getting this kind of terrible, objectively wrong, advice from adults.  And the fact that it usually comes in the form of loud angry yelling is just salt in the wound. This, by the way, is why the subtitle of Play With Your Brain is “a guide to smarter soccer for players, coaches, and parents”.  The book is primarily targeted at (youth and early teenage) players.  But it would sure be nice if parents and coaches all understood the fundamental truths of the game that I think it’s reasonable to expect 12-year-old players to grasp.  

In soccer as in so many other areas, actions often speak louder than words.

RHYS: I really like that you designed the book to be digestible for parents as well. I’ve often considered the question of – ‘how can we get parents involved in more positive ways?’ and I think involving them in learning more about the game is really important. But another thing you talk about is not just parents yelling, but players yelling at each other as well. This idea of better, smarter communication. So what can all players do to communicate to their teammates better out on the field? Perhaps even the shy players, who may be afraid to communicate?

TRAVIS: That’s a really interesting question that brings a couple of different thoughts to mind.  One is just that a lot of the important communication that happens in soccer is non-verbal.  As you know, there’s a whole chapter in the book called “Yell With Your Legs!” whose message is that instead of (literally) yelling for the ball when you’re maybe not actually open, or maybe not visible to your teammate with the ball, you should get yourself into a good position to receive the pass:  move to where your teammate can easily see that you are wide open for an easy and beneficial pass, and you’ll probably get the ball!  This, I think, is an important message for everybody on the team, but it’s a particularly helpful one for players who aren’t as comfortable verbalizing all the time.  Talk between players is important and can be extremely valuable, but not all communication has to be verbal.  In soccer as in so many other areas, actions often speak louder than words.

The other thing your question made me think of was the fact that some of the kids that I’ve seen improve the most, from reading the book, have been of this somewhat shy, less flamboyant, personality category.  I mean the sort of kids who are described by the slogan “still waters run deep” – kids who are super-smart but quiet and perhaps not the fastest or most aggressive on the field.  For kids like that, the book seems to have been incredibly valuable.  They just needed somebody to explain clearly what they should be trying to do, and why, and they’re immediately able to start contributing positively instead of disappearing into the background.  And needless to say, this can really help the team in addition to being great for these individual kids.  I mean, what coach wouldn’t want to convert a quiet background role-player into a little mini Sergio Busquets?  

RHYS: Exactly! So you mention players that have really taken in the concepts detailed in the book and have improved from reading it. What would you say is the number one takeaway that players, coaches, and parents who haven’t read your book can get out of it and learn?

TRAVIS: Well, I guess I think the title captures that pretty well.  Better soccer means smarter soccer, and smarter soccer requires understanding certain “principles of play” so you can make decisions, in the heat of the moment, that move your team toward success.  So that’s what I would hope readers would take away from the book.  Not any one particular concrete lesson or tip (although it does contain a lot of those) but rather a better big-picture understanding of what quality team soccer looks like.  The hope, in short, is to provide a coherent vision of the target, so it’s easier to aim at. 

RHYS: Awesome, well thank you for that Travis! Where can people find your book and anything else you have going on?

TRAVIS: The book is readily available at all the usual online bookstores, and your local brick-and-mortar shop will I’m sure be delighted to order it for you even if they don’t have it on the shelves already.  You can like PigPugPress on Facebook (or visit PigPugPress.com) to follow news and announcements about the book and other related future projects.  And I love hearing from readers, so if you’ve read the book and have questions or comments or thoughts, by all means drop me a line at travisnorsen@gmail.com.

And thank you, Rhys, for your interest in the book and for instigating this awesome dialogue.  As I told you privately, I’ve been a fan of your site for years. I think like many other readers I found it, several years ago now, when I was hunting for helpful information for youth soccer coaches (9v9 formations and all that!) and I’ve really enjoyed and learned from the site’s unique combination of high-level tactical analysis and focus on youth soccer and education. I know readers of my book will want to become fellow followers of TheMastermindSite, and I hope some of your readers will appreciate hearing about my book!


So there it is! An interview with Travis Norsen all about his book Play with Your Brain and some of his insights into coaching youth players and how they can, even on their own, start to become better, smarter soccer players. You can check out his book on Amazon here – Play With Your Brain. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> Why Fun is an Underrated Aspect of Leadership
-> Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Players
-> Coaching 9v9 Soccer – Ebook

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