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Thinking Fast and Playing Faster

I recently started reading "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, a book that dives into the heuristics of decision-making and the brain's information processing systems. Kahneman proposes that there are two systems through which the brain receives information: System 1, which operates automatically and quickly with little effort or voluntary control, and System 2, which allocates attention and thought to activities that require concentration and choice. System 2 represents rational thinking, while System 1 is reactive. However, System 1 cannot be turned off unless one's attention is diverted elsewhere. To illustrate this concept, I find it helpful to think about driving. When a car is driving towards you at full speed, your System 1 reaction is to instinctively move out of the way without consciously thinking about it. On the other hand, if you are trying to make a traffic light and your attention is focused elsewhere, you may not notice the approaching car because your attention is diverted.


The reason I am discussing this topic on a football website is because it offers insights into how certain players perceive the game. I am interested in understanding a player's capacity for using System 1 functions while concentrating on System 2. For example, how well can a quarterback read a defense (System 2) while simultaneously being aware of an oncoming defensive end, maintaining proper footwork during their drop, and throwing with correct mechanics (which should all be System 1 processes for NFL quarterbacks)? Can they effectively diagnose a coverage while remaining reactive under pressure? Do they hesitate in utilizing their System 1 skills, or do their System 2 skills sharpen? These are the questions I am trying to answer.


Additionally, I am curious about the reverse scenario: can a player's System 1 abilities be sharp enough to facilitate the learning of System 2 abilities? In the NFL, players must possess natural abilities (System 1) before they can develop learned skills (System 2). Sticking with the quarterback analogy, is he even capable of making a defender miss behind the line of scrimmage? Do they possess the arm strength and mechanics required for difficult throws? Do they have the necessary footwork and base to make plays downfield? While mechanics and footwork can be learned through repetition and practice, they should eventually become second nature to a quarterback. In the act of throwing, an NFL quarterback should not need to consciously think about their mechanics; it should become muscle memory.


If I were approaching this from a scout's perspective, the first thing I would assess is whether a player possesses the System 1 abilities necessary to be an NFL player. Following that, I would evaluate their capacity to learn and internalize System 2 tasks while maintaining focus on their System 1 responsibilities.


For coaches, the goal should be to transform System 2 tasks into System 1 abilities. For instance, a quarterback's footwork initially requires conscious effort (System 2) as they are being coached to make adjustments. Over time, the proper footwork should become second nature. But, as a scout, I would look for how quickly a player's actions become automatic, while a coach's aim should be to expedite this process. Footwork and mechanics should become instinctive, and although rookies may struggle initially, muscle memory develops with practice and repetition.


Take Tom Brady as an example. Reading coverages has become a System 1 process for him due to how many times he has seen every different type of play. Herbert Simon describes being intuitive as a quick recognition process, "the situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition." This is why the ability to internalize cues is crucial for all NFL players. The faster a player can pick up on cues, the quicker they can make decisions, and the slower the game appears to them. Therefore, coaches should aim to provide cues and create experiences that replicate these cues. As a scout, I would assess a player's aptitude for recognizing and applying these cues to the task at hand.


When it comes to the player acquisition process, I would propose creating simulations of scenarios to observe a player's decision-making under pressure. The specifics of how these scenarios are simulated are not clear to me, but that is how I would test a player's mental processes before the draft.


Opposing coaches should look to provide false cues that make a player’s system one processes turn into system two actions. When describing Kyle Shanahan’s strategy as a play-caller, George Kittle spoke about how he creates false cues for the defense, “we’re running a run play {called “power”} multiple times and it is averaging 2 yards per carry, 2 yards per carry, 2 yards per carry, and we threw a play-action behind it and Deebo goes for 75 yards. The whole thing is set up because it is the exact same motion, alignment, it looks the exact same, and all of a sudden Deebo is running a shallow… The linebacker thinks it is power, so he steps up four yards and Deebo is uncovered in the flat running 75 yards for a touchdown.”


In this example of Kyle Shanahan “unlocking the defense”, he gives reps of “power” to the opposing defense so that the linebackers can pickup cues for when “power” is coming. He then takes advantage of these cues and creates an explosive play for his team. Following the explosive play-action pass, the linebacker is now unable to cue in on “power”. This makes the linebacker’s play-speed that much slower creating an opportunity for future success for Shanahan’s “power” run.


When you get into the intricacies of football, the mental aspect of the game is just as important as the physical. While a player’s physical skillset may be what opens the door, their mental ability is what allows them to walk through the door. Being advanced mentally will allow a player to perform at a faster speed because he is able to pickup mental cues for what is coming. This is why aging safeties are able to position themselves to make plays despite being physically slower than they once were. It is how veteran running backs are able to pick up blitzing defenders from the second level easier than younger player who may be bigger and stronger than them. And this is how Tom Brady was able to play for over 20 seasons and at an MVP level well into his 40’s.


The stereotype of NFL players being all muscle isn’t as accurate as the outsiders might think. An NFL player’s physical skillset can be tarnished in the snap of a finger; injuries happen at a higher rate than any other sport. The NFL stands for “Not For Long”, but turning system 2 actions into system 1 reactions is how NFL players can prolong their careers.

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