Plan, practice and perfect the predictable

As England’s success in the World Cup is celebrated, it is interesting to reflect on how well the team have performed in set piece situations. England scored nine goals from corners, penalties and free kicks, a record since this type of information was first recorded 52 years ago (1). It is clear they invested significant amounts of time and effort into practicing and perfecting their routines for these situations.


What can we learn from England’s set piece performance? How is it relevant to team performance under pressure in other situations such as a major trauma resuscitation, firefighting or even military conflict? Similar to high stakes football matches, these challenging situations are prolonged, dynamic and unpredictable. They are all however made up of predictable, set piece components: applying a splint, starting a blood transfusion or reacting to a contact with the enemy. If we plan, practice and perfect the predictable then we can preserve the cognitive capacity we require to successfully manage the unpredictable challenges. We also achieve optimal shared situational awareness and improve coordination of teamwork.


Drilling for perfection

Our cognitive capacity to deal with complex and pressured situations is, unfortunately, finite. This considerably inhibits our ability to perform under high pressure. We can process information required for decision making and task completion in two ways: automatic processing and analytical processing. Although analytical processing is accurate and less error prone, it is demanding in terms of cognitive load. It is also too prolonged to be used effectively in many time critical situations. Automatic processing is rapid and minimally demanding of our limited cognitive abilities.

To perform most efficiently, we require automatic processing for our predictable, set piece, challenges and the capacity for analytical judgement for the unpredictable pressures of the situation.

Developing our ability to complete as many predictable tasks and decisions as possible using automatic processing is vital to our ability to perform optimally under pressure. Using minimal cognitive bandwidth for these actions frees up our remaining capacity for more complex, nuanced decision making and tasks.

Repeated practice, or drilling, is key to mastering the core skills for performance in any team. The benefits of drilling to develop intuitive, automatic practical skills, especially in demanding situations, are described in Cognitive Psychology (2):

“A key finding…is the dramatic improvement practice has on performance. This improvement has been explained by assuming that some processing activities become automatic through prolonged practice.”

The authors describe how well practiced, drilled activities require less cognitive capacity and less attention. They are harder to perform incorrectly once learned. Multiple automatic processes can be rapidly conducted in serial. Knowledge which has been stored through repetitive practice is also easily accessed with little or no conscious thought.

In order to do this, we need to carefully review the activities of our team. We have to identify actions and challenging situations which occur repeatedly: our corners, penalties and free kicks. We then need to clearly define standard ways of carrying out these tasks. They can then be repeatedly drilled until they are perfected and performed automatically, with minimal thought.  

Skills which have become automatic are like jigsaw pieces. Each member of the team develops their own collection of jigsaw pieces. When they are involved in a high pressure situation, they can fit the pieces together according to the unique circumstances they are faced with. As a result of repeated drilling they can undertake a number of practical procedures and judgements quickly, and with minimal cognitive load.


Purposeful practice for perfection

In his book Bounce (3), Matthew Syed describes the quantity and the quality of practice which are required to attain a state of expertise in a discipline, be it sport, surgery or playing a musical instrument.

Syed’s key message is that the practice needs to continually challenge the individual. Most middle-aged people have spent thousands of hours driving cars. They're competent, but they haven't become experts. This is because each time they get behind the wheel they are repeating the basic functions, again and again. They are not striving to improve their use of the controls or their knowledge of the rules of the road. If we want to become experts who can perform under pressure, we need to put the time in to practice but we also need to ensure we are constantly pushing ourselves during that time. This concept of deliberate, purposeful practice requires structure, guidance and motivation.

No one has researched the subject of deliberate, purposeful practice more than the Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (4). Professor Ericsson is interested in how individuals become experts in a wide range of disciplines. His research shows that it is most effective to divide a discipline up into small chunks of knowledge or skills. These can be concentrated on and mastered with sessions of deliberate and purposeful practice. Repeating the skill again and again with real time feedback from an expert coach is the route of achieving mastery. Weaknesses in performance need to be identified and actively worked upon until they are eliminated.


Mental rehearsal

Individual performance during set pieces is further enhanced by mental rehearsal and task visualisation. Team members can be given the techniques to mentally rehearse the stages and motor actions of each core, predictable task. Undoubtedly, England’s players used mental rehearsal and visualisation techniques for their set piece performances.

The imagery should be of them performing the task with excellence and confidence, in a state of high performance flow. The theory is that visualization makes us more efficient in completing the task when it actually arises. Through repeated rehearsal, the task becomes increasingly automatic, requiring less cognition.

Users of the technique also describe how mental rehearsal makes them experience pleasant and positive emotions when confronted with the task. This optimises our cognitive appraisal of high pressure situations, helping us to perceive them as a challenge rather than a threat.


Team work and set pieces

Undre et al (5) developed a tool to assess the quality of teamwork in surgical teams, “the observational teamwork assessment for surgery”. The tool can be applied to any high performance team. Five components of teamwork are identified: communication, situational awareness, cooperative behaviour, leadership and coordination.

When a member of a team is carrying out a set piece action, the fact that it has been defined and drilled in advance means that all of the team understand what they are doing and how they are going to do it. This shared mental model enhances all of the five components of team activity and joint working.

Each member of the team instinctively understands what their team mates are doing, what is expected of them and they can accurately predict what is going to happen next.


Simulation follows drilling

Having attained proficiency in the team’s core procedural drills, individuals being trained for high performance roles can then progress to simulation training. Drilling develops automatic cognition for discrete, set pieces. Simulation however develops more complex, cognitive abilities. The abilities to analyse problems, innovate and make decisions based on unique and unpredictable circumstances. Simulation also differs from drilling in that it concentrates on the development of communication skills, human behaviours and working as a team.


Perfecting the predictable allows us to deal with the unpredictable.

The time and emphasis placed on set piece routines is an exemplar of strategic leadership by England manager Gareth Southgate. 75% of his team’s goals came from these situations. Planning, practicing and perfecting the England team’s performance in corners, free kicks and penalties has paid dividends for their performance in the 2018 World Cup.

Optimal performance results from defining and repeatedly drilling the execution of core tasks to a level of perfection. The development of these skills should be based on deliberate, purposeful practice with debriefing and coaching.

The more tasks and decisions we can render automatic and intuitive through drilling and deliberate practice, the more we can achieve while still only consuming minimal cognitive capacity. Repeated practice through drilling and simulation are key components of reducing pressure and improving individual and team performance.

Stephen Hearns







2.    Eysenck M.W., Keane M.T. Cognitive psychology. A student’s handbook. 6th edn. 2010. Psychology Press. East Sussex.


3.    Syed M. Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice. 2011. Fouryh estate.


4.    Ericsson, Anders; Pool, Robert (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


5.    Undre S. et al. Observational teamwork assessment for surgery (OTAS) World J Surg (2007): 1371-1381


Stephen Hearns