To clarify, while this is not a coaching methodology, this theory does aim to help us understand how learning occurs and ways to maximise the learning process. I am not an expert in this field, this is an overview and how (in my mind) it can be used to assist with coaching in football.
Foundation of Cognitive Load Theory: How We Learn
The foundation of cognitive load theory is based on the learning process and how information is processed, stored and retrieved. New information is collected via senses and relevant information is transferred to the “Short-Term Memory”. The “Long-Term Memory” stores information semi-permanently in the form of “schemas”. A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information (read more here). Decision-making takes place in the “Working Memory”. This is where new information is taken from the short-term memory and compared with previous experiences in the long-term memory.
The issue with this system is the brain can only process small amounts of new information. The short-term memory can hold around 7 pieces of information. Due to this limited space, the brain must decide quickly what information from the senses is relevant. Therefore, if the senses are dealing with large amounts of information, relevant information might be filtered out.
Novice vs Expert
During the learning process, you will start as a beginner with the aim of becoming an expert in the subject. As a beginner, the task or skill is new and will still require some thought. Therefore, if too much stimuli is being taken in from the senses, working memory is overloaded. This causes learning to become slow and ineffective. However, an expert will have stronger schemas to handle the increased cognition load. As a skill or situation is repeated and practised, the schemas become stronger and they are able to deal with more stimuli.
Uses in Coaching or Teaching
Cognitive load can be split into intrinsic and extraneous load. Intrinsic load is the load which is inherent from the content being processed. Extraneous load is irrelevant stimuli from the content, which needs to be minimised. To maximise the intrinsic load, without overload, can be managed by instructional goals. This can be achieved by ordering tasks from simple to complex and from low to high game realism.
For example, passing patterns, as they help recognise the situations of the game when they appear. The exercise below is an example, where players are passing in a set routine. The next player moves to be in position as the ball is travelling to the player receiving before them.
While some will say this is unrealistic due to the lack of defenders, removing the defenders reduces the cognitive load. The players can practice these movements and start to recognise triggers without this extra interference. The next exercise might progress to including a couple of defenders. These defenders could be fully active, passive or have restrictions (e.g. no tackles, only interceptions) to slowly increase the complexity and game realism of the exercise.
The video below shows how these movements are triggers for other players in a game. The player’s movements provoke a reaction from the opposition. If a certain reaction occurs, this is recognised and a solution is made. For example, the opposition player pressures the RCM which triggers the LCM to move forward.