The Magic of Mental Models

Young Soccer Players - photo by Cliff

This past summer I reluctantly joined the church soccer team. I say reluctantly because I hadn’t kicked a soccer ball since I was a eight year old, and even then I didn’t know what I was doing. There was a real chance of looking like a ‘power tool’ in front of my friends and team mates.

On the day of the first team practice, I got nervous. I wondered how I could get ‘up to speed’ quickly on a sport I knew practically nothing about.

I did an internet search for some tips on playing the defender position. By gathering the advice of professional soccer players and coaches, I arrived at (what seemed to me) four fundamental rules of playing the sweeper position. They are:

  • Watch the ball, not the player
  • Stay goalside, which in soccer terminology means the defender should be closer to the goal than the player being covered
  • Think one move ahead
  • Get directly in front of the opposing player and never give him or her a direct shot on net

I resolved to focus on these four tips (and not try and get fancy with the ball).

Bobby MooreThe result was nothing short of amazing. Not only did I hold my own amongst a group of experienced players, an english friend who played on the opposing squad likened me to Bobby Moore, the team Captain and legendary sweeper of the 1966 World Cup champs!

The experience highlighted how important it is to focus on the fundamentals. The lion’s share of a player’s game play is performing the basics, with a much smaller share relying on technical skill and athletic ability.

It also unscores the value of using mental models. Wikipedia defines a mental model as…

…an explanation of someone’s  thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems and doing tasks.

You might want to think of it this way: mental models reduce the mental complexity of a system to its fundamentals, and can reduce physical effort while improving overall performance.

The mental model I gleaned from profession soccer players and coaches had the same benefits.

There are of course mental models that apply especially to engineers, like the Margin of Safety and Redundancy. They are used for ensuring the integrity and performance of jet engines and public bridges. You wouldn’t trust a bridge or an airplane without the rigorous application of both.

Says John T. Reed, author of Succeeding:

When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.

It seems like obvious advice, and yet how often do we feel outclassed or overwhelmed at a task? Next time, take a few minutes to find the right mental model so you can focus on the fundamentals.

Who knows, you might end up looking like a star.


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