Did you know that the best soccer players rely on maths and scientific principles to reach the top of their game? Actually, any expert in any field, be it other sports, chess, or classic warfare, depends on it. For example, Lionel Messi, the five-star Soccer General of FC Barcelona, by many the best soccer player ever, uses geometry, aerodynamics and probability to best his opponents.

How powerful field vision works

Lionel Messi: the General that soccer battlefield may have never seen before. Does he have eyes in the back of his head?

What we are interested in here is to find out underlying mechanisms of expert performance. How does the expert’s brain makes, mostly unconscious, intuitive decisions? We want to find out how experts do it in order to use this knowledge in teaching the skill to the beginner. We need to include this key skill early in the learning process, because if the game is not taught well at the beginning level, “it just doesn’t matter,” as Bill Murray would say. It’s not how to kick the ball, but where to kick it. Or you get learners trying to figure out how to play better after months, or years or so of bad habits. Alas it is then usually too late to break the old habits and change behavior. They are convicted to stay mediocre, or even worse, to give up the game altogether.

The vision is fundamental to all our actions in the world – everything follows from it. We monitor the environment all the time so as to be able to react to it in ways conducive for survival and success in all struggles of life.

Power of the glance

The fact is, experts see more. They have a bigger picture of the game than anyone around him and get more information from the field than less-skilled players. What kind of information are we talking about here? It is the positions of their opponents and team-mates at any one time. It is a current line-up of of all players on the field, a structured network of their interconnections.

Messi has a better game overview because he uses his powerful coup d’oeil (or power of a glance) to get the sense of more connections between players on the field than less-skilled players.  This supports the chunk theory, based on the discovery that the best chess players sense any board position, not in terms of a unconnected set of individual pieces, but as five or six groups of pieces with their functional relations.

The genius of Lionel Messi uses this understanding of players’ geometry intuitively to map this information out and get understanding and meaning of what is going on on the field. This is not a static view. It is very important to anticipate how this dynamic system may evolve in space and time.

How to play better chess, or any other sport

Geometry of the battlefield helps the sixth sense. “Chess pieces,” chess art by Peter Funk

Power of sixth sense

We see how Messi, like a trained hunter, possess an increased visual awareness. Not only that, his rich experience and larger knowledge base help him discover the relevant information in the current situation, which then directs his attention to the most pressing issue. Once all this visual information has been processed from a single gaze, the brain combines current visual input with pre-existing knowledge, concepts and patterns, already stored in it, to grasp the meaning of the situation and respond to it.

That is what we usually call the  sixth sense – the ‘expert intuition’, an instinctive method of solving a particular problem. For example, firefighters search for cues that lead to the heat source. In chess, everything comes from spatial relationships between pieces and their four basic roles, or functions. You need to identify critical, while ignoring irrelevant piece contacts. The cues then lead to the recognition of patterns.

Decision making: what move to make

Messi uses his exceptional anticipation abilities and probability to select from few possible choices of stored patterns and mental images which helps him solve the complex problem in the best possible way: he decides where to go and what to do with the ball in a single moment, whether to make the right run (to escape from a marking, for instance), or play the right pass over to a team mate.

How to learn chess effortlessly

Strong chess vision is a guarantee of your success! “Chess board in the misty gorge,” chess art by Peter Funk

How to improve board visualization skills in chess

Now replace the word Messi in the previous text and put, say, Capablanca, or Fischer. You will see that the same applies and explains the exceptional expert visualization skills in soccer and chess, or any other domain, for that matter.

There is no question that we need to use this knowledge to teach chess more effectively. Obviously, every one needs to spend those proverbial 10,000 hours to become good at something. But we need to have them build a knowledge base with such methods that will at the same  time help discover the relevant information in the current situation. They need to develop ways of more efficient information pick-up from the board. In training less skilled players, it would be extremely helpful to orient their attention to the relevant features of play.

They need to be taught where to look at and what to look for first.

A more efficient way of teaching chess must start with piece contacts, not aimless woodpushing moves.


Related articles:

1. Messi’s sixth sense explained (UEFA.com)

2. Scientists try to explain Messy Genius (www.espnstar.com)

3. A game of two halves, played with maths and science skills: Top footballers have high intelligence, study suggests (www.dailymail.co.uk)

4. Why Ask Why? Just Enjoy Messi (www.nytimes.com)

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