Coaching Soccer Intelligence: Key Concepts

Have you ever watched a really good magician and been completely fooled? The other day I was watching a master magician perform on Youtube and I was completely blown away, unable to comprehend how this guy was able to pick-pocket an audience member.  I watched intently trying to figure out how he stole this guy’s watch, money and cell phone right before my eyes and everyone else’s without anyone knowing it. He then went on to explain how he was able to perform these pick-pocket techniques that fooled everyone. The magician spoke about distraction and diversion. The first method was pretty simple; it was simply using something physical as a distraction; in his trick he used a poker chip as a physical distraction. He moved the poker chip around making it the prominent source of attention. He then had everyone imagine that inside his or her own brain is an imaginary person working, he called his imaginary person “Frank”. If he could get the audiences “Franks” to focus on the poker chip, their attention will be distracted and attention cannot be effectively divided into multiple areas. Meaning, if your brains “Frank” is focused on the poker chip, he won’t see everything else that is going on outside of the poker chip, opening up room in this case to steal wallets, phones and more! It made sense to me, especially since he was moving the poker chip around a lot, I know from my research that the brain tends to focus most on what is in motion. The magician then started to talk about another way you can divert “Franks” attention, this one really made an impact on me. He said that by asking people questions it causes Frank to turn around to get the answer. Ask “Frank” a question and for a split second he turns around and all attention is diverted to answering that question, leaving time for the pick-pocket to steal the mans watch and wallet again. What an amazing concept, asking questions to divert attention. He was literally playing with people’s brains, turning them on and off by asking questions and diverting their attention. I decided to watch the video over and over again with the volume turned off and I started to see what was happening in a totally different way. My brain was watching the exact same video but now I was looking at only the essential information and not getting distracted with non-essential information. By turning the volume off I started to see how the magician was stealing the watch, wallet and phone, compared to before I when I didn’t see any of it.  Look at the picture below. Read the sentence and see what your initial impression is?


Did you pick up the fact that there is two “and’s” back-to-back in the sentence? Your brain probably skipped over the first “and” like it wasn’t even there! Why did your brain skip it? It is clearly written with two “and’s” back to back in the sentence, the answer is your brain is trained to skip over it, because it makes sense with only one “and”.  So what does this have to do with coaching soccer or becoming a better player? Top-level soccer players have the ability to focus their attention on only the essential cues while disregarding non-essential cues.   They also may have different visual scanning patterns compared to lower-level players, which makes a lot of sense when we think back to the magician. It is very interesting how two soccer players can be looking at the same picture on the field; yet see completely different things.  Let’s go back to the quote from Pirlo that will help re-enforce the concept, “I have reached one conclusion, though I think I’ve understood that there is a secret. I perceive the game in a different way. It’s a question of viewpoints, of having a wide field of vision being able to see the bigger picture. Your classic midfielder looks downfield and sees the forwards. I’ll focus instead on the space between me and them where I can work the ball through.”  As a coach I ask myself how can we teach the game so our players will only focus on the important information, process that information faster, make the best decisions and raise their overall Soccer IQ?  Before I attempt to answer that question, let’s look at one more example from the sport of tennis.  Ben Rothenberg from the New York Times wrote about a deaf tennis player named Lee Duck-hee, the article caught my attention because it raised many questions about the cues that top athletes use in order to make decisions, and if people without hearing are able to adapt and be competitive at the highest level of tennis, even though they are missing one of the five senses (hearing).   Below are some excerpts from the article that was published in the New York Times from November 2016.

(comments from professional players and coaches)

“There are so many different spins in tennis, and I can hear a lot of them coming off someone’s racket because I know what they sound like,” said Katie Mancebo

“but a deaf player doesn’t know that sound, so they have to focus more on what the other person is doing, how they’re making contact, and what the ball looks like as it’s coming over the net.”

In 2003, Andy Roddick said, “You can hear how hard someone hits a ball, if they hit it hard and flat, it really makes a popping sound.  That’s maybe one of the first things that tells you rather than actually seeing the ball.  Like trying the drop shot, all of a sudden, I hear it not come off the racquet.  It’s part of the reaction process.  I think you need to hear the ball pretty clearly to play at your highest level.”

Todd Perry, a top professional tennis coach said he often listens to his players’ shots to hear how strokes can be improved.  “I learned how effective the remembering of certain sounds can be as a cue for the built-in computer in our brains. While one listens to the sounds of his forehead, he can hold in his memory the sound that results from solid contact; as a result, the body will tend to repeat the elements of behavior which produced that sound.”

Famous tennis player Martina Navratilova said. “You first hear the ball.  Then you react to the speed and spin according to the sound.  And when you can’t hear it, it really throws you off.  I did miss some volleys there because I didn’t hear the ball.”

“We use our ears when we play; it’s not just the eyes,” Murray says.

(Lee Duck-hee Parents commenting on what they were told about their son)

“Ninety percent of the coaching staff and parents said he cannot reach a professional level. When he reaches a pro level the ball will be really fast, so he cannot react, because he cannot hear.”

(comments from a player who had a hearing aid)

“Training for the Deaflympics, I realized I relied on hearing instead of watching or feeling the ball.  It took me 4-5 weeks to get in the habit of watching the ball instead of hearing the ball”

(comments from a coach who has a theory on deaf athletes)

“People born deaf or hard of hearing may have a stronger sense of intuition in general, and tend to see subtle clues in a person’s face or body language better than people who can hear.  Deaf people develop their visual sense better, because when one sense is compromised other senses are heightened to compensate.  It is possible deaf players can have superior visual ability and pick up other cues that people that can hear did not.”

Lee Duck-hee is one of the top rated young tennis players in the entire world, despite the fact he is deaf.   He has developed his visual senses to such a high level, it makes up for the absence of information (sound), due to being deaf.   Lee is more focused and visually more in-tune than players with good hearing ability, subconsciously his brain is trained to pick up more visual cues.  Lee takes in the visual cues, and couples and chunks them together instantly, this gives Lee superior anticipation and pattern recognition ability.   What this means in terms of cognitive soccer development is that the restricting of certain senses and the use of constraints in training over a longer period of time, can bring about meaningful increases in performance.  In fact, when a person is forced to deal with constraints and restrictions, they actually become even more creative.  When a player is allowed to always play free without any constraints or restrictions, they settle into old habits, entering into their comfort zone, becoming less creative.  An example of constraint based and restrictive training would be to have players train without the ability to hear over a minimum of 6 weeks can increase the player’s ability to focus and concentrate, re-fine visual cues & eye scanning patterns, increase non-verbal communication among teammates and encourage more overall scanning and head movement.  Like anything else, be patient with the cognitive training techniques, results won’t come over night but they will come.  The brain is efficient and learns quickly!  In the future I predict cognitive training aids will be just as common at training as cones.  Come to one of my sessions and don’t be surprised to see players with ear plugs, headphones, peripheral vision blocking goggles, strange bouncing soccer balls, bibs that look like they came from the circus and many more pieces of equipment.

In the next two weeks I will be coming out with a three part book series on “Building Soccer Intelligence”, it will be available on  Be sure to check it out when you have a chance, I am confident these books will become a cornerstone of future player development.