Simple Ways to Coach Soccer Intelligence

Game intelligence in team sports is hard to quantify, as top level players are noticed for their exceptional ability to read the game, anticipate the next play, and find solutions on the field. It is very difficult to isolate a single action, and then attribute it to game intelligence, but when we look at a player’s overall ability, it can generally be categorized it into two parts. First, the ability to strategize and make intelligent situational decisions on the field, and second, the carrying out of those decisions with technical skill and speed. The foundation of game intelligence is found in part one; the decision-making and strategy component, but technical and physical skill, also play a part in decision-making.

When I talk about game intelligence with soccer coaches, the majority of them do not want to hear about scientific studies, data and abstract theories. Coaches want logical and realistic training methods that work, which can be incorporated into their regular practices. This is why connecting the dots of game intelligence, with logical training methods is so important. For a number of reasons, I believe the most effective and direct way to develop game intelligence, is through game based trainings. These are the types of trainings where players are constantly playing, stoppages are limited, and coaches tend to speak to individual players, without stopping the game.

A couple years ago, I was speaking about player development with a coach from the Barcelona Academy. The conversation kept coming back to one topic, decision-making. If you look at any training session, the most important question to ask is, how many meaningful decisions did players have to make in the training? Increasing game intelligence means something different to everyone, but for me it means improving player decision-making. However, each player possesses their own unique set of abilities, which will influence their decisions. Players with limited technical skills, will have less options and decisions available to them, compared to a player with a wide range of technical skills. Physical attributes will also influence the decision-making process, along with the ability to carry out technique under pressure, at fast speeds.

The purpose of my book on simple ways to coach soccer intelligence, is perhaps not best reflected by the title. The true purpose, is to offer coaches ideas, about how to set-up soccer environments, that force players to find soccer solutions in order to be successful. The environment becomes the teacher, as the coach learns how to tweak the environment, to keep player development progressing. When players are exposed on a regular basis to specific environments, they begin to adapt, and part of that adaption, is the development of special skill sets, along of with the building of soccer intelligence.

But before I get into specific training environments, I want to make the point that creating the right environment, can be much more important than any type of coaching.  In my opinion, coaching can be overvalued, especially at the younger ages. Instead, the expert creation of training environments, is more important in the initial stages of development, then coaching. Let me give you an example to prove the point, German National Team player Mesut Ozil, developed his unique skill set, by playing each day after school, with older players in what he called “The Cage”. The cage is concrete like surface with fencing around it, so the ball could not go out of bounds. Ozil commented on the fact, if he didn’t play quickly and smart, he would have been destroyed by the bigger, faster and older players, in the cage environment. Ozil went on to say, that the skill set he learned by playing four hours a day, every day after school in the cage, was directly transferable to the 11 v 11 game, and made him into the player he is today. There are many other similar stories from the world’s top professionals, Neymar credits futsal for his skill development, Ronaldinho learned unique touches on the ball from beach soccer, Zlatan Ibrahimović spent his youth playing small-sided street soccer, Thierry Henry played in parking lots, and Petr Cech trained using unique practiced methods, to learn new ways to catch the ball. The late great Johan Cruyff said, “I trained about 3–4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little. But I played 3–4 hours every day on the street. So where do you think I learned to play football?” These examples offer strong proof, that the environment is the driving force behind player development, not coaching.

Think about all the effort that goes into building club curriculums, creating club coaching vocabularies, or looking for the perfect training sessions. How many of the things we do as coaches, are more about the coaches, then the players? What I am going to say next, is something that you need to ask yourself after every training session. The only thing that matters in a training session is, what was experience like for the players, was it extremely valuable, did it make them a better player? When a player is playing in an actual soccer match, do they really think of the principles of play, that the coach lectured them on? If the player switches clubs, and the new club has sixteen principles of play in attack, does it even matter to the player? My answer is, absolutely not, the player will simply use the skills from the environments they developed in.

I am not saying there isn’t room for coaching, I believe expert coaching is invaluable in player development. Books like “Bounce” and “Deliberate Practice”, show the tremendous value of having an expert coach. However, in a coaching era where kids are drilled forever, running from this cone to that cone, we may have lost sight of the importance of creating realistic soccer game environments, where the game itself becomes the teacher. The coach doesn’t have to be the focal point, a training session doesn’t need to go from small numbers to large numbers, the warm-up doesn’t need to be an introduction to the larger exercise, standard soccer drills do not need to part of the training, finishing on goal does not need to be mandatory every session, and the principles of play do not have to be memorized. Remember to ask yourself the following, “What did the players experience in training and was it a developmentally beneficial”, that is all that matters. If the coach walks away from training, happy because the team covered crossing drills, dribbling drills and some passing patterns, that’s great for the coach, but was it really beneficial for the players? I am not saying that you have to throw away your passing patterns, or your dribbling and finishing exercises, there is without a doubt value in all of them. But I would encourage you to think about adding trainings that focus only on, playing environments, where the coach takes the backseat, and lets the environment become the teacher. However, in the end, player development needs to be player motivated and player driven, in order to get the most out of training. Feel free to email with any questions or comments about the book at coachdibernardo@gmail.com Also,  check out my new online soccer coaching school at www.dibernardosoccerschool.com – We offer the best, completely online soccer diploma courses, with the highest quality information for an affordable price.

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