Understanding Soccer Awareness
Wayne Harrison, Co-Founder Soccer Awareness Elite Academy, shares his thoughts on the Power of Positive Reinforcement. A former pro soccer player at Blackpool F.C. in the English Championship league as well as the Academy Director, Harrison was also the Youth Director Al Ain Football Club in the UAE. An author of more than 12 books on soccer coaching, he now coaches youth soccer, writes and presents at coaching symposiums worldwide. Harrison holds a UEFA ‘A’ License and the NSCAA Premier Diploma, as well as a bachelor’s degree in applied physiology and sports psychology. He is the Director of Coaching for Total Futbol Academy.
Everyone is always looking for the holy grail of soccer. The newest buzz word is soccer intelligence. U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann and many other renowned coaches, including Wayne Harrison, agree – developing players who are intelligent is a prerequisite for success on the field.
The game is getting faster, using fewer touches on the ball, which creates the need for quicker thinking players. This is a fast-growing trend in modern soccer that cannot be ignored. The question should be, “How do we affect this in our training?”
Technique is the actual movement; skill is the “when and where decision making” of the movement. It is no good having great technique but little skill, or the technique won’t work. Players need to develop both. Motivating players to think for themselves is critical, but will only work with the intrinsic desire of the player to aspire to reach this higher level. This means practice, practice and more practice.
Soccer is a thinking person’s game.
I asked Wayne Harrison how he defines Soccer Intelligence. He may call it Soccer Awareness, but regardless of the words used to describe this, it is a fundamental element of player development and an intrinsic aspect of a player’s success.
According to Harrison, soccer awareness is simply the “thinking” part of the game. Gone is the joy-stick approach to coaching where the loud coach shouts commands from the sidelines as he paces back and forth.
According to Wayne Harrison, the game of soccer starts in the head of the youth player and coaches must guide the players to think more quickly and with better accuracy in decision making.
That’s a big sentence, and even a bigger thought. Coaching players to think on their own is a huge responsibility. Achieving this success is what makes a genuinely devoted and wise coach sincere.
Harrison says, “Soccer intelligence is based around players being able to identify their options BEFORE they receive the ball; and pick out the best option (of hopefully several options available) to advance it; and maintain possession of the ball in the next phase of play.
Sounds simple? Not really. Let Wayne Harrison explain:
Diane Scavuzzo: How do you develop soccer awareness?
Wayne Harrison: You will never know how much a player understands until you ask them.
A vital part of developing soccer intelligence in a player is the “Coaching Methodology” a coach uses.
How often does your coach ask the players questions in training?
How often does the coach ask the players to “decide for themselves” where would be a better position to stand?
Does the coach ask what would be a better pass to make, or where would it be best to dribble, or even where it would be best to play one touch?
Does the coach follow up the question with having the player SHOW them what might have been better through their own movement and decision making? This is a “must-do” in training.
For example, the player is too tight in their positioning and the coach wants them to spread out wider. Instead of telling him or her to go wide, the coach can ask them, “What could you have done differently? What would be a better position? Can you SHOW ME?.”
Then the player has to decide for himself or herself what to do and where to go and make the movement.
And if they get it right, the coach can ask them now why they think it is better? So the player(s) have to THINK about the action on the field and discuss the reason(s) why what works and is the right move.
Suddenly you have a learning process going on.
Compare to this where the coach is just telling them where to go, so they learned nothing for themselves and never even had to think or understand the reason for the change in position. Unfortunately, few players learn without understanding. Without getting players to think, they likely learn nothing.
How many times do you see a coach tell the player to do this, do that, go here, go there? The player does it but doesn’t necessarily understand it; they did it because the coach told them to.
So with this old and prevalent style of coaching, how does the player learn soccer intelligence for themselves when they are being told what to do all the time and not allowed to think for themselves?
(This is not a trick question. EXACTLY, the players DON’T learn to think for themselves!)
I believe that from the earliest age possible, the coach should engage the players in conversation about the game and get their opinions on what happens on the field.
The coach shouldn’t ram their opinion down the players’ throats. After a minute, are the players listening anyway?
To generate Soccer Awareness, we as coaches must provide opportunities to players to use their brains.
A perfect time to get players to increase their soccer awareness is during a soccer match’s Half Time team talk. Try getting the players to share their thoughts and even have the players run it. Yes, even at U8.
Ask the players questions. Coaches should not tell them everything that happened unless the players clearly do not understand for themselves and need the help.
In time you will see the players are thinking for themselves; identifying situations that happened in the first half that they did well, opportunities that they can improve on.
Of course the coach must offer advice also, but mix it up so everyone has a chance to add constructive information.
From this exercise, coaches will find the players beginning to talk more on the field of play and resolving another serious problem in U.S. youth soccer – the problem of players who play and hardly say anything to their fellow teammates. All players should be communicating on the field. When players communicate, the coach can offer less direction. Therefore, allowing the coach to offer more meaningful and intelligent direction when it is really need it and can be truly appreciated.
So I believe we should start this process as early as possible.
In some situations, the coach absolutely needs to help the players. I just think it isn’t needed as much as I see it. The players need to know the coach trusts their judgments, which will further empower them to be good players.
The younger the players are, the more help they may need, yet the more coachable they can be too. At the same time, the younger we teach them to not rely on us all the time, the sooner everyone will see positive results.
On the other hand, a lot of encouragement and positive words from the coach during the game is a wonderful thing for players to hear. After all, at the end of the day they only want to please anyway.
I recently watched an older team practice and hardly heard a player speak on the field. They could have run the game themselves, with the coach’s help, of course, rather than the coach directing their actions. This has obviously developed because the players have not been taught or guided correctly to think for themselves.
Players need from an early age and onwards to be encouraged to develop their “own” soccer intelligence.
We can fix this at U8 and every year beyond if the coaching methodology of “question and answer” and “guided discovery” is used as opposed to the old fashioned “COMMAND” style. The dictator style of coaching is out of date, though can still be used when needed – but sparingly rather than as the norm.
Diane Scavuzzo: Why is soccer intelligence so important?
Wayne Harrison: Without soccer intelligence a player cannot assess situations quickly enough through thinking and movement and therefore cannot maintain possession of the ball, especially in pressure situations that occur every second on the field of play.
Diane Scavuzzo: How does soccer intelligence give players and teams a winning advantage?
Wayne Harrison: Players assessing the game more quickly cerebrally than their opponents can play faster and think faster than opponents and make better decisions through identifying the best options as early as possible, and hence be one step ahead of them.
Diane Scavuzzo: When developing elite youth soccer players, how important is soccer intelligence? Where does it fit in with tactical and technical development?
Wayne Harrison: I would say it is the key to being a great soccer player. It is the SKILL FACTOR in player development.
Soccer Awareness is the “when, where, how and why” of technical development and decision making.
Diane Scavuzzo: At what age should soccer intelligence training start?
Wayne Harrison: It depends on the player. Some young soccer players can start at 7 years old. Some players might not be able to grasp these concepts until they reach the age of 10 years old.
Generally speaking, the earlier the better. Introducing very simple decision making training at 7 or 8 years can be critical.
Development of technique with closed skill training is the most important at these younger ages.
The first step is simple: Repetition of the same drills without too much thought, so young players are capable of making successful dribbles and turns and passes without pressure.
The next step is to introduce decision making to see if the players know where, where, how and why to make that pass, that dribble, that turn and so on with pressure included.
Diane Scavuzzo: How do you train soccer intelligence?
Wayne Harrison: By making the players think. By asking questions and with guided discovery. Through repeated postiive training.
For example, creating situations in training where the player MUST look around before they receive the ball, and so setting “conditions of training” to ensure this happens.
Simply put it goes like this and in this order:
1. Observe where the ball is coming from
2. Observe how it is coming – in the air, on the ground – and position accordingly
3. Know where “teammates” are before receiving the ball
4. Know where “opponents” are before receiving the ball
5. Know where the “space” is to play into before receiving the ball
6. Decide what to do with the ball before the ball arrives (one touch pass, two touch, dribble, run with it, etc.)
7. Observe “where” the ball is to be moved to (where is the free space, for example)
8. Decide “when” the ball has to be moved (quickly due to pressure or keep it as you have time)
9. Decide how the ball needs to be moved (one touch pass, two touch, dribble, run with it, etc.)
10. Decide why that is the best option (compare all options with the team’s tactical objectives in mind and pick the best one)
All this must be processed in the players mind BEFORE they get the ball.
I have created a “Continuums of Development Model” to identify what a player needs to do to develop soccer intelligence/awareness, and it identifies all the component parts needed for a player to receive the ball and be successful in maintaining possession of it.
Therefore, based on this pattern, the Continuum looks like this, with all done and worked out before receiving the ball:
a) Look/Observe: what are my options?
b) Body position: Open stance
c) Feet preparation: not flat footed, but fleet of foot
d) Communication: with your own eyes, vocally or from teammates
The following must be done after receiving the ball:
e) Technique: the first touch; could be a controlling touch so 2 touches or more; or a one touch execution
f) Skill: the when, where; how and why of the technique; the decision making process
g) Mobility: Movement off the ball by the player and preparing for the next phase of play
h) Transition: we lose possession we immediately turn into a defending mentality from an attacking mentality
To add, many players have the first part (the most important part), the look/observe assessment of options after Technique and before Skill, when it should be the first thing they do. They don’t assess their options until they have received the ball, and often this is too late and they lose possession.
Therefore the Look/Observe, if done before receiving the ball, actually may give them more “time” and offer three or four yards of space “in their head” or tell them they need to move it one touch because there is quick pressure on them.
Diane Scavuzzo: How can parents help?
Wayne Harrison: By learning more about the game, reading coaching books, by watching the top teams in the world on TV with their children and by going to live games with them when able.
Even passing the ball back and forth, helping their kids develop their first touch; or if they want, throwing it to them as the first touch is a vital part of the player’s makeup.
I believe parent education of the game is vitally important to help them understand it more, and they then can further understand even just the fundamentals of what we as the coaches/teachers are trying to develop with their children. Perhaps they will even appreciate more what we do and understand the psychology of what we do and why we do it.
It might result in more questions for coaches to answer, but coaches who know what they are doing will not, or should not, be afraid of that.
Diane Scavuzzo: Is anyone really doing this today?
Wayne Harrison: Good question, ask the coaches wherever your child plays to describe it, then you will know. Listen and see if he asks your player questions about what happened on the field after an exercise, scrimmage or a game.
I have seen a lot of coaching over the past 15 months that I have been here and haven’t seen anyone do this specifically, which suggests it may be a good area of information that can be added to curriculums to enable players to improve. It is what I base all my work on and have done for many years.
Barcelona have done it this way at the academy level for the past 20 years, and they have the most successful academy in the world. We want to attract the best raw material to developo the players in the exact same way.
Diane Scavuzzo: Who are a few professional players from clubs around the world who you think display soccer intelligence on the field today.
Wayne Harrison: Every professional player has soccer intelligence to a high level otherwise they could not play at the pace of the game today and be successful.
That said Paul Scholes of Manchester United has been the best in England, and interestingly enough, while he hardly ever loses possession of the ball at the vast pace of the game today, he himself is not particularly quick of limb but rather quick of MIND.
Xavi, Buschets, Iniesta and Messi of Barcelona are all completely different players who bring different qualities to soccer intelligence.
In essence, we have Buschets the set up player, one touch (especially good at awareness, possibly the best one touch player in the world); Xavi the link man, one and two touch; Iniesta the feeder player with quick passing and dribbling; and Messi the finisher, with everything a player could ever wish for.
Soccer Awareness Elite Academy (SAES) is new a soccer development program, helping develop soccer awareness and intelligence in the USA. It is a non-competitive program that works along side of today’s best youth soccer clubs, providing additional training.
This elite academy is focused on developing how a soccer elite player thinks – the MIND of the player – and is based on proven scientific principles of development.