Reading the Game: Decision making in Youth Soccer
Assessing the Game & Solving Problems
This week’s blog post is based on the insight developed by playing the game and thus learning to become a better player not just technically, but tactically.
One of the major challenges most players have in their youth soccer journey is their inability to read the game and interpret the situations in the game that allow them to figure out solutions. You hear critical assessment of this most often as players having “their head down” or “ ball watching”, but what does that mean? Players that ball watch or play with their head down are likely so engaged and nervous about the situation that they don’t have control of the problem or an understanding of how to solve the problem that is presenting itself. Also, many players will wait for someone else to ‘make a play’ or solve the problem for them, rather than influence the process. I’ve also heard players referred to as “puppies on the field chasing the ball.” Mean analogy but appropriate description of the players’ inability to read and assess what is happening on the field.
While it’s known that field players mature around the ages of 24-26, most coaches expect players to mature earlier. In some cases you hear coaches talking to 9 and 10 year olds about game tactics that are a bit over their head. At the same time, expectations of 11 and 12 year olds girls, boys and teenagers have to be realistic in terms of their cognitive ability and their playing experience. Even though most u12’s have been playing soccer for 4-6 years their understanding of soccer is still in it’s childhood. Combined with playing time, length of games, 3-4 games a weekend, it’s quite baffling that players continue to play but really don’t demonstrate more quality learning experiences.
Part of the reasons for this slow learning curve is the complexity of the game at 11v11 or even 8v8 and 9v9 in some states connected with the cognitive maturity of the player. Some research has shown that the average 12 -16 year old can understand at the most, 5-8 moving parts or processes of an equation or system thus suiting them for either 2v3, 4v4 or half of 8v8. For soccer there are over 22 moving pieces, then add in the sub-groupings of midfielders, defenders and strikers as well as the areas of the field in terms of how to guide your decisions and it becomes a pretty complex game.
Most coaches like to break things down to the foundation of the 4v4 game. For the most part it’s the simplest process to understand, however, most teams and players can’t play 4v4 really, really well so that it translates easily to 8v8 and 11v11. A quality coach can demonstrate and teach within the 4v4 model most everything for u12 and below and the 6v6 or 7v7 model for most of 11v11.
What happens in practice is that the player and groups don’t concentrate on the learning environment and then never really learn how to understand how the session applies. I’ve seen many players retain almost no learning from a session because they’re were just there, but they weren’t trying to see the situation, they continued to do what they wanted to do, not what the situation was trying to teach them.
One of the strategies I use in my team coaching is to use the 4v4 model for a majority of my training concepts. If I can’t teach the concept within a 4v4 model then I don’t spend too much time on it since there’s not enough “Insight” being developed, (although sometimes you need to decrease the decision process to highlight the technical or physical demands). “Insight” is the Dutch term for understanding the small group situations of 4v4 as technique and communication are applied. Many players have been able to learn technique but what evades them is how to communicate the insight that is earned through new technique since Insight must be developed within a games or team based environment. The simplest formula being the progression of learning from 1v1 to 2v2 to 3v3 to 4v4.
Here are some examples of some players’ struggles and then how the decision making tree is formed in soccer: I once had a player who liked to drive the ball far and high. Since she was striking a driven ball without spin it’s not really an attacking ball, but more of a clearance or shot (Insight into Technique). I was playing with the team in a 7v7 format as the center back. Three of five times she blasts the ball up the sideline when I was in perfect support for the play to swing around the back–not that I wanted the ball I just saw no reason to give the ball up for a 50/50 situation when we weren’t in possession most of the game all of those times (Insight without Communication).
Finally, the player decides to cross the ball in the middle third of the field from the edge of her defending third to the far side and since I moved to support she unloaded a driven ball that was cut off from their center mid who quickly found a striker for a goal. I gave her some instruction about thirds of the field and how we want to find possession when exiting our defending third and not give the ball back so easily or with too many risks.
In a couple of minutes we were at the edge of attacking third and she unloads again, this time driving the ball across the box to the back post for an early cross. I paused and asked her why that was a good idea, trying to support her decision there since her position on the field supported her decision better than the previous example. She actually did not know, she had just been taught to cross to the back post. (Technique without Insight)
Unfortunately, what was lacking in this example for the player was the insight of the player about her technique, her position on the field in relationship to other players and how it all relates to the flow of the game. Her cross was great technique, but as for the timing of the game it wasn’t because we had just regained possession and the goalie easily scooped it up and started a counter-attack up the far wing.
Getting them to think about the game
Helping players understand the timing, flow and rhythm of the game is very difficult because most players don’t watch or think about the game very often. They get coached by their parents or the sidelines, and since they want to please adults they listen. Watch a u17 respond to the parent sidelines very differently than the u11! Still communication from the sidelines should make the soccer on the field better. So it’s a choice of either encouragement, direction or support that every coach has to monitor.
The last example is the age old, when to dribble when to pass question that most players seem to never understand until later in life. And from what I see it’s not that players make bad decisions, it’s often that they haven’t understood the decision and how to use a technique to solve the problem easily.
In one case this weekend a player had her head up, and noticed a player open on the other side of the field. She made the decision to pass, but as the ball came to her, she stopped it, didn’t realize where pressure was and then lost the ball because the ball was under her and in a bad position to dribble or pass. She could have either taken one touch to pass the ball and then move to space to support it. Or she needed to touch the ball past the defender (who was unsupported) and then play the ball to the open player. Either way, decision, technique and speed all were against her. (Nor did the open player Communicate the solution or direction to her)
Formulas for Deciding
So how players learn to read the game better, or what should their decisions involve? Here are some of the basic decision formulas within the game:
Context: Where am I on the field? Where is the ball on the field?
In soccer we split the fields into thirds and progress the decisions based on the position of the ball. There is the Attacking, Defending and Middle thirds. There are also transitions to each third. Transition from the defending to middle third will want more of an emphasis on passing to feet to retain possession so that the entry into the attacking third from the middle third allows for teammates to catch up and make runs into the attacking space. Youth players and coaches will often skip the middle third to go from the defending third to the attacking third without any build-up. Possession in the attacking third is different than possession in the defending third.
Decisions about when to dribble and when to pass in these thirds are based on safety and risk. In the middle third players are looking to dribble or pass to create openings in the attacking third where they can take more risks. Sometimes players are at the edge of their defending third and try to play safe but then take unnecessary risks by trying to dribble into pressure. Again, context, field location, and technique all apply.
Phase of Play: In soccer there are four phases of play. Attacking, Defending and Transition to Attack and Transition to Defending.
In this context players need to assess did I just win the ball? Am I on the attack? Did my team just win the ball and we can catch the defense out of position? In many youth games the phase of play transition is so rapid that players never learn how to attack or how to defend, they are constantly in transition, hence one of the primary reasons I like playing three touch minimums with players so they can sustain attacks. I like to relate this decision process to:
Rhythm of Possession: Who has the ball? How long did they or we have possession of the ball?
Most players don’t have an understanding of sustained possession, that it’s sometimes better to keep possession then to be constantly defending. It’s one of the reasons there’s so much emphasis on the passing game at young ages. BUT it can also be a tactic to allow the other team to possess, but never to penetrate. This can be referred to as the defend and counter style. This often relates to the coaching personality, some coaches like the defend and counter while others will want to possess. I like to have both available to my teams, but I’m more of an attacking coach.
Small Group Tactics: What is the numbers context of the situation? Am I 1v1, Am I in a 2v2 or 3v4 situation? Can I create and recognize a 3v1 and execute the correct solution?
Any one of these is a problem and solution to itself. The best players can recognize a 2v1 and perfectly execute the give and go or a support pass option, most often players can’t see or recognize these small group situations because they don’t spend enough time studying it or participating in these. Players should develop a cheat sheet of answers and solutions that are principle based so that any coach or team will appreciate their mastery of the small sided decisions. A player who knows how to defend and attack with confidence and excellence in a 2v1 or 1v2 situation is very valuable.
Taking the time to reflect
Take the time and assess your players, daughters and sons if they understand or have any reflection of being aware of the contexts of their decisions. Often times players don’t think or reflect on why they played the way they played or what decisions they made that impacted their opportunities or lack thereof. Creating the thinking/aware player as well as the fast player is of extreme importance today. Most of the top players in state, region and nation have phenomenal balls skills, but what sets them apart from others is their ability to read the game and execute their decisions quickly and correctly. Ask them if they understand these basic principles of decision making in soccer and see if they can start to read the game as well as play the game!