Mind Games – Game intelligence and soccer IQ Part 1
“Football is a mind game. You play with your brain.” Johan Cryuff
A friend of mine once had this conversation with a young player:
Coach: “ So what is your favorite position? ”
Player: “ Center midfield”
Coach: “ Interesting. Is that because you see yourself as a good playmaker? “
Player: “ No its because my dad is one side and my coach is on the other and sometimes if I am in the middle field I can’t hear either of them. “
You have all seen the coach – never stops talking and directs everything taking place:
“ Play Johnnie. Run with it. Take him on. Shoot. Rebound. DROP! DROP! “
We probably shouldn’t have used the term coach since puppet master may be a better description. The scary thing about this though is that it’s incredibly seductive. If the goal is just winning, at a young age, and if the coach knows just enough to be dangerous, it will probably work.
While teams at this point tend to be very disorganized, the organized team with the puppet master pulling all the strings will usually win. But if your goal is player development, in the long run it’s a disaster. As players get older the game gets faster, spaces become smaller, and pressure becomes much more intense. There simply isn’t time to listen to instructions and react.
Only players who can read the game, and can instantly and instinctively react will have any chance of maximizing their potential. Soccer is a player’s game.
A game of soccer has 22 players most of whom are free to go anywhere they want. I can’t do the math but I can tell you that creates an almost infinite number of situations.
There are no time outs. Soccer can never be thought of as a series of set plays. Because of this soccer is not a coach centric exercise but is inherently player centric. To have any chance of succeeding at higher and older levels players must be able to see game problems and have the ability to formulate their own solutions.
From a training perspective this means:
Players must be taught to understand concepts that they can apply to a wide range of situations.
Players need to learn to make their own decisions.
Players need to feel free to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
The idea of letting the players play with the minimum of interference in matches, far from reducing the role of the coach, actually elevates the responsibility and makes it much more demanding. If the coach is to perform their job adequately they must become true educators, they must be able to take all the information available and synthesize it into a simplified, progressive curriculum that gradually makes the game clearer for the players.
The game of soccer has changed greatly over the last 25 years. Players are faster and stronger and the move towards zonal systems has reduced time and space. In his excellent book, Das Reboot, Raphael Honigstein reported that in some top German Academies the percentage of players from the most intellectually demanding tier of German schools was as high as 85%, up from around 15% not so long ago. Yes, players have got faster and physical speed is a desirable attribute but faster players mean smaller spaces and less time to make decisions meaning speed of thought and a high soccer IQ is essential. Honigstein quotes Volker Kersting the Academy Director at Mainz:
“ Twenty years ago they might have known a couple of tactical systems. Today, you have to be able to switch formation and systems four or five times during a game.”
This is the world that the coaches of today need to prepare players for. Speed is important but speed of thought is essential Johan Cruyff once remarked:
“Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster.”
By contrast, great technique and a super high soccer IQ will take you a long way.
Look at a 37 year old Andrea Pirlo – still able to walk onto and grace any soccer pitch.
In Developing Game Intelligence Horst Wein said that the essence of great coaching is to choose age appropriate exercises and create a syllabus that teaches your players game intelligence. I agree. Only those countries that emphasize intelligence and decision-making in their players will progress.
Programs that continue to see soccer as an athletic contest where the team that runs fastest and longest will win are destined to languish in mediocrity.