INSPIRE Blog: Decision time!

What’s the most important skill in football? Striking the ball? Dribbling? Heading? Communication?

Different people will give different responses, with the list dragging on considerably!

I agree that the above skills are important in football. Without them it simply would not be foo tball. However, football isn’t any one of these in isolation, it is the all the cogs working together. Football is a mixing pot of skills, techniques, emotion, physicality and hard work. Everything must work together, blending, mixing and merging to create the beautiful game.

The most important skill in all of this, in my opinion, is decision-making.

Let’s think about a game of football:

The goalkeeper passes to the central defender. The defender drives forward with the ball as the opposition close in and team mates begin to change their angle of approach in order to receive the ball in support. She passes to the central midfielder who controls the ball on their thigh, before protecting it against an opposition player and turning away. On her third touch she threads a lovely killer pass between two defenders as the right forward makes a run across the back line, receiving and firing into the roof of the net. Absolute scenes!

At each moment of the game, there is a multitude of decisions being made. Each individual is assessing the field, the space, where the ball is, where their team mates are, where the opposition is, what the score is, what the weather conditions are like, how they play to their team’s style etc………… again, the list goes on.

If we can appreciate that football is a complex and chaotic game played in the moment, then we must strive to recreate this at training. That does not mean our sessions and exercises need to be complex and confusing, they just need to be realistic.

So what is realism? What does a football game need to be a football game?

Two teams, two goals and a direction.

If this is football in its most simplistic form, then our exercises and games within sessions must reflect as many of these components as possible.

I have learnt over my years of experience, observing other coaches and discussing with many people that to be realistic, sessions must contain elements of decision-making in every component.

I admit, this has not always been the case for me.

I remember setting up whole sessions where decision-making only took place for maybe 20 minutes, and that was when the kids just played a normal game! During these sessions I used drills. A word and form of activity that I have now come to despise, DRILLS.

Drills – An isolated, static or dynamic activity that separates the football skills from the match so much that execution is the only consideration by players.

If our aim is to recreate the game like situation, we could therefore start with the end in mind and play a game. As we begin to undress the game to work on specific areas of the field and specific players in specific moments, we create our ‘training’ component within the session. When we strip these back even further we create our passing practice, an area often overlooked, yet with incredible potential.

The passing practice is the ‘warm up’ component of the session. Therefore, this is the component in which we introduce good player behaviours, and we can do this by including P.D.E. – ‘perception, decision, execution’.

I see many situations of coaches creating passing patterns with players standing on a cone, passing in sequence, sometimes moving from cone A to cone B to cone C etc… In my opinion, this is a loss of effective coaching time. In this situation players are focused on one thing, passing the ball in a straight line, with no pressure, no influence, no perception, no decision-making, just execution.

If you have delivered or been a part of a session such as this then you know they very quickly get boring. Especially when it is mid-June at Mills Park, it’s raining and  the wind is howling across the field. Players quickly switch off, their execution becomes poor and their attitude wavers.

Instead, I encourage you to make your passing patterns fluid, game-like and challenging. As you would have noticed with our INSPIRE sessions, we generally put all the players into a square, and we challenge them to pass the ball amongst themselves, dipping and moving, playing 1, 2, 3 touch passes. It looks simple, because it is.

Picture this.

16 players, split into two teams of eight, one ball each team. Players within each team are given a number, one to eight, by which they have to pass in sequence. Play.

Players begin to pass from one to two, two to three, continuing on before eight returns the ball back to one and we restart. As a coach, you begin to challenge your players to touch a cone after each pass, creating movement as 16 players move freely around the square, dipping in and out of each other, trying to support the player of the number in front of them.

In front of your eyes players begin to communicate as they offer support to each other and time their movement to create passing channels for their team mates. Body position becomes a big factor as players open their body to see the ball and their next pass. All of these movements, instructions and passes are guided by what they perceive in the environment as they dodge the opposition/other teams players, PERCEPTION. Based on the ever-changing picture in front of them, as players move and dip and talk, each player must make a DECISION, moving to support the player in front of them. Once the ball is at their feet, all they must do is execute, however this is now more complex than the simple cone A – B – C drill they did earlier. Players must search for the next in line, playing an accurate and well timed pass that doesn’t get accidentally intercepted by others moving around.

All of these decisions and actions occur within two to three seconds, this is the what having P.D.E involved in your sessions looks like.

Players are physically becoming warmer, mentally becoming challenged and our passing technique work is being completed. All together, all chaotic and all game relevant.

The days of putting out 20 cones and telling players to dribble around them are gone. The days of players being told to play a certain static passing sequence are gone. We know football has lots of variables that influence every decision. Therefore, it is our role as coaches to place our players into situations and exercises whereby these variables are present.

Put in a second ball to speed things up, put in an ‘interceptor defender’ to make it harder, ask the players.

Try something new this week. Instead of dribbling around cones, have players dribbling around a square, with obstacles and challenges as they go. Instead of passing around cones, have players passing freely, with distractions involved to challenge players P.D.E.

I am yet to find a player that prefers dribbling around cones than shark attack, or a player that prefers passing around cones than a rondo or our INSPIRE exercise ‘anticipation’.

We train as we mean to play.

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