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What is football intelligence and can players develop it? Part 3

Football intelligence

Over the past two months, we’ve focussed on football intelligence and come to the conclusion that it most certainly can and must be developed. The greatest football players read the game and stay one step ahead of their opponents; they see a number of options before they have even received the ball. In this blog, we’ll discuss some of the most important aspects of football intelligence and how to develop it on the field.

As previously discussed in Part 1, it’s vital that players are able to practice their technique so that it becomes autonomous by working through Fitts and Posner’s three-stage process of motor skill learning. It’s imperative that a player has been able to grow in confidence in their first touch, turns, passing, and dribbling. As the pressure on a player increases to receive the ball and make the pass, or dribble to the right space, decision making comes into play.

Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness allows a player to know where their opponents and teammates are on the field. This is key in executing football intelligence. This also gives players the ability to overcome a particular weakness. For example, if a player is not as fast, or big, or possibly not as agile, they are able to beat their bigger, faster, or more agile opponent through spatial awareness. Spatial awareness must be worked on and knowledgeable coaches would include this football intelligence trait in training.

Some of the ways a player can improve their spatial awareness is by developing their technical ability during unopposed practice; keeping their head up and scanning the field before they receive the ball; practicing in small sided football games – which can have a myriad of benefits for spatial awareness; watching more football with the intention of asking questions and taking notes on players who you have brilliant spatial awareness and working out what they do to maintain that skill in the game; and finally using their peripheral vision.

Decision Making

Coaches play a vital role in training a player in the skill of decision-making. Traditionally, football coaches stand on the sides instructing and commanding players where to go and what to do. This is not how football intelligence is developed. Much like a parent wants their children to make wise decisions for themselves, even when no one is around, a coach should want their players to do the same.

Players with football intelligence, who have high decision-making skills, are helped by unlocking their confidence through guided discovery and using the game as the teacher. Question and answer sessions should be part of every training. Training like this should start from young.

It’s vital for coaches to ask questions about why an action went well, how it can be improved, and what other options there were. Especially after a match, coaches should be finding out if players saw what was going well and what could have been bettered. Eventually, players will learn to communicate more on the field, assist the team and their teammates, and spot more advantageous opportunities to score or gain an advantage for their team.

The Continuums of Development Model

“Many players will mentally prepare to make a decision AFTER receiving the ball; we teach them to mentally prepare to make decisions BEFORE they receive the ball. This saves them time and space and can be the difference between maintaining possession and losing the ball. As the game gets faster, so is the need for players to master this VITAL innate ability because the game is getting faster using fewer touches on the ball, which creates the need for quicker thinking; quicker moving and better decision-making-players.” 

Wayne Harrison

Wayne Harrison has created a Continuums of Development Model that does well to explain what a player must do before and after receiving the ball.

Before a player receives the ball he must scan the field for the available options. In this observation he must take note of where his key teammates and opponents are and earmark the space he must move into or the player he will transfer the ball to; he must know how he will move the ball (passing, dribbling, one touch/two touch etc.), when he will do this and how his body position must be in order to execute the best outcome. He must know his ‘why’ because he has scanned all the available options and made the choice of the best outcome. Then he communicates with his teammates and receives the ball.

After a player receives the ball he must use his technique (first touch etc.) and his movement off the ball to execute the decision he has made. Once that decision is made, if his team loses possession he needs to be resilient in his mind and immediately work to find the next best option without allowing the failure to stop his progression. Likewise, if his action ends well, he must get his head back in the game to assess the next best move.

Closing thoughts

In summary, a player can and must develop football intelligence. This can be achieved through the right coach that works through the stages of motor skill learning, trains them in spatial awareness, coaches them through guided discovery and the player centred model, constantly encourages decision making, and helps players to understand the basic steps of what to do before and after receiving the ball. All this must be done with the knowledge that every move may not always come off.

Coaches must know how to authentically encourage players, to assist them in their confidence and show them how to take responsibility, bounce back, learn from mistakes, and continue to play. In a club or academy where these coaching traits are operational, football intelligence will be developed as a natural byproduct.

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Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.


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