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Why is scanning considered the most important trait of a professional football player? Part 1


Scanning is when a player looks around with head and eye movements to receive information about their environment before or after touching the ball. But It doesn’t end there – that’s just one part of the incredibly fast process of scanning.

Football is a fast-paced game, which makes it a mental-game. It was Johan Cruyff who said, ‘You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you’. When Cruyff won the Ballon d’Or in the 1970’s, the game was fast. It has only increased in speed over the years.

The ‘half touch’ mentality

While the speed of football has picked up, the need to know what to do with the ball once a player has received it has increased in importance. Wayne Harrison, the former Blackpool player, developed the idea of the ‘half-touch’ mentality because he knew that players must make extremely quick decisions, on and off the ball. This mentality is about looking ahead, anticipating where the ball will be, and knowing what to do with it once in possession.

Making fast and accurate decisions is dependent on the visual exploration of the environment.

Why we highly prize the mental game

As you know, we highly prize the right mentalities at IQ Football. The professional game is no longer dependent on physical ability alone but, more so than ever, on a player’s intelligence. What do we mean by a player’s intelligence? We’re talking about football intelligence, which is when a player can analyse the most important information on the field, identify their best options, and then execute the best decision to get a positive result. Problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, novelty, memory, and decision-making play a part in this process. These all fall under executive function. Read more about this in our blog about football intelligence.

Analysing the most important information on the field has to begin with scanning. Often, players will receive the ball, and only then choose what they will do with it.  This is too late. The ‘half touch’ mentality, or in other words ‘scanning’, requires players to have already decided what they will do with the ball before they receive it. It’s this kind of mentality that saves time and it’s the difference between maintaining or losing possession.  

Wenger and scanning

Arsène Wenger values this ‘half touch mentality’, which he calls scanning. He believes scanning, in its fullest definition of the word, is the most valuable trait in a football player. There are essentially three stages to scanning: information scanning, processing, and execution.

Wenger commissioned a study by Professor Geir Jordet at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences. Jordet is the world authority on ‘scanning’ and finished his Master’s thesis and PhD on the role of vision, perception, and anticipation in elite performance.

As part of this study, he filmed 250 players and looked at what they do in the 10 seconds before they receive the ball. It was found that the top players scanned 6 – 8 times in those 10 seconds.

Interestingly, Xavi Hernandez scored the highest in scanning. On average he looks 8.3 times before receiving the ball. There have been memes of his scanning.

The concluding thoughts on this study were that analysis, decision making and execution are greatly determined by perception. It’s about gaining as much information as possible before receiving the ball.

Neural pathways and scanning

Something notable that Wenger explains is the neural pathways that are formed in a players mind from the very start of their football career.

‘The problem in football is that you learn how to play football the [wrong way] around: first execution, then decision making and perception last.

‘I’ve worked with players from all over the world, from all kinds of coaches, even with a team of eleven different countries. Our problem is that a circuit is printed in their brain and us managers (who speak to top players) find it extremely difficult to change that circuit in the brain.

‘It’s vital not to harm perception with young boys. They learn first the execution from 5 to 12. I have lost many top players because their head was on the ball and they were not seeing what was around them.

‘Great players isolate from the ball, their head is like a radar.’

Concluding thoughts

A player needs to learn scanning and perception from the very beginning. This is called football intelligence. The ability to make quick and accurate decisions depends on the player’s ability to find possibilities in a changing and moving environment. Finding those possibilities starts with perception. Decision making and execution follow.

This process must be practiced over and over again. The player must learn how to find the spaces available to them, or the possibility of the spaces available to them, and then learn how to interact with them.

Players who have a ‘half touch’ mentality and are always scanning are ultimately successful. They are proactive, not reactive, they’re dictating what will happen next, and they’re working in anticipation of the ball.

arsene wenger, football intelligence, half touch mentality, scanning, xavi

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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