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PLAYING CHESS IN A WORLD OF CHECKERS - Developing a Player's Soccer IQ & Understanding

"Big kick!" "Faster!" "Hit the ball!" How many times have you heard those phrases yelled on the sidelines; whether from coaches or parents? What do those phrases do for players; both immediately and long term? In this edition of the QTSD© Training Ground Blog, we're going to examine what it means to develop intelligent athletes in a landscape that normally rewards physical attributes AND what it means for future development!

When you look at the majority of youth soccer in America, many teams rely on the physical nature of their key players to win games. Players that have matured early into strong or faster athletes usually "are better" than their less developed peers. Players that have not matured as early are passed up because they "cannot" help their team win by speed and strength standards. Faster players can sprint past opponents to score while stronger players can kick the ball further down the field; attributes from a simple viewpoint can look like success. At early ages, those physically developed players usually become the "stars" of their teams. But what if I was to tell you praising speed, strength and size early on could ACTUALLY handicap those players in the future??

Soccer is not a sport of physical competition only. Soccer at the higher levels requires an immense amount of tactical understanding and soccer IQ. The best teams in the world are not necessarily the fastest and strongest (although many do have those attributes as well). The best teams in the world play SMART soccer; making tactical choices that attempt to expose opponents' weaknesses an exploit them. Intelligent players and teams learn quickly that soccer is a game of tactical testing; moving the ball forwards, backwards, laterally and over head in an effort to break down an opponent's defense. A great example is the highly successful club FC Barcelona in the Spanish top tier league La Liga. If you watch their game play and team, they are mostly comprised of quick, technically strong athletes BUT are patient enough to move the ball around; sometimes stringing 13-5 passes in a row to deceive their opponents. One will also notice that Barcelona's athletes and teams are not primarily developed based on size and speed alone but rather with a focus on intelligent and creative players. They developed a club culture focused on creative team movement, passing accuracy, tactical deception and intelligent decision making.

Players MUST BE TAUGHT AND ENCOURAGED to be intelligent athletes. When we praise athletes who only succeed based on speed and strength alone, we handicap their futures. At a young age, the variety of size, strength and speed for athletes is all over the place. But when you reach high school, college and beyond, almost every athlete is the same speed and strength. So those players who dominated 12-U soccer because they were fast no longer have any advantage. Ironically, they are actually disadvantaged because they may be behind technically and tactically because they were never forced to become smarter on the field. On the flip side, many athletes that matured physically later had to survive by playing smarter; finding passing lanes, positioning themselves away from pressure and making more intelligent group decisions.

"Coaches must develop intelligent soccer players.

Playing with a chess mentality when your opponents are playing

checkers will prove successful in the long run."

Simply put, players must be taught to view soccer through a "chess mentality" instead of a basic "checkers" mindset. A majority of teams in youth soccer are comfortable booting the ball down field and allowing the fastest player to try to win the ball BUT intelligent teams and programs will focus on team movement, possession of the ball and scenarios where they maintain control of the game. That requires teaching a value of the ball at a very young age and developing an ability to think 3-4 steps ahead; hence a "chess mentality".

So How Can I Develop Into A Smarter Soccer Player?

There are many ways athletes can take steps to improve their understanding and knowledge of the game of soccer BUT it takes time to become a student of the game. A couple simple ideas to get started include:

  1. WATCH SOCCER - I cannot tell you how many athletes we work with that simply do not watch professional soccer. Watching professional soccer is one of the best ways to see a game progress. The trick is to watch for the tactics, not the fan aspect of goals being scored. Can you watch a match and actually see goal scoring opportunities develop BEFORE they happen? A great way to do this is to take notes during a game and try to figure out what the teams were trying to accomplish. More importantly, can you use those notes in your game play?

  2. READ BOOKS - Yes, read a book. There are quite a few books available that help break down complex aspects of soccer into simple ideas. A great example is Possession Soccer: Teaching Your Team to Keep the Darn Ball by Dan Blank. Whether about tactical understanding, how to increase focus or mental strength, there are a ton of really great books out there for players looking to learn. Want to know what books we suggest? Keep an eye out for our “QTSD© Top 10 Recommended Reading List” for soccer players & coaches soon!

  3. ASK QUESTIONS AND BE WILLING TO LISTEN - Good coaches look for talented athletes but great coaches look for intelligent athletes. When your next practice comes around, don’t just do the drill. Actually take time to focus on what the drill is about. Critically try to understand why your coach chose that drill for your team’s training session. If there is an aspect that you don’t understand, ask! Lastly, try to execute the focus of training into your game play; whether the end of practice scrimmage or the next game. Nothing makes a coach happier than when a player tries to execute the training focus in game play ....... and nothing more frustrating when players revert to old habits immediately after training.

Simply put, the goal for any player or team should be to develop the smartest athletes possible. Does this mean that players gifted with God-given speed and strength are at a disadvantage? Absolutely not BUT coaches must be sure to develop each athlete's awareness and critical thinking instead of just focusing on physical attributes; creating athletes that can see the bigger picture of soccer and develop a mindset of tactical soccer instead of resorting to "kick and run". In the end, if we can develop a complete athlete with developed physical and intellectual traits, that athlete's future potential will be much higher. As coaches, we should be striving to prepare our players for the highest level of soccer they can potentially reach all while ensuring they develop their passion for the game we all love!

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