Let’s review some typical scenarios you will likely have encountered during a soccer game:

Youth Game Situation 1

Seven year old boys play in a league game on Tuesday evening, 5 a-side including a goalie on a small sized field. One player is very aggressive and always wants to win the ball, and he does. Once he gets the ball, he holds on to it, runs/dribbles with it, and gets entangled with opposing players. The coach may shout at him to pass to an open team mate, but nothing happens. The immediate diagnosis is that the boy is a “ball hog”, doesn’t want to pass. The technical analysis might suggest that he keeps his head down and is not aware of his surroundings. Both may be reasonable causes of why he keeps holding on to the ball far too long.

Youth Game Situation 2

In the same game, another player also aggressively pursues the ball. When he gains possession, he looks up. He may dribble with it, looking up every now and again, or he may pass it to an open team mate. Aha thinks the coach, here is a good player who knows how to play the game properly, even at a young age. He is not selfish.

Pro Game Situation

Let’s look at the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina. We are in over time and Germany had brought on Andre Schürrle and Mario Götze as late substitutes. Schürrle gets the ball on the wing and immediately crosses it into the box. Out of nowhere Götze appears and on the first touch, with his unfavoured left foot, volleys the ball and slides it past the keeper towards the far post – GOAL. What a brilliant play by brilliant players one thinks.

Now let’s look at these situation through the lens of decision making.

The coach of the youth team in the first two examples was me. I praised the player who “hogged” the ball for his great efforts in winning possession and then asked why he wouldn’t pass and eventually lose it again by running out of space or being swarmed by the opposing team. The answer was: “I don’t see the open players”. That may lead to the conclusion that his head is down and in practice we need to work on keeping the head up. But then we asked if he would do anything different if he did see open team mates. He hesitated, maybe trying to figure what we wanted to hear. It suddenly  became clear that he actually didn’t know that he had to make a decision of what to do with the ball once he gets it, and that the decision should lead to a positive play. So at the next practice we talked to him and asked him to think about what he could do after he gets the ball. It took a few minutes but together we came up with dribbling, passing, shooting, depending on where on the field he was and what he saw. Now that he knew there were options he realized that he had to look up, not because the coaches told him, but because that would give him information to make a good decision. Now, this process didn’t unfold as clinical as I describe it here, nor did we use a lot of fancy words. But we did encourage the right actions during practices and now he passes and the team is more productive. As an aside, this boy was in his second year of soccer and is a multi sport, active young child.

The second example describes a boy who has been playing soccer since he could walk with very engaging and knowledgeable parents. He has much more experience and even at this young age developed a very quick decision making process.

In the World Cup game, decisions were made at a very high speed. It was expected for Schürrle to cross the ball. Götze at some point decided to make the run to the near post, probably because he perceived space and anticipated a cross. When the ball arrived he had to make a decision. The ball came in from his left at half height. Being right footed the normal decision might have been to receive the ball, control it with a touch or two, try to get it onto the right foot and get a shot off. But for some reason he decided to take it on first touch with his left foot. Perhaps he perceived a very small time window to execute anything as defenders were closing in, who knows. But what we do know is that, fortunately for Germany, Mario decided to take the ball on his weak foot on first touch.

Experience is a key factor in decision making. The more experience you have, the faster information is taken in and processed. That in turn allows the decision to act to be made faster.

Decision making speed can be trained, best in small sided games in small areas. This creates many new situations for players to deal with. The nature of soccer having so many moving pieces guarantees that no two games or even game situations are ever the same. Hence each situation needs to be evaluated by the players and the best decision needs to be made.

Drill 1

Place 6-8 goals (made with cones) randomly on half a field, field size appropriate to the age group being coached. Make two teams and instruct that goals can be scored from either side, but the ball must be passed through the goal and received by a team mate.

Drill 2

This is a little more fun and creative. Check the ability of your team to understand and enjoy the little game. Make a small field and split your team into two groups. Designate two players (or use two coaches/volunteers) to hold a piece of wood or plastic (broomstick, swimming “noodle”) above their heads, thus making a goal (people are the posts, the implement is the cross bar). Ask the “goal” to move randomly within the field. The teams must score through the moving goal. Enjoy.