Coaches of very young players spend almost all of their time teaching their players how to kick, tackle, pass and shoot.
As their players get older and more experienced, most coaches focus a little more on their players’ physical fitness and they also teach them basic football tactics. What to do at set pieces, for example, and how to defend and attack as a team.
Few youth football coaches, however, help their players exercise and develop the most important part of their anatomy: Their brain.
In fact, most coaches actually discourage their players from independent thought by constantly telling them what to do during coaching sessions and matches.
And that’s surprising when you consider that the ability to read the game – to anticipate what is going to happen during a match and react appropriately – is probably the most important ability that any player, whatever their age, can possess.
“But my players are much too young to think for themselves. They can’t read the game! They need to be told what to do.”
Even very young children can, and should, be encouraged to become good readers of the game because as they get older and more experienced, they’re going to need a bit more than technical skills, tactical awareness and fitness.
In a team of U5s, for example, a player who can dribble, pass and shoot will dominate matches. But five years later – given good coaching – her peers will have caught up in terms of skills and they will all have some tactical awareness. At that point, the ability to read the game becomes as important, if not more important, than the ability to pass, shoot or play “tactically”.
And that’s when children who have been encouraged from an early age to think for themselves when they step on to a football field will begin to stand out from the rest.
But no child is born with “soccer intelligence”. It requires repeated exposure to match-related situations in training as well as many hours playing in competitive matches.
What does an intelligent football player look like?
1. She doesn’t have to rush.
2. She knows when to keep the ball and when to pass.
3. She likes to takes the simplest option but can also take calculated risks.
4. She puts in a consistent performance every week.
5. She knows what she is going to do with the ball before she receives it.
How to develop soccer intelligence in your players
Games that boost the IQ of young football players
The last characteristic in the list above – knowing what to do with the ball before it arrives – can be encouraged with coaching games such as Number Passing:
Take a group of four players, give them each a number (1 to 4) and spread them a good passing distance apart. Place a cone a few yards from the group. The players pass a ball to each other in numerical order and immediately run to the spare cone.
Once the basic principle has been mastered, you can reverse the number order and/or reduce the number of touches each player can have before passing. If your players are good enough, progress to one-touch.
Similarly, you can help young players to think while they are playing by putting different coloured training vests (e.g. white, red, green and blue) on four teams of two players and playing 4v4. To begin with, red and blues could play against whites and red. Then change the teams by calling out, for example, “green and red v white and blue”. After a couple of minutes, change the teams again.
All small-sided games (SSGs) will help develop your players’ brain power and even something as simple as placing two goals at each end of the pitch in the end of session scrimmage, so that players have to decide which goal to attack, is sufficient to get their brains working as well as their feet.
Play coaching games that resemble football matches.
Don’t instruct. Suggest ways of doing things.
Don’t give answers. Help players find the answers for themselves instead.
As coaches we have to teach our players skills and, if they’re old enough, help them understand football tactics.
But it’s also vital to help them become confident, independent thinkers by playing games that involve choices and, crucially, not making the choices for them, either during coaching sessions or on match days.