Friday’s post focused on decision-making and anticipation in soccer, and specifically on how the quick and precise evaluation and elimination of options sets great soccer players apart from good athletes who don’t see the game quite as well. While research is nice, it’s always valuable to hear corroboration of those ideas from the mouths of players and coaches who know the game on a truly deep level. Some of the best writing on athletic genius and the unique ways that experts see the game can be found in David Winner’s fantastic book, Brilliant Orange: The neurotic genius of Dutch football. Winner conducted in-depth interviews with former Dutch players, as well as architects, artists, dancers and other thinkers to try to get a sense of what makes brilliant soccer players tick.
From Friday’s post, a summary of Paul Ward’s research around soccer decision-making and anticipation:
Ward had elite youth soccer players watch film of 11 v. 11 game footage, which was shown for 10 seconds and then frozen 120 milliseconds before the player with the ball made a pass. The players were then asked to identify the key players who were in good position to receive the pass, and then to rank those players in terms of their importance to the attack. These choices were then compared to the evaluation of a panel of expert coaches.
The elite soccer players not only showed a capability to identify and act on the best option, but they also created fewer possible options to select from, by identifying fewer unimportant players as being part of the attack. This process of high-level, accurate anticipation, and of only generating and considering the options that make the most sense, enables elite soccer players to efficiently process the game’s high-speed, dynamic flow.
Here, rephrased by Gerard van der Lem, who has worked with Ajax, FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos, are the importance of those special high-speed decision making skills:
The most difficult thing in life is choices, says Van der Lem. ‘Every player usually has three options on the field. I try to explain it very simply to my players. I say: ‘If a man outside the stadium offers you a free BMW Cabriolet, what would you do? And of course they say: “Take the car”. Right answer. But then I say: “What if the man asks you to choose between a BMW Cabriolet and a Mercedes Cabriolet and they seem the same. Same performance, same price, same everything. What do you do then?” “I don’t know.” And I say: “But you must choose and in soccer you have to choose very fast. It happens in an instant. And I will evaluate you on the choices you make on the field.”…Players have to make choices all over the field. Every player has to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch.
Of course, the ability to quickly and clearly perceive the nuances of the game and the choices it presents doesn’t just come from inborn gifts or magic. It is honed and sharpened over thousands of hours of repetition and practice. The depth of expertise that athletic geniuses have becomes abundantly clear when the players talk about how much information they can glean just from the sound of the ball being struck:
[Johan] Cruyff has been known to pass footballing judgment on the basis of sound alone. Ajax historian Evert Vermeer remembers him criticizing a player’s technique while looking away from the pitch. ‘He said: “His technique is no good.” “How can you tell?” Cruyff said: “It’s obvious. When he kicks the ball the sound is wrong.” …Gerry Muhren agrees: ‘Wind is the biggest enemy because you cannot hear the ball. You have to hear the ball during the game. You can hear from the sound it makes on the boot where the ball is going, how hard, how fast. You can tell everything. If there is a big wind, you are angry with the ball. You kick the ball but it doesn’t listen to you.’
And it is through this deep expertise that the game becomes second nature, and starts to slow down and become crystal clear. Here is Arnold Muhren on the way he eventually came to see the game:
It’s a thinking game. It’s not running around everywhere and working hard, though of course you have to work hard too. Every Dutch player wants to control the game. We played the ball from man to man; we wait for openings. That’s how to play football: with your brains, not with your feet. You don’t have to be a chess player, but you must think ahead. Before I had the ball I knew exactly what I would do with it. I always knew two or three moves ahead. Before I get the ball I can already see someone moving in front of me, so when the ball arrives I don’t have to think about it. And I don’t have to watch the ball because I have the right technique.
Or, succinctly, here is Johan Cruyff summing up this cerebral, Dutch approach to the game: “Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much, football is a game you play with your brains.”