One of the challenges in a free-flowing, fast-paced sport like soccer is knowing not only what to pay attention to, but based on each situation, being able to immediately determine the best course of action. At any single moment on the pitch, a soccer player with the ball faces an essentially infinite number of possible choices for his/her next move. Many of these are relevant and reasonable choices–he might pass to a man on his left or right, play the ball back, try to advance the ball himself by dribbling, or take a shot–while many are not (e.g. kick the ball into the stands). Defensively, this would mean trying to get inside the heads of both the offensive team and his own teammates, the goal being to anticipate the most likely action of the offensive player, so that it can be countered.
And of course some choices are better than others. The player has to evaluate the pitch moment-by-moment, filter out choices that are bad or irrelevant, and act. Research conducted by Paul Ward, one of the leaders in the field of expertise and skill acquisition, has found that when it comes to non-physical skills–the stuff that goes on inside athletes’ heads–it is this assessing of probabilities and likely outcomes that does the best job of separating elite soccer players from the rest.
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. In this sense, an expert athlete operates in many of the same ways that we know experts to operate in other fields. A doctor, for example, hears your symptoms and very rapidly narrows down the possible diagnoses to a range of plausible options: when you go to the doctor you never hear that what you have might be a broken arm, or the flu, or cancer, or possibly nothing.
So experts take in information from the field, generate only those options that make sense, and use experience to choose the best option. In a sense they run very fast, cognitive algorithms out there on the field. But what about creativity? The most expert of experts, think Leo Messi, Chris Paul, or Johan Cruyff, don’t just see the safe, reliable option, they see the good options that nobody else sees. Watch the video of Cruyff below: some of the decisions that he makes seem truly bizarre, but they work, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. What does a player like Cruyff’s decision tree look like? Tough to say, creativity is tricky.