If you were to compile a list of the world’s best players, it’s fair to say that creativity and technique would be at the top of many people’s list.
Players who can make something from nothing, who can read the game and do things quicker than others to help their team score or not concede.
Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s iconic former midfielder, is often seen as an example of a player who is one, or sometimes more, steps ahead of others on the football pitch. Though physically not the biggest, his ability to make decisions and execute them quickly set him above most.
Most players I came across were quicker and stronger than me. Decision-making is what controls our physical actions. Some players have a mental top speed of 80 while others are capable of reaching 200, I always tried to reach 200.
It would be hard to argue against a player who was instrumental in the Nou Camp giants winning 25 trophies during a 17-year period, including eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues.
That’s not to mention the two European Championships and one World Cup he won with Spain. Any club would love a player like Xavi in their side who plays the game with a natural flair and creativity, always aware of his surroundings, making excellent decisions and demonstrating an amazing range of passing and shooting.
While Xavi was one of the best, is it possible to develop players with these similar attributes?
An important quality that the best decision-makers like Xavi will demonstrate on the pitch is awareness; their understanding of the game and the assessment of their situation, whether they have the ball or not.
‘Awareness’ falls into the early stages of what is known as ‘The Decision-Making Process’ (Tenenbaum, 2003) – the art of choosing an appropriate action which will positively help the team.
Generally, the better the player, the earlier this quality would be considered, in their decision-making process so they can execute the action quicker – if required.
For example, an inexperienced midfield player might receive the ball from a teammate, then look up and see space to shoot, but by the time he has chosen to pull the trigger, the defence has closed the space and the chance has been denied.
However, Xavi would constantly be looking around for any options or danger, scanning his surroundings, then when he does receive the ball, he can execute the action, i.e. shot or pass, much quicker, which might look like a natural instinct.
While ‘scanning and awareness’ is just one part of the decision-making process that can be followed by coaches to help develop players who make better decisions on the pitch, it is a skill that can be introduced at a young age by coaches in training.
We have recently released a free downloadable eBook containing a dozen football coaching practices that focus on developing players’ awareness and decision-making skills.
The eBook features practices to help coaches encourage players to ‘check their shoulder’, a movement that we want players to naturally carry out without thinking.
This allows them to get a broader picture of what’s going on around them during a game and when receiving possession, so they can choose and execute an effective action quicker.
One particular practice focuses on the striker who is marked by a defender and must react to the defender’s movement when receiving a pass from midfield before attacking the space left by his marker and striking at goal.
It’s a simple practice but brings in the concepts of scanning and body shape when receiving the ball, to enable the outcome of a shot from space achieved by a teammates movement.
It can easily be adapted for different positions on the pitch, but the key is getting the players to be aware of what the player marking them is doing before they receive the ball.
Other practices within the free download and the forthcoming Decision-Making in Football course, launching for MiMentor Platform members soon, builds on the concept of the decision-making process.
The course will not only offer ideas on practices to deliver, but fundamentally it will help coaches understand the theory behind decision-making, from awareness and anticipation, to technical execution and evaluation, so they can design and adapt sessions to suit their teams and develop quick-thinking and creative footballers.
These players who can do things ‘off the cuff’ are valuable for any team, and while it looks like it might be instinctive, these are skills that can be coached and developed.
Players need to be given chance to practice during training sessions within a game-realistic environment to allow them to build up their experiences and technical ability in all different scenarios, so when presented with that situation in a game, they almost carry it out autonomously.
Or in the case of those players like Xavi, ‘naturally’.