I read an excellent blog post recently (link below)…

It discussed a player’s thinking and decision-making and how long, during a training session, this aspect is trained.

The article was great and in many ways represents the direction we are heading in at NSA as we develop players.

The main question it asks is, ‘for how long during a training session are a player’s mental faculties engaged?’

As the author points out, he’s seen some training sessions where players’ thinking and decision-making was only engaged for 12 minutes of a 90 minute training session. The most he observed, was 45 minutes, or half of a session.

What’s interesting about this is that soccer is a game of continuous transition and constantly changing variables. So, in theory, it’s a game that requires constant thought both with and without the ball…

‘Where should I go now that my team just recovered the ball?’

‘Should I play forward to penetrate the defense or is the better option to switch play?’

‘Should I delay this attacker or high press?’

And those are just a few of the hundreds of decisions a player will make throughout a game…

At NSA our O –> C –> D –> E –> R model is designed specifically to address the mental and decision-making component of playing and when we train in this context, the activities promote, train and challenge decision-making, while at the same time giving us specific opportunities to incorporate technical training as well (dribbling, foot skills, passing/receiving technique, etc.).

So what activities train cognition and which ones don’t?


Training That Doesn’t Engage Decision-making & Thinking

Generally speaking, when players don’t have to manage and make decisions based on changing variables, game required thinking and decision-making is turned off.

Here are some activities that turn decision-making off:

  • Standing in lines
  • Dribbling at or through cones
  • Coaches lecturing
  • Passing patterns (unopposed)
  • Warm ups without the ball

Now, this not to say that unopposed dribbling or passing work is bad. It’s important to monitor it closely though since it does not engage our young players’ minds. So while these may happen during a training session, they should be done so with intent and for an appropriate length of time.

We can’t allow half of our training time to pass by without engaging decision-making, thinking and awareness.


Training That Engages Decision-Making & Thinking

Now let’s look at the flip side…

What are the activities we can use in training to engage and develop our players’ thinking, awareness and decision-making…

  • Keep-away possession activities (rondos) – 4v1, 5v2, 7v3, etc. The team with greater numbers tries to keep possession of the ball and not allow the defenders to win it
  • Small sided games – 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, etc. These are games resembling a full scrimmage, but with small numbers and a variety of objectives
  • Positional games – 4v4 + 2 neutrals, 3v3 + 3 neutrals, etc. Again, these games resemble full scrimmages and players play in reduced numbers, but play with respect to positions
  • Scrimmages – 7v7, 9v9, etc. This is open play generally and may have some conditions, but resemble the game closest
  • Games – league and tournament play

All of these activities have the same or similar transitions and changing variables as the full matches do. In each of these activities, players are required to constantly assess their surroundings and make decisions based on the situations the game presents.

The ‘cognitive clock’ is turned on during all of these activities.


A Balanced Way Forward

When you watch how other teams play and train, it’s interesting to look specifically for decision-making.

If you really look at the choices a player makes, you can get an idea of how they train.

With ‘foot skills’ being a trendy topic now (and actually for sometime now), I’ve seen clubs that consider themselves ‘foot skill’ focused. I don’t think it’s right or wrong, but I do see that at times that leads players to executing foot skills anywhere on the field, for no specific reason and with no understanding of why they are performing them.

The same goes with passing. With Pep Guardiola and ticki-tacka soccer, you sometimes see teams that just pass. Again, why are they passing? What kind of pass are they making and where at on the field? Passing for passing’s sake really doesn’t help our youth players develop.

As we move forward at NSA, we want to strike a balance. We need to develop excellent decision-makers, players who can read the game, adjust and use the information they perceive to help their team.

We also need to help players develop impeccable technique so that when they execute their decisions, they do so quickly, efficiently and with a high degree of success.

So as we train, we need to keep our players’ mental faculties, awareness and decision-making turned on and engaged for far more than 45 minutes a training session. At the same time, we need to help them develop that impeccable technique to play the game at speeds the highest level requires.

Next time you’re watching a training session or a game, try watching for the decisions players make and see what comes up…


Cognitive Clock article is written by Todd Beane – http://tovoacademy.com/blog/2018/4/9/mental-mush-start-your-cognitive-clock