The widely-held notion is, typically, that these players can see what others can’t, enabling them to then act on those esoteric opportunities. We call these people maestros or artists, in large part, due to their ability to create beauty out of what we might perceive as nothingness–but it’s often not the technical, execution-level ability, itself, that manifests in these stunning passes. It’s the amount of information they collect, and base their decisions off of, instead.
Football is an awfully complex thing to behold, meaning that when we seek to interpret, understand, and enjoy it, the road most often traveled is one that appreciates the outward-most details.
These are “Pub Cheers”–token items that always get a crescendoing roar from a swath of hooligans, four or five Guinesses deep. You know the gist: the physicality with which a centerback clatters into a winger, the fullback’s ability to whip one in on the volley, or the keeper’s cat-like reflexes when darting off their line–soccer things we can hold in our hands, admire, and shout when they do (or don’t) pan out.
Yet, while these skills are lovely to enjoy in their own right, and are arguably the rawest path to our vulnerable emotions, there are certainly some more refined things we might notice that–via the unspoken rules of bar etiquette–might attract a few odd glares if we were to clamor at their appearances.
With just a dose more of sophistication, which–if you’re reading this–I’m assuming you’ve already picked up from your local football pharmacy, we can begin to enjoy some finer details. Think, the classic, ostensibly more-nuanced ticket items: a clever passing exchange between players, a deliberate and localized low-press to lure the opponent into a false sense of security, or a tidy sequence to beat an energetic high-line from a goalkick.
These moves require harmonious teamwork, carry a strategic scent, and while they’re unlikely to whet the crowds’ appetite, they can be wryly smiled at in a post-match video analysis. These are some of the things we enjoy, too, albeit differently.
Yet, we’ve still only scratched the surface of what occurs down on the field. For all the depth we can analyze via our various interpretations of what it means to be football-enamored people, there are oft-neglected dimensions of on-pitch occurrences that never meet the eye. Fundamental and microscopic minutiae that feed into everything on the spectrum of tangibility that anywhere from beer-sloshed drunks to hyper-perceptive analysts collectively cherish.
And that’s what we’ll be discussing today. Not the things, themselves, but the groundwork that enables them to happen. Today, we talk about scanning.
Let’s Talk About Vision, Baby
A common term used to reference midfielders that demonstrate rarefied passing panache is “vision”.
The widely-held notion is, typically, that these players can see what others can’t, enabling them to then act on those esoteric opportunities. We call these people maestros or artists, in large part, due to their ability to create beauty out of what we might perceive as nothingness–but it’s often not the technical, execution-level ability, itself, that manifests in these stunning passes.
It’s the amount of information they collect, and base their decisions off of, instead.
Strong passers, on their own, tend to have sharp technique. They can strike a ball cleanly, use a variety of surfaces to achieve the right spin or loft, and firmly deliver a pass with the correct weight. What tends to distinguish these players from the true artists is rarely this type of physical skill. I’d propose that there’s even a bit of a “passing technical ceiling” at play here–you can only be so good at delivering a ball to a teammate.
What can take this baseline competency (or excellence) and amplify it, tremendously, is this idea of “seeing the field” better. A player charged with distributing the ball to teammates thrives when they know more about the friends and foes around them. This enables the more outwardly physical skill to shine.
Football data is conveniently democratized–which is to say that everyone down on the field has access to the same raw information. Everyone watches the same fleeting thing. Players react to stimuli, patterns emerge, tendencies are exposed–and yet, nearly all of it disappears into thin air. Countless details are left unobserved and uncaptured, many of which could possess the keys to breaking the deadlock. Our challenge is to snatch as many of these as possible, and hold on tight.
For players who absorb a greater proportion of their surroundings, they can begin to distinguish themselves by virtue of what may seem like exclusive insights, but is really the product of perceptive diligence. The maestros we tend to see deciphering matches are usually the ones that’ve shrewdly picked up on what others haven’t, taking this initially equal resource and having made more of it than those around them. It’s quite the limitless edge to attain–and once you’ve learned to do it, what you produce on the field begins to elevate.
No Straightjackets in North London
Let’s take this Ndombele clip as an example.
Tanguy’s elusive maneuver is undoubtedly worthy of pub cheer status. He slips away from two defenders, one of whom is arguably one of the best 6s in world football, and then proceeds to deliver a tightly packaged ball into his teammate in on goal. It’s a lovely snippet.
But what makes this sequence happen is hardly Ndombele’s dribbling or passing ability, believe it or not–it’s those two little looks he takes. Feel free to watch the clip again. One occurs before the pass is played, and the other as it’s fired towards him. Those scans unlock the entire thing.
With two sharp turns of the head, Ndombele intelligently captures several bits of data that instruct his next moves. First, he recognizes that Fernandinho has been drawn wide, as outlined below, leaving a gap between the Brazilian and the nearest blindside defender. It’s a nice slot to operate within, so Ndombele clamors for the ball.
Though City’s defensive configuration isn’t quite visible from our camera angle, when the glance is made, it’s clear that Tanguy also observes how Fabian Delph is drawn a bit high (something we’ll note when the video pans), while Maxwel Cornet is dancing along the offside line. He collects some info from the attacking phase ahead of him that suggest a potential opportunity. Note taken.
Once the ball is played, he takes another quick look. Here, he’s able to notice Sterling charging on his back, a defensive presence whose physical bias to cut out that negative ball to the orange centerback encourages the then-Lyon MF’s forward initiative.
As he turns back towards the ball, the final tidbit of environmental awareness is an interpretation of Fernandinho’s sudden adjustment to react to the new pass, and his subsequent change in momentum.
Without these collected observations, Ndombele could’ve never crafted such a fine solution. Many players would’ve made the mistake of darting between the enticing Dinho / Raz seam, but this would’ve invariably resulted in getting steamrolled by the Brazilian, enthusiastically looking to cover that precise gap. Our perceptive midfielder observes this and factors it into his escape plan, yielding the ideation of an even better idea.
So what is it?
With a handful of mental snapshots depicting what’s around him, Ndombele carves out something few others would think of.
First, he makes a threatening jab in the direction of the seam, suggesting that (as many other players of equivalent on-paper ability would) he might want to penetrate through that defensive hole. In doing so, Fernandinho accelerates to close it down, Delph steps even higher to anticipate the break-through (off-screen), and Tanguy makes his situational exit out the other side.
Now that he’s out of trouble, his next step is to casually waltz towards the opposite direction in which he wants to play the ball. For players that are as observant as he is, these are the types of moves that make slight chances turn into glaring opportunities.
Xavi used to remark that the challenge was rarely finding the ball he wanted to play, but rather the decoy that’d make his true selection even more promising. He’d pick out a pass, then perform a maneuver or body-gesture that would draw the defender (marking his target) out, and then finally play the real ball. This is what Ndombele has done so seemingly-effortlessly, here.
The Frenchman’s leftward movement exudes the swagger of a player that’s just Houdini-ed the eventual EPL Champions’ trap, but it’s deliberate. With only a few dynamic touches, and two ostensible, ballnear targets in Depay and Aouar, the artist is able to further lure the defense out of position and away from the opening he originally observed for Cornet. In response to Ndombele’s shoulders and suggested direction, Laporte falls for the trap and turns to cover the Lyon stars between the lines, shifting his focus away from the more direct threat in behind him.
Now, we can also more clearly see Delph caught out of position, too–as if Burnley’s newest marquee signing needed a head start to win that footrace!
Knowing exactly where he wanted to go from the moment of the initial scan, Ndombele finally cashes in on his opportunity. A delicate but firm through-ball is punched through City’s defense, and is a harbinger of things to come across both legs. The Ligue 1 side, a team full of budding young players soon to be picked off like apples by the world’s elite, were Pep Guardiola’s boogeymen in the 2019 Champions League.
The Timebomb Dilemma & LensCrafters
But there’s still more the now-Tottenham midfielder can teach us.
Players like Ndombele tend to have the reputation that they already know their next move before the ball gets to them. It’s easy to see why. But it’s not only the execution of a scan that paves the road, here, it’s the timing of it all. Ndombele scans often, and critically, his final peek comes at the last possible second.
In order to think various steps ahead, like he has, you’ve got to have a mental map that properly reflects the current state of affairs. This sport is so dynamic that without the habit of refreshing the images around us at the last possible second, we quickly get left behind. A picture depicting City’s defensive configuration even one moment earlier would’ve guided Tanguy to an entirely different solution–and likely one whose window for success, by now, would’ve already slammed shut. It’s a game of flashing lights and impossibly fine margins.
The Football Fanalytics fellas put it quite simply:
” […] and also, bringing it back down to the bottom, standard, basic level of football we all have a go at playing: how many times do we all get the ball and think we’re playing a first time pass out to our left–and the player who was at your left has now moved!? […] yeah, that’s what happens. All the time. […] it’s no coincidence that the top players are doing this.”Ryan Bailey & Mark Carey for The Football Fanalytics Podcast, Episode 40 – A Closer Look into “Scanning”
You can listen to more, here.
Every millisecond that cognitive GPS is out of date, the further away our executed action will be from the context in which it was mentally designed. We glance, devise a plan, and then look to make it happen–but if the waters in which we let our creation sail have had seconds upon seconds to unravel differently than the reference we used as our blueprint, our hopeful idea is in grave danger of sinking.
I call this the Time-Bomb Dilemma. The second we see something, the clock starts to tick.
One of the empirical trade-offs in sports like football is that wide-open, clear-cut chances only live for mere instants. The worse an opportunity is, the less the defense will leap to protect it. As passers, we seek the best openings, but the caveat is their exceptionally transient existence. The “bigger the threat”, the better chance we have to convert it into a goal, meaning that these are certainly the types of gifts we want to take–but despite diametrically opposed intentions, that competitive enthusiasm is shared with the opponent. They want to prevent it just as badly as we want to make it happen.
So, in order to take advantage of these glimmering, evanescent chances, we can’t allow too much time to persist between their discovery and our capitalization. The most valuable things are the most fleeting.
In these terms, the stages of “seeing the pass”, “thinking about how you’ll make the pass”, and “doing it” are simply too far apart. Too many opportunities wither away by virtue of the protagonist’s failure to minimize the delay between perception, interpretation, and action. It takes too long, leaving what may have been promising ideas flailing in choppy waters. Missed opportunities, wayward passes, and intercepted ideas galore. There are few, if any, fields in which our work is so immediately deemed obsolete.
Our first challenge, therefore, is not to improve perception, interpretation, or execution individually, but to actually draw them closer together. We want to have had eyes on our prey just before we pull the trigger.
Now, you might reasonably ask, “Well hold up, why can’t we improve perception? Isn’t that way more tangible than ‘narrowing the gaps’ between what our eyes and feet respectively do? That sounds like a better approach to get our players to see more, doesn’t it?”
And while it’s a excellent point, the short answer is no–at least as far as I’m concerned–and this motions to a timely clarification. Amongst us exists an unruly misnomer: football’s notion of “vision”.
Many will try to solve this problem of insufficiently rich or debilitatingly archaic mental maps by emphasizing the idea of “seeing more“–some wispy and dismissive idea that purportedly explains how these talented players do the impossible, via the usage of some innate and unattainable gift. It suggests that these artists are like superheroes, peering through walls at robbers in action, with eyesight superior to the average player. But this isn’t the case. It’s not so much that they see more things. They see more often.
The fact of the matter is, our human vision is hardly the issue, here.
While “seeing more” often suggests that some eyes have the ability to capture what others don’t, the best players aren’t just born with artisan lenses. Further, even my primitive understanding of optometry leads me to believe that the eyes aren’t muscles that get better with more use; they’re sensors that, if anything, deteriorate over time. Our raw senses can’t be honed with practice. If we could train our eyes to perceive with greater depth and clarity by, say, squinting at far-away things, the glasses business would’ve gone under, long ago. We can’t sharpen our players’ literal vision.
Recency & Frequency
This is a dead-end path many coaches stumble down when pondering how to improve their players’ field awareness. They get stuck on the impossible task of refining their team’s sight, perhaps dreaming of a headgear gizmo that pries eyelids wider, or special pre-game drops that enhance perception–but once they’ve drawn enough blanks, they just assume it’s all congenital. But not you. You get that these things can be worked on, we just have to think about it differently–or at least you will soon.
The way we “see more” is by ramping up how many pictures we take in any given timeframe. It’s not a resolution arms race, but a framerate one.
Imagine trying to draw a conclusion from an image when a gif of the same moment is available, or even a movie. The more stills we capture, the more fluid our sequence flows. Instead of a mere point for each neighboring player, we perceive a vector, and perhaps even a progression of each’s changes.
Another way of looking at this is that keeping a head on a permanent swivel is simply a way of casting a wide net. If we scan once every, say, 10 seconds, our likelihood of finding one of these jackpot opportunities and seizing the occasion is exceedingly slim. As we turn the knob and look, look, look, we start to maximize how we intake that democratized data, at large. The more often we pick our heads up, the fewer things go unnoticed, the more patterns become recognized, and the more chances we can make ours.
And so, our challenge unfolds in two critical directions: recency and frequency.
On the one hand, The Time Bomb Dilemma cements the importance of urgency and immediacy between our visual intake of potential opportunities, and the execution of our plans. No matter how good our players are at crafting ideas with contextual data, if they’re rooted in pre-conceived understandings of the pitch, they’ll never be as effective as how they drew it up in their heads. In order to dial this in, we desperately need to teach players to scan as close to receiving the ball as possible. The nearer that mental snapshot of the field is to when we deliver our actual maneuver, the more runway we give our execution and interpretation skills to actually take off. This timing is the limiting factor when it comes to implementation.
Part two speaks to our inability to sharpen the quality of our image, leading us to instead improve how many snapshots we take. As Frank Lampard’s father used to yell at him from the sidelines of his youth matches, “pictures, pictures, pictures.” The shutter opens, and it closes. Over and over again. Our players need to be in perpetual update-mode. It’s like those old Crest commercials: if we’re not scanning, we’re missing things.
These are the two dials that we have our fingers on, the two angles through which we can improve “player vision”, and yet, it’s still awfully hard to do so. Some might have qualms with how hand-wavy this all sounds and demand some cold hard facts. Where’s the data supporting all this theory?
Others might actually buy into it, but be frustrated by the lack of resources on how to implement these ideas into their team. How can you coach scanning? What does this all mean, for me?
Well, I’m here to try to answer both of those questions–or at least give you something to think about with respect to each. Here’s a quick preview of what you can expect in the coming sections.
I’ll start by tackling the first issue, as I showcase some brilliant, numerical support for the things I’ve sought to phrase in these preceding paragraphs. We’re talking decades of studies carried out by some of the world leaders in sports science, folks, so strap in and get ready to have your mind blown.
I’ll carry on with a discussion on how I design these types of exercises, games and environments that get players looking, looking, looking like they never have before. A workflow exposé, if you will.
Finally, I’ll devote the second half to just walking you through concrete ideas. Diagrams, outlines, everything described in full. All ready for you to use on your own training ground. We’ve got pages and pages of content just waiting for you to read it.
So with that, let’s begin with objective 1: the research.
Friends, Welcome to the Lab
It goes without saying that speaking about this topic in 2021 is aided by a recent spike in interest regarding “how players look”. It isn’t a new skill, per se, but there’s certainly a new audience for it.
You can gain a sense for this by the traction UEFA A License Coach Dan Wright received on his recent sharing of an Arsene Wenger talk, discussing scanning behavior.
The video did the rounds on Twitter, but it’s not like this is the first time Dan has embraced the subject. He’s been ahead of the curve for quite a while. 10 years ago, he posted this:
A year later,
It sure looks like he’s an aficionado of the topic, as am I.
But Dan is only one of thousands and thousands of coaches out there. His appreciation for visual perception was (and is) enterprising, but unfortunately, not representative of everyone. Many people haven’t felt the impetus to scratch beneath the surface and truth seek–and while we might lament that fact, it’s hard to be upset by it.
Historically, when players play well, the things they do with the ball are the brass tacks. George Best was an exceptional dribbler, Beckenbauer a most-elegant defender, and Ronaldinho an exquisite entertainer. These are the tantalizingly juicy, low-hanging fruit; it feels like almost an insult to crave anything else.
Yet, there’s always been intrigue in what talented players do without the ball, as well. The sphere is the natural fixation of this game, but somewhere along the line, someone observed that many top players distinguish themselves by what they do without it. It’s a clever inversion–but just how much time do we attribute to each phase? How often are we on the ball vs. off of it?
A Caveman’s Exercise
If we were to, say, primitively divide up the total match duration amongst the 22 on-field participants, each individual will only have 4 of the total 90 to actually execute something brilliant on their own. It’s a rough starting point, but sufficient for someone, somewhere, to have thought to themselves, “maybe those other 86 minutes can tell us something, too”.
Yet, in spite of this ostensibly gaping divide, few players are fondly recalled for their, say, scintillating .. off-the-ball runs, or brilliant .. body positioning–if any, at all. You never hear “ugh yeah. he was such an elite rest defender”.
However, the distinction I’d like to make is that these things aren’t as far apart as they may seem. It is, perhaps, noteworthy to observe that many of those that are remembered have paved the road for their technical and tactical skills with what they do when no one’s watching. It is the 4 minutes that earn the glory, but the 86 that enable the limelight to shine at all. One is the main actor–the other, the entire supporting cast.
It may, therefore, seem axiomatic to double down on training the habits that apply to that overwhelming majority of our time on the pitch–namely, those 86 ball-free minutes we spend wandering around it–yet what do most people actually do? They allocate an incredibly disproportionate number of minutes to that tiny sliver. We teach players to be excellent when the ball finally arrives, but often neglect to instill the qualities necessary during the near 1.5 hours leading up to it; something about that doesn’t feel quite right.
Let’s pause to consider wingers. Entire training sessions are spent on 1v1 attacking, practicing for an exciting moment that .. might concretely occur only two or three times per game. These may be decisive moments, yes, and may be critical to supplement the team’s cumulative machine with new features and capabilities–but when viewed through this lens, it appears as though much of our coaching efforts are misguided.
So from the coach’s perspective, why does this happen? Well, the simple answer is that it’s much easier to work on the tangible things, than those that’re rarely ever noticed. 1v1s are pretty trivial to create exercises for. Curating environments for the other 86 is a much more abstract exercise. This is completely understandable and describes how many coaches have persisted through time. You focus on what people focus on, and deliver results accordingly, because despite our hand-wavy 90-minute-distribution-assumption, it’s been historically hard to convey the importance of doing otherwise.
A Noble Trendsetter’s Exercise
Imagine we were a coach interested in re-divying-up our efforts. The high-level argumentation in these previous paragraphs has done its job in proving that there might be other things out there worth practicing than the on-ball skills. How might we go about doing that? What’s the best way to portion-out our training minutes between the 4 and 86?
One intelligent method for anyone reevaluating how to spend their time is to start by examining where the available data is.
The nodes in which we have the most metrics and ways to measure performance might be the most logical to emphasize–since progress, in these places, can be most accurately assessed. With numbers at our disposal, our rationale for switching to work on new corners of the game can be supported by the feedback loops we can anticipate when we get there. So where exactly might that lead us?
Well, right back to same spot.
Today, there are wonderfully useful stats that show anywhere from take-on completion percentages, to progressive passes per ninety, to how many more goals are expected to go in when a certain keeper is in net. These degrees of sophistication are superb, for what they’re worth–but once again, they all contribute to our attribution of importance to 1v1s, through balls, and keeper shot-stopping; all 4-minute skills.
Everyone looks at these numbers, they now feed into transfer talks and negotiations, and they’re often used to pin talented options against one another. It makes sense that they would draw training-worthy attention. Even when we try to make strides in the right direction, and tip the scales away from the 4 and towards the 86, we find ourselves clamoring for the facts that can argue in our favor. There seems so little to rationalize why we’d ever depart from our standard method of doing things. Yet, a tiny voice inside us demands we keep pushing.
So alright, dammit, where are the numbers that reference the rest? Without a clear way to pinpoint what these “behaviors” are, to begin with, let alone have something numerical to show for our efforts, how can we justify practicing these wispy actions? No-ball stats like “distance travelled” can be misleading, while tracking data typically needs to be used in conjunction with other, more intuitive metrics (to provide them with context, and to avoid being a mere flood of information). We need something simple that can indicate where we’re starting, and how we’ll eventually get better. We’re floating in a pool of intangibility, here, and urgently need an anchor.
Is there any more revealing information we can capture from those 86 minutes? Someone, help!
Velkommen Til Norge!
One day, just over two decades ago, a particularly sharp guy started to notice something that might begin to answer that question: the emergence of a trend that suggested, not only the existence of a subcutaneous, off-the-ball skill that clearly differentiated the world’s elite, but that these tiny details were quantifiable–and that they could, perhaps, be connected to things we much more clearly understood.
His observation was both promising and compelling. Isolating these subtle, “game-unlocking behaviors” was an impressive feat unto itself, but the prospect of finding data-driven correlations between 86-minute skills and 4-minute skills was somewhat unheard of.
This could be the missing link to prove why training the far more common, often-overlooked details can be way more important (perhaps even 22 times as important) as honing the rare, flickering instances we so superfluously dwell on. With these numbers in hand, it might be easier to persuade the coaching audience as to why devoting the majority of our efforts towards things that happen only ~4.5% of the game is foolish–because there just might, in fact, be tangible elements within the other 95.5%.
Our pioneer goes by the name of Geir. The esteemed, and now world-renowned, Norwegian Professor Geir Jordet.
The skill? Well, I’m sure it’s hardly a surprise by now–but this skill is, in fact, “scanning”, or the fascinating art of visual exploration. It’s the way in which athletes intake information, how they can dramatically set themselves apart from the rest, and it’s something that, I think, we can actually train. This is the jackpot we’ve been praying for.
Per his episode on The Sports Psych Show with Dan Abrahams, Professor Jordet started his now-illustrious career with a clunky VHS camera in the frostbitten Norwegian preseason, filming individual players. Lasered-in on a single man for the entire match, panning as the footballer moved, he captured everything about their behavior during the 86. Over time, he accumulated hundreds of hours of footage covering between 200-250 players. A labor of love, indeed.
Jordet’s initial focus was on attention, but the majority of existing studies took on a more in-vitro form that, he felt, left gaps in the research. Behavioral interviews and lab testing environments aside, Jordet was more compelled by the in-vivo opportunities that most clearly reflected how players acted in their natural habitats: simple game recordings. By observing his subjects, unperturbed, the young psychologist earned himself a pristine peephole through which he could study habits, stimuli, reactions, and more–without anything more than permission to watch.
From early on, Jordet had an inkling that these periodic looks were the answer. From any of the magnified snippets he filmed, it might be the idiosyncrasy that leaps out most quickly. Just wait for the Gavi gifs, featured later, to see what I mean. A nervous tick, perhaps–or maybe the trick to everything. Over time, and after obsessing over more and more zoomed-in Zinedine Zidane clips, his suspicions became more and more concrete. These momentary gaze-departures, somehow, had to be connected to performance.
And connected, they were.
As his education persisted, and as he worked past some peer resistance towards his budding research, Jordet stumbled upon a stack of DVDs containing imagery from roughly 60 games’-worth of the Sky Sports’ EPL Player Cam. Suddenly, he had access to the same video end-product he’d been painstakingly stockpiling for years–but with players of the finest caliber. Now, at The University of Groningen, he dove headfirst into the goldmine. In his own words, here’s what he emerged with:
“What we found was really what became the basis for the next level […] we found some really incredible results. Of the 118 players that we had in that sample, number 1 and 2 on scanning behavior [were] Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Those were the two most frequent scanners. And this was back in the Premier League from, I think, 2005-ish. Then […], because we had a bigger number of players like this, we could do a little bit more sophisticated statistics […], we found really big, close relationships between scanning behavior and performance. So big, that for the longest time I didn’t dare to speak about this because it didn’t make sense–it cannot be that clear of a link.“Professor Geir Jordet, The Sports Psych Show, Ep. 153
Today, after 25 student projects that’ve each contributed to this snowballing body of research, and vastly improved camera technology, Jordet and his team have collected findings that nearly irrefutably prove his hypothesis. Controlling for all the peripheral externalities, his lab has shown that the more players scan, the more likely they are to do “something sensible and high quality with the ball–the more likely they are to perform better”.
So let’s look at the data. That’s why we’re here after all, right? We, too, had a feeling (though perhaps in less of a Magellan-esque fashion as the Norwegian did 20+ years ago) that perception was key to the maestros of the modern era. Our missing link was the proof.
To start our quest, host Dan Abrahams poses an excellent question, something to the tune of “what performance, exactly, are we actually tying this to, Geir?” and it’s a poignant thing to clarify. Does scanning make us shoot more accurately..? Sprint more efficiently..? Can we pair this new measurable with a more familiar outcome?
Jordet responds that 3-4 years ago, his team performed a study with Arsenal, following them in every single home game (~20) of the 17/18 season. Here, with 3 separate cameras, he not only surveilled individual motions, but the context in which they were made. As players received balls and played them off, he annotated estimations of “pass difficulty”, individual differences between players, and more, eventually arriving at a simple conclusion: more scanning leads to a higher probability of hitting a teammate with a pass. Maybe Thiago wasn’t just paranoid. Maybe he was right.
This is our first apparent correlation. Looking helps you distribute. That’s a fantastic start.
Today, we can even more thirstily submerge ourselves in his findings by reading, arguably, one of Jordet’s most illuminating publications: The Journal of Sports Science’s “Scanning activity in elite youth football players“. This page-turner, released in June of this very year, was co-written (if not spearheaded) by Jordet’s PhD student Karl Marius Aksum–another highly-regarded young researcher coming out of the Norges idrettshøgskole (NIH), or Norwegian School of Sports Science. We’ll touch more upon his individual insights, later. Their joint paper is absolutely worth a careful read, but due to some of the technical jargon, I’ll do my best to summarize things, for you, here.
Citing Jordet’s previous research, alongside others, the publication begins by restating some widely accepted findings. Amongst these, the notion that–as the Norwegian alluded to on the podcast–EPL studies had already proven that there existed a “positive relationship between the frequency of scanning and pass completion.”
It also references some conveniently summarizing, additional notes–including the discovery that higher defensive pressure leads to drops in scanning behavior (presumably due to the protective need to focus on the ball when an opponent is close), higher scan frequencies (a term we’ll delve into shortly) yields lower turnover rates, and that winners of individual awards in football had a propensity to boast stronger visual exploratory behaviors than their competitors.
Yet, despite this aforementioned wealth of scientific revelation, the authors propose that there still exists too many conflicting findings. Furthermore, a palpable dearth of youth focus in the literature has left the developmental stage that’s most-capable of improving these qualities with little analysis to grasp onto. More, still, there was nothing that distinguished how these behaviors varied across positions, and whether they manifested themselves consistently, or with additional differences from one area to the next.
That was, until now.
Granularly inspecting the 2018 UEFA U17 and U19 semis and finals, the team set out to fill the cracks with intellectual tar, if you will. They wanted to tackle all the holes they could. The publication is very meticulous, so to begin, I’ll remark that “scans” are clearly defined as “self-initiated head movements in which the player’s face is temporarily directed away from the ball.” We’ve already got an intuitive understanding, probably, but it’s interesting to see how the term is more factually defined.
“Scan frequency”, as previously alluded to, is the result of dividing the number of scans tallied in the 10 seconds leading up to receiving a pass, by those 10 seconds. A player that achieves a scan frequency of 0.2 scans per seconds (or s/s) has looked away from the ball, to observe something else, twice in the given timeframe. 0.5 s/s is quite good, a number indicating that when the player anticipates a potential, eventual pass, they’re looking around once every other second. Numbers like 1 s/s are simply unheard of, for a contextual ceiling. No one seems to be able to maintain a cadence of looking once per second, for ten straight. The “good” players in the world, in the words of Arsene Wenger, tend to hit somewhere between 0.4-0.6 s/s. Only a select handful of superhumans have ever really surpassed that.
We move onto the methods. The general lab procedure is one in which these scans are thoroughly jotted down by hand. Computer vision has accelerated in recent years, but isn’t quite to the level where the “coding”, as it’s called in psychology data processing tasks like these, can be reliably automated. People must watch the games and manually take notes.
But this method of data collection doesn’t seem super .. scientific, does it? You might imagine that these human machines would introduce variability, randomness, and inconsistency into the study–and you’d be entirely correct.
Don’t fret, so did Jordet’s team.
As I learned is common practice in these types of qualitative data-funnels, a nifty statistical metric called Cohen’s kappa is applied to mitigate these concerns. κ is effectively a measure of “inter-rater reliability”. It quantifies the precision of Jordet’s test environment and its categorizers’ ability to correctly discern when a player touches the ball, when they scan, body position, defensive pressure, and pass results, all with respect to their simultaneously rating partner. Without something like this, we might have two people that vastly misinterpret one of these perceived actions. With it, and especially with this test’s strong κ values that range between 0.889 and 1 for the previous list of criteria (the closer to 1, the more similarly our subjects see the same thing), we can understand how strongly correlated our friends that take the footage and transform it into data truly are.
From here, the study proceeds to document some more in-the-weeds methodology. If you’re interested, feel free to go back and read, but instead of getting bogged down, we’ll keep things light and jump to the results.
Jordet’s team found that players who completed a successful pass after receiving the ball had, on average, committed 0.43 s/s in the 10 seconds leading up to the move. Those whose passes failed only made 0.36 s/s. For triumphant “short breakthrough” passes–balls that surpassed one line of defense–this number jumped up to 0.46 s/s, while failures settled around 0.30 s/s.
This, alongside the similar juxtapositions of scanning frequency for complete vs. incomplete “long breakthroughs”, “across the pitch” passes (switches), and “forward without breakthroughs”, supports the general narrative that the harder a pass is to make, the more pre-emptive scanning is demanded. We can flip this to refine our understanding. The players that are able to pull off those seemingly inconceivable threaded needles tend to be the ones that are most diligently checking their shoulders beforehand. Nice to know.
From here, a variety of hypotheses are confirmed with additional findings. There’s some discussion on how scanning impacts how many touches players take after receiving, what body orientations (forwards, sideways, backwards) exhibit higher scan frequencies, and how the timing of the final scan corresponds to the way players are facing.
The subsequent section deals with defensive pressure, observing how the “tighter a player is, on your back”, the less likely we are to be adventurous with our owl-like glances.
It continues to elaborate on starting positions, with data showing that center mids possess the top ability in this regard (0.48 s/s on average), followed by CBs with 0.46 s/s, wingers with 0.42 s/s, widebacks with 0.32 s/s, and finally, strikers with 0.27 s/s. These numbers assert that exploratory habits look differently in different zones, arguably suggesting that the way in which we train our target 9 ought not be the same way in which we train enganches or trequartistas.
The final results stage presents the differences in how close different age groups are able to get their last-gasp look to when they actually touch the ball. We presented this concept as a arms race of proximity or “recency”, before. Here, we can witness something quantifiable that shows how the older and (in theory) better these players get, the less time they allow between seeing and receiving. U19 players averaged 1.59 seconds between their last scan and reception, compared to U17s who only hit 1.92 s.
While this doesn’t quite confirm that this recency idea is directly correlated to pass completion percentages, it does show how the faster the game gets, the “faster” the scans must be, too. As the competition level increases, players have clearly adapted to push their timing towards the end we originally proclaimed would be most ideally beneficial. This is also good to confirm. The only thing left desired would be proof that the U19s were more consistently able to perform better, on the same terms, rather than implicitly assuming that fact.
Next, the discussion section opens with Jordet’s group proposing a new key term: ecological psychology, the notion that “individuals who demonstrate the ability to explore their environment effectively and act upon appropriate information are thought to have a major advantage compared to others”. They relish in the fact that the paper’s findings are consistent with the theory.
The result-explanation ensues, covering many of the same observations I’ve already elucidated, here. They argue that “by completing the last scan close to ball reception, players may increase their situational awareness of dynamically evolving game situations”, a mirroring of the precise line of thought I conjured just two paragraphs ago. Once more, the wording tiptoes around the fact that there isn’t quite the empirical support to back up a performance link (i.e. no correlations between this timing and pass success rate), but rather that this seems like a logical conclusion given the collected evidence.
Players that scan less under pressure are justified, as we surmised, by the need to visually hone in on the ball when the threat of losing it is high.
The greater proportion of central players with high scanning frequencies, compared to those that habitually occupy the width, is legitimized by the fact that they’re immersed in a greater number of stimuli. The sideline protects one side of them from presenting any relevant information, meaning that their need to look around is mitigated by their circumstances.
To conclude the journal entry, the authors present some practical implications of their research. The recommendation, on behalf of the team, is that coaches investigate opportunities to incorporate scanning behavior as an “integral part of player and team development, dynamically interlinked with physical, technical, and tactical development.”
The writers carry on by saying,
“From an ecological psychology perspective on skill development, scanning can be best developed through representative tasks practiced in game-specific environments to promote effective perception-action couplings (Renshaw et al., 2019). In addition, our results show that the requirements of scanning activity across different playing positions are different. Therefore, coaches need to create position specific training exercises to enhance the scanning capabilities of players in different player positions. (Otte et al., 2019)”Karl Marius Aksum, Marius Pokolm, Christian Thue Bjorndal, Robert Rein, Daniel Memmert & Geir Jordet in Scanning activity in elite youth football players, 2021
With that, let’s dive right back into our analysis.
Done Reading–For Now!
The deeper you dive into Jordet’s research, the more consumed by it you become. Hunch after suspicious hunch gets confirmed with data, and greatly elaborated on–comprising an incredibly reinforcing mechanism that, admittedly, keeps you hungry for more scientific attestations.
First you thought those peek-happy midfielders were potentially passing so well because of their pivoting heads, and you were right. Next, maybe, you had a feeling that not all “looks” are the same. You might be delighted to learn about the distinctions between smooth pursuits, saccades, pursuit tracking, and fixations referenced in the group’s 2020 publication. Perhaps your mind wandered as to what other angles of visual perception can be measured–to which, you’ll also find an answer. Scanning frequency is what we’ve examined, above, but scan excursion, scan symmetry, and even scan deception are things these trailblazers have studied. That list goes on.
For those very reasons, I’d highly, highly recommend reading as much of this lab’s work as you can get your hands on. What’s outlined here is cursory, at best. It’s a simpleton’s summary of one paper. But without getting too wrapped up in all that we could keep learning, let’s return to Jordet’s most recent work–because his lab’s concluding words will be instructive for the rest of our inquisition.
The group’s final proposition in the 2021 paper is a bit of a gift. After parsing through the data itself, their suggestion is that these topics need to become established a cornerstone of youth development. The claim is supported by seeing how these perceptive qualities, clearly, only get better from U17 to U19 players–meaning that others must keep up to stay afloat.
Their encouragement towards mixing purportedly “scanning” exercises with ones that demand authentic “perception-action couplings” is also crucial, and further reflected in recent podcast interviews. We aren’t just scanning with no subsequent move. It’s designing activities in which players look to find things, and then do something with that information.
“…yes. I think the optimal training is doing both, together. Now, most people will agree with that, but in practice, it’s not really done… Because, again, what coaches look at and what players tend to focus on is still the technical part. It’s still that physical part. You can say that this should be integrated, but to actually do that in practice is still something people around the world still fail to do.”Professor Geir Jordet, The Sports Psych Show, Ep. 153
Others have seemed to catch on, too. Read TOVO Founder Todd Beane’s observation on the subject.
Karl Marius Aksum, from the June 18th episode of Gary Curneen’s Modern Soccer Coach Podcast, elaborates that the session creation guidelines ought to look something like this:
- Needs to be position-specific
- Cant be decontextualized
- Needs decision making that is informed by the perception
- Needs to include relevant execution
Item 1 means that when we dive into drill design, we must try to avoid training everyone the same way. At a minimum, we should look for nuances between the scanning behaviors of different positions, and look to isolate those details in individual activities. We might not have separate games for every single position, but a specific training for center midfielders, for instance, would be useful (and we’ll do just that).
Item 2 can be interpreted in a few ways, but I’m choosing to understand Karl’s words as an expression of the importance of presenting particular game scenarios rather than something solely viewable from a distance. Constantly performing scrimmages probably won’t suffice. We want distinct situations with relevant conditions and sensory factors that replicate the in-game milieu.
Item 3 suggests that our drills should incorporate some level of a path that parts ways–with the choice as to which road to follow being indicated solely by the info collected via scanning. If the resolutions to the game’s problems are too easy to find, without the desired habits, we’re likely not learning efficiently enough.
Item 4 proposes a tangential thought–the notion that the subsequent action must make sense. We don’t want games that require looking for things and performing bizarre behaviors like hopping on one foot. See a passing option, receive, play it. That’s more like it.
Time to Run With It
In the upcoming sections, we’ll take these expert recommendations and adjoin them with my own philosophy. More specifically, the paragraphs to come will outline how we can take our initial appreciation for some of the finer things in football, amplify those inklings with science and cold hard facts, and then weave in our own approaches to problem solving to produce player curriculum that far surpasses what currently exists.
We depart this section of the piece with the assurance that the numbers are, in fact, behind us. Before, we lamented that the 4 minute skills were so tangible and so much easier to coach than the 86, that it made them utterly obvious to devote time towards. Considering the comparative difficulty made us understand why many often ignore the latter, entirely.
Now, with the cognizance of a specific action within this realm of more ethereal sporting concepts, that opens up such a clear-cut world of performance possibility–namely, these quickfire keeks–we have our connection between the two domains of football skills, and a concrete objective to work on. In order to improve passing, a 4 minute skill that’s ceiling-hampered unless we break through it, we must improve how players look.
All that’s left .. is to actually make the games.
Appetizers: Drill Design Principles
Despite our initial, Ndombele-inspired intuition and newly-acquired, research-backed affirmations, visual perception is still a fundamentally slippery skill to coach. Believe it or not, even with everything we’ve just discussed, this may actually be “the hard part”.
As I preliminarily did some background research for this piece, curiously Google searching for any scanning training sessions that had already been drawn up and shared on the web, I was surprised by the desert of compelling options. It’s proven clear to me that people evidently appreciate the edge that visual perception habits can provide, on the surface, but that there’s still a gap to bridge in terms of effectively teaching those skills to players. My hope is to begin to contribute a different perspective to the budding literature.
Now, before I begin simply spitting out drills and sessions like they’re objective truths, I’m going to make it super clear that that’s not how I like to do things.
I am (as I’m sure many of you are) someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy when others tell me what to do–so I’m not going to do that to any of you. Lots of people in the sporting world dish out solutions to problems like they’re the holy grail final answers, but I’d be pretty arrogant to suggest that this is the definitive guide to turning Joey and Jimmy into Xavi and Gavi. It isn’t.
Instead, my goal here is not only to walk you through a few original exercises, themselves, but also the reasoning behind them, why I’ve made various choices, and so forth. It’s a long article, but that’s the reason why. I want to do the drill design process justice and not simply show the end product. This is, hopefully, as much of a piece on how to create these types of sessions, as it is a physical collection of the results. This is me, hopefully, not just giving you fish, but helping teach you how to.
Above all else, the ideas below are just that–ideas. Places for you to start and run along with. Everyone’s performance environments are vastly distinct and unique, meaning that what I’ve drawn up may not be best suited for you. If that’s the case, I would more than encourage you to adapt these foundational concepts to something that’d better flourish within your training framework.
Football is something for us all to interpret, so if you’ve got any suggestions, feedback, criticism, or other comments, I’d love to hear them and learn from all of you, too.
So with that said, let’s get into five guiding concepts that I use when creating exercises to elicit specific new behaviors. These are principles and frameworks you might look to employ, too. It’s not an exhaustive list, but they’re among the chief tools in my toolbox, and applied all throughout the exercises to come. Perceptive zeal is a tough concept to build up, so consider this our scaffolding.
With actions like scanning, these tiny things that are far more intangible than their surface-level substitutes like passing or receiving alone, one of the primary difficulties many coaches experience is in their efforts to isolate the desired behaviors.
“Finishing” sessions train “finishing”, and it’s pretty clear-cut, but what exactly constitutes a visual exploration session? What does that activity look like?
Most coaches will reasonably start with something along the lines of passing and receiving. Small-sided games, keep-away exercises, and other environments in which they’d love for their players to exhibit these desired habits. The midfield is where Ndombele thrives, after all, and this distribution angle is a huge focus of Jordet’s research.
The problem is that a mere possession activity may implicitly encourage players to observe their surroundings–and it certainly leaves the door open for individual exploration–but even with some coaching points and deliberate behavioral encouragement, plenty of sharp technical talents can succeed without improving their pre-existing methods. There’s nothing fundamentally requiring them to modify anything. All your players will have played these games, without the new requirements, countless times before; it’s too easy for them not to learn.
Moreover, when we place an emphasis on winning the game in a traditional activity, attention will divert to that objective. As the cliché goes, winning and learning rarely go hand in hand. In competitive environments in which short-term successes are incentivized over taking risks (gambles that may result in momentary setbacks, but eventual gains), these tricky, nuanced behaviors will be hard to improve upon.
For players who feel as though “strong showings” in training may bump their name up the coach’s pecking order, or for whom a series of small wins in practice can get the confidence ball rolling, pushing themselves to do anything new–movements or functions that might compromise the rewards they seek, today–will be completely counterintuitive. In unconstrained environments that are too forgiving, players will revert to what they know best, as it’s the easiest road to instantaneous victory. We want to forge a path along the road less travelled, and self-discovery can sometimes make it hard to remove the one-directional blinders.
Thus, we must depart from this shallow notion that telling our team in a simple 6 v 6 possession exercise to “look more” is sufficient.
In the aforementioned field research prior to writing this, nearly all of my miscellaneous “scanning training session” Google searches drew up this precise, lackluster approach: generalized drills masqueraded as visual perception practice. Wholly familiar sessions whose tantalizing, new focus was “keeping heads up”.
Sorry, but that’s not gonna cut it.
As coaches, we’re fighting against thousands and thousands of repetitions of behavior we’d like to correct–countless touches and passes and turns and moves that’ve, in one way or another, failed due to a lack of peripheral awareness. Arranging our team in situations they know all too well and simply telling them to … “do something differently” isn’t good enough.
It bears repeating that skills like “looking away from the ball as it’s coming at you” are hard, and for many players, involve completely re-wiring their way of doing almost everything. It’s our job to make them easier.
One angle by which we can push back on this overly laissez-faire coaching approach is to commit to performing targeted training sessions. These are activities designed to overload scanning behavior in a direct manner, with rewards placed in places that only those who do so, can actually get. Picture a cookie jar on the highest shelf, with a stepping stool labeled “check your shoulder”. Something like that.
This invariably tends to travel down the route of creating more abstract drills–situations that momentarily depart from the authentic field, but are much more capable of isolating our desired outcomes. I like this, and will do a lot of it in the coming paragraphs, but I know it’s a tad bit controversial.
There is undoubtedly room for discussion on the topic of hands-off training methods vs. a more curated style of concept demonstration (see Stop Romanticizing Rectangles: Why Euclid (and I) Would Object to the ‘Gamelike’ Obsession for plenty on that one)–but regardless of your stance, this discussion points towards a second angle we can all generally apply.
It’s a drill-vetting hurdle that I call The TNTP Test.
The TNTP Test
In any team, there’s always that one ~slightly annoying~ player that’s so focused on winning the training activity that they find ways to “game” your carefully designed system. These are hole-pokers in what we once considered water-tight ideas. They bend the rules and defeat the purpose–perhaps not even maliciously, but certainly perniciously–and force us to utter the famous words:
“That’s Not The Point!”
The TNTP Test is a reliability lens we all ought to filter our sessions through–regardless of how “gamelike” or abstract they may be. Once you’ve drawn something up, ask yourself: “can someone easily defeat the purpose of this activity?” If so, make adjustments accordingly. Employing this screening practice to our sessions takes what was originally an exasperating, non-cooperative player, and turns them into a handy tool. They’re the canary in the coal mine. Even if you’re only able to make one slight improvement each time you sketch something out, testing for weak-links prior to training, over the course of a season, will see the impermeability of your ideas steadily rise.
In the case of those widespread, purportedly “scan-improving”, basic possession drills, The TNTP Test returns a bright red “Fail” because that single skeevy sneaker will break the game with ease. Emphasis on winning the activity will discourage them, and even the team at large, from taking risks and suffering the embarrassment of, say, a poor touch after breaking a ball-staring gaze to blindside check. Afraid of making costly errors, they’ll keep their eyes focused on the ball, concentrate on execution, and will fail to grow in the sought-after direction. They might even win, celebrate, and .. completely miss the point of absolutely everything!
Thus, my proposition (and, yes, the way in which I back up the need for targeted training), is that in order to consistently pass The TNTP Test, we need ways to place players in uncomfortable environments that require looking over their shoulder–not standard spaces in which they’ve already creased detrimental habits over thousands of repetitions. Once the grooves for these better, neural pathways are first indented, then we can begin to dig deeper in more familiar spaces, but we can’t get to point B without first crossing A.
I’m also a huge proponent of steadiness in the rollout of any new principle or behavior to a group. We’ve got to take this complex idea that, only the absolute best in the world really execute with consistency, and break it up into digestible subcomponents. Expose the team to fundamentals piece by piece, and gradually ease them into wider applications.
A common mistake is to overwhelm too rapidly. We’ve got to treat the introduction of complex topics like a passenger plane looking to fly. Without a gradual runway that enables us to build some speed, what do we expect to happen? It certainly won’t look like the gif, below.
Ramping the group’s exposure will also keep them motivated and interested in the learning task, as opposed to discouraged. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and often, once we’ve overstepped, it can be hard to come back from. If we were to, say, leap ahead to exercise 8 before working the team through 1-7, the inevitable frustrations might transform into blockades. A smooth and carefully designed transition is a powerful tool for learning.
Another method for keeping this generation of increasingly impatient attention-spans engaged is to actually hide the true learning objectives. Sometimes, placing too much of a focus on the main point can actually make it harder to absorb. We want to avoid paralysis by analysis. Concealing skills may let the team perform the right behaviors before even realizing it.
Spinach Brownies are a term I’ve coined for exercises that help you do this: disguising developmentally nutritious ingredients inside a fun and tasty package–or in other words, wrapping beneficial behaviors or outcomes in games that the players will hardly suspect. We’ll definitely use a few of those, today.
For more on Spinach Brownies within the context of drill design, check out “Crossed World Cup” in How to Make your Strikers Play Like Erling Haaland, Part One. If you’re interested in how the same idea can be applied in arguments with football thinkers who disagree with you, see Stan Collymore Stirred the Pot, Now What?
The final hat I wear when I go to the drawing board is one in which I seek to give everything a purpose. Not in a virtue-signally type of way, but as an absolute to strive towards.
When in the drill design lab, I’m of the opinion that no creative decision ought to go un-scrutinized. It’s largely a byproduct of the ubiquitous design reviews I’ve been subject to in my more formal career, in which the tiniest cracks in the work you’ve sweat into are pried open with skeptical chisels. Your session plan or even individual activity units should be robust and free of random traits that could raise questions if placed under the microscope.
If you have a certain number of players on each side, know why. If the field takes on a specific size or shape, know why. If scoring or incentivization (points) is, at all, idiosyncratic or otherwise atypical, know why.
Eliminate those decisions in which you include neutral players “just because”, flip a coin to pick between two wide goals over one centrally, or spin a wheel to choose how long you’ll run the exercise for. Be active in your self-critical pursuit of random features and snip them from your plans.
From coaching college students, especially–and being one myself–I can tell you one thing for certain: players will question everything. Don’t leave any room for arbitrary decisions. Always have a reason for the little details. I’ll do my best to display that, here.
And with that, let’s get going with warm-up. It’s a little unique for what we have on today’s docket.
Elasticity with the Experts
The mere fact that we’re looking to specifically train these concepts suggests that we likely haven’t targeted them with such granularity before.
If this is, in fact, the likely case, we run the risk of injuring players by diving into a suite of physical movements whose speed, jerkiness, or frequency may be jolting for some. Sometimes even “checking my shoulder” to merge lanes in my car can squeak out a grimace as my neck tenses up. If we design a session all about looking around the pitch, and our players aren’t used to it, inadequate physical preparation may lead to overstrain and injuries. Muscle tweaks or excessive soreness may discourage owl-like behavior down the line–an outcome that, as discussed, we’d like to avoid at all costs.
Therefore, we must start with some loosening up.
Rather than me, a former player whose spinal injury cut his playing career short at 15 (and has been relatively grandfatherly, in terms of fluid body movement ever since!), tell you about how to best do this, I’ve enlisted the expertise of two far more qualified voices.
The first is soccer-specific: iD Football Academy’s Head of Medical, Physical Development & Rehab, Callum Moss. He carries a Master’s in Sports Performance and is the author of Soccer Detail‘s 5k word anthology on football warmups. Part two, from what a little birdy has whispered in my ear, may be coming soon! Needless to say, he had a succinct answer for me in seconds.
When it comes to preparing for a practice full of head articulation, here are Callum’s suggestions:
- Start with very slow head tilts, forward and backward.
- Next, rotate head about the neck side to side and hold for 30 seconds each side. Hold the position, in tension, for 30 seconds to allow the muscle fibers to cope with the tightness and repeat 3-4 times each.
- Perform the same timing with sideways head tilts–30 second holds on each side, 3-4 times.
- Now move onto the shoulders, as they facilitate the neck, and rotate them forwards and backwards for 45 seconds and repeat. This will work the torso as well, which is a “movement byproduct for the abdominals and even the pectorals as they are a synergist of the deltoids which are further engaged”. More on that, shortly.
- To more specifically target the torso and hips, have players stand back to back and hand the ball off to each other repeatedly, making the ball do circles around the pairing. This can be gamified by competing to see which duo can rack up the most hand-offs.
- As a final note, these head rotations can also be incorporated into acceleration or agility drills, like ladders. Step a certain way to the right, look to the left. Step a certain way to the left, look right. Coordinating these pseudo-scans while engaging in technical footwork can be a strong way to warm-up and develop good habits.
Expert number two is Courtney Ziegelmeyer, a newly-professional dancer with a degree in Movement Science from The University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. Perhaps most importantly, she’s actually suffered whiplash in her undergraduate dancing years, and has an array of further methods for loosening up painful or tightness-prone necks.
Courtney’s advice largely coincided with Callum’s, explaining that the most beneficial move for her, post-injury, was to combine two of the aforementioned movements–rotating one’s head to the side and then downwards on a diagonal–to very specifically target the opposite trapezius muscles. You barely need much force, at all, to feel it.
She continued by doubling down on the shoulder emphasis, expressing that forward and backward shoulder rolls typically encourage a more full-body activating response, causing a ripple effect of tension and compression through the chest, core and upper shoulders–precisely mirroring Callum’s notes on pecs, abs, and delts. The “synergists” from before, refer to muscles that assist the primarily engaged ones to complete a given task. Depending on the roll direction, Courtney added, you’ll target different spots; most critically, reverse rolls will hit the latissimus dorsi in the lower back.
In her dance-prep experience, she went on to remark, the typical neck turns and tilts are done at a slightly quicker pace, and interchangeably. Do a few sideways tilts, then a few rotations, on different sides, down and back, and repeat. Once the initial longer stretches have gotten things started, these will ease into the more game-realistic motion speeds. If applying hand-driven pressure during these flexion and extension neck stretches, ensure that the added load is light. The forces should be natural to avoid over-extending anything.
On head rolls, it is important to emphasize that the players should never throw their heads backwards, a move that can often cause grimace-worthy crunching sounds. Instead, when arriving at the end of the right or left side roll, “lift” the head over the neck as if it were a hump to climb over, rather than uncontrolledly flying through it with unnatural extension.
Tacking on a few extra stretching motions, she also encourages that players:
- Warm up the fascia before you do anything. These are bands of connective tissues that attach and stabilize various muscles. This can be done by rubbing the critical areas around the neck, applying friction, to begin the overall stretching process. This is, as I came to learn, common practice for the legs of dancers, prior to rehearsal.
- Extension of the arm forward, while applying inward pressure on the tricep/outer shoulder to pull the arm across the body, with the bicep pivoting towards the pec. Perform this with holds, on both sides. This will activate the lats and traps, too.
- Bending the arm behind the head, touching the opposite shoulder, and tugging downwards on the bent elbow with the opposite hand to loosen the outer shoulder.
- To target the lower back, have players extend arms out in front of them and then bend the elbows inward to cross arms and touch hands to elbows on opposite arms. Proceed by planting feet and keeping hips stationary while bending forward, not to 90° and parallel with the ground, but between that position and upright (~135°). Then, in this slanted position, lightly rotate the torso to sway back and forth.
- Yoga poses like cat and cow may be helpful too. For those unfamiliar, players slowly arch the back up and down while on hands and knees, articulating the head downwards when the back comes high, and upwards when it sinks–to loosen up the traps, abs, and back.
- “Party” cat and cow–which sounds pretty fun if you ask me–combines the head rolls into the kneeled position to hit a swath of these all at once.
Now that the team has warmed up, let’s dive into the sessions.
1. The Color Drill
The first game in our anthology was born roughly five years ago. Having never heard of Jordet’s work, nor been immersed in Twitter’s rapidly-intensifying appreciation for scanning videos, I didn’t have the data-driven backing or topical popularity for the importance of “scanning”–but I did have one thing: Xavi.
Watching the Spaniard play, it became apparent to me that the edge he gained was by simply surveying the field more than anyone else.
Many of my coaching inspirations came and have continued to come in the form of watching the best and trying to design environments in which my players can learn to play similarly. My goal, at the time, was to find a way to get the highschool kids I was working with, at the time, to do the same that Xavi was.
A brief disclaimer: that year, I was 16 or 17 and had much less practice designing activities–plus an admittedly poor understanding of how to make drills more closely resemble in-game scenarios, actively involve as many players as possible, and so forth–so this is, quite amusingly, what I came up with. It’ll be the starting point for our collection, since, in spite of its flaws, it has its merits, too.
The color drill is a laid-back activity that players can perform when they first arrive at practice. Instead of leisurely shooting at an open net, this exercise can be easily organized by any trio of eager scanners.
The game is simple: grab 2 cones of four different colors. A square is outlined with four, while the pairs are handed to a teammate standing behind the focus player in the middle. The other member of our trio will have the ball, on the opposite side, and form an equidistant line to the central fella.
The passer will then play the ball into the scanner, who, as it’s traveling, will take a peek behind their shoulder to see which colored cone is being held up at that given time. The scanner will process that info, play the pass back to the passer, and then sprint to the corresponding cone and back. The process repeats and the players rotate after a certain number of iterations.
Variations on this are plentiful. One fun stipulation is memory based and provides a bit of cognitive overloading: once the central player has touched any given colored cone three times, they must pick it up. The round is finished when all cones are gone. This requires them to not only capture information and execute it, but store data as well–and make actions based on the accumulation of an occurrence. This type of thinking is critical in football, making it quite the beneficial byproduct of our session. If we note that a certain player behaves a certain way, once, and use that information to instruct our subsequent actions–great. If we pick up on trends, it can give us even more of a perceptive edge as the game wears on.
Another option is to make the scanner play the ball back to the passer with the same foot (right or left) as the arm that the “stoplight” player behind him raised the cone with. If red is raised with the right arm, return the ball with the right foot and sprint to red. This encourages some additional perception-action coupling and two types of simultaneous data capture, a primary and second visual focus. This is also a beneficial skill. Noting that a player is on your back, but also which side they’re favoring, can be pieced together to become even more useful for calculating the next action, than just one tidbit or the other.
A final adjustment might be to set these up in pairs. Have two teams of three pitted against each other with the “touch-a-cone-three-times-pick-up” stipulation to see who can finish fastest. This will speed up the passing, increase sprint intensity, and allow the players to add some competitive flavor–especially if the execution is, at all, lackluster. To pass The TNTP Test, be sure to flip the stoplight players so that they’re working with their opponents. Otherwise, a sneaky stoplight will simply make things easy for the central player by holding up the same cone repeatedly; trust me, I’ve seen it before! You can note this change in the diagram, below.
Encourage players to do this in good faith and still be clear about which cone is held up each time. Some may try to cheat and not-hold a cone up when the scan is made, so perhaps introduce a rule that if the scanner sees nothing, they can pick which color to run to, on their own. You can maintain some friendly learning-spirit in this activity by avoiding any punishment for the losing team. Excessive competitiveness will erode at the relaxed appeal of the activity. You want players having fun and opting to do these on their own–so just bragging rights will suffice for the double-game version!
Exercise number 2 is also quite physically laid back, but mentally challenging. When we look at the previous activity, the first glaring concern is that we’ve already kind-of broken Karl Marius Aksum’s set of 4 rules. Back in our research section, he expressed that the resulting action, after the pass, needed to be relevant–but so does the perceived object in our gaze phase. Per that same Modern Soccer Coach interview:
“90% of scans are 0.6 seconds or less–so it’s very, very quick. And so you can only see movements, colors, space. We cant hold these fingers up, which I did very much a couple of years ago, we cant do that, we cant use numbers, here’s a two, here’s a three, holding them up, asking them to fixate on this. That’s not how you scan in a match. You don’t have the time to look at details.”Karl Marius Aksum, Modern Soccer Coach Podcast
In exercise 1, we still dealt with something highly prevalent on the field–flashes of color akin to those of a opposing jersey zipping through your blindside–but there’s still a bit too much abstraction at play. As much as we might seek to draw parallels, a cone isn’t a kit, and it certainly isn’t a player threatening to dispossess us. We’ll need to mature from my primitive teenage concept to something that, at least, involves scanning for actual people. Let’s do that.
Phosphenes is set up with a slightly larger grid, using four different colored cones, once more. The number of players inside can certainly vary, though I’ve started with six, here. In our efforts to ease into the scanning objective, we want to avoid too many players inside too large of a grid early on. As the players become more comfortable, you may change the size or add more people to the mix. Understand that the more objects moving around in any given space, the harder they all are to keep track of. This game is all about that.
The general progression is for the players to lightly jog around the square, passing a ball 1-touch amongst themselves. When the coach blows their whistle or yells “freeze”, the players all stop, close their eyes, and listen.
The coach will then wander around the grid and pick 1-2 players to ask a few questions to, about their surroundings. The rest open their eyes and observe the validity of the answers. The goal of Phosphenes is to test each player’s mental map of the field and see how up to date it is. It also pushes them to not only see, but interpret what’s around them in relation to other things.
These questions can be creative, but ought to be about items like player proximity, passing options, and ball proximity. They should be in reference to different anchors like the field, other players, or even the colored cones. They shouldn’t be too eccentric, such that players feel frustrated that the info they’re being asked to collect is too outlandish, but they can certainly be challenging. These might include:
- Name someone behind you
- Is the ball nearest the blue cone?
- Name a switch option on the other half of the field
- Are you closer to the red or green cone?
- Who is to your right?
- Who is farthest from you?
- and more
The coach ought to prepare a list of these and be prepped to mix and match throughout the exercise. Repeating questions is absolutely okay, if not encouraged, to build the players’ confidence as they better understand the “exam”. Even if they know the questions beforehand, collecting all the data from their surroundings will be a significant challenge while executing the technical skills required to maintain fluid 1-touch passing. In other words, just because they know the coach might ask them for a blindside player name, doesn’t make knowing the answer that much easier–they still have to scan constantly as they jog around the grid. Truthfully, we want them to “learn the exam” over time.
If you’ve chosen your questions carefully, this cumulative familiarity will have them glancing around for the precisely correct things. They’ll also become better acquainted with the colored layout–and as they move and rotate, they’ll be challenged to recall how those patterns shift and move in relation to their bodies. This parallels, a bit, to the annotation of an opposition’s team shape, for instance, while storing and recalling that info as a player shifts across the pitch performing business as usual. The variety of stationary and in-motion things to keep track of will be a solid test of their perception capabilities, too.
Exercise 3 is all about scan timing. One element we didn’t even touch on from the research is that blindside glances are to be made, ideally, in between every touch a teammate makes. More specifically, the optimal timing is when the ball is furthest from the feet of the player on it, albeit still in their control. This is the moment in which watching the ball or the player dribbling it gives us the least amount of new information, and we can most afford for our eyes to depart and examine things elsewhere. It’s not just looking a lot, but knowing when to do so. Another topic on the list of additional readings, Jordet’s team has extensively studied this, as well.
To do the exact opposite (and look away when your teammate is actually about to touch the ball) is to accept missing out on whether that contact will result in a pass, shorter touch, skill move, or any other more nuanced variation that might impact your own subsequent actions. Observe every touch, but once the ball is moving and we have a second before a potentially new action can be introduced, that’s when we check our shoulder. Recency & frequency, yes, but the metronome is crucial to learn, too.
This concept can be best illustrated with a carefully selected video example. Jordet’s consultancy, Be Your Best–a VR firm introducing headset-style video game scanning problems for off-field player practice–recently published an applicable clip. In the snippet down below, Kevin de Bruyne displays precisely what we’d like to imbue in our own players, this knack for watching the ball when it is being physically manipulated, but taking advantage of the moments in between to intake other environmental data. In doing so, he’s able to pull off a one-time pass that few others would think of, with the added smirk of being through Luke Shaw’s outstretched legs.
Now, how exactly can we train this? What I’ve devised, here, is an isolated counterattacking exercise that simulates a similar situation. Cyclone–named after the arcade game that pulses a light around the perimeter and requires you to hit a button right when it passes beneath an illuminated hoop–is all about watching a ball carrier drive into space, while surveying ever-changing opportunities, and nailing the jackpot when you finally receive the pass. It’s a game that fundamentally requires the visual exploration KdB has done so effortlessly, above, and is, in many ways, the bread and butter of a successful high-speed attack.
The game is set up, for our starting version, with two lines of players. The one near the flank has balls at the feet of each team member, while the one closer to the center doesn’t. A hodgepodge of cone gates are subsequently organized in a vaguely diagonal fashion, starting from near the half, and terminating around the top of the box. These gates are of different sizes, angles, and distances from the general path on which the central runner will sprint. The idea is that different ones will become feasible to pass through, one-touch and after a delivery from the channel, the more advanced the “counter” gets.
The objective of the exercise is to simply find an option and play through it. Any of them. The pass must be redirected first-time from the winger’s original cross/layoff, meaning that in order to pick out a cone target, the in-motion receiver must monitor the progression of gates on the farside, between each of the winger’s touches. The winger will dribble down the line, as they would, and is free to make a pass in whenever they please, keeping the central player on their toes. A ball could be fired in for a “shot” after just one dribble, or the duo may run all the way down the field before it’s played–that uncertainty is what will keep the middle guy honest.
Since the MF must keep up with the counter, a new gate will likely switch into being the optimal choice after every touch, so they’ll need to practice the common skill of finding successive opportunities, quickly forgetting about them once they don’t receive a ball and the chance effectively “closes”, and continuing to observe things, unperturbed. Just like the Belgian-born Mancunian who continues to scan the ballfar side between Jesus’ dribbles, until he’s eventually given the chance to meg the United fullback into Mahrez, our players will practice the same neck-rotational cadence.
As will be the trend with most of these exercises, there is an expansive list of ways you could modify this activity to your liking. To maximize field efficiency and minimize how long players stand around, waiting for their turn, I’d start by setting the same thing up on the opposite half of the field, but for left-footed balls in. You can certainly change up the configuration of gates to mix things up a bit, too.
Another modification might come in the form of adding more onus onto the dribbling player. In this activity, they don’t really do all too much besides running with the ball for a few seconds, and knocking one in on the ground. By adding some components of a dribbling circuit, for instance, you could increase the technical load on this player while also granting the central runner with more concrete moments in which to scan. You could throw in something as simple as a cone or pole to perform a move before “beating”, a couple of hurdles, and so on.
You might also vary up the things the midfielder observes. Homogenous gates that only differ in size and angle might be a strong start, but you could also have gates of multiple colors, one of which is worth double the points. This might replicate passing opportunities of differing value, forcing the player to pick between, say, a more rewarding pass that’s harder to pull off, vs. an easier one that’s less valuable.
It may also prove useful to add wrinkles that require the dribbler to scan between every touch too. This is something we’ll deeply analyze towards the very tail end of the article, through the lens of a particularly fantastic Ryan Christie assist. It can be just as important to train a crosser’s visual perception as they bomb down the line, as the receiver looking to thread a deadly, first-time needle to a farside teammate. These types of modifications might include adding similar physical tasks or obstacles for the runner to complete, designing in moments in which they’d be “unavailable” to receive a pass, and thereby forcing the winger to observe whether their teammate is primed to be successful with their ball in, or not. The poles and hurdles displayed, below, indicate instances along the runner’s trajectory in which a cross would encounter the recipient with their hands full. The dribbler will need to time a pass in between these micro-activities.
Regardless of the tweaks you make, these drills will all require frequent scanning behavior, as well as overloading the recency angle, too. A farside glance right as the pass is traveling will allow the target to confirm which option he wants to play through, and proceed to execute appropriately.
In order to teach the concept most effectively, you might start the session by simply letting the players try to execute the task. Without declaring it a visual perception exercise, simply watch how difficult it becomes. To continue one’s forward momentum while trying to complete a pass through a selection from this flashing montage of gate openings is no trivial feat. This is precisely why players like De Bruyne have distinguished themselves from the pack with such elegance; what he does seems impossible, but it’s only a simple behavioral correction that unlocks it.
Once a few players have stopped the ball for extra touches before “shooting”, or enough misfired balls have gotten lost in the the nearby creek, stop the game and yank the cover off of your lesson: the way to best monitor things outside of our field of view is to update our mental map when the traditional focus no longer offers us much new information. Provide the group with a chance to guess when those moments might be, and guide them towards the realization that there’s a little hidden gem inside each teammate touch–the chance to look away. Many will never have ever considered it, or realized how straightforward the solution is, and this is precisely why we wish to bring it to their attention.
After the squad nods their heads, return to the activity and observe the improvement. Suddenly, these blindside checks will make it easier to track the opportunities beyond their periphery, and enable them to showcase the proficient, technical ability they likely already possess. These passes, first time, can be challenging, but are made much easier when the intended location is firmly chosen after some assiduous exploration.
These timing games can be modified to any other part of the field too–it’s simply that these counters provide a very simple dribbling pattern to base the scanning rhythm off of. In smaller quarters, touches are much faster, leaving players with less time to glance away from the ball. On a break, long touches will be more common, giving clearer intervals in which to break the gaze, and more time to do so, too. The procession of different passing lanes will also replicate the ever-changing options for a quick switch into a weakside teammate, a ball that inherently requires a skillful player to watch two things that are too far apart to simply see with a stationary head. Possession exercises will make it harder for the focus player to isolate one ball carrier and one opposite side, eventual destination.
4. Ring Around the Rosie
Ring Around the Rosie serves as activity 4. This is our final, more isolated session that ramps up and amalgamates a few of the previous activities. To start, you’ll want to divide your player cohort into teams of four. Two of these will be more actively involved in the scanning procedure, while the other two assist the learning process. These will rotate, of course.
The drill is set up with lines of four cones, as I’ve illustrated below. The “active” players start at both central cones, facing each other, and with one ball between them. Distances, here, can be adjusted to accommodate your field or age-group dimensions. Outside of the bounded area, the partners will all circulate during the progression. They are encouraged to begin on roughly opposite sides of the rectangle’s outskirts, and will be free to change direction and speed as they travel around the perimeter.
The general idea is that the two middle players exchange passes while observing the behavior of their two partners that will move around them. The outskirts guys have one responsibility–to either raise or lower a single arm, at all times. Their job is to intermittently change this, every handful of seconds, and their actions will dictate how the central players behave after each pass is made.
If we take the blue team as an example, if no hands are observed to be raised between the outer blue players, then the player receiving the ball at that time is to play it back to the central partner, 1-touch.
If one out of the two hands are raised, then the receiver is to sharply change cones “in their own half”. If they receive at the inner cones in their 4-cone line (shown as black, here), they will turn on a dime, with the ball, sprint out to an orange one, and continue passing from there. If they receive at an orange cone and observe only one hand up, they’ll quickly drive the ball back to the black one.
If both outer players have their hands up, the next pass must be chipped.
Again, in summary:
- Neither hand: 1-touch pass
- Either hand: drive to open cone
- Both hands: Chip
Now, there’s a lot going on here, but let me dive a bit deeper into the details. Why’ve I chosen to do all these things this way?
To start, the first advantage Ring Around the Rosie bestows is that of more positionally relevant scanning behavior. In the Color Drill or Phosphenes, everything is isolated with a few unopposed players, just as it is here, but the actions also take place at random spots on the field. In this activity, the coach will be wise to pick teams based on where the players actually feature on the pitch, such that their glances will be similar to what they’ll need to do in reality.
In this case, for instance, the white players might be strikers, 6s, and centerbacks, since their passing and receiving scans, in game, will likely happen in the central part of the pitch, equidistant to either flank. The red and blue players might be back-three wide centerbacks, “interiores”, 10s, or other players that frequently occupy the halfspaces. Those yellow and green guys might be fullbacks or wingers, whose scanning often features very up-close info, nearby, but far-away switch options that are critical to practice observing too.
By nature of the partners needing to circulate the entire grid–green, for instance, will often need to look at their partner effectively “overlapping them” down the flank, while simultaneously checking for a potential farside hitchhiking wingback (i.e. Robin Gosens) darting into space, unmarked. The central players will have a lot of blindspot to monitor, while the halfspacers–whose field of vision we know to be optimized from these regions–will observe a bit of everything.
As for the actual actions, themselves, I’ve chosen 1-touch passing as the fallback in the case that neither hand is up, to make things as intuitive as possible. The idea largely being: “if you observe nothing, just keep the ball moving”. This mantra may not apply in all situations, but I feel as though it makes the most sense for the players.
The turn / drive action will be the most common one in this activity, since two out of the four “yes” and “no” arm-raising combinations (NN, YN, NY, YY) include a single upheld hand. I chose this, deliberately, because one of the critical things to train with scanning and receiving is knowing when to break lines via progressive carries. That’s the overloaded action in this activity.
What’s quite nice about these sprints is that it also varies the distances required to play the ball. Two players at the black cones will need to scan much faster than two at orange, but it may be harder for the longer pass trajectory to be calculated when looking away. Practicing the varying techniques required to update a field map under different pass lengths will be a strong addition to the exercise.
The introduction of actually “flighted” balls is also important. The chipped pass means receivers mustn’t just calculate a vector along which a grounded ball will travel, but a height, spin, and a much less intuitive 3D trajectory. This is only the very base-level start of learning to scan with passes that are truly mid-air, and we’ll touch on this a little more towards the very end.
While the game does regress in terms of our players lifting their arms (not terribly realistic) as the scannable behavior, we recognize that, occasionally, we must take two steps forward and one step back. By introducing some new technical actions to be coupled with what the players perceive, plus much larger visual distances, cognitive overload with all the different things to keep track of, varying pass lengths, positional relevance, and more–we acquiesce in the fact that we might compromise a detail elsewhere. For now, that’s fine. The ball is getting rolling. Our runway is a runway because we’ll look to continuously tighten things up as we go. This is gradual exposure, and sometimes, in order to make things even smoother, we do have to sacrifice something ideal to make the activity work.
Up next, we introduce defenders.
5. Adin’s 4 by 4 Rondo Variation
In that same Karl Marius Aksum episode of The Modern Soccer Coach Podcast, he references a study that unveiled some compromising findings about one of the world’s most fundamental, and widely adored exercises: rondo.
[…] there’s an unpublished work from the Netherlands […] and they measured how much scanning was in different training exercises. […] the highest scan frequency was found in a game, the second highest was in a positional, tactical exercise, and then so on and so forth. The lowest of all was the 4 v 1 and 4 v 2 rondo. There was no scanning. Even unopposed passing exercises where you pass from A to B had higher scanning rates than the rondo. And this is natural! Because, when you play in this 4 v 2 rondo–okay, I’ve used it a lot, every coach has used it a lot–but you only need to use your peripheral vision. You know where the player to the right is, you know where the player to your left is, you know where is the player right in front of you–nothing is changing. So I’m not saying get rid of the rondo, I’m saying that you should beware, as a coach, that every pass you make in a rondo is different than what you would do in a match–in which you’d always scan before and after you receive the ball. Coaches should know about it and should reflect on it, because it’s different.”Karl Marius Aksum on Gary Curneen’s June 18th episode of The Modern Soccer Coach Podcast: “Visual Perception in Elite Football”
Professor Jordet has also widely shared his team’s findings on the beloved training routine. In a webinar co-delivered by Jordet through the Football Network World YouTube Channel, the psychologist shared the results from a separate, then-ongoing publication. The bar graph, below, depicts various quintessential practice categories, with the scanning frequencies that accompany each of them.
A game, itself, presents the highest score. That makes sense. With the sampled top players already making a living in the Dutch League, these habits–precursors to succeeding at this calibre of competition–are already instilled. As we touched on, before, when we’re trying to actually teach scanning to an unbeknownst group, that 0.44 s/s won’t be what we find. We’ll likely need to dip into more targeted drills in order to work our way up to those numbers.
Rondo, quite shockingly, and on the other end of the spectrum, finds itself demanding a paltry average of 0.03 s/s of its participants. Yikes. As a game so ingrained in our possession and passing pedagogy, that feels pretty jarring.
Even outside of the formal literature, there’s been a bit of a recent pushback on rondo usage. Some coaching bodies feel as though the lack of goals encourages possession for the sake of possession, or have other grievances, but here, the concern is the lack of multi-directionality that would require strong visual perception skills. Typical rondos are performed in circles, with defenders in the middle, and all players operating with their bodies turned inwards. Possession is maintained, but players only play the way they’re facing–a common instruction for youth–but not the desired outcome for us. Regardless of your stance in the overarching debate, one thing is clear: there’s certainly room to make rondos better.
Thankfully, I’ve got just the man for that. Exercise 5 is from the erudite Adin Osmanbašić.
One angle by which we can improve the traditional rondo is to open up the playing field a bit. Adin has done this quite cleverly. By snapping rondo grids together and requiring certain players to operate within neighboring possession exercises, they will absolutely be forced to look over their shoulder. If we make a square that holds four separate but intertwined games, we get four highly overloaded scanning players.
Thus, this starting configuration is our beginning exercise that takes the more isolated partner work we started off with, and draws it back to reality with actual opposition. These four rondos are played 2+2 v 1, meaning that passes must be far tighter due to the newly added defensive presence. Body language and pass disguising will become essential in this exercise, adding to the arsenal of skills those middle four can practice as they intermittently look around to survey where they’re needed most.
You can see the Houston Dynamo’s new U17 coach’s original Tweet, below.
This 4 by 4 is an excellent building block upon which we can construct many variations. A 2×1 grid can be used to make things easier, for instance, though the more we distill things the smaller percentage of players get to be actively improving their scanning. I’ll discuss “usage rate” in greater detail, later on, but here’s the general gist for this exercise:
In a 1×1, we have 0/4 players operating a dual role, in a 2×1 we have 1/7, in a 4×4 we have 4/12, and if we were to even bump to a 3×3, we’d get 12/24. That’s 0%, 14%, 33%, 50%.
A 3×3 may be too difficult and susceptible to disruption, but it does allow the benefit of scaling the scanning difficulty. Players who are central midfielders, for instance, may be the ones that operate that central, red square, while players less-versed in their development might be in the orange or yellow ones outside them. Red has 4 dual-game players, orange has 3, and yellow has 2.
It’s likely far too unrealistic to execute, but perhaps it’s worth testing the team’s limits. If I were to run this, I’d likely remove the defender from the middle square and require that the players in the red rondo simply keep the ball from stopping (passing it around 1-touch without pause). This will require attentiveness but won’t be as impossible as having a defender in there with four distracted possession players. Even so, it’s probably far too involved to work.
All things considered, it’s perhaps important to note that The TNTP Test does flare up a bit with this one–though in kind of an interesting way.
One method by which a sneaky player might circumvent the purpose of this activity would be to position themselves laterally, without fully committing their body to one sub-rondo or the other, but simply operating in this in-between stance. In doing so, their scanning behavior will become more reduced to what’s in front of them, and by extension, their periphery, but they won’t need to look in their blindspot nearly as much. This starts to fall in line with that Dutch study’s qualms.
Now, despite working against out initial objective of teaching players to intake data from all sides, we might actually view this as a net positive–a takeaway the players can implicitly learn within the context of “improving field vision”: body positioning can prove to be half the battle.
The challenge is that if we want them to truly focus on checking their shoulders, there will undoubtedly be ways to poke holes in this exercise, and with so many different games operating at once, it may be hard to reel that in, as a coach.
If we go one step further, there’s even a more extreme circumvention case: the dual player moves along the grid line to either end. This will maximize their view of both fields, and will definitely raise an even brighter TNTP flag for scanning exercises. All things considered, though, it may once again end up being instructive for the players to learn how “field positioning” and not only “body positioning” can improve what you see and don’t see on the pitch.
Both of these issues unveil hidden dynamics that might actually be best served as the main focuses.
Thus, what I might recommend, is that you actually make field and body positioning your learning takeaways from this drill. Let the TNTP flare-ups be productive opportunities for self-guided discovery. This is an awesome session for players to realize, on their own, how their physical expression and pitch location can improve their subsequent ability to monitor multiple game states at once–so I’d really hone in one this, for emphasis.
While scanning will be trained, to a certain degree, looking around and interpreting two games at once is, admittedly, not as closely tied to the perceptive behavior the players will need in-game. We’re still not quite there yet. The scans on our true pitch are to notice opportunities while, perhaps, maintaining possession, whereas this is more of a juggling exercise, in which some players are charged with keeping a delicate balance afloat. It’s a little different, but still extremely useful to hammer home some of the surrounding points for our topic.
That being said, we can build on this even further.
The shared rondo concept can be adapted to something even more free flowing with the inclusion of goals and small sided games on either end of a central, parting line. Karl Marius Aksum recently posted a video of such an idea. Now, dual players are observing more authentic game states on either end.
But even more saliently, we can look to take rondos, in general, to yet another level. They’re too widespread to ignore, and this next adaptation is one of my top ways to make them better. Enter, The Valve.
6. Valve Rondo
In order to try to squash those unruly TNTP-ers, I’ve come up with another rondo variation. This time, I’ve sought to design an environment in which goals exist–for the naysayers that find this to be a damning deficiency in standard rondo exercises–and with what I believe to finally be strongly realistic scanning demands.
Drill 6 is set up with an octagon, centrally, in which a comfortable 9 v 2 rondo takes place. Surrounding the octagon are 8 goals, one meter in size, spanning evenly across the outskirts of a bounding square. In the channels between these concentric shapes, there are 5 additional defenders. Rondo players are constrained to the rondo, unless otherwise specified (and as we’ll get into), while channel players are confined to the channels.
The play proceeds as follows: the rondo runs as normal. Blue seeks to keep the ball away from red, and at least to start, blue maintains their evenly-spaced and quasi-fixed positioning with a player near each cone, plus one centrally. Red tries to regain possession in the middle.
The twist in Valve Rondo is that the central players are always looking for a “release” ball. Any player may receive a pass, turn with one touch into a channel, and shoot to score on any of the three blindside goals behind them. Two touches total.
In an attempt to prevent this, the channel defenders will be free to roam and re-position themselves as the central play unfolds. This will likely take the form of overloading one side of the field, defensively, and opening up the farside for a switch and capitalization–a strong theme with this game’s natural ebb and flow.
In order to successfully score, therefore, the blue players will need to constantly check their blindsides to observe which scoring targets are open and which are covered. Only 5 defenders exist to mark 8 “passing gaps”, an intentional quantity that only allows the 5 ballnearest openings to be marked at once. This means there will almost always be reasonable opportunities to seize–so long as the internal players are quick enough to notice and take advantage of them.
The goals are very strategically placed such that one opportunity is directly behind each of the blue players, and two are diagonally behind them, to either side. These two will feel more natural to scan, but already extend our player vision from just the 180° periphery to nearly 270° over the shoulders. To net in that fully-blindside goal, they’ll likely need to take stock of the defensive layout before the ball is even played–encouraging the players to scan quickly, even while the general exercise persists.
This is reminiscent of what we might do in a real match, and an effort to tackle both recency and frequency, simultaneously. In Valve Rondo, our players might start to look twice, even three times in moments they highly anticipate receiving the ball–since there are a few clear things they could try once they get it. Availability of blindside goals, feasibility of passing targets at all forward angles, propinquity of on-rushing defenders and invisible ones; this is a charcuterie board of variables. It’ll be important to observe a couple of these at once, faster and faster, as the ball makes its way towards us.
This rapidification of sequential peeks realistically reflects proper perceptive conduct. The frequency, as we get closer to fielding a pass, begins to accelerate. When we calculate scanning frequency like Jordet’s team, these glances aren’t evenly distributed amongst the 10 seconds prior to touching the ball. A high value like 0.6 scans per second, or 6 scans in the 10 seconds before absorbing a pass, is likely to have seen 2 scans in the first 5 seconds and 4 in the latter half. It isn’t a constant rhythm, but one we all modify as a function of ball proximity, how inviting our body language is for a pass, and more.
We can see this by watching the new Barca wonderkid everyone’s got their eyes on: Pablo Páez Gavira.
In the clips above, and in the more elaborate Twitter thread below, you can see how La Masia’s newest sparkly midfielder proficiently looks. Before being played the ball, he religiously checks once, at a minimum, but often two, or even three times. No players, yet, are hitting scan frequencies of 1 or more s/s, leading us to believe that Gavi, as he’s affectionately known, understands how to time his bursts of glances. 1 or 2 swivels in the 8 seconds leading up to reception, with 2 or 3 in the final 2 seconds, can get him up anywhere from 0.3 to an impressively elite 0.5 s/s. That’s for a just-turned-17 year old. My word.
As we create sessions, we could do a lot worse than to lean into the examples shown by Barcelona’s factory of possession-idolizing youth. Our goal might be to have everyone on our team hit just 0.1 s/s, but why stop there? If we can get the lads checking their shoulders more and more, and with a timing crescendo towards that last gasp moment, we’re on the right track.
Returning to drill design selections, the octagonal shape is also chosen deliberately, here, to make it easier for the channel reds to bound the corners as they look to close down opportunities, and also provide the blues at each cone with a diagonal blindside pressing angle. This will entice red to “pick a side” as they approach the player, making it more binary for blue to scan and know which direction is best to turn towards.
That being said, one of this game’s challenges for red will be to assess how close they ought to stand to the rondo players vs. the goal targets. As they try to assess the best solution and vary their approach, blue will need to observe how “hard on their backs” defenders are. Another important skill.
For red, we’ll also find that an interesting byproduct of the activity will involve intense communication to coordinate the sealing of as many gaps as possible under rapidly-evolving circumstances. They will likely need to condense around whichever players hold the ball, and perhaps look to deftly trick the rondo blues into thinking they’ve marked out one lane, but actually drifted into another. What’s delightfully self-regulating about this drill is the fact that the harder the red team tries to deceive the blue one, the more frequently blue will need to update their mental maps. As we discussed earlier, executing a future-oriented plan in past contexts won’t work. If a blue player fails to scan as the ball is traveling, it’s more than likely that they’ll miss picking up on the right direction to turn towards, or even ignore a valid opportunity entirely.
For all these reasons, I really love this one.
In terms of difficulty levers, the easiest dial to turn is the number of channel defenders. If blue is scoring too easily, add an extra one to make it 6. If the rondo is way too simple, maybe augment the red defensive presence by 1. I’d keep the blue players as is, for now. Remember, sliding the scale all the way up to 8 channel defenders will mean a crimson F on our TNTP Test; the reds will have no incentive to move from permanently parking the bus in front of each net. 7 will leave one open gap at all times, but still isn’t too encouraging for the focus team. 6 may, in fact, be the best happy medium.
Points may also be tweaked accordingly. I’d likely start with 10 rondo passes = 1 point and 1 goal = 2 points.
The challenge here, is that once a team is approaching the passing point threshold, they might be less incentivized to turn and find the escape ball, since it’ll feel as though their possession efforts were for naught. Imagine getting 9 passes only for your teammate to dart into the channel–they “could’ve just waited” for an extra pass. This artificial threshold creates some unnatural dynamics, so it might be better to award no points for strung-together passes centrally, and only for successful goals. Tinker as you wish.
Now, despite this being one of my favorites, it’s still essential to be critical. One of the glaring gaps is how red scores. I might leave this up to you. One option simply involves eliminating scoring altogether and using “being a defender” as punishment in and of itself. Many rondos do this. If you misplace a pass and the defense intercepts, you go into the middle. If red intercepts a shot in the channel, or perhaps even if blue misses an escape-ball attempt, they must also switch with the longest-standing defender.
Some might have qualms with the optics or symbolism of making the defensive role the “punishment”, in which case, it may be possible to award points for successful recoveries, or even introduce a counter-pressing angle to the drill.
Perhaps the toughest issue stemming from all of this is how to deal with a blue player that turns into the channel but does not find any strong, immediate opportunities. They may not have even lost the ball to red yet, but what now? We said they have one touch to turn and one to shoot, to avoid a player dawdling on the ball excessively–so can they re-enter the rondo if this “failure” happens? Maybe if we add some new red incentives, we won’t need to apply further restrictions to blue.
A new option for red’s scoring might be to introduce a small square in the center of the octagon. If red wins the ball anywhere in the game, they earn a point by playing a pass to a teammate through that highlighted red area. This is borrowed from a game I like to call “Steal the Jewel” in which surrounding players look to fire passes through small gaps in a defense, scoring in similar fashion. This added component will force blue to respond immediately to a loss of possession and either condense around the precious “jewel” in the middle, or charge at the ball interceptors to interrupt their “counterattack”.
These two actions are the epitome of gegenpressing. To pass The TNTP Test, we might award red with a point if they string together 10 passes, now, forcing blue to do something else besides forming a tight ring around the gemstone.
In this adaptation, perhaps we can say that once a blue has exited the octagon, they either shoot-score-and-restart the rondo, or get trapped with many red defenders. Here, to discourage turning without having scanned first, they cannot bring the ball back inside.
Once more though, the transition back to the main exercise is a little tricky. How do we go from removing the field constraints and expanding to steal the jewel, back to the more constricted valve rondo spaces? If blue players have rotated around and shifted into a different shape, will they be able to re-organize into the clear-cut octagon with 3 blindside options upon winning the ball again? Probably not. If they don’t, which goals are valid for them to score on and force blindside scanning? It’s a little tougher to pin down. These are likely things to trial and test on your own training pitch.
If we wanted to examine some of those dynamics in less of an overwhelming environment, we could condense this down to a smaller starting concept, in which only, say, 10 players are required. That might look something like this:
Yellow players can only score in the two goals in their blindside, forcing some nice turning decisions (back and to the left, back and to the right) that replicate in-game options. If the yellow rondo players prefer to gravitate towards the corners to expand their “pitch”, the rules can be modified such that they can only score on the goal directly behind them, but this eliminates a bit of the decision making aspect to the drill. I think most players will feel more comfortable when removed from the claustrophobic corners, and positioned along the square’s sides, anyway.
But in any case, Valve Rondo and its variants are undoubtedly some of my top options for visual perception training. They involve loads of new things to observe, realistic context in which technical proficiency is required but cognitive focus can unlock new incentives, and more. The Valve takes a familiar game and marinates it in new spices.
Now let’s hop right into some more position-specific scanning exercises.
7. Press Escape
Drill #7 begins to tackle one of the most fundamental scanning challenges–receiving the ball with your back to the field. In order to truly dial into the position-specific requirement, this first exercise, and a handful of those to come, will relate to the behavior of a midfielder (often a 6) as they drop back into their own half to help build out of the back.
This is a repetitious routine that often showcases the top scanners in world football–though they’re more often categorized as the most “press resistant” players.
These are midfielders who casually dip into pockets and suddenly burst into space upon receiving the ball. Maestros that advance the play at angles to laterally shift the penetrative spear that is their team’s up-revving attack. Busquets, Kroos, de Jong, Cazorla, Pogba, Ndombele, Kovacic, Verratti, Thiago, Wijnaldum, Paredes, Jorginho, you name it. When this happens, it’s all about overloading the opponent’s press with an extra man, receiving, and making decisive moves before the opponent has time to react. A strong player who can perform this role can prove invaluable to progressing the ball, and due to the cognitive difficulty the role demands, the true experts tend to be few and far between.
Thus, Press Escape is all about building the habit of awareness throughout this precise sequence. That environmental understanding is what makes these elite players tick and excel. We want to imbue those same auspicious tendencies in our players, too.
The exercise is set up with a thin strip right down the center of the pitch where the midfielder might make a supporting run through. A small square is outlined in the middle. Two mini goals are centered on each of the long sides, while another is featured at the halfline end. Blue players begin in a line at that same halfline end, while one of their fellow brethren delivers passes from the 18, similar to the first example played into Riqui Puig, shown above. Red players feature equally around each side, not including the “CB” side along the 18. These players are numbered off in 1s and 2s, and will stand in random orders that will circulate and change over the course of the session.
The goal of the exercise is for blue to score in open goals–a simulation of finding open players in build-up. We’ll challenge them by throwing different numbers of defenders in the ring, and from different directions. They’ll need to be hyper aware of what’s around them to succeed.
The game starts with a coach shouting out a “1” or a “2”. If a red player is both first in their line and their number is called, they will defend that round.
As soon as the number is called out, the blue player at the midfield line will begin jogging “towards their own goal” and into the orange central square. As soon as he departs, if the midfield line red player is included in the round, they may begin to track the blue player as they drop “in between the lines”. This mimics a trailing defensive presence we often see when runners look to slip through the defense’s press.
As the blue player arrives to the square, a ball is played in from the centerback. When the pass is kicked, the two lateral defenders, if included, may also dart in to defend.
It is important to know that, to start, this defense will simply charge in along a direct line between the starting positions of the red players, and the orange square. We want it to be very clear which of the three goals are being marked, and which aren’t–so if a player starts on the right side, and is included in the round, they may not spring over to the opposite side to cause confusion. These players aren’t to actively defend, let alone slide or make rough challenges. Their goal is to simply provide stimuli for blue. Keep TNTP in mind!
The goal of the exercise, therefore, is to receive the pass, turn out of the “gate” in the central square that leads to one of the open goals, and play a firm ball into it.
The tidy thing about allowing the halfline “defender” to trail or not-trail–while the long-siders, closer to the ball, can only jump in last minute–is that it forces the blue man to scan multiple times throughout the progression.
Naturally, it is very difficult to perform a scan in all three of these directions as the ball is traveling. The hope is that this activity encourages players to observe their surroundings in two critical windows: prior to receiving the ball, and while it’s flying at them. An element we glossed over in our initial discussion of mental map updates is the fact that even if we achieve that exquisite short timespan between scanning and receiving passes, it may not suffice, on its own, to generate an image that can be feasibly interpreted. Those scans in the seconds leading up to reception allow us to paint that picture with vivid details, while the final one fine tunes each of our characters’ locations, demeanors, and intentions right before the moment of action.
Look, look, look, look, find an opportunity, pass is made, look, receive, turn, continue.
To make things challenging for blue, I’ve devised this simple numbering system to randomly generate different problems to solve. If a round has one included defender, the blue receiver will need to scan around before the pass is made, and while it’s in flight, to know which goals are his options. If two defenders charge in, then there will only be one vacant option. If 3 reds are all called, the blue guy will scan, see that it is difficult to change the point of the attack, and need to play the ball right back to the original passer. This is not a failure, by any means, and may be rewarded by adding a goal right next to the passer to avoid discouragement.
We’ve got a couple of ways to modify the activity, as well. Firstly, by running several of these in close proximity to one another, you can have the red players circulate several grids at once, while the blues stick to their given game. This will help shuffle the numbers and players, so it doesn’t become easy to know or memorize which are 1s and which are 2s.
We can also, most certainly, shrink the activity. I’ve made the field quite large here, to exaggerate the importance of blindside checking before the pass is played, but we can reduce this if dropping from the half is too far and adds an unnecessary time-wasting component to the session flow. It’s also just easier to see the idea this way.
Another adjustment might be to change where the goals are placed. We could position the two side goals backwards and at a diagonal, for instance, to emulate a re-routed ball to a deep-lying fullback, instead of a directly horizontal one. We might also add a second goal to the blindside, and shift those two locations and/or orientations to more closely match the way we want to escape the press. Down below, Sam shares a video example of a diagonal behind-ball that could be emulated with two split goals on the short end of our outlined exercise.
But fundamentally, what we’ve added to the table here is a sense of positional relevance and a deeper appreciation for the “two windows”. In the next two activities, we’ll build upon these skills in increasingly realistic environments, easing the learning into practice.
8. The Seamstress
#8 is a game of verticality–one for all the rapid-build-up coaches out there. It’s neatly symmetrical and free-flowing (a challenge I’ll detail later), with one deliberate asymmetry mixed in. The Seamstress is all about finding that final ball, within the context of scanning and earning better progressive passing chances by keeping heads on a swivel. Best of all, it simultaneously employs those skills against two different defensive setups. Let’s dive into the details.
As wasn’t quite the case for our previous, more abstract drills to-date, we’ve finally built up the importance of scanning and the basic mechanics involved in utilizing it, such that we can try implementing the habit into a more authentic game-state. As we trained with Press Escape, receiving the ball in pockets is one of the most important moments in which high-frequency visual collection behavior will be rewarded. That being said, the thing missing from our last activity was a greater intensity in advancing the ball–since our options, to start, were more oriented towards picking the head up and finding an open option, rather than having true chances to score or break with your team. It also lacked much of a true defensive presence. We’ll fix that, here.
The session is set up with five zones. One is the size of the 18–followed by a shorter strip, a longer strip, and a shorter strip that reaches the half–all capped off with another 18-sized zone at the very end. The majority of play transpires in the central three areas, with the horizontal boundaries leading into each final zone acting as de facto offside lines. You might already notice that the blue team is facing a very high line, held at the half. The red team attacks a low block holding the 18.
Each team plays in a 2-3-2, a formation that allows for similar dynamics to occur for both the blue and red sides, while avoiding any pre-determined superiorities or inferiorities in any area. Each middle zone has 2v2, 3v3, and 2v2 respectively.
One of the commonly espoused goals of build-up is to find the free man, but often, when evenly matched mark-for-mark, this is hardly easy. We want to encourage our team to create those superiorities with their movements and positioning, rather than hand them to them. A 2-3-2 vs. a 3-3-1 would leave a much more innately unbalanced 2v1, 3v3, and 2v3. The 2x 2-3-2’s evenness will let us emphasize coaching moments that are equally applicable for both sides. The only difference in line-up is that blue has a goalie, protecting a full-sized net, but this does little to impact the matchups in each vertical zone.
To start, two players from each team are constrained to the shorter “advanced zones”, while three occupy the longer central one. I know there’s plenty of debate with regards to restraining players to field areas in the coaching literature, but we’ll discuss options with a more liberating flavor, further on.
Play starts, say, with the GK. Blue scores 2 points by playing a ball into the final zone, running onto it, and dribbling, under control, across the “endline”. The half-field offside line is to be obeyed, so this will feel like the colloquially dubbed “hockey rules”. Red, on the other hand, scores to the standard net blue is defending.
In order to promote verticality, I’ve also selected to reward up-back-and-through sequences in this exercise. For every ball played into the advanced zone, and nodded back into the central area one-touch, a point is rewarded. If performed in direct sequence with a 2-point line-cross, a bonus point is rewarded too. This will urge the cultivation of runs that come short to join the build-up, drag defenders out of place, and open space in behind–but why is is specifically useful in this drill?
Scanning, in The Seamstress, is beneficial for all attacking players at all times. In our games leading up to this, our “usage rate” of players involved in the activity that were actively training the intended outcome was never 100%. In The Color Drill, only 1/3 players was actively scanning. In Press Escape, we’re using 4 non-scanning players to help teach 1 to look. But here, we max out our potential and get every single player involved.
If we start with the goalkeeper, a position that rarely, if ever, needs to glance in the rear-view mirror, the reward associated with actions in and out of the advanced zone will naturally draw their eyes to that region. You’d imagine that if a pass becomes available, directly into this zone, it would be quite appealing to avoid any needlessly meticulous build-up and simply cash that check.
That being said, the density in the middle of the park will make those “pelotas filtradas” into a bit of a knotty dilemma. Thus, while observing the deep options (and perhaps even deeper if they opt for a precise long-ball to immediately score a double into the final zone), the goalie will also need to be mindful of midfield dynamics, an area with the most players–and while closer in distance, tighter in terms of individual space. While doing this, they’ll also have to keep tabs on their CBs providing the safest options, too. These will likely be comparatively stationary in build-up, but will provide the clearest route out of the back.
In monitoring all these stacked vertical zones with different stimuli in each, we might not get the keeper to check their shoulder, but we do manage to take a player that objectively sees the most movement directly in front of them, to better perceive the microcosmic dynamics within the larger picture. Distilling a vast expanse full of 22 perpetually moving and terribly overwhelming markers, into more digestible pieces, is a skill that goes hand in hand with scanning, too. The more active the GK is in surveying the landscape, especially as the ball is circulated through them in the early stages of progression, the more aware of little opportunities they’ll become. The fact of the matter is, this is the type of scanning our oft-neglected glove wearers need to train, not anything we targeted previously.
Now how about our CBs? It’s quite similar. Leading the charge past the first line of defense, much of centerback scanning activity must be in the form of receiving passes from the goalkeeper while inspecting how the midfield looks in the next phase. A smart centerback, here, will learn to capture information before the ball is even played to them, and finally take one sharp, owl-like inspection to note the most updated configuration before looking to progress. The incentives are implicit here, as the even matchups (3v3, 2v2) will mean that the best opportunities will only be capitalize-able if they’re found right as they emerge. A streaking runner will be picked up if the passer dawdles.
The point for vertical wall passes out of the advanced zone will remunerate defenders that not only look to pass into the next phase, but also examine the situation one step beyond it. This, and the multi-depth perception to observe these additional dynamics, will cultivate confidence in CBs that can fire those high-packing defense-unzipping passes. Ben White, a prolific progressor of the ball, was just sold to Arsenal for a lofty, but potentially worthwhile £50M. These are the foundations that create those types of players. Observe how a young Brandan Craig from Philadelphia Union’s Academy displays this highly sought after ability.
As for the midfield, we embrace another positionally-relevant scanning task. Centrally, with the need to observe defensive movements and, most directly, attacking motions in behind, they’ll use the Press Escape runway to take off, as they practice dipping into cavities and sharply finding incisive blindside passes. Here, the added component is that of three players looking to orchestrate coordinated inter-movements, rather than just one player with a held-open pocket like before. Now, the new entanglement will require midfielders to observe others within their own zone, too. Scanning will occur towards the hopeful strikers, but they’ll also need to take stock of who is checking to the ball, who is providing width, who is adding depth, and so on. Hyper game-realistic.
Lastly, for the attackers, they’ve got to watch all this take place, watch their own zonal counterparts to avoid two players checking to the ball at once, and also control the ball at speed, facing away from everyone. Their blindside will likely be occupied by the last line of defense, meaning they’ll be smart to receive and inspect mid-flight to know if the turn is on, how biased to any given side a defender might be on their back, or if a quick flick can get their teammate in on goal or across the “finish”.
Even as we progress down the field, the benefit of the vertical wall-pass stipulation is that once the ball is played into the advanced zone, the scanning doesn’t stop. Midfielders will need to see how the other attacker is running, while the first one is about to lay-off, to calculate a first-time capitalization and secure the bonus point. It’s delightfully interconnected.
Now, as mentioned, the single asymmetry of this drill is purposive. Blue is practicing playing against a different defensive setup than red. The “finishing” skillsets involved and the passes required to get there are quite different. A packed longball into an on-running attacker will take vastly different forms when it penetrates an entire half of a field, vs. the opponent’s box. The keeper adds complexity to red’s task, but the ability to shoot from distance also unveils a different challenge for blue.
In order to keep the game as close to positionally relevant as possible, and without making vertical distances way too stretched, I’ve taken what could’ve been a field-centered activity and biased it towards one end of the pitch. Imagine The Seamstress, a game about threading that coveted final ball, out of the more symmetrical center. Scoring by shooting on a true goal requires the entire length of the pitch, and scoring by dribbling across some intermediate line feels much less realistic than a player skiing along the offside line and breaking all the way from half.
If we scrutinize the design even further, we might pose the excellent question as to why I’ve limited the game to the central strip and halfspaces. First and foremost, if we were to expand to the full field before gradually building to it, players may wobble without the training wheels. Press Escape leads to The Seamstress which leads to our next game, Reroute, and that progression is key to easing the concepts in. We’ll get to full width, shortly.
That being said, if you observe your players being too held-back by these guidelines, there are certainly intriguing elements to be peppered in. One could strip the gridline restraints and simply leave the links between point scoring and passing areas in tact, meaning players can move wherever they please, but UB&Ts can only register if out of the advanced zone. You could also introduce elements of vertical overloading, in which ball carriers can drive into the next zone, to promote hopping the fence and intentionally provoking the opponent’s press. There’s a variety of things we can alter from this angle.
You might also notice one main glaring flaw in this drill–its lack of fluid transition to a 11v11 formation. A 2-3-2 trims the channels from the pitch, but the evolution to a true formation is choppy. A team that starts in a 4-3-3 may train a small sided 4v4 game in a 2-1-1, for instance, in an effort to simply delete players when reducing concepts down, as opposed to changing their roles. The 2 represent the 2 CBs within the back 4, the 1 represents the central 1 inside the MF 3, and the 1 is the lone striker in the 3 up top. If a 4-3-3 team were to use a 1-2-1, they would a bit of this cohesion. The 1 would better replicate the actions of a 3-back, but will play with a partner and fullbacks on matchday. The double pivot, let’s say, will also poorly replicate the trio that will start this weekend. Thus, by the same logic, this symmetrical 2-3-2 that brings us plenty of benefits in terms of gameflow and topical applicability for both sides at once, leaves us with 3 players to intersperse evenly to arrive at 11v11. As we know, 3 isn’t tidily divisible by 2.
The easiest addition is to say we’ve clipped the fullbacks. A back two will usually play with them, but in order to avoid our drill expanding too quickly, we’ve lopped them off. Now, a scaled up 4-3-2 is close to our 11v11, but not quite. We’ve still got one pesky player to fit in–and no matter how we do it, we’re detracting from our smooth runway.
If we play a 4-4-2, the central zones are unlikely to occupy all 4, and we’re better off playing The Seamstress with 2-2-2, instead. If we use a 4D2 (4-1-2-1-2), we could add our player as a 10, but now that central zone is super congested. Part of teaching players to scan is creating authentic environments that are still predisposed to success, to keep motivation and interest at a high level. If we pack that middle area with 4, it runs the risk of becoming too dense for our midfielders to continue their skill-building.
Our final choice, then is if we play a 4-3-2-1 like Chelsea. This is certainly an option, but it’s a pity that our central striker isn’t involved. The dynamics regarding scoring and breaking from the half are vastly different with a focal point like that. Often, lay-offs are made by that guy, especially, and it’s hard to adapt this exercise to isolate that single player. Once more, we could envision a 4-3-3 and simply put 3 players in the advanced zone, but now we lose our evenness–a 2-3-3 against a 2-3-3 leaves unrealistic superiorities with both teams pitting 3 attackers vs. 2 CBs.
It’s a tricky one.
Yet, I’ll repeat, not every drill is perfect, nor should we strive for that. This game has been highly optimized to elicit the specific behaviors we want out of players that occupy near-perfectly relevant positions, encouraging different forms of perceptive behavior up and down the field. That’s much more than we might typically ask–and cements the exercise as one of the most holistic of the bunch.
But, with that nagging imperfection in mind, we complete our session progression with a full-width expansion. This time, training build-up and changing the point of attack out of a 3-5-2, the team will see an even more realistic environment to train within. So let’s get on with it!
As the exercise title suggests, activity 9 is a game of receiving the ball from one end, in genuine gameflow, and switching to another. It rewards players that are able to show for the ball inside gaps in the opposition, gather a delivery, and know where to send the package off to next.
The drill is organized with one central zone marked out across the central strip and halfspaces. If you’ve progressed from The Seamstress to Reroute, this is the same shape as the middle region in our prior drill–making setup a little easier. Just leave those cones on the ground.
Towards the halffield line, the pitch is then tapered inwards, as shown, to guide blue away from the channels and towards the halfspaces. We’ll discuss the reasoning behind this, shortly. The area ends at the same depth as The Seamstress, too–a few meters into the opposition half.
The game works as follows: blue attack the two small black goals while red attacks the standard-sized white one. A goal in any of these nets is worth 5 points. For either team in possession, that golden middle region is an opportunity to rack up even more points on the team’s way to capitalizing in the onion bag. Unlike before, where we restrained players to certain areas of the activity, now–anyone can go in and out of this zone. For players that receive the ball and with only 2 touches can advance it at 90°, they earn 1 point. This refers to a ball played from the defense, into a golden zone player, and passed out to a teammate through one of the sides–or a ball played in from the sides and rerouted forwards. For players able to receive and switch the field or fully progress the ball at 180° (again with two touches), 2 points are awarded. In other words, this captures any passes received from one side of the grid and played out of the opposite one.
The intention of incentivizing these forms of passes is to augment the blindside scanning repetitions and organically grow the eagerness of players to execute them. This game will have loads of instances in which players will drop in between the lines, and since they only have 2 touches to work with, will rarely be able to profit off of their zonal entry without an updated mental map. Both blue and red will find themselves constantly observing the spaces within that critical area, but also noting the opportunities that are emerging in and around it. This will keep build-up quick as it enters and exits the grid, further pushing the players to scan more–and faster.
As for the positioning of the two black goals, their current configuration is actually the product of much discussion. This exercise, originally with corners untrimmed, was adapted in light of a conversation I had with Austin Reynolds of The Philadelphia Union’s esteemed Academy. Weeks ago, we’d gone back and forth on the implications of the positions of build-up targets around the halfline. Many teams will train with one side attacking a full goal and the other attacking two small ones–but where should we put them? I, originally of the opinion that the channels were prime, uncongested regions through which to advance the ball early on, was delighted to learn that there’s a bit of a counter argument against that misconception.
Austin’s a funny guy. In his own words, “flanks is a no-no”.
His suggestion is to opt for the halfspaces, instead. I pushed him to explain his reasoning, since switching lanes to what I felt was a denser area of the pitch seemed counterintuitive–and he delivered. I think you’ll find it as eye-opening as I did.
“…[as] for locating the goals in the halfspaces, you want your players to look for the furthest pass forward whenever possible. If the goals are positioned on the touchline, typically one, at most two goals are serious options for the ball carrier, provided that they are not already blocked, unless your players have remarkable passing range. Halfspace positioning will simply increase the forward options available to the ball carrier and prime more progressive thoughts in possession.”
His logic begins with the fundamental desire to encourage progression. By placing goals on diametrically opposite ends of the field, the targets become awfully blurry for those charged with advancing the ball. By narrowing that focus inwards, it instills a more positive outlook towards the targets. They’re easier to hit, and more central–meaning that passing the ball sideways is less encouraged than taking the initiative to make those necessary forward gambles.
We might envision a simple comparison, here. For a central midfielder picking their next passing option, finding the wide areas, directly, may be less enticing of a progressive option given their extended distance. Not only do the halfspace / central goals feature a greater sense of verticality and genuine progression, but they’re also more often within reason. By targeting a happy medium between going directly down the center, and all the way out wide, we earn a bit of the benefits of each.
This can be extrapolated to each and every player’s nominal trajectories. The graphic below is a quite a mess, but you can likely distill the story, anyway. For the entire team, the halfspace goals result in more sensible distribution routes, even extending as far back to the keeper. The shape embodied by the green arrows takes on a much more direct taste than the red ones that generally look to avoid the opposition.
On that note,
“In addition, goals located on the touchline fail to adequately replicate the indicators of success of a good build up. Rarely is the forward solution both high and wide, and even if it is, options will need to be provided in central areas in some sense to either score or continue forward progression. Goals in the halfspace more accurately reflect the solutions progressive teams take in build up, finding solutions between gaps of players/lines of the opposition structure, rather than just around.“
This second component is also illuminating. If we instruct our team to always use the flanks as a focal point, it’s quite the avoidant, non-dominant approach. The notion of circumventing a block is less proactive than driving right through it, and if this methodology is adopted across the board, it may implicitly reflect poorly on the team’s mentality. Thus, rather than always playing with an escapist approach, we can galvanize the squad to really work towards finding gaps in the opposition, instead of hoping to bilk them every time we depart our own half. Strategic undertones are essential to monitor.
“Lastly, [is] how teams apply pressure against build up. Wide build up is often compensated with heavy overloads around the ball to juggle the reduction in playing space provided by the touchline, alongside how teams will either increase their pressing intensity or purposely cut off central passages when the ball is in the flank. The solution to these moments is a transfer of area, more often diagonal or horizontal than vertical.”
Part three of Austin’s sagacious message speaks to the vulnerability the wide areas have to pressing traps in the modern game. All too often is this route declared The Chosen One–and all too often is the defense well-prepared for it. With the added claustrophobic influence of the sideline, pressing schemes have evolved to suffocate bubbling attacks against this barrier with ease. While the notion of “switching the field” is hammered into our colloquialisms, there has emerged a bit of a countercultural shift towards actually avoiding the “easiest path”, instead. After all, it can also prove the easiest for an organized defense to thwart.
Our discussion can also be somewhat supplemented with data. In a recent Tifo video explaining the internet’s newest favorite metric: xT or expected threat, you can make out the “value” that each field portion has in terms of its chances to eventually be converted into a goal.
If we examine the specific areas of interest, here, namely, comparing xT along the halffield line to understand what targets for our build up are statistically more likely to contribute to an eventual goal, we can see that the center is most favored. The numbers below are rounded for graphical feasibility, which makes seeing the distinctions deeper in our defensive end a bit difficult–but you can see in the lane just after the half that the center-circle boasts a 0.01 while the channels have 0.008 in the same “column” (from how we’re viewing it). The middle, in what seems like a fairly undisguised conclusion, is the most valuable to arrive at.
But, as we’ve mentioned, it’s also the hardest to get into. The solution? Access the halfspaces that have a bit of the benefits of both. Higher xT than the width, but more feasible, in the end. This is another way to look at all of this. For plenty more on this, read The Practical Guide to Actually Understanding Positional Play.
At the end of the day, Reroute is an effort to begin transitioning towards the full field adaption we’ll touch upon at the very end. These sequences in build-up are so critical to build awareness and scanning frequency in. The more the players look, the more points they’ll rack up, and the more those habits will be rewarded.
10. Lobbed Diarondo
Game number 10 is certainly a bit more experimental. Earlier on in our training design, we touched upon the importance of scanning when the ball is actually airborne. This was lightly introduced in Ring Around the Rosie, but the fact of the matter is, it’s a very tough skill to isolate in a more fluid exercise. You can’t just conjure up authentic moments in which players receive flighted balls and must glance over their shoulder, with consistency. Tossed Diarondo is pretty self-aware in understanding these limitations, but is also quite an elegant way of weaving 3D pass reception scanning behavior into an otherwise standard activity.
The game is organized as follows: two small squares and two small triangles are laid out in a diamond shape, as shown. The two squares house a 2+2 v 1 rondo, each, while the triangles contain one focus player and one assisting friend. The triangles are oriented such that two of their sides are parallel to the mouth of two mini goals placed at the nearest corners of the rondo squares.
Inside of those squares, keep-away proceeds as normal. 4 red players look to hold the ball from 1 yellow defender in the middle. For each consecutive 10 passes they complete, they earn a point.
For yellow, the focus player inside the triangle is tasked with the scoring. As a teammate tosses a ball into the air, such that it’ll land inside of the triangle, their job is to control it out of the same gate that corresponds to the goal they’ll eventually finish in. The challenge, here, is that those nets won’t always be open.
In order to genuinely require that the yellow focus player looks while the ball is traveling, the stipulation in this game is that the red rondo player nearest that corner goal is also tasked with defending it. As red strokes the ball around in their square, looking to rack up points of their own, the player for whom the tossing is in their blindside may temporarily depart from the grid, to cover the net. Given that these goals will be ~1m in span, shooting with a defender guarding directly front of them is likely unwise for the yellow toss recipient. Therefore, they must monitor the situations that occur behind them to know whether an opportunity opens up or not. If they find something, it must be capitalized upon with speed and precision.
There’s quite a handful of clever nuances baked into this one.
To start, we’ve achieved a strong scanning usage rate throughout the exercise. The emphasis is placed on the triangle players, certainly, but frequent visual exploration is overloaded for all participating parties. For those red defenders, it’ll be hyper critical to monitor the tossing cadence behind them, knowing when and when not to make the gamble of leaving their team 3v1 vs. yellow. But it doesn’t just stop there.
The red teammates with no goals to mark must also be rapidly glancing around. With short pass distances, the sudden changes between the extent of their numerical superiority will force them to also constantly evaluate whether their left or right options have disappeared or not. This won’t manifest itself in much rear-view examination, but micro-scans will be plentiful. Tiny checks from side to side will need to be lightning quick and processing speed of those pictures will be pushed to its limits, too.
The yellow defender also will be smart to exhibit some owl-like neck rotation. One strategy might be to simply cover ground intensely and defend like usual, but that tactic won’t be as effective as a player that deftly incorporates details about the opponent’s shape and available options into their pressing approach. If the “monkey in the middle” notices that one red has left to cover the goal, they might force red to pass into that new vacancy. Knowing that the internal two reds bear the brunt of a dual-responsibility, they might also generally look to guide possession towards them, leaving the players with less of an option to dart out and play keeper. These small adjustments can only be made, however, if they’re actively absorbing environmental data.
Perhaps the sole players that aren’t directly involved in turning their heads are the tossers. I’d encourage these roles to be occupied by injured teammates or even keepers needing a break after an exigent session of their own.
What’s even more lovely is the symmetry that’s attained in the drill, and the game dynamics that arise from it. This concept began with only one triangle and two rondos, but the addition of the second means that there will also be moments in which red might even go down to 2v1. If both corner reds leap to block their respective nets, they are sure to give up their passing chain and route to scoring. Thus, red’s got a responsibility to maintain possession with subconscious technique, juggle defending their blindside jackpot, and also beware of their teammate that’s doing the same exact thing.
A great opportunity to defend the net, therefore, requires the visual annotation of 3 things: low need for possession involvement (watching the ball and its relation to the team’s overall shape), a shot to cover (an event behind them), and sufficient backup to avoid augmenting risk (noting the behavior of one key player).
Thus, not only will coordination be required for all of this, but consistent scanning will be vital, too. These players certainly can’t capture all these criteria in one sweep, so they’ll need to process images on a rolling basis. It may take 3 or 4 scans before making any well-informed decision.
And the same goes for the focus player. A scan as the ball is dropping down is essential, but so are looks before the ball is even released. They can examine where the ball is in each respective blindside rondo, if players are defending on the farside (meaning that red would be left with a 2v1 if this goal was covered too), and so on. There’s loads of information that can contribute to success–it’s just a matter of how much of it they’re able to soak in. This helps encourage the habit in a consistent manner, not just in the moments that are most intuitive.
In any case, if yellow performs well, they are awarded a point for each time they find the back of the net. It seems simple, with the openings so close behind them, but it’s hardly easy.
As we’ve noted, previously, there’s also a TNTP mitigation element here. Mini goals are employed in the session, firstly, to avoid the interruptions that would inevitably emerge from yellow firing balls through a 1m cone gate, but also to more reasonably reward strong scanning behavior for the receivers. With two cones placed down, the exercise can suddenly be easily defeated by red. They can maintain their presence inside the rondo grid until the last possible moment, poking a single toe out to deflect a scoring chance, from within the square pushing through to the other side. This behavior means yellow might scan perfectly well, control the ball with precision, and still be unable to find a reward at the end of it.
The goals, therefore, create what I call a dead zone–a physical region between two highly impactful areas in which players are rendered nugatory. With a net in place, of a certain width, now the red defender must run around it and leap in front to cover. This physical obstacle adds, perhaps, two seconds of delay between choosing to keep possession and jumping to play goalie, leaving yellow with a window to observe behavior and actually capitalize without red missing the point.
These dead zones are actually an immense concept I believe can be injected into many exercises to hone decision making skills. I’ve got a Touchline Theory article coming in the next few months, specifically about the idea. The crux is that single-line boundaries between two different activities, or actions on the field, yields our players with a lot of forgiveness for hesitation or miscalculation. If all it takes is one step to waver between choosing option A or option B, players can pick one and switch to the other with ease, and will often do so. Dead zones are grey cavities of non-existence between these areas that force the player to more seriously calculate whether a gamble or decision is worth taking. For red, here, a cone gate leaves them with an easy way to immediately oscillate between both roles they’re being asked to play. A goal that requires running around demands that they genuinely scan to know whether taking those 2 seconds, in which they occupy neither the role of holding the ball and racking up 10 passes, nor protecting the net, is worth the sacrifice.
This type of drill-design construct pushes our players to be decisive and calculate risk on the fly, while, in this case specifically, making the game more feasible. We’ll use dead zones in the next few activities, too.
Now, given the uniqueness of this exercise’s layout and focus skill, you might wonder where the inspiration for it comes from. Once again, the idea emerges from the uniquely magical Xavi. Below, you can see my favorite assist of his, of all time. It’s simple, but utterly fantastic, and it’s the precise action I’m looking to emulate in Tossed Diarondo.
You see, the sequence has much to admire. Suarez’s outside-of-the-boot, near-post, with-aplomb finish is more than worthy of a pub cheer. If we peer a little deeper, we might appreciate the mate-sipping striker’s intelligent movement to creep back onside as the ball is popped up, too–a tiny, experienced habit that makes the entire play possible. Without that instinct, the goal never could’ve materialized.
But the true beauty of this clip is from Barca’s number 6. The pass itself is hardly remarkable, as it’s simply a bobbling redirection, but it’s that little look the Spaniard takes that opens up a world of creativity. Ball mid-flight, defender on his back, and with a lob that eventually drops behind him, he’s still able to interrupt his gaze to observe his blindside. There’s no better clip I’ve seen.
In taking what seems like a completely impossible look, Xavi takes stock of an otherwise invisible gap in the Rayo defense. He sees Suarez in the seam, notes the pressure immediately on his back, extends an arm to keep the passing lane open, and plays the ball through. I could watch the clip for hours if I hadn’t already done so.
Tossed Diarondo, therefore, is a technical exercise that looks to build this high-difficulty habit, and more. Little glances like this can make a tremendous difference. A ball might be fired into the box for a cross and, after practicing aerial scanning, our defender breaks his ball-staring focus to check for any runners in his blindside before heading the ball away. Our midfielder could be pinged a switch, and as the ball is halfway along its intended route, the recipient examines the farside to note a darting runner who will only be supremely open if the ball is controlled and fired through with two touches. There could even be a simple throw-in play, like this, that only gets pried open with seemingly impossible field awareness.
It’s extremely worthwhile to train.
11. The Molecule
Activity 11 is one of my favorites. Up until now, we’ve practiced scanning behavior to notice colors, raised arms, defenders on our backs, open passing lanes, and more–but never quite to observe numerical superiorities and inferiorities. That’s where the molecule comes in.
The ability to distill a complex image into a pure inequality can be the key to unlocking football. In a TT piece from last October, I touched upon the ways in which players can use this handy, back-pocket tool to objectively decipher a comparison between passing options. I’ve also analyzed how we might distinguish opportunities of equal numbers–i.e. picking between a 2v2 or a 3v3. You can read more about that, here.
But the key, new factor is that now we’re looking to train the observation of these differences in a few blinks of the eye. To collect all the data needed, here, our players will need to be looking everywhere, all the time.
This game is set up as follows: a large square is marked off with the field’s center circle acting as the core of the exercise. Around it are four identical zones towards each corner of the field, each occupying the space between the center circle and the mini goals placed at each corner. Between these four regions, there are dead zones marked off, as shown. There’s an additional no-fly zone outlined in front of the net to prevent teams from TNTP puppy-guarding.
Play unfolds with the ball always starting in the center. The players in the middle engage in a 3+2 v 3, free-flowing possession exercise. Very natural, and with numbers up in possession, reasonably comfortable for the attacking side–though we’ve drawn the game towards more realistic numbers than Valve Rondo that granted the ball-holding team with a significant internal advantage. A ball is rolled out by one of the two coaches standing in opposite dead zones, and the game begins.
The possession team, let’s say blue for now, is tasked with scoring on one of the four goals. The ball starts centrally, while the 8 blue and red players in the periphery are free to move wherever they’d like across the four external zones. As soon as a pass is made out of the circle and into a zone, the players become locked to their respective regions, meaning that whatever reds and blues are inside the relevant mini-match are the only ones permitted inside. The ball must either be scored by blue, or recovered by red and played back into the middle to start their attacking effort. Blue cannot pass the ball back into the middle if they find themselves outnumbered of the matchup is otherwise unfavorable. That would be too forgiving for poor scanners in the center! Punishment is served by leaving the team to compete numbers-down, a reinforcing disadvantage that will really push the core possession players to look before executing an escape ball play.
With the general idea outlined, it becomes clear that The Molecule demands perpetual mental map refreshing. As the baseline subconscious exercise is upheld centrally, the outside players will drift in and out of zones with clearly demarcated boundaries, giving those in the middle the chance to continuously glance, evaluate instantaneous numbers in various different regions, and assess if the odds are with or against them in each one. The movement around them, and the competitive edge the attacking side looks to earn in the external areas, will generate loads of new moments to observe and compute. If a teammate moves from one area in which they were in equal numbers, to now being up one in a new mini-match, this may be an opportunity worth taking advantage of.
The ball is knocked around the center as blue observes the movement around them to see what pass gives them the best chance of scoring. The dead zones, once again, add a second or two to the transition between one region or another, both making the scan more likely to represent the eventual configuration since it’s harder for outfielders to oscillate along a thin line, and forcing those external teammates to scan amongst themselves, too.
As they change in and out of zones, the blue and red players will be shrewdly looking to evaluate where they can prove most useful. If red notices that they’re brutally outnumbered in any given region, they might look to course correct. If blue sees a chance to overload a zone, they might hop in and join the party–but in order to achieve any of this, they’ll need to keep that head on a swivel.
Furthermore, the players will need to adjust their positioning within the respective zones to create the best configuration for goal-scoring. A player that runs inside the top right one, for instance, may realize that the field is in need of spreading, or that a short option is most desired. These nuances will grant individual positional cues as a function of the collective shape.
Another delightful wrinkle: since the attacking players always receive with their backs effectively to goal, they will also need to check their shoulders and optimize their receiving body-position to ensure that a pass fired in, even with numbers up, is translated directly into a point on the scoreboard. The dimensional immediacy involved in small sided games will mean that those who exhibit strong visual perception behavior before the pass is made, and make that crucial final update as it’s traveling, will have a much more fine-tuned subsequent touch, pass, or shot, than those who don’t.
The Molecule also unveils other elements of superiorities, inferiorities, and equalities. Amongst them, the notion that “seeing numbers-down in any given area is hardly a bad thing, and simply means your team is numbers-up elsewhere” is highly reinforced. This drill also exposes elements of qualitative superiorities–the idea that you might favor one mini-duel over another, based on the skillsets of the players inside of each one. A 2v2 with one blue winger and one blue midfielder vs. two red “defenders” that are actually strikers might be a better choice than a 3v2 in which blue’s three attacking players are centerbacks. There are positional elements here too–maybe one zone has better interspacing, better body position, and so forth. There are lots of additional minutiae to pick up on, and again, the players that are able to make best use of that democratized data will be the ones that shine in this session.
A few final notes: that puppy-guarding blocked off corner in front of the goal can certainly be adjusted to your liking. I’ve positioned it here to prevent the defending team from parking the bus in front of the net, which would inevitably stall the entire game since blue can’t retreat into the center circle. This marked-off area gives the game a bit of nice symmetry, with the center circle lopping off the other side too, and gives the attacking team a unique shape to drive towards goal within.
The observation of the space, in and of itself, will also be a task that encourages the evaluation of unfamiliar field boundaries and how the team ought to arrange themselves inside of it. Shapes and areas are eternally shifting throughout matches, so this bulging, sideways hourglass creates an interesting new area to operate within. That’s something we’ve also distinctly looked into, in Stop Romanticizing Rectangles: Why Euclid (and I) Would Object to the ‘Gamelike’ Obsession.
If a ball were to end up out of bounds, the coaches in the dead zones will be supplied with sufficient extras such that immediate restarting for the other team occurs centrally.
Now, we fly to Japan.
12. The Olympics
Alrighty! We’ve reached our final stop on the scanning session train. Inspired by the recent Tokyo games, I’ve assembled a more fun finale for the players to practice their visual perception. This is a massive Spinach Brownie, in that it disguises loads of sub-skills inside a super dynamic, entertaining activity. Drill 12, let’s get it!
The Olympics is organized across the entirety of the field. I’ve done so for visual emphasis, but if the spans are too vast for your team or age group, they can certainly be shrunken down. The setup splits the central strip and halfspaces into three vertical zones (from our viewing perspective), each housing a different activity. These are plug-and-play, in that you can stick literally whichever exercises you want inside of them, but I’ve started with three that work well together.
The first, on the left, I’ve started us off with a game that, for now, I’ve pretty uninspiredly called “counters”. The game contains two full-sized nets at either end. Plenty of balls are stored in the goals and along the sidelines for quick restarts. The aim of the game is to score more than the opponent. Every time the ball goes over the endline or goes in the net, the goalkeeper may restart play immediately. The proximity of the goals means that lots of shots will be fired from range, many quick exchanges will be needed to get players open and 1v1 with the keeper, and so forth. There’s limited width so dawdling out in the channels won’t do us much good. It’s all about being direct and attacking up the gut. The pragmatic, no-nonsense ethos of this one encouraged me to attribute the title of “Germany” to the exercise.
Just a few days ago, Östersunds FK U19 Coach Albin Sheqiri shared a clip of a Chelsea training game in which a very similar design was utilized. Perhaps my stereotypical nomenclature was apt, given Tuchel’s national allegiances.
In the middle, we’ve got a possession grid. In here, 10 passes equals 1 point. You try to rack up more points than the opposition. Very very simple. This one’s called “Spain” for obvious stereotypical reasons. Once more, plenty of balls around the edges–it’s a TNTP thing we’ll get to, shortly.
On the right, I’ve input a game of two-mini-goal “futsal”. Here, the focus will be less on firing shots and testing any keepers, and more related to careful and precise buildup. There will be switches of play, more incentives to take players on 1v1, and more. Brazil gets the tag as the home of these small-sided skillful settings.
Now, on their own, each of these drills are exceedingly commonplace–but when welded together, as shown, they generate a host of new dynamics. In The Olympics, players aren’t confined to any given game, they’re free to roam and interchange.
At the start of of the session, teams are divided up equally and start at the sideline of the field. When the coach motions or whistles to start, the players have, say, 30 seconds to distribute themselves amongst the three activities, such that they feel they can compete adequately against the opposition. It is highly likely that there will be imbalances in the way each team decides to set up, meaning that we’ve got our catalyst for scanning and verbal communication already locked and loaded. The teams will likely continue to adjust and respond to their opponents’ ideas, until you give the go-ahead, so just start whenever you’re ready.
At the second whistle, each game begins. In our graphic, we feature blue against white, and the team that wins 2/3 of the games wins the competition. This challenge is a highly collaborative effort to constantly redistribute resources, share observations of numerical superiorities and inferiorities with teammates, and juggle highly fast-paced technical tasks with environmental data collection. It’s strategic, but most importantly, highly entertaining for the vast majority of players who just want to play.
As you run The Olympics, one of the levers you might use to your advantage is time. Both long and short intervals have their merits in this conglomerate of an exercise.
Starting a timer for 10 minutes, for instance, will allow players to settle into the activity. It gives the players more of a runway to scan and switch games mid-stride, creating overloads and capitalizing on those opportunities. It also enables them to energetically engage with one task, monitor another, and eventually change scenery. Windows that are too quick might lead a player to stay put, since running over to a new activity may lose them a valuable proportion of time in such a short-lived overall span.
That being said, longer, unbroken sessions might also induce complacency. A team that has only 2 minutes to win 2/3 games will press incredibly hard, pass dynamically, and fervently seize opportunities. You could stack 5 of these rapid fire rounds back to back, and the winner of 3/5 of the 2-minute competitions could win the entire thing. Those lightning rounds are a staple in many coaches’ methodologies.
The choice of mini-game in each slot is intentional, in that Germany, Spain, and Brazil all require different technical tasks, roles, and responsibilities. This means that players will not only have to transition into different zones, but they’ll need to adapt their understanding of what cog they are in which machine, in the span of only a few seconds. They might go from executing a shot after only two or three passes in counters, to simply looking to spread the field and maintain control of the ball in the next grid over. This will add a bit of cognitive demand to the act of switching games.
The inclusion of dead zones, here, also adds a deliberateness to the decision-making process. These can be widened or generally fine-tuned to minimize any dilly-dallying inside of them or maximize the encouragement for players to traverse them. If they’re too big, the risk of being inactive in any particular mini-game may be loo large to hop over. If they’re too small, you’ll find players quietly hanging around one drill before suddenly switching to the other when a counter attack arrives. The latter dynamics will likely occur, regardless, but a shrewd team will realize that if the defense is too worried about a particular side of the field, the other might be increasingly open. These are all simply things to have a finger on.
The previous paragraph touched upon a bit of a potential TNTP problem, but the other glaring issue is restarts. If a team notices they’re playing futsal with 2v4, they might look to kill time until they communicate to their neighbors that they need backup. For this reason, I’ve positioned loads of balls in the dead zones and across each endline, and would, perhaps, instruct you to employ “first-grab throw-ins”. The idea, an effort to minimize time wasting for the sake of establishing more favorable numbers, means that any time a ball goes out, the first player to grab it, or the alternative ball nearest the point of exit, can restart play. You might also do kick-ins, if you prefer. The goal is to give the players the least amount of idle time to scan comfortably. We want them looking around in a rapidly evolving situation, not one in which their sideline teammate holds the ball above their head, feinting throws until more homies arrive.
Ultimately, this is a perfect spinach brownie to run when players have just come off the back of a tiring tournament weekend, have a huge match coming up in which a final boost of camaraderie may help morale, or are simply in the offseason looking for an entertaining, seemingly-innocuous thing to work on.
Before we wrap things up, let’s briefly discuss how to execute full-field sessions that can continue to encourage visual data collection in key moments.
13. Full Field Adaptation
We’ve spent some time walking through our runway process, a gradual introduction of habits that hopefully leads up to something–and this is it. This is where our newly-acquired skills get to take true form. It’s an excellent moment to help add context and specific instances in which the players’ new scanning behavior will prove most useful, and perhaps even more importantly, the best time to positively reinforce exemplary execution.
Rather than simply watching the team play 11 v 11, I, as the coach, would employ a highly-involved verbal approach. We don’t just want a casual scrimmage, we’d prefer to have everyone collectively engaged in the same training objective. The air should be filled with scanning dialogue. The baseline technical demands are, finally, at their most familiar, so this will be the chance to see how well the players can perform in their specific roles and within the pristinely unadulterated field environment.
In the words of Dan Abrahams, from another particularly insightful exchange with Professor Jordet,
“I just think we’re, as human beings, from an evolution perspective, designed to pay attention to the most important thing in our environment. You know, I mean, it’s called football, okay–some people call it soccer–it’s called footBALL, it’s about the ball. By and large, coaches, players […] development, it’s about becoming acquainted with the ball, making it your best friend. For me, everything about the game points towards the ball. And as you’re saying, it’s this counterintuitive notion of, “don’t look at the ball, look at the space, look at the relationships between player, space, and ball”. And that doesn’t just feel against every message that a young player hears–it’s also quite complex. And so it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of players either don’t pick up those aha moments, or don’t come across them, or are so oriented towards the ball, because of it’s importance in the game, that they don’t necessarily pick up these important behaviors.”Dan Abrahams, The Sports Psych Show, Ep. 153
This is our chance to expose those aha moments.
From the manager’s point of view, this freer session will likely be a bit unique in terms of how feedback is delivered. Typically, it’s easy for a coach to watch the ball progression and comment or congratulate players based on what happens near it–but for the almightily intangible, visual exploration learning task, it is rare that we’ll ever praise someone on the ball.
Instead, I’d encourage coaches to fight the instincts that we all have, those that allow our gaze to gravitate towards the paneled leather, and try to focus their attention on potential pass recipients, switch options, and so forth–instead of those directly involved in the run of play. If a tidy goal is scored, if an expert interception is made, if a slide tackle just nudges the ball away from danger–don’t highlight those items. We want everyone lasered in on owl-like heads.
This outlook may be aided by positioning oneself centrally and wandering the middle of the pitch like a referee. That’s typically the stance I prefer to take when observing scrimmages, as it’s easier to quickly convey affirmations or critiques with players on the run, compared to yelling from the sideline. It’ll also help you watch those off-the-ball from a closer distance.
Each coach will have a particular cadence they feel comfortable with when it comes to interrupting play for guided questions, and so on, so feel welcome to employ your genuine style when the scrimmage is in full swing. Picking representative moments to pause play, mid-pass, can serve as an excellent manner of contrasting good and poor behavior. If we call “freeze” when a ball is fired to a midfielder, we might ask them, Phosphenes style, “what their next move is”. If they haven’t scanned, it’ll likely come back as a negative layoff, or “I don’t know”. For those that’ve done their due diligence, they may call out a streaking runner in their blindside, a direction they want to turn, and so forth. We want these things showcased publicly so the team can feel motivated to emulate the best question-answerers, and not be left blubbering in front of the group. Of course, there’s no need for ridicule in the case of a “wrong” answer, just address the obvious solution, and restart quick. Give everyone plenty of chances to redeem themselves.
These stopped instances can also serve as an effective moment to call out archetypal “game frames” in which scanning can both easily performed (i.e. under low defensive pressure) and/or highly valuable in terms of the information to be absorbed.
You can come up with these moments yourselves, but I’ve collected a starting handful from watching various clubs during preseason. When spectating a game from the comfort of your couch, all you need is to pick out a player you notice with a distinguishably higher scan frequency than their peers, and watch when they do it.
Example 1 is a far side scan right after a central midfielder plays the ball to a particular channel.
The reasons for why this is an excellent moment to either “click the stop button” or simply communicate with the midfielder on the fly are plentiful. This type of sprayed pass is as common as any ball in the game, meaning that the sequence will be easily identifiable for the player. We want to point out moments that take on that mould–examples that are surprisingly easy to remember and apply learnings to, rather than highly niche circumstances that’ll never happen again.
The guideline here, is that as the ball is traveling, it tends to be easy for players to watch until its gratifying reception, but if we’re confident enough with our passing ability, there’s no need to observe it from start to finish. Instead, this is a superb opportunity to look over the player’s shoulder, to begin to capture the scene for when the ball gets inevitably re-routed back in our direction. This can be the start of several scans over several seconds, so getting in the habit of performing our inaugural look precisely when we’ve directed all attention to the opposite side of the field is a terrific way to catalyze the behavior we wish to elicit.
The info collected here can be useful for a quick, penetrative switch (knowing how the far side looks before the ball gets to you means you can take fewer touches to get the ball into threatening areas, faster), it may provide helpful insights that instruct an immediate positional adjustment for the passer (awareness of the enemy’s defensive shape might encourage a player to drop deeper for a return ball, or drive ahead into gaps), and so on.
Example 2 is when a supporting defender looks to provide instructions to a under-pressure teammate chasing a ball down in their own end.
Here, the tendency for the CB might be to simply sprint back at full pace to cover for the wideback, as red has countered with a long ball into the channel, over the white back line. However, this ought not be done in isolation; while the engaged defender must track back at top speed and monitor the situation directly on their back, the centerback may be advised to be the LB’s eyes for them. In scanning repeatedly as the ball travels and bounces to a stop, they can provide contextual cues to their teammate about the pressure they don’t see coming.
These tidbits can extend farther than “man on!”, too. A clever teammate might let their fullback know about an outlet pass on the sideline side, or about a second presser rushing to close down the negative keeper ball. They could modify the way in which they help the teammate by taking stock of how red is covering their bases, or call for even more back-up (i.e. shouting at the far side fullback to get on their horse) in the case of a severe numerical inferiority. This is another easily pinpoint-able game frame in which scanning can be of tremendous use–though it may take explicitly highlighting it for the less-involved player to realize just how involved they might actually be.
Example 3 is when a winger is darting into an acre of empty space on the flank, preparing to perform a cross. This is less of a blindside observation, and more of a forward perception, but can be so useful if highlighted within the context of mental map updating. Remember Cyclone.
All too often are crosses played without looking, hopeless balls sailing for everyone to bask in their pitiful pointlessness. If we’re lucky, wingers will pick their heads up once, right as they wish to play the ball–which helps, but can also leave them with only one decontextualized screenshot to work with. The box is full of players making decoy runs, feints, and other deceptive maneuvers that, if our own teammates only see a single frame of, can be tricked by, too. Looking up multiple times, between each touch, just like we’ve taught our teammates to do, lets them better pick up on what everyone’s true intentions are, while granting them more time to evaluate the mercurial spaces opening and closing as the blitz rushes in.
The first of Celtic’s Ryan Chistie’s trio of assists from their 6-0 thrashing of Dundee F.C. displays the benefits of this behavior to a tee. Enjoy the whole montage, courtesy of Twitter’s @jvbbavx, but watch that initial one in particular.
Let’s run it back.
It’s masterful! Repeatedly, as Christie bursts into space, he notes the position of his teammates and the opposition. Let’s walk through what he picks up on, as the reward for his perceptive diligence.
Frame 1 shows Celtic teammate and eventual hattrick scorer Kyogo Furuhashi as a prime target, with two nearside defenders worthy of keeping tabs on. Here, we have a starting point, but not enough information to truly maximize our chances. A cross played with only this mental image could go any which way.
Frame 2 gives Christie a bit more. The nearside centerback is departing his post to come cover the ball in, potentially leaving space in behind. This space might be an opportunity for the Celtic striker to run nearpost, and the partner CB is also alerted to that possibility. Yet, nothing tells us which choice will actually be made, leaving our green and white winger without all the clues he needs.
Frame 3 gives us that feint run, the quintessential jab step. For all we know, it’s Furuhashi’s true intention, but Ryan waits to watch it unfold. The Japanese attacker is pretty far from the net, at this point, so it’s possible that he’s trying to trick the Dundee defense before he’s run out of space to run into. The cyan CB bites the bait.
Frame 4 shows that upon shifting the centerback’s momentum, Kyogo, indeed, leaps to his blindside and calls for a ball into the corridor of uncertainty. Dundee’s backline are caught watching the wrong places, with the main centerback isolated, while the trailing 6 ball watches, and the farpost fullback monitors the cutback situation–despite his runner in behind. The Christie pistol is locked and loaded.
Frame 5: bang. The ball is played in, perfectly weighted and perfectly timed, for a simple tap-in. Our pub cheer erupts, while we smile, knowing that we’ve observed something even more spectacular: a sequence and a lovely goal unlocked by the power of picking one’s head up. Christie’s exemplary scanning behavior is what takes an ambiguous crossing opportunity by the scruff of the neck, smartly ignoring his own teammate’s ruses, and converts it into a clear-cut chance to begin the goalfest. It’s the little things that make the big ones possible, and this is exactly the type of thing we can encourage our players to do, too.
These three instances can hopefully get the ball rolling for you as you look for other game frames to further push the team to employ their new skills. The key in this full field scrimmage is the do the same as I’ve done here, for you: provide the team with an initial impetus to begin asking questions themselves.
Once a CM realizes the value in checking the farside, after they, themselves, play a pass, a centerback might grow to appreciate doing the same when they find their fullback. A striker that watches their CB scan to help an under-pressure teammate solve a sticky situation might think to glance around and provide verbal hints when his right winger is isolated and pressing the opponent high up the field, too. The winger that repeatedly takes snapshots as they dart down the sideline might communicate to their forwards how they see things, which, in turn, may help the targets better curate their fakes and decoys.
These examples might take on a defensive flavor, too! Spielverlagerung author István Beregi, and Jordet, himself, recently pointed out some excellent cover shadow scanning and impending cross situations you could add to the list. The options are infinite.
Our job is to start the brainstorming process and let the rest unfold naturally. The more we play the more we see, and the more we see, the more often we’ll scan. With everyone working together on the same lesson, contributions to the collective observation pot will come one after another. Soon enough, we’ll have bred an environment full of players looking to better understand their environment–which couldn’t be a better outcome. More informed decisions leads to better play, more goals, and fewer conceded. Our plane takes off as we proudly pump our fist from down below.
For you warriors that’ve consumed the entirety of this page’s ramblings, let’s sum it all up. We’ve discussed a lot of things, opened our eyes to new ways of coaching, and walked through the subtlest of session-design minutiae, so it’s time we recap our main story!
The most elegant players are rarely the most physically domineering, nor the trickiest, nor the ones with the most explosive shots–they’re the ones that make the simple things look effortless.
These maestros are often overlooked at the bar when everyone’s tipsily spilling drinks as the hurrahs echo to the tempo of low-hanging fruit–but to the well-trained eye, they’re like liquid gold. If you’ve come this far, and are still reading this, I know that these are the players you and I both adore.
Yet, this ostensible, class-oozing tranquility that is hardly the result of the relaxedness it appears to exude. The players that gracefully pull off unfathomable through-balls, turn blindside defenders like well-greased revolving doors, and keep the game’s rhythm moving like symphonic conductors, work exceptionally hard–just not when most people are watching. Age-old artists like Fabregas or Gerrard know how to look, capturing data that’s available for everyone, but made use of by few, and can thereby unlatch the dead-bolted door of football field “vision”.
To know their move ahead of those around them, and perhaps, before the ball even arrives at their feet, the world’s elite know that they’ve got to continuously revise their understanding of their surroundings. This game never stops, meaning that the second we think of an immense idea, it’s probably already too late to pounce. In order to grant our ingenuity as much time as possible to flourish, we must cast the widest net we can, jotting down every potential seam until the rock finally settles at our cleats. This is done by obsessively scanning in what may often appear like a bout of paranoia. Left, right, behind us, repeat. Like we’re guilty of something. Like someone’s following us through a sketchy city park, or we’re switching lanes in bustling, honking, rush hour traffic. Like owls, constantly rotating our necks to pull in more data, more context, more clues.
We do this to the beat of our own teammates. Between their touches, when the ball is free to roll and we have the best idea of its momentary destiny, we shatter our staring tendency to do the seemingly backward thing: look away. We glance, for less than mere moments, and take pictures, pictures, pictures. Snippets of the ever-evolving scenery that we compile, snapshot after snapshot, until the last possible instant. A final check comes as our parcel is sailing through the air, or giving the blades of grass the slightest of trims, generating the most up-to-date image we could possibly ask for. It’s vivid, full of details picked up on–seconds before anyone would’ve thought to take notice–and impressively applicable. With this, our golden ticket, the field trembles beneath us. We wield a mighty weapon.
Scanning is an art form that few have deciphered how to teach. Some of our game’s most prominent experts have remarked that the attribute is instinctive, something they were never explicitly taught, but always seemed to know to do. Yet, for the rest of us, born without those godlike habits, there has emerged an intense desire to somehow instill these skills into our players. Instead of praying for the next Frank Lampard, coaches across the world have begged the question: what does it take to get my squad to look?
And few have found many answers.
Filling up the online ocean like empty bottles in a landfill are self-proclaimed connoisseurs whose meager drills and session plans give us nothing more than an ambiguous taste in our mouths. Pardon my hoitytoity-ness, but you’ve seen them. 8 v 8 small-sided exercises, with a ~neutral~ to spice things up, and the quintessential bold-faced title emblazoned atop the graphic, unashamedly shouting “scanning training” to all those who retweet it. We get excited by the clickbait, dive in, and emerge from the murky waters feeling wholly unsatisfied–because this gift we were supposedly given, carried little value with it, at all.
With nearly all of these previously available materials, there’s nothing unique, nothing inherently overloading visually perceptive behavior, and nothing distinguishing the proposed exercises from anything else we might ordinarily run in training. Visual perception is fundamentally hard to isolate in an activity, so it’s understandable that many would propose more surface-level solutions, but we’d be wise to ask: is this really improving my players’ vision, or is it just the costume-cladded status-quo? Does simply passing the ball make my team scan more, or must we extract that skill more deliberately?
Well, with the assistance of a few handy tools, like The Trusty TNTP Test, we can embark on the fulfilling journey of creating a better curriculum for our players. We take matters into our own hands.
This sequence of lessons will be designed as a ramp, an approach that exposes our team to decomposed concepts, teaching them to fly before they even realize they’ve taken off the runway. We’ll do our best to isolate the habits, not the sessions. We want fluidity, a progression of ideas that each contribute to the collective concept we’ll look to construct and display.
So what might that look like?
We start with the fundamental basics in low-pressure, defense-free environments. Cones and colors, closed eyes and light jogs.
We evolve to practice timing–how to look at the right moment during a mercurial counterattack. Touch, scan. Touch, scan.
Then, we introduce more complex perception-action couplings, tasking players to examine a panoramic scene before darting into spaces, or playing a lofted pass. All useful.
We carry on with rondo variations, ways of converting hyper traditional games into owl-breeding farms. Some allow for self-guided discovery of how body and field position can sharpen our vision, while others train the ability to maintain possession while always looking for the best escape ball.
These, then, grow to become more positionally relevant, training the ability of midfielders to drop deep and break lines in increasingly “gamelike” circumstances. We get our team flowing viscously with vertical up-back-and-throughs, made possible by awareness in every horizontal strip of the pitch.
We switch gears to focus on switching the field, quickly and before the opponent has had time to adjust–also unlocked by sedulous head swiveling. We’re building football geniuses with eyes in the backs of their heads, folks. It’s unlocking a world of creativity with the most fundamental adaptations.
We take things into more elaborate territory by targeting the skill of scanning while balls float above us, birthing in our players a confidence to explore even amidst the most technically challenging circumstances, like when a pass is truly flighted.
We proceed to teach them to scan for numerical superiorities and inferiorities, with the chance to capitalize on numbers-up whenever they’ve collected data successfully.
Things then get extra fun with the mother of all spinach brownies, by playing a bunch of different mini-games while scanning to redistribute resources and modify responsibilities the entire time.
To conclude, we take things to the full 11 v 11, but hold tight to our learning objective. With specific and widely-recognizable examples to start boiling that collective thinking pot, we give the group a few answers to start with: a handful of classic scanning moments never-to-miss.
From there, we sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the fruits of our meticulous labor. We’ve managed to create something pretty cool.
Now, let me get one thing straight: there’s no Practical Guide to Actually Understanding How to Coach Intangible Skills. Getting players to pick their heads up routinely, and reflexively, is exceptionally difficult, and often requires the reconfiguration of countless, subconscious, athletic processes. The pages and pages and years and years of research have showed us just how impactful these qualities can be, yet the door’s been left wide open for how to best instill them in our own environments.
… and despite these thousands and thousands of words, it still is.
There are so many different ways to try to do this. The summary above is my approach, today, but it need not be exactly yours.
What I’ve sought to do over the last 2-3 months, as I’ve compiled the sentences you’ve read in this piece, is to spark a conversation. One rainy, scornful day in June–as I’m sure you can tell–I became tired of seeing such superficial methods for coaching these skills, and I decided to take a stab at it myself. I wanted something deeper, an answer more compelling that I could propose to the hundreds and thousands wondering the same buzzworthy question I was.
A determined search for uniquely scanning-focused exercises has led me here, to you, and with an assembly of the best I’ve come up with.
For all the condescension I’m sure I conveyed in the “garbage dump paragraph”, please don’t forget that I am still merely a kid writing this all from a laptop, tethered to the outlet of my humble apartment. I could have it all wrong, too. But if there’s one thing you walk away from this piece with, I hope it’s that same unabashedly skeptical mentality that led me to write this all in the first place. That’s, realistically, the community I’m hoping to build and connect with.
If you see things that aren’t good enough for your standards, do something about it. If you notice a pocket in the world that everyone’s watching, but inside which nothing quite yet exists–be the one to push the narrative. If you see countless people sharing ideas that just seem to fall short, try to produce the first that’ll hold water.
As my lovely girlfriend always tells me: don’t complain if you’re not gonna do anything about it.
The mere act of pulling all these ideas together, into one continuous scroll, has helped me see this concept with far greater clarity–as the writing process typically does–but there’s still so much more I could have done. I’ve cut myself off from adding more drills, more nuances, and more subtle shades of visually perceptive behavior because there’s one last, ironic point that matters more than nearly any extra exercise could offer:
Training scanning is just as much about what you don’t do, as it is about what you do do.
All throughout this article we’ve harped on and on about how many thousands of repetitions we’re looking to push back on when we introduce these new instincts. We’ve pushed our sessions to be attention-grabbing, challenging, subtle in their exposure of new topics–why? Because this is a steep hill to climb.
And so, the problem-solving angle we have yet to tackle, whatsoever, but I’ll now invoke as the final nail in our coffin, is that of avoiding making that mountain any more vertiginous. If we think of the accumulation of bad habits, and our efforts to counteract them by practicing good ones, we can also improve our efforts to tip the scales by ceasing to reinforce negative tendencies.
This means that while creating clever little exercises is an awesome way to get your players better at “looking”, so is scrutinizing the plans you already regularly execute, and eliminating any that train the opposite. Those classic passing warm-up lines where players knock the ball back and forth with different surfaces and “follow their pass” to the end of the other line? Those are negative habits! Repetition after repetition of passing a ball with no need for scanning, no perception-action couplings–just monotony at its absolute finest. Droning on until the coach finally blows that godforsaken whistle, these mindless exercises (if we can even call them as much) stamp home the idea that passes ought to be made while staring at the ball, and that receptions should be preceded with a gaze of similar passivity. These exchanges are lazy, but quick, swiftly piling grains of eventually irremovable sand onto the opposite side of our balancing act. Just like how, for me, it can be very easy to gain a few pounds with a streak of scrumptious dinners, but far more difficult to motivate myself to lose it, it’s much easier to iron in poor tendencies–often without even realizing it–than it is to burn them away.
At the culmination of our trek, sweat brimming from my brows, I hope I’ve done this tremendous topic justice. Setting aside the formality of much of this piece, scanning is just purely one of the most fun things to design drills towards. It’s so tricky to weave in, so beneficial for the players, and so rewarding for the coach. I suspect that as our footballing culture pivots to appreciate more and more of the finer things, it will become increasingly commonplace, if not a requirement, to incorporate. My fingers are crossed that this saga of a article has helped you start getting ahead of the rest.
Thank you for joining me.
Till next time.