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3. What do we mean by "decision-making"?

"Behind every action must be a thought" - Dennis Bergkamp

Coaching courses for coaches of young players are nowadays often aimed at improving the young player's decision-making skills. Making good choices is a huge part of being an effective football player, and it is vital that we help children learn to make good decisions while they are young, so they can grow into clever football players as they get older. But it is worth thinking for a moment about exactly what it is we mean by decision-making.

The types of decision-making situations that occur in a  fast-moving team sport like football are far removed from the types of decisions that children make in the rest of their lives. As coaches, we can talk to players about space and movement and time. We can stop the game at critical moments and re-create for the child the decision-making situation, or we can show the players situations on tv or on a whiteboard. (The UEFA 'A' and 'B' coaching courses used this Stop-Stand-Still method for years as their main source of teaching). But is this really realistic preparation for making decisions in the heat of a game?

The reality is that the considerations of space, time and movement in a game of football are being constantly processed by the player in a very abstract way. Players, spaces and angles of view are constantly changing, and no situation is ever exactly repeated no matter how long you play football for. Very rarely does deliberate or rehearsed thought enter a child's mind when they are immersed in a game. There is no time on receiving a ball to weigh-up all the options using the same thought processes they might use to choose which chocolate bar to buy at the store. 

So what are the implications of this on the coach?

Firstly we need to help some players have more time and space to make decisions,. This can be done by adjusting the games we play to create natural unopposed situations or moments when the game is stretched and a player with the ball has more space and time to "think". For example, playing with wide players who can't be tackled, or playing 5v3 instead of 4v4. Both these examples will create a bit more room for the players who would otherwise struggle to make a decision before losing the ball.

“Great players are individuals. That’s what makes them great players. They do not conform readily. They do the unexpected. If they did what was expected they would be ordinary players. Coaching is for ordinary players" - Matt Busby

Secondly we need to learn not to keep stopping the game. Let the children play. There is no great benefit or relevance of stopping a game for a few minutes to talk about all the options available in a given situation. Certainly if lots of similar situations keep re-occuring then it might be a good idea to ask the player concerned why he made a particular decision, and point out to them what other options they had. But the game doesn't need to be stopped in order for this to happen.

(See Chapter on Learning without Thinking from page 5 for more detail and information).

Finally, we need to remember one of the most important weapons in the coach's arsenal: Praise. We can help children to make good decisions by positively reinforcing the good decisions they already make. We need to remember to use the child's name when we praise them and make sure they know what the praise is for. Don't praise innate talent ("You're really good at that!"), but use praise for the process, idea or effort instead ("Sammy, well done for looking up before you passed!").

5. What is a "good decision"?

Let's look at an example. A child has the ball and dribbles toward two or three opponents that stand between him and the goal. He has a team-mate available in space offering a safe pass. What would a good decision be?

Most coaches will agree that the best decision in this example is to pass the ball safely to the team-mate and avoid the opponents. However there is a HUGE problem with teaching children that this is  always the best option: We want to create the type of player who has the confidence and skill to dribble and take-on two opponents. And therefore we need to allow the children we coach to experiment with doing so. We need to praise the effort and creativity shown in trying to take on opponents, otherwise we will only ever produce safe and scared players. 

“I watch academy games and I see humdrum stuff all the time. I don’t see anything exciting or exceptional” Alex Ferguson

England very rarely produces the type of player that is comfortable with dribbling at many opponents. Not since Gascoigne twenty years ago has England had a world-class dribbler. These types of players nowadays seem to come from South America and Africa. There is an argument to suggest that in England our coaches and adults in football are guilty of coaching our children out of taking risks. Coaches must remember that in order to produce a new generation of creative, skilful footballers, we must allow children the freedom to become comfortable making their own decisions and learning from their own decisions.  They need to be allowed to make decisions that are different from the generally accepted "best" decisions, different from the decisions the coach would make.

"We're all born with immense natural talents, but institutions, mainly education, tend to stifle them. By not encouraging risk-taking, we are educating people out of their creative capabilities." - Sir Ken Robinson

(Imagine the 1986 World Cup if Maradona had spent his childhood being 'educated out of his creative capabilities'...)

5. Scanning

Scanning refers to the set of skills needed to take in lots of visual information quickly, often from many different directions, and often whilst also moving and/or controlling a ball. Usually this visual information is moving also - players are moving, spaces are opening and closing and changing shape. A player may only gather a half-second of visual information from around them with which to make a decision.

Scanning is paramount to good decision-making. The more visual information a player receives before they have to make the decision, the better informed that decision will be. The length of time a player looks up for and the panoramic range they take in, will impact of the success of the decision that follows. For a player to do something that no-one else has seen - it is usually because they have looked longer and with a wider range of vision than those who didn't see it.

The coach can begin teaching scanning skills when the players are very young (~6 years old). Challenge your players in games: "Before you receive the ball, can you look at both goals?". This will get the children's heads up, and get them into the habit of looking at the full picture, and of beginning the decision-making process before they have received the ball.


7. Using strict conditions in games and activities


Finally, visit the How To Set-up A Small Sided Game page for tips on how to make SSGs work best.


Related links:

Traditions die hard: Where is science-based or research-directed coaching?

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