Decision making: Soccer coaching sessions

Decision-making is a fundamental element of all sports including soccer, the most successful athletes are ones that can consistently make and execute the best decisions in a given scenario with an infinite amount of outcomes.

So as a coach how can you incorporate activities in your sessions that promote decision making?

First of all, what is decision-making?

Decision-making is the study of identifying and choosing alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision-maker (Kaya, 2014). 

From this, Decision-making can be divided into 2 categories, technical decision-making, and tactical decision-making.

Technical and Tactical Decision Making

Technical

Technical decision-making is the specific procedures to move one’s body to perform the task that needs to be accomplished (Martens, 2012).  

This is decision is focused on an individual perfuming a skill to gain the upper hand against an opponent, a soccer-related example would be an attacker performing a scissor to beat a defender.

As a coach, to improve technical decisions making you must first concentrate on the repetition of said skill and ensure a correct skill technique is used, and then gradually introduce the skill into a game scenario.

Tactical

Tactical decision-making is the decisions and actions of players in a contest to gain an advantage over the opposing team or players (Martens, 2012).

Unlike technical decision making, which is focused on an individual, tactical decision making looks at how the actions of a group of players can have the desired outcome against their opponents.

Relating this to a soccer example instead of an attacker being in a 1v1 scenario with a defender there is now a 3v2 scenario in the attacker’s favor, the attacking team now has more decisions to make depending on the changing environment.

Researchers argue that tactics operate under strong time constraints because they must be decided upon and then implemented under pressure during gameplay (Kaya, 2014).

Decision Making: Overloading Information

It can be hard to promote and track the progress of decision-making as it is something we cannot see grow over some time, it can only be demonstrated by the quality and consistency of the players that we are coaching which can be hard to measure.

If we take powerlifters, for example, it is very easy to mark progress either through changes in body composition or through an increase in volume lifted over an extended period, both of which are only achievable through progressive overload.

Taking this training method into consideration from powerlifting, as a coach could we create a free-flowing environment that is overloaded with decisions so that players are forced to assess and react to scenarios to try and make the best possible decision around the changing environment?

You want to create an environment that’s designed for players to make mistakes and learn from them.

Decision Making: Technical part of the Session

As we have identified earlier, repetition and correct technique are fundamental in this part of your session so you will want to ensure that your players are getting a sufficient volume of the unpressurized practice of a said skill that will gradually build into the introduction of defenders to increase the pressure.

For this example I have created a session plan please follow the link below to use as a reference.

Session plan: Introduction to dribbling in soccer

The session objective is to change direction using the outside of the foot to beat a defender.

If we look at the first activity, all the players have a ball to try to get as much repetition of the skill as possible.

The setup and instructions have already created an overload in the environment, these decisions for the player include:

  • Which goal should I score in?
  • Where is there space for me to go?
  • Can I go through the square?

There are loads of variables that can affect the players’ decisions in this activity, most of them coming from the movements of everyone else and what goals they are choosing to score.

You’ll have players going at different paces and different directions so players will have to assess which goal is best for them to score in by assessing these variables in the environment.

By asking players to score as many goals as they can you are encouraging competitiveness that doesn’t involve external pressure in the form of a defender, if they make a mistake they can collect their ball and carry on.

The only variable I am controlling is which foot they change direction with but I allow them to use either foot in the last section.

So as a coach after deciding on the technical aspect you want to focus on thinking about these questions when designing the technical part of your session:

How can I incorporate everyone being involved in a free-moving environment while practicing this skill?

No dribbling through cones

No standing in lines

How can I create pressure without the introduction of defenders?

Phrases such as these can help:

How fast can you go?

How many goals can you score?

Can you beat your score from last time?

Decision Making: Progression

Relating to the technical decision-making for players to understand how to use skills in game scenarios they must be exposed to a form of game-related pressure that involves defenders.

Depending on where we position defenders this will change where the pressure is coming from and ultimately have an influence on the decision-making of the players.

We still want to achieve as much success as possible but still allow opportunities for players to make mistakes, this is an attacking style session focused on dribbling so I will have more attackers than defenders so the attackers get success, if I was focusing on defending session I would have more defenders than attackers so the defenders get success.

For my session I introduced 2 defenders into the square, they stay in the square and once they have won the ball they can score any goal.

This effectively becomes a 6v2, the attackers are still trying to score as many goals as they can however now they must now go through the square without the defender stealing the ball.

These are some of the decisions they are now having to think about now with the defenders:

  • Which goal should I score in?
  • Where is there space for me to go?
  • Can I go through the square?
  • Where are the defenders?
  • Can I dribble through without beating a defender?
  • Which direction should change when beating the defender?
  • Is someone else in the square?

As a coach this is where you can highlight, using questioning, what decisions players can make and what can help make their decisions quicker such as:

If there is space between the defenders can I drive through the space?

Yes

Am I going to go fast or slow?

Fast

Do I have to use a skill to do this?

No

When is a good time to go through the square, when the defender is looking at me or distracted?

Distracted

Why?

Because they’re not looking at me

During these parts of your sessions encourage your players to be confident and highlight how making mistakes is ok and is a lesson learned rather than something bad.

In this session sometimes you will get attackers standing on the edge from being indecisive, so as well as having defenders in the middle you can introduce defenders on the outside of the square to apply pressure from behind.

Questions to think about as a coach when trying to design progressions that promote decision making:

Can I keep the setup the same or similar?

Where do I want the pressure coming from?

Are there opportunities for success as well mistakes?

Will it reflect a scenario in a real match?

What factors will other players have to take into consideration other than their actions?

Decision Making: Conditioned Game

Condition games should look fairly similar to real matches however usually they’ll have certain stipulations, which will affect the players’ decision making whether it be rules or the setup of the area.

The setup and rules should be designed to promote a greater reward for successfully applying the session objective however there must be options for players so they can discover different methods for success.

For my final activity, the setup will be 2 games going on one field the rule for the game is if a player uses the outside of their foot to change direction to beat a defender and scores a goal in the same phase of play it will be 3 goals instead of 1.

As a side note as your progressions get closer to that of the real game the chances of success may become lower so just keep encouraging players to be confident and learn from their mistakes.

Through the setup, these are some of the decisions players are going to have to make:

Where are my teammates?

Is there space for me to pass?

Where are my opponents?

Where are the other teams in the area?

Can I find space to receive a pass?

Will this player get in my way?

Through the rules these are some of the decisions players are going to have to make:

Should I use I change direction and pass or shoot?

Is this a good time to try and beat a defender?

Can I score without beating a defender?

I don’t think I can beat the defender could I shoot or could I pass?

Questions to think about when setting up a conditioned game:

Will the decisions being made reflect that of a game?

Will it give players opportunities to be successful by making different decisions?

Decision Making: Conclusion

As a coach it is your role to provide and create an environment where players are happy and feel comfortable making mistakes, this is how learning takes place.

Through the setup of your session and the use of questioning to promote critical thinking, you’ll be providing players with the tools to quickly and effectively make better decisions during games.

If a player gets success from something you have not worked on during the session but it is still within the rules and setup of the game, is that incorrect or wrong from the player?

No, that is what decision-making looks like and it should be praised. The player has assessed the situation at hand and executed the skill required for a successful outcome.

Are some decisions better than other decisions? Definitely, but this does mean that any decision that wasn’t the best is the wrong decision? No. It’s a matter of perspective, give praise for a player making a good decision or trying to make the right decision but make sure you highlight other decisions they could have made through questioning.

Follow this link to help get a better understanding of questioning and how it is such an effective tool for promoting decision making:

Questioning, Socrates and Soccer: How they relate

Works Cited

Kaya, A. (2014). Decision-making by coaches and athletes in sport. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Martens, R. (2012). Successful Coaching Champion, II. Human Kinetics.

If this is a topic that has interested you here are some links to relevant readings:

Decision making by coaches and athletes in sport

Improve athlete decision making

Thank you for reading, let me know if you found this helpful or have any further questions in the comments section below.

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