"The vision of the game of a soccer player is the ability to correctly see the space, the teammates' movements and opponents, and to choose the best option between several possibilities."
Many of us now equate football with taking pictures, and solving a series of problems. You look, you scan, you decide. Perhaps the master of this is Xavi Hernandez, although there are many to come through Barcelona who could also be considered masters.
I've said it for years, but if I could force kids to watch a football video, I'd have them strapped in, eyes glued open, watching this video. Copyright laws aren't allowing me to post it here. It's all about Xavi's passing and receiving. 8 Xavi Rules. Totally worth your time.
At the TOVO Institute, just a little up the road from me here in Barcelona, this is the model they use for the cognitive process.
Gather information - decipher information - decide upon an action - hide your intention - do the thing - gather feedback. Fairly simple, right? In order to develop top players, we have to create top problem solvers. Humans love solving problems (apart from racism, disease, war, poverty, inequality, sexism, homophobia, climate change - we allow these problems to continue as long as we're not the ones suffering from them). Many of our favourite activities require some kind of problem-solution type interaction. Football is no different. How can I keep the ball? How can I transfer the ball to a teammate in a better position? How can I move the opponent out of the way to create more space? We get brief moments of joy when we successfully navigate these little problems by applying useful solutions.
Create Problem Solvers
In order to create these top problem solvers, we need to provide them with lots of problems. Ha. Many might have expected me to suggest we need to provide them with lots of solutions. No. That's what they did to many of us in school; the regurgitation of facts. A little knowledge is great. Even more knowledge is greater. But it's how we apply that knowledge. We need to create situations for our players to experience that have to be rich in visual cues and situations that are present within the real game of football. Over time, players become quicker at gathering that information, deciphering that information, and start to make better decisions. They begin to become better at honing in on the specifics.
We've all seen pictures of Messi that look like this. Here's how it would look to us in that situation.
Here's how it looks to him.
Some of you may think that you can't train that sort of thing. It's just natural. I think that's utter bollocks. In what part of the human evolutionary process would any human develop the specific ability to successfully navigate a team of international quality defenders with a ball at their feet? Remember that ability is incredibly task specific. So, be a defeatist, and believe that you can't train it. Okay. But you can certainly put them in situations where they experience it. The more you do that, the better they will become at assessing problems, recognising solutions, and solving the situations posed to them.
As you can see, Messi has had a lot of relevant experience.
You get the idea. The point is, he's experienced this situation thousands of times.
This is why we need to utilise representative task design when creating our sessions. Will the players face the problems we want them to solve? Are the right angles, distances, opponents, "pictures" present in the activity? Through our constraints, we can manipulate the; space, task, equipment, and people.
Space: What is the shape/size of the area? Task: What are we asking them to do? How are we rewarding it?
Equipment: What size target, ball, or other pieces of equipment are we using?
People: What are the teams/numbers/abilities?
Not only is this useful for our practice design, but also something we should consider when playing games and making competitions. We've all complained for a long time about how goals are too big for kids, the pitches too long, the teams have too many players etc. Football in many countries, in the way they play it, too often rewards bigger, stronger, faster kids. Early developers, those who are blessed with early height, or tall genetics, tend to thrive in the games we create for them. Football looks more like cross country, and thus the training and selection process is moulded to reflect this. If our task constraints for official games reward height, strength, and speed, then that's what will determine our selection criteria and training objectives.
Youth Football Structures
We've all read a lot lately about the changes in youth development structures in Belgium and Germany, how they're going with smaller pitches and smaller teams. They are improving the ball:player ratio by making sure there are more interactions with the ball. This means more engagement, more interactions, and more repetitions. Then we see some of the more ridiculous stuff, like some of the lived experiences that keep me awake at night, such as U7s playing full field 11v11 in Mexico. I still shudder.
It's not that extreme everywhere. We're doing things better in England, and to their credit, the USSF has taken some positive strides in that sense. Yet for me, we should be doing even betterer. The team size should be age minus four. In that I think fifteen should be the age to play 11v11. At eleven, kids should be playing 7v7. And so on.
How a country shapes their youth development system will ultimately determine the quality and the depth of their high level players when they reach adulthood. Some football mad countries with large populations have always had moderate success because it's treated like a numbers game. We can afford to have an ineffective youth structure because we have millions of people, and they love football. Yet countries without that large resource of population size have been starting to outperform us. Consider the footballing successes of Croatia, Iceland, Belgium, and Uruguay, relative to say England, USA, and Mexico. In our large populations, we can afford to waste talent. It's okay that some kids become collateral damage of an ineffective system, because we have so many other kids, and changing our system is difficult and will take time. In those small countries, humans are scarce, and so they can't afford to be wasteful.
This is when I was genuinely shocked to see what goes on in Spain. Their kids play 7v7 from a young age, and stay at 7v7, before then making the jump to 11v11 at U14. Not only that, but the pitches and goals that most teams use are huge. So it would appear that Spain are wasting talent. How is this possible, and what does it look like?
And for comparison, here's Belgium.
What are some of the things we notice right away? For me, the Belgian game looks way more like football. There's more football actions, like passing, shooting, turning, dribbling, intercepting, tackling etc. The players have more repetitions at actually doing football type things. In the Spanish game, the goals and pitch size are more appropriate for adults, or older kids. It's the mistake of taking the adult game, and almost forcing the kids into it, rather than adapting and modifying football for a more appropriate experience for the kids.
Look at all that space not being used. The pitch is too big for the kids (or the team numbers are too small).
When we go to Belgium, we see less empty space. Football pitches still need space for counter attacks, sprints, running with the ball etc., but you see, if we make the pitch too big, then that's all the game becomes. The task constraints shape the behaviour. By making the pitch really big, we encourage and reward long ball football, which is more effectively played by taller and faster kids, which are typically found being born at the start of the year.
Constraints Affect Gameplay
We'll go through each constraint in more detail:
Big goals: If the goal is too big, scoring goals is as easy as kicking the ball high over the keeper's head. If you score goals, the behaviour or action took to score that goal is positively reinforced. Thus what happens is you get big kids, who have developed earlier, hitting hopeful shots over the flailing arms of keepers who can't touch the crossbar. When the keeper is a more appropriate size for the goal just a couple years down the line, what you find is the kid who scored bags of goals at U12 now suddenly can't find the back of the net at U16. That thirty yard toe punt no longer works. With smaller goals, players have to assess the situation before shooting, reading where the keeper is, and selecting the appropriate shot choice, while also disguising their intentions. Too big of a goal, and it is too easy to score, and less of that side of the game is developed. Teams also develop less intricate attacking play, because they don't need to get the ball so close to goal.
Seriously easy to score against this kid, right? And something I might do before or after a session if I need to feel better about myself, Michael Owen style.
This one is considerably more appropriate. The first example requires a bit of height and power to score. The second example requires power, finesse, accuracy, curl, disguise, and quite likely, it requires a team to work harder to create scoring opportunities.
Big pitches: Who can get the ball furthest up the pitch? Great! Hoof it that way every time it comes to you. If the pitch is too big, and there are too many players on the team for the correct developmental stage of the player, the quickest and most effective method to score is to boot it over the opposition defence. With too many teammates to combine with, and too many opponents to bypass, the ball is lost frequently. The younger the age group, the more transitional the game. Teams can't keep the ball, and then suddenly, the ball bounces out of the swarm to the right player, who launches it over the opposition, for the fast kid to run onto. Kids are often so far away from the ball that the switch off. Wingers and keepers can go long periods of time without any engagement. Or even worse, due to their desire to have the ball, they run over to it and reduce the space of their own teammates.
Big teams: Too many players means little involvement, or little interaction with the ball or the game in general. The ball:player ratio is so important. Imagine being five, and having to share the ball with ten or fifteen other kids. You're not going to touch it very often, and you're very quickly going to lose interest. The younger the player, the more key the ball is to their development. We make the mistake of making kids play on teams with too many players. Remember the rule of thumb; age minus four.
Big ball: Players must, must, must use appropriate sized balls. It must be proportionate to their body. For me, even if that means using size ones or twos, that's okay. You see some kids with footballs that are up to their knees. That's not football.
Morten Gamst Pedersen is easily one of the best footballers to have ever lived. He's up there with Pele and Maradona. If you disagree, you're wrong. Regardless, look at the size of the ball relative to his bo