Improving Perceptual-Anticipation-Decision Making-Reaction Speeds: The Best Place to Train a Forward is Behind the Goal

By Dan Minutillo (reprinted with permission from Performance Conditioning Soccer)

Dan Minutillo has coached with members of the USMNT, the MLS, and professional players from around the world. He is the author of numerous soccer articles about plyometrics, speed of play, curing inconsistent play, motivation, the use of time and space, and third man runs. Dan is the author of the bestselling book “Formation Based Soccer Training” published in 2010.

No doubt that the best way to quickly enhance perceptual speed, anticipation speed, decision making speed, and reaction speed for a soccer player is high paced game play. There is no substitute for the increased speed of play, on and off the ball, experienced on game day. But what is the next best method to train speed of play during a training session? Is it one touch exercises, two touch exercises, overcrowded small grid possession play to reduce playing space, numbers down during possession games?

Speed of play can be broken down into four distinct pieces, perceptual speed, anticipation speed, decision making speed, and reaction speed? Perceptual speed is the ability to quickly process visual cues to conclude that one movement on or off the ball is the best of various options presented to a player during the run of play. Anticipation speed is the ability to predict a future event based on existing visual cues. Decision making speed is the ability to quickly decide what to do on or off the ball. Reaction speed is the ability to mentally pivot from one performed action to another. I will rely on these definitions for this article.

A few years back I took a soccer licensing course to refresh my coaching skills and rekindle my relationship with a few old friends who I knew were also taking the course. After 20 consecutive years of coaching soccer, I wasn’t expecting to totally retool but maybe to tweak a few minor things here and there. Overall, I am very happy with the progress of my players but I’m always looking to ferret out new ideas to pass on to them or to other coaches.

Going into the course, I wanted to improve my skills coaching forwards especially related to speed of play in the vital area. I had the good fortune of coaching many talented, very quick minded forwards who scored winning goals for the teams that I coached but I really felt that coaching forwards was one of my weak spots---I needed to get better. In particular, I was hoping to learn more about creating and using precious space in the usually very crowded vital area of the pitch in order to create a clear shot on goal. Watching a forward take a useful first touch toward goal, cutting and turning the ball, quickly evading defenders and then actually getting a shot off is a thing of beauty whether or not the keeper saves the shot. What is the quickest way to teach a forward how to use tight space and get an efficient shot off on goal after cleverly evading a defender? Inadvertently, I learned during this refresher course, that, oddly enough, the quickest way to do this is from behind the goal.

The course was set up so that the coaches watched teenage players move a soccer ball around the pitch as the instructor provided important coaching points at the right opportunity using the usual “coaching in the game” system to freeze play, demonstrate and restart in order to imprint proper technique or tactics. The fifty or so attendees all listened intently to each point made by our instructor so that they could hone their coaching skills. On the third day of the course, the instructor froze the small sided game that the teenagers were playing and created a direct free kick situation about 30 yards from goal for one of the teams on the field. To my surprise he asked five coaches, including me, to stand behind the goal as the keeper set up the wall to defend against a free kick. What I saw surprised me.

As I stood behind the goal, I saw the game from a different perspective than usual. When I coach, I stand off to the side of the players, usually out of the working grid, watching and waiting for a good time to interrupt at a coachable moment, freeze, correct and restart the game. Standing behind the goal showed me an angle from ball to goal in a way that protected part of the goal with the wall of players set up by the keeper. The placement of the wall made more sense to me looking at it from behind the goal than when watching the wall being created while standing at the sideline. I saw the exact area that the keeper was trying to protect, the angle that the keeper was trying to create from ball to goal, and how it related, as it is supposed to, to that part of the goal to be protected. The angle of ball to wall to goal became very clear from my view behind the goal. Why wouldn’t a forward also benefit from seeing the game at this angle behind the goal?

When we were allowed a break for lunch, I approached the keeper and told him about the difference in what I saw when standing behind the goal during the setup of the wall as opposed to what I usually saw when standing near a sideline on a free kick. He said that he learned how to set a wall standing behind the player taking the free kick looking into the goal. We talked about that a bit and I concluded that different parts of our game can be taught more quickly if occasionally the player sees the game from different angles set up by watching the game from different places on the pitch.

Aside from playing numbers down in the final third of the pitch creating a situation requiring solid foot skills, quickness, and tremendous speed of play on all levels in order to score a goal, what is the most difficult thing for a forward to do in order to put the ball in the net assuming the first defender is doing his or her job to stop the shot? Is there a pattern to how a defender moves each time the forward feints or moves the ball in a certain way with his foot? How do you create just enough space in the vital area in order to create a successful shot on goal? How does a forward move in order to work around multiple defenders? What is your best useful first touch to get a shot on goal as a forward if surrounded by defenders or if defenders are marking in one position or the other?

Each of these questions can be quickly answered by moving the forward behind the goal during the run of play and freezing the defenders at appropriate times in order to show the forward how to create just enough space to get a good shot off on goal. Having a forward watch the game from behind the goal will have the same effect on the forward as it had on me as I watched the wall being set by the keeper during my course. The forward will see the game from a different angle and learn to take advantage of the position of the first defender to create just enough space to get a shot off. The visual cues presented to the forward while behind the goal will help to enhance all but “reaction” speed of play as defined above.

What will the forward see from behind the goal during the run of play in a small sided game and how can you, as a coach, teach that forward what to do with the ball in the vital area from first touch to last touch into the net? How do you coach a forward from behind the goal?

First, determine the forward’s deficiency that you want to correct and make sure that it can be corrected from a position behind the goal. You will not be able to teach how to hook or cut a ball, or how to increase the strength of a shot, or how to knuckle a ball or in swing a shot from your position behind the goal; these are technical foot skill aspects of the game. But you will be able to teach a forward individual tactics about creating space under pressure, that is, when to hook or cut, when to use a hard shot, a knuckle ball, or an in swinger in certain situations in the vital area. Teaching a forward individual tactics from behind the goal is mostly about when to do something with the ball as opposed to how to do something with the ball. Specifically, what do you want to teach this forward?

Once you determine the individual tactic that you want to teach your forward and you are sure that you will be able to teach this tactical concept from behind the goal, decide exactly what your “coachable moment” should look like before it happens—when do you want to freeze play in order to give the forward a quick peek at positioning during play; what should play look like just before you call “freeze”? You have a number of easy to recognize choices provided by visual cues during the run of play, for example: Defenders out numbering the forward goal side or ball side or fronting up the forward; numbers up goal side and down ball side; a one on one situation with the sole defender fronting the forward; the forward receiving a through ball from one of the three vertical channels on the pitch; the forward dribbling the ball toward open space horizontally across the mouth of the goal; the forward with the ball at his feet but back to the ball, ready to turn and shoot; the forward holding the ball in open space at the outer edges of the vital area, to name just a few “coachable moments”. If you are able to decide coachable moments in advance, your job is made much easier because you are then only looking for defenders in certain positions in relation to the forward just before that forward takes a shot on goal.

Next, set up a minimum 6 v 6 small sided game to full goals with keepers using your backs and a defensive mid or two against your attacking players including forwards, except of course for the forward that will be with you behind the goal. Move behind the goal with the forward that you are going to work with and explain, in detail, exactly why you have him behind the goal, when you will be freezing the game and why, that is, what you want the forward to see at the time the game is frozen. Explain how this visual will help the forward. Emphasize the importance of seeing the angle from the ball to an open part of the goal when the game is frozen and the positioning of the defenders at that time. Because this is such an unusual way to train a forward, if you do not explain, in detail, exactly what you are trying to accomplish, the forward will think that over exposure to the sun has finally affected your mind and the forward will not learn from this exercise. Start the small sided game.

Let’s say that the forward standing behind the goal with you needs to work speed up the process of understanding when to turn with the ball for a shot considering the future movement of defenders and approach of the ball (anticipation speed) and when to hold the ball for a pass back (decision making speed), to use a very simple example.

During the run of play look for a coachable moment when the first attacker receives the ball with a defender behind him who then attempts to turn the ball toward goal but ends up with the ball blocked by the legs of the first defender. Freeze play at the moment the first attacker turns the ball into the first defender. Show either one, two, or three things to the forward standing with you depending on his ability to comprehend information: first, the futility of turning the ball directly into the legs of a first defender, that is, recognizing that there is a defender on his back (decision making speed). Stop here if you think any more information will overload the forward standing with you. Second, the positioning of the keeper who may have been in a position to block the shot even if the forward got past the first defender with a shot on goal (anticipation speed). And third, whether a cover player was in place behind the first defender at the time of the attempted turn, which would mean that even if the first attacker got past the first defender, the forward would have had a second defender to contend with anyway (decision making speed).

You can present three coaching points during one “frozen” coachable moment and you did this with a visual and an explanation that will speed imprinting on this forward. Now look for variations like a pass to the feet of a forward in the small sided game with room to turn. Freeze play at the time the ball is received and let the forward standing with you explain what he sees. Does he see the difference? Has he noticed if a second defender is in place and the angle of the ball to goal with or without the keeper in place to block the shot anyway? What does he see? Is he asking questions?

Teaching a player from behind the goal is not limited to teaching forwards. Every field player, goal keeper, and coach can learn a trick or two to improve their game from an occasional stint behind the goal standing next to an attentive and talkative coach. Try it. Imprinting correct on and off the ball movement and improving each type of speed of play will occur much faster than if all of your work with a player is done on the goal mouth side of the net.


Performance Conditioning Soccer

Ken Kontor is founder and president of Performance Conditioning Inc. His company is the world’s largest single source of sports-specific conditioning information. Among the educational resources provided are Performance Conditioning Volleyball, Cycling and Soccer newsletters now in their 14th year of publishing and 15 sports-specific conditioning books and training card systems. He is a founding member of the USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Commission and was instrumental in the establishment of the Volleyball Conditioning Accreditation Program (V.C.A.P.) curriculum offered through the USA Volleyball Coaching Accreditation program. Among his contributions to this program was writing the curriculum. He has established the Off-bike Conditioning curriculum promoted by USA Cycling. In the past he has worked with USA Roller Sports and USA Triathlon producing conditioning specific newsletters. Prior to the establishment of Performance Conditioning Inc., Mr. Kontor was a founding father, executive director and publications editor of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for 14 years an organization of over 16,000 sport conditioning professionals. He was an original member of the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist committee that established the internationally recognized C.S.C.S. credential. He has traveled extensively throughout the world including the former Soviet Union, East Germany and the Leipzig Institute of Sport, Hungary and Bulgaria with the purpose of introducing their strength and conditioning methods to the NSCA membership. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Inc. and the National Strength and Conditioning Association of Japan. He has lectured extensively on the conditioning of athletes throughout the world.