By Joseph A. Luxbacher, PhD Men's Soccer Coach University of Pittsburgh (Reprinted with permission from Performance Conditioning Soccer)
Speed of foot, speed of movement, speed of thought and speed of skill execution all contribute in determining a soccer player's ability to "play at speed". Weineck (1992) listed seven characteristics of speed and their significance as they relate to soccer performance. These elements include 1) perceptual speed, 2) anticipation speed, 3) decision making speed, 4) reaction speed, 5) speed without the ball, 6) action speed with the ball, and 7) game action speed. My previous article dealing with the development of soccer- specific speed, discussed how players can improve their "movement speed without the ball." This can be a critical factor affecting a player's overall level of performance since the bulk of player movement - sprints, stops, starts body fakes, jumps, turns and sudden changes of direction - are often performed without the ball!
This article discusses an equally important element affecting soccer performance - decision making speed. A player's ability to make correct split- second decisions is particularly critical at higher levels of competition where time and space are limited. The individual who can consistently choose the best course of action from a variety of possible options under conditions of limited time, restricted space, physical fatigue and challenging opponents will have a decided edge on players who lack that ability.
DECISION MAKING SPEED
Weineck defines decision making speed as the "ability to make fast decisions, from a variety of options, in the shortest amount of time." Several factors interact to influence a( individual's decision making speed. Game experience is always a plus. A player who has been repeatedly exposed to similar game situations will, at least in theory, improve his or her decision making speed over time. A player's ability to process information is also important. The more swiftly a player can assimilate and analyze information, the more quickly he or she will be able to arrive at a correct decision.
An analogy can be taken from the sport of baseball. The batter must instantly analyze the velocity, trajectory and location of the pitch to determine whether or not to swing the bat. If he or she is slow in processing the information, or if the batter is overwhelmed by the information and arrives at an incorrect conclusion, then the likelihood of him or her getting a hit isn't very good.
A similar situation occurs in soccer when a player with the ball is under challenge from an opponent and must instantly decide whether to pass, dribble or possibly shoot. Poor decisions - holding the ball too long, releasing the ball before committing the defender, dribbling into pressure, and/or passing when he or she should have shot at goal - will adversely affect individual and team performance.
Finally, an individual's propensity for making decisions is also an important concern. Some players thrive on the challenge of–making split- second decisions while others may be more tentative due to lack of confidence, technical ability or tactical awareness.
A player's decision making speed can be improved through practice. This is accomplished by involving players in game- simulated drills that require swift and accurate responses to a variety of constantly changing variables. The following drills place players in situations that attempt to replicate the conditions faced in actual game competition. The drills are ordered in a progression from basic to more complex, thus exposing players to gradually increasing levels of difficulty.
NOTE: Each drill can be be made more or less difficult by adjusting the available space (more space = less difficult), increasing the number of opponents, and/or by placing restrictions (one- touch, two- touch passing only, etc) on the players involved.
Exercise #1. FIVE vs TWO POSSESSION
Use markers to outline an area of 10 by 25 yards. Five attacking players attempt to keep possession of the ball from two defenders within the area. Award the attacking team one point for 10 consecutive passes without loss of possession; award the defending team one point for each time they steal the ball and/or force the attackers to play the ball out of the area. Play for five minutes, keeping total of the points scored. Select two different players as defenders and repeat the drill.
Exercise #2 THREE vs THREE (Plus One) POSSESSION
Use markers to outline an area of 20 by 30 yards. Organize two teams of three players each; designate 1 additional player as a neutral. Award one team possession of the ball to begin. The neutral player joins with the team in possession to create a four vs three player advantage.
If the defending team steals the ball player roles immediately reverse; the original attacking team becomes the defending team. Award one team point for six consecutive passes without loss of possession. Play for 15 minutes, keep total of points scored.
Exercise #3 THREE vs THREE (Plus Three) POSSESSION
Use markers to outline an area of 20 by 20 yards. Same basic set- up as Exercise #2 except that three neutrals play with the team in possession to create a six vs three player advantage for the attack. The presence of additional passing options (neutrals) may make it easier for the attacking team to maintain possession. Conversely, the smaller playing area requires attacking players to process information and make decisions more quickly. Award attacking team one point for eight consecutive passes. Play for 15 minutes. Team scoring most points wins.
Exercise #4 FOUR vs FOUR (Plus Two) TO GOAL
Play on a 25 by 35 yard field area with two small goals (four yards wide) positioned an equal distance apart on each endline. Do not use goalkeepers. Designate two teams of four players each, plus two neutral players who join with the team in possession to create a six vs four player advantage for the attacking team. Each team must defend the two goals on it's endline and can score by kicking the ball through either of the opponent's goals. Award points for the following: one point for eight consecutive passes without loss of possession, and/or two points for kicking the ball through an opponent's goal. Play continuous for 20 minutes. Team scoring most points wins.
Exercise #5 FOUR GOAL GAME
Organize two teams of six players each. Use markers to outline a 35 by 35 yard field area with a small goal (4 yards wide) positioned at the center of each sideline. Do not use goalkeepers. Award one team possession of the ball to begin. Each team must defend two goals and can score in either of the opponent's goals. Teams score points by one) one point for kicking the ball through an opponent's goal, and/or two) one point for eight consecutive passes without loss of possession. Play for 20 minutes; team scoring most points wins.