By Jenn Ireland. For more content from Jenn, check out ExpandYourGame.com
As a youth soccer coach, one of the most powerful things you can teach your players is game awareness. Teaching them how to gather details in the run of play to make earlier, more informed decisions and increase their speed of play is no easy task - BUT, it’s an extremely rewarding one when you get it right and see players completely transform their game.
Situational awareness means having a good understanding of what is happening around you at any given point in time. It means collecting information and using that information to make choices.
Too often, players receive the ball unaware of their surroundings. This results in extra touches, slow decisions, and often a loss of possession. Off the ball, players who lack situational awareness aren't able to make early runs, create space, or anticipate - all because they aren't gathering the information they need to think ahead and make those early decisions.
Teaching Situational Awareness
Coaches can often overuse phrases such as "check your shoulder” or “keep your head on a swivel.” If you want your players to be more aware, it is important not just to say this, but to teach them exactly WHY they are checking their shoulder and WHAT they should be looking for back there.
Scanning the field seems self-explanatory, but watch youth soccer and you can quickly see that it is not. Yes, many players understand the game environment, but there are many out who need help with increasing their situational awareness on the soccer field.
Scanning the Field
Scanning is the most important element of good situational awareness because without LOOKING, players won't know what is happening and won’t be able to make early decisions.
One thing you can do to help players understand is to ask guided questions. Having this conversation in an ongoing manner is important because it focuses on small details of the game that often get overlooked.
- How OFTEN should we scan? (every few steps, every chance we get)
- HOW do we scan? (use your peripheral vision, scan side to side, get a 360-degree view)
- WHAT are we looking for when we scan? (Where is there space to exploit? Where is my support? Where is the danger? Is everyone marked?)
- How can we USE this information to help us make decisions? To help our teammates make decisions?
Here are some ways to train awareness with early decision making:
Try a simple & effective passing activity (best for younger teams)
Make groups of 4 players. As they pass the ball around, have them call out the name of the person they are going to pass to next, BEFORE THEY TOUCH THE BALL (not as they are touching it or as they are releasing the pass, but BEFORE). For a competitive element, have groups compete by getting 1 point every time they complete a pass and get the timing right.
This helps players start to get a sense for how and WHEN early decision making needs to happen. It forces players to get their head up in soccer, look around and collect information - all before touching the ball. Surprisingly, this can be quite difficult and often requires the coach monitoring for a bit and letting players know when they get the timing correct.
If a group is starting to get the hang of it, you might notice that the pace of their collective play picks up. If you see this happening, point it out and ask if they know why they are suddenly able to play faster. (Answer - early decision making!) Simple activities like these can be impactful and eye-opening to young players.
Randomly (with intention) pause activities
Try pausing any game-like activity and have everyone immediately close their eyes. Ask the players, while keeping their eyes closed, to point to the nearest opponent, teammate, the ball, etc. Do this without warning and you might be surprised at the lack of awareness from some players. Do this regularly and you will see improvement.
Start small with specific moments
If players are struggling with scanning in live play, start with having them do it on set pieces such as throw-ins. Throw-ins are a fantastic place to start working on gathering information because players get a momentary break in play to look around. Often, players aren't scanning simply because they aren't remembering to do it, and throw-ins can serve as a good trigger moment.
All around, teaching your team to be more situationally aware will result in players who make earlier, more informed decisions and have a faster speed of play. Awareness can be taught through both conversation and in training activities. The most rewarding thing to experience as a coach is when a player of yours suddenly GETS IT and exponentially expands their game.
This blog post is from Jenn Ireland, youth soccer coach in Chattanooga, TN and content creator at Expand Your Game. Expand Your Game was created to help guide youth soccer players toward harnessing their power and elevating their game by expanding mental performance skills, reframing limiting beliefs and uncovering authentic passion and drive. Want more on this topic? Check out Jenn’s article on 9 Ways to Increase Your Situational Awareness