Being smart as a football player is probably one of the most underrated and neglected skills in the game. Although anyone would want to become an intelligent player, like De Bruyne, Iniesta, or Kante, little time is invested in work that targets your football IQ and understanding of the game.
It is no secret that the greatest players of all time weren’t always physically gifted, but it was their minds that brought them to the top. In this article, we want to suggest a series of actions you can take daily to #levelUP your intelligence and beat players with your mind.
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What Is Football/Soccer Intelligence?
Football intelligence is doing the right thing at the right place and time. The faster and better your brain can answer the three “W” questions (What? – When? – Why?) the more effective you’re going to be in the game.
This requires you to capture, process, and take action upon the information you receive inside the game, but also the information you have available inside your brain, which is the bi-product of work.
How To Become A Smart Football/Soccer Player
Smart actions in football are complex game scenarios that are a result of exceptional technical and tactical skills in combination with mental skills, such as cognitive ability, emotional control, vision, etc.
Therefore, if you want to become a smart football player, your training and overall development should consist of training stimuli that will help you perceive, think, and execute smarter and faster, but also help you manage your emotions better. Here are 9 actions you can take to become a smart football player;
- Tactical analysis of the game
- Expand your “tactical database” with tactical books (theory)
- Train with limitations that force faster decision-making (i.e. limited touches, SSGs)
- Develop your reactionary ability (i.e. cognitive training, SSGs)
- Play football in challenging environments (i.e. experienced teammates/opponents)
- Train in position-specific scenarios
- Build a strong technical base
- Engrain basic tactical principles of the game (patterns and movements)
- Develop self-control and emotional management skills
Technique & Smart Football Players
A distinct trait of smart footballers is their ability to handle the ball with exceptional skill, regardless of the situation. Think of it like this; the better your technical level, the less time you will need to execute a technical action, and the more confident and emotionally aware you are of yourself but also the playing environment.
Technique, therefore, is a fundamental part of smart decision-making that enables you to act faster and more precisely when the ball is “on fire”. Put in other words, exceptional technique is a prerequisite for exceptional, smart actions.
So how do you improve your technique to take smart actions?
Technical Development & Cognitive Training
It all starts at an early age, however, even if you’re an older player, this should not prevent you from taking that step forward and developing your football IQ.
At an early age, your focus should be on developing the basics of the game at the best possible level. This includes passing, receiving, dribbling, and shooting the ball. As you’re progressing, we can now include more stimuli at training that will target the mind-body connection.
This can be done in multiple ways. For example, the coach/player can introduce different visual and acoustic stimuli to a player’s individual training to develop skills such as scanning and making decisions based on external information.
SSGs & Limitations
Of course, team training and actual games are deemed as the most effective training environments. The use of SSGs (Small-Sided Games) and limitations (i.e. space, time, touches, etc.) can all contribute to the technical and cognitive development of players.
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Drills and training methods like these, can help the player capture information, think, and execute faster. This will in turn lead to the development of a smarter football player that can make smart decisions, even under high press scenarios.
I once remember listening to a podcast with Thierry Henry being the guest. I found it very interesting when he shared his experience from Clairefontaine, the French National Football Centre. He basically shared one of the fundamental training philosophies that are instilled over there, which was about limiting a player from his own strengths.
For example, Thierry Henry was fast at an early age. Coaches at Clairefontaine were setting a “no sprint” limitation on him. Other guys that were strong, for example, couldn’t get involved in physical duels.
This was forcing them to think outside the box, go past their comfort zone, and think in a different way.
Here’s the podcast episode we mentioned. It is really worth a listen!
What got you here won’t take you there.
If what you have right now hasn’t brought you to your vision yet, it most probably isn’t enough.
This is why it is important to cultivate footballers that are more complete. Solely relying on one strong aspect of your game can cause a lot of problems long term. One of those problems is a lack of football IQ. You need to open your mind up to different stimuli (technical, tactical, physical, mental) and use every aspect of football performance to produce smart actions.
Tactics & Smart Football Players
A smart player doesn’t only know what to do with the ball, but also without it. A footballer’s tactical “database” is equally important to technique when it comes down to taking intelligent actions on the pitch.
The reason behind this is that football is a strategic sport. A sport where tactics can make or break your success. This is usually something you experience more the higher you climb the ladder of professional football. All of a sudden, you see players making smart runs, utilizing space, time, or players to their advantage.
But how can tactics help you make smarter decisions?
As an individual, you experience a series of tactical situations within a 90-minute game of football. Those tactical scenarios, are usually simulated in-training (team and individual) for you to engrain them and make them part of your game.
What this also does is it cuts off time from the processing and removes/reduces negative emotions that would make you hesitant to make that through ball, take that shot, or do that run towards the back of the opposing defense.
Smart players are tactical geniuses. They understand the game. They read their teammates’ and opponents’ actions. These players are one, two, or even three steps ahead of the play. This awareness doesn’t only require exceptional perception, but also quality repetition when it comes to tactics.
If you want to become a smart football player, you simply have to expand your tactical knowledge base. This can be done in many ways.
Become A Student Of The Game
First of all, become a student of the game. One thing that many world-class players do off-camera is they study the game of football through any resource available.
This can be done in the form of game analysis or even through tactical books. Analyze your performance to recognize your weak spots and strengths. Review game footage of the best players in your position and learn from their mistakes and successes. Before every game, make an opposition analysis to prepare effectively for an upcoming performance and unlock the secrets of the opposition.
You might as well read books that go in-depth into the tactical theory. Our suggestion is to start with books that reflect your positional needs as well as the style of play of your team (i.e. books on specific formations, zonal defending, gegenpressing, etc.).
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Put The Theory Into Practice…
Of course, this theory is nothing if there is no practical application. Your job is to study the game but also to apply what you’ve learned, both at training and games.
Therefore, players and coaches need to pay great attention to various training methods that emphasize fundamental tactical principles of the game. Small-Sided Games, for example, can engrain various basic patterns and movements that happen in-game, such as triangle formations, the principle of pass and support, the art of counter-pressing, and so much more.
These drills need to be done with a specific purpose. As a coach, your job is to make that focus clear and not too broad. If you are a player, you need to adjust your game to that purpose, or if the coach hasn’t pointed out the target of the session, create your own around the areas your performance suffers the most.
Engrain The Basic Tactical Principles Of Football
To conclude the topic of tactics; study the game, apply the theory, and engrain basic tactical principles of your position, your team’s style of play, and the overall game. Principles like pass and support, triangle formations, fake runs to open up space for yourself, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, just need to be engrained in your brain.
This is how you can gradually expand your brain’s tactical database, to cut off processing time and make smarter decisions overall.
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Emotions & Smart Football Players
One aspect that we (players and coaches) often tend to overlook is emotional management, an area of our psychology that heavily impacts the decisions we take on the pitch.
Football is an emotional rollercoaster. This rollercoaster of emotions can be experienced in one’s career but also inside one’s performance. How you deal with those emotions can determine the success or failure of your actions.
Negative emotions, such as self-doubt, low confidence, lack of work ethic, etc. can all result in a lack of action-taking. Imagine one of your greatest actions, i.e. an important goal you’ve scored or a defensive action that prevented a goal from being scored.
What were your emotions at that moment? How did you experience that game from an emotional perspective? Did you really believe in the action you took while you were taking it or were you doubting yourself? Did you act based on your “instinct” or did you spend multiple seconds thinking of your action?
Managing & Using Your Emotions To Produce Smart Plays
As you can understand, smart actions require control over your emotions. This is something that you can (and should) develop in your daily life by taking actions that breed positive emotions, such as confidence, self-belief, and calmness under pressure.
Progress leads to confidence. Practice smarter, work on your mentality and resilience (i.e. visualization, self-talk, breathing), and adopt a better approach to your shortcomings, because as we mentioned, this game is an emotional rollercoaster. You need to manage your emotions at the moment you take an action but also during the whole 90 minutes.
Put in simple words, emotional management and intelligence can transform a thought inside your brain into a smart action. Take care of the mental side of your performance because it ultimately is the umbrella of it.
This Is What Playing FIFA Can Teach You!
No, it is nothing tactical or technical.
It is the fact that playing against high-level players can transform you into a high-level player, too.
I’m sure that if you’re playing FIFA consistently throughout the years, you started by playing offline against the system. There’s a variety of options available there in terms of the level of the opponent.
You have levels ranging from Beginner up to Legendary.
Now, if you’re a beginner of the game and wanna have fun, I’m sure you’re not going straight to the Legendary mode. You start with the Beginner one. Makes sense!
But what if I told you that playing against offline opponents one or two levels above you will make you better and speed up your development process?
The same applies to real football and it basically is the concept of stepping outside your comfort zone and moving towards the growth zone.
Playing against high-level opponents and competing with challenging players for a shirt in the starting XI can level up your game throughout a season. It might not be comfortable but it is worth it.
If you’re consistently playing in a team or league that is rather challenging for you, you will hardly experience any growth.
Smart teammates and opponents breed smart players. Surround yourself with quality teammates and quality will enter your game.
Developing a smart football player is a complex and long-term process that requires years and years of smart work, on and off the pitch. If we break down the process of smart actions we see that these acts are a result of awareness, brain-processing, and execution.
All the three elements we mentioned – technique, tactics, mentality – are prerequisites to smart actions. The mental and tactical side of the game is primarily related to awareness and thought-processing, whereas the technical side of it is linked to the execution phase.
All these areas need constant development and challenging environments to breed smart football players. Whether you’re a coach or player, know that there is no better skill than understanding the game and being smart. Smart players are the greatest asset in the modern game.