Understanding the five corner model for player development & performance

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As coaches, we must recognize that players have an array of qualities that make them unique on the pitch. We must also recognize that each of these unique pillars need to be paid attention to with dedicated attention and care.

Many coaches spend the bulk of their time focusing on technical quality through fundamental skill application, often with no direct correlation to the game. This includes isolated dribbling through cones, passing back and forth without a defender, and possession-based games where players are required to pass the ball a certain number of times before being able to do anything with that possession. To truly increase tactical awareness and game understanding, all five elements need to be worked on in harmony.

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While this may seem like a slightly daunting task to a coach that has only grown up with old school methods of coaching, it’s actually quite simple to transform those traditional activities into game-realistic practices.

  • Dribbling through cones: Turn it into a 1v1 contest with direction and targets for both players to score, where they are tasked with using their skill moves and dribbling technique to beat their opponent.
  • Passing back and forth without a defender: Make it a 2v1 contest with direction and a target for both the pair of two and the defender. This allows players to pass with purpose, and with the right level of game-realistic difficulty.
  • Possession-based games without purpose: Instead of restricting players to a certain number of passes or touches before they can score, reward players when they do that certain number of touches or passes and then score. For example, three passes and then a goal = 2 points.
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As you can see from all of these examples, we want to bring out all the elements that they will see in the game with just about every activity that we do. We want to bring out the ball, opposition, teammates and space. We don’t want to incorporate lengthy warm-ups without the ball, we don’t want to have players working in silos, and we don’t want to limit their decision making by not providing any challenge to what they are actually meant to accomplish.

With every activity, we can add a sense of direction (for example: side to side, goal to goal), through the use of ‘targets’ that players are able to use as their method of scoring. Without a method of scoring or any sense of purpose behind what players are doing, it’s easy for players to relax into the rhythm of the activity and lollygag about without any sense for actual learning toward the game.

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That is why within every single game, we want to create environments that allow players to flourish within all five corners. So what are the five corners?

The five corner model for development & performance is an extension on the popular “four corner model” used in coaching circles and governing bodies like the FA, CSA, and US Soccer. The idea is to help coaches understand that player development and performance can be down to a variety of factors. We don’t want to jump to conclusions like that a player is not proficient in passing, or not tall enough to excel as a goalkeeper. Maybe they lack the confidence to pull off smart passes, or the psychological frame to make snap decisions under pressure. Maybe they have all the technical skills required to be a goalkeeper, and could still grow as they age.

The four corner model is essentially a way for these sporting bodies to help coaches better facilitate development of young players by focusing beyond what they see on first glance.

So before we give you the answer, let’s see if you can name what is incorporated in the traditional “four corner model”.

The aim behind such a model is to help coaches better understand the unique traits of their players, and allow for a player-centered environment to coaching. But the problem that I see with the traditional “4-corner model” is that it either lumps the tactical and technical together, or the psychological and social together. They are all uniquely distinct from one another and should be treated as such. This is why a five corner model is a better way of approaching the discussions around player development.

This includes the following elements of sport:

  • Social
  • Psychological
  • Tactical
  • Technical
  • Physical

You may have noticed that I reversed the order from traditional ways of describing this corner methodology. The reason? The social environment that a coach can create to inspire enjoyment and future pursuits in the sport is the number one thing that they should pay attention to. How they then do that from a psychological perspective to understand the unique characteristics and make-up of their own players is integral.

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The game is then ultimately more about tactical decisions than it is about technical and physical quality/characteristics. You can have all the fitness or all the technique in the world, but if you don’t make sound decisions on the pitch because you don’t have the right tactical foundations, psychological strength, or sense of belonging, you will never achieve success as a player (or coach). That is why it is integral for coaches to focus on all five corners in harmony.

The problem is that many coaches have grown up around old-school methods of coaching which involved…

  • An environment where performance and winning are prioritized over mastery, development, learning and fun.
  • Technical skills are practiced above all else, often in isolation
  • Physical tests are frequently introduced, even though they don’t have any application to the game

That is, many coaches are still caught up in the spider web of focusing solely on the technical and physical, without much of a way for direct applications to the game, and to the environment that they are creating for players to enjoy their experience and excel. Many coaches remain behind, but you don’t have to be.

With that basic understanding of the five corner model and why it’s important, let’s now dive deeper into the types of activities that can emphasize one over the others in training, while still working on all five corners in harmony.

TECHNICAL

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The technical side of the game involves the basic and fundamental skills applicable to the sport. It includes the actual “how” to these basic skills too. For example:

  • How to pass the ball with the right technique, weight and accuracy
  • How to dribble the ball with the right level of control and precision
  • How to shoot the ball with the right level of power and accuracy
  • How to defend the ball with the right body stance and angling

In my latest iteration of Coaching & Leadership at Western, the students did wonders in avoiding an over-emphasis on the technical side of the game and ensuring their activities were game-realistic, game-based and focused on tactical decisions. It was a dream. BUT, they sometimes missed key opportunities to actually break down technical components.

For example, how do you actually throw a frisbee. What part of the hand do you hold the frisbee in? How do you flick the wrist, elbow and arm in harmony? How do you follow through to inspire the direction of the frisbee? How does the body stance effect the throw? These are all questions that could be answered even within a games-based approach where players are tasked with completing activities that directly apply to the game.

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Much of the argument around the “techniques first” debate centers around how players can’t make tactical decisions if they don’t have the right technical foundations. If you can’t properly throw a frisbee, the decision on when to throw vs. when to fake a throw ultimately does not matter. This is true. But it does not mean you need to have players waiting on opposite sides of a line throwing a frisbee back in forth.

As we discussed above, make it a 2v1 activity, maybe even a 6v3! Give the attackers the advantage so that they can practice that technical foundation, but within the frame of tactical decision making that directly applies to the game.

Here is an example as it pertains to the art of dribbling in youth soccer. Instead of having players dribble through cones or practice these fanciful skill moves they are NEVER going to use in a game, have them develop ball control around running with the ball, and put them in situations where they are required to think quickly.

ACTIVITY: RUNNING WITH THE BALL TWO WAYS

Set-Up/Execution: Three starting places of even numbers. One set of players start on one side of a line and must dribble/run with the ball horizontally from one side to the other. Another set of players start on a different line, and must run vertically from one side to the other. But compounding matters, they don’t only have to scan for the other set of players, but for the defenders. If a defender wins the ball, they finish the job of dribbling to the end line, as the player that lost the ball takes their place. If the attacker gets all the way across to their end line, they turn around, and scan for the perceived right moment to go back across the way they came.

This is utter chaos and madness. What it accomplishes is the ability for players to constantly scan the field and to perceive where they have space, and where they lack space. There lies the tactical foundations to this activity. When do you take space? When do you pause? When do you speed up or slow down? And not just when. It even raises the question of where and how to take space.

Simultaneously, you’re working on several technical components. That includes:

  • How to keep the ball close to the body and away from the defenders.
  • Utilizing a mix of skill moves, turns, and 1v1 dribbling decisions to evade defenders and avoid other dribblers.
  • Intermixing moments of controlled speed on the ball.
  • How to angle the body to defend in 1v1 situations and force the player into traps (such as another defender or to the outside boundary).
  • What kind of body stance to adopt when defending in different moments, including distance, use of the body to win the ball, and physical positioning.

While there is a method of scoring, direction, and a target/objective, that target is not the typical way of scoring a point in the game. Therefore, we are downgrading the pursuit of scoring a goal in the typical sense to upgrade the focus on achieving a technical skill for success.

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It’s also inherently a physical activity, for both the defenders and the attackers. We’re not trying to over-emphasize the physical components by making this a race from one side to the other. That would only decrease the tactical and psychological decision making we want to bring out when it comes to the art of timing. But it incorporates non-stop movement, running, and some difficult scanning. There’s a lot you have to scan for using your head, eyes, neck and senses, sometimes as you transition quickly from attacker to defender.

By the way, credit to one of my students who brought up the incorporation of the five senses into the art of scanning. I thought that was a brilliant way of summing up the ability for you to hear the hard pounding of a defender breathing down your neck, or a player careening down a path in the complete opposition direction from where you’re facing. That’s part of the psychology needed to achieve success here. But you also need confidence to trust your ability to make it from one side to the other at the right time. Perhaps even some visual imagery as you see the space and then imagine yourself taking it within the blink of an eye from enacting the technical and physical skills required to get across.

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So then last but not least, how can you make this a social activity? I would start with the activity exactly as shown, and allow players to see what it’s like if they don’t communicate as a team. I then might turn those three sets of players into actual teams. The only change to the rules would then be what the defending team does when they win the ball. In the quest to bring out the social that might decrease the game-realism, such as just allowing the ball to stop dead after it’s won.

I’d then give them a moment or two to discuss a team strategy. For example, how are the defenders going to stop all players from making it to the other side? How could the attackers work together to ensure many of them get to the other side? We could repeat this cycle several times, allowing each team to have a go at being the defending team, and take time to discuss strategies as a group. We could even time how long it takes for each team to win all the balls as the defending team, thus raising the challenge for the players, and inspiring more team camaraderie and fun. Suddenly, you’ve turned a chaotic technical activity into an incredible opportunity for teamwork, communication, and player to player support.

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I could even decrease the chaos by making it one ball for four players or two balls for four players rather than each player having their own ball. Now players have even more to scan for as they perceive the space to receive away from the defending team and the other set of players, and make it across the line together. There are so many ways of adapting activities and implementing progressions, adaptations and rewards based on what you see and your session topic. This is something that coaches simply don’t do enough. Most of the time, that’s because they’re hyper-focusing on the ball, and the technical foundations within the activity.

As you can see from this example alone, there is so much more to consider when coaching an activity than the basic fundamental skills on a first glance.

TACTICAL

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The tactical side of the game is all about decision making. It’s the basis of this website, and what I’ve made my niche within my consultations for players and coaches. Every decision made on the pitch is ultimately a mix of not only technical and physical skills, but tactical. Take this sublime Joe Willock assist for Alexander Isak’s goal this past weekend. Willock has this incredible technical quality to use the outside of his boot, and he has the physical strength to get the right amount of pace, whip and accuracy right into Isak’s path. But he’s also deeply considered (even in that split second), what foot to use in that moment – a tactical decision.

He opts for the outside of his boot, knowing that it’s going to spin into the path of his teammate. Using the inside of his foot here would mean the ball spins less (possibly making it easier to defend), and end up flowing closer to goal. But with a lack of pace on the pass to Willock in the first place, he’s only going to slow down the opportunity by taking a touch or using his left foot. He wastes no time in using the foot that’s most readily available, taking the moment to get Isak in behind with the outside of his boot. The split second decision of what technical skill to use at the right moment here is a phenomenal tactical decision from Willock, and one that creates possibly the assist of the season.

We spoke in the previous section about how coaches will often make the argument that players cannot accomplish tactical decisions without the proper fundamental skills. The same goes in reverse. Without the tactical knowhow of what part of the foot to use in this moment based on a variety of factors, Willock’s never getting an assist here. The same goes for Isak’s positioning to set himself up for the goal, or his decision of how many touches to take before the finish. If he does not perfectly position himself in between defenders and know exactly when to time his run, not to mention what type of finish to use to beat the keeper, he won’t score the goal.

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So when it comes to the tactical side of the game, we’re asking questions like when and where more than the “how?” and “what?” spoken about in the technical side of the game (although that is part of it too!).

Here’s one of my favourite activities that inspires and requires bundles of tactical decision making within a game-realistic frame.

ACTIVITY: WIN ON BOTH SIDES – SMALL SIDED GAME

Set-Up/Execution: Create two teams, and then divide those teams up into two grids. For example, for 12 players, you have two games of 3v3. The catch to this game is that you can switch to the other game/grid at any time. In order to win the game, your team must win both games, on both sides within the allotted time.

From a tactical perspective, this then raises questions like when to stay vs. when to move into another grid. The team that wins is no longer the team with the most technical/physical quality. It’s now the one that is the smartest about how they manage both games. When do they leave themselves in a 3v1 on one side, so they can have a 5v3 on the other side? How can you read the quality of your opposition to leave yourself with a disadvantage in numbers, knowing that you can use that number advantage against a different quality of opposition? This is an incredibly tactical game, and if done long enough, players will come up with a host of ways to strategize around how to win.

Every time I’ve done this activity for my coaching course, I’ve gotten the question: How do we know what the score is on the other side? Immediately, I throw the question back onto them. How do you know? You communicate. That’s where the social side of the game comes into effect all the more.

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Players must be in constant communication about when they’re going to switch sides, and who should make that switch. This takes a range of psychological skills when it comes to decision making. One of those skills is active listening. You must be able to listen to your mates about what’s happening on the other side while still playing your own game, so that you can then make tactical decisions accordingly. There’s some severe critical thinking, problem solving, and tactical organization that can go into this activity.

Giving players time to discuss their strategy prior to the activity will only enhance the ability for these tactical, psychological and social skills to come to life.

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Similarly to the last activity, it’s also an inherently physical game that requires players to maneuver on and off the ball quickly. Those physical components have become incredibly tactical (i.e. when to move and where to move). But it still requires bundles of stamina, speed and physicality. Since it’s otherwise a normal game, it’s also working on all the technical foundations of the game, such as how to pass the ball, how to take space, how to defend in 1v1 situations. Players still get loads of opportunities to practice their technical skills, even in this highly tactical activity.

Above all, I can guarantee that your players will love this activity. It raises the challenge, breaks up the norm, and facilitates a more collaborative atmosphere for success.

PHYSICAL

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While the physical side of the game can sometimes also be over-emphasized by coaches, there’s no denying that football (and most other sports) are incredibly physical. Teams that excel are often ones that have immense physical quality to bring out the best in the technical and tactical quality they possess. Look at Eddie Howe’s Newcastle this season, who push and probe and press relentlessly from the start of the match. Look at Erling Haaland, who scores the vast majority of his goals through his immense physical strength, undeniable running speed and phenomenal leap.

Where coaches sometimes run into problems is in using physical tests or physical activity as punishments, often times in both cases in completely unrealistic ways to the actual demands of the sport. How often have you been told to warm up by running laps of the field? How many times have you been punished by having to do ‘suicides’? When in soccer do you ever run a lap of the field at a slow leisurely pace? When do you ever go from one line to the next without any regard for where the ball is on the field? You don’t. So if you’re going to incorporate physical tests without the ball into your training, at least make them game-realistic to the demands that players are faced with in the game.

Here’s an example showcasing exactly that, in this tiresome transition activity.

ACTIVITY: PASS, DEFEND, TRANSITION

Set-Up/Execution: Create two grids of equal size, and then stick all the players inside one of the two grids, on two separate teams. The game works as a possession-based activity, but with the purpose of keeping the ball in your team’s grid. For example, the white team is designated by the white grid, and the green team is designated by the green grid. The goal is to keep the ball in your zone, and when you lose it, quickly transition to stop the other team from keeping it in their zone. Since there are no designated targets, this game works great as a warm-up activity into the ideologies around how to make quick transitions as a team.

However, you could adapt this activity to add targets in the form of say a goalkeeper or coach, waiting on both opposite end lines. Now they have to pass to that target after winning the ball, and then transition into their grid where the target will play the ball back to them to keep.

On paper, you might be wondering how this becomes such a strong physical test. It requires players to constantly run back and forth between two grids, like they might in the game, but around the exact context that they would experience in the game – upon transitions. How quickly can the entire team set up to defend the ball so that they can win it back and go on the hunt back toward their own area? Simultaneously, how quickly can the entire team set up to attack, thus leaving the other team for dust?

It’s tiring because it not only requires the physical skills of running, turning, accelerating, and using your body to win the ball. It’s tiring because it requires the tactical skills of knowing where and when to move into space to keep possession, and where and how to condense space to win possession back.

You could also create entire team decisions around leaving a designated player in your own area to pass the ball to, allowing for a quicker transition, even if it takes a number away from your defensive set-up. That then simultaneously increases problem solving and critical thinking, all aspects pertaining to the psychological side of the game. It also increases teamwork and communication, again allowing coaches to give players the opportunity to strategize in a team huddle and come up with how they want to navigate the activity. That’s where you can bring out the social elements to this activity, and get players talking.

Focusing on transitional elements was one of the number one ways that I turned a team of physical multi-sport athletes into a team that would go unbeaten the entire season. I harnessed their physical strengths by allowing players to understand how those physical skills could be used in the game. This is one of the best activities to work on the quickness and togetherness when it comes to transitions like counter-pressing and counter-attacking. Just be prepared for your players to be tired!

PSYCHOLOGICAL

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The psychological side of the game is critical. As a coach, you need to inspire belief, positivity, and confidence within your players, otherwise their performance could falter. Certain positions on the field (e.g. striker or goalkeeper) may even require more psychological attention than others, given how much confidence can dwindle after one bad mistake.

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There’s even an entire sport-specific psychological peculiarity called “the yips”, where players start to fail on the execution of the most basic of tasks due to a mix of overthinking and lack of belief. Suddenly throwing from first to second base becomes impossible, even if the player has no difficulty throwing from second to third. That’s just one more reason why the psychological side of the game may even be more important than the development of technical and physical skills.

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Beyond decision making principles which we try to umbrella under the tactical side of the game, the easiest of psychological skills to call out include confidence and belief. All coaches have a broad understanding at the very least as to how their words and actions, in addition to their levels of encouragement and support, can either positively or negatively impact a player’s psychology.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll already know that there are far more psychological skills that can be harnessed in training. This includes:

  • Scanning the field to create moments for critical thinking / problem solving.
  • Active listening
  • Patience
  • Coping & resiliency

I think it’s always important to teach players that whether they win or lose, it’s all about having fun and working together as a team. Players should learn from an early age to cope with wins and losses, and to use mistakes or losses as learning experiences rather than as things to beat themselves up over.

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Players are generally quite good at this, and it actually tends to be the coaches that dwell on mistakes and losses more. So let me ask you this – what is the point? If your players are able to cope with losses and move on, why can’t you? Reflect on that as a coach, and actively work to create exercises that bring out the best in problem solving and decision making. Here’s one of my favourites:

activity: colour scan game

Set-Up/Execution: This game works like a 4v4/5v5 game, where players must pass into a square to score. However, the catch is that the coach will call out colours periodically, where players must quickly change the point of attack and score via a pass or dribble into the coloured square previously called out. This works great in allowing for players to constantly have to switch their brains and mindsets around. Suddenly you’re about to score a goal, when a new colour is called and you have to go again to try and score in a new direction.

You could even raise the bar here by having players select the colour rather than you as a coach. For example, each team could designate one team member to silently dictate where to score whenever they have possession. This could then create more complexity around the timing of when to communicate, when to change colours from a tactical and psychological perspective, and how to stop the other team from knowing where you want to score.

You can already see where the psychological skills of listening, coping, scanning, and patience come into effect. The self-belief is also an ever-present, as the activity requires conviction to immediately take advantage of the other team’s shape once a new colour is called.

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It’s also a physically demanding exercise, where players are tasked with quickly changing directions. As we noted earlier, the art of scanning also incorporates many physical components, which will only come out more when players have to constantly scan for the colours. A coach could even increase the complexity of this by constantly changing where the colours are located on the field.

Social elements are bound to increase as players call for the ball and look to immediately take advantage of a switch of play, but could also be increased through the non-verbal communication elements we discussed by having players select the colour to score.

The technical and tactical functions remain in place, via the technical skills of passing accurately, and working together as a team to win back the ball, or keep possession to score. Overarchingly, this is a great illustration of how “targets” don’t always have to be the net itself, and how you can often achieve cool outcomes for your players by creating different kinds of scoring methods in small-sided games.

SOCIAL

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Saving the best for last, the social side of the game is imperative to player enjoyment and performance. If players don’t feel like they belong, or don’t enjoy being around the players or coaching staff on the team, they won’t perform to their best. Fun should be the number one thing that you prioritize as a coach, particularly at the youth level, working to create the right social atmosphere full of support and belief.

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It’s true that not every sport is a team sport, but every coach-athlete relationship has social interactions that need to be properly managed. When I’m conducting coaching consultations with athletes individually, I still aim to instill positive encouragement and belief to the same extent that I would within a team setting.

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But being a coach goes beyond your social interactions, but creating an environment where players can have positive social interactions with players. John Herdman speaks all the time about how he wants his Canadian team to feel like a band of brothers. I instilled the same mindset when creating a team of absolute warriors that would go on to fight tooth and nail for each other each and every game as sisters. Players need to be supportive of one another, but also know when to have conversations that can allow one another to do better.

So you need to create activities and environments that get players to do exactly that. That allow players to talk. To communicate with one another. To strategize with another. To learn about who their teammates are outside of sport. I like to create social interactions within every single warm-up or cool-down activity I do with my teams. This is a great time to get players talking, reflecting, and learning both from and about one another. Here’s an easy activity to do exactly that within a warm-up.

ACTIVITY: PASS, MOVE, COMMUNICATE

Set-Up/Execution: Adjust the playing area for the number of players, and start with half of your players having a ball, and the other half without. Players without a ball must call for the ball and receive, and then find a new player to pass to. There are no targets/direction, just passing and moving, while communicating and scanning.

But here’s where things get extra social! Every once in a while, you can either hold up a number with your fingers, or call out a number. They then have to get into a group size of that number. From there, you can get them to reflect and discuss. In a cool-down for example, you could ask them to tell their group members about their favourite part of the session or something they learned, while working on some static stretching exercises that they decide on as a group. We then disband, and return to passing and moving.

What I love to do in the warm-up is to call a number and then have players get into a group of that size, followed by synchronizing dynamic movements together. I love to tell players that I’m looking for a group to take on tour and that I’m looking for the team that’s the most in-sync. Again, warm-ups and cool-downs are a great time to increase communication, teamwork, and the other various social elements to the sport, raising the level of fun and camaraderie in the process.

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But as you may have noticed, this is not a warm-up or cool-down that requires players to run laps, stretch statically for prolonged periods, or dance in and out of cones without any regard for the ball. It’s easy to incorporate the ball into any warm-up or cool-down activity you want to do, which then allows you to work on technical skills and tactical decision making. For example, in this activity we can work on the techniques around how to pass the ball, or the the tactical decision of passing to an open player as opposed to an unavailable option (one whom already has the ball).

We can get our bodies warm in a safe manner while still getting the heart rate up and bringing some physical elements to the movement. I will often tell players that I’m looking for the player with the sharpest and smartest movement, giving them another task to work toward in their pursuit for the ball.

I will also tell players that I’m looking for the smartest communicator, allowing them to understand how and when they should communicate. This could even come into effect when we split off into groups and have some team dynamics thrown into the mix.

Adding yourself as a big mean monster (which I often love to do for younger players), or adding a defender (or two) into the mix will only raise the ability for psychological skills to come out. Again, that might include the confidence to evade pressure and beat a defender, or the critical thinking surrounding who to pass the ball to at different moments.

It’s one of the simplest activities you could ever do, but works great as a social warm-up or cool-down, particularly for session topics surrounding the art of passing and movement.


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So with that, you should now have a better understanding about how to develop the technical, tactical, physical, psychological and social sides of the game in harmony. But every sport has different characteristics that need to be harnessed. So think to your own sport, or your second favourite sport if that sport happens to be soccer. What are the characteristics needed in each category for players to achieve success?

Consider how you can develop all of these elements for your players within your sport of choice.

Secondly, I want you to consider your own weakness in this area. Which of the five categories do you feel like you need to pay more attention to in the future?

I also encourage you to consider how you can harmonize all five corners within your own training methodologies and coaching environments. It does not mean that every activity must incorporate each corner to an equal extent, but that you dedicatedly focus on each corner within each and every time you step onto the field and interact with players.

If you’re interested in taking your own development within the five corners to the next level, whether that be as a player or coach, check out my availability for coaching & consultations.

GET IN TOUCH WITH RHYS & LEARN MORE ABOUT TMS!

I am currently accepting new clients in my coaching & mentorship program. I work with coaches and players from around the world! If you’re interested in learning more about my site or experiencing my coaching, feel free to reach out! đź‘Šâš˝

rhys desmond – founder of themastermindsite

Across the past decade, I have worked with thousands of players and coaches across multiple sports and disciplines. I recognize the value of diving deeper beyond the first glance, and uncovering the deeper-lying ways to enhance performance. I make a commitment toward positive reinforcement, research-backed insights, and making the experience fun for those that work with me.

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