The number one aspect that separates elite players from amateur is the ability to make quick decisions under pressure. Elite athletes are better able to process information, and frequently take in more information when scanning their surroundings, even if scanning for shorter periods of time. But scanning, information processing and attention to detail are all skills that can be worked upon by athletes at any level, in any sport.Embed from Getty Images
As a coach of teams, I often worked with players individually to develop their scanning and information processing through 1-on-1 sessions that focused on colour and pattern recognition, in addition to completing multiple tasks at the same time (such as catching a tennis ball and passing a soccer ball). I watched as players then rapidly transferred their skills over to the game, by being able to better perceive the events happening around them.
As a coach now primarily working with individuals, and primarily over a video screen, my methods to teach scanning, attention, and information processing are no longer able to rely on those same in-person methods. Here are some of the key takeaways and methods I’ve utilized when working with players on their scanning; and how athletes can better develop their attention to detail and information processing.
BOTS & THE POWER OF SHORT SCANS
If you’ve been following my work within the past few years, you will know how passionate I am about ‘BOTS’. This stands for ‘ball, opposition, teammates, and space’ – which are the four cues that players should be paying attention to when scanning, processing information and then making informed decisions. After my last article on the subject: ‘Understanding BOTS & how to scan for quicker, correct decisions‘, Todd Beane of the TOVO Barcelona Academy reached out to say that he uses the same acronym within his core principles.
Top-tier professional athletes typically use short and sweet scans when moving their eyes, neck and head, and scanning for ‘BOTS’. For example, they will glance at the ball, then back to the space ahead of them (often times in relation to teammates and opponents), then back to the ball. They might then fixate on the ball for slightly longer while processing what they’ve just seen, preparing to make their next decision from the information they’ve processed.
In the above clip, Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan can see the space ahead of him within his periphery. So when he momentarily switches his attention away from the ball, he scans for his teammates, and where they are positioned in relation to the opposition. By the time he receives the pass and immediately finds himself under the pressure of Virgil Van Dijk, he’s able to quickly process that pressure to know exactly where he wants to play his pass.
Gündoğan’s decisive scans in this video clip are great examples of what the research calls “short fixations”. When working with players, I simply call these “short scans”. He scans the immediate area for about half-a-second each time, while rapidly processing the information within his immediate surroundings. He then glances back at the ball after each scan for about half-a-second to a full second, to prepare himself for that vital moment of when he receives.
Using the example of the Manchester City midfielder here, players can actively work on their ability to process information by scanning for the ball, then something new, then back to the ball. This can be something they practice whenever their team has possession, but they themselves are not the player in possession of the ball. It can also be done for players who don’t hold much of a defensive responsibility when their team is out of possession, helping them perceive what’s around them for when their team inevitably attacks the other way.
I would advise players to start by practicing this art in training during five or so minutes of a small-sided game, and gradually work up to practicing it for longer periods of time in training. After developing comfortability with processing information while still excelling in their on-the-ball actions (perhaps even excelling more due to their increased awareness), players can then translate that learning over to the game.
In helping players in that quest, let’s talk about what we mean by “something new”. Since this “short scan” exercise has players turning their attention back to the ball every second or so, players can then focus that “something new” onto the opposition, their teammates, and the space. It’s important to filter the most prevalent information by looking at the immediate surroundings first. There are certainly moments when looking at the bigger picture becomes helpful, such as a centre-back or goalkeeper who remains relatively uninvolved in their team’s attack. We’re talking more about examples like the Gündoğan clip, where the German has to process information rapidly to avoid being crunched by the pressure of Van Dijk.
In these pressurized moments, you can start with the immediate surroundings of your teammates, your opposition and the space. The space is tremendously important, as it is the key thing that you (as the athlete) will want to exploit in invasion sports. But it is only available to you in relation to where your teammates and your opponents are positioned.
That is why it comes last in the ‘BOTS’ equation. So start with what’s available to you in your periphery. Look at the positioning of your opponents and your teammates, and if you can, think about how that either presents space or mitigates space available to you. Then glance back at the ball to take in new information, and ensure you are not missing the moment that they need you to help with the situation. Again, this is something that needs to be developed in training, and then translated over to the game.
ANALYZING TEAMMATES & OPPONENTSEmbed from Getty Images
Now let’s take this one step further. It becomes so much easier to scan for teammates and opposition when you already have a great understanding of your teammates and opposition. By knowing the players you’re working with (including their strengths, weaknesses, characteristics, and habits), and the players you’re up against (including the same), you will be able to anticipate next actions and make better, correct decisions.
When it comes to playing to the strengths of your teammates, this is something I outlined in ‘Recognizing and playing to your teammates’ strengths in football‘. Players can intuitively know the actions that teammates are likely to make, by becoming accustomed to their habits. Here’s an example I used in that article of the telepathy between former Pacific FC teammates Alejandro Diaz and Marco Bustos.
Bustos always operated on the right wing for Pacific, and you always knew that he loved to cut inside on his left foot. So in this clip, as soon as he cuts inside and has space to deliver the cross, that’s exactly when Diaz perceives the moment to burst into space and get ahead of his defender.
But the wing wizard also recognizes Diaz’s own unique characteristics, particularly the Mexican’s height. He’s 5’10, and unlikely to win the header against the big burly 6’2 defender he’s up against. So Bustos plays the cross slightly lower, in front of the Valour defender and in between the gap that he sees before delivering. This gives Diaz every chance of winning the header, and smoothly caressing the ball into the back of the net.
Using this example, I would tell players to write down the strengths, weaknesses, characteristics and habits of each of the players on their team. It can be a short few bullet points for each, as even just a few observations will help players come to a better understanding of their mates. Athletes should however try to capture an array of technical, tactical, physical, psychological and perhaps even social information when making these observations.Embed from Getty Images
They should also aim to make their points as specific to them as possible. Outlining the “so what?” after each observation would only take this to a heightened level. For example, knowing that a striker on my team is going to be significantly shorter than most defenders they face, I may want to opt for low, cut-back crosses that prioritize their smart movement off the ball rather than their height. That’s where I can take my teammate’s physical characteristic of “5’10”, to include a “so what?” behind that observation.
Here is a PDF that players can use to help them identify the strengths, weaknesses, characteristics and habits of their teammates. I also include a brief section to list “key takeaways”, ensuring athletes can tie their observations to next steps.Embed from Getty Images
Now this is a lot of extra work to do outside of the sport, and we don’t want to make the experience unenjoyable for athletes. So this exercise generally works best for players that already have the ambition of taking their game to the next level, and want to supplement their training with additional discussions and techniques to improve the finer details behind their game.
Luckily for me, those are exactly the types of players that find my work and end up in my coaching consultation. But this isn’t going to work for every player or every team. If coaches were to use the above PDF on a grander scale with their entire team, I suggest they swap out the “weaknesses” section to avoid any potential problems. Besides, we want to encourage a strengths-based approach with our players, and positive psychology, where the good in each player is prioritized and attended to more in our discussions than their specific areas for development.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s now talk about opponents. It’s much harder to sit down and spend the time analyzing each opponent. I love to do that for professional players when they’re faced with a difficult opponent in their next match, breaking down how they can win their 1v1 battles, exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, and mitigate their strengths. But again, this takes dedicated time and attention for pro athletes, and it’s not going to work in every context.
Nevertheless, youth players could use visualizing techniques and mental imagery to conjure up examples of opponents they’ve faced in the past, and how they are going to win their battles. For example, if a winger knows the fullback that they are likely to come up against in the majority of their 1v1 battles, I would urge them to think about that fullback’s strengths and weaknesses on the drive over to the game. They could even go as far as to visualize moments where they win battles against their opponent, AND where they lose battles, followed by how they overcome that loss.
That would then make it all the easier for that winger to recognize patterns in the actual match itself, and quickly identify how they are going to win their 1v1 moments and reduce losses. They’ve already done some of the thinking on the ride over, and now they know intuitively what they are going to do when they receive the ball and are able to go toe-to-toe with that player.
If we apply this example to an individualistic sport like tennis, this set of techniques (pre-identifying strengths and weaknesses + mental imagery/visualization of those events playing out) would only become more powerful.Embed from Getty Images
You often know the opponents you’re facing in individual sports from having played them in the past or having had more opportunities to sit down and study their game in detail. But as the match unfolds you can continue to study their strengths and weaknesses, and adapt your approach to meet those demands.Embed from Getty Images
I have my athletes actively study their opposition in-game, and say a motivating phrase or word any time they notice a weakness in another player, or in the other team. By associating a word or phrase with the moment, it’s more likely to stick in the brain and become part of our long-term memory. Let’s take the tennis example again. If an athlete notices that their opponent has trouble mustering up the power to hit a backhand shot from distance over the net, I’d have them say something like “Lock in”, “It’s all you”, or “Ball game”. Something short and sweet that helps their brain recognize that moment, and then bring out the worst in their opponent’s weakness for the rest of the match.Embed from Getty Images
You could even turn that weakness into a specific phrase that matches the moment, such as saying “backhand!”, and repeating that word any time there’s a break in play. Now you’re able to maintain focus on something that will help win the battle, filtering only the most relevant information. This could work for coaches to employ with their athletes on either an individual level, or with an entire team. In the team context, here’s an example: Any time I shout the colour “red”, I want you to pay attention to the moment that just happened, and identify it as a potential weakness in the other team that we can exploit.Embed from Getty Images
For youth athletes, this is a great starting place to help them think deeper into what’s happening around them, and focus on the most important pieces of information. As we mentioned off the top in relation to invasion sports like soccer, the space only becomes available based on the teammates and the opposition.
So we can first have players focus on their teammates and the opposition, and use what’s within their peripheral vision to then assess available space or a lack thereof. They can then respond by moving into that available space, or finding somewhere else to exploit instead.
Someone like Erling Haaland is often on the move to find open space to receive in behind or in between gaps, and this is an essential reason why he scores so many goals. It’s also an essential reason why he’s able to play such nice one-two passes with his teammates when he receives the ball. He’s able to get himself into enough space to win the physical battle and play a pass to his teammate, from already perceiving the strengths and weaknesses of the defenders he comes up against, and perceiving the spaces to shift away from them at the right moment.
But again, remember that Erling Haaland is only able to accurately assess moments to exploit space and his opposition, by also assessing what’s happening on the ball. He’s able to switch his glance from ball to teammate to ball to opposition, to quickly take in information, and then act accordingly. The ball always needs to be used as a reference when it comes to making decisions under pressure.
RECAPEmbed from Getty Images
To summarize, athletes can practice their scanning and decision making skills through the following approaches:
- Practicing short scans in training during small-sided games, switching their glance between the ball, and something new (in relation to opposition, teammates and how that corresponds to space), then back to the ball.
- Use our Teammate & Opponent Analysis PDF to identify strengths, weaknesses, characteristics and habits of each of their teammates, or even each of their opponents when it comes to individual sports like tennis.
- Study their opposition’s strengths and weaknesses both pre-match and during the match (including specific players the athlete will face), and visualize both winning and losing battles against their opponent, including how they will overcome those losses.
- When scanning to aid decision making in pressurized situations, study the teammates and opposition in the immediate surroundings first, and use that information to inform awareness of space, or a lack thereof.
By completing all of these steps as an ongoing, ever-developing process, athletes will improve their scanning, decision making and attention to detail. Subsequently, they will enhance their performance, and become closer to the elite level that they aspire to be.
For more information on scanning and ‘BOTS’, see the following resources:
-> Understanding BOTS & how to scan for quicker, correct decisions
-> Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space
-> Consultation, Performance Analysis & 1-on-1 Coaching with Rhys
Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽
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! 👊⚽
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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