How to Become a Student of the Game
I remember as a kid watching sports on TV and then going out to the yard or the drive way to imitate what I had just seen. Loved the sweet swing of Roberto Clemente, the bank shots of John Havlicek, and the scrambling of John Tarkenton and every once in awhile I got a glimpse of some guy named Pele doing incredible things with a soccer ball. Emulating the sports heroes of the day was a natural thing for us to do.. Little did I realize it also held the key to developing an ability to play the games.
I have at times mentioned Graham Ramsay, a friend of mine, in my writings. When I first met Graham back in the late 1990’s he was always referencing great soccer players and spectacular plays he watched on TV. Quite frankly, most of it went right over our heads as we did not have Fox Soccer Channel and soccer in general was not shown on TV much outside of the Olympic or World Cup games. I think I became somewhat immune to his constant references of players and plays that I hadn’t any means of seeing. It wasn’t until much later that it dawned on me that Graham was reminding me of how important it is for young players to watch older players and professional players play the game.
How does one become a student of the game?First, watch the game as it is played by better players. Young players should watch high school or U15-U19 players. High school aged players should watch collegiate, national team and professional matches. Unlike the 1990’s when I met Graham, there is soccer on TV all hours of every day so there is really no excuse.
Observe the players who play your position. Focus on the skills that make them successful and how they apply those skills in tactical situations. Also take note of what does not work for them. What we are talking about is their decision-making process – why do they employ a certain skill in a given situation? What prompts their movements on the field both with and without the ball? What do they do to create time / space for themselves? What do they do to create time and space for their teammate? What do they do to deny time and space to opponents?Notice the player’s preparation to play the ball, their first touch and whether it solves pressure or creates pressure for themselves. Do their passes place their teammates in good positions to advance play or does a pass lead a teammate into danger and result in lost possession?
Make sure to observe the intensity the good and great players play with. Take note of the high level of fitness required to play with the intensity they display. Focus on the agility, strength and speed of the players. Make the distinction between physical speed and speed of play. Speed of play is about vision, decision-making and execution. Marvel at those who can combine physical speed with speed of play as this should be your goal.Observe what more advanced players do and how they do it and then go to the back yard or the practice pitch and work to add it to your game. Work to add it to your game. It was worth repeating that because ultimately it is up to you to put into practice what you have just seen the more advanced or professional player do. You will probably not succeed in your first attempt and it might take many attempts over a period of time before you can master what you have seen, but it will be worth it when you execute it in a match … and realize a young player just observed you doing it and will soon be at home trying it himself.