If you can't pass, you can't play.

(originally published August 4, 2012)

I have at times referred to Graham Ramsay on this site. "If you can't pass, you can't play" is a phrase I have heard him utter often during the camps he has conducted for us. I have myself repeated it to players and teams I coach. It is a basic and simple truth of the game, but I have come to realize it is also much more and that players tend to receive different and varying messages from the phrase.

Technical excellence
Soccer IQ or Game Intelligence
The Will to Prepare
TEAM First attitude

The ability to pass begins with mastering proper technique and maintaining it at the highest level. "Toes up. Heels down. Strike with the ankle bone." is a mantra echoed during training sessions around the soccer world. Unfortunately for many coaches and players alike the process of passing begins and ends here when there are actually several other significant elements that go into being able to pass the soccer ball.

"Vision" is another word commonly associated with passing. Left to stand on its own "vision" implies "seeing the pass" within the context of the game about you. At first glance this seems like another basic and simple truth, but once again there are layers of complexity involved.  Every player has "vision" but what separates good passers from the rest is what they see and when they see it.

Soccer IQ or Game Intelligence are terms that apply to a players decision-making process.

When do I shoot?
When do I dribble?
When do I pass?
Which direction - diagonally, forward, backward, laterally - should I pass?
What do I do after having passed the ball?

The correct decision is the one that scores the ball or maintains possession of the ball for your team. In terms of passing the decision-making process is all about possession and creating scoring opportunities. What is the longest secure pass I can make?  How many defenders can I defeat with a single secure pass? What is the safest pass I can make to relieve pressure and maintain possession? What is my next movement after having passed the ball.

Timing is also a critical element in Soccer IQ. The timeliness of a players decision making often determines the success of failure of the action take. Too early or too late breaks the rhythm and flow of the game and can lead to lost possession.

Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight stated "Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win."   Preparation is the king consideration to successful passing. Before your first touch on the ball, you need to have a plan for how you will play the ball.  EVERY option for play must be explored before your first touch - Do I shoot, dribble, pass? Which technique should I use to execute my decision? In what direction should my play be made?

A willingness to pass, a willingness to share the ball with teammates must also be in evidence. If a player is unwilling to pass he will soon find others are unwilling to pass to him. However, is a player truly unwilling to pass or is his decision-making process leading to the pass short circuiting? Is the player selfish or merely struggling with proper individual pattern of play?  It is important to analyze and work with the player to establish good on-field decision-making skills for these are the basis on TEAM play.

When any of the above facets are missing a players ability to pass is impaired. Aside from technical excellence a player must get in the habit of collecting all the information available concerning what is happening in the game.  Scan the field constantly and consistently, but especially before receiving or winning the ball. Secure the ball in a manner that leads into the play you will make based on your scanning of the game. Then look to the play you have decided to make and execute the correct technique.

What happens if part of the process breaks down or is skipped altogether?  

For instance, what if the player fails to scan the game before securing the ball?  The focus is on "winning the ball" and figuring out what to do with it after that fact?  "Win and whack" is often the result. A player "wins" the ball only to turn it over by creating another 50/50 ball when his winning touch is nothing more than whack the ball in whatever direction he happens to be facing. 

Or what if the player does win and secure the ball but has no plan for how to play it?  If he has space and time he may look up and find a quality play to make. If he secures the ball under pressure without a plan for play excessive touches will ensue as he attempts to find space and time to get his head up and find a play. Often times the player will eventually find the correct play but his excessive touches have broken the rhythm and flow of the game.  The timing that would have made the pass easy is lost. A success rate of late or mistimed passes is significantly lower than well timed, accurate and properly weighted passes. It is often the lack of preparation / vision / game intelligence that dictates success of a pass more so than a lack of technique. 

Once again, success is found in the details of the process.  No single detail of the process can be ignore or overlooked without impacting the quality of the process. "If you can't pass, you can't play" runs much deeper than imploring players to pass.  Is the player selfish, inept or does his thought  and decision-making process need a tune up?  As coaches we must be able to discern the root cause of a players struggles and do our best to help them fine tune their game. As it concerns passing, this can be a more complicated process than it seems at first glance, but since a player really cannot play the game without being able to pass effectively we must be diligent in improving our players ability to pass.

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