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What did you see?

As a coach, I often see players make what appear to be poor decisions – playing or passing into pressure, standing next to a teammate, or overrunning a defensive challenge. Many times, I will make a note in my notebook and add an activity to a future training session that attempts to address the tactical error. On occasion, I find myself directly addressing the error to the player – “Jimmy, we need to spread out,” “Omar, you’re standing next to Cruz,” “Sophie, let’s not play/dribble the ball into the other team” and so on.

Upon reflection, many of these choices devolve down to what the player sees which forms the input into his/her decision making process. Todd Beane, the developer of the TOVO methodology, identifies 14 principles of play. First among these is “perceive and conceive” – taking in through the various senses the surrounding environment and determining an actionable decision. Without an awareness of the surroundings, the player makes decisions based on incomplete or incorrect data. Taking a phrase from my former career as a software developer – “Garbage in, garbage out.

Within training sessions, I have been attempting to develop a conversation around “what did you see” – asking players to explain what they are seeing, guiding them to a larger understanding of choices, leading to possible different outcomes within the game. Increasing perception – and more generally cognition – is a trainable behavior. It is important that there is a foundation of technical quality – the player that is unable to receive a ball under control and take quality touches with purposeful outcomes is unlikely to have the time and space to search around for environmental inputs due to oppositional pressure. Development of technical quality can take place in a representative environment (click here for an earlier article on this topic) with appropriate affordances. Cueing the players to scan the environment prioritizes perception as a prerequisite objective.

With younger players, it may be as simple as “what do you see” or “where is your team.” I’ve often heard coaches of older teams use the phrase “head on a swivel.” For those of us of a certain generation, the notion of a swivel is probably well-understood. However, it’s important to check in with our players to make sure that our terminology is in their vocabulary – and to explain why “swiveling” their head allows them to take in more environmental data and make incremental decisions that fit within our style and system of play.

Once our players have a better awareness of their surroundings, and the important cues within their environment, there is a better likelihood that they will be able to make decisions that fit within a shared understanding of the game and our team’s tactical philosophies.