Time To Toss That Mental Checklist

Posted by Tim Nash on Nov 21, 2017 11:00:00 AM

I coached a girl once who had all kinds of talent. She was adept at dribbling through multiple defenders, and she was clever about it. She was one of those kids who really loved the game and wanted to get better.

But like many players, she hung onto the ball just a little too long. I started talking to her about making better decisions. When she asked me how she could make better decisions, I realized just how stupid I was.

She was 11. She had no basis for knowing what was a good decision or a bad decision. She didn’t have enough experiences from which to draw to know other options even existed.

And that’s half the battle with young players – getting them to think about what they’re doing and what they’re not doing.

The Mental Checklist

When a ball is coming to a player, they go through a mental checklist of skills, experiences and patterns they’ve learned over time. Much like a quarterback at the line of scrimmage, who reads the defense based on experiences he’s had and makes a decision to change the play because of what he sees.

From the checklist, the soccer player decides, “I can use this touch, this turn and this surface of my foot to solve this problem.”

However, when faced with complex situations, players don’t have enough on their checklist to really solve the problem. Worse yet, relying on what is already on a checklist can discourage the player from adding new items to it. Some experts have argued that relying too heavily on an existing checklist will lead to mindlessness and complacency.

But it does reduce the likelihood of errors, and we all know errors lead to bad things. However, which is more important: developing intuitive, confident players, or creating safe, error-free players.

Putting players in situations where they have to find new solutions – ignoring the checklist – can lead to errors. But it can also lead to the player learning important new lessons, and, hopefully, storing them away.


The inability of young players to anticipate what’s going to happen next is frustrating. Coaches with years of experience playing and watching games, can’t seem to understand why they don’t see the obvious run, or predict where the ball is going next.

Flickr: Selma BearsWith young players, the coach’s first job is to explain what intuition is. It would be fascinating to get a read-out of what is going through the heads of young players. My guess is much of it has to do with an opponent’s hairstyle, not messing up, wishing mom or dad would stop yelling, or someone cute on the sideline.

Maybe the simplest and best way to introduce the topic is to talk about Wayne Gretzky. They don’t have to know who he is to understand what he said.

“I didn’t skate to where the puck was,” he said. “I skated to where it was going to be.”

But how did he know? His experiences taught him to recognize patterns and how to get ahead of the pattern. Plus, he was, well, special.

Here are some tips from The YSC Sports Mental Edge Blog on how players can learn from experiences to increase their decision-making:

  • Start to pay attention to your initial response to situations. What does your gut tell you? How often do you follow your gut? What kind of results do you get?
  • Silence your inner critic. If you tend to ignore your intuition, it may be due to self-doubt or over analyzing. Try to listen to your intuition without judgment and follow it without hesitation. Trust yourself and be willing to take risks.
  • Increase your focus to help with pattern recognition. Make sure you attend to the information around you. Having information will help you make the best decisions possible.

The Value of Chaos

Putting players in drills in which they move the ball in a specific pattern is popular in youth soccer development. Having players pass the ball here and run there, introduces a lot of important elements of the game – body shape when receiving the ball, passing accuracy, timing and different types of runs, to mention a few.

It does nothing for intuition, though. The kids aren’t thinking about anything except where they are supposed to pass it and where they are supposed to run.

If you want to replicate real game situations, create utter chaos. Go ahead have your players do some simple pattern passing, but have a group of them run around getting in the way or screaming orders at them, toss spare cones, loose change, or balls in their direction and any other kind of distraction you can imagine.

We often put our players in numbers-up situations in training to insure they have some success. How often does that happen in games? What does it add to their checklist? It’s more realistic to play a 4v4v4-plus 2 possession game where the team with the ball is always 6v8 and the players are experiencing a bit of chaos.

So when that 11-year-old girl asked how to learn to make better decisions, I should have said, “Develop an extensive checklist of experiences, think more about where the ball is going to be and where it should be, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and embrace chaos. 

Topics: Team Chemistry, Athletic Performance, Sports Performance, Athlete Development