A switched-on official from the local soccer club was lamenting the amount of time one of his better young female players was spending playing basketball. Unfortunately for the soccer club, an up-coming soccer grand-final was scheduled to be played on the same day as a State Championship basketball grand final… and the young player could not be at two places at once.
The soccer official’s comment, “we’ve gotta find a way to get her to give up bloody basketball” got me thinking. Comments from a range of observers and coaches about the skills of the young woman were interesting. While most agreed that she had a good touch, was good with the ball at her feet and was a strong finisher the consensus seemed to be that her strongest point was her vision. The athlete was considered to be one of the best on her team at seeing the entire field, at anticipating likely outcomes of possible actions from other players and at making appropriate decisions likely to have positive outcomes for her team. While her basic skills were pretty good it was her perceptive and cognitive skills that were of most value to her team on the pitch.
There is currently an almost faddish obsession within the ranks of soccer coaches for coaching sessions to be built around game-style activities (with opposition) with restricted participant numbers and restricted playing areas. This passion for small games over the “old school” approach where skills are drilled (unopposed) is based on the idea that all of the Leo Messis of the world grew up playing “street ball” with their mates in the back alleys of Buenos Aries and if it worked for them then it will work for us on the practice pitch. Additionally, in recent years, research conducted by coaching theorists and academics has encouraged them to postulate that game-style activities may well help players develop those higher level perceptual/cognitive skills like anticipation and decision-making in a way that skill-based drills never could.
It struck me as being interesting that club soccer coaches made decisions about player position selections and match strategies based on their understanding of a particular player’s skill set and that that particular player just happened to be a competent basketball point guard. As a long term basketball coach and occasional soccer coaching assistant I have often thought to myself that the two sports have much more in common than many would realize. Despite the huge differences in skills (in one sport the ball is held while in the other it is forbidden to be held), differences in playing field and differences in systems of scoring between the sports the dynamics of how offense and defence works in both games is actually quite similar.
It thus occurred to me that as the young soccer player’s competence as a basketball play-maker improved over recent years it was not all that surprising that her perceptive/cognitive skills as a soccer player were also growing. Soccer players who do not have the advantage of training and playing basketball several times a week are not placed in that pressure-cooker environment of ball movement, in-your-face defensive activity, team-mate super-fast-paced cutting and rotating and noise all in a highly restricted space. Once a basketballer starts to learn that they must keep their eyes up (not look at the ball) and watch the play as it unfolds over the entire court they learn to anticipate and make good decisions about what they and their team need to do to be effective either defensively or offensively. While small field, small team game-like activities at soccer practice enable players to practice their basic skills while developing their anticipation and decision making skills it is just possible that the even faster paced action “no ball watching” discipline that is so much part of basketball is an even better activity to enable athletes to develop perceptive/cognitive skills. Granted… the focus is on hand passing and shooting rather than kicking the ball but it may just be possible that basketball, if taught properly, is a great developmental activity for young soccer players.
Total field vision along with good decision-making skills seems to be somewhat of a rarity even in the higher levels of soccer. When watching EPL games it is surprising how often a senior player, seemingly only aware of team-mates in his direct vicinity, makes a pretty pointless lateral pass to a marked nearby player when a team mate on the weak-side (the side of the pitch away from the ball) is wide open and ready to make an unopposed run. While the much longer “skip” pass is a much riskier and more difficult to execute option than the short lateral pop it seems to me likely that the passer is simply unaware of his distant team mate’s situation rather than his being risk averse.
When the local soccer official wondered how we could “find a way to get her to give up bloody basketball” maybe my response should have been “are you kidding John… we should be looking for ways to get our other girls to take the sport up!”