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Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster. – Johan Cruyff

Football is a Mind Game

 “Football is a mind game.  You play with your brain.”

Johan Cruyff was the best player in the world in the 1970s and is recognised as one of the great philosophers of the game.


To Cruyff football is a game of time and space – being in the right place at the right moment, just as the ball arrives.

In the world of football that he describes, players anticipating, strategizing and performing effectively on the field determine success. Superior insight – the ability of a player to see an opening or opportunity before an opponent – makes the difference.

For Cruyff, speed of thought is the essential ingredient.

London Brunel University

Intelligence on field can be learned.  The key driver of learning football intelligence is experience.

A recent study by the London Brunel University discovered that experienced players are able to suppress an instinctive reaction when presented with a situation that requires quick decision-making.

This capability means that these players are less likely to fall for feints and dummies by opponents.  Instead they are able to quickly process patterns and “tells” (like a poker player) in their opponent and react accordingly.

This ability is no different to experienced practitioners in a range of professions including teachers, corporate executives, military, medical workers or law enforcement personnel who face challenging situations.

Experience, if learnt, gives individuals the skill to avoid an instinctive reaction and very quickly assess a situation to take a calculated option.  These individuals stand out for their ability to anticipate what is going to happen before anyone else on the pitch.

Why This Matters

This speed of thought, this insight, makes a huge difference to how a player performs on field.  Instead of succumbing to pressure or defaulting to instinct, composure is exhibited.

The ball is played out of defence instead of being smashed clear, the player delays a defence splitting pass until precisely the right moment, the tackle is not attempted and the attacking player is forced to retreat.

This is what Cruyff was referring to when he described football as a mind game.

Speed of thought to make a cognitive decision is essential when under pressure.

Often pressure situations are due to the opponent overloading a certain area of the pitch, putting the ball player under pressure.  By reacting with intelligence the tables are turned.  The team that was applying the pressure suddenly is on the back foot and needs to scramble in order to gather control.

How Training Will Change

Over the next decade coaching of sports will change to improve player decision-making in those pressure situations.

This type of coaching is already occurring in other professional environments.

Like any new thinking it will face resistance.  Old school approaches, entrenched ways of doing things will slow the development of neuroscience in sport, especially as results are often evident over the long term as opposed to immediate.

However, leading clubs are already moving to train the brain, particularly in their talent development programmes.

Expect to see more random styled training as opposed to block training.  Also drills will include elements that demand improved concentration and attention from players.  Colours, sounds, extra balls, meditation and increased competitive activity are all ways that cognitive thought can be developed in athletes.

Over time the existing model of coaching will be challenged and tweaked to produce elite players quicker and with greater regularity.

When this happens, expect to see the words of Johan Cruyff move from the realm of philosopher to prophet.  Football is a game of intelligence.


MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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