Playing into the Future

As the Barcelona vs Arsenal match approached, I saw this tweet:

“To play ‘in the future’, a [F.C. Barcelona Manager Pep] Guardiola player is expected to know where the ball ought to go even before it reaches him.”

In an ESPN interview, former Manchester United star Eric Cantona said:

This is nothing new. It goes back to Cruyff and Total Football…It’s all about knowing what you’re going to do when you receive the ball. Who is free, where is the space, always with one touch.”

This is game awareness, the feeling or knowledge that often separates experts from non-experts. If a player waits until he receives the ball to start the information processing, he is too late. The space closes and his advantage disappears. If he anticipates, he maximizes his advantage.

In our passing drills, we focus on this idea of knowing where the ball will go before one receives it. This develops an awareness. If I am moving around the court, I cannot just focus on the ball; I have to be aware of nearby defenders and teammates.

When I drive, I do not stare straight-ahead at the car in front of me or the next light. I am aware of the cars to my right and left. If a car is slowing down to my right, I do not dismiss the driver as a poor driver with nowhere to go; instead, I look to make sure he is not slowing for a pedestrian. I know who is next to me so if I have to swerve, I know which way to swerve. I am aware. I anticipate issues and avoid problems.

Offensive players tend to stare at the ball or at the cut/screen that they are supposed to make next in their coach’s offense. They receive a pass and then they see the floor and begin to evaluate their options. By the time that they scan the environment, process the information, select the relevant cues, make a program and act, the opening is no longer there.

Cantona added:

When Johan Cruyff was coaching Barcelona, one of his players was Pep Guardiola, who now manages the team. Guardiola was not big and strong and when Barcelona was playing Mallorca, he went up against Miguel Angel Nadal [Rafael's uncle], who was tall and powerful. Cruyff said to Guardiola, ‘Don’t jump with him, because you will have no chance to win the ball. Try to realize where the ball will be going and be there. Think ahead. Anticipate.’ Clever tactics like that. Cruyff is an inspiration to me. When I was a kid and he was a player at Ajax, I wanted to play like him. Controlling the game. It’s all about Johan Cruyff.”

This anticipation – or playing in the future – comes from awareness. If I am on the weak side, I am aware of the open space, my teammates and my defender. I know whether my defender gambles for steals and block shots, whether he is slow, etc. When the pass is in the air, I make a decision. If I feel my defender too far from me to contest the shot, and I am in my range, I decide to shoot before I catch the pass. As the ball reaches my hands, my attention shifts immediately from the ball to the basket, and I fixate on my target. The decision is made.

If, as I move the ball into shooting position, I notice something unexpected in the environment, like my defender closed out far quicker than expected, I process the relevant cues and make a new decision. Since the ball was moving toward my shot, I use that as a fake and drive past the defender.

When a player makes a move or uses a screen to get open, he should have an awareness of other players – he does not want to cut into an area and take away a teammate’s space. Next, assuming that the area is open on the cut, he feels his defender. Does he have a step? Is the defender on his hip? Is he taller? As the offensive player catches, based on the feel and his knowledge of the defense, he should know what to do. Catch and extend for a lay-up to keep the defender behind him? Catch and jump stop because of the help defense? This is a feel. The feel develops through experience and awareness – keeping one’s mind open and attention focused broadly to notice small cues in the environment.

To develop this feel, awareness and anticipation, coaches need to focus on it. Long Island University soccer coach T.J. Kostecky uses warm-up drills where players are instructed to use one-touch passes and find the most open player without players yelling for the ball. The players have to scan the environment before they receive the pass to be able to make a one-touch pass. In basketball, I incorporate a tag element into passing drills; rather than the defense winning possession only by stealing a pass, the defense simply has to tag an offensive player in possession of the ball. This increases the time pressure on the offensive team, and players have to anticipate their pass before they receive the ball and find the most open player rather than passing to a teammate who will be tagged immediately. This is one way to force players out of their comfort zone with an added time stress that works to develop the awareness and anticipation skills that separate the good decision makers from their peers.

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