Transition, or the change of possession during a soccer game, is the most critical moment within play. I believe it, and USYS believes in it as much to include it in Section I on page 15 of their Player Development Model. How quickly a player reacts when they go from defense to attack and vice versa can be the difference in a goal scored or one against. Teaching this skill is not easy by any means, but talking to your players consistently about the importance of transition as well as making it a condition within training can help. What is more important is that youth coaches and parents from a very young age are actually hindering the development of its recognition, and don’t even know they are doing it…
The Importance of The Moment of Transition
The speed in which a player and team reacts to the change of possession is critical to its overall success. It is often the difference in starting an attack or thwarting one before it even begins. The highest level teams anticipate this moment due to years of training and the recognition of patterns or situations that ultimately lead to transition. We can simplify this to being one step ahead of your competition. Knowing where the play is headed, reading of the game, tactical awareness or insight, and as USYS calls it “soccer savvy,” are all descriptive terms for players with the understanding of transition. It is something that is very hard to teach, but with facilitation will develop, and is generally a strength of players at the highest levels.
Reaction vs. Anticipation
The key within transition is to teach players to anticipate rather than react. This training begins at the very young ages of soccer by allowing players to make decisions themselves. As a coach, a focal point of my training is to force my players to make decisions (2v1 drills are great). In games I rarely tell my players what to do, and yes, I have to bite my lip very hard sometimes, and often question decisions that were made. Although this is all part of the learning process and players will adapt their style when something works or does not.
My point here is over-coaching (from the player and parent sidelines) is slowing the development of anticipation type athletes. We are constantly telling them what to do and when to do it resulting in players not spending enough time figuring it out on their own. How can a player learn to anticipate their teammate stealing a pass and making a run when their coach is screaming at them “Go to Goal Timmy!”? The player needs to start connecting their own patterns based on what they see in games. My teammate stole the ball – therefore I should run to goal. Or better yet, my teammate is about to steal the ball – I should begin my run to goal. A great example of that is in the video below. Just watch the first goal and try to hone in on Alex Iwobi of Arsenal (goal scorer) and watch his anticipation of his teammate about to win the ball.
The best method of teaching transition and anticipation is showing the players videos like this one. Alex Iwobi makes the initial tackle and then reads his teammate will win the second 50/50 ball and takes off in a dead sprint to start an attack. By the way Iwobi was just 19 years old there (soccer savvy) and Arsenal went from the edge of the defensive 3rd to a goal in 10 seconds. Showing players these tactics and reinforcing/rewarding players when they do it in training and games will enhance this ability dramatically.
I was trying to teach my U15G team how to counterattack last Spring and we ran 6-10 sessions focused on this aspect, really dialing in to transition. I saw some improvement, but it was not quite hitting on all cylinders. I then ordered some pizza one night and had a classroom session showing them top 10 counterattacks, breaking down both sides of the ball, but focusing primarily on attack. We played a tournament that weekend and scored 16 goals in 4 games, taking home the medals. The team’s understanding of transition by seeing it at a professional level skyrocketed, and they scored 3-4 goals that I swear were carbon copies of that Top 10 video.
Can you simulate this in training? Yes, but showing the players the anticipation and tactics of transition is so important and a video session is extremely recommended. Some ideas I would suggest for teaching within training are:
- Make a Point to Positively Display A Moment of Anticipation Every Practice – This means after a counter attack goal, or a great recovery run to block a shot, make sure the whole team notices. Positive Reinforcement works wonders with young kids and rewarding rather than berating a kid for not running back is the proper way to teach.
- Use a Drill That Creates 50/50 Balls Transition Drill Attachment – A 50/50 ball, or ball 2 players on opposing teams have the chance to win, is actually a moment prior to transition. So really thinking 1 step ahead. It can be as simple as passing the ball between 2 players to start a game. The idea is to make training game-realistic and putting players in situations where they need to anticipate who will get to a ball first. This will directly impact brain training and reaction time.
- Use Neutral Players (Attacking Methods) – Players in your drills that play for both teams (neutrals) need to anticipate transition consistently. However you need to be careful over-doing it because these players typically do not play defense (unless you are creating a numbers down situation). This role can be a very useful situation to teach your players tactical movement when a ball changes possession.
- Use Visual Cues – When “X” happens, you should begin to do “Y”… For example when a player begins to open up their body toward you, you should prepare for the pass. Or even smaller nuances, when a teammate’s shoulder starts opening to you, position yourself to receive the ball. The smaller the detail the earlier the recognition and greater development of anticipation skills.
- Teach Your Players it is OK to Lose the Ball – The worst thing a player can do after they lose a ball is that immediately reaction of hanging their head. That split second can be the difference of a 2,3, or 4 steps depending on the level of play. I tell my kids all the time, you will make mistakes, and I don’t care, either win the ball back or recover and find your shape immediately to rectify the loss in possession.
Recognizing Players With Transition/Anticipation Skills
5 attributes of players that anticipate well so coaches and parents can recognize these abilities:
- Always in the right place at the right time.
- Gets goal side immediately when possession is lost.
- Moves well without the ball.
- Intercepts passes consistently.
- Takes and provides good angles to the ball.
Transition and soccer savvy are skills that are learned over the course of years of training and playing games. Coaches need to be wary of telling their kids what to do in early stages to help develop it, and should be focusing in on positive moments of anticipation to promote it within their group. Being 1 step ahead of each play is a characteristic I look for in all top athletes as they read the game better and typically have a greater success at the highest levels. I do think the importance of transition is understood, but it is definitely under-coached, and in order to improve the quality of NJ soccer I believe there needs to be a stronger push to develop these skills over the course of a player’s youth career.