February 12, 2022


Soccer IQ: What Makes A Smart Soccer Player?

You hear it everywhere, shouted from the rafters…

‘Soccer IQ! Soccer IQ!’

Yet, in every online soccer coaching group there is a quest to find the “perfect formation” or some magic drill that is going to build soccer IQ in a player.

‘Silly’ is the only family friendly way to describe certain things…


A quote from Arsene Wenger OBE (a big deal in soccer in case you don’t know) was posted in one of these coaching groups, and it immediately got attention.

Lot’s of “likes” and “hearts” with everyone ‘oooh’ing and ‘aaaah’ing as if something insightful had been said.

Here is the quote:

The problem in football is that you learn to play (the wrong) way round – first execution, then decision making, and perception last… as a player, I have to analyze, then decide, and finally execute. – Arsene Wenger

Nothing wrong with KeepItOnTheDeck by the way, great page, however It’s always easy to spot coaches who don’t develop talent from the ground up, but have careers working with already developed players…

They throw out these contrarian quotes, and because of their status, everyone ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’…

Unfortunately… that’s not how it works.

I know, I know, you’re asking “Well who are you to be saying these things?”

To be honest, it’s doesn’t matter. The research shows that neuromuscular coordination is “maximally engrained” early…

This pretty much means that learning physical skills later in life is much harder than if you started out young. This is pretty easy to understand but let’s see how this applies to soccer.

Wagner want’s you to Analyze, Decide, & Then Execute… sound great. Try telling that to an up and coming soccer player. They are too worried about “not messing up” rather than “let me analyze the game.”

This also misses the point of analyzing what is possible as the ball comes to you.

Analyzing the game is important but it’s realistically not the the FIRST thing a soccer player should focus on if they want to play the game smarter.

Why Most Players Don’t Have Great “Soccer IQ”

A player must be able to keep their head up while the ball is coming… this requires confidence.

Confidence that only comes from having mastered the technique of receiving the ball, so that it’s second nature.

An important piece to consider is opportunity.

Opportunity is time based. A player’s first touch must be intentional.

In a way, it also has to be perfect, so they can lift their head to see opportunities, or get the ball off their feet…fast.

This all falls under a players “technical” ability.

After that, second touch and onward must all have masterful technique so they are able to keep their head up.

This is a must if they are to be aware of opportunities as they happen while the ball is at their feet… again technique.

Soccer Isn’t Complex, Making Decisions Is

Soccer isn’t all that complex.

Having played and coaching many sports that need faster decision making like basketball or playing as an option quarterback…

Soccer decision making doesn’t need much. Sorry, it doesn’t, nor is it complex.

Maybe it is to single sport athletes with little experience playing other moderate or high level sports but it isn’t mentally that hard.

Now, decision making IS the hardest of any sport for a very different reason…

One missed by those who don’t think in complexity… in nuance, which is why the soccer IQ discussion so often misses the point.

Decision making in soccer is limited by your visual input more than by complexity.

Until the highest levels of the game that is…

and visual input is limited by technical mastery and the confidence to keep the head up that comes with it.

To Have Better Soccer IQ, You Need to Have Better Vision…

Let’s break it down.

If I were to show a soccer player a 1 second opportunity… and in that 1 second, they had to make a decision… what are the chances they’ll make a smart play?

Their soccer IQ will be low, not because they have the technical skills of donkey.

But because they had limited visual input.

Now, let’s take the same player and show them an opportunity 3 seconds before they get the ball…

What are the chances they make a good/better decision?

100%. Their soccer IQ rises and they seem much brighter on the pitch.

The only thing that changes was the information coming in, the visual input.

The key here is visual input aka playing with your head up. To do this a player much have confidence in their ball control.

Confident Players Have A Better Soccer IQ

Let’s take a look.

Let’s take a player who is now confident in their technique.

They they receive the ball with head their head up and scan the field for 1 second.

They pass and immediately have their head up for 1 second after first touch…

Now they are a genius on the pitch and able to see and change their minds and take advantage of opportunities in real time

Because they are not second guessing their touch. They simply can’t fudge their technique…

It is like riding a bike or tying their shoes…

When’s the last time you fell riding a bike or tied your shoes wrong?

Correct, that is mastery.

Mastery isn’t that you can do it… it is that you cannot do it wrong.

Context Is Important When Talking About Soccer IQ

Like most things, the surface answer isn’t as simple as:

“Soccer IQ!’

I would wonder how many years high level coaches have spent developing athletes all along the spectrum?

Like Cruyff quotes, I bet many work with already developed players, so at that point, this quote MIGHT make sense.


But, Cruyff has been working with German national level U18 players… who are pretty much the the most technically sound players on the planet,

These are players who have spent years mastering their technical skills.

Something 99.999% of coaches will never have the experience of coaching.

End of the day, context is important.

Your context would be VERY different from coaches who have a player who needs development

If You Want Higher Soccer IQ, You Need to Train Better
Technical mastery LEADS and PRECLUDES the ability to maximize a player’s awareness of opportunity,

It allows them to relax and play with their head up.

Head up play allows them to go from seeing opportunities from a fraction of a second to much longer scans of the pitch…

And the same player will go from being a knucklehead to being a ‘genius’ simply by being able to see the game.

Does this mean all players make good decisions?

Obviously not, and there is much work in the soccer IQ development field…

But, for most players the limiting factor is the is input, because their head is down…

They don’t have the ability to control the ball with confidence.

Arsene Wenger quote might make sense if it was applied to already technically gifted players who can execute and play with their heads up…

Which is pretty much all of Wenger’s career right?

It simply doesn’t make sense neurologically and developmentally for the beginning through sub elite level players.

They must master technique IN ORDER to increase awareness so decision making is based on a higher level of input visually.

How to Measure Soccer IQ

Life is complex and nuanced.

It isn’t as simple as: Soccer IQ!

Instead it is:


What lead measures can we assess that produce soccer IQ?

The ability to play heads up so you can see opportunity is the primary constraint.

Mastering technique creates confidence around the ball and allows players to play with their head up.

Lead measures that are controllable, not lag.

Give players twice the visual input I bet they get ‘much smarter’ in their decision making…

Let’s create a more concrete example…

How Technical Development Affects Soccer IQ


Take a technically masterful player at U14, and have them receive a pass from 30m and watch his vision…

He watches the ball struck, then glances at options downfield for .5 – 1.0s (s = seconds, so half a second to a second) or so, before returning his eyes back to the ball as it gets close to his feet…

Then his first touch, if intentional and good (weight / direction) allows him to again raise his head again for 1 – 2s to see opportunities as they develop.

If he decides to dribble, and his touches are precise, then he can keep his head up to view the field for say 2 seconds head up out of every 3 seconds.

That player, with the visual inputs afforded him , BECAUSE HE IS TECHNICALLY SOUND, plays ‘very intelligently’.



Same soccer IQ…

And cut their ability to see opportunities by 75%…..

So, when the ball is hit to them initially, they cannot glance downfield… no idea what runs are being made.

Their first touch is underneath them, since they have donkey-touch, and now they have to an extra touch, windows of opportunity close, and they have to rush and just glance up very quickly FOR .2s…

They decides to dribble since they messed up the first touch, but now has to stare down at the ball, only glancing up for .5 seconds every 3 seconds.

When you are watching that player from the sidelines, you wonder if they even have any clue what sport they are playing, because opportunity after opportunity goes by the wayside…

But, it is because they never saw them, not because they’re dim…

Their visual cuing is essentially reduced to near zero.


Scenario 1, the kid is a maestro and has the soccer IQ of a Nikola Tesla of soccer…

Scenario 2, the kid plays like your ‘husky’ uncle at Thanksgiving who played ‘dunk the fried cheesy-poof in the vat of queso’ (his parent’s fault) growing up, but never soccer…


They just has no clue what is going on, because they are so fearful of making technical blunders that their focus is on “not trying to mess up…” not playing the game.

Demanding Too Much

This says nothing of the 1st order consequence of lack of technical ability that you simply cannot execute…

Think about all of the 1-footed players…

Or players who yell at teammates for ‘not getting open’, when all they had to do is push the ball in a direction, scissor, pull it back, and now a window is open, because they moved the defender out of the passing lane…

Or the thousand other scenarios where we want a high soccer IQ, but that would require a skill set that is vast…

Like asking them to paint a Rembrandt…

But, our kid only has a green and purple crayons for skills, so they are making Joker stick figures…

So, they look like they have a low soccer IQ, but it stems from:

Very limited skills to execute, so their choices are also limited…

And, next to zero vision relative to ‘high soccer IQ’ players who get 2-5x the visual input on which to make decisions.

Want to improve your soccer IQ? Get more touches on the ball and build up your technical ability.

Renegade Soccer Training

About the author

Coach JR has over a decade worth of experience coaching athletes who love the game, and are ready to take their game to the next level. He trains them to focus on exactly the skills they need to improve, and then provides the framework and system to maximize their efforts. A certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and math nerd who is a life-long learner and coach.

February 12, 2022

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