This past summer I had the honor and pleasure of giving the Keynote Speech for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association in Denver. It was a fabulous weekend of learning and sharing with colleagues in another sport. I saw so many similarities in both the issues and in the focus of coaching between hockey and soccer. The very concerns we have as soccer coaches haunt our brothers and sisters on the ice.
While there, I had a very powerful and meaningful conversation with a player for an adaptive professional team. During our discussion, my friend revealed that he does not have peripheral vision from the left, and therefore, the first couple of weeks of the season he struggled to receive passes from teammates when he would break down the right side of the ice.
He would move into open positions on the ice, they would slip the puck his way, but the connection was never made. Of course, his teammates were frustrated with him and thought he was not doing his job. He had no idea when they were passing, so he never knew to look for it.
“We solved it. Now we make connections, and blow through defenses, and they never see it coming.”
I asked him how they solved it and why it was so effective now.
His response was gloriously simple, and reminded me that in all sports, athletes communicate in so many more ways than with words.
He said that yelling to him was ineffective because the other team knew the pass was coming, and many times, he struggled to pick up the sound of even his own name over the din on the ice. Or, if he did hear his name, it was echoing off the glass and made it hard to locate the origin.
“My teammates smack their stick right after they pass the puck. I know the pass is meant for me and I can triangulate the location of the stick for knowing where to turn to look for the puck.” A voice may echo wildly around the ice and tip off the other team, the sharp smack of the stick on the ice is much easier to geolocate and is almost imperceptible to the defenders. They have no clue it is signaling a pass.
It was a brilliant solution, and a gentle reminder to me that our players should be learning to communicate in multiple ways in the game. The more they learn to communicate with more than words and with subtlety, the more effective the communication will be.
As coaches, we should be using training sessions to teach our players the various ways to communicate so they can learn to adapt it to the game as they see fit. Being a one-dimensional communicator on the field will not allow a player to evolve his or her game to the highest levels.
Five Ways Players Communicate Without Saying a Word:
- Sound – This may seem obvious, but many players have yet to learn how to use simple sounds to send signals. Animals have been doing it for all of time, and quite effectively, but we tend to forget how effective it can be. If you tell a player to pass you the ball or say ‘I am open’, more intelligent players will shift to defend that pass. What is clear communication ends up becoming a disadvantage for the more advanced teams. I played college ball with a teammate who whooped like a bird when he wanted a ball. It told us where he was and we knew exactly why we did it. It took him one simple sound to get a pass, usually without the defense being able to perceive and adjust. This is also a sound you don’t typically hear on the soccer field, so it broke through the litany of other sounds with ease. Teach your players to use simple sounds to communicate simple actions.
- Coach Tip: Have players play keep away games or small-sided games conveying information via claps, hoots, whistles. Get them into fun side games like soccer-tennis and do not allow them to say any words. They will find new ways to alert teammates to a need without a word.
- Movement – excellent players read the game. They look for the subtleties and nuances. They wait for shifts in defenders or movements of teammates to find openings. As smart teammates, we can communicate using these subtle movements. If I want a ball played into space behind a defender, a sharp run, with my body facing that space, may be enough to inform my teammate to pass to the end of my run. The more you train your players to look for movements and the results of those movements, the more they will use them to communicate. We used to teach our players to yell “hold” when they did an overlap. Of course, the other team would catch on soon and blow up any overlapping passes. Once players read that pass and then subsequent change in speed off her should and toward the sideline, she knew an overlap was coming without a word having been said.
- Coach Tip: Teach players change of speed, change of direction, directing runs as ways to convey information. Also, have players learn to look for movements as indications of something to come and predict what is next. Have players play games of silence. It will be very frustrating at first, but they will soon adapt and learn new ways to convey information without sounds or words.
- Gestures – Again, this one seems obvious, but many players still miss this chance to communicate. We can send a world of information with a simple point of the hand, or motion of the arm. For instance, if I pass a ball to a teammate and want it back in the space behind a defender, all I need to do is wave my hand toward that space like a Gameshow host gesturing for the next answer on the board. Everyone knows that wave means the ball should be passed into that space. Combine it with a quick acceleration of speed, and it is an undeniable signal I want the ball back, in that space, right away.
- Coach Tip: Have players work in small-sided games using hand gestures and movement as the primary communication means. Teach them simple gestures that convey deeper meaning. Have your players follow the 100-10-1 rule on the field. 100 yards should be hand signals only with maybe a sound, but no speaking. 10 yards, you can speak but it should be short and sweet. At a yard, you may talk openly with a teammate.
- Visual Cues – Not to be confused with gestures or movements, these are the visual cues (the puzzle solutions) the game presents to us for helping read the game. They occur naturally in games and players should be learning to read them. They include a defender with all weight on the front foot (attack the foot), a player standing square to a defender and you (give and go pass opportunity), and much more. You should be helping your players understand the visual cues of the game and applying them when they want something. For instance, teach your players to force give and go passes, by standing square for the pass. Teach players who want passes on the front foot to square their body and extend the front foot to space.
- Coach Tips: Teach your players all the visual cues of the game during regular sessions. Help your players identify cues they display that help convey meaning and also help their teammates solve the puzzle of the game. The more players read the game and their teammates through silent sessions and games that force gestures and movements, the more they will begin to identify normal visual cues. Ask your players to call out new visual cues as they see them during sessions so they can begin to amass a library of them.
- Eye Contact – The final, and “uh duh”, form of communication. I call this the “uh duh” form because every time I teach it players give me a look like “uh duh, coach. We should always be looking at each other”…BUT they don’t! Many times players make passes to teammates who are not even looking at them. They also do not make the vital passes when a player is looking them directly in the eyes, practically willing them to pass it. Players should learn to make direct eye contact to ask for and give the ball. A simple look at a teammate and then a look to your feet or to space is more than enough information to let the teammate know you want a pass and where you want it placed.
- Coach Tip: Have warm-up sessions in training with players passing to each other but they can only use eye contact. Play 5v2 with eye contact. You cannot pass unless you get looked in the eye by another player.
These are 5 of the key ways we can communicate without saying a single word. Some of the them seem painfully apparent, but they are lacking in the youth ranks. Players do not know to look for or use these forms without your introduction and training of it. Find creative ways to get players to begin communicating without talking.
Many teams will think you have “ESP” or just “get each other” when in fact, you trained hard to develop these forms of communication. In fact, that really is one of the best kept secrets of those teams everyone says have played together so long they just get each other and know what each other is doing. Yes, they do understand each other very well…they are using and reading subtle forms of communication from years of learning to hone those communication patterns.