Every player has heard the instructions a thousand times: “Pick your head up. Keep your body open. Make quick decisions.” But the soccer field is a chaotic place, and in the heat of the moment, with action happening all around you, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.
That’s why the most important skill in any soccer player’s arsenal is their vision: the ability to see the field, understand how play is developing, and make the right decision. Good players do it quickly. Great players do it immediately. And the best players do it instinctively, intuitively, and without a second thought.
Top players play efficient, intelligent soccer. They make the right choices, and they make them quickly. On the field, they seem to have more space and time than anyone else. But too often we talk about these elite players like they’re blessed with some superhuman ability to see the game in slow motion.
It’s much simpler than that: their stellar soccer vision, like most things, comes from hard work and good habits. It’s something they develop over time and through practice, and it’s something every player should commit to cultivating. This guide will help you stay one step ahead of the game and see what’s going to happen next, before it even happens.
See the Field
Good soccer vision starts with physically seeing the field before you get the ball. That means players’ positioning is paramount. The more of the field you can see, the better you understand how play is developing. Every inch of space counts: for outside players, that means using the full width to maximize your field of vision. For central players, that means backing up into space and keeping an open body position, rather than only facing the ball.
This is where technique comes into play. Players must be adept at receiving the ball with their back foot — if the ball comes in from the left, receiving with your right foot allows you to keep an open body and face the field (and vice versa). Too often, as players fixate on the ball, their first touch goes right back in the direction of the incoming pass. That limits passing options, shrinks the field and restricts your hard-earned space and time.
Scan the Field
Not every player is in a position to see the full field, however. Central midfielders, in particular, are surrounded by action and activity in all directions, and not even phenomenal body positioning is enough to see everything going on around them.
That’s why checking your shoulder and keeping your head on a swivel is so important. These physical movements are part of a skill called “scanning the field” by the revolutionary former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Wenger says scanning the field means gathering all the information you can before receiving the ball: “I try to see what happens to a player in the 10 seconds before he gets the ball — how many times he takes information, and the quality of the information he takes.”
“Great players isolate from the ball. Their head is like a radar.”Arsene Wenger
The iconic English midfield of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard each scanned the field more than 0.6 times per second. Spanish midfield virtuoso Xavi Hernandez has them both beat, scanning the field 0.83 times a second — that’s 50 times every minute! Xavi says his role is to “think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking.”
By scanning the field, you get a better picture of what’s going on around you. You recognize teammates making supporting runs. You identify opponents moving towards you. You discover spaces that can be attacked. This allows you to plan ahead and make quick decisions once the ball comes to you — where to take your first touch, where to play the pass, where to move next.
Practice Makes Perfect
Soccer vision is harder to practice and perfect than your first touch or finesse shot. But it’s not impossible, and great vision allows your other talents to shine. After all, there’s no point in being able to execute the perfect pass if you never get the chance to play it.
One way to increase your on-field vision is by treating your eye muscles like any other muscle, and doing specific training exercises to strengthen them. The legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson brought in specialists to train his players to sharpen their on-field vision and increase peripheral awareness. Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold has worked with an ophthalmologist who specializes in sports vision, using SoccerBot360 to test and improve his peripheral vision, anticipation and reaction time.
But you don’t need a specialist or next-level technology to train your eyes. Simple exercises like the “Toothpick and Straw Method” can be done at home and are sure to boost your peripheral awareness and enhance your soccer vision. All you do is draw a black circle around the middle circumference of a straw, stand a foot or two away, and focus on the black circle while trying to insert toothpicks into both ends of the straw.
There are also a number of soccer-specific drills that can cultivate better on-field awareness, both on the ball and off of it. They can be as simple as having a friend or family member hold up a certain number of fingers while you dribble or receive a pass, or could be a modified version of the always-popular children’s game “Space Invaders,” where you dribble across a field and avoid soccer balls flying your direction. Even playing ping-pong helps train your peripheral awareness — particularly if extra restrictions and challenges are added into the equation.
No matter your method of choice, taking the time and effort to improve your soccer vision will make you a more intelligent player and enhance your on-field performance. Get creative, have fun with it, and watch the game open up before your eyes.