Cues (Part 1 of 2)

By Tony Earp

If you ask veteran high level players why they did something on the field, you may not get the answer you would expect. Often high level athletes do a lot of things out of “instinct” or, as I like to say, out of habit. It is hard for the player to explain why or how it was done. It is something that has been learned over time, and at this point, is done on a subconscious level from meaningful repetitive training. As it is said, “Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.” OK, but what IS learned over the many hours of training that produces these fast and efficient high level skill movements from elite players? I’ll give you a cue…

A cue is a “response-producing stimulus, often not consciously perceived, that results in a specific behavioral response.” During games, the play happens so fast that many of the decisions a soccer player makes, the smaller and frequent decisions, are done without a formal thought process. Many coaches are good at telling players how to do things on the field, but tend to leave out the cues that help explain the why and when. These cues are what high level players use to “make decisions” so quickly. So… when do players learn these cues and how do coaches help this process?

Let’s use individual defending as an example. Often, you will hear coaches tell players to “not dive in” or “you have to tackle that ball.” But why and when? Why should the player not try to tackle or tackle the ball during the game? Well, there are cues that players need to learn from an early age to help answer those questions.

Some cues for a player to try to win, or tackle the ball, are a bad receiving touch by the player receiving the ball, an under-weighted (softly hit) pass, the attacking player is facing their own goal, the attacking player’s head is down, or the player takes too big of a touch on the dribble (just to name a few). Now, with practice and reinforcement from an early age, the hope is these cues would tell players when to try to win the ball. When the cue is recognized, the body reacts accordingly allowing the defender to win the ball quickly. In the pace of a game, if this has to be thought about, it will take too long for the player to make the decision.

On the flip side, the player should not try to tackle the ball if the player’s touch allows them to bring the ball under control quickly, are facing the defender’s goal, the player’s head is up, and the attacker has a lot of space and time. Trying to tackle the ball at these moments can be costly for a defender. These cues would tell the defender to try to get in a good defensive position to limit the players options going forward, try to make play predictable for other defenders, and try to delay the attacking player from going forward or playing a penetrating ball forward.

Again, the decision whether to tackle the ball or not needs to become a reaction to these cues so the player can react in “real time” of the game. If a coach or teammate is telling a player to tackle the ball or not to dive in, normally it is already way too late.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at

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