What’s Behind A Skill?

How often do you pause and reflect on what’s behind a skill? What I mean is: what are the unseen (cognitive) processes that precede the execution of the skill?

If you haven’t given it a ton of thought, meet someone who has… Garth Smith, a soccer coach, who attempted to capture the myriad of variables – consciously and subconsciously – a player must work through when deciding whether to pass or not.

Skill Development & What's Behind a Pass
A Player’s Decision To Pass — by @GarthWSmith

He’s done a fantastic job of capturing a player’s thought process.

Pulling Back The Layers To Go Deeper

Here are some of the ‘layers’ of decisions that go into passing…


  • How?
  • To who?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Can I pass it that far?


  • Where’s the opposition?
  • Where’s your teammate?
  • Accuracy, speed, pace?
  • Can my teammate control the ball?


  • Where do they want/like it?
  • Where am I giving it to them (e.g. inside, outside, high, low… where they are… where they’re going to be)?
  • Are they in a position to receive the ball (yet)?
  • Is it too early / too late? What’s the ‘trigger’ to release it?
  • What pass should I use?
  • Will they do anything with it? (Do I trust them to do the right thing with the ball?)
  • Are they expecting it?


  • Am I (still) in a position to pass the ball now?
  • Has the picture changed?
  • Can I change the picture (and make it better)? How?
    • Dribble to change the angle or create a bigger advantage?
    • Take on 1on1?
    • Use a teammate to get it there (2on1… 3on1… 3on2)?

LAYER 5 (Was it a successful pass?):

What does success on the pass look like? Does it…

  • Help the next attack (i.e. set up)?
  • Relieve pressure?
  • Keep the ball / possession?

Now, remember that interwoven into all this is the technical skill itself (i.e. ball control/manipulation) and dealing with environment/external constraints (e.g. boundaries, time on the clock, defenders, etc).

(Not to mention all the mental and physical loads that also play a significant factor…!)

How Many Layers Are You Coaching?

Like an onion, the performance of any single action (e.g. passing, defending, shooting, dribbling, etc) has several different layers.

And, yes, coaching involves pulling back the layers to refine elements of skill execution. Yet, the primary directive is to avoid removing the variability and randomness that gives the skill context. (That’s where are the ‘flavour’ comes from!)

The crux of it all is there’s no element in skill execution that exists in isolation from others. How we structure a practice for drill needs to reflect that. Context is key.

Some questions to wrestle with…

  • How many layers are you to overlapping into your drills?
  • How much time, in training session, do you spend in drills with only the technical layer? Or, are you manufacturing game-like scenarios where you’re able to get your athletes to go deeper (into multiple layers of decision making)?
  • How often to do you use questions to pull out from your players what informed the decision they made?
  • Do you players understand what success looks like for each skill—in different contexts (e.g. personnel, time/score, etc)? (Are you clear what success looks like?!)