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Geir Jordet: Sports Psychologist and Scanning Expert

Geir Jordet: Sports Psychologist and Scanning Expert

"There are so many ways you can create a career in football," says Geir Jordet, PhD, discussing his unique pathway within the industry. A Professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Jordet has gained widespread recognition for his work researching, teaching, and consulting on psychology and elite performance in football. For over 20 years, he has worked with leading clubs, organisations, coaches, and individual players, targeting the primary, psychology-related player behaviours that contribute to high performance.

Jordet has pioneered the in-depth study of 'scanning', a previously undervalued area of player performance that he defines as "head movement where a player's face is temporarily directed away from the ball to gather information in preparation for subsequently engaging with the ball." Examining in detail the movement of players like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Ilkay Gundogan, he has underlined why high-level visual perception and attention is so important at the highest level.

As we continue to gain insight into the game from industry figures focused on the detail that others can overlook — such as ball striking expert Bartek Sylwestrzak — we caught up with Jordet to discuss the art of scanning, his experiences studying this discipline, the importance of good communication, and the psychology of penalties.

What was your entry point into the study of scanning?

"When I was a Bachelor's student back in the 90s, I was very dissatisfied with the ways we had in football to measure visual attention, perception, and awareness. Up until that point, everything was measured by lab set-ups, lab studies, where you did simulations in a lab, and I didn't really accept it; I didn't feel like that was representative enough of the real world, so I tried to find a way that I could measure this in a game.

I was in my early 20s, I'd just finished my playing career and I was coaching a little bit, so I was familiar with the topic of orienting yourself before you get the ball, checking your shoulder, scanning. I was just thinking that I should be able to measure that, because it's a behaviour, something you can see. I started experimenting with some fellow students, filming them in games, and playing with how to quantify this. That became eventually a master's thesis, and I was also very fortunate to be able to proceed at a doctoral level."

The measurement system you landed on is scans per second, which has allowed you to identify top scanners like Xavi Hernandez (0.83 spc) or Frank Lampard (0.61 spc). Were there other systems you used before finding that metric?

"At the beginning, I didn't even use frequency like that, I just counted scans. I counted scans in the last five or ten seconds before players received the ball, I counted scans while they had the ball at their feet, and also, when they received the ball, I had very specific requirements for the pass they needed to receive.

They needed to receive the ball in a position where they were closer to the opponent's goal than the player passing them the ball, to ensure that they had more information around them... It was only later that I opened up those restrictions. Slowly, it became clear that a very simple frequency count — number of scans per second — is the most global and most descriptive way to do this."

On average, is there a big drop-off in frequency of scanning when you compare central midfielders to other positions on the pitch?

"Central midfielders tend to scan the most. In some teams, though, you have central defenders who scan as much or sometimes even more than the central midfielders. It depends on [the team] and how they play, and the type of game. When players have more space around them when they get the ball, they tend to scan more.

Central defenders typically have more space when they get the ball so they will scan more, but they also generally scan less than central midfielders. But there are many many exceptions and variations here, which is what makes it exciting and interesting. We measured Kylian Mbappe, who's a forward.

Forwards typically scan less than 0.3 scans per second, but here we had a player who scans 0.6 scans per second. If you look at him in a game you see how incredibly preoccupied he is with what's happening around him before he gets the ball. He's a very unselfish player, he looks for the pass, he looks for the assist before he looks for the goal.

This is one of the strengths of metrics like this; it can put attention on an otherwise undiscovered component of a player's game."

Who are the top scanners in professional football right now?

"I don't have a full overview, because I haven't measured everyone. But one player that I know very well is Martin Odegaard. He's trained scanning since he was eight years old, very systematically with his father.

Erling Haaland is a very good scanner. He comes from a club and a community where they were very aware of these processes 10, 12 years back, so his youth coaches would systematically work with him on scanning. Ilkay Gundogan is I think one of the top 3 players we've measured ever, I think we had him at 0.7 scans per second, which is almost at the Xavi level.

De Bruyne is also a very good scanner, but very different, again. He has very high frequency, but not Gundogan frequency. For De Bruyne, I'm more looking at the timing of his scanning, the different types of scanning, the adaptive nature of his scanning. It's not just one size fits all… it's different for different players in different situations."

You mentioned the exposure that players like Odegaard and Haaland had to scanning from a young age, but you also faced some backlash from coaches in Norway when you first presented your ideas. What was the main objection?

"People didn't see this as important; they didn't see it as even necessary. This was also a time in Norwegian football where we had a couple of teams that did quite well internationally, we had a national team who were in the tournaments, and we had a club team, Rosenborg, who were in the Champions League every single year… at the time, [people] had a recipe for how things were supposed to be done in Norwegian football, so when I started talking about how you need to scan and look around to know where to play the ball, they would say, "No, you don't have to do that, because as long as you have a set playing style, you know where to play the ball."

I didn't have a lot of training in communicating to groups of coaches, so I had no chance, I was way out of my depth. When I came back years after this, I had much better research, much better data, but above all I knew so much more about communication."

How have you developed your ability to communicate your ideas and research to students, coaches, and players?

"You have a lot of people who are incredible professionals, they're very good at what they do, they have immense knowledge, but they're not able to communicate it. Very early, I realised that to be able to package a message is not everything, but it's incredibly important.

If I have an important talk or meeting or presentation, I can literally spend weeks preparing that one hour, going over examples, going over ways to communicate something, going back and forth about the order, how I structure the cognitive load that the audience will go through. I think about how to get people to laugh, how to get a crowd to cry… I will target specific messages to specific people.

I look for the best video illustrations of something, and once you find them it's about carefully positioning them so that they hit home. I sandwich those types of illustrations between more complex material, more abstract material, theoretical material, empirical documentation of things.

I try to take an audience or crowd through this journey where there's a certain comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, and there's the empirical documentation of how that actually is the case, very vivid, clear, high-impact illustrations of it."

A lot of those communication tools you mention relate closely to psychology. In the last 20 years, how has football's understanding of psychology changed and developed? 

"It's progressively more and more accepted, there's more and more curiosity and interest around it. I sometimes use this video clip of Arsene Wenger onstage at a conference in London in 2009, where he said: "In the last decade, we've made enormous strides in the physical and technical area in our game.

In the next decade, we will make similar strides in the psychological and mental area of our game." That was 13, 14 years ago, and I would argue that his predictions did not come true, we did not make those strides in the past decade… but I would say that the next decade, we will make those developments.

People see that there's something to this, they start to hire people, they start to put focus on it, but practice hasn't significantly improved… now we have a good foundation."

Psychology also relates closely to another aspect of your work, study and consultation regarding penalties. How does that work usually take shape?

"I spent four or five years where all I was doing was researching penalties. Trying to understand it not from lab experiments, but studies of what actually happens in a penalty shootout in a big tournament.

I was living in the Netherlands and also collaborating with the Dutch Football Federation, so I kept feeding information to them about this, I kept delivering presentations to their coaches, to the national teams preparing for tournaments. There was this constant interplay between research and practice.

Because I've become a little bit more active on social media, putting out posts on different topics, suddenly there's a lot of interest around this again. I'm getting quite a lot of requests from teams at club and international level who are entering into European competitions this year, saying "Can you come in and give a workshop to our coaches?" or talks to a group of players, or assisting teams with penalty kick analysis. Everyone sees that penalties decide games at this level."

What type of content do you generally post on your Twitter page, and what made you realise this was a beneficial way of sharing your work?

"When Covid came, overnight I had 20 to 25 different meetings or presentations in my schedule that just disappeared. I like to communicate about the work that I do, I like to give these presentations, talk about my research and so forth, and now there was a year or even two years where that just wasn't there in the same way.

I realised I could use some of the same techniques that I used in my presentations, with catchy videos or snapshot images. It became fun to put together something so short and concise, maybe with one snapshot that captured a message.

I would see something happening in a game, a Premier League game for example, and this would process in my head and I'd wake up on Monday morning thinking "I have to say something about this."

I'd spend two or three hours crafting something on that, not really thinking this is something that would mean something to others or would get me opportunities in some way, more just that it was fun to create. This group grew a bit, and I saw that this also became a powerful vehicle to communicate to many people."

How else are you spreading your ideas to a wider audience?

"I've launched a couple of businesses, where you try to scale the contributions that you can do as a consultant and multiply it. The one business that has been around for a little bit of time is called Be Your Best, and it's a digital software simulation company that creates virtual reality solutions for football players, where they can train scanning.

That's become quite a successful company, I think there are about 10 people employed that create these types of solutions for players. I also have other companies that I'm working on now that will launch relatively soon, looking at other types of football psychology. I feel like there's so many opportunities like that out there for the people that are willing to take it a bit extra and put in that hard work."

Follow Geir Jordet on Twitter to find out more about his work.