“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” – Kay Renfield Jamieson
A small toot of my own horn here. I’ve worked very hard over the last ten years to ensure that the session plans I create for soccer have a theme and that that theme runs from the warm-up, through the skill drills, small-sided games and into the scrimmage. I’ve always figured that in doing that the players will be better able to see the connection from activity to activity and take the concepts into the final game. I remember once I had a player I was coaching make an out of the blue comment to me that he could see that each of my practices had a theme and that that theme got worked from start to finish. He liked that about my practices.
Once. In ten years. One person.
Maybe I’m just doing it wrong (I think I said that last post too but maybe that is the problem)?
You can put together a great training session. Work from simple to complex. Individual to team. Less realistic to more realistic. Add in progressive elements like someone painstakingly reconstructing a whole onion one layer at a time. But as skilful and as thoughtful as that practice might be the kids still don’t seem to make the connection.
You flow masterfully through your session connecting one activity to the next. Even Jose Mourinho would be singing your praises. And then you get to the scrimmage and you wait with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas Eve. You’ve created a masterpiece and now let the players show you just how masterful your coaching was by carrying out the theme precisely in the scrimmage. But frustration ensues.
It’s like something happens during the water breaks between activities. The players forget. Maybe they’re lobotomized by aliens while you’re picking up and putting down the cones? You anxiously encourage them, Remember what we did earlier? Frustration creeps in. Remeber? We did this earlier, right? Finally, after the players fumble through the scrimmage like it’s the first time they’ve seen a soccer ball and there’s no sign whatsoever of your precious theme, the anger boils over. We did this in the warm-up! And again in the skill drill! And again in the small-sided game! We’ve done this all session! REMEMBER!
Why don’t they see what we see? Why don’t they get it? Why, why, why!
I’ve always felt that I could teach pretty much any tactical concept to an adult and they’d understand it and that I could teach pretty much any technical concept to a kid and they’d be able to do it. I guess the rationale then is that that adult can understand the tactics but might not be able to go out and execute the skills and that kid might be able to execute the skills but not understand when and where to use them.
Professors instructing undergraduate physical education teachers realized this back in the 60′s. A physical education teacher could progress through a wonderful lesson teaching the skills of a game like volleyball – bumping, setting, spiking for example – and then not see one iota of those skills in a game featuring the very same players that just learned the skills.
Those very same professors then asked the question: what if you started with the game? Or some form of the game. What if you helped introduce the players to the basic concepts of the game, like game objectives and rules? An interesting position for sure.
Aime Jacquet, former French national team coach, is credited I believe with saying one of the most compelling statements that I think I’ve ever heard in soccer: no technique, no tactics.
I’ve been a firm believer in this. It’s hard to execute the tactics if you don’t have the skills to carry them out. The more tools you have in your tool box, the more ways you can go about solving problems on the field. As Abraham Maslow said, if all you know how to use is a hammer, then everything tends to look like a nail.
But I think we need to make something clear here. Not having technique does not stop you from playing the game. It will only stop you from carrying out the tactics necessary to maintain your team’s strategy. Don’t think so? Just go out to the soccer fields on a Friday night in the summer and you’ll see lots of adults who’ve never played soccer or learned any of the techniques of the game playing on teams in leagues. It is very possible to play the game and not have any skill.
The Golden Age of Learning should be the key time to help young soccer players develop as many tools for their soccer tool box as possible. The problem that I can see is that learning skill involves repetition and repetition gets boring for the average youth soccer participant. Boring certainly does not equate with continued participation. It more likely equates with dropout or at least transfer to another activity that is not deemed boring.
So it’s a best practice to teach skills to young players and not over coach them in tactics. For the majority of youth soccer participants, I’d like to challenge that best practice. Over the years, we’ve also talked in soccer about how the game is the greatest teacher. That’s a best practice as well. I find these two best practices contrasting.
My position then hasn’t changed, just maybe evolved. Yes, give kids the tools. But first make sure they understand what the tool is, why it is used and then show them how it is used (and in that order). Traditionally, we show kids how to do the skills first and then where and when to use them second.
I guess you could say like an onion, learning a single skill is only one layer of that onion. You can pull the onion apart and present one layer at a time or you can start with the whole onion. Let the kids develop an appreciation for it as a whole before they begin to dissect it. Pull the onion apart and give the kids only one layer and they may not understand how that layer fits back into the whole onion. It has been taken out of context. It is no longer meaningful. They have no way of relating to it. It’s just one single layer of this thing called an ‘onion.’
But we see it. We’re familiar with the onion. After all, we’re the ones who’ve deftly taken it apart for the kids to put back together again.
So then lets both start on the same page. The place where both kids and adults can connect with what they see – the game! As a coach, you can take a small-sided game and give it a condition. Something that will consistently bring out a specific type of problem that you want the players to solve. And if you’re working with young kids then errors will definitely happen.
If they are errors of motivation, those are easily enough addressed. If they are errors of decision making (i.e., tactics) then those can be corrected in the game. No need to go to a drill. But, if they are errors of skill and they happen frequently then now you have a reason to stop the game and move more to a drill-like activity. This activity is designed to isolate the skill and provide the repetitions necessary in order to make the skill a habit.
Here, though, is where I see the greatest benefits to the kids. Because the error happened in a game, the kids can see why the skill is necessary and where they should be using it but they can also clearly see that they don’t have the ability to make the skill happen and so their game play suffers because of that. Now that single layer that’s been pulled apart from all the other layers has context. They can now see how and why a repetitious drill designed to isolate a particular skill has relevance.
Here’s the second greatest thing about this. Because the kids can now see the purpose of the skill drill, there is more motivation to do it. If you also add in the caveat that the sooner they master the skill the sooner they can get back to the game then there is even greater motivation to succeed at the skill.
And then when you do go back to the game it is a great opportunity for you and the players to see the improvement in learning. Are they better at the skills the second time around? Because they understand the what and where of the skill, are they more thoughtful about it’s use? Learning takes place before your’s and their eyes’ because it is contextual.
I think this method is pure brilliance and I’ve been using it consistently now for just about two years. I find the results so far to be encouraging. Don’t get me wrong. The average youth soccer player is still not skilful enough but I think that can also easily be the result of other problems like not enough time with a ball or lack of consistent quality coaching. What I see from the players that I have worked with using this methodology is a greater appreciation and understanding for how technique and tactics marry together.
Their interconnectedness is complicated and I think as coaches we do the best we can to make it simple by introducing only single layers at a time. But that is a disservice to the players. Soccer is messy. It’s complex. It’s not always predictable. So we’re better off sometimes not trying to make it less busy or chaotic. I think that’s why when we use the traditional approach and get to the end scrimmage we don’t always see the results that we would like.
Because it’s often harum-scarum the game IS the greatest teacher. We as coaches need to embrace that and stop trying to deconstruct it.
No technique, no tactics? Meh…I’d say no game appreciation then no technique.
Boy, I’ve been on a roll today. Hopefully I can carry on where I left off next time.
Next post July 23rd.