Day 9 of Trials

Wrapping up on a Positive Note

For the last day of scheduled trials with the 2002’s, I decided to try to get us back to the all out attacking that we’d done so well from trial #6.  We divided our game portion into ten minute quarters.

At the end of the first quarter I talked to the players about some stats that I had tracked (shots on goal and attacking third entries).  One team had dominated in both stats and also led on the score board 2-1. The message heading into the second quarter was for both teams to try and increase those numbers all around.

At the end of the second quarter the discussion was about why neither team had been able to really increase their numbers from the first quarter.  The common conclusion made by the players was that because both teams knew the other was trying to attack more, they defended with more commitment and intensity.  The second quarter was definitely faster albeit scoreless.  I think the players came up with a good explanation as to what had happened.

At the end of the third quarter, the team winning managed to get another goal to make it 3-1.  Their stats were definitely superior to the losing team’s as well.  The losing team had definitely been struggling but when asked if they’d felt they were trying to do new and different things to break their slump they replied that they were.  I told them that since they were already losing, what did it matter if they lost by a couple more goals.  A loss was a loss and they might as well go for it.

We talked about the need to get players moving forward and I hinted that where that really needed to happen was with the defenders.  I asked them to picture how they envisioned this to happen and the suggestion that came back was overlaps.

Interestingly enough, the main way the defenders aided the attack was by pinching into the opponent’s end to help win the ball back and keep the pressure on.  They’d done a fantastic job of it, winning that quarter on attacking third entries, shots on goal and goal attempts (one I had to add just for that quarter because there were a few shots blocked and shots that missed the net).

However, the team that was trailing but playing so well in that final quarter also got a taste of how cruel soccer can be.  After dominating that quarter, the game ended with them giving up a fourth goal.  They got caught going forward and the team already ahead on the scoresheet caught them on the counter attack.  It was very smart attacking because obviously at the previous quarter time break, they had listened to me talking to the losing team about taking more chances and committing more players to the attack.

It was a very nice way to end the trials.  The winning team had really put on a decent show on attacking and goal scoring while the losing team had improved from the first quarter to the last.  I told the losing team I was happy with that as an outcome because there were going to be games for us down the road that we weren’t going to win and it was always nice to know that we could look at other things to help us recognize the growth and learning that was occurring.

Next post Saturday, November 1st.

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Getting Personal with Player Learning

This Learning is for you

Educational researcher Benjamin Bloom believed that any student could be proficient at any subject (assuming they had the fundamentals already in place) if given quality instruction and enough time.  His approach became part of what we now call mastery or competency-based education.  In my coaching, have I given enough time to each and everyone of my players to become proficient at various skills? No, absolutely not.  As I’d said in last Saturday’s post, I’ve coached to the middle – when a good portion of the players have appeared to become competent at the activity then that’s enough time spent on that and it’s time to move on to something else.  But there’s still a portion that probably haven’t gotten it yet and, worse, there’s most definitely a portion that probably already could do those things before we even started.

And the quality instruction?  Well, I shouldn’t even try and flatter myself with that one.  But what is quality instruction anyway?  If it is seen through the variable of time then a part of quality instruction is giving each player enough time to work on the things that they need to improve.  That leads to the idea that quality instruction is all about personalized learning.  Personalized learning, in education is both individualizing and differentiating instruction for students.  To individualize instruction you work on the things that that student, or in this case player, needs to specifically work on.  When you differentiate instruction you present content to the learners in ways that are most meaningful and appropriate for them.

So personalized instruction is what quality instruction is all about.  It’s a long way from what I’ve been pretending to do in my coaching career.  That, however, is about to change.  For this coming season, I’m embarking on a huge project where I’ll set out to personalize the learning experience for each of the 35 (yep, 35) players that I will be coaching over the next twelve months.  Boy, I never do anything small.

Individual Performance Plans

So to kick this whole process off, we’re starting with a questionnaire for the players to fill out.  It’s approximately 30 items, some as simple and innocent as their favourite type of pizza and others a little more innately telling like who has been your favourite teacher/coach and why.  Many of the questions will give me some background on each player’s cognitive/learning abilities and social-emotional characteristics.  This will compliment what I’ve learned about their technical-tactical and physical capabilities through the trials.

That will then put me in a position to sit down with each player and her parents for an initial conference.  In these meetings I can finalize details about the first draft of individual performance plans (IPP’s) for each of the players.  This would include identifying targets for each player to attain weekly and monthly over the season.

From there, I have two very capable assistant coaches who will be able to lead most of the training which allows me to then pay close attention to individual players during training in order to provide them with my perspective on how I feel their work towards their IPP targets is coming.  My hope is to try and document as much of this perspective as possible using an iPad camera.

I can then start to accumulate evidence on each player – both showing improvements and areas still needing improvement.  Each player’s evidence I can then put into a digital portfolio which, the next time I sit down to conference with the player and her parents, I can share with them.  That round of meetings will lead to further iterations of each player’s current targets, the establishment of new targets and, of course, the celebration of completed targets.

Then rinse and repeat for the remainder of the season.

Sounds easy, right?  We shall see…stay tuned!

Next post Sunday, October 26th.

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Day 7 of Trials

After the last trial where I asked these 2002 born girls to attack with reckless abandon, I decided to throw them a curve ball.  Before we started our 11-a-side game for this particular trial, I talked to them about taking care of the ball.

“You never kick a soccer ball.  You shoot it, pass it, dribble it, head it, control it or shield it but you don’t just kick it.  Kicking a soccer ball signifies that you had no plan in mind.  You must have a plan for every single touch of the ball.  The ball doesn’t like just being kicked.  It tends not to stay with the team that just kicks it, instead choosing to go to the other team to see if they will be more thoughtful.  The ball likes a team that will take care of it.  If neither team takes care of the ball then the ball spends its time going back and forth between both teams wishing it were somewhere else.  The ball does not like crowded spaces either.  It’s reaction to a crowded space is typically to switch to the other team in the hope that that team will take the ball into open space.  The ball loves space.  When your team is in possession, take care of the ball, help it find space.” 

That message had an interesting impact.  First, you should know that for that night we placed the players onto teams based on whether or not to that point they had been offered a spot on the team.  So one team was all players that had been selected already and the other made up of players still on the bubble.  Interestingly enough, the team made up of all the selected players took care of the ball.  Probably almost too much.  They played passes across the field and back and did keep possession more than their opponents but they rarely got forward and rarely threatened the goal.

The team of players on the bubble continued to play the way they had been asked to play from the trial before.  They possessed but in a very positive way.  When all was said and done, both teams had scored a goal each.  When we gathered to stretch and debrief, I asked for comments about what the players thought their respective teams did well.  One comment from each team stood out.

Team of bubble players: “I thought we played very positively and got the ball forward by getting behind the defense a number of times.”

Team of selected players: “We played negatively.  We kept possession but most of it was negative possession (sideways and backwards passes).”

Those comments were practically made one after the other so I refocused the players’ attention on those two comments and asked them to tell me what they thought about them.  There was silence.  I waited, looking patient on the outside but jumping up and down on the inside saying, “Let’s tell them!  Let’s tell them the answer!”  I resisted that temptation but no further discussion came so I left it.  However, not before giving them a stern reminder that the ability to be a thinker was one of the key pieces of the mindset they were going to need to be a successful part of this program.  They needed to start taking an active role in their learning.  However, I fear that many of them have been told what to do by their coaches (and teachers) and still wait passively for information to be given to them instead of seek it out themselves.

That’s a habit that I’ll work hard to change.

Next post Saturday, October 25th.

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The Fairness of Inequity


All for Learning and Learning for All 

I found this picture at – in a photo gallery titled ‘Soccer on the Silk Road.’  So.  Who in that line of boys is the pending activity or drill for?  They’re all waiting so patiently for their turn but which of them was the activity actually designed for?  Probably for all of them?  Okay, but then will it most benefit?  The boy in the middle with the really cool yellow soccer socks?  The second last boy who, realizing he’s so far back in the line, has decided to start his own personal practice.

It will benefit all of them, you say?  Buzz!  Try again.

This is not a post to tout the no laps, no lines, no lectures approach (although somebody should remind their coach of that).  Instead the photo is there in order to go deep and ask why it is we do things the way we do them.

The Middle of Nowhere

Do you know what team sport coaches are really guilty of doing?  No, strike that generalization.  Guess what soccer coaches are really guilty of doing.  Nope, that would be a generalization as well.  As a soccer coach, can you figure out what I’ve been really guilty of doing?  Coaching to the middle.  I’ve brainwashed myself into believing that the coaching that I do on a regular basis has benefited all of the players a great deal all of the time.

And that’s just wrong.  A more realistic assessment would be to say that sometimes some of the coaching I do benefits all the players in some way but that doesn’t make me sound very competent, does it?  It’s the truth though (and I’d really like to lump other coaches in there with me if I could).  I design content that is supposed to help all the players but most of the time it really only benefits the players in the middle.

Think bell curve here.  My coaching probably has adequately served all the players who fit comfortably within the hump of the bell.  However, I don’t think that it has effectively served the players in the tails on either side of that bell.  In other words, the strongest players and the weakest players performing the activity in question.

How do I brainwash myself?  Well, I look at an activity and what I see is the progress of the majority of the players that would fall within that bell curve.  The masses of the middle.  I know that there are some players that probably struggled with the activity and I also know there were some players there that were probably not challenged by the activity.  I saw them too.  But I acknowledge the outcome as acceptable because such a large portion did benefit.  Good job coach.  Another successful practice.


As long as I accept this, I won’t truly be developing the full potential of each and every player that I’ve selected.  And after all, isn’t that my job?  Isn’t that what I said I was going to do?

Unequal is Fair

I think part of this is the story I tell myself when a team is picked.  After all, they’re supposedly picked for their similarities, right?  Gender.  Age.  Ability.  But really the only non-debatable “similarity” is gender.

Age?  Sure, they’re all born in the same year but just look at the physical differences between players.  They’re not all the same.  Early bloomers, average bloomers and late bloomers all present on this planet for the same number of years but not very similar otherwise.  And that’s just the physical differences.  Don’t forget the emotional, social and cognitive differences that lead to each of those players being their own individual.

Ability?  Forget it.  Like age, I can tell myself that they’re all the “same” in ability (that’s why they made the team) but again I’d be just fooling myself.  They’re all over the map with the things that are their strengths and the things that are their weaknesses.  Sure, there might be a few general similarities like an over reliance on using only one foot or weak at heading, for example, but those items are few and far between.

Seriously though.  The most fair thing I can do is to treat each of my players unequally.  Basketball coach John Wooden believed just that also.  He handled each of his players differently otherwise he’d have done exactly what I’ve been doing – coaching to the middle by treating every player the same.  So equal is really not fair.

It’s a statement that does not sound right whatsoever and yet it couldn’t be more true and more necessary in my coaching.

I know I must do better.  It’s time for a change.   And that’s what I’ll talk about in next Saturday’s post.  But for tomorrow’s post I’ll get back to progress at the trials for the girls’ 2002 age group soccer team that I am currently coaching.

Next post Sunday, October 19th.


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Day 6 of Trials

Day 6 of trials with the 02’s that I’ll be coaching came and went on Friday.  There’s nothing going on this weekend as it’s Thanksgiving here in Canada.  Trial 6 was again full of cold weather and double booked fields that left me altering my proposed plan.  It’s become very clear to me already just how slow the process is and just how patient one must be with the development of gains in learning.

I find girls soccer to be very methodical and careful.  It’s not uncommon to see large passages of game play where neither team gets a shot on goal – the ball only bouncing around the midfield area as both teams try to keep possession but don’t really do much with it.

With that in mind, I decided I should set the stage for the trial that night by talking about a set of posits on positive play that I’ve stolen from Canadian Women’s National Team head coach John Herdman.  Those positive play posits are:

  1. Think forward
  2. Look forward
  3. Play forward
  4. Run forward

Just before they started their game for that day at the trial those are the things I told them I’d like them to try and do.  I’d say the majority of the players at that trial had been taught at some point over the last few years that possession is important.  While this is a significant step forward in their development I do find there is an unfortunate repercussion to it as well.  The misfortune is how negative their play becomes – it’s all passes back and passes sideways.  There’s little or no risk taken to play the ball forward.

With this group of girls I wanted them to know right away that they must learn to play positively.  I want them to attack and to play in an exciting and entertaining way.  So onto the field they went to try and do just that.

The resulting game was actually quite intense and fast paced.  That was pleasing to see.  It was also very scrappy as they tried to play far more forward-oriented passes than they normally would have done and that led to a number of turnovers in possession.  However, there were also times where a player would literally put her foot on the ball (realizing that playing forward wasn’t a good idea) and go backwards or sideways.  For their first go of it they did pretty well.

Through the water breaks in the game, we talked about a couple of things.  The first, and something else that I find to be a necessity with female players, is getting them to recognize that  at some point balls need to be played to the back of the opponent’s defense if they want to score.  I do find that girls more than boys are attuned to pass to somebody instead of passing to nobody (i.e., passing it into space for another player to run on to).

The second discussion point, and probably equally important as the first, is breaking the mindset particularly in young female players to play the safe pass – the backwards or sideways pass.  Playing these types of passes means the girls don’t risk making any of their teammates angry.  They’re sharing the ball without the potential to lose it by playing a tough forward pass.

I think both of these discussion points had an impact on the players.  More players tried to put themselves in a position to play the ball forward.  More players tried playing balls forward.  At the end of it, the only thing miss was more players running forward.  For the most part the players that made forward runs were already in front of the ball.  It was easy to count on one finger the number of times a player came from behind the ball and ran beyond it as a means of increasing the number of forward passing options.  Again, not uncommon in Canada to see 12-year-old players think that defenders just defend and attackers just attack.  My goal will be to remind them of that last positive play posit – run forward.  And the fact that:

the speed of the game is determined by the number of players behind the ball.

I finished the session by reminding them that a goal scored with three passes is just as good as a goal scored with thirty-three passes.  I don’t want them to play kick and run soccer but I don’t want them to get hung up on keeping possession either.  In explaining this philosophy, I tried to sell them on the value of being artists and entertainers through the way that they played.  A positive attacking style would be a spectacle that not only their parents could appreciate.  Anyone watching them would enjoy it.

The only thing that disappointed me about this selling job is that I think I tried to hard to sell it as MY vision.  It is the way I personally want them to play but, thinking about my previous post on gradually giving them the responsibility to decide what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, I think I was too biased in my words.  Yes, it’s my way and others do play this way but it’s not the only way and that’s a far more important thing for them to know.  I’ll have to try harder to stay a tad more neutral when I discuss such matters.

Before we departed for the night, I left them with this: learning does not stop when training ends.  I need to get them thinking more reflectively in order to create learning that sticks.  My perceptions so far is that it is not something they choose to do naturally or have been asked to do to this point in their lives.  For them when the session ends, thinking about soccer and what they did that day stops.

Oh, lot’s of work to be done.  One step at a time.

Next post Saturday, October 18th.

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The Game + The Player + The Coach = Great Learning

Last Saturday’s post was inspired by a tweet.  So is this Saturday’s post.

Today’s post also follows nicely on the theme of last Saturday’s too.

Is the game the best teacher or is the coach the best teacher?  My tweet back to @thinkingkeeper was simple – neither.  It’s the learner who is himself or herself the best teacher because of the realities of our ability for self-organization (something I talked about in this post).  The game is a pretty darn good teacher.  It’s the lab where players can experiment and see what works and what blows up.  But that doesn’t mean the coach isn’t important.  At best the coach is capable guide, and at worst controlling director.

However, at the end of the day it’s the players who are their own best teachers because for learning to be truly meaningful, players have to take an active role in their learning.  The more active a role the coach takes in transmitting information to the players the more passive the learning process becomes for those players.  It’s the difference between a truly player-centred environment and a coach-centred one.

Hold on a second though.  That “game is the greatest teacher” bit can definitely get misconstrued.  I can certainly understand any frustration towards a coach who thinks that standing back and letting players play freely all the time without any support or intervention is letting the game be the teacher.  No way!  Coaches should not simply set up a game and allow players to complete the task in whatever way they deem appropriate.  Yes, the players can self-organize their behaviours.  Yes, they will become more complex players this way but it’s still not the ideal without the help of the coach.

The coach’s role is to organize game “environments that provide controlled boundaries of exploration in dynamic setting through the provision of relevant task constraints. (1)”  And so the coach creates games with rules and conditions (i.e., constraints) that force the players to try and solve the problems that those constraints create.  This is what helps that self-organizing ability of a player to be maximized.

The constraints allow for repetition of a specific task or theme.  However, because it is a game, the actual task or action the coach wants the players to learn may not look the same twice in a row (like it does in a drill).  And that’s a good thing as these conditioned games “encourage self organization under constraints by providing ‘repletion without repetition’, and create high levels of variability in representative tasks that enable the participants to become attended to key affordances. (1)”

And ‘key affordances’ is motor skill researcher lingo for the player’s perception of of his or her own abilities.  They’re important because game play depends on a player’s ability to determine if he or she is capable of carrying out a task or action.  The more competent a player believes him or herself to be, the more likely he or she is to try a variety of solutions in solving problems posed by the game.

Also, affordances change depending on how we perceive the environment.  “Different sources of perceptual information present different affordances for performers to execute specific actions in sport and for this reason care should be taken in designing learning environments. (2)”

The value then of a great modern coach is someone who can manipulate the constraints in order to benefit the development of each player.  The modern coach then does stand back a bit and let the game he/she created be the teacher by letting the players stumble across the problems that need to be solved as a result of those constraints. Good constraints brings ‘repetition without repetition.’  That is, the players will continue to see the same task as the theme of the game but it may never look exactly the same each time they are asked to perform it.  This variability in the action is bad for short-term improvement (people watching will assume the players don’t know what they’re doing because of the number of mistakes they’re making) but good for long-term learning that sticks (players will actually retain more of the lessons you want them to learn if you are patient enough with this approach).

Or, as stated in researcher lingo,  the traditional notion of coaching “methods of decomposing tasks to manage information loads on individuals” which  “might prevent learners from forming relevant information-movement couplings.  The use of repetitive movement sequencing drills may promote efficient mechanical performance of basic motor patterns outside the performance context but might do little to help learners pick up relevant information sources to solve movement problems in realistic practice settings. (3)”

In other words, coaching players in repetitious drills that get them to replicate one and only one specific way of doing a  task doesn’t promote learning that sticks.

This is the power of the game then.  A drill does not have that same power because it happens outside the context of the game.  In fact, many times drills look little like the game and are controlled way too much by the coach.  No wonder many young players ask their coach questions like, “Are we going to do anything fun today?” or “Are we getting to play a game today?”

Whenever a player says something like this, it is their way of telling us coaches that they’re crying out for training that will engage their minds and give them a chance to take an active role in their learning.  They can’t do that if the coach is always telling them what to do, how to do it and when to do it in drill-like environments.

Next post Sunday, October 12th.

  1. Renshaw, I., Chow, J.Y., Davids, K. and J. Hammond.  A Constraints-Led Perspective to Understanding Skill Acquisition and Game Play: A Basis for Integration of Motor Learning Theory and Physical Education Praxis?  Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy.  15(2): 117-137.  2010.
  2. Pinder, R.A., Davids, K., Renshaw, I. and D. Araujo.  Representative Learning Design and Functionality of Research and Practice in Sport.  Journal of Sport & Exercise Science.  33: 146-155.  2011.
  3. Davids, K., Chow J.Y and R. Shuttleworth.  A Constraints-Based Framework for Nonlinear Pedagogy in Physical Education.

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Day Five of Trials

In last Sunday’s post, I’d set out a plan to create a a more intense and focused trial environment for the 2002’s that I will be coaching.

Ah, the best laid plans…

That third trial was practically a write-off.  It was so hot that day.  The majority of the girls were done in by the temperatures.  A quick chat to acknowledge that they weren’t at their best because of the weather and they should try to figure out how to improve it did render a small boost in the overall quality of the session.  Still, it left a great deal to be desired.

Another trial came and went without the intended outcomes that I had hoped for.   A difficult position to be in when you’re trying to convince yourself to step back, take a breath and not try to control the situation so much.

Trial 4 Outcomes

The players trialling to be part of this program are currently 12 years old.  To prepare them for this big step, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing with them the mindset they’re going to need to first survive and then thrive in this environment.  We’ve talked about:

  • Not fearing failure
  • Hard work
  • Thinking

The first two are pretty self-explanatory I think.  The third I use the word thinking to cover a number of items like taking an active role in your learning, asking good questions and reflecting on your progress.

During trial 4, we worked on a fourth item from mindset.  Assertiveness.  If you’ve not coached girls soccer then this one may seem a little odd.  Finding a team full of girls that are willing to engage in a physically combative way is a challenge to say the least.  You get a few who could tussle easily with the boys and knock them down.  However, most struggle with their comfort level in contacting another girl and, knocking her down, or worse, potentially hurting her.

I think we (male coaches) spend too much time telling them (female players) to be aggressive.

That’s why I told them I was looking for assertiveness and not aggressiveness.  Both mean forceful behaviour but the difference is that aggressive forcefulness is often over the top forcefulness.  It is forcefulness that tries to intimidate and can sometimes occur as a result of bending or breaking the rules.

Being assertive means that you don’t go around purposefully trying to dominate people.  However, if an opponent tries to purposefully dominate you then you need to be able to handle that without being intimidated.

So before discussing this with them we did the following activity:

  1. Compete in pairs
  2. Start side by side
  3. On coach’s command get yourself through a pylon gate that is only big enough for one of the two players to fit through
  4. One will go through the gate, one won’t

After everyone had a couple of turns we talked to them about assertiveness and aggressiveness and gave them a few more tries.  When we moved into game play, I have to say I was very pleased.  The amount of physical contact increased,  the 1v1 battles were more intense, a few players got knocked onto their keisters.  The session had an edginess to it that was typically not what you’d see in a game contested between girls’ teams and something we had not seen previously at the trials.

It was great!  I was so happy.  Finally, a small sign of hope that the players had responded to the coaches stepping back and opening up some space for them to contribute.

1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back?

What will today’s trial bring?  Who knows.  The focus though is to continue to hit home the mindset they will need (not fearing failure, working hard, thinking and being assertive).  I’m going to borrow an analogy from Canadian women’s national team coach John Herdman.  I need the players to shed their current skin and grow this new mindset skin.  If they don’t do that then what I’ll get are a bunch of chameleons.  They’ll change their skin just for the trials, do the things they believe will get them on the team and then promptly go back to their regular habits.  I want them to understand that this mindset is something they will need to commit to for the long-term if they want to make a successful go of this provincial high performance soccer program.

We’ll see how it goes.  I just hope that edginess is back.  Really nothing better than seeing players rise to the challenge of competition and give it all they have.

Next post Saturday, October 11th.

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Directing Technique or Guiding Skill

“If we produce learning, the learning may stop when players leave the sport environment.  If we develop learners, they can keep learning for a lifetime.”

From last Saturday’s post, the question remains does a coach have to direct players on what to do or can he or she guide players?  This past week, I came across a very timely tweet that fits right in with this conversation.

Direct Instruction for the Basics

DI.  Direct instruction.  For years, I would have agreed with this.  Now, with what I’m reading out there in the realm of motor learning, I’m not so certain. Plus, I think back to my time growing up as a young player and while someone did give me instruction on how to pass with the inside of my foot, nobody ever taught me how to pass with the outside of my foot.  One day, I just did it because I felt it would solve the problem I faced.  It did.  The same is true with a stepover.  It just came out of me in a game one day as a solution to a problem and again, it worked.  So I tried those things again, and again, and again.  Perfecting them and making them my own with each try.

When we use direct instruction to coach, we try to control the development of the player in order to create a stable pattern that matches an ideal (ideal in our mind) of what that action (e.g., passing with the inside of the foot) should look like.  The problem is that’s technique and that’s what I feel direct instruction is good at developing.  The thing is we want skill, not technique.  From one of the articles (1) I’ve read, here’s why:

“What constitutes skilled performance is not just a repeatable and stable pattern but the ability to accomplish some high-level goal with rapid and graceful but flexible solutions that can be recruited online or in anticipation of future circumstances.”

And from another article (2):

“…there is no one ideal motor coordination solution towards which all learners should aspire but rather functional patterns of coordination that emerge from the interaction of constraints.”

So while there are probably some biomechanical commonalities within certain actions that we could all try to achieve (e.g, basics that improve efficiency or maximize power), after that the development of that action is highly personal and is based on how each of us learns as we interact with our environment.  Therefore, passing with the inside of the foot doesn’t have to be done in the exact same way by every soccer player as long as the use of that action effectively solves the problem the player faces.

Guiding the Development of the Basics

I think it’s worth a try to bring about the development of a player’s basic skills by allowing them to discover as many of their own personalized successful patterns as possible.  That makes the player an active learner.  He or she is engaged in decision making that shapes his or her development as a player.  The ability to to become competent through autonomy is a powerful intrinsic motivator – one that’s so strong, you really don’t need a coach to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it.

I think this article’s (2) conclusion sums up our job as coaches best:

“The main implications for sport clinicians and practitioners are to identify and manipulate key constraints to perturb and create emergence of appropriate behaviours rather than to encourage the imitation of a single response in reference to a putative ideal expert model.”

We don’t need to direct players, I tweeted back to @MaderoSoccer, we only have to help them develop functional patterns that effectively solve problems in the game.  We don’t need to direct the rote memorization of rigid technique, we need to guide the flexible development of skill.  Direct instruction may help a player with little experience in soccer develop a basic stable pattern of various game actions but guiding is what opens up the space necessary for the player to learn how to evolve those actions.  And from what the research seems to be saying only the player, not the coach, can make that happen.

Next post Sunday, October 5th.

  1. Thelen, E. and L.B. Smith.  “Dynamic System Theories.” In Damon, W. and R.M. Lerner (Eds.) Handbook of Child Psychology: Theoretical Models of Human Development.  John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.  2006.  Web.  September 1, 2014.
  2. Seifert, L. Button, C and K. Davids.  Key Properties of Expert Movement Systems in Sport: An Ecological Dynamics Perspective.  Sports Medicine. 43: 167-178.  2013.

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Day Three of Trials

Too Much Slack?

In yesterday’s post I made my case for why I think we as coaches need to change  our perspective on the subject of control.  Truthfully, most of us can afford to take a breath and step back.  By saying and doing less, we open up space for the kids to take an active role in their learning.  We just have to make sure that what we say and do spurs on the kids to chase down the knowledge themselves.

Of course, this plan doesn’t come without its follies.  Case in point are the 2002s that I will be coaching.  This is their inaugural opportunity to enter this high performance provincial soccer program and you could tell on day one of trials that they were nervous.  So in the first trial my message to them before they started was that if they were nervous that was okay and if they weren’t nervous that was okay too.  I told them to work hard, show us what they could do and, most importantly, enjoy themselves.

I think they were unsure what to make of me.  If you asked them after that first trial what their impressions of me would have been, I think they would have been a little confused or unsure.  I think I was the opposite of what they had expected for the environment.  They were coming to a trial which was stressful and serious.  They probably expected me to be stone-faced and intense.  I was relaxed and making jokes.

These players will be able to shop around and pick from a number of different clubs within a fairly close geographical area that are all part of this provincial high performance program.  So I have to say that I do feel like I’m a bit on stage, selling my wares in hopes of convincing the strongest players to stay.  And yet, I’m presenting to these kids a potentially very different picture of a coach than what they are used to seeing.

In the second trial, I made reference to my possibly strange behaviour and told them how important it was for me to have fun.  I reinforced the point of the importance of them having fun as well.  If they didn’t have fun, I said, they wouldn’t stay involved.  75% of the girls at the second trial had been in attendance at the first trial.  As we got through the warm-up and into some small-sided games, I have to say I feel like the girls were relaxed.

Too relaxed.

It no longer felt like a trial.  The old me panicked (because of the perception of a lack of control).  In that state, my first thought was to pull them all in and have a stern talking to with them all.  Reinforce the fact that this was serious and that they should tighten up their own behaviour.  Of course if I had done that, I think I would have confused the hell out of them with what would have been a very mixed message (relax and have fun vs don’t relax, be serious).

I asked an assistant coach for his perspective.  He hadn’t really noticed it but as he thought about my comments he did feel that it may have been a bit more loosey-goosey than it should have been for the occasion.

Staying The Course

And so as I suggested at the beginning of this post, I took a breath and stepped back.  I let the trial keep going.  Fortunately, the principle of self-organization did happen and the quality of the trial did improve.  Was it as intense and focussed as it could have been or as I wanted it?  No, it wasn’t.  But that is where today I can look to guide that self-organization without trying to completely control it.

I ended the second trial by reading a quote I had found on the internet from one of the players that was there that night.  Her club team had a team website with profiles of each player.  I had come across this about six weeks ago and remembered saying to myself that I hoped she’d be present at the trials.  When I saw her at the very first trial, I was excited but kept it to myself until I could make a copy of her profile quote so as to read it to the rest of the group.  This was her favourite quote:

“Soccer isn’t something that you can fake, its a feeling, a passion, a lifestyle.  If you don’t live, eat, sleep, and breath soccer, then you are not a true Soccer Player, you just wear the jersey.”

Come on!  That’s seriously an amazing choice.  This girl is 12 years old!  At the end of the second trial I read this quote to the group and explained to them how I’d hoped she would come to these trials.  I said it doesn’t mean she’s made the team, however, I feel I already know that she’s got the right mindset for joining this high performance program.  This will be the most soccer that any of these kids has ever done.  I simply want to be sure that I have done what I can to help them make a smart decision.

So today that message will be reinforced.  Are you ready?  How do you know if you’re ready?  I want them to understand that they need to think beyond the novelty of making the team and look to three months from now, or six months, or nine months from now.  They need to think about why in those time frames things might end up being tougher and not as exciting as the next couple of weeks may be when they picture themselves being told they’ve made the team.

I want them to either be able to say, “Yes, I know I’m ready,” or, “Yes, I think I’m ready.”  And yes, I’ll take a I think.  They may like soccer but not know yet if they love it.  The thing is, sometimes the only way to find out for sure if you can make that jump from like to love is to, well, make that jump and see what happens.

What should you do with this Freedom to Choose?

I’m going to cover that at the end of today’s trial.  For the beginning of the trial, I want to cover the issue about intensity that I mentioned a little bit earlier in this post.  I’m going to open a space for their participation by using the following questions:

  1. How can too much stress negatively impact you as a player?
  2. How can being too relaxed negatively impact you as a player?
  3. What will the ideal stress-relaxed balance look like for you during the remainder of these trials?

The last question I’m not looking for an answer right there and then.  I’ll ask them to think about that one before returning to trial number four with their solution.  Should be interesting to see what happens.

Next post Saturday, October 4th.

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How Important is Control to you?

Control vs Chaos

Last time out I asked the question can kids learn without coaches.  My answer was yes because we possess the ability to self-organize.  That is, we have the ability to evolve from actions that are simple to ones that are complex. The value of coaching comes in the ability to guide that self-organization but not control it.  Controlling self-organization is an oxymoron I think.  Today I wanted to talk more about why I believe that control is a bad thing.  The ideas here come from a 2012 article in the International Coaching Psychology Review by Michael Cavanagh and David Lane titled Coaching Psychology Coming of Age: The challenges we face in the messy world of complexity.

As human beings, we are complex systems.  Put a bunch of us in jerseys on a soccer field and we’ll experience chaos as a phase of that complexity.  In other words, it will be difficult to agree what should be done at any given moment in the game and, if we do agree, it will be difficult to predict the outcome.

This certainly doesn’t mean that what happens on that field is complete randomness.  The lack of stability can make it appear as random but order can be found.  It just comes in the form of probabilities.  It comes in probabilities because there will be certain common patterns that you and I will see but those patterns will appear in a variety of potential shades depending on the adjustments made by each of the players interacting with each other.  Exactly what shade you’ll see for a certain pattern, what specific outcome you’ll get, is the unpredictable part that relies on probability in order to create order.

So for example, I think it’s safe to say that there will be more passes in a game featuring two U16 competitive teams than in a game featuring two U16 recreational teams.  The probability of that is high.  Overall differences in skill level and game understanding influence that probability.  However, nobody can predict the actual number of passes that will be made within each game because there are just too many variables at play during the game to do so with any accuracy.

Feeling Exposed without Control

As coaches, I find that the thing we worry about most when it’s missing (or even if we perceive it to be missing) is control.  We don’t like to be out of control.  When we are, we feel we will be seen as weak and inept so we typically do what we can to control the situation.  The problem is, trying to control the situation all the time is futile.  And yet that is what many of us believe that coaching is all about.

So the more a coach controls his or her players, the more that self-organization is hampered.  Maybe you don’t see a problem with that.  Here’s why I do and why I’m trying to change my ways accordingly.

Somewhere between high agreement and predictability (i.e., order achieved through your planning and instruction) and low agreement and predictability (i.e., chaos through the prediction of probabilities in a game or game-like environment) is what Cavanagh and Lane call “the edge of chaos.”  It is in this space that self-organization occurs and adaptation emerges.

Simple, Complex and Chaotic Spaces
An Adaptation of the Stacey Certainty/Agreement Matrix
Skills Role in Chaos

Let’s say we define skill as the ability to adapt game actions to current and future conditions.  Therefore, skill is not simply some stable and repeatable one size fits all pattern.  Instead, it’s the ability of a player to come up with a flexible solution that matches current needs but still may change in some way if performed again in the future.

If as coaches we control our players into developing stable and repeatable patterns we end up with players that may look good in practice but can’t then take that into the chaos that represents the game and use it effectively.  Therefore, I think it is important that we leave some space open for players to come up with their own functional solutions.  Their solutions may not be technically proficient but as long as it’s functional the technical proficiency can be developed.

The problem is we don’t leave much or any space.  We fill it with our knowledge and our commands.  We are coaches after all and to leave some space may get people thinking that we don’t know what we’re doing.  The science is clear when it comes to the positioning of knowledge and the ability to self-organize.  If knowledge is positioned centrally, like in a coach’s head, then self-organization will not happen.  That knowledge has to be decentralized.

But I don’t think that decentralization can happen all at once – especially if the group has no experience with being given the opportunity to take an active role in their learning.  As I’d mentioned in the last post, responsibility is best released gradually to youth athletes.

There needs to be some structure in order to identify where and when you can open up a space.  No structure and, well, its just one big space that will simply be unfathomable to most youth athletes.  In order for them to perceive the space available for them to fill, they have to be able to see the boundaries that define it.

Defining My Boundaries

Those boundaries for me are simple.  The structure comes in the form of high-level principles that guide the game and represent the things that I believe in as the way the game should be played.  So that structure includes:

  1. The attacking and defending principles of play (a la Allen Wade).
  2. The four main moments of the game (i.e., attack, transition to defence, defence and transition to attack…oh…and I’ll throw set plays in there too).
  3. The rules and regulations that both the club I coach for and the governing body of our program/league mandate.

Those will be the constraints through which the players I coach will operate.  It will provide the starting point for me to gradually release responsibility by asking them to look closely and thoroughly at each piece of that structure.

Maybe you think that’s opening a certain can of worms.  Maybe you say I’m going to give my players the opportunity to question my authority.  My response to that: Question my authority?  If that’s the way I feel then it really is all about me controlling them, isn’t it?

As I’ve already mentioned, I want the players to develop critical thinking skills (their B.S. detectors).  As adults, we have a history of feeling that when someone questions – especially the questioning of an authority figure – that that person is a trouble maker.  We have tended to take those punk asses and show them who’s boss.  We’ve learned that questioning authority is not to be done.

I want to help the players I coach learn to ask good questions and not take any one point of view as gospel.  If that means that along the way some of them over step their bounds and get a little disrespectful than so be it.  Sometimes you have to first find the extremes in order to identify a happy medium.  How else will they learn?

So tell me, how important is control to you?

Next post Sunday, September 28th.

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