One thing that has struck me for a number of years watching footy in Canada, is our lack of creative decision makers and problem solvers at all levels. I can’t help but feel this is at least partly to do with our approach to teaching and instruction.
We call it “coaching”, which in and of itself implies a sort of marionette master quality. Coaches need to be seen to be coaching (I’ve actually heard this at a coaching course), as opposed to learners actually need to be learning.
How do young players learn? They learn through play, struggle, and being taught to actively engage with their environment. What are the constraints? What strategies might you use as a group to take advantage? All of these approaches are dependant upon a coach to employ these beginning steps to empowering athletes to get used to answering questions without fear of judgement, to actively engage with the game, to be both playing and thinking. More often than not, we as coaches view young players as “empty vessels” that we must fill with all of our knowledge. Rote learning is the norm and everything controlled, repeated, managed and dictated to, from warm ups and halftime team talks to every single decision on game day. All young players are required to do is follow the orders. The marionette at the end of the string.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always times for rote instruction. I am not a fan of any false dichotomy arguments. I happen to think that we over-rely on it as a teaching (coaching) tool.
If we want to create confident decision-makers and creative problem-solvers we must empower the players to become active learners in their young soccer lives. We must allow for them to practice this skill, like any other skill, as repetition and variability will develop a curious and confident mindset. The problem for many volunteer coaches is that there is a fear of being judged, a lack of confidence, so the reaction many times is to control all aspects of play. This shows I am in charge. They fear the messiness of actual learning as it reflects on them.
We have to find a happy medium between how we coach and how they learn. The pendulum has been stuck on one extreme of it’s arc for a long time. “A significant body of research on coach behaviour identifies ‘instruction’ as the most frequently used behaviour by football coaches” as noted in this study, and coaches feeling the need to emulate traditional coaching behaviours in order to “look like a coach”. This is elaborated on here in this study, Performance During Performance Study, and speaks to the pressures to be in control at all times. All you have to do is wander out to a field near you on any given weekend to hear and see the marionette master taking centre stage.
Here’s a video of a futsal session we did to music. Coaching was simply refereeing.
Here are a few other things that I’ve done and been around, which are good beginning steps to creating a curious and empowering environment, ones where the the player is actively engaged in the decision making process.
We’ve run 2 SSG’s [Small Sided Games] with different constraints for 4 teams (wide/shallow field with 6 goals, long/narrow field with small end zones to play into, etc), and let the kids play for a while in these games, then switched the teams on the grid and let them experience and explore the different playing spaces to see if it elicits any different responses from the group, with little to no correction.
Might only be 8-10 minutes on each, then give them a water break and bring them in. Switch the teams around again, but this time get them to look at the space and think about the rules. We would ask them questions about the differences, in possession/out of possession, then instruct them to get together in their groups to try to devise strategies to be successful.
This created all kinds of interest and engagement from the kids. The social corner of this 4 corner model was really taking off. Little leaders started to emerge. We would bring them in ask more questions, and the more they became comfortable and this process was used, the more freely they would engage in the questions, not simply trying to answer what they thought you wanted to hear. You can run different activities/SSGs that require the players to decide how to employ their numbers differently.
Teams I’ve been around even have the young players sort out their own solutions at halftime or between games. “What’s the problem/ How should you fix it?” That kind of thing. There are many creative ways to utilize this. Ask more questions, observe how they interact and learn in the groups, to give you, the teacher, a better understanding of the individuals in your team. This starts to create a culture of engagement and shared ownership. As they grow older you layer on more elements that allow the athlete to feel more ownership and involvement in the process.
Empowering the decision maker and problem solver. The active learner. Beginning steps to athlete empowerment. It all requires the coach to let the players become part of the process, as opposed to passive participants in it. This is another powerful cue for intrinsic motivation as well. Shared ownership and building autonomy. One of the tenets of the Play Better program is also about bringing the kids into the process, developing ownership around goal-setting. These are critical skills not just for young soccer players, but young people in all walks of life.
Don’t fear the messiness. Don’t fear empowering players in the decision making process. In the long term it will serve them , the team and you the coach much better!
With teams across Canada beginning to Play Better shouldn’t your group give it a try? Start here.
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