Developing Concrete Mountains
(This post was written in 2009.)
Each year, I take a theme in coaching and try to really study it, dissect it and incorporate it into my own development as a coach. It could be as simple as teaching and applying footwork in year’s past or studying player and coaching psychology several years ago. Last year it was anatomy, physics and fitness. This year, I deepened my study on coordination and motor skill development, as well as, cognitive development in young athletes. All the while, I have a living document entitled, My Coaching Philosophy that I edit, evolve and continuously re-visit as I grow and learn.
I take this time to further develop my own abilities as a coach, but also try to understand my clients — how to help them through the process of trial and error as well as give them any type of advantage with respect to their development. I passionately study how to make human movement more effective and efficient. Also, I study how to create intelligent players that can think, problem solve and be creative without over drilling or killing any spontaneity.
One of the things I’ve learned through this process is that there’s a short road and a long road to efficiency and effectiveness. There’s an old buddhist poem about a mountain being a mountain, then it’s not a mountain, then it is a mountain again. As the sage evolves their understanding of reality, their own mind and the universe, the mountain’s existence changes as the sage changes. The same happens for how players learn.
If we suppose for discussion sake that children see the game of soccer the same way as the sage sees the mountain, we can deduce several stages of player development that are fundamental to future success.
1. As children develop through concrete thinking (Piaget’s second of four stages in his theory of cognitive development) between the ages of 7-11, players see the world and solve problems for real, solid, objective events. The abstract or hypothetical doesn’t and can’t exist. What an adult says is real, is the truth and to be successful in soccer, or earn playing time, is to do what the coach says. (the mountain is a mountain) Creativity at this age is thus the sequencing of a range of techniques done over and over in new ways.
2. As players develop into formal operational thinking (12-25 years) and develop abstract thought, logic, hypothetical and deductive problem solving, (“this might work, nope, try this instead…”) the mountain could be something else entirely– players will ask questions and discover when, how, and why the mountain is a mountain. This abstract thought process and sequencing allows the player to draw on years of experience to solve new problems (or continue to build experiences). Or a player becomes reinforced in following the wishes and desires of the coach as expert to produce a satisfactory experience. If I do what coach wants, then I get X, Y or Z. Creativity at this stage is often the result of sequencing techniques, but having the freedom to re-arrange various solutions to new problems.
3. Finally as players mature, (24-36) a new level of cognitive thinking can emerge as it relates to systems thinking–seeing the inter-connectedness of things, how complex systems evolve, and how to intervene, lead and develop community. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts type ideas. The mountain is now part of an eco-system and is a mountain again, separate in it’s identity and function but part of something greater. (“oh, there’s many coaches and tactics, but the game is the game, and each coach is different, and I can be different and still be part of the whole”).
Coaching the Youth
Within this context now go back to coaching young soccer players. As an adult you can watch Arsenal play Barcelona and think, “wow, that’s what I wish I could see on Saturday at the dome. Look at all that great passing!” Then the adult coach goes to practice and teaches 10 and 11 year old players, “this is how soccer is played.” Passing drills, ball moving from set position to set position.” “You stand here, don’t go forward. Play the ball like this, here, do it this way.”
The mountain in the eco-system has just been changed to a concrete mountain in isolation of the system. The child has NO context, no relationship to the greater abstract ideas involved in the theory and practice of the game…the hypothetical deductions that have taken years to master at Arsenal or FC Barcelona are replaced as real, concrete events. (The child probably didn’t even know there was a game today for the UEFA Champions League! Except for mine, who’s watching it with me right now.)
What that adult didn’t realize is: as Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona) dribbles the ball upfield, he has a fully mature brain going through complex deductive thought processes. As he sees these images, the space on the field — he knows from study and experience where players will be, where the goalie should be, he knows his connection and his role within the whole team, as well as the others’ functions. (Similar to a hologram that when broken into pieces holds the image of the whole seen from the perspective of the piece.)
A recent article in Discover highlighted that the activity in an elite athlete’s brain as they are performing a task related to their sport is almost quiet. An average athlete’s brain performing the task is hyperactive — leading to the conclusions that the processing of the neuromuscular task and environmental stimuli at once makes the movements less fluid and slower to perform in a less elite athlete. Messi can make his technical decisions without much effort, fast and accurate. Little Suzie has to think about how to shield, how tune out the crowd, how to deal with the ball and then screen through the maze of emotions and thoughts that are bombarding her each second of the game!
Taken as a whole it would seem incredibly complex and difficult to then take 10 and 12 year old players and teach them the fundamentals of the game hoping that at 18 or at 24 they have the foundation of years of quality experience to play at a high level. What we can deduce is exactly what works and why it works. For example, which of the following practice environments do you think would win the game at u10, u12 or u15?
1. Players practice a type of set play in the attacking third with five players acting with precise roles and functions. Each player has to take a specific touch and play the ball on a specific cue. Players don’t really rotate positions, but rotate from standing on D, or participating in the attacking role. OR:
2. Players participate in a 4v4 scrimmage with 4 goals. 2 goals are on each sideline and players can score on either goal. Players must involve three players or more before scoring on either goal. There are two games going on while the coach stands in the middle of two fields.
Now taken into the context of the child’s cognitive development which environment sets up the player for long term vs short term development? The short term effectiveness would yield results (goals & wins) immediately at any level but at what cost?
As one parent once quipped, “there’s still development taking place.” Correct, and I use both environments for my teams with varying levels of intent. What is important is when you look at your u16 or u11 daughter or son playing the game you have to take into context their cognitive development as much as their passion for winning or application of technical skill. At times a coach can appear successful with a group of players only because he or she is using the “cognitive mountain” to meet the ends of winning the games.
Drill and skill coaches which create stagnant environments to meet their ends of tactical and technical means, only help concrete learners find success in doing what they’re told to do. They’re not helping players read the game and make decisions within the flow of the game, they’re executing patterns of play that are successful within the domain of the team and coaching environment. Take the player out, to ODP, or high school and the player can no longer function successfully. Nor can they fit into different teams.
It’s very difficult to have players vary their attack based on what the defense is giving them and asking them to problem solve, or to read the game and solve the problem of getting players involved. Asking them to learn principles of attack and defense when they are on the field and to demonstrate skills and techniques within those decisions are not within the realm of a “win first, win now” approach to coaching.
When I used to scout for high school soccer I used to look for patterns in the play, what are the players and the team trying to do? What is the coach directing his or her players to execute? Then I’d listen to the coach, what were they saying or doing? Did they demonstrate any predictable pattern in their style?
When they would, it was easy to use their patterns against them or take them away. Then it was fun to watch them struggle through the thought process of “this doesn’t work, now what?” Players are the same way.
When I watch a player, I watch for patterns in their solution process. Are they getting players involved and staying involved? Are they getting themselves involved in the game? Or are they waiting for others to play to them? Are they playing into or out of pressure? Do they vary their touches? One touch, two touch, three touch, different surfaces of the foot? Do they initiate creative decisions: shoot first, dribble second, pass third? Do they see the field or do they watch the ball?
In the past, I’ve been known to take players’ strengths away from them to help them develop a new range of problem solving solutions. Or I demand a particular creative solution from them to help them expand their range of solutions. I help them through the mistakes and tell them that I want them to explore a range of ideas, a range of solutions and take risks! I want to create dynamic, exciting players that want to score, that want the ball and know how to involve others while staying involved themselves.
What I despise is creating robots, predictable operational robots that only do what is practiced because that is all they know. At the critical point in the players development, when they needed to discover options, develop their technique to problem solve on their own, they were short changed. They did what they were told to do or did what wouldn’t get them yelled at. At the end of the day, telling a player what to do is the fastest way to success. Allowing them to discover on their own within a series of guidelines takes time and patience and might not pay off short-term.
Players who struggle later in their youth career (14-17) often times lack new solutions to the problems they face in the game. They were given the solutions and told to practice the solutions without any context as to why, when they were younger. The solution in isolation is a mountain. And these mountains of concrete development that we’ve established as players are not as beautiful as the entire eco-system taken as a whole. They’re devoid of any life, devoid of passion and just obedient. It’s why I cringe when I hear adults yelling, “pass, pass, pass!”
So here’s the first paragraph in my on going living document from 2004: My Coaching Philosophy.
“My coaching philosophy is to discover ways to make players smarter, strong in technique, quick in thought and fast in their changes of direction. I help them build a range of solutions by helping them trust good technique that can help them solve problems on the pitch by themselves, with a teammate and within a group. In the end, my players develop the confidence to discover new solutions on their own and master the techniques that make the difference.” This philosophy has been incorporated, and is now the basis of the LeftFoot Coaching Philosophy.