The Game is the Greatest Teacher Pt. 1: Learning With More Games and Less Drills

To get where I’m going today we have to first leave the soccer field and go to the classroom. We’ll come back around to soccer though, I promise. Were you good in school? If you were, do you find that what you learned you still use today? If you were anything like me then you learned the material and kept it in memory long enough to spit it out on a test in order to get a good grade.

Then I could also talk about the way that knowledge found its way into my head in the first place. There were classrooms with desks in rows. We’d listen to the teacher who told us everything we needed to know about the subject. We didn’t ask others for help and we were to keep our eyes on our own work otherwise we’d be branded cheaters.

A bunch of years ago, I taught a first year Human Kinetics course at the college level. One day, we were talking about their biomechanics class. Biomechanics is a physics- and math-laden course and represents one of the most challenging topics for a student in human kinetics. The common solution for that class was not to try and understand the material or why the right answer was the right answer. Instead the wisdom was to just do it. Don’t think too much about it or you’ll just mess up. Surprisingly enough, that was my approach to math for most of junior high and high school. I guess not much has changed for some students.

Strange isn’t it? No wonder so many of us came out of school saying what was the purpose? And sadly, I think the same sort of practice translates to the coaching of kids in soccer. Why? Sport instruction in general probably borrows heavily from public education. After all you have kids running around soccer fields, for example, saying things like can we play a game now or are we going to do something fun, which may be similar to asking what’s the point? Like the student in school, the context of what one was supposed to be learning has been lost.

And context is key. Real life after all is full of it. Stands to reason then that the education of children and youth should involve a heavy dose of context. I am sure we can appreciate that just because you teach someone something doesn’t mean it gets learned. Teaching doesn’t guarantee learning. I read a comment some time ago by an educator who said that the best program of schooling is part museum (for the interpretation) and part apprenticeship (for the opportunity to work on things and learn about things in real life context).

As it turns out, the way we learn is not through the absorption of information. We are not actually empty vessels waiting to be filled. We are not simply passive receptacles into which an expert dumps a bucket of knowledge. The way that many of us were taught and the way that many children and youth still get taught today doesn’t promote the kind of meaningful learning we would expect or hope for. In order to be meaningful, learning needs to be situated and constructed. First of all, it needs to be situated within your existing experiences. You need to take the information you are presented with and figure out how to add it to what you already know. Which is the second thing — you need to construct meaning, not simply suck it up like a sponge.

I think learning is like decorating a Christmas tree. The box of decorations is the knowledge to be acquired and the tree is your mind. You can hold the box of decorations above the tree, tip it over and let the decorations pour out. Doing it that way, something that is akin to the traditional way of teaching children and youth today, some of the decorations might stick but most will end up rolling around or broken on the floor. Instead you need to take each decoration (each piece of information) and decide best how to hang it (how to make it fit with what you already know). I’m pretty sure that before schooling became the way most common way to educate, apprenticeships were a very common way of learning. You learned by doing from day one.

And I think that similar things can be said about coaching in soccer. The coach is the expert. We instruct children and youth what to do. The training that we do is often so far out of context from the game that the participants can’t see why they are doing what they are doing. The game is like an apprenticeship but instead of putting them into it right away, we stick it at the end of practice and offer it as a reward or as a freebie to finish with after we’ve done all our serious coaching via drills.

Need proof? I mentioned it already. Things coaches may often hear from players during practice: Are we going to play a game? Are we going to do something fun? Whenever I hear those I know that the players have lost the plot. They can’t see how what it is I’m teaching them relates to the actual game that they know (or think they know). I haven’t made it real enough.

I believe that the more we can teach from within the game, the better. The more we can use drills sparingly, the better. Context is king. For learning to truly happen, information has to have meaning. Games have plenty of meaning. Drills rarely do have meaning or at least they don’t have much meaning to the people that matter most — the players. Teaching in games is definitely harder and getting bona fide results takes longer than when using a more traditional drill-based approach. Hopefully no one has ever thought that building competence in a skill set is easy to do. However, the learning that happens as a result of teaching through game-related play should be much stronger and should be longer lasting.

Yes, we can tell the players everything they need to do and when to do it. We can try to pour that knowledge into their heads. Or we can make them apprentices of the game. Ask them questions that get them making decisions using the real life attacking and defending problems that come out of those game environments. Some of their decisions will succeed. Many will fail but everyone will give them immediate feedback. And that feedback, like in an apprenticeship or any other practical work, will be explicit and clear because it is coming from the game itself.

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