The Game is the Greatest Teacher Pt. 2: Why Games not Drills can Promote More Learning

In last week’s post, I made my pitch for why I think the coaching of kids’ soccer should involve more game-like play and less drills. While games are more enjoyable than drills, the main reason I say to use games is for the learning benefit. Teaching with games does take longer to show results in player improvement though but those results will usually be more permanent.

While I used to work full-time in soccer, I now work full-time in higher education. I work with professors and instructors at the University of Prince Edward Island to ensure that the learning environments they create are optimal for their learners. So needless to say, I know a thing or two about how learning actually does happen. More importantly, I know what approaches work to enhance learning and what ones don’t.

So, back to soccer and I’ll be blunt. Drills don’t promote long-term learning.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use drills at all. The thing that drills do well is they isolate a certain element and they provide copious amounts of repetition of that element. The bad thing about drills is that they isolate a certain element and they provide copious amounts of repetition of that element. The strength of drills is also the weakness of drills.

In a game, decision making is key. That means that as a player, I need to scan my surroundings, make a decision and act. In a drill, much of that decision making is taken away from me. Players stop thinking and they simply start doing. When you separate decision making from acting, you compromise the learning process. Especially in a sport like soccer where so much of the responsibility for solving problems falls to the players and not the coach (think timeouts in hockey and basketball where the coach can have a real game changing impact by drawing up a winning play).

I can drill my players to respond in a certain way for any given attacking or defending situation. But in a game, there will be varying shades of that situation. What if what the player sees doesn’t look exactly like what I drilled them on? Now what do they do? How do they solve the problem? What they were taught doesn’t work in that particular situation. Chances are they still end up using the solution their coach taught them though even though it doesn’t work. Why? Because they haven’t learned to solve the problem, just to imitate a certain response.

When we coach kids, we have a couple options. We can either have them spending their practice time repeating a pre-made solution to a problem that the coach has given them or we can have them spend their practice time repeating the process of how to solve the current problem in an effective way.

We can give them answers or we can teach them how to think. Like the saying take a man fishing, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, I hope we see the long-term value in teaching young people to solve problems instead of always solving them for them.

It’s like shoelace tying. If you’re always in a rush, then you’ll always tie the shoelaces for your kid.. The problem then of course is that the kids never get enough practice on their own to learn how to tie their own shoelaces. Their response when they’re in trouble is to ask you to do it for them because they don’t know what else to do. In a soccer game, if you’re more concerned about the result (win or at least not lose) then you will make the decisions for your players. If you stop making those decisions for the players then they may not know what to do because they rely on their coach to joystick them around the field.

Teaching players to be problem solvers takes more time. You won’t win as many games as you would if you focus more on solving the problems for them. The difference of course is the independence that you create in your player. Teaching them how to solve the attacking and defending problems that crop up in a typical game will benefit their performance in the long-term.

And how do you go about teaching players to be problem solvers instead of always solving the problems for them? More on that in next week’s post.

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