Last week and the week before I was making a case for why I think we should be using more games and less drills to teach soccer players how to play the game. I just wanted to be clear about what I mean by a game.
The three components that make something a game or game-like (versus a drill):
A game has goals. They don’t have to be actual goals that you shoot the ball into. It could be a person that you pass the ball to or a line that you dribble the ball over. Whatever the case, there is an objective way of scoring points. A game also has opponents. There are people trying to get points against us and stop us from getting points against them. And a game has direction. That is, our end and their end. So a game involves some version of teams playing against each other to see which can get more points. So there are lots of versions of games that can be used in training. It doesn’t just have to be a “real game” in order to qualify as a game or game-like.
To summarize the argument I had been making the last few weeks, I believe that drills have the same effect on us as cramming for a test in school. You do a lot of repetition of the same things over a short period of time. Cramming for a test, like doing a drill, only aids performance improvements and not learning improvements. Performance is short-term improvement. Learning is long-term improvement. Cramming for a test, you may remember if you ever did it, seems to work to remember what we need to remember long enough to get it out of our heads and onto the test. After that, it rapidly starts disappearing. When we watch kids do a drill at practice (something that isn’t a game or game-like) and we see improvement, we must not confuse that with learning. If you do enough repetitions of the very same thing you’ll probably show improvement too. But will you be able to show that improvement tomorrow or next week? More importantly, will you be able to show that improvement in a real game?
This performance versus learning effect isn’t just something I think happens. It’s well documented in the motor learning field. Here’s one such example. And the support for game-like or game-based training is out there too. Here’s some research that showed the approach was successful with U19 age players and here and here for U12 age players. Ontario Soccer even produced a whole webinar on how to set up a specific type of game-based training session called the GAG (game-activity-game) method. The PEI Soccer Association did a similar webinar on GAG back in the spring.
With games, we are trying to let them be the teacher. That doesn’t mean a coach should just set up a game-like activity, stand back and let the game do all the supposed teaching. Coaches need to facilitate and guide learning within those game environments. And the best way to do that isn’t to tell players all the answers. The best way to facilitate the game to be the teacher is to ask the players questions.
Like I’ve suggested previously, learning is an active, not a passive process. As a coach, I can’t learn you. I can teach you but I can’t learn you. You own the learning. If I always tell you what to do and where to go then you become dependent on that. If I tell you absolutes like you should never pass the ball in the middle or you should always force the player with the ball to go out to the wing when you defend, then what happens when you experience one of the hundreds of shades of grey of that particular problem that a black and white absolute just doesn’t solve? You treat it the way you were told/taught to treat it, that’s what you do. So you never pass the ball in the middle or your always force the player with the ball to the wing when you defend — even though it isn’t going to be as successful a solution to the problem in that particular instance.
Soccer is not a coach’s game. You can’t call a time out to draw up the game winning play for your team. Coaches in soccer do their work during practices, before the game and at halftime. During the game you can certainly give your players reminders about what they need to do but at some point you have to stop reminding them and start requiring them to do it on their own — to take an active role in their learning.
Questions do just that. By asking you a question, I give you the opportunity to think. If you are thinking, you stand a chance of learning. Why might that be? Cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School states that learning is the residue of thought. What gets thought about gets learned.
If I simply tell you the answer, then you don’t have to do much thinking. If I continually tell you the answer then you have to do no thinking. Since soccer is not a coach’s game, players need to be accountable for solving the attacking and defending problems that happen during the game. That might start with the coach’s guidance but eventually responsibility has to be released to the players. Players learning to do that becomes easier when using game-based approaches and asking lots of questions.
So instead of telling the player or your child never to pass the ball in the middle, why not ask them: “When would be a time you could pass the ball into the middle and when would be a time that you shouldn’t? What are the differences between the two?”
Of course working in shades of grey is hard. It takes longer to recognize and learn all the variations, which means game scores may not always favour your child or the team that you coach. Black and white absolutes are much easier and youth teams that follow absolutes often have success on the scoreboard — in the short-term. But teaching players to read the game and be able to make effective on-field decisions is a precious skill that I believe helps players enjoy the game more. If they enjoy the game more, then hopefully they’ll also continue to play it longer. And that skill of solving problems (on their own) and making decisions (on their own) is something that the kids can take with them off the field to other aspects of their lives.