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Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.22.15Coaching to Develop Players vs Coaching to Win: Some Examples


For a coach, the goal, unless you coach both at the elite level and with kids, say, 17 years old or older (e.g. college program or just maybe a HS varsity team) should be to develop players. We want them to be the best player they can be somewhere down the road–when they are 17 or 19, say.  Sometimes you can do that and also win a lot of games–but not always. Sometimes there are choices.

Sometimes the conflicts between short- and long-term goals might not even be apparent to all coaches, but as an educator and a parent of three soccer players, I see the conflicts emerging all the time, and I think there’s a fair amount choosing to win when they do. Generally, this is bad for soccer, and if you think I am just talking about recreational players, I beg to differ. As Xavi put it about Barcelona: ‘Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education.’…)

Let’s start with this very basic challenge: it’s often hard to do what’s right for kids long term development because of pressure from the one group who should be most supportive of it: parents.  They want quality for their kids, but they mistake wins for quality, thus ironically putting pressure on coaches to serve their kids poorly. So we’ve all got a role in understanding what coaching for the long term looks like and reinforcing it.  One of the simplest things a club can do is to be explicit with parents about not only the balance of goals–winning isn’t irrelevant, it’s just secondary–but how to see goals other than winning in action. And at the bottom of this post you can see some great ideas one Virginia club did to help it’s parents “see” games differently.

But even for coaches who say they are about development, there are pitfalls so I am trying to make a short list of some of the key areas where winning and developing players come into conflict.  I’m going to share it knowing that 1) it is wrong or incomplete or insufficient 2) my knowledge of soccer is non-professional and 3) that given those two things, you will perhaps help me add to it.  If you do, though, try to add to it positively and respectfully. For the most part good people trying to do right by kids get these things wrong.

Coaching to Develop Players Means:

Playing possession soccer. Whether or not Jose Mourinho plays possession and whether a youth team should are very different issues. Sometimes a professional coach chooses a different approach to try to win so when players are nearing the elite level you might want to teach them to counter-attack.  But if you want to develop players you 1) want  as many touches for them as you can get.  I know a coach who advocates for kids to dribble whenever they can, even into a 1 v 3 situation. “You’ll get more touches,” he tells them, but his math is wrong.  When a player loses the ball he or she effectively distributes touches from his or her team to the other team. Sure there’s a time to take some risks, but there’s a big difference in how much you learn when you have the ball for 60% of a game versus 30% of it.  Also 2) you want those touches widely distributed across the players on your team.  Non-possession soccer allocates them primarily to just a few players.  This essentially means you are only developing some of your players seriously.   You also want 3) mental focus and understanding to develop when players don’t have the ball. Call that “mental touches.” You want players to learn how to participate in the game when they don’t have the ball and to do that they have to participate in a form of the game that values movement off the ball and has principles for it. Playing possession soccer means learning what to do when you don’t have the ball and, importantly, it reliably rewards good decisions off the ball.  If you can predictably expect to get the ball if you move into a good position, then you learn to keep doing it. You learn to read the game. If you watch a teammate launch a 30 yard blind pass or try to dribble three players in the midfield, you are learning less when you don’t have the ball because you are not thinking that you are about to get it.  Thinking you will and hoping you might are very different.  Finally 4) you want players to know and understand the system that is played at elite levels so they can aspire to go as far as they can go.  Possession soccer is the default.  That’s why the US Soccer Federation advocates it.

Building out of the back Personally I think at least half of GKs and goalie possessions should involve throws (in the case of goalie possession), or short distribution.  More, really. Even if you win the ball on your goalie punts (which you actually likely only do 1/2 of the time… a very bad bet compared to building over the long run) the result is asymmetrical development. Backs never touch the ball. When they do, it’s in a narrow set of experiences. Building out of the back, even under pressure sometimes, means this in the short run: you will lose the ball.  You will give up a bad goal.  At some point it will cost you a game. But over the long run you will build skill, poise and comfort with the ball among all of your players in a wider variety of high pressure settings. You will teach them to link play. This will allow them to play anywhere on the field and enjoy the game for the rest of their lives.

De-emphasizing unsustainable athletic based success. You probably have a player who is really fast. You can put him on outside. He can tap the ball by a defender and race forward into space. He can get in on goal.  Great.  Over time, the premium on his speed will erode. Teams will figure out how to defend pure speed. You need to teach him not to rely on physical prowess now, when it helps you look good, at the cost of his not being able to play a more sophisticated game later. This situation is endemic.  Some of the kids we coach the very worst are the kids who dominate when they are young.  They make us look good by winning games so we let them become limited and one-dimensional players to keep the wins coming.

Players playing multiple positions. Players younger than a certain age (14? 15? 16?) should play multiple positions. I am 6’3”. I was the shortest kid in my class in tenth grade.  Who KNOWS who will be tall, who will develop in what ways?  A kid who plays soccer should be able to join a game and play anywhere on the field… he shouldn’t be a defender or a striker and only be able to function in that setting. Besides, the killer app at the elite levels is the defender who can attack and the striker who can defend.  It’s called a complete player.  Plus the great majority of coaches spend the great majority of their time coaching on the offensive side of the ball, a top coach once said. That means that the great majority of coaches don’t coach many of their kids much at all.  Should they shift how much coaching of defense they do? Yes. But they should also shift kids so they learn all of the skills in the game.  I get that specialization has to happen at elite levels. I just think it happens way too completely and too early at the non-elite levels.

Quiet and ego-less coaches. A coach should be calm and composed in teaching (or reinforcing during a game) so players can be calm and composed in executing. When you bring your emotions into it you add one more variable that distracts the player from thinking about his or her own execution. Why is he shouting at me? Is it fair? Does he shout at everyone like this? Am i being picked on? Does he think the goal was my fault? Didn’t he see Danny’s misplay? He never yells at Danny.

There’s also an element of ego involved. When we coach demonstratively and we win, it looks like maybe it was all that dramatic coaching stuff that won the game. Do some coaches worry that if they win and appear from the sidelines to have done almost nothing, if they did all their work in advance, say, it might not be clear to parents and observers that their coaching helped cause the win? Almost assuredly.  And that’s poison because it makes coaching about the coach and not the players. I recently watched a coach in an indoor game, where there are no offsides, tell his forward to stay behind the defense and 15 yards from the opposition’s goalie.  She stayed behind the defense, yards up field, got three or four release passes and scored two. Her team won 2-1.  What a brilliant bit of coaching!  Or was it? Just maybe he’d taught his girls an approach that was counter-productive–in a real game the forward would have been 20 yards off sides on purpose–in order to make himself look clever. That’s ego getting in the way of teaching.

Reinforcing decision-making over outcome: Making the right decision with an imperfect touch is often a good thing… at least as good as a good touch with a bad decision.  In the end, the decision-making is probably harder to learn than the touch.   We have to remember that kids are going to try it a bunch of times and get it wrong before they try it and get it right.  When it happens, make sure to reinforce the good parts.

Anyway that’s the beginnings of my list.  What else should be on it???

Coda:  As I mentioned above, this blog post by the Alexandria (VA) Soccer Association is really useful. If you scroll down in the blog you can see the metrics they use to help assess their own effectiveness at playing possession oriented soccer (and how diligent they are about collecting them).  This seems like a really useful way of making the goal of playing “right” less subjective and easier for coaches–and parents–to discuss and reflect on objectively.  You don’t want to be too obsessive about the data (you can be so possession oriented you never try to penetrate for example) but well-managed this seems like a great tool. Their metrics include:

  • # of first touches–love that; it’s no secret that the first touch is the most important in the game;
  • number of passes; and
  • average number of passes per string.

Just sharing such data w parents would help them to see the difference between winning 2-1 and winning 2-1 while earning their kids twice as many touches per game.

Only thing I would consider adding to their metrics is percentage of goalie possessions punted vs thrown or some other measure of building out of the back.  Anyway I thought it was a great example of walking the player development walk, not just talking the talk (or not even bothering to talk the talk).

Other posts by Doug on coaching soccer/football/futbol:

On Watching Bayern Practice

On Growth Mindset for Elite Players

On the Phrase: The Game is the Best Teacher

On Routines to Build Attentiveness and Efficiency