About a year ago the US Soccer Federation helped me identify four top performing youth soccer coaches around the country. The idea was to study them in much the same way I’d studied elite teachers for Teach like a Champion and then to write profiles of them to make their ideas visible to other coaches. The first three profiles, of Chris Hayden, Tony Lepore and Ben Cross appeared in Soccer America over the course of the winter.
The fourth profile is arguably the most important, particularly for for elite coaches. It describes how Iain Munro Director of YSC Sports and the Youth Director for the Philadelphia Union creates what I call among teachers a ‘Culture of Error.’ That is, he makes it safe to be wrong. Being afraid to be seen getting it wrong is a critical psychological challenge for our best players which can ironically slow down their learning process. But making it safe to be wrong doesn’t necessarily mean going soft on rigor. As I hope this profile will show, demanding and understanding are not necessarily opposites.
Fear is the Enemy of Success
As Iain Munro runs a group of U12 boys through passing drills at a recent training session it’s impossible to miss the fact that his knowledge is as encyclopedic as his standards are high. “Safe side in, safe side back,” he calls to his boys, demanding not just an accurate pass but one to the foot away from a pressuring defender. “It’s about doing it properly,” he reminds them, words that will echo across his practice. Munro’s insistence on precision is not surprising given his pedigree. Before arriving to develop youth programs at YSC Sports and the Philadelphia Union Academy, he managed three times in the Scottish Premiere League. Before that he played for Rangers, Stoke and Sunderland, and earned 7 caps for Scotland. He knows the game.
But what sets Munro’s coaching apart from a thousand other coaches with knowledge and passion is something unexpected. For Munro the enemy of success is fear, specifically the fear of making mistakes, and his practices are designed as much to ensure that players are not afraid to fail as to encode proper technique.
Why this is so important becomes clear as Munro’s players practice receiving passes under pressure. The drill begins with the boys receiving a ball with their left foot (the foot away from pressure, of course); the task is to direct a first time ball to a player on their right. Their first instinct is a crisp and direct first time touch with the inside of their left foot, something they can do with ease. But Munro wants them to learn something more sophisticated.
“Don’t side-foot it! I want you to play it with the laces!” he calls. “Hook it with the top of your foot so you can disguise the pass,” he instructs, demonstrating the back-spinning chop he wants the boys to strike. For elite players, though, talent can serve as a barrier to learning. Many of the boys want so badly to strike each ball perfectly that they revert to what they can do well (side of the foot) to avoid what they can’t (top of the foot). In essence, they try to prevent themselves from learning something new so they can keep doing what they are good at.
Munro, however, is onto them. “I know you can hit it with the side of your foot,” he calls, as one boy strikes a perfect side-footed pass. “Don’t be scared, boys!” he calls. “Play it with the laces! Don’t be afraid.”
“That’s it,” he calls to another, whose first effort at the disguised chop lacks sufficient spin. “Keep at it. It’ll come.”
“They’re so pressured to be successful sometimes they are afraid to fail,” notes Richie Graham, YSC’s founder, observing from the sidelines. That fear, education researcher Carol Dweck has shown, can stand in the way of long-term growth. Dweck studied the mindset of children and its connection to learning. Some students—often very capable ones—had what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. They believed talent to be something you were—often because they were praised for being “smart” she posited. Students with a “fixed mindset” developed a belief that if they failed they would no longer be smart. Result: they avoided risks to avoid failure. Over time, though, they fell behind students who had a “growth mindset,” who believed smart wasn’t something you were, it was something you developed through struggle. Those students liked rather than feared challenge because they understood it made them grow. Students with a growth mindset didn’t say, “This would be more fun if it wasn’t so hard,” or even, “This is going to be hard but it’ll probably still be fun.” They said, “This is going to be challenging; how fun!” It was they who tended to be the ones to emerge from childhood full of flexible adaptable talent backed by resilience and tenacity. It was they who succeeded in the end, even if they started behind. Dweck’s ground-breaking research suggested that teachers—and parents and coaches—could shape the mindsets of the young people they worked with to make them more growth-oriented and that over time this just might be the most important determinant of success.
It doesn’t take much to see the connection to coaching in Dweck’s work. Elite players are often told they are good or talented—the soccer equivalent of “smart.” If they come to see their ability as something given rather than earned through struggle, they can become risk averse, afraid that playing poorly or making a mistake will undercut people’s belief that they are “good.” A great coach then must actively encourage players to risk error and normalize the getting it wrong that leads to getting it right. When that happens, my colleagues and I call it building a “Culture of Error,” where it’s safe—encouraged even—to make mistakes so that players come to love the challenge of learning, and this, one could argue, even more than his vast technical knowledge, is what sets Iain Munro apart. Make no mistake, Munro was technical and demanding. There is assuredly a “proper” way to do it with him, but in practice it was also safe to try and get it wrong. You couldn’t get to great, he tacitly reminded the boys over and over, unless you were willing to fail.
Munro’s practices socialize players to embrace risk in a variety of ways. Each session begins with a small-sided scrimmage during which there are only two rules, for example: no balls above head-height and no one-touch passing. The rationale for the two touch minimum (the opposite of what many coaches do) is, Munro explains, to teach players to think quickly and not panic when they receive the ball under intense pressure. (No balls overhead height compresses the space to accentuate these aspects.) Instead of thinking what they can achieve with possession, he notes, many youth players “are afraid of losing it, so when a ball is played to them they tend to kick it away on their first touch,” a mentality that can become a habit. This is his explanation for the decline of Scottish football- a topic of passion for him. While Spanish players receive and think of the opportunity they might create with the ball, those from his own nation get the ball and hope not to be the one to lose it. “They must learn to rely not on playing away their first touch, but to think how to play the first touch so they get another.” The goal, for Munro, is fast thinking. “The next level is mental,” he observes. “In the EPL they don’t run faster, they think faster.”
Munro’s approach to feedback underscored his message about embracing risk. At the practice I observed, he spoke exactly twice during the warm-up game- both times it was to remind payers about the two touch minimum. Other than that, the boys played unselfconsciously and soon forgot he was watching. When a boy took a risk and lost the ball, the game went on uninterrupted. Later there was detailed instruction, correction and explanation, careful repetition. At those points the boys most certainly did not forget Munro was watching. But during the period of play designed to push them to go beyond their comfort zone, Munro’s self-discipline allowed them to do so with what you might call the “illusion of privacy.” His strategic silence, even in the face of a terrible touch, provided that knowing when not to speak and what not to criticize can be as important as knowing what to say and when to correct. “I used to say to my pro players before an important game, “ You must be prepared to fail to succeed,” Munro reflects, “but if they have not been developed in that way it can be hard for them to embrace this, so it starts with players at the youngest age level and hopefully carries on until they retire.”