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Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

02.09.16On a Terrible Headline: U.S. Soccer Does Not Need Saving

The Atlantic Monthly published a profile of my work with the U.S. Soccer Federation this month. It’s written by Amanda Ripley, a writer I admire greatly, and has a terrible and inaccurate headline (I think I am safe in assuming she didn’t write it). It’s also a headline that obscures some important observations for educators and coaches.

First, let me state how strongly I disagree with both ideas implied by the headline: that U.S. Soccer needs saving and that, if it did, I might be the guy to do it.

U.S. Soccer has taken our national teams and our top players from irrelevant to respected and even to the brink of elite in the world’s most competitive game, in just a few years’ time. Few nations have achieved anything like this. Our youth system is a sleeping giant heralding further growth. Just ask the elite soccer clubs of Europe who are clamoring to bet on the U.S., sponsoring youth and professional clubs and establishing a growing number of scouting networks and camps across the country.

U.S. Soccer has achieved this tremendous growth by doing the things that great organizations tend to do, first and foremost by seeking marginal gains — small ways to get a little better every day — and eschewing saviors and revolutionaries. That’s a key point. They are (just like a great school) looking to do the hard slogging of getting a little better every day rather than seeking a silver bullet, as the headline implies.

Even if U.S. Soccer did need saving, I am not foolish enough to think that I would be the guy to do it.  I’m happy to play my small role in such a strong organization’s work, and humbled to have that chance. Every time I work with U.S. Soccer’s staff and related coaches I worry that I’ve learned more myself than I have taught.  The hubris implied by the headline is, in short, the opposite of how I feel.

In fact, I think there are some great lessons for educators to glean from U.S. Soccer and its approach. You are probably aware, for example, of the case of Finland’s apparent* outlier success in international education comparisons. Educators across the world have struggled and argued (often in self-serving ways) to explain that success. In her own groundbreaking book comparing education systems around the world, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley makes what is to me the most compelling assessment of Finland’s success. The single biggest factor is the standard of training, qualification, and professionalism required of teachers in Finland. It’s very hard to become a teacher and only top candidates make it. You have to earn your way into the job through excellence. And once you are there, expectations of the quality of your work are high among your peers.

Interestingly, U.S. Soccer is quite a bit like Finland in this regard. To be an elite soccer coach you must pass six licenses. The highest among them require a week’s worth of training with sample sessions. The failure rate is high — I haven’t had time to check this data but it’s often well above 30% of license seekers who are told, “No. Come back again when you’re ready.” It’s difficult to imagine a teacher certification or licensing program in this country failing 30% of applicants.

Similarly, the standards within the coaching profession once you pass are very high. A room full of instructors (the coaches who run the A and B license courses) taught me this lesson one morning at a workshop in Florida. I showed them a video of a coach whose teaching I loved. His feedback was beautifully done. He was honest and specific about how to get better but trusting and supportive in tone. He whispered to some players as they played, quietly instructing and challenging them. When they got it wrong he didn’t just tell them they’d gotten it wrong, he put them back in their original positions and had them do it over again so they “felt” what right was like. Honestly, from a pure teaching perspective it was excellent. But it the room afterwards I had a mutiny on my hands. How could I show that clip?! His exercise was intended to teach outside backs to make overlapping attacking runs and he had positioned it in the back half of the field! The coaches were adamant: the drill had to be run in the forward half of the field. A coach should know that!

I acknowledged this — clearly they knew more about it than me — and sought to refocus the conversation on the nature of his feedback. Couldn’t we separate the two issues? Not really, it turned out. They were furious. Ultimately, we discussed his feedback and correction but their professional standards were so high that even then it was mostly grudging acknowledgment by many of the coaches.  He had not known what a coach should know. They cared so deeply about their profession and its standards that they had a hard time seeing past that.

My point in sharing this story is that U.S. Soccer is characterized by relentless drive, constant self-reflection, and passion for excellence more than anything else. We should be studying it it, not implying that it needs “saving.”

By the way, here are a couple of blog posts that profile some issues that are relevant to both teachers and coaches:

How to praise without wearing praise out

An example of “positive framing” in the soccer/football training

On the importance of helping players not fear risk-taking (tie in to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset)

On the difference between coaching to develop and coaching to win

Notes on watching Bayern practice

On the importance of routines for efficiency.  And a second clip on the same topic.

*I say apparent here because their once stellar results have begun to regress to the mean. As Ripley implies, Poland might be a better long term model.

5 Responses to “On a Terrible Headline: U.S. Soccer Does Not Need Saving”

  1. Dave Griffiths
    February 10, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Great article Doug, and I agree 100% with your thoughts on this. I have been involved in the game at the club level for 25 years, unfortunately I have found that the the vast majority of (well meaning) coaches in this country just don’t watch enough of the game outside of their coaching sessions/requirements. This certainly applies at the lower levels (entry points for most players) and younger age groups where you are more likely to find coaches that are not as vested in the development of players as much as they are in winning. I find this in itself is a direct byproduct of the unreal expectations of most parents of said young players, parents who also never bother to watch how professional footballers work at their craft although they expect their son or daughter to play (or rather, win) just like one, whatever that is of course!

  2. Jon
    February 12, 2016 at 12:41 am

    With all the negativity surrounding the discussion of youth soccer development in this country (you don’t have to go far to find the “experts” on twitter), it’s refreshing to read both the Atlantic article and this post. As a youth coach, I have immersed myself in the game for the last 5 years, after barely thinking about it for the 20 years since I hung up my cleats after HS.

    Now as a parent, I have to make decisions regarding the development of my own children as well as the kids I coach. I think the love of the game is on the upswing in this country, and with that more and more kids will play free and creative soccer in the backyard and playgrounds with friends and family, as opposed to just at practices. Our soccer culture will only get better. But if we don’t solve the pay-to-play issues, we will miss out on way too many players, my own kids included, because it’s just too darn expensive to create an elite soccer player right now.

  3. Tom
    February 18, 2016 at 12:39 am

    Doug, I was reading the Atlantic Monthly article on Facebook and was about to comment when I noticed your timely response in the “people also shared” section.

    I totally agree that the US soccer player, as well as the general quality of coaching in the US has come a long way – I’ve been coaching in this country since 1983 and have attended many US and UK coaching courses. However, the story of the general reaction of the instructors at your workshop to the “location” of your favorite coaches overlap practice activity is a clear indication of how the US Soccer coaching culture still needs major adjustment in some areas. Additionally, I cannot agree that the reaction of the instructors at your presentation was indicative of “high professional standards” – quite the contrary.

    First, your favorite coach did nothing heinous in the location of his practice – provided he mentioned to his players that, “the majority of overlaps take place in wide areas in the opponent’s half of the field.” One can absolutely initiate an overlap in one’s defending half and even close to one’s goal line if the tactical shape of play is appropriate – i.e. if the relative locations of opponents and teammates warrants. It’s true that one may run additional risk when executing any combination play in one’s defending third but that’s already the case if you want your team to play the possession game. To be brutally blunt, the instructors at your presentation ought to spend a little more time watching Barcelona play the game!

    Now I don’t know who first established the “official line” that overlapping themes must “take place in the forward half of the field but the problem with an official line is that it eventually becomes dogma and whenever there’s dogma, there’s little room for creative and critical thinking. Moreover, such dogma can often blur the reality of what is actually happening!

    A good number of years ago I had a similar situation happen at a national coaching course. I’d been given a defending theme that, I grant, would ordinarily have taken place in the central region of the defending third – as it happens the theme involved dual center backs defending various combination plays like overlaps! Unfortunately, it had rained heavily and the central areas of the field were muddy and slippery. Because the theme required some serious choreography and substantial movement at pace, I decide to locate the initial and crucially important part of the practice in a drier, wider area to avoid players slipping and passes skidding or bobbling out of reach. As such, my “pupils” and I could focus on the important tactical and movement elements of the theme without worrying about poor passes, poor field conditions, players losing their balance, etc.

    Knowing that the instructor would want me to “follow protocol” I did move the activity to the “official area” of the pitch towards the end of the session. At that point the quality of performance fell sharply – as expected players began slipping and sliding with numerous errant passes. In short, the practice quickly degenerated into humorous farce.

    In his assessment of my session, the instructor was complimentary about the content but scathing about the initial location of the practice – despite providing him with what I considered to be a more than reasonable explanation. Now it didn’t trouble me that the assessor was blindly following prevailing organizational dogma that “required” such a practice take place in a specific region of the field. What was unfortunate was that the prevailing dogma fostered the illusion – at least with those who believed that the instructor’s word was gospel – that center backs never get dragged into wide areas and are never faced with opponents who might use various combinations (including overlaps) against them in such areas. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that soccer (unlike the traditional US sports of gridiron and baseball) is a fluid game, played in 360 degrees and tactically speaking, there are few orientation/location/functional absolutes. You can be assured that center backs are often required to perform in such areas!

    Second, I’m not particularly worried or surprised that the majority of instructors at your presentation felt the way they did – the power of dogma over the collective can be debilitating. What is disconcerting is that in a room full of instructors – I’m assuming it was a popular presentation – not one stood up to oppose the general view and to emphasize any of the points I’ve made above. I’m afraid it’s that kind of groupthink that will almost certainly prevent the US establishment coaches from nurturing the first American “Messi” or “Ferguson” and consequently obtain the kind of international success they desire. I respectfully suggest that they ought to revisit a couple of your practice rules – analyze the game and isolate the skill!

    Finally, as regards the “high standards” of US instructors, I can’t speak for the extant level of expertise – it’s been a few years since I attended a refresher course with the FA, US Soccer or the NSCAA – but I can tell you that when I took my first coaching course in the UK only 3 from a class of 32 passed the course – numbers truly indicative of high standards! Additionally, I’ve spent many weeks at licensing and refresher courses over the years and you can be assured that right up through my last course , the US group of coaching instructors was like the staff in every other organization I’ve come across – i.e. comprised of the excellent, the average and the terrible! Unfortunately, your experience is an indication that things may not have changed that much and in fact, may be worse than you think.

  4. February 19, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Soccer is still so young in this country. If more time is spent investing in the understanding of soccer, I really think this sport can grow. Great read Doug!

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