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:
*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.