I recently had the pleasure of watching training sessions led by a couple of top coaches in Virginia’s ODP soccer program. I’ve learned a ton and thought I’d share some takeaways that were useful.
I’ll start with some observations from a session run by Heather Pederson, who’s a coach on the Virginia ODP staff. The clip below shows effective teaching in several different ways–some of which I’ve tried to describe below. Maybe the aspect of her coaching I like best is her “Aligned Feedback.” I describe what that is later in the post.
In the clip below Heather is in the middle of a training exercise involving passing patterns. She’s using it to teach players to increase their speed of play.
Her design is simple but powerful: Explain the exercise quickly, let the girls play for a minute or two; stop them for 30-45 seconds to tell them one detail to work on; send them back to practice again with that detail in mind for another minute or two; stop, reflect, add another detail; repeat.
As this clip opens she’s paused them after one of those rounds. She takes a moment to remind players of what they’ve worked on and, importantly, calls their attention to details they’ve mastered successfully.
This might seem like a bit of a throw away but it’s important. If players don’t know when they’ve done something well they won’t necessarily know to replicate it. And if players see more clearly the progress they make through focus and intentionality, they are more likely to be invested in training. Plus it’s a reminder to keep executing on it as the practice changes.
Then we see Heather explaining the focal point for the next round of practice- making sure runs by the receiving player are timed better. This is a good example of fast and targeted feedback: its short (30-45) seconds and gives players one thing to work on.
That sounds simple but there’s a lot of importance in those two things. Lots of times as coaches we give our players 6 things to think about.
“Make sure to do X, Y and Z. And K. Don’t forget K. And L. But avoid M. Never, ever M. Go!”
Six things of course is too much to keep in your mind and try to execute when you are playing. So the result is usually that no one is focusing sufficiently on any of them. And as Anders Ericsson points out in Peak, this is critical to maximally effective practice. It involves not so much focus on completion of a task but focus on specific aspects of performance—timing your runs say. The more specific the better. It is “all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a long term goal,” Ericsson says. So the breaking down of the complex task into a series of very specific tasks and then helping players focus intently on each on in sequence is the key to rapid learning in training.
Heather does a great job of that here.
Later in the clip we see a second round of feedback. This is interesting because she has been watching carefully and has noticed that the girls have not yet mastered timing their runs. So instead of moving on to add a new idea, she goes back to the topic, asks them a series of probing questions, gives additional guidance and sends them back to focus again on timing their runs. The idea here is what teachers call Check for Understanding. Always watch carefully to see if players learned what you taught them—much easier to see y the way if you ask them to master something very focused –and don’t move on until you have mastery.
The feedback is still fast and focused. But it involves a bit more problem solving for the players and it’s a deeper dive into the same topic they focused on before.
But perhaps the most powerful moment in the clip comes while the players get back to practicing. If you listen to Heather’s feedback you’ll notice that after telling her players to focus on timing their runs between rounds of practice, she is incredibly diligent in giving them feedback on the same topic during their play. That’s the “aligned feedback” part and it’s important.
By constantly referring to the topic she gave them instruction on between rounds Heather is helping her players maintain the laser-like focus on that idea. This laser focus, Ericsson points out, makes players learn faster.
It’s also important because it says to players, more broadly, when I make a teaching point I am then looking to see you apply it. That’s part of our culture. When we talk about something I am expecting you to try to execute.
Also, by giving both positive and constructive feedback on the timing of runs, Heather is helping players learn to self-evaluate and assess their own execution. Ericsson points out that this is a key characteristic of elite performers.
As a side note, Heather is coaching a team that she does not work with regularly in this video. This makes her work with them all the more impressive. And it’s also worth pointing out because if it were one of her teams she would probably use their names a bit more so they were able to know more clearly when feedback applied specifically to them
But back to Heather’s exemplary discipline and focus on her teaching point. It is surprisingly rare. Often we make a teaching point—“Let’s time those runs better girls!”—and then forget all about it when execution begins. We give feedback on whatever we notice. “Open up more, Shelley! On your toes, Carla!” I am not saying that you can’t give feedback on other points—especially if you’ve taught them previously in the session—but it’s beneficial to make sure the majority of your feedback is aligned to and reinforces the teaching point you’ve just made. Heather does a great job of it here.