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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

11.26.13Annals of Coaching: Standardize the Field

I recently watched an outstanding soccer coach running an unsuccessful drill.  He was teaching players to position themselves defensively and react to an opposition player with the ball who was trying to turn.  He explained and modeled how to do it right.  He asked them whether they understood.  Then he sent them off to practice.

Most of the players proceeded to do the exercise incorrectly.  They practiced getting it wrong and thus, you could argue, got better at getting it wrong.

At this point the coach who has not had this happen to him or her should stand up and start waving his/her hands so we can see you…. because there is pretty much no coach who has not been there.  You explain it, you model it, your prep is all pretty good, and yet they do it wrong. So I offer these thoughts from the position of abject humility.

But what struck me about this training session was that the players in the drill kept doing it wrong and, though he was an excellent coach, he pretty much didn’t notice. He seemed aware that mastery was imperfect but not of the overwhelming rate of error. He never stopped the drill and said, “Whoa, let’s go back and make sure we know what to do.”

John Wooden famously said the first task of the teacher was to differentiate “I taught it” from “They learned it.”  Here was a very good coach failing to recognize that distinction.

One reason for this, I think, was the set-up of the drill.  The players were working in pairs and they faced every heading on the compass and moved in every direction as they practiced . Viewing the group as a whole, the players looked a bit like a school of fish–complex, unpredictable, confusing. The purpose of a school of fish as an evolutionary strategy is to confuse predators– they don’t know how to locate what they want–one vulnerable individual–efficiently and the delay is just enough for the fish to escape.  The individual defensive actions of the players were similarly made difficult to track amidst the swirling movement.  The coach wasn’t reliably able to observe the key event with efficiency.

It’s possible that a very simple fix could have helped: standardizing the visual field.  In the image below, the left side of the graphic is a rough estimation of how the pairs of players were laid out on the field.  On the right is a layout of how it might have looked if the players had been set up to work in a more visually predictable pattern.

Standardizing the Field

In the set-up on the right, the position and actions of the defenders happen in a predictable and reliable place in predictable and reliable cycles.  Result: a coach knows where to look for the thing he needs to see. Would he have seen the errors if the players had lined up in a more predictable pattern like this?  Could he have then scanned a simple and predictable place to see the event he was looking to evaluate? I can’t say for sure but I suspect he would have and that this simple tool could boost the effectiveness of assessment in a lot of settings–coaching and teaching..

Think of some of the ways complex visual fields present barriers to data gathering in the classroom and some of the ways you might remedy them.  Take a Turn and Talk, for example, or times when you use group work in your classroom. Such activities are likely to be highly productive if students are on-task and engaged but they are also risky because students might not be, in which case they could be a waste of time.  So how do you tell the difference?  One approach is to standardize the visual field—to arrange the classroom so that groups are in a predictable visual pattern so you can understand it at a glance. Another might be to add something observable to indicate engagement, setting the expectation during a turn and talk that you should see (e.g., “knee to knee” conversations or eye contact and nodding, etc.).  Similarly at practice, merely taking the time to set up regular and predictable intervals between players and having them work in predictable grids or patterns makes it easier to scan and look for outliers who aren’t learning correctly.

As it happens, I am writing about this right now for TLaC 2.0 and planning a workshop for soccer coaches where this is one topic I’ll cover. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways you’ve used visual predictability (i.e. standardizing the field) to better Check for Understanding as well as some of the challenges you’ve overcome or struggled with.




6 Responses to “Annals of Coaching: Standardize the Field”

  1. YthCoachAU
    May 8, 2014 at 11:00 am

    There’s a spelling error in the title of the post 🙂

  2. Doug_Lemov
    May 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    thanks! I am more or less the king of the typo. 🙂

  3. Drew price
    May 9, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Love this! I am an instructional coach and a soccer coach. While I often make connections between the two – this is one that I haven’t really thought about yet in regards to a classroom. While I was teaching, I did a lot of cooperative learning activities and was content with the “organized chaos” that eventually ensued. I like the idea of standardizing the field in the classroom to make it easier to observe desirable behaviors.

    I wonder if another component of this in the classroom would involve standardizing the product. In the drill you described, we could standardize the product by asking the defender to position himself on a specific side of the player on the ball – more than likely pushing him towards the sideline. That way all players are not only on a standardized field but also performing the drill in a standardized way making it easier to identify mistakes.

    In the classroom, a teacher may say, “Turn and talk to your neighbors and jot down your thoughts.” There is a lot of freedom here and the product could take on many different forms. To standardize the product, a teacher could offer more specific directions regarding the product. Something like “Turn and talk to your neighbor and create a T-chart where you will list positive and negative consequences.”

    I would consider doing this when trying to isolate specific skills or knowledge in the beginning of a unit. Later – I would create activities that do provide students more freedom as to how to create their product. Thoughts?

  4. Simon
    March 30, 2015 at 1:22 pm


    I think it is difficult to transfer your example above to the soccer field. I work as a soccer coach in England and we would question the validity of standardizing the visual field because the game of soccer is not played in nice straight lines and the players gain more from the contextual interference of the other players. The skill of the coach would be to focus on one couple at a time and see each session as a step in a players development rather than they must achieve this in this defending session. By putting the players in a more chaotic environment and then removing these constraints when they play a normal match they will be able to defend better in relation to the ball, opponent, their team mates and the goal.

    • Doug Lemov
      March 30, 2015 at 1:29 pm

      You make a good point but i don’t think it’s necessarily either or, Simon. I was observing a coach last week who was working on some ball moves (Cruyff turns etc). Several kids were very advanced but a few were doing them wrong. If he started by standardizing the field a bit…asking the kids to practice in a predictable formation… at first, he might see who was ready for more and who wasn’t. He then might put them in a more unpredictable environment where they had to react to players around them and execute accordingly.. certainly a more advanced skill, but perhaps pulling a few of the strugglers off to the side. or asking them to execute in a simpler setting before earning their way into a more complex one. this would help recreate the complexity of the game but also use predictable visual fields when they were most valuable from a check for understanding POV.

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