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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.06.15Notes on Soccer: Is “The Game the Best Teacher”?


Look up, problem solve, execute…



The phrase “The Game is the Best Teacher” is popular among soccer coaches.  In many ways I understand why; it’s pithy and has an element of truth to it. But as this recent post by Paul Cammarata points out it’s not fully true and is often misapplied.


My colleague Chris Condron, a student of the game, brought it’s wide usage to my attention a few years ago and we’ve had a bunch of conversations about it, including a few including Tom McCabe. These motivated me to write something on the topic.


So… is ‘the game the best teacher’?


I think a more accurate statement (though admittedly far less catchy) would be:  “The game is a useful teacher, but also an insufficient one. It gets better as a teacher the more it’s combined with other kinds of teaching, especially those that ensure a solid base of knowledge and skills. And it can distract us from the most important part of our role as teachers.”


First, let’s note that the phrase is beneficial in that it reminds us that both playing games and often playing “games” informally without specific instruction (i.e. pick up) are an important part of learning … they provide players with a venue where unpredictable challenges emerge and must be solved. That can help give rise to new thinking, creative decision making, and sometimes boldness and confidence in the face of challenge. Those things are important and often missing in the game.  More informal forms of play (pick up) are also nice because they are “risk free”—kids can try stuff.


But teaching and learning are complex, and there are problems with the phrase too.


First, how much you learn when faced with a series of complex problems correlates to how much you already know.  If you have a deep reserve of skills you can draw on and if you know the principles of the game (which decisions are smart, generally, and why) your problem solving is more likely to be successful.  This relies not only on your knowing those things but having them deeply learned enough that they are in your long term memory and therefore don’t require active processing capacity.  As soon as you have to think about how and whether to do it, it is likely to not only be too slow to work well in a game but to crowd out other thinking because what you can keep in working memory is very limited. This is a consistent finding of cognitive science.  Problem solving requires deep knowledge.  This is why you and I are still waiting for our first sudden insight on particle physics.


So at the most basic level, desperately lunging after the ball in a game because your first touch was terrible isn’t problem solving.  And the best way to develop first touch is in training, where a good coach can cause you to receive the ball at 20x the frequency as in a game, with predictable variations to allow just the right amount of challenge and growth. (Another consistent finding of cognitive science is that the brain requires just the right amount of challenge to maximize learning and good training can get lots of iterations in that sweet spot. See Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School ? for more on this topic)


So in short, the synergy is: learn your concepts and skills in training and you use them, problem solve with them, in the game.  The degree to which the game teaches you correlates directly to how much you already know and how deeply you know it.


But it’s actually more complex than that, because the degree to which a “game” teaches depends not only upon your own existing knowledge but also that of the people you are playing with.  This allows for coordinated, group  problem solving.  Without coordinated interactions the teaching is pretty limited.   We’ve all played in the pickup game where half the guys didn’t know what  they were doing with the ball or how to mark a man and the game devolved into randomness where no one was able to problem solve and grow much.  So you learn when you play in correlation to 1) how much you already know 2) how much your teammates around you know and 3) often how much you and they are mutually aware that you all know certain things  in common. That is, you know that I am likely to see the space behind the defender and break into that space.  Therefore you are looking to put the ball there. If I make the run I am rewarded for a smart move.  But if you don’t know that, I will make the run and not get the ball.  I will not receive reinforcement for a smart decision.  What the game teaches me will be false.


I’ve been thinking about this a lot because one of my daughter’s recent coaches was a big “the game is the best teacher” proponent and the result was pretty clearly destructive for her and her teammates.  When I asked if it bothered him that the girls were only able to string together two or sometimes three passes in sequence in the course of an entire game, he told me that it didn’t really matter because the girls were learning to make decisions.  “See,” he said pointing to the field, “they’re making decisions all the time.”


The problem was a) that most of the decisions the girls were making were wrong b) they had no criteria to know whether they’d made correct or poor decisions and so they never learned from their mistakes and c) their wrong decisions had a huge tax on the group’s overall development.  Girls persistently lost the ball when they should have kept it, effectively distributing touches from our team to the other team AND making the game non-logical.  One player on the team constantly made runs into space to receive the ball.  Time and again the other girls would fail to see her so she would almost never get the ball.  She should have been learning that those runs were excellent via the inherent reward of receiving the ball as a result (or how to make them better if she didn’t) but the system of reinforcement was broken. It was contingent on the other players knowing what to do and they didn’t. So she stopped making her runs. Why should she? They were never rewarded.  There had been no teaching of the principles of the game.  Girls looked up at her and wondered what she was doing running around like that while they were dribbling. The game was in fact a terrible teacher for her team. It made them worse.  No knowledge; no learning from experience.


Dave Chesler, Director of Coaching Development for US Soccer, who is a strong advocate for the importance of instilling problem solving, might (I’d guess) go a step further and add that the game is a better teacher when players are taught decision making cues: When I decide whether to do something in a game, what are the things I should look for and think about?  Then, when you know have skills and knowledge, yes, go experiment. Or better put, as you learn skills and knowledge, test it with experiment. But the more you know the more you gain from exploring and the faster you grow from the game’s teaching.  That problem solving is part of the process, not the whole process and valuable as it is, its value decreases if you try to rely on it too much.


Still I understand why people like the phrase for one other reason. When they use it what they often mean is “coaches talk too much.” Undeniably that is often true, and if “hands off just let them play” were the only possible alternative they might be right. But well trained coaches who know how to make a point quickly (or to decide no to make it) and then get kids back to playing belie that as a false choice. Because some adults talk too much does not mean we should give up on the important role of teaching in the game. It means we should do it better.


A last thought:


People often cite the development of players in unstructured environments as a proof point for the idea that the game is the best teacher: “Look at the kids in the favelas; they don’t run drills; they just play. And Brazil has the best teams in the world.  Why not just replicate that?” But this kind of statement brings up another limitation of the game as a teacher—it is a ruthless one.   Let’s consider first that kids in the favelas grow up with an inherently stronger knowledge base of the game than kids in the US; more knowledge base makes the informal play more useful. Still, most of the kids who “make it” from the favelas start there but then get tapped by clubs and get lots of systematic training; the ones who make it from there are often the ones who can bridge both worlds (play the game in a joyful improvisational way and be a part of a system of responsibilities and selflessness).  3) Most kids from favelas don’t make it, in fact.  The game, as a teacher, is ruthless.  She’s willing to let a thousand kids fail so one brilliant kid can rise.  For coaches who are educators, the responsibility is, I think, to try to make every kid as “better” as we can.  I think this is especially relevant because research increasingly suggests that the kids who show early are not often the best kids once maturation etc. are all done.  So developing the full array of kids in important because we never quite know who’s going to end up the best.


So while the phrase has some truth to it, it’s also dangerous- it suggests an either or choice that’s just not real and allows us to justify not doing the intentional, methodical part of teaching the game that ironically makes the game’s teaching valuable.



11 Responses to “Notes on Soccer: Is “The Game the Best Teacher”?”

  1. Coach B
    October 6, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    For the record, Brazil doesn’t have the “best teams” in the World. Germany is the reigning World Cup Men’s Champion and the USA is the Women’s.

    The phrase “The Game is the Best Teacher” is simply ridiculous. Making mistakes is understandable, but allowing players to make the same mistake over and over again without guidance defies logic.

  2. Ben
    October 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    Wow, a complete misunderstanding of what short sided games are. This ignorance is so damaging because the vast majority of our youngsters are not being taught by the “master craftsman” of soccer and are being taught by rank amateurs.

    1. The “feedback” of short sided games is points, goals, etc. This is the most ignorant part of the article. You don’t play a short sided game 11 v 11. 2 v 2 is best, then 3 v 3 for older players, up to 5 v 5 occasionally, but really shouldn’t be more than 3 v 3.

    2. The player makes the decisions with what they have, not what “should” be. “Should” doesn’t even exist and is a fairy tale concept.

    3. The players are getting a ton of touches and developing skill.

    Also, you don’t need a coach to learn touch. You need a wall and a soccer ball. Any player can shoot at a wall and receive it repeatedly if she wants to get better. If she did this constantly every day I guarantee you her first touch would vastly improve without a coach.

    These simple techniques could be taught to youth coaches, but silly articles like the one above are big obstacles.

    • Doug Lemov
      October 20, 2015 at 8:44 pm

      Whoa. easy, champ. First, the article is about the phrase “the game is the best teacher” which is used and applied poorly by many people. “let them play; they’ll figure it out.” that’s different from carefully designed small sided games. ironically there something i think are quite good- well engineered games are a part of every good coach’s session plans. that said they are a lot better when there’s been some teaching too– there are principles to the game- what to do with space and movement and not teaching them makes even good games less productive. a good three v three or five v five game is in fact usually designed to teach some principle and does really well with a bit of explanation- we are trying to get the ball wide here. spreading the defense is an important principle of attack. if all you are doing is scrimmaging and letting kids “figure it out” you are doing it wrong. period. and the fact that players can and should continue to develop skills on their own doesn’t mean that coaches shouldn’t still develop them even more. in fact good coaches lnk the two. we work on first touch in practice and then i tell you how to workon it more on your own. that’s their job, bro.

  3. October 24, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    I think the article brings up some great points….I am a skill development coach in hockey (which has a lot of similar challenges)

    I agree that it is best to work on their individual skills (skating, stickhandling, passing, etc) then progress to BLENDING those skills into game situations.

    A common challenge for young players is “finding open ice” or telling them to “get open…..most do not know what that means or it is open to a lot of interpretations…I think if you want players to read/react & recall when/where to use their skills, it takes guided learning.

    I think players benefit from playing small area games (1/2 ice 3 x 3) but coaches can also guide players with concepts such as: building space off the wall, creating a “trap door”, supporting each other by creating triangle, creating 2 x 1’s, etc…..I think the best practices find a way to work on both……

    I love John Wooden’s quote, : You haven’t taught them if they haven’t learned”….

    • Doug Lemov
      November 2, 2015 at 7:45 pm

      thanks, Troy. very true that once we have a phrase for it–“Keep your shape!”–we assume kids know what that means. and of course even if they understand it generally they dont usually understand what it means then and there.

  4. Gibbo
    October 29, 2015 at 12:31 am

    I’ve coached in the USSF State licensing program for years, and what I think that coaches don’t get is that the game is the best teacher…. FOR THE COACH. Yes, like you stated Doug in comments, part of the reason for the phrase is to prevent coaches from lecturing the players, which prevents learning for most of the players, as most players learn best thru active participation, which means playing. It is then the coaches responsibility to step in when learning opportunities occur (but not so much as to break the rhythm and concentration of the players and give them instruction which leads them to problem solving, and, as you added for Chez, give them visual cues which can be repeated verbally from the sidelines during the practice session as to guide them thru the decision making process.

    It isn’t a easy process to master for a coach, and even the experienced ones (I include myself in that category) don’t perform it well at times (I include myself there also).

    Thanks for your coaching blogs, I appreciate their thought provoking manner!

    • Doug Lemov
      November 2, 2015 at 7:42 pm

      Thanks, great points. Teaching well is incredibly challenging, that’s for sure.

  5. Jonesy
    October 30, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    The guys have a good post on formal vs informal play. In it they point out the key differences – especially the need to correct mistakes in the formal settings (without overdoing it). As a coach and father I can imagine your frustration watching your daughter’s team. The game is a good teacher but if players don’t understand the principles of play then what they get out of it is usually not enough to progress themselves developmentally to higher levels of the game.

    • Doug Lemov
      November 2, 2015 at 7:41 pm

      thanks for this. your summary: “the game is a good teacher but if players don’t understand the principles of play then what they get out of it is usually not enough to progress themselves developmentally to higher levels of the game” is perfect. coulda saved me writing the whole blog post. 🙂 good post from 3four3 too.

  6. November 27, 2015 at 4:16 am

    I have been reading a lot of articles on this subject in the past months. I am 56 years old and I have to guess that many US Coaches only played soccer up to college or club level in Europe. Well since I came to the States in the late 80’s at the age of 30 it has been very disappointing to see how many of these youth coaches that are barely in their 30’s have an A licence from the US Soccer Federation and the NSCAA and the scariest part is that they are the ones teaching our kids the GAME. Just a thought, you can see most of them with a piece of paper setting up their sessions and sticking to it like a manifesto they got out of the internet. This also tells you that they never had a real coach that taught the game from experience and I mean 20 to 30 years of playing at high level professional soccer not fresh out of college with little or no experience and getting their A licence. I will leave you with this thought. I have been involved with soccer since the age of 5 and played at the highest level of professional soccer and I am still learning. I have seen US Soccer through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and in the 2000’s. They’re saying in a few years we will be a power in soccer, I have not seen that yet. Have a nice day. Rapidin

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