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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.03.14On Planning for Coaches: Fernando Alva’s Session Plan

I’m overdue for a post on coaching. Sorry bout that. Manuscript writing is like digging a well. The farther down you go the less else you see.

Fortunately I came up for air today for long enough to see this session plan by NY Red Bulls youth coach Fernando Alva, who tweeted it. “Tweaked a few new ideas into the session and it worked well!,” Fernando wrote before including a link to his session plan on 1v1 dribbling.

That comment struck me. The best teachers do what Fernando was describing. They tweak and re-work their lessons, forever tinkering with them to make them a little better. A commitment to planning is one of the differentiating factors in a great teacher (or coach); but a passion for reusing and refining plans- a mindset that sees plans as permanent documents to be kept and valued versus used and discarded is doubly so.

John Wooden, you probably know, kept notes on all of his session plans… taking notes on what worked and what didn’t and then filing them carefully away so that while other coaches were always piloting (and therefore making simple mistakes with) new ideas, his practices were full of version 5.0 of some drill refined and proven over time.  Fernando’s comments about tinkering with and improving his plans struck me and I clicked.

Anyway, I really liked his plan and the meticulousness of his planning.  Honestly he plans like a teacher or maybe better put like a professional who conceives of this as his life’s work and thinks that tracking and developing the design of that work in a systematic way is important.

Beyond the commitment to professional-level planing, though, two pretty straightforward but powerful things jumped out at me in Fernando’s planning that i thought were worth mentioning. (I’m a big believer in the idea that doing  straightforward things a bit better everyday is the fastest route to excellence.)

Takeaways:

For every activity in his session Fernando lists “Coaching Points” and what they describe is how to complete the activity successfully… ie to not just do it but to do it well, with excellence.  This is simple but deeply important.  Often we tell players what to do in an activity (“you’re going to make two-touch passes to keep the ball away from the other guys”) but we tell them less about the most important two or three concrete things they can do to execute well, world class even. (“Focus on redirecting your first touch so the ball is never still when in your possession,” or something like that).

You can see that Fernando has thought this through–e.g. “Attack the front foot (Away from Defender Tackling Radius)“–both so he himself can remain alert to it and so that he can tell his players.  It will be much easier for him to explain these crucial points to them if he’s thought through in advance exactly what words to use to describe them and written them down–simple but important.

Again, telling players how to do a drill but not telling how to do it at an elite level results in their thinking about completion rather than achieving mastery and of course there’s a ton of research that suggests that this additional level of intentionality–I know what i am working on–is a major driver of improvement rates during training.  It’s the difference between a steep and a flat learning curve.

And winning this battle starts, as Fernando shows, with planning.  Ironically if i was going to make one suggestion to improve Fernando’s outstanding plan it would be to include fewer coaching points though and perhaps to prioritize them–for himself and his players–six or eight coaching points is probably too much to communicate in a single session so I’d want to be constantly alert to the two i felt like i HAD to get across.  Then I’d let the rest come up (or not) according to what i saw in execution.  We’ve found this is true in our practice with teachers–we give them feedback cheat sheets with two tiers of coaching points: high priority and secondary priority.  We tell them it to avoid giving feedback on any of the secondary priority items until they see that all of the high priority topics are executed solidly.   In the case of a practice like this I’d probably err on the side of NOT giving feedback on anything but my two most important things until I saw success there.

Another quick point about Fernando’s session plan before I wrap.  A lot of times I see a practice that tries to do too many things and the result is practice at a lot of things but mastery of few… or none.  We spend ten minutes on dribbling and ten minutes on heading and ten minutes on combination play and twenty minutes scrimmaging and the result is that players don’t sustain their concentration on one aspect of the game for long enough to develop intuition and see patterns.  So I love that Fernando spends a whole session on one theme, applied in different settings of increasing complexity.  The result to me is likely to be kids who have deep mastery and have intuition for how and when to use it.

Anyway, those are some thoughts from a teaching guy–not a soccer guy–on the critical role of planning.  Love to hear what you think. And thanks to Fernando for being open-source with his outstanding materials!

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