Had the pleasure of spending the past two days in Raleigh talking about the craft of teaching with coaches at North Carolina FC. I co-led the workshop with ECNL president Christian Lavers-one of the most reflective and best read guys I’ve come across in the game.
The highlight of the two days–if you define highlight as ‘moment of greatest insight’–was an apparently simple observation Christian made about how coaches start tactical activities.
Christian described a typical training activity for a soccer coach: An 8v6 game where the offense attacks the goal and seeks to change the point of attack quickly to achieve and exploit numerical superiority.
“How does the game start?” Christian asked. At first this seemed like a banal question. It wasn’t.
For most coaches he observed, it’s with the coach (or a perhaps a player) feeding the ball into the offense from the middle third. This takes away exactly the parts of the activity most likely to ensure that it transfers to the game and prepares players for the complexity of what they’ll face in competition.
The exercise begins with the offense already spread out and in a proper shape. But among the core challenges of the game is ‘establishing order’ over chaos (and the opposition.) If you want your players to switch the point of attack in competition they must first get into a shape from which they can do that, ideally when starting from one that is designed to defend.
So you should let the opposition start with the ball. The ‘offense” would then have to win it and immediately earn the right to execute the drill by getting into the right shape. Getting there will be hard. They’ll have to do it quickly and under duress, and with defenders in unexpected places and trying to win the ball back. Establishing order is half the battle in a complex game.
Over a beer afterwards, we defined this principle: For an exercise to prepare players to execute in a complex environment–if you want the knowledge they gain to ‘transfer’ to the game–it must ultimately progress to a version that starts in a different phase of play.
In other words you might start feeding that ball in from the middle third yourself but it won’t help players learn to deal with the game’s full complexity if it doesn’t end with them winning the ball and getting to spread-out, in-shape and in-possession… forcing the field to look like it needs to in order to allow them to change the point of attack.