Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.06.17Cold Call for Coaches: Atlanta United’s Mike Lynch Dials It In


The benefits of using Cold Call in the classroom are pretty clear. It helps ensure that students are always mentally ‘on’ during a lesson and it allows teachers to question quickly and efficiently, especially to make sure that students know what they need to know—to Check for Understanding.

These ideas are critical in a coaching setting too. Players need to be locked in mentally during sessions so they can learn as much as possible.  Mental engagement=greater growth and mastery.

And questions, in a training setting, are most powerful as a tool to Check for Understanding— doubly so when the students are on a team and thus accountable to each other to know where to be and when.

A colleague who grew up playing at an elite academy in Argentina and trained under Bielsa, Luis Lewis, (@GauchosUSA ) captured that idea beautifully in this recollection of his playing days:

“The questions coaches asked were to gauge a player’s understanding as opposed to ‘drawing’ out a truth from them. We were asked to describe what should be happening under a particular action during a match. The coaches expected us to have a good degree of understanding of our playing style and methods. The hard part was in applying it.”

I thought of this when I watched Mike Lynch close out a recent session with players at Atlanta United‘s youth academy—already one of the most respected academies in MLS, having produced eight players who’ve been signed to the first team already.

Mike, as you can see in this video, ends the day with a round of Cold Calling. The idea is to make sure players are mentally locked in and accountable for knowing what they need to know.

Lynch.Cold Call and MOP from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

Here’s a rough transcript of what Mike says and does with a few annotations from me thrown in.

Mikey Jensen, What was the topic?

As the boys come over, Mike uses a Cold Call right off the bat. Aficionados of Cold Call will notice that he goes Name. Pause. Question here instead of Question. Pause. Name. That’s a really smart way to lock in the Means of Participation: Are we raising hands here? Are we shouting out answers? Are the questions rhetorical? No, Mike makes it clear. I am Cold Calling. So be ready.

The player he’s called on correctly identifies the topic: building out of the back. That’s good. Being clear on what we’ve been working on is important. Now Kevin asks a follow-on of another player.

What takeaways did we get from it, Kevin?

Two things worth noting. His Cold Call here transitioning to Question. Pause. Name. Ideally this causes everyone to answer in their heads because they know it’s a Cold Call but they do not know who will be on the receiving end of the Cold Call yet.  Also by using a follow-on Cold Call—you can only answer if you listened to the answer to the previous question–Mike is building a culture of peer-to-peer listening. Always on your toes.

Kevin describes the movement of players checking to the ball, but Mike focused on Checking for Understanding—do his players really understand the details of what’s expected of them—asks a follow-up here: Who’s checking?  He is testing to make sure Kevin can, in the words of Luis,  describe what should be happening under a particular action during a match.

Interestingly, you’ll notice if you are watching carefully that Mike is starting to get hands raised here—a lot of them—even though he’s clearly cold calling and isn’t asking players to raise their hands. This is kind of fascinating. Being accountable for mental engagement means that instead of ‘checking-out’—-looking off at another field or thinking of what’s for dinner—players are ‘checking in’… getting progressively more engaged and interested and eager to join the conversation. More evidence that Cold Calling is surprisingly inclusive.

So let’s build off Kevin’s answer.  [Hands are up but he Cold Calls anyway]: Chino, why are those two center backs getting wide?

His focus again is on checking for player understanding.  Do they know what to do and, now, why? The boys start talking about finding gaps and Mike notices some vagueness in their language. Again, he is very focused on assessing their understanding here so he’s listening for potential misunderstandings.

Which gaps are we talking about?

Now everyone is talking; there are lots of voices answering—Mike has changed the expected Means of Participation here. Now that he’s got everyone locked in he’s ok with some calling out. Amidst the answers he hears the correct one.

“Passing lanes! We’re trying to create bigger passing lanes. We’re trying to stretch the opposition.”

This is important. Mike wants to lock down the terminology his team uses. If one player is thinking in terms of gaps and another passing lanes, they can’t communicate with one another about what they want to do easily. And worse when Mike talks about passing lanes, some players may not connect everything he says with the right situations because they don’t necessarily get that creating gaps is widening passing lanes.  Having shared language for shared ideas is very important!

Does that make sense Nigel?

Mostly here I think Mike is signaling that we are shifting Means of Participation again and moving back to Cold Call. He does this by asking a semi-rhetorical question of a player. He wants to show players that he doesn’t want them to call out anymore—perhaps so he can direct a question to a specific player.

Why are we getting depth? Balmour, you’re a striker. Tell me why on Saturday we need depth.

And in fact you he does exactly that here. His Cold Call allows hm to direct the question to the player—or the position—he most wants to make sure ‘gets it’: his strikers. But interestingly, his language is now forward looking. He is explicitly connecting what we did today to what we are going to need to do on Saturday.

These ‘gaps’ again. What are these gaps? Passing lanes!  We’re trying to always open up passing lanes.

Again we see the importance of naming the concept we’re talking about in a correct and consistent way.

Then there’s a little wrap up and practice ends. All in all Mike spends about a minute Cold Calling but as I hope you can see what he brings to his team’s culture of mental engagement is immensely valuable and powerful:

He makes it the expectation that every player is locked in—not just the three highly verbal ones who ordinarily call out answers when questions are posed to the group. This makes sure that everyone learns faster.

He makes it understood that your responsibility to your teammates is to know what’s expected of you. This is a key part of teamwork.

He is clear in his own mind that of his primary jobs as a coach is to make sure his players understand the difference, in the words of John Wooden, between ‘I taught it’ and ‘They learned it.’  He needs to know what they know.

Amazing stuff. Thanks to Mike and Atlanta United’s outstanding academy for letting me tape them at work!

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