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Open Goals

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Last weekend I went to a soccer coaching clinic and a Piagetian seminar broke out. Gary Allen is the Director of Coaching Education for the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, and has played and coached for a lifetime across every level of organized soccer. What I didn’t expect to hear from him, for the first hour of the clinic, was a discussion of psychomotor skills and stages of development. One thing he explained that everyone could understand was the slanted jump rope.

Imagine a jump rope stretched out on the ground. As a coach, you tell all the members of your team to jump over it. Everyone can. Then you raise it a little, and they still can. But as you keep raising it, fewer and fewer kids make it over. By the end, only the best jumper is left, and all the other kids are on the sides watching. In effect, the one who is best gets the most practice, while the ones who need it most are only learning that they aren’t number one.

Instead, what if you held the jump rope at a slant? Kids array themselves along the length of it at a height they think they can handle. You can keep raising it by increments, but as you do, the best leaper finds it as tough as much as the most vertically challenged. Everyone “stays in,” and everybody gets maximum growth because they’re being challenged at their own level.

For his audience of parent coaches of young kids, Gary made the case that U.S. soccer in general, and our teams in particular, would be better if we focused on process and not results. By starting “select” teams at an early age, he argued, we reward kids who are fast, strong and skilled at that time. They learn to depend on their speed and strength and individual skills, which don’t emerge at the same time for all kids and, in the end, can take them only so far. Why? Our Darwinian process disallows the beautiful differentiation that happens naturally on the playgrounds of San Paulo.

Granted, we don’t have a tradition of soccer in the streets. In my neighborhood, it was schoolyard football. Teams were picked to be even, not with all the best kids on one team. If there was a disparity, you could always trade Joey for Tommy to even things up. We cared a lot about scoring, more than anything else in the moment. But we didn’t care as much about keeping score, and certainly didn’t tally games won and lost over the season.

This free-flowing play is what’s lost in a system designed to find the best kids early and put them on travel teams, Gary argues. The “peak performance” of the schoolyard -- evenly matched teams, blood struggle to win, no hard feelings afterwards—is sacrificed, and the cost is that players don’t develop problem-solving ability to match their ball skills. Because they see less game play, their abilities to improvise, react in the moment, and read situations aren’t cultivated.

This esoteric reasoning wasn’t why most of us were there on a Saturday morning. But Gary got into some good master teaching too. He took us into a gym where four kids appeared, two each ages 5 and 7, and led them through a series of drills. Simultaneously, he did something extremely difficult that I’m not sure the non-educators in the crowd appreciated as much as I did: he explained to us what he was doing and how was thinking each step of the way. Peeling back one’s skull to expose the thought process as you perform a skill, in addition to modeling the skill itself, is what I aspire to do in the classroom.

The drills progressed over the course of the model practice from simple to complex. Except they weren’t drills, they were games. That is exactly what motivates kids this age, rather than the makeshift stand in a line and kick a ball kind of thing I’d been doing as a coach in the past. First tag with everybody it, than Soccer Simon Says, next kids passing the ball through “gates” of parents’ legs that opened and closed on cue from the coach.

Each game had a point. When you are dribbling a ball and playing tag, you learn to keep the ball on your feet without staring down at them. When Simon says to step over the ball this way, or move it with the outside of your foot like this, he is teaching you moves that will juke an opponent’s socks off. Passing back and forth while looking for the open gate teaches the skills that help players see and adjust to a changing field.

The days following the seminar, there was a lot of email traffic among age group coaches about whether or not our kids should play with goal keepers. Mostly, those who had been to the session favored ditching goalies as Gary had suggested. Those who hadn’t were pretty convinced that the old way was fine and we were not teaching our kids the actual game of soccer without sticking one of them in the goal. There was a lot of passion on both sides. My co-coach and I agreed to disagree over a beer that evening.

Teaching of all sorts, of course, should be done with an understanding of the developmental stages of our students. We are the best teachers, coaches and parents if we allow kids to “maximize touches” and build skills in a “slanted rope” environment. Whether on the field or in the classroom, we all want to see our kids have fun, improve as players, and develop a life-long love of the game. Without or without keepers, those are goals we share.

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