INTERVIEW WITH TOM TURNER – USA NATIONAL SOCCER INSTRUCTOR

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Tom Turner steps up to the plate for  the 5th  in the  FOOTBLOGBALL essential interviews series .

Tom Turner PHD  is director of coaching and player development at Ohio Youth Soccer Association North . He is also a USA National Instructor and is on the US Soccer national Coaching Committee . Tom kindly took time out from a very busy schedule to share his vast knowledge and experience in answering some essential  questions .

FOOTBLOGBALL : Seeing as “genetically influenced” doesn’t mean “genetically determined,” we can say that talent is not prepackaged at birth, but takes time to develop. One of the most important discoveries in recent years is that the environment triggers gene expression. Talent develops through the interaction of genes and the environment. Would you agree?

TOM TURNER : Absolutely…  Gladwell’s Outliers come to mind. Perhaps the most practical post-Soviet example of this theory is Australia, which has become the most successful Olympic country, per relative population, by identifying youngster’s physical traits and encouraging them to participate in sports where they have a chance to become nationally and internationally competitive.

Of course, the top young athletes (those with the genetic potential to become proficient or highly proficient) still need to develop their passion in order to maximize their potential. Not everyone can be in the right place at the right time with the right coaches; or simply grow up in a developmental environment that incubates top level performers. Some get lucky, by birth or otherwise. Young soccer players in Argentina (~40 million population) and Brazil (~200 million), for example, still have far more opportunities to become professional soccer players than youngsters growing up in countries of similar size, such as Poland (~40 million) and Pakistan (~180 million). On a mass level, culture (environment), it could be said, is everything, when it comes to soccer development!   

What tips would you give in helping create the right environment for player development?

“Joy” (Krechmar called it “Delight”) and motivation are clearly important factors in whether early experiences turn into life-long passions. Coaches need to treat young children like young children, not just young soccer players. Youngsters often come into soccer without an emotional hook to the sport and need experiences that make them want to come back; experiences that encourage them to play and practice independent of adults.  

The irony of soccer history is that the top professional and weekend amateurs alike developed their passion from playing in the streets and practicing alone. Organized sport has forgotten that. I see youth coaches trying to organize players into lines to practice discrete skills before they have any clue how, or why.  It’s like giving a kid a computer and having them practice striking the letter “K” for an hour. Learning works best from global to specific, not the other way around. Youth soccer needs to base the developmental process on “play” and then find the right moments to encourage technical and tactical development.  

Another factor is “managed” competition. All kids like to compete. It’s motivating. It’s fun. The joy is in striving to win a game that could go either way. However, not all kids have the experience to engage in formal competition. It is quite evident that some have a genuine enthusiasm for the sport and will engage in group and self-training activities; while others are simply participating because their parent’s signed them up. There are young kids who can’t dribble or pass or control the ball with any purpose who are playing for points and trophies. Clearly, when we have organized leagues for six and seven and eight and nine year-olds who aren’t ready to put on a uniform; and have coaches who manage games to win – at the expense of enjoyment and development, we have a serious environmental problem.

FOOTBLOGBALL : In the USA, what developments have you recently seen in attitudes to player / coach development and what ones do you hope to see?

TOM TURNER : Perhaps three movements come to mind….

First…Early in the decade of the 2000’s, we started to move young players into smaller-sided games to provide an environment that catered more to their physical and cognitive levels and, more importantly, their enjoyment. That change has been incredibly beneficial for both players and coaches. Yes, there are still areas of the country that play 8v8 or larger – and with offside – at U10, but there is just no discussion of a return for those who have taken the political plunge.  

Second…A few years ago US Soccer literally gave up on the willingness, or capacity, of the two leading youth soccer organizations’ (US Youth and US Club) to become more player-focused at the elite level. In response, they organized their own National Development Academy with 84 clubs competing at U16 and U18. It’s expensive, it’s courageous, it’s exclusive, it has its’ problems, but it has helped change attitudes and pushed player development issues to the beginning of discussions. Periodization and sports science, substitution rules, roster flexibility, and coaching certification are some of the key initiatives that have flowed down to the mainstream. Recent progress aside, however, we still have too many obstructionist decision-makers at the youth level who have not evolved with the game. While this is particularly problematic for elite level programming, it also continues to impact training and development models for entry-level players.  

Finally, US Soccer is currently undergoing a significant philosophical redesign that has raised the bar on coaching education expectations and will directly impact player development. Over the past 30 years, or so, we have evolved from teaching technique and tactics as separate models; to an approach that acknowledged the integration of technique with tactical situations; to a model that situates the game as the central focus and challenges coaches to improve individual players within the structure of their teams. Having coaches who work backward from the challenges of the game (i.e., building through MF), rather than forward from “passing,” is 180 degrees from the 1980’s.  

 

FOOTBLOGBALL:Our brain’s grey matter that has been growing through our childhood shrinks dramatically in our teen years, while at the same time, white matter, made up of axon fiber connections between brain cells, increases. This white colour comes from myelin and is a key factor in regulating the speed in neural circuits so that they combine at the right time. As football is a flexible circuit activity where the player must understand and solve many problems and apply the right skill to these challenges.

If 6-12 years is referred to as the “golden age” for player development, then could we not describe, with all that is happening in the brain , the teenage years as the” Golden Age ” of  brain game development?

 

TOM TURNER : Yes and no. I rather think of the process as a developmental continuum.

In the early years, as players become more comfortable with the ball, they should move from games that help them keep possession of the ball; to games that help them share possession and support around the ball; to games that help them circulate the ball and move away from each other; to games that develop positional ideas; and, finally, to games that develop broader tactical ideas.   

The concept of “contextual interference” is significant and important to me. One of the lessons from street soccer is that there are no “correct” technical solutions to tactical situations. Either someone has skill, or they don’t.  When we repeat a technique over and over in a “modern” training session, the myelin sheath forms muscle memory, which is fine for transfer – if the tactical situations are recognizable. Contextual interference suggests that varying the ways a technique is practiced forces the brain – and the muscles – to be more adaptable to novel situations.  The speed of “learning” is not as rapid as, for example, passing back and forth in a repetitive way, but the long-term outcome is a more skillful performer. By way of example, just think of the variety of tactical situations which call for the ball to be manipulated (passed, dribbled, received) by either the inside or outside of the foot.  

This concept also applies to tactical learning.  If the training situations never vary in rhythm, or complexity, or physical demand, or intensity, the players never have to react to novelty or uncertainty or insecurity.  The vision and skill of the coach are critical to this process.    

So, from my perspective, youth training needs to have a heavy emphasis on play-based games which include attack, defense and transition. Because, developmentally, the range of possible training numbers will start small, but increase incrementally between U6 and U18, the corresponding range of technical and tactical solutions will provide for more focus on skill development early, and progress to focus more on team-tactical training later on.   

 

 

 

FOOTBLOGBALL : We hear a lot about agility and speed in the modern game, but for me and especially at youth level, perception and decision making should be trained at the same time, otherwise  there is a risk that there will be a breakdown in the connection between how the young player experiences training and the real game. Perception can improve a player’s agility while the ability to perceive and react quicker (make a decision) can help the speed in which an athlete can move in a new direction.

Can you discuss this statement?

 

TOM TURNER : There was a study of chess grandmasters and beginners that compared recall of the chess board organization when the pieces were arranged randomly. Because the “picture” was unfamiliar to both experts and novices, recall ability was similar between the two groups. Message… familiarity is central to recognition and speed of play. This is also true of computer use, of driving, of eating, of showering, of walking, and, indeed, of any skill that benefits from degrees of automation.

Despite what people outside the game might think, soccer is essentially a game of predictable tactical situations. The more alert young players become to recognizing the tactical cues, the faster they can read the game situation, the quicker they can play, and the more able they are to react to emergency situations when the game goes off-script.   

The long-term developmental process has to start slowly and simply – Bobby Howe (former US Soccer Coaching Director) always talked about the game essentially reducing to 2v2 – with the main goal of coaching being the continued complication of the environment as players demonstrate their learning. On one level, youth soccer is about learning basic concepts, such as support or penetration; on another, it is about applying these basic concepts to functional roles.

 

FOOTBLOGBALL : Research suggests that young players only retain 18% of concepts that are learned passively, but 68% of that which is learned actively, thus implying the need for a more player centered training rather than coach centered.

Can you suggest how, by using your methods, this can be achieved?

Two keys for me…. The manipulation of practice variables to structure games and the use of the Socratic approach to helping players understand their thought processes.  

The coach-centered approach calls for the adult to provide all the technical and tactical solutions by dominating the air space. In contrast, the player-centered approach calls for the adult to help players arrive at solutions by engaging them to think about tactical cues and the assessment of game situations. For example, the coach might ask the players about the rationale for playing to three goals and when to recognize the moments to penetrate or possess. .

Ultimately, the end point of the coaching process is the same – assuming the vision of the coach is constructive play and not soccer-by-numbers – but the player-centered approach is emotionally different, because the players are encouraged – and importantly – “assisted” in taking ownership for their own learning and their own decision-making.   

The training activities become an important key in the learning process. As the coach, we can control the variables within training games; and, to ensure good transfer from practice to match, the training games should “generally” take place within a rectangle and play through 180 degrees. There are obviously reasons to deviate from this philosophy, but this is the default approach.

The coach can manipulate the number of players on each team, the size and shape of the field, the method of scoring, the game time, the specific conditions of the game, and the playing rules. With young players, playing to one goal or two goals or three goals or a line or a target changes the technical and tactical demands. Playing to a small goal is different from playing to a regular goal with a goalkeeper. Playing with – or without – an offside line adds complexity; as does having offside at midfield, or deeper. A larger or smaller field impacts the challenge. As players grow in experience, positional coaching and the arrangement of numbers and connections within and between lines provides more complexity to the training.

It is the ability to manipulate these variables in a purposeful way that distinguishes the “art” from the “science” in the coaching process.  

Becoming player-centered is not always an easy journey, but players invariably respond more positively to being central to their own learning. Assuming the coach has accumulated the soccer knowledge to have evolved a vision, the art is in learning how to question and steer conversations in non-threatening ways. There has to be lots of room for patience and mistakes and, perhaps, the most visible sign of a player-centered coaching approach is sideline behavior during games.  Those who spend their time pulling the strings for their players and berating them for their mistakes are unlikely to be following a player-centered approach.    

   

FOOTBLOGBALL : When you work with a club at the grassroots level, the question of talent Identification always comes up. For me it is more a question of talent observation. What environment does the club /coach create for the player? Is it a winning first culture? Something that I associate with talent identification (base decisions on physical qualities and identify the best player to win now, short term.) possibly creating extrinsic motivation. Where perhaps a “development  culture “ OBSERVES talent and offers a safe, challenging and exciting environment and encourages intrinsic motivation, therefore enjoyment and a more long-term approach where the player takes more responsibility for his own development.

Would you agree with this statement?

TOM TURNER : I consider myself a teacher who coaches soccer. The primary objective with young players is always to create an environment that encourages them to return the next week, and the next season, and the next year. There is no delayed gratification with young players. They need enjoyment NOW!  

With enough positive experiences early on, there is a good chance young players will become motivated to engage in training that purposefully starts to smooth the rough edges – and motivating enough to self-train. When this emotional hook lodges, we have a different player and a more attentive student. Training can take on different forms and the coaching can change gears. I think too often in youth soccer, coaches take emotional commitment for granted and then treat children as though they are apprentice professionals when they just want to have some fun.  

If we worried more about individual development, we would probably have more players remain in the game. Because soccer is too competitive (results-based) too early, we often expose players to the pressures of team play before they are ready. This creates a serious contradiction of purpose for those who have good intentions towards long-term development, because many parents don’t have the patience or the soccer background to appreciate the timeline. Parents often equate winning with development, regardless of the quality of the soccer, and that puts the teacher-coach at a significant disadvantage in the American environment, because the marketing of success is seductive.    

FOOTBLOGBALL : Children have a vast appetite for learning but in my opinion it dissipates dramatically when they enter our out-of-date education system. The same can be said for football where I think the greatest conceit of coaching is that – young kids learn anyway. What is most important is the environment created by the coach and the coach’s ability to not look at how he coaches, but more how his young players learn.

Would you agree? And what tools would you suggest that coach use with his young group

In modern societies, devoid of free play, I have to come back to motivation. The players who appreciate the connection between training and improved skill / improved performance will generally go further than those who are either afraid of failure, or are simply not very passionate about soccer. There are lots of examples of players who have become very good, but who came from less-than-ideal environments. These might include players who grow up in rural areas, or traditionally non-soccer cultures; players who “learn” under poor coaches, or who played for supportive parent-coaches with no soccer backgrounds; players who have been written off at young ages; and players who come to the sport at an age that suggests they don’t have enough time to become proficient.   

Your question points to the issue of good teaching and I am reminded of the phrase, “What we teach is not necessarily what is learned.”  When a coach goes through the mechanics of teaching without completing the feedback loop and observing the response from the players, they are not really teaching. Maybe they are just performing, or still learning how to manage activities?  We all have to go through those early stages in the learning of our craft.  

Ultimately, we are not really coaching team play as much as coaching individuals to become better in their role in team play. Information has to be specific to individual players because every player is at a different place in terms of their understanding, their soccer personalities, and their interpretation of the game. In most youth soccer situations, there is always a tension between the coach’s vision of the game and the realities of player ability and potential. When the coach can pragmatically incorporate the soccer personalities at hand, there will be a positive learning environment.    

Rinus Michels talked about starting the teambuilding process at the first practice. This makes sense because, when working with developmental players (pre-teens), there is much more time to shape ideas and soccer personalities, so the developmental vision becomes central to the process. From the perspective of teaching constructive soccer, we would encourage young players to control the ball with their first touch. We would encourage them to read the game to decide whether to shoot, or dribble out of pressure, or dribble past an opponent; or pass the ball forwards, or backwards, or sideways. We would encourage them to move with the game. We would encourage them to try to recover the ball when it is turned over. Basic, but important ideas.     

When it comes to the youth environment, young kids need emotional support, and enthusiastic teachers, and positive role models, and helpful information … They don’t need to be chastised for their mistakes or their perceived lack of effort, or given absolutes, or substituted for making mistakes.  

 

FOOTBLOGBALL : At the heart of football coaching is a teacher and a learner. Where both need to be…

(a) Adaptable : The coach must show adaptability in response to changes in the players environment ( School , home , growth phase ), while the player must show adaptability to changes in his environment and be able to respond to changes that are happening live within a game. Often it is a woods-from-trees scenario for the young player.

How can the coach bring greater clarity toward helping the player understand the changes in his environment both on and off the field? 

TOM TURNER : Not easily… The coaching profession has become very technical in a broad sense: A far cry from the old physical education model. Today, good coaches must have the ability to teach in multiple styles, as there is clearly no one way to teach, or one clear path towards learning.

Coaches must also have some understanding of developmental psychology, some understanding of exercise physiology, some understanding of sport pedagogy, some understanding of sports science; and always be willing to negotiate the next way to communicate with youngsters who seem to be more comfortable texting and tweeting than talking face to face. Even e-mail is starting to be regarded as snail mail!    

  

FOOTBLOGBALL (b)  Creative:

How can the coach encourage creative thinking?

TOM TURNER  : Simple, I think…Stop coaching in absolutes!  Soccer is supposed to be a player’s game, with the coach’s role to help steer thinking towards a single vision. If the coach wants to string-pull the decision-making – soccer by numbers, there isn’t much room for creativity. On the other hand, if the coach appreciates the need for flexible solutions and is willing to take the associated risks, creative thinking is almost guaranteed.  

Coaches who encourage constructive, build-up soccer are likely to enjoy the freedom of expression that makes the game so enjoyable to play. Of course, not everyone has the talent to dribble out of their own goal area, but there is even a time for that in the long-term development process. And, of course, you could happen to be Brazilian!  

 

FOOTBLOGBALL : Our brains by nature look to save energy by automising; a process which can create a conflict between our comfort zone and our development.

Discuss… 

TOM TURNER : Yes, but Paiget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation point to our brain’s constant adaptation to stimulus that expands the breadth and depth of our learning and understanding. Basically, we’re hard-wired to learn and hard-wired to constantly adapt.

The social learning theories of Vygotsky are also important here. When an older, or more experienced person works with us, we can learn more quickly than otherwise would be the case. Think about the impact on learning when a parent shares his or her skills with their offspring.  Parents figure out when their child is ready to take on a new challenge by their reactions to prompts. When the child is ready to pay attention, they respond. It takes time to finally stand up after being held vertical. It takes time for a new word or sentence to come out after hearing the parent repeatedly utter the sounds and intonations.  

Perhaps the message for coaches is that players can always learn, but the types of skills and concepts they are asked to perform or understand have to be within their realm of possibilities. Try teaching side volleys or individual defending to seven year olds!  

Having older teammates or more experienced teachers will increase the speed of learning.  So, while we are learning to automate a kicking skill, for example, we can also learn to adapt the basic mechanics to similar variations of the skill, such as moving in different directions or connecting with balls arriving at various heights or speeds. Similarly, the basic concept of a “give and go” can be expanded to front walls and other variations that possess rather than penetrate.

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