Is there a way to challenge and transcend traditional structures and coaching habits by investigating ideas and methods that support the natural learning process for our young players, our learners?
Today there is a tendency to look at youth sport as adult and children. Many believe that children can only learn in adult organised environments – what is worse is that children are starting to believe this. Sport should also be just about children playing sport.
When it comes to designing and determining a child’s environment, the child’s own voice is often the smallest. Here we have one of the fundamental drawbacks with today’s organised “one size fits all” grassroots training. All authority, all decision making, resides with the adult coach. This has a profound knock-on effect with regards to influencing coaching behaviours and styles placing a focus on instruction and error correction as opposed to learning and understanding. Today the child’s experience in sport is more or less based on an adult-centric structure both on and off the pitch. With the decline in street games and spontaneous play children are more than ever dependent on adults to take them to and from their sporting activities.
Yet play seems to be back on the agenda with many governing bodies and sporting organisations. Words and phrases like “focus on Play” “FUN” or “FUN-damental” are appearing in development plans in an effort to convince parents that their child is in a safe child centred environment and that it is all about “as many as possible as long as possible”. Of course at the same time many are also operating an early selection process followed by a continuous selection process through the various ages and stages. They are doing exactly what they have always done. They have just repackaged and rebranded it. It is administration, something to make the homepage look good. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The other argument I have heard been thrown around is that we must define “play” within our development plans. This statement is usually followed by the argument that “people think that they just need to throw a ball in, let them play and suddenly an elite player will appear at 18. Anyway how are they ever going to learn to do * insert technique here* if I don’t teach them how to do it?” There is so much wrong with this- the assumption that if it is taught then learning will take place- the assumption that children can only learn in adult organised environments and of course the need for the adult coach to have control over the child’s learning process. It’s a typical adult perspective. We brush aside play as a waste of time as we have difficulty in seeing how it serves us and at times our children’s future.
Play is one of those intangibles. We know of its positive benefits but we don’t really know exactly what it is as we adults are not really part of the experience. We influence it but we should not define it.
A mismatch between children’s developmental needs and coaching behaviours leads to more dropout, injuries and shorter careers than when children are trained by a competent age appropriate coach” Fraser-Thomas et al. (2008a)
Play is serious business. Play is learning and learning a dynamic sport like soccer is especially in the case of younger age groups sometimes not that easy on the eye. Its chaotic combination of chance, failure and success demand a patient coach. The temptation to add some adult controlled structure to the process more than often wins out in the end. Here we are entering the realm of what @innovatefc calls pseudo-coaching. It looks good, it is pleasing on the eye especially for the parents. Tasks are being carried out in an orderly fashion. The emphasis here is on teaching rather than learning. When young kids are coached this way then practice becomes conditioning.
It’s just adults thinking like adults. We know what is good for the child but we deliver it in an adult perspective- Jean Côté
The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience today seem to be heading towards becoming environments of conditioning. Kids are being moved from a play based environment to a practice based environment earlier than ever. At the same time there is much talk among governing bodies and clubs that we need to develop players with a better understanding of the game more intelligent and creative players.
Understanding OF the Game v Understanding IN the Game
Perhaps it is time to turn the whole curriculum on its head.
I have many friends with a great understanding of the game but that does not necessarily mean that they are any good at playing the game. Why do we think that if we instruct or teach young children an understanding of the game that we will develop more intelligent and creative players? Surely what is more important is that we create an environment where young players can develop understanding IN the game, after that we can talk about understanding of the game. The first contact environment and early practice environments that children experience need to be structured in a way that is relevant to their intrinsic needs and innate desires. We should present the whole game experience to the child and create learning opportunities by basing our training sessions on the concept of play- a sort of spontaneous practice. In play, time is not of the essence and mistakes are part of the learning process. Therefore the coach needs to be patient. By virtue of presenting the game experience to the child we are opening them up to even more possible experiences (decision making, communication, pattern recognition, creativity, problem solving) This approach gives them the chance to connect a variety of experiences to bring forward new ideas and solutions, their ideas and their solutions. They can do this because the nature of play allows the child time to reflect. A safe to fail environment is also a safe to reflect environment. They join the dots of past experiences to create new learning opportunities for themselves. This is learning IN the game and will develop understanding IN the game. When allowed to reflect on their mistakes and learning children have more control over the narrative, their development over time.
We know that fun and autonomy are both crucial from a commitment and motivational perspective and are essential elements of “play”. So perhaps instead of the environment defining how children play we let children define their environment. One of the core values of play that we should take in to our practice environment is that for the child mistakes do not exist. They only exist in the eye of the adult coach. The aim should be to create an environment where the game of soccer is inevitable
A Safe to Fail Environment is a Safe to Reflect Environment
16 year old Norwegian Martin Odegaard who signed for Real Madrid recently spoke about how his father always told him that it was not all about winning and that there are no mistakes only opportunities to learn.
“My dad has never talked about winning and being the best. The only thing that has mattered was development and improving all the time. It’s always supposed to be fun, devoid of stress and fear. He always tells me that there’s no danger in making mistakes. He wants me to make them. Then try again. He’s always encouraged me to use the ball”.
Ever tried- Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better- Samuel Beckett
Coaching after all is not about players learning drills but about educating and inspiring them to think for themselves. By designing practice environments closely related to the concept of play we can transcend tradition and develop methods and strategies that support and respect the child’s natural learning process. The coach can structure learning by designing different age appropriate modified games and placing the players in situations where they have to respond with solutions. The coach can then build on learning by manipulating the constraints-Maximize development and potential by adjusting the environment they learn in. The young players are given the opportunity to become the protagonists of their own learning.
By designing environments for learning instead of success we also redefine what success is