Remember the good ol’ days? When there were no cell phones, selfie sticks, or GPS?
Life’s everyday challenges were slightly more difficult, and today, those challenges have no doubt been made easier by technology. But along with all those old-school gadgets and methods, we have also lost all the skills and thought processes that came along with them. Nowadays, if someone’s phone dies while coordinating to meet someone, they have no way of knowing where each other are since they did not communicate a plan ahead of time. Or worse yet, if someone’s phone dies (or GPS stops working), he has no idea how to find out where he is or where he’s going.
Sure, it’s easy to say that we don’t need those old “skills” because we always have the technology. But there inevitably comes a time when those skills will come in handy. Or even more importantly is the fact that those skills transfer to other facets of our lives. So although we can get away without fully using our brains and still get the results we want, it is important for us to try to learn and think as much as we can so we can rely on only ourselves as much as possible.
Many soccer coaches are like GPS: making life easier for their players, but not teaching them the skills needed to get the same results without help.
Most of us have heard about the concept of “joy sticking” our players, an homage to one of my favorite pastimes – EA Sports’ FIFA video game. To joy stick our players means to tell them every single move to make as if we are controlling them in a video game: “Johnny pass to Stephen. Stephen, take it to the end line. Cross it to Sam!” and so on.
The more we learn from experienced coaches, the more we learn that joy sticking our players is a huge disservice. We want players to make decisions for themselves to improve their critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making. But many coaches still get it wrong.
Although we have improved and lessened the joy sticking, many of us are still GPS-ing our players. What’s the difference?
This is the less-intrusive yet still detrimental version of GPS. When we plug in an address to GPS, it picks a route and maps out every step to take for us. We might turn off the volume or not listen to each individual direction, but do we let it decide how we’re going to get to our destination.
The same goes for coaching. Many of us will tell our players exactly how to play, even if we aren’t controlling every single move. For instance, we will tell our players to attack down the flanks. Always go down the flank. Attacking from the flank is all we practice, and our players know that we want to play it into the attacking third out wide and cross it. But when it comes to executing, we don’t tell our players every move to make - only that we want to attack down the flank.
But what if the opposition cheats to the outside? What if there’s a huge gaping hole in the middle of the pitch? The obvious answer is “then we’ll attack through the center!” It’s clear to us, but it’s probably not clear to our players. We haven’t actually taught them how to read the game with a larger lens and make decisions based on the situations presented. We’ve taught them a strategy – which might be the best way to go 90% of the time – but we haven’t necessarily taught them why we use that strategy or when to use it. What about the other 10% when that tactic isn’t appropriate? Chances are our players go ahead with it anyway because it’s what they know. And sometimes, it’s that 10% that wins or loses matches.
The problem here is that these players have been trained to play wide, rather than developed to recognize spaces and exploit it.
This is the part of our GPS service that tell us every single step to take: “Turn left on Main Street. Turn right in 1,000 feet. Turn right onto 1st Avenue…”
The micro level of GPS-ing our players is much closer to joy sticking. It’s telling them every little move to make. But it’s even the less obvious situations than telling Johnny to pass to Stephen and telling Stephen to dribble then cross to Sam. It also includes the more generic commands such as “Switch!” “Get back!” and “Look at your options!”
So, we didn’t tell our players exactly how to switch the field, where to get back, or what the options were – and that’s a step in the right direction! But the commands of telling our players to do any of that are still hindering development. Not only are the decisions of how, where, and what important for our players to learn, but possibly most important is the when and why. Why should they switch the field? When should they get back? When should they look up?
Here’s a better way to say each of these commands:
Switch: “Where’s the space?” or “How can we get forward?”
Get back: “Where should you be?”
Look up: “What do you see?” or “…” – silence might be my favorite one. ;)
Developing Smarter Players
When people criticize American players, the biggest criticism is the quality and speed of decision making. And that criticism is completely valid. Our players don’t make decisions fast enough, and often times, the decisions they make are not the best. Why? Because they have not learned to make quality decisions quickly. Coaches have been their GPS their whole lives, and now that they’re playing 11v11 at full speed, coach can’t keep up well enough to GPS or joy stick every move.
In order to improve, players need to learn on their own – the hard way. Or better yet, “the natural way.” That means learning from the game and its natural consequences. We’ve likely heard the phrase “let the game be the teacher.” Some people misconstrue that to mean “don’t coach” or “don’t say anything.” But this is a misunderstanding and very ineffective (but it’s arguably better than being a GPS coach).
“Let the game be the teacher” is allowing players to make decisions (which could very well be mistakes) and learning from them based on the result. Losing the ball on the attack or getting beat on defense are the most obvious, natural, and instant forms of feedback – and coach doesn’t have to say a thing! American kids don’t get enough unstructured play to allow them to discover and learn the natural way on their own, so as coaches, we have to make sure we allow them as many opportunities as possible to do so. Yes, match results may suffer in the short-term. But in the long run, our players will be smarter and better, which eventually leads to positive match results.
By not telling our players what to do, we challenge them to improve their quality of decision making. By not telling our players when to do, we challenge them to improve their speed of decision making.
This does not mean that we don’t coach them, of course. We must teach our players the what, when, and why of decision making. But how do we coach these things if we want them to discover on their own?
It’s all about timing and questions. Wait until after a moment – allow the players total freedom to make a decision – if it’s successful, praise them for what they did; if it’s not, we can remind or teach them an alternative. By waiting until after the moment, we allow the players the freedom to make a choice and challenge them with having to decide what, when, where, and how is best. We also let the game be their initial feedback – they’ll know instantly whether it was a smart choice or not. But we also give them the necessary verbal feedback by teaching them how to do better or why a decision was a good one.
To be even more effective, use questions while making the coaching point. Sometimes it’s simply “What could you have done differently?” Players often already know the answer (because the game pointed it out). Or it could be something more pointed like “If that defender was running at you from this side, where could you have gone to make sure he doesn’t get it?” By using questions, we continue to challenge our players to think and figure out the reasons why they make certain decisions, which gives them ownership and a better understanding.
So from now on, I challenge everyone to try and identify the moments when we might be acting as our players’ GPS and try to eliminate those moments as much as possible. Allow our players to learn from the game, and guide them to making more effective, faster decisions at the appropriate moment.