John Allpress - English FA
This article is based on my experience in developing coaches for professional soccer clubs in England. The lessons from this may have much to offer coaches in other countries. This article focuses specifically on learning from mistakes in soccer.
Learning in soccer
Learning new ideas and skills can be like riding a roller coaster ride for the learner – some days’ things seem easy, other days almost impossible. Things can vary depending on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, whether you’re growing and lots of other things too.
Learning new things can be the best or the most scary experience you’ve ever done because if you’re truly learning you don’t really know what to do. This meanslearners can be fragile or strong and either can easily change.
There are many factors that are also constantly changing, developing and evolving –but there is one constant – the learner. The ultimate responsibility forlearning sits squarely with the player and not the coach.
Coaches are not there primarily to show or tell players what they know; they are there to create environments for learning that are varied and challenge the players and to provide them enjoyment and a degree of security and support.
Coaches should also give players choice and ownership allowing them to practice and experiment with new techniques, skills or tactical ideas they present in training.
Practicing, Experimenting and Competing
We learn soccer in three different ways:
• by practicing
• by experimenting
• by competing
These activities require different mind sets.
While there is no substitute for practicing to get better at things, experimenting and competing also have a major role in the process.
As coaches our understanding of where these different modes of play sit within learning is vital if the players are to be supported effectively. Research has shown that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice and experimenting to get really good at complicated skills like soccer techniques or playing the violin. Interestingly the very best players spend a larger percentage of their10,000 hours working away from their coaches on their own or with their friends in informal activity.
In soccer when practicing passing, receiving, shooting or dribbling the aim should be precision, efficiency and reliability and such repetition should lead to smooth, effortless, automated expertise. But simply practicing can also make players rigid and predictable. So after practicing for a bit, players need to try something different. They need to play around with the techniques, skills and tactics and see what happens.
A simple example may be to try out new techniques and skills with the weaker footor see what happens when you cross the ball into the penalty area earlier orlater than the coach has suggested.
Players need to experiment with the new skills and concepts they have practiced. Practice gives players the foundation for experimenting.
Experimenting develops flexibility and the ability to be unpredictable; the perception to see the tiny differences in an opponent’s body position or a team mate’s movement that cannot be seen from the sideline by the coach.
Experimenting helps develop creativity, innovation and inventiveness – hallmarks of the best and most effective football players. But experimentation can lead to things going wrong and mistakes being made.
When young players compete in matches they are not the finished article. They should always strive to win but never be afraid to push the barriers and experiment, even during matches.
In order for this to happen the coaches need to be mentally strong and to understand their temporary place in the evolution of the developing player – in other words the coaches should endeavour to put the learning needs of the players first and model learning and the behaviour that goes with it.
Send out the message that you ‘don’t like experimenting’ and the players will stop doing it and their learning will be hindered as a result.
Guy Claxton [Professor of Learning Sciences at Bristol University, UK] says ‘Learning is what we do when we don’t know what to do,’ and ‘if we don’t know what to do sometimes we’ll get it wrong and mistakes will happen’.
The big question is how can players and coaches use this to their advantage?
Firstly players need to know whether they are expected to practice or experiment. Practicing is aimed at precision, efficiency and reliability. Experimenting ispushing the limits of our practice so that we can see what may happen if we tryit this way or that.
If coach and players get their wires crossed and one thinks it practice when theother thinks it is experimenting chaos and breakdown in communication will occur.
Secondly, coaches need to clarify the learning objectives for the players - i.e. what isthis activity or drill all about?
Understanding how players learn is central to the whole process – some learning is almost instantaneous but other learning takes time to be absorbed and become fluid and natural. Players that take more time to learn are not bad learners; they maysimply need more time – fast learning is not necessarily the best learning.
After setting up a new learning activity the coaches first task should be to conducta needs analysis, i.e. who really needs my help? Am I just being self-indulgentand showing the players what I know?
Listening to the players is a vital skill and one that coaches need to develop; also askingthe right questions in the right way and at the right time. Instructions should be clear and precise and directed at those players who need them. Players who do not need help should be given the time and opportunity to practice orexperiment without interruption.
How do mistakes help learning?
We might not like our players making mistakes but they do happen even when theplayers are experienced and know a lot about what they are doing. The fact that we talk about learning through trial and error suggests that the error part is not going to be eradicated.
There is also our recognition that in order to win games of football there is often the need to take risks and try out new things learnt on the training pitch.
This may mean attempting more difficult techniques, applying new skills orexperimenting with new strategies or tactics i.e. taking training into the game.
If as coaches we encourage our players to take the actions that are required to learn new things we have to recognise that there will be errors. The question is how do we as coaches respond to our players making such errors?
Learning new things is a high risk business for the players. It means daring not to knowand it may mean facing up to the fact that you may not yet be as competent as others within your group or team.
Therefore the player must see the relevance of the new technique, skill or tactic otherwisethey may perceive the risk of daring not to know as too great and not bother to try - staying within the boundaries of what they can already do instead. Therefore, motivation to learn is high on the agenda.
During this transitional state players could be fragile and only highlighting their mistakes may not be the best way to encourage them to practice and experiment with new things.
Players need to be given the license by the coach to experiment and try out new andexciting things, in doing so pushing out the boundaries of what they currently know or can do – moving on into the unknown.
Highlighting mistakes may send out the message that not being able to do something is a personal flaw. Players may not want to risk being seen as incompetent or inadequate within their group and not try again.
To create the right learning challenge for their players sometimes the most constructive response to mistakes from coaches can be a sort of ‘skilfulneglect’. In other words, leave the players alone as much as possible to workout as much for themselves as they can.
The coach needs to recognise and acknowledge how players may be feeling when faced with new or difficult tasks i.e. ‘We’re now going to work with our weaker foot. I understand that things may go wrong and sometimes passes may not be as good as you would like but that’s OK. Just try to steadily improve thatweaker side.’
Become your own ‘coach inside your head’.
It is possible to reflect on mistakes later when the emotion of the moment and the match has drained away. Some players will find developing this questioningprocess useful:
• Where did the mistake occur?
• When did it occur?
• What did you do?
• How did you feel aboutwhat happened at the time?
• Why was it a mistake?
• What did you learn?
• How will you improve?
Coaches can help players develop this process
Possible problems with mistakes
The biggest problem with mistakes is that fear of making them may well hinder ourdevelopment and evolution as learners and players. That is why it is important to reassess the role of mistakes in player development, recognise that they are merely staging posts on the learning pathway and can never be completely avoided.
They can be costly in competitive matches but we are talking about player development which is a long-term process. Short-term reversal versus long-term gain is a price worth paying.
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