Comparing Coaching Methods

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Soccer CoachAs we approach another season of coaching, I thought it would be appropriate to have a discussion on coaching methodology.  How we choose to teach has a huge impact on the player’s development. At the young ages, our main goal should be to instill a high level of enjoyment for the game, and to facilitate the competence with which they can play.  Coaching methodology impacts this tremendously.

Towards that end, I have included here a discussion comparing a direct teaching approach to a guided teaching method with youth players, specifically players ages 9-14.  I hope that it sparks interest and an evaluation of how we all coach and deal with players.

Direct Method of Teaching

This method of coaching attempts to teach by providing the players with much of the solutions to the soccer problems.  In this respect, the coach takes the information from the game and interprets it for the players.  This can be described as a “coach-centered” approach.

Guided Discovery Method of Teaching

This method of coaching  attempts to teach by using the game as the forum for asking the players questions to draw out their own thoughts about what is happening in the game. The GAME provides the material and the coach helps to guide, but the player has some responsibility and freedom to find his own solutions. This is an experiential method that allows room for mistakes and the lessons that can be learned through trial and error.   This can be described as a “player-centered” approach.

Each of these methods has its place in helping to develop young players.  Neither of these methods, in their purest form can be used at the exclusion of the other.  There fore, the most effective developmental model for young players includes a balanced approach that employs direction –  for the purpose of clarity(demonstration), structure(rules) and discipline(behavior) – within an environment that also allows the player to experience the game(repetition) and encourages experimentation(discovery), trial and error(lessons).

Young Players Need Some Direction…

1.  Players need something to emulate (TV, older players, highlights, MLS, etc.).  If the player does not have this, the direct approach for some of the technical side and creative side must come into play.

2.  At the younger ages, it is probably a combination of direct coaching for technique and repetition (in the absence of emulation) with a lot of guided discovery.

3.  In talking to coaches who deal with ages 7 and up, the repetition and direct approach for many of the kids is needed.

4.  The whole process can be aided by energy and passion from the coach and how that coach inspires the passion for the game in the young player.  Also, fun competition within the group culture has shown to be a great motivating factor in all aspects of development.

To develop familiarity with the ball, repetition and direction is necessary to an extent.  If we are more efficient and effective in collecting, passing, striking a ball at the young ages, we can allow more time in training to promote creativity and free expression.

There is great value in giving young players “pictures” to copy, whether this be from older local players, or from watching high level soccer on TV or as a live event.  Unfortunately, in our culture, young players are not steeped in a soccer tradition that encourages players to watch and experience soccer -other than their own games and practices.

Our players are not spending enough time with the ball – on their own or during practice.  So much of their soccer experience is spent being “organized” , (staying in their positions and not making mistakes), that our players don’t have a baseline of technique. This is evident every day at the club level, in college and with the youth national teams.  We are technically deficient.

In talking to club coaches in the trenches, their feedback is that almost no kids bring or pick things up by just watching.  But with some demonstration and repetition a few kids get it and this jumpstarts their creativity.  But,   at the young ages a more direct approach to teaching technique may be beneficial, (lots of repetitions of specific movements with the ball – passing, receiving, shooting, feints).

Mixing  in some more directed technical coaching at the young ages gives more kids familiarity on the ball, which allows for more kids to become creative.  Those kids that are going to do it on their own, will still do it and may figure it out more quickly.

Young Players Need Some Freedom…

Often times, the need to direct and often choreograph movements for our young players is a product of us,(as coaches), feeling that we somehow have a deadline to meet with these kids. And the quicker and more specific we can give them information, then the more efficient and effective we have become.  Too often, as youth soccer in this country focuses on moving players vertically as fast as possible, many of our young players move to the next level with a lot of “match” experience, but without a solid skill base. We need to consider a more lateral approach to teaching that spends more time allowing players to develop the skills that they will need to continue to enjoy soccer before the move onto to the next set of soccer challenges.

A coach’s passion can have a very positive impact on players.  Oftentimes, and especially at the youth level, enthusiasm for the game can go a long way.

There is a misconception that a player centered approach has no direction from the coach.  That’s not accurate.  This approach doesn’t advocate that  the coach just sit in a lawn chair and read the paper, (even though there are some that would be doing the kids a service by doing so).

Any coach needs to take an active part in the learning process.  But, oftentimes, this can be done through exercises and games that he organizes that allow the players to do the lion share of the problem-solving.

Demonstrating how to execute a certain technique is different from telling a player the mechanics of how to do something, and then giving them little or no freedom for their own interpretation.   Repetition can be positive,  coach driven.  If you set up opportunities for players to have repeated opportunities to try stuff, that’s repetition – but they should also be given a certain amount of freedom to find their own way.

However, an overly regimented approach to how a coach creates repetition at the young ages is not beneficial.  A  great deal of coaches at the youth level spend too much time organizing and controlling the players, step for step, or play by play.  The youth coach’s responsibility is to set up environments that allow for these repetitions in some sort of fun., competitive situation that also allows for a balance of some guidance from the coach and a lot of “doing” by the player.  “Learning is the kindling of the flame, not the filling of the vessel. “

The extreme example of a directed style doesn’t allow for options beyond the coach’s own set of ideas.  That’s what needs to be avoided.  When working with 9-11 year olds, of course the coach should give them some ideas for ways to deal with the ball, pass, shoot etc as well as things to think about in 1’s 2’s, 3’s and 4’s etc.  But the coach should  not give them a set of options that they are not allowed to think outside of either.

Players Need Some of Both

So, where is the middle ground between the two outside edges of these approaches?  Certainly, the information and guidance from a knowledgeable adult that is delivered at appropriate times during practice and matches, on and off the field, can play a vital role in a player’s development.

When providing information, guidance and direction to players, keep the following points in mind:

There should not be so much information that the player gets overloaded, or so little that the players lack a purpose to their decisions.

The direction should make sense to what’s happening on the field, and it should be based on the principles of soccer.

The player should be allowed some room to think for himself, based on what’s happening on the field.

A coach should offer his players and the team a purpose and direction for each practice session and match, for the week and for the season.   Each practice should be well organized, with the coach giving the players a clear understanding of the general objectives for each exercise, and how it fits into the overall purpose of the day, week, etc.  At the same time, within the practice or match, the coach should consciously allow for some amount of “player interpretation” that is based on the basic principles of soccer, as well as the general team goals that the coach has presented.   It is very important that the coach’s information and direction makes sense based upon soccer and what’s happening in the game or practice.

When teaching technique to younger players, (U-10 and U-12), it can be beneficial to give these players some amount of directed repetition, especially in the beginning of the sessions.  For example, a coach can set up a series of exercises where players are actively involved in passing the ball, receiving the ball, practicing different ways to wrong foot players and shooting on goal. The coach is directing through the different techniques that he is requiring the players to repeat.  The coach can provide specific examples of how to execute these techniques through demonstrations and allowing the players repeated opportunities to practice.  This can be done in structured, but active exercises (a lot of small groups and a lot of movement – no lines or lectures).  At the same time, the coach should not expect the players to grasp each technique immediately.  Even with repetition, the process is often slower than the coach would like it to be.  Coaches should try to avoid the temptation to spend too much time with one player’s mechanics.  There should be brief demonstrations and then the repetitions in the exercises, over time, should move the player forward.   As the practice evolves to the middle or 2nd half of the session, the players should then be given freedom to practice these techniques in a free flowing game.

As the players move to the free flowing portions of the practice, the coach becomes more concerned with how the players are able to apply the different techniques that they have been practicing to the game.

Soccer is a fluid game and coaches should approach the game with a flexibility that reflects this quality.  At the same time, managing players and communicating information to others, especially young boys and girls, also requires a willingness to adjust to personalities and varied situations.  It is a great challenge, and one that we , as coaches, don’t always get right.  But this is okay.  There is not just one way to coach.  Each approach and style makes sense in the right situation.  It is the responsibility of the coach to find how to best blend these teaching methods together in order to give the players the most positive experience possible.  Constant self-evaluation as well as periodic peer assessment are the most effective guarantees for helping a coach continue his own professional growth.


Jeff Pill

About This Author

Jeff is the creator of the famous "PIll's Drills". These drills have been used by thousands of coaches all over the world, and at one time were receiving over 300,000 hits a day. His drills have been used all over the world and translated in to German as well as several other languages.

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