Youth soccer coaches look in many different directions for ideas and methodologies to improve their coaching. Most of these directions point us towards sources within the wider soccer landscape, more experienced coaches, the professional level of the game, coaching courses, successful national teams, highly ranked academy setups and so on. There is certainly a lot to be learned digging deeper into those areas. What we might not realize though is that what we do has far more in common with teaching methodologies than soccer methodologies.
In the last several years many aspects of my growth as a coach have come from influences outside of soccer and sports in general. Perhaps the biggest one has been from the world of education. I’m fortunate to be able to discuss my coaching on a regular basis with my partner who has over twenty years experience in child education and also has experience as a youth basketball coach and as a college basketball player.
In addition to all the great discussions we’ve had about how what one does crosses over to the other, I’ve read many articles from teaching and educational leadership organizations one would not normally come across inside of the soccer world. The one I’d like to explore today is from ascd(Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), titled Less Work, More Learning: The Promise of Effective Feedback.
The article explores four misconceptions of feedback from teachers to students that limits how effective the feedback process can be. There were many direct correlations from teaching to coaching and you should checkout the article in its entirety and see what connections you make with your soccer experience. Below, I’ll share my feedback on the connections I made between the two.
“The main purpose of feedback is to improve the student’s ability to perform tasks they have not yet attempted”
The above quote from the linked article is important to keep in mind whenever we are giving feedback. Whether it be in a training session, game or an arranged off the field feedback session, remembering that what we are sharing should be done in a way to guide the player in the future. Immediate corrective feedback about something that has just happened doesn’t affect what just transpired and if given harshly may negatively affect that player when they next find themselves in a similar situation. And if it is just commentary, not actionable feedback, no learning is likely to take place.
If a player defending in a 1v1 situation gets beat by their opponent and the coach tells the player something along the lines of “that’s too easy” or “that can’t happen(even though it just did)” they aren’t providing the player with any idea as how to approach that 1v1 situation in a more effective way in the future. Even saying “don’t dive in” only serves to highlight what they did wrong and doesn’t give them much guidance in how to avoid diving in again the next time.
If time has been spent with that player and team on 1v1 defending in the past, then referencing guidance given in the past as a reminder of the preferred approach may help the player recall this in the next 1v1 situation. If you have talked to your team about keeping themselves between the ball and your goal, simply reminding them of that may help them resist the urge to dive in for the ball. And if you can communicate to the player that you believe they can do so because you’ve seen them do it in training, this can give them more confidence the next time they find themselves in a defensive 1v1 situation.
In evaluation and feedback sessions away from the field, aiming your feedback to what the player can do in the future to improve their game, coupled with positive reinforcement that you know they can do it can inspire players and give them confidence. In training we have the benefit of being able to control much more than in the game environment to enable us to break guidance down as much as we need to in order for the players to experience the intended learning. We can pause the 1v1 in training to show the distance and angle of approach we prefer and remind the players of that picture when the moment comes in the game.
“Teachers should return assignments with enough time remaining in class for students to respond to it”
When we give feedback is as important as the feedback itself. Evaluations and individual player/parent meetings should be given or take place in between seasons. For a typical U9 to U14 team, the year runs from August to June and is broken into three seasons, fall, winter and spring. Meeting with the players between the fall and winter and then again between the winter and spring presents an opportunity to discuss what has happened in the previous months and what the aim is for the following months.
I took a much different approach to the fall/winter meetings with the two U12 teams I am coaching this year than in year’s past. Instead of spending most of the meeting talking about what I thought was important for the parents to know and then trying to cram in their thoughts at the end, I flipped this around completely. We took as much of the given time(20-25 minutes) as was possible to discuss what was important to the parents and anything the player had shared with them. My feedback was based on how I could work with the player in the winter to give guidance to the areas of development they felt were important within the context of the planned curriculum for the team as whole.
The winter period is a great time for focus on technical development and principals of play for 1v1 to 4v4 situations. It’s also a great time to build confidence and focus on the different needs of each individual player as the pressure that comes with games is removed. It’s a good time then to have that feedback from the parents and players to guide your feedback back to them.
The winter/spring evaluation process was a more straightforward approach wherein I assessed the player’s year to date and what feedback I had for them to focus on for the spring season. Looking at the year as a whole, the timing of feedback between seasons allows time for implementation of that feedback. And it is given far enough away from the tryout period later in the year so that players hopefully do not tie the feedback directly to their spot in the team and all the potential additional anxiety that comes with all of that.
José Mourinho was once asked why he doesn’t take notes in the second half of games as he does in the first. He was response was that it served no purpose because he had no time to share those notes with the team because the game would be over before he could so. Mourinho has also mentioned that he wished he sometimes had a timeout during games because he will see things that very clearly are not part of the game plan and he can’t bring everyone in to sort it out.
This is a great point about feedback during a game. We only can expect one moment to give feedback in a game to the whole team with no(or few) distractions, half time. Giving the team a short couple bursts of important feedback right at the beginning of the half time period allows the players to collect their thoughts individually after this. I now gather the team around at half time before anyone even has a water bottle to be distracted by and we talk, quickly, on the field. I then leave them to get water and hopefully reflect on my feedback and then talk amongst themselves before returning to the field for the second half.
This enables them to consider what was said after having played half the game and take actions based on that discussion in the second half. I very rarely give feedback on the game directly after. At this point, the game is over and any lessons from it will need to be revisited in training and future games. And we all process games differently with how we reflect, or don’t, on how the game went and our performance in it.
The same idea can be carried through in training. While trying to give individual feedback during an exercise without pausing it, I will then give feedback between exercises to tie the two together. I will also pause the exercise and bring the group in if we need to discuss how it’s going and give some feedback as to how we can make it improve. Then they’ll get back to the exercise and I’ll look to completely focus my feedback on the one or two points we discussed during the pause.
As much as possible, I try to engage in these discussions by asking questions, often referring back to previous training sessions or exercises earlier in that same session. This affirms how focused the group is and gives them a chance to reflect and come up with answers, instead of me just telling them what needs to be done differently.
“When teachers give too much feedback on a student assignment, they run the risk of making two mistakes. First, the sheer volume of their feedback might overwhelm students, who won’t be able to discern which feedback is most essential. A student’s working memory can be quickly overtaxed by the many complex cognitive tasks required to read and interpret all the feedback. When teachers comment on a range of different errors instead of focusing their efforts more strategically, they may give students the mistaken impression that comma splices are of equal significance to identifying the causes of the Civil War. Teachers who design assignments with clear, focused learning goals and then provide targeted feedback in these areas help students understand how to prioritize their learning and thinking.”
If you replace teachers in the above paragraph with coaches and students with players, there isn’t too much more to say about this. It’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of players we coach care about what we say. So when we give them too much feedback in terms of frequency and topics of that feedback we make it hard for them to retain what we say for future decision making and they struggle to understand what is of more importance.
In training, session topics and coaching the topic for a week and slowly building playing principals on top of one another keeps our feedback focused. I spent three weeks in January on various 1v1 situations in training and methodically built on that throughout the winter through 2v1s to 2v2s, 3v2s and finally 3v3 play with sessions devoted to either only attacking or defending topics. This enabled the players to really hone in on specific elements of their play while also not making them overthink every single aspect of their play in every session.
Coaches who narrate games out loud, coach the player on the ball constantly, keep yelling vague team wide instructions and intervene verbally in nearly all moments of play cause their players to tune them out. We become background noise to the players so when we have a moment where an impactful piece of feedback is needed, we might not be heard as clearly as we would like.
“Grades and feedback are different. Students can learn from the feedback we give them, but it’s much harder to learn from a grade alone”
Separating the result of a game from the performance, whether it be for the team or an individual is difficult to do. And it’s a challenge for the coach as well. We should try to focus our feedback from games in future training sessions or in game recaps emailed to the team based on how the team performed in specific areas. The result doesn’t indicate how well the team attacked, defended or transitioned between the two clearly. Your team could create more shots, shots on target and corners than the opponent and lose 0-1. Getting the team to understand the difference between results and performance all comes down to how we talk about the game and when we talk about it.
I send out a recap of the game to the team the following day through email. And aside from the occasional challenge of distinguishing between how the three teams I coached played that day, it enables me to have had time to reflect on the game before I provide feedback about it. It then gives the team time to reflect on my reflections before we meet again and begin to prepare for the next game.
This can enable the team to keep confidence up in areas where positive feedback is given about the team’s performance in attacking play in a game in which they didn’t score. It can also help to sharpen focus on defensive principals when we give feedback after a 2-1 win in which our opponent hit the crossbar three times from central shooting positions.
Our feedback can help create separation from the result and the performance and guide players to understanding that in soccer, and life, we can have a strong performance and lose and have a performance below our usual standards and win. And both are perfectly fine as outcomes as they can provide feedback for what comes next.
There is much more to consider with our feedback than just the soccer specific aspects of it. Keeping in mind the misconceptions of feedback from the ascd article as well my attempts to tie them to coaching here can hopefully help with that.
If you’re interested in more ideas from child education, you can checkout ascd.org and follow them on twitter @ascd