When I first thought about writing this piece I was a little hesitant. I’m not really a fan of the hatchet-job articles on youth soccer development. After thinking about it a little more, though, I remembered a few things. I remembered DOC’s who make six figures playing the club politics but don’t care about the game. I remembered supposedly top coaches who are given the best teams but divide their sessions equally between lines and lectures. I remembered families being hustled by charismatic but manipulative coaches. Most of all I remembered the kids who got lost in this chaos.
The emperor has no clothes. Plain and simple. Much, if not most, of what coaches traditionally do has little bearing on the acquisition of skill. Yes, that includes coaches who played professionally, have cool accents, and even talk about playing out from the back instead of booting it. Most of the profession is based on principles that do not hold up in research. Here’s a way of looking at it.
I think that might be a little generous, actually, but you get the picture. “But you should have seen this player at the start of the year. They couldn’t even control the ball”, you say. Yes, players do improve. Where we go wrong is assuming we know exactly why they’ve improved. Yep, it’s that old correlation vs causation problem. This isn’t an American problem. This isn’t even a soccer problem. This is a universal misunderstanding of skill acquisition.
What I hope to do today is not focus on what everyone is doing wrong, or even my personal opinions about what’s right, but give present solid research on what the factors actually influencing skill acquisition are. Warning: if you’re attached to the way you currently coach this might be somewhat disturbing. Ok, let’s get to the research.
Specificity of Transfer
Who wouldn’t like to be a bit smarter? A few years ago there were a string of smartphone apps claiming to provide exactly that. You could even track your scores and see your progress. Unfortunately, that progress proved to be confined to the specific games you played on that app. In other words, clicking all the green frogs and ignoring the blue ones didn’t lead to increases in IQ, or even the ability to remember where you put your keys. It did, however, lead to an increased ability to click on green frogs.
The principle behind this is called specificity of transfer. What transfers to the player in skill acquisition is the information-movement relationship (Chow, Davids, Button, Renshaw, 2016). Let that sink in for a minute. If learning is specific to the relationship between the performer, task and environment, then jumping over hurdles and slaloming through cones makes you better at – you guessed it – jumping over hurdles and slaloming through cones. That’s not good news for intricate passing sequences with pretend overlaps and criss-crossing runs into the box. Research shows that the information present in the performance environment needs to be represented in the practice environment (Chow et al., 2016). Fancy sequences with no defenders and no decisions serve little purpose other than allowing coaches to fantasize about what they wish would happen in live competition.
We forget about the environment
Ok, this isn’t quite scientific research, but I’m going to use a few clips from the Ronaldo: Tested to the Limit documentary to illustrate a few of the principles emerging from the skill acquisition literature. Coaches tend to focus on action – the technique and execution of movement. The perception side of the coin is equally important and contains some of the key differences between amateur and expert players.
Let’s be honest. If we were going to coach a session on finishing crosses we’d probably focus on the technique of the striker. We’d talk about the timing and angle of the run. We’d talk about keeping your eye on the ball, deciding between header and volley. What this is telling us is that the key difference between expert and amateur is in what they see before the ball is even crossed! Ronaldo simply extracted more information out of the movement of the crosser and used that to predict the trajectory of the ball. That’s not something we’re likely to think about in our session design. We’d probably think it wouldn’t be a big deal to have someone toss the ball to the striker instead of kicking it but this shows otherwise.
Again, most coaches would talk about the quickness of Ronaldo’s feet or the specific technique of the stepover, or whatever movements he executed. The eye-tracker reveals the key difference is in the all important information-movement relationships. Ronaldo doesn’t just have better movements, he has better recognition of environmental cues that provide opportunities for those movements. Being able to do all those skills is very different from being able to do them in response to an active environment. Look, I get it, keeping movements in their performance environment context is tough, but there’s no evidence that skills learned outside that context actually transfer.
We don’t know what we’re saying
I was once told by a DOC that I needed to not only give prescriptive verbal direction during games, not so much for the players, but so that the parents would hear a loud commanding voice. This has little to do with skill acquisition. What coaches say to their players is important. What we don’t say is probably more important. The sad thing is it looks like we’re really unaware of our verbal feedback. A study of high-level rowing coaches by Sarah Millar showed that “The coaches perceived that they gave somewhat fewer concurrent instructions (-31%)” (Millar, 2011). That means we talk more than we realize. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easier to notice this in other coaches first. All you need to do is walk by a game and listen to the endless chatter coming from the coach and think how much of that is informative and how much is reactive to the play.
If we talk more than we realize, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we don’t know what we’re saying either. I mean if you don’t even know you said it, it’s hard to know what you said. “When asked to recall their instructions, the coaches considerably over estimated (36%) the number of instructions they directed toward a correct aspect of the rowers stroke; most of the instructions where directed at incorrect aspects of the rowers’ movement. The coaches also perceived they gave ontask instructions (toward what rowers were told to do), when the findings showed the coaches’ instructions were often off task (about something other than what rowers were told to do), (Millar, 2011). The coaches in this study were high level coaches who knew they were being observed and would have to give account of what they said.
Coaches, this isn’t a pretty picture. We’re blabbering on without a clue what we’re saying or how effective it is. I remember a U10 game where the coach scolded the players about the line of confrontation. How many times do we say things that just sound knowledgeable or “coachy”. “Pressure, cover, balance, guys!!” I know I’ve done it. It’s instinctive. Millar also found that most coaches did want to help their players succeed and develop, but their lack of self-awareness was the key limitation, (Millar, 2011). If you instantly feel above all of this, it’s probably a good sign you’re not. Until coaches develop the self-awareness to think about what they’re saying, good intentions mean little. The gap between what the coach thinks happened and what actually happened will be wasted time at best, and toxic release of unconscious pain at worst.
So how and when should coaches use verbal feedback? This is a tricky question and I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers to it, but it seems fair to say that most of what coaches say isn’t as effective as they think it is. “The optimal frequency of augmented feedback appears to be dependent on the player’s stage of learning as well as the complexity or difficulty of the task. In the initial stages of learning or when the task to be learnt is fairly difficult, players may require feedback more frequently to improve performance”, (Wulf, Shea,& Matschiner, 1998). I believe coaches who keep the principles of autonomy-supportive coaching in mind will align with this structure much more easily. Throwing a ball out every practice and letting the chips fall where they may doesn’t support autonomy any more than instructing every move. Yin and Yang. Zen. Balance. Ommmm. Ok, that’s enough.
Technique doesn’t develop the way we think it does
Few things feel as good as putting the “technical player” label on one of your prodigies. Technique just feels unassailable. It’s a gold standard of movement perfection. We imagine graceful players like Zidane and Bergkamp. Technique is usually associated with well-coached players, which is why we love it so much. The research on the development of this technique deviates significantly from common coaching practice, though. Let’s take the idea of blocked practice of a specific skill. Blocked practice refers to focusing of a specific technique such as shooting with the instep by means of repeating the movement until the errors are ironed out. The research shows that this does lead to increased ability in the technique, but going back to our specificity of transfer principle, we should be able to guess that less variability in training leads to less ability to apply those skills in variable environments like games. Variable practice (more environmental information and decisions) leads to greater retention of the skills, especially in children, (Williams, 2004).
Let’s get technical about technique for a minute. The graceful, fluid, and effective movements we call technique are actually dynamic patterns that have emerged out of the interaction between the performer, environment, and task. The starting point is the body of the performer. Technique is specific to body of the person performing it. This isn’t some postmodern claim that all movements are equal, but to the extent that each performer inhabits a different body, each performer will have to develop personalized movement patterns. If we get wrapped up in the idea of a universal technical ideal and try to fit personal movements into that standard then players lose focus on the result of the movement. By focusing on the result (where did the ball go etc.) players will naturally converge onto movement solutions that efficiently solve movement problems, (Chow et al., 2016). This is the technique we see when we watch silky players like Zidane.
Where do we go from here?
The first step is back. Step back. Get the ideas of tactical periodization, formations, and set plays out of our minds. Familiarize yourself with the basic principles of learning and skill acquisition. Become curious about how your motivations influence your interactions with players. There’s still a lot we don’t know about learning. We still make unsophisticated assumptions about the causality of skill acquisition. I see this every time a country wins the world cup. Some American soccer pundit will ask someone from that country what we’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right. Inevitably, they’ll give some vague answer about culture and passion and intelligence vs american idiocy, kick & chase, or emphasis on athleticism. Four years after having “cracked the code” that country will get obliterated in the group stage and we’ll ask the next winners the same questions.
Successful countries haven’t pinpointed the causality success (Iceland may be an exception) any more than we’ve pinpointed the origin of our failures. For this reason, sports science is in the early stages of a massive transition to a nonlinear paradigm. We’ve been standing on the sidelines acting in a parallel to development for far too long. The emperor has no clothes. Despite our good intentions, we’ve been far less involved in the development of skill than we believe. Until we’re brave enough to see that, we have no chance at changing it.
I’m not even going to say anything about this. Given what you’ve seen in the research, how much impact on skill acquisition do you think this session has?
Chow, J. Y., Davids, K., Button, C., & Renshaw, I. (2016). Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition: An introduction. New York, NY: Routledge.
Millar, S. K. (n.d.). Coaches’ Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature and Intent of Verbal Instruction to Athletes … Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1260/1747-9522.214.171.1243
Williams, A. M., & Hodges, N. J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition. Journal of Sports Sciences,23(6), 637-650. doi:10.1080/02640410400021328
Wulf, G., Shea, C. H., & Matschiner, S. (1998). Frequent Feedback Enhances Complex Motor Skill Learning. Journal of Motor Behavior,30(2), 180-192. doi:10.1080/00222899809601335