If we hope to maximize our children’s potential we must question the underlying assumptions of our current training paradigm.
For 35 years I have heard that the USA is on its way to creating the next generation of great players. In the 1980’s we were a country on the verge of football maturity. In the 90’s our potential would be realized when the MLS was in full operation. At the turn of the century quality would improve with the introduction of soccer specific stadiums and competitive club guidelines. We continued to believe that an American coach X or a foreign coach Y would lead us to the promise land. Surely, our athleticism and fitness would guide us to excellence. Recently the US hired a Belgian consultancy firm to deliver a German road map to success (yes, consider the irony in that one). In 2016 new US Soccer mandates are destined to administer success. You get the picture. While the policies change, the hyperbole remains the same. We are almost there. Go USA! Make America Great!
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
We will not legislate American success in player development anymore than we have done so in education. “No Child Left Behind” did not lead to children getting ahead. In fact, we are woefully poor compared to many other countries with far fewer resources at their disposal, both in education and in football.
Let me suggest America’s shortcomings in education are significantly similar to our mediocrity in player development. We can build better lunchrooms, computer rooms and science rooms. We can also build fancier fields, better gyms, and wear modern uniforms fitted with high tech GPS data receptors. We are almost there. Go USA! Make America Great!
We have changed so much in 35 years except the very thing that actually spurs change. After all these years one governing paradigm for training our youth has remained in place. In essence, we have merely replaced the old band-aid with the new. It may be cleaner, it may be fractionally better, and it may give us the illusion of advancement. But our quest for innovation has remained stagnant where change was needed most.
If we are to maximize the potential of every footballer in the United States of America, then we must change not the governance but the governing paradigm upon which our entire training is based.
Are we ready to look deeper?
We cannot change the superficial and administrative components of the game, nor change the people in charge and expect different results. We have done that for so many years and to no avail. Good people working with good intentions we have in abundance and all deserve our respect for their commitment to the game.
A New Paradigm Needed
What the heck is a paradigm? It sounded like a grand and important word so I looked it up.
Paradigm: A framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a community.
I believe that soccer training in formal environments at US soccer clubs is based upon the following paradigm and is commonly accepted by the community we call coaches.
“Technical-Centric “ Paradigm
It is a powerful and pervasive approach to teaching the game. It is founded on the sound and logical notion that technique is an important part of playing. That execution is the building block upon which we layer our training. This philosophy, in practice, sounds something like this when coaches emphatically defend it.
“We must teach the basics of passing the ball before the kids play.”
“We need to train skills through repetition.”
“Once we teach them 50 moves they will be able to play the game well.”
“Technique first and foremost,” cry the purists. Nobody disputes the premise that technique is critically important. However, while technical repetition it is not the worst thing you can do at a group training, it is pretty close to being the least effective thing you can do if your aim is to develop intelligent players with the creative vision to play the game in its entirety.
“It is widely believed by teachers, trainers, and coaches that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give it dogged, single-minded focus, practicing over and over until you’ve got it down. What’s apparent from the research is that gains achieved during massed practice are transitory and melt away quickly.” (The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel)
Why do we emphasize so much technical training?
First, it is ‘easy hanging fruit’ and any coach can put kids in rows and conduct a shooting drill. It is easy to understand that if the ball enters the goal it is good and if it goes wide it is bad. Repetitive training as such gives us the illusion of success and deceives us into thinking that profound and meaningful learning has taken place. It has not.
Second, these trainings are based upon this dominant paradigm perpetuated by the entire establishment. Technique is the way to playing the game well so we must build our trainings accordingly.
What happens when you have a paradigm shift? What might come forth when you start to rethink the way things are done currently? We know what happens and it was an American athlete who gave us the most compelling example.
Dick Fosbury introduced a new concept in his sport of high jumping which at first was ridiculed and criticized. The Fosbury Flop is now the standard of high jumping, having been introduced to the world at the 1968 Olympics. Up until that moment the dominant methodology was based upon a forward roll approach. Fosbury actually asked us to think upside down and backwards to reach a higher goal. And he literally and figuratively raised the bar for all jumpers hence.
Are we willing to rethink the way footballers are developed?
To be completely honest, I coined this name last night while pondering the future of talent development in football. I know, my wife says the same thing you are saying to yourself now. Who stays up at night pondering training paradigms? I do. In any case, I am introducing this paradigm today: May 8, 2016.
- “Geo” refers to two words: Geometric and Geographic.
- Cognitive refers to a process of perception, conception, decision, execution and assessment.
The “Technical-Centric” Paradigm is focused on execution. But as you see here, it is merely one fraction of what constitutes talent. To play the game is to execute in an environment full of variables and potential solutions to any given challenge presented. Technique is not enough. Not even close.
“Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.” (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel)
I like to teach football in geometric forms: lines, triangles, diamonds, heptagons and so on. I might even throw a rhombus in there from time to time. Not that I know what it is, I just think rhombus is a really cool name for just about anything. If you have children yourself you will know that even young children are excellent at recognizing shapes, which only embeds the learning achieved.
I like to look at football as a process of managing space. In fact, I like to look at life that way as well. As children we naturally begin with our egocentric selves and if we are lucky (and not too inclined to obsess about taking selfies all day) we mature into beings capable of extending our circle to include a ball, our teammates, the opponents, and perhaps even the entire Earth on which we play. The process is one of geographic exploration – something we are inclined to do as natural adventurers of our ever-expanding environment. We must teach players to be capable of managing space on the pitch.
At TOVO International we actually teach a 6-step cognitive process to our players. And we do not wait for them to be teenagers to do it. If we want to create intelligent players we must train intelligence. Sounds simple and yet it is so often ignored in traditional training.
- Perceive (scanning our environment for relevant cues)
- Conceive (divergent thinking in order to create options)
- Decide (convergent thinking in order to select the best option)
- Deceive (disguising our intentions)
- Execute (the technical execution of the option selected)
- Assess (an evaluation of the choice and the execution)
So, if I place at the center of a methodology a desire to nurture talented and intelligent and responsible athletes, my paradigm must be built on competence, cognition and character.
From that ambition I construct my trainings. I build my development programs and I select those coaches to whom I entrust its fruitful realization. Everything changes. The overarching goals, the long-term planning, the training session and the training exercise. Everything is constructed from a new paradigm and tested. Nothing random, no time wasted and no nonsense that is selected with an “it has always been that way” justification.
Efficiency and efficacy drive our decisions. Children learn, they play better and they behave. Most importantly, they have fun every step along he way.
Einstein was an intelligent man. I am most certain that his wisdom extends well into football and the development of talent. I hope that we will not do the same thing over and over and expect different results.
I will look forward to the day when players from my home country come to Europe better prepared to play the game and the day our coaches are better prepared to teach it to our children.
If our children are to excel it will be a direct result of our courage to rethink our assumptions on how we educate our youth - in school and on the football pitch.