USSF Lesson Plans: Form vs Content

This is a great rant sent to me by Chad McNichol (twitter:@balonfoot), a youth soccer coach in Arizona. It raises some great questions about both USSF coaching education and USSF coaching orthodoxy.  Take a look at the email and the accompanying lesson plan.-Scott

Here’s an example of what bothers me about USSF, which is fresh in my mind after the recent C License presentation from the DOC of our club.

u12-dribbling-to-penetrate

 Here we have a session in a pretty PDF. 

  • We have our topic – check
  • We have our progression of activities starting with the technical warm up – check
  • We end in a game – check

 But wait…. there’s more!  We’ve been doing the above for years….since the old E “certificate” days …. Now we’ve added

  • the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why)
  • intensity levels (because we’re tying it to periodization, the latest buzzword)
  • and we’ve even added the numbers of the players per the 1-4-3-3 numbering system! (I added the one, per new USSF orthodoxy, in case you were afraid that we wouldn’t be playing with a Goalkeeper on Sunday)

 Who could ask for anything more!?  Just look at all these words on the page!  All the fields are meticulously filled in!

Never mind that:

  • We have completely conflated the concepts of “dribbling to beat an opponent 1v1” with “dribbling to penetrate”.  The warm up has us doing Cruyff turns and scissors.
  • We are pretending that “dribbling to penetrate” is primarily a technical issue, when in fact recognizing when and why to “dribble to penetrate” (e.g. to draw defensive response for dismarking, to create overloads etc.) is the part that’s difficult.  Training the tactical is far more complex than talking about “dribbling with the laces”, “head up”, or whatever other  canned coaching point you can list about any creature dribbling a soccer ball.
  • If I’m a coach seeking info, and I download this plan from the internet, how helpful are these very generic so-called “coaching points”?

           “Penetration: Where, when, why?”

            “Improvisation: What, where, when?” 

Indeed.  Those are really important questions. Conveniently not answered here.

This is “guided discovery” run amok.  Notice that the details of all coaching points DO NOT GET MORE SPECIFIC OR FOCUSED as the session increases in complexity and becomes more game-like.  This is a huge problem for me.

The methodology is obviously just a box check.  This plan was put together by the MYSA, a big name in youth soccer. And in my opinion it’s abysmal.

  • “Where: Attacking Half” – Really? So not applicable to center backs dribbling to penetrate into the middle third if everyone is marked? (As Mascherano does for Barcelona week in, week out) 
  • “When: In Possession of the Ball” – Mind blown! I was struggling to figure out how to dribble when not in possession of the ball.  this is a canned response that offers no insight or information to either the coach or the players.

You get the idea.  There’s all this polished material out there.  All this pedagogy.  All these edicts.  And, more importantly, all this $$$ being shelled out for this coaching education from the experts.  But how helpful is this plan to a coach who has no tactical context of where, why or when to dribble?

I agree with Chad.  I think there are two dangers in this type of approach to coaching education.  One is that we get too wrapped up in the “How” of coaching:  Methods, Style, Pedagogy, Theory, Presentation, etc. to the point where the “How” becomes more important than the “What”… or even worse: we start to think the “How” is the “What”.  Just run this lesson plan, the activities will do the teaching, and the kids will figure it out for themselves. Congratulations! You’ve just created the Next Messi™

The second problem is that the real information the American coaches desperately need… the global standard of “What, When, Why, Where”… is still missing, either because the things  we really need to know aren’t known by those in charge, aren’t being taught, or aren’t being taught adequately.   Shouldn’t it be the job of our Coaching Education system to both know and to teach these things to their coaches?  The big concepts and the little details that make the difference between success and failure? The specific information you need in a situation to dismark from an opponent.  The specific conditions that influence a decision to pass or dribble? The specific body angle to take in a specific situation? What foot to receive the ball on in a specific situation?… This information is out there, and it’s both teachable and learnable.  Kids all around the world (even some here) are being taught these things and you can see the difference when you watch them play. And trust me, until you know what you don’t know, the players you coach are not going to get much better. Not really.

This past week another friend of mine received his USSF B License. (sincere congratulations, by the way!)  I asked him what kind of technical and tactical insights he were taught at the course. Taken in tandem with Chad’s observations, I thought this reply was very interesting:

“the application of technique in tactical phases is always a concern and issue but it wasn’t a particular focus of the course. The course REALLY focuses on the work of the coach from a holistic perspective (how do you lead your team, how do you lead your players, how do you manage the performance environment, methodology of training sessions, methodology and application of game analysis, management of game day/in game functions and analysis, how do you lead yourself, etc etc. The assumption would be that anyone getting to the level of a B coach would already know and be doing that kind of stuff.”

Sounds like good stuff.  But it’s still more form over content.  And I’m going to repeat that final line because I think it is crucially important.

“The assumption would be that anyone getting to the level of a B coach would already know and be doing that kind of stuff.”

But is that stuff being taught?  Are our coaches really learning it? Are they “doing it”? I don’t think so.  Not from my experiences at National Licenses, not from experiences others have shared with me, and frankly not from what I see on the majority of soccer fields I frequent. (apologies to those exceptions.  There are some, but they are the exception, not the norm)

What is the point of having coaching points on a lesson plan if the coach doesn’t  understand the technical and tactical points, doesn’t understand how those pieces work together, doesn’t recognize when they are or aren’t working, and doesn’t understand how to apply or adjust them? Worst of all, what if the coaching points are just flat out wrong for the topic?

as a postscript to this, Chad later told me

As an engineer in corporate America, I deal with canned, pointless templates, meetings and activities ALL DAY EVERY DAY. It upsets me to turn soccer into the same.

I couldn’t agree more. Is there value in learning good coaching methods and techniques ? Of course there is!  Is this where American coaches are falling behind their international counterparts? I don’t think so.  In my opinion, what our intermediate and high level coaches really need, desperately need, is not information on how to run a more efficient session, but content and information on how to make our players better. Without the right content, even the best organized training session is a waste of time.

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