Anyone who has coached young players will likely recognize this scenario: a coach explains something to a player, asks if the player understands, watches the player nod his head in agreement – and then observes the child do the exact opposite on the field!
When I started coaching this used to happen to me a lot. What I came to realize is that it wasn’t the players who weren’t getting it; it was me. Why should I expect players to understand something that they may have never seen before? The reality of course, is that verbal communication is just one medium a coach uses to get his message across. It’s not simply the words, though; it’s how a coach illustrates the lessons.
Like any communication, the language used needs to be understood by the receiver. Yes, phrasing instructions in ways young players can grasp and appreciate will help ensure that they’ll embrace the concept. More importantly, however – young players need to see and experience it beforehand – and that can happen through the use of small-sided games at practice.
Players need to train situations during practice so that they can understand challenges and solutions on their own. Games can be constructed that present particular situations in appropriate areas of the field so that players can identify and solve particular problems.
One of my favorite possession based games is North-South-East-West. Many facets can be learned with this simple game. As an example, with a coach’s guidance, young players in wide positions can really learn the importance of staying wide and maintaining a body stance that is open to the field in order to receive a pass on the back foot. This game provides the opportunity for players to have countless repetitions of such a valuable technique in a fun and competitive setting – that is replicable in a real game.
In order for players to learn, coaches need to do more than provide simple verbal instructions. For players to turn a technique into skill, they need to understand the WHY (and the where, when, etc.). Small sided games in practice allow players to see it and experience it for themselves. As players begin to interpret and apply solutions to problems they face in these small sided games, the coach can observe and determine if the player has gained a true understanding – and that’s better than any nod at a question.