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Separating the signal from the noise, the two minute technique

When I first earned my A license back a really long time ago, I got the pleasure of having the last session and the topic of high pressure defending. The players (and coaches who were playing) were dog tired and it was going to be hard to run a session and play a game that required a high-intensity effort. I gave the team a few visual cues and sent them out to play. They had had a couple of opportunities to go into high pressure mode, but I was following the advice of my instructors and letting the players see if they could identify the opportunity. Then one of my evaluators came up and told me that if my team didn't score in 4 minutes, I was fired. Knowing my success or failure in this course was on the line, I stopped the action at the next opportunity using the freeze technique. Since this was a corrective point, I had a chance to give the players a short breather while we reviewed what I wanted them to do. The breather re-energized the players and they used the cues on the next opportunity, stole the ball from the defender and scored a goal. I got my A license.

I don't know when I began being able to "separate the signal from the noise," but apparently it happened before that course, so I have no recollection of what it was like for me before then to watch a game and be able to see what was going on, either with an individual player or with a group of players. The succeeding years have only given me a greater perspective on being able to see the game. Being able to get less experienced coaches to do that has not been quite as successful.

A few years before that event, I started teaching coaching courses. I assumed that once I taught something to the coaches, they would be so impressed and moved by what they had just learned that there would be a near 100% transfer from the course to their coaching practices, like what had happened to me. I soon realized that there was very little transfer occurring and in most cases, it didn't change their coaching practices at all.

Being a "growth model" kind of person, I began using a technique that I had learned in professional development from my regular job, it is called the Top 10 things. Basically, even though you cover a lot of content in a course, there are a few things that you REALLY want your students to remember and integrate into their understanding of the topic. It turns out to be an effective technique when used over a 180 day course that meets for an hour 5 days a week for 36 weeks. You can play review games where you talk about the top things you want the students to remember. You can refer back to those ideas repeatedly in the units after you cover them and of course you can include them on formal assessments. Each of those practices helps to ensure that you are getting your point across and the students have a reasonable chance of remembering them. In my mind, the Top 10 things frame the course and all of the other content is connected to those ideas.

In the coaching courses I teach, I don't have that luxury. Courses are a half day to two full weekends long and only the D license allows for coaches to practice what they learned and then be assessed on it during the second weekend. If I am going to make a lasting change in the coaches, I had to make such a big impression that they would never forget it. One way to do that was to cut down on the number of things I was teaching. Not an easy task, since I don't set up the curriculum for the courses.

Then I had to decide what it was I wanted to focus on. This is more difficult than it sounds, there are a lot of possibilities:

  • what skills should be emphasized at what age. 
  • how to perform the skills (important if the coach has never played soccer).
  • organizing a practice to move from warm up to game play. 
  • managing the practice to maximize time actually playing and practicing soccer. 
  • coaching skills like managing players and seeing/making your point at each level of a practice. 
All of those are important and help the coach create a better developmental environment for their players, however, the one that coaches struggle with the most is the coaching skills. Coaches may know the game and be able to design a reasonably good practice, but put them in a game situation and they invariably struggle to see how individual players are doing. I did a quick youtube search and came up with this video of a youth soccer game. There is a lot to like about the skills of the players and the quality of the game (for best viewing, turn off the audio)

and a lot not to like about it as well, so in that regard it is a very typical game. If the coaches for the two teams were focusing on dribbling as a theme in practices, you can see some examples of good dribbling moves and lots of other places where kids could have tried to dribble, but didn't. Most inexperienced coaches would have difficulty picking out either the good or the bad from the game and instead would focus on the game play itself. If you turn on the audio, you can clearly hear the parent/coach focusing on the game and not on any specific skills. 

This is what I see in my coaching courses as well. Coaches struggle to see anything specific about the game in regards to individual players. If we trained on a specific dribbling technique (i.e. pull back) and then had the kids practice it at each level of the practice from warmup to the scrimmage, coaches would be able to show the skill in warmup and have the players do it in a 1 v 1 situation. But once we move to a small-sided game or a scrimmage, the game gets too big or too fast for them to be able to see if a kid did the move well or poorly or if the kid could have used the move in a particular situation, but didn't. 

So my solution is the two-minute technique. Let's say that you are scrimmaging for 20 minutes and you have 10 players at practice that day. For the scrimmage, take two minutes and watch just one player. Look at one aspect of the game. If you were teaching dribbling at that practice, then watch to see if the player attempts to dribble, what move(s) the player uses and whether or not they were successful. Repeat the same technique for each of the players on your team. At the end of the 20 minute scrimmage, you will have assessed each of your players in a game situation and will be able to see the effect of your instruction and what you will need to do next practice or game. 

If you use this technique repeatedly during both practices and games, you will get a much better idea of what the kids are doing. If you haven't read my post on using video, check them out as well. If you want to show the player what s/he is actually doing in a game, the two minute technique is a great way to share what you see with the player. 

So how does this technique help improve coaching skills? It causes the coach to first decide what is important (the choice of what to coach at a practice) and then to see if that is actually being carried out in a game or game-like situation. It also helps the coach start to quantify a lot of things that weren't being quantified before. If the coach teaches 3 dribbling techniques during a season, s/he can use this technique to see who is using it, how often and how successfully. 

It also helps the coach begin to see the coaching points during a scrimmage. I used to call these "Kodak moments," but since most of our kids don't know what a Kodak camera is, instead I will call it a "moment of clarity." It is the point at which the coach can see what s/he is looking for, identify it and act on it in a timely manner. 

In my coaching courses, I ask the coaches to use the two minute technique during the scrimmage portion of each of our sessions. I then give them the freedom to stop the action whenever they have a "moment of clarity." While the situation makes the coaches uncomfortable (who wants to stop the action and be wrong) it also points out the larger problem in that they don't know what they are looking for. I would assume that they would be more comfortable spotting them with their own teams, but observation of the coaches in my program shows that they are still not very good at it. 

So, in summary, the most difficult aspect of coaching is trying to spot a specific thing during a game situation. You can use the two minute technique to help become better at spotting what you are looking for and as a teaching aid. Video is a great way to document what you are seeing because you can review it and share it with your players. It also provides you a way to begin to quantify your effect on the development of the players. Try it and tell me what you think. Questions? email me jmurnan@csaimpact.com 

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