Taking a snapshot

I have written previously in "the freeze technique" and "separating the signal from the noise" about finding the right time to stop an activity and being able to identify whether players are executing the skills you are working on in your training sessions. Since I work with novice coaches both in my coaching courses and in my regular role as director of coaches, I see a lot of behaviors that are counterproductive to the development of players.

In this post, I wanted to look more closely at one aspect of coaching that will help improve the practice of coaches possibly more than any other, the snapshot. The snapshot used to be called a "Kodak moment" for those of us of a certain age. The idea is very simple. If you know EXACTLY what you are looking for, it is a lot easier to find it than if you only sort of have an idea. In his book, Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey describes habit 2 as "begin with the end in mind." The snapshot technique does exactly that.

For example, take an instep pass. Coaches love to start out a session with pairs standing and passing back and forth in straight lines. It's easy to coach, the players don't mind because they don't have to think too much and the coach can easily make himself the center of attention.
image source: https://soccer.wonderhowto.com/how-to/pass-soccer-ball-with-inside-your-foot-0118549/ 
You can see examples of great technique pretty quickly with a simple search if you don't already know what a good instep pass looks like. As a coach you are probably thinking, if your players are making lots of passes and it sort of looks OK, then they must know how to do it and you can move on to the next skill. Before you do that, check out the picture above and pay attention to the position of his body and foot. The technique looks good, but what is the next thing that he is going to do?

Passing is only part of the issue. The other parts include balance, agility and tactics. Let's look first at balance. One of the reasons this ball is going to go to the right teammate at the right pace is that the player has great balance. When he strikes the ball, his plant foot is facing the target and as he completes the leg swing, he is positioned to make his next move without falling over. That means he can do it efficiently with a minimum of steps.

Agility is related to balance, but in this context we are looking at his ability to change direction after he has delivered the ball. So often our players will pass the ball and then stand in the spot where they passed it for several seconds before moving. Passing the ball is only one part of the equation, the other part is what you do after you pass the ball. This is where the snapshot technique can be most valuable. Instead of focusing only on the act of passing, we need to demand that our players move after they pass the ball, to continue to support the teammate who now has the ball. If the players lack agility, they will struggle to help their teammates even if they make a quality pass.

Players communicate in many ways when they play. They can talk, that is the most obvious way players think they communicate. They also communicate with their body. Look at the player above and predict what he will do next. You already know that he is in the attacking half of the field and that he is currently not under much pressure which means he is likely to be playing a more defensive role on his team. Go ahead, I'll wait....

If you look at his shoulders and his plant foot, you can eliminate some options: he is not going to go forward because his shoulders are back behind his hips and the plant foot is flat. He has not hit a really hard ball, because his striking foot is not very high up, so the pass is probably a short one.
So what is he going to do? It looks like a possession pass that he thinks might come back to him or he is going to make the pass and move back away towards his own goal to reduce the chance that a counter attack will catch him out of position.

What can we do with this information as a coach? From a technical perspective, the player exhibits great form, shows good balance and agility. From a tactical perspective, his movement in support of his team can tell us a lot about how he understands his role on the team and what he should be doing at this moment.

I can't get any of that information from a warmup where players are passing in pairs in straight lines. However, I can use this game situation to build my practice with my players. The first thing I want to do is make sure my players can perform the skill with precision including balance and agility. I also want them to be able to do it with both feet and at a variety of distances. Then, I want them to be able to use the skill and their movement to support their teammates in a game situation where they flow instantly from passer to supporter (or from 1st attacker to 2nd/3rd attacker).

So I use the snapshot technique to see a situation in a game where my players are executing perfectly both the technical and tactical aspects of a skill. Then, I work backwards to design my activities so that the players can build their skills and decision-making such that they will be able to do it in a game situation.

If you are thinking that this approach would limit the number of things you teach in a season, then you are absolutely right. Inexperienced coaches try to coach too many things during a season and within the season. In education, we describe this as a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, you taught a lot of skills, but your players didn't learn any of them well enough to use them in a game situation with any consistency.

In my early years as a teacher, I received some professional development from a program out of the University of Kansas called the Strategic Instructional Model (SIM). This program asks you to organize what you are going to teach based on what you want your kids to learn. They then have several routines you go through for your course, unit and lesson which aids in planning. In the course organizer routine, you ask yourself, what are 10 things you want your students to absolutely learn while in your course. I am arguing that, as a coach, you should do the same thing, but think smaller. While a teacher may have upwards of 150 hours of instructional time and meet on a regular basis, most of you will be training your players for less than 50 hours in an entire season.

This is where the snapshot technique has the greatest value. Think about 3-5 game situations that you want your players to be really good at and then use those situations to build your practices. It will allow you to decide how much time to allot to each snapshot. Hopefully, the more time you spend, the closer your players will get to the snapshot you have in your mind.

It will also help focus you on your coaching during a session (using the freeze technique) and while watching the games and scrimmages (separating the signal from the noise). As you plan your season or even your next practice, think about your snapshots as a way to become a more effective coach.

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