Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.22.15Coaching to Develop Players vs Coaching to Win: Some Examples


For a coach, the goal, unless you coach both at the elite level and with kids, say, 17 years old or older (e.g. college program or just maybe a HS varsity team) should be to develop players. We want them to be the best player they can be somewhere down the road–when they are 17 or 19, say.  Sometimes you can do that and also win a lot of games–but not always. Sometimes there are choices.

Sometimes the conflicts between short- and long-term goals might not even be apparent to all coaches, but as an educator and a parent of three soccer players, I see the conflicts emerging all the time, and I think there’s a fair amount choosing to win when they do. Generally, this is bad for soccer, and if you think I am just talking about recreational players, I beg to differ. As Xavi put it about Barcelona: ‘Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education.’…)

Let’s start with this very basic challenge: it’s often hard to do what’s right for kids long term development because of pressure from the one group who should be most supportive of it: parents.  They want quality for their kids, but they mistake wins for quality, thus ironically putting pressure on coaches to serve their kids poorly. So we’ve all got a role in understanding what coaching for the long term looks like and reinforcing it.  One of the simplest things a club can do is to be explicit with parents about not only the balance of goals–winning isn’t irrelevant, it’s just secondary–but how to see goals other than winning in action. And at the bottom of this post you can see some great ideas one Virginia club did to help it’s parents “see” games differently.

But even for coaches who say they are about development, there are pitfalls so I am trying to make a short list of some of the key areas where winning and developing players come into conflict.  I’m going to share it knowing that 1) it is wrong or incomplete or insufficient 2) my knowledge of soccer is non-professional and 3) that given those two things, you will perhaps help me add to it.  If you do, though, try to add to it positively and respectfully. For the most part good people trying to do right by kids get these things wrong.

Coaching to Develop Players Means:

Playing possession soccer. Whether or not Jose Mourinho plays possession and whether a youth team should are very different issues. Sometimes a professional coach chooses a different approach to try to win so when players are nearing the elite level you might want to teach them to counter-attack.  But if you want to develop players you 1) want  as many touches for them as you can get.  I know a coach who advocates for kids to dribble whenever they can, even into a 1 v 3 situation. “You’ll get more touches,” he tells them, but his math is wrong.  When a player loses the ball he or she effectively distributes touches from his or her team to the other team. Sure there’s a time to take some risks, but there’s a big difference in how much you learn when you have the ball for 60% of a game versus 30% of it.  Also 2) you want those touches widely distributed across the players on your team.  Non-possession soccer allocates them primarily to just a few players.  This essentially means you are only developing some of your players seriously.   You also want 3) mental focus and understanding to develop when players don’t have the ball. Call that “mental touches.” You want players to learn how to participate in the game when they don’t have the ball and to do that they have to participate in a form of the game that values movement off the ball and has principles for it. Playing possession soccer means learning what to do when you don’t have the ball and, importantly, it reliably rewards good decisions off the ball.  If you can predictably expect to get the ball if you move into a good position, then you learn to keep doing it. You learn to read the game. If you watch a teammate launch a 30 yard blind pass or try to dribble three players in the midfield, you are learning less when you don’t have the ball because you are not thinking that you are about to get it.  Thinking you will and hoping you might are very different.  Finally 4) you want players to know and understand the system that is played at elite levels so they can aspire to go as far as they can go.  Possession soccer is the default.  That’s why the US Soccer Federation advocates it.

Building out of the back Personally I think at least half of GKs and goalie possessions should involve throws (in the case of goalie possession), or short distribution.  More, really. Even if you win the ball on your goalie punts (which you actually likely only do 1/2 of the time… a very bad bet compared to building over the long run) the result is asymmetrical development. Backs never touch the ball. When they do, it’s in a narrow set of experiences. Building out of the back, even under pressure sometimes, means this in the short run: you will lose the ball.  You will give up a bad goal.  At some point it will cost you a game. But over the long run you will build skill, poise and comfort with the ball among all of your players in a wider variety of high pressure settings. You will teach them to link play. This will allow them to play anywhere on the field and enjoy the game for the rest of their lives.

De-emphasizing unsustainable athletic based success. You probably have a player who is really fast. You can put him on outside. He can tap the ball by a defender and race forward into space. He can get in on goal.  Great.  Over time, the premium on his speed will erode. Teams will figure out how to defend pure speed. You need to teach him not to rely on physical prowess now, when it helps you look good, at the cost of his not being able to play a more sophisticated game later. This situation is endemic.  Some of the kids we coach the very worst are the kids who dominate when they are young.  They make us look good by winning games so we let them become limited and one-dimensional players to keep the wins coming.

Players playing multiple positions. Players younger than a certain age (14? 15? 16?) should play multiple positions. I am 6’3”. I was the shortest kid in my class in tenth grade.  Who KNOWS who will be tall, who will develop in what ways?  A kid who plays soccer should be able to join a game and play anywhere on the field… he shouldn’t be a defender or a striker and only be able to function in that setting. Besides, the killer app at the elite levels is the defender who can attack and the striker who can defend.  It’s called a complete player.  Plus the great majority of coaches spend the great majority of their time coaching on the offensive side of the ball, a top coach once said. That means that the great majority of coaches don’t coach many of their kids much at all.  Should they shift how much coaching of defense they do? Yes. But they should also shift kids so they learn all of the skills in the game.  I get that specialization has to happen at elite levels. I just think it happens way too completely and too early at the non-elite levels.

Quiet and ego-less coaches. A coach should be calm and composed in teaching (or reinforcing during a game) so players can be calm and composed in executing. When you bring your emotions into it you add one more variable that distracts the player from thinking about his or her own execution. Why is he shouting at me? Is it fair? Does he shout at everyone like this? Am i being picked on? Does he think the goal was my fault? Didn’t he see Danny’s misplay? He never yells at Danny.

There’s also an element of ego involved. When we coach demonstratively and we win, it looks like maybe it was all that dramatic coaching stuff that won the game. Do some coaches worry that if they win and appear from the sidelines to have done almost nothing, if they did all their work in advance, say, it might not be clear to parents and observers that their coaching helped cause the win? Almost assuredly.  And that’s poison because it makes coaching about the coach and not the players. I recently watched a coach in an indoor game, where there are no offsides, tell his forward to stay behind the defense and 15 yards from the opposition’s goalie.  She stayed behind the defense, yards up field, got three or four release passes and scored two. Her team won 2-1.  What a brilliant bit of coaching!  Or was it? Just maybe he’d taught his girls an approach that was counter-productive–in a real game the forward would have been 20 yards off sides on purpose–in order to make himself look clever. That’s ego getting in the way of teaching.

Reinforcing decision-making over outcome: Making the right decision with an imperfect touch is often a good thing… at least as good as a good touch with a bad decision.  In the end, the decision-making is probably harder to learn than the touch.   We have to remember that kids are going to try it a bunch of times and get it wrong before they try it and get it right.  When it happens, make sure to reinforce the good parts.

Anyway that’s the beginnings of my list.  What else should be on it???

Coda:  As I mentioned above, this blog post by the Alexandria (VA) Soccer Association is really useful. If you scroll down in the blog you can see the metrics they use to help assess their own effectiveness at playing possession oriented soccer (and how diligent they are about collecting them).  This seems like a really useful way of making the goal of playing “right” less subjective and easier for coaches–and parents–to discuss and reflect on objectively.  You don’t want to be too obsessive about the data (you can be so possession oriented you never try to penetrate for example) but well-managed this seems like a great tool. Their metrics include:

  • # of first touches–love that; it’s no secret that the first touch is the most important in the game;
  • number of passes; and
  • average number of passes per string.

Just sharing such data w parents would help them to see the difference between winning 2-1 and winning 2-1 while earning their kids twice as many touches per game.

Only thing I would consider adding to their metrics is percentage of goalie possessions punted vs thrown or some other measure of building out of the back.  Anyway I thought it was a great example of walking the player development walk, not just talking the talk (or not even bothering to talk the talk).

Other posts by Doug on coaching soccer/football/futbol:

On Watching Bayern Practice

On Growth Mindset for Elite Players

On the Phrase: The Game is the Best Teacher

On Routines to Build Attentiveness and Efficiency

20 Responses to “Coaching to Develop Players vs Coaching to Win: Some Examples”

  1. Bart Sullivan
    May 23, 2015 at 2:04 am

    Great list! I am actually a lacrosse coach not a soccer coach but everything you say relates to our sport as well. And you are correct that the most difficult aspect of focusing on future development is that the parents often will judge the club on current wins…and unfortunately you must choose between development and winning at the youth level. One way to ease this burden, however, is to try to find (or start your own) developmental league. This way if all teams are playing kids at every position, giving equal playing time, focusing on making more passes, etc then there will be a more equal playing field. Whereas in a normal league the team that focuses on development has almost zero chances of winning.

    Anyways, here a couple of more you could add to your list:

    *Play Age Appropriate Games – make sure the younger kids are on smaller fields and play with less players. This way each kid gets a ton of relevant game action throughout their developmental years rather than being stuck on a huge field only getting a few touches per game.

    *Equal Playing Time – at the youth level try to give each kid equal playing time. Like you said, you don’t know who will be the dominant athletes in the future so you might as well give them all a chance to develop now. Also try to avoid only giving your “stud” the ball during important game situations.

    *Let the Game Teach the Game – try not to get bogged down with rigid fundamentals and doing a lot of “drills”. Rather play games that allow the kids to make decisions and explore different solutions to game situations. This helps them develop intrinsic motivation to improve which will make them more likely to stick with the sport later into their teens.

    *Encourage More Self-Reliance – it’s never to early to get kids to learn how to carry their own equipment bag, get themselves dressed, tie their own shoes, clean up after themselves on the sideline, etc. Kids who rely on others do to everything for them will likely develop into needy teenagers who will become a burden to their coaches and teammates.

  2. Mark
    May 25, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    My philosophy is that youth coaching in any sport is where the interesting stuff is happening. When a 9 year old comes to me and says they want to be a footballer, they have just handed me possession of their dreams. That is real pressure.

    I agree with everything you have written. I would like to add to your words, not replace them with the following;

    1. Possession football is good for all of the reasons you cover. We want our players to aspire to the highest level, college for academics and pro for football. The players we love the most are dribblers. If we don’t give our youth the freedom to run with the ball in games they will not develop this skill.

    2. Build from the back. Getting a player to choose the best option given the relative positions of the players allows the all important decision making process to lie in the players hands. The great players can dribble, shoot first time or fake and create spaces for team mates, it is the correct selection AND execution of each skill that makes them effective. So kick or roll, discuss the decision not the skill.

    3. Relative Age Effect, (big young-uns) is poisonous in youth sport. It is tantamount to lying to a child if the coach does not address it. Not only do coaches need to defy selection in their own teams on this basis they also need to push local leagues and governing bodies to choose to Referee it out of the game. i.e. non-contact youth football, size based leagues etc. Ask anyone to list the top five players (if Maradona or Messi are not on the list stop listening). See how often 4/5 of their players are under 6ft.

    4. Multiple positions. If a coach really backs this idea select positions by random means. Draw shirts from a bag, roll dice, draw cards from a deck. Re-draw during each interval. Rotate the team around the positions every five minutes. Push for leagues and tournaments to adopt similar processes.

    5. Ego-less coaches. Yes except that if you have chosen to stand in front of a group of people and tell them how to get better, deal with parental pressure and hold out for your principles over the result, then you need to be very sure of your self. Not the same thing at all but easily confused by all parties.

    6. Your offside analysis is correct, IMO, but occasionally it might be argued that;

    a) Why did the other coach not react to the rules by ensuring that defenders keep back? Players need to learn how to recognise and exploit tactical errors by their opponents as well as to shoot, pass and dribble.

    b) When both teams accommodate this rule it creates lots of space for the whole team thus relieving pressure and allowing players to attempt passes and dribbles destined to fail in more crowded games. If a league has this rule the organisers ought to be clear this is the intention, not leave it to chance that the coaches will pick up on it.

    c) Players need to differentiate convention from contravention i.e. It is convention that a kick off is a tap between two players in the centre. It is legal to shoot from the centre spot on the first touch and only a player who knows the laws of the game will attempt this. Again relentless adherence to the ‘spirit’ of the game does not prepare our young players for their attempt to enter the top level.

    Thanks for taking a rest from all that education stuff and dealing with some important issues!

  3. Tony Mobbs
    May 27, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    A great article with some fantastic replies.

  4. J. R. Gray
    May 28, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Great article. My daughter just quit travel soccer last night after U13 (even though she had a spot confirmed on the U14 team) because it wasn’t fun anymore. A large reason was she was pigeon-holed as a right back for two years by her old coach. She changed teams this year and had a chance to play midfield but she felt she was playing catch-up all year learning new skills she had missed learning for two seasons at U11 and U12. So the game wasn’t fun anymore.

    Parents need to be taught about possession soccer. Too many of them yelling “shoot, shoot” and complaining about too many passes or yelling when a player passes up what they think is an open shot in favor of a better passing option.

    • Doug Lemov
      May 28, 2015 at 3:20 pm

      Great points, J.R., about the need for parents to see the long view and understand the game as well. And sadly your comment also points out that the cost is not limited to less development among players. I am not saying Soccer has to be volleyball and we rotate through positions. But your lifetime’s experience with the game should not be irrevocably altered by the fact that your U12 coach decided you were a right back. What you learn and how much you learn is asymmetrical based in part on positions. Anyway i hope your daughter finds a way back into the game.

  5. Eric J Pollock
    June 8, 2015 at 12:42 am

    After reading books about the legendary coach John Wooden, I think you could do both.

  6. Will Dooley
    June 10, 2015 at 1:47 am

    What too many coaches fail to realize is that training that focuses on mastery of fundamental skills quickly impacts the scoreboard. Not because the team is better, but because each player will be better than his or her opponent. Continuing that focus can make that initial advantage permanent.

  7. Tom blackwood
    September 1, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    As the father of a son on a ten terabytes old team in Alexandria I can tell you we do not track goalie passes from kicks because the goalies always throw the ball. They are not allowed to kick if throwing is an option.

    • Doug Lemov
      September 1, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      sign of a club with long term perspective. 🙂

  8. September 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    Spot on.
    Thank you so much for this post. Agree letting them play does not mean they will figure this out on their own. It may just reinforce errors and mistakes. If they do figure it out it may take 1000x more to do so.

    Focused brief feedback is key.

  9. Jim S
    April 20, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    As a parent, thank you. Over the course of 10 years of club soccer, which included 6 different coaches, only 1 of these coaches actually developed their players. That was Rich Ludwig, of Waza in Michigan.

    Sure, they all *think* they’re focused on developing players, but the truth is, they all seem to use a large percentage of their time on the same few players, leaving all the other players to get whatever scraps of coaching they might happen to receive. Thank God the discrepancy in touches is less in practice, or else only the physically biggest 8 to 10 year olds would ever develop their skills.

    Up to age 14 or 15, defensive players rarely gets touches, and if they do, they just kick the ball away as hard as they can, regardless of the situation. Situational and positional play is only taught during games, and even then a lot of the time it’s to tell a player to just get rid of the ball. From what I have seen, the coaching is even worse about moving without the ball. This seems to go almost exclusively to the top 2-3 players on the team in the coach’s eyes.

    Almost every player is pigeonholed into a specific position. My daughter was lucky enough to not have this happen. She played a good amount of defense, midfield, and forward. But the reason for this was mostly because she has a late birthday. Before age 10, she was smaller than everyone else, and was therefore made a forward. From age 10-13 she was still on the smaller side, but she had grown enough and had developed her skillset enough that she was put on defense. At age 13, her skills had really gotten good (she’s a very determined kid), and she moved to center-mid, sometimes playing forward.

    I agree that parents are part of the problem, but dealing with this effectively and communicating the philosophy is the job of the club.

  10. Jim B
    November 13, 2017 at 1:38 am

    Great article and detailed criteria for coaching assessment.

    There’s one area not mentioned. For most youth players game time represents a small fraction of playing time. With three practices and one game per week, player development largely occurs at practice via coaching that demands technical touch/ ball control, defending and attacking technique and tactics, and free play to explore and use skills and tactics.

    Too many times coaches are assessed at games. This ignores all the work being done at practices.

    • Doug Lemov
      November 13, 2017 at 6:58 pm

      Great point. Thanks for adding it.

  11. Aaron
    January 4, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Love this article. An issue I also see is a lack of communication between the coaches and parents. To many times I see on the club level a lack of awareness on the part of the parents due to the coach not communicating very well what they’re plan is for development. Sure like mentioned previously they think they are developing or communicating but in reality I see to many instances of that not being the case.

  12. Thomas
    April 17, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    Hi I just found this amazing website while looking for the content about National League and I came up with this. I thought it might help you guys as well.

  13. Rob Azarcon
    June 2, 2018 at 1:06 am

    Another metric: split passes (passes that go between 2 defenders or a defender and a boundary).

  14. David
    June 10, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    Good post but there are a few glaring errors which show just how hard it is for Americans to know what is going on with their children’s training.

    1) The point is technical development and that’s not something player’s can learn during a game. You need thousands of touches a day and even the highest possession game will not even get a player hundreds of touches. Touch counts must be maximized in practices and individual skills like shooting repetitively practiced. Think of basketball for a sport where Americans understand technical skill development.

    2) Ego-less coaches – the ego part is not about shouting or calm but about training tactical play over technical development. You see coaches stopping practices to give lectures on tactical play but the lecture rarely has any effect and meanwhile no one is getting any touches.

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