Recently I attended a coaching symposium (thanks to Tim Bradbury and ENYYSA) where Christian Lavers delivered a “radical” session for players on the principles of defending.
I use the word radical because it was, IMHO, radically good–probably the best coaching session that I can remember seeing for youth athletes from a teaching point of view—but also, quietly and without fanfare, radical in that it questions some tenets of coaching that have become near orthodoxy.
You can see a video of the session below. Please note that it lasted about 75 minutes and I’ve edited down to about 30 minutes here so a lot will be missing and aspects of the session will inevitably be distorted by the shortening- the biggest is you won’t get a sense for how much the girls played. They played a lot. And because I cut a lot of that—to focus on the times when Christian is explicitly teaching–you also can’t see how dramatically they improved in their understanding and confidence quite as dramatically as those of us watching live could.
A colleague said: “You almost never watch a session where you can see such dramatic behavior change across a group like that.” By the end of the session the girls understood principles of defending and were using them successfully to solve problems as a group in a game setting.
Maybe I’ll just write that sentence again in case thunder didn’t clap as you read it:
By the end of the session the girls understood principles of defending and were using them successfully to solve problems as a group in a game setting.
The video opens with Christian providing a focus for players’ attention: They’re going to be talking about defending, he clarifies. “I want you thinking about three things…” he says, “I’m either forcing wide, organizing centrally or retreating.” Then he reinforces the terms he will use—consistently and reliably—as he will do throughout the session. He makes the girls repeat them so they recognize them and use them themselves. He even quizzed them briefly –what were the three terms? [I cut that for time]
Next, he installs: He starts by setting up a game with small-sided goals. This set up is new to the girls and getting their bearings is demanding from a Working Memory stand point. It’s going to take a few reps to “get” the game enough to be able to think about the tactics. And if they’re they’re thinking about how the game works they can’t think fully about defending. So Christian phases things in. First he installs the game and lets them focus on developing familiarity with rhythms , perceptions, rules, even the details of getting off fast when your turn is done.
Then, when they’re starting to get it, he starts teaching. [We are still very early in the session. That’s one of the key points. The knowledge is delivered first. The problem solving comes when they are asked to use and apply it. When you try to problem solve without knowledge you are guessing. Guessing is not critical thinking.]
He starts with a single concept: understanding how and why to deny space centrally to force opposition to play wide. “Your body is a tool that is going to occupy space and make it harder for the other team to play [there],” he says, “So whenever we lose the ball try to organize a way that its really clear where you want to push them.” Then he lets the girls try it. They played for several minutes which I cut out. His live feedback focused constantly reinforcing their positioning the girls were playing. I’m sure there were a thousand other things he wanted to mention but almost everything he said was to help them see whether they were effective at occupying space centrally as he had just described.
This is another major takeaway. His self-discipline in teaching one thing and then watching for it and giving feedback on that thing (almost exclusively) afterwards. The fact that he concentrates on how and whether they are using the concepts he’s teaching means they are concentrating on how and whether they are using the concepts he’s teaching.
You may not notice it, but things are already pretty radical. Christian is not asking his players to discover how to defend. He’s not putting them in a game and hoping they’ll figure it out it for themselves. There is a lot to know about defending properly and that knowledge has been accrued by coaches over decades. Asking them to infer them would be inefficient—they would be highly unlikely to infer a full set of connected principles correctly- times a thousand when you consider that for defending to work everyone on the team has to understand a shared set of principles in exactly the same way. These things are doubly true because they are green at defending—like many American soccer players they have been explicitly taught very little about defending. They are mostly guessing and valiantlydoing their best without much knowledge. But as one cognitive scientist puts it: what you know determines what you see and what you learn. Novices, in other words, perceive less than experts. They tend to notice superficial details rather than underlying principles. So they are unlikely to infer effectively or efficiently.
So Christian starts by laying out very explicitly in precise vocabulary exactly how a group defends and what they look for to make their decisions. Some people think this somehow means players won’t be asked to think or make decisions but the opposite is true. Christian will say over and over in the session some version of this: “Exactly where you go and you go and you go is going to be different every where on the field in every situation depending on who you play against.”
This is because people confuse critical thinking with discovery. In fact, most of the critical thinking you do in your life comes after you understand a concept. Once you know a set of principles, there is still LOTS of thinking and decision making and discussion to do. In fact the premier league is all about teams with clear game models wrestling to figure out how to apply those models when the other team is deliberately creating challenges to their doing so.
Most of the problem solving in the game of soccer lies in the application of known principles, not in the discovery of new principles. There can be some value in an aha moment- a bit of discovery when a player realizes: oh- I get it now I see why this principle exists but the amount of time that should be spent on such experiences compared to experiences that focus on: now that you know the principle here is how to apply it when the weather is bad or the opposition is doing X and Y and Z to prevent us is preciously small.
As for Christian’s players, they will be doing figuring out their defensive positioning with shared knowledge and shared language. And they will be looking at the same perceptive cues.
Here are some things you might notice:
At 2:43 of the video (9:39 on the onscreen clock) Christian pauses the girls for another dose of background knowledge. He starts to layer in on top of positioning central the idea of denying space and attending to space. They play again.
At 4:20 of the video (12:28 on the onscreen clock) they’re back after a few minutes of lay for a bit more detail: how to close. Here Christian deftly connects tactical knowledge (our goal is to force them wide by occupying space centrally) with technical knowledge: here is how to angle your run optimally. Notice how carefully he models alternative versions of the amount of curl in a closing run so the girls understand the range of possible actions and the why behind the answer he gives them. Now they know what to do, how to do it and why.
Again, they play.
A few minutes later (about 6:40 of the video; 15:44 on the screen) he pauses them again. Now he begins teaching the players how to react to their teammates’ decisions. When they close off one option how do you react as a covering defender. They are learning visual cues to read one another’s behavior and make coordinated decisions.
Next Christian observes carefully for misunderstandings. He does a live stoppage in the case of a player who was too eager to tackle.
After that stoppage I’ve kept a bit of the girls’ live play after this to show how disciplined Christian was about what he reinforced verbally. He talks almost exclusively about things he’s previously explained so girls know whether they are using those ideas successfully.
- Close; keep it here; be patient you don’t need to tackle
- What angle do you want to press her to?
Now a mistake (9:20 of the video; 19:00 on screen). Notice how Christian’s correction simple asks the player to supply the ideas he’s taught her when she makes a mistake and how he asks her what to do and why. His questioning is fast and efficient because they are all focused on a core set of concepts. He’s not asking her questions about things she doesn’t know about so she is able to answer and engage in discussion.
I’ve kept a few snippets of his live feedback here. Notice the self-discipline. Everything he says tells the girls how they are doing at using the concepts he has taught them:
- Good reaction. Calm now. Good. She turned it over that’s fine.
- Think about the angle there. You got over eager.
- How do we press?
- That’s a good adjustment.
- What’s the space you want to take away.
- Can you turn it?
- Good! [notice that because he is so consistent in what he is giving feedback on that it is pretty clear to the girls what he is referring to in w the word “good”
At the next stoppage Christian starts to layer in the third concept (after force wide and organize central) which is “retreat”… notice how he brings in the concepts piece by piece so he doesn’t over load players working memory. The model is: Learn one idea. Try it. Get feedback. Try it again. As you get mastery add a second idea. Try it. Get feedback. As you get mastery add a third. He’s constantly attending to loads on working memory and seeking not to over load players.
Notice by the way how the players are reacting to Christian. They are gradually becoming far more engage intellectually. At first they were hesitant to answer but now that they are beginning to understand they are far more eager to participate and answer questions. Isn’t that interesting. When someone is asking you questions about things you know something about, you are more interested in the discussion than when someone is asking you to guess at things you don’t know about (and they do!).
At 12:20 of the video (27:58 on the screen clock) Christian transitions to a new setting. They start playing in a more applied setting- on a larger more game realistic field … but the concepts are exactly the same and he begins by reviewing them and focusing players’ attention: what are the three things we are working on?
More great stoppages full of rich information about how to play the game follow. The stoppages are conversational—the girls are engaged in discussion and problem solving—but he is not asking them to discover principles. He knows the principles he is teaching. Their thinking is all about how to apply the principles here and now in this slightly new setting.
This is what’s so revolutionary about his session. It’s so intensely knowledge based. He teaches the girls more about how to defend than most would learn in 2 years with a typical club where they have to infer information from settings they don’t really understand. But just because he tells them things—here is how to shape your run when you close—doesn’t mean there isn’t lots and lots of thinking to do. The thinking has just begun, as he reminds them throughout.
That’s the key idea. Christian’s session is a lot like this vocabulary session in which students are also hugely engaged.
One of my favorite teaching moments comes at about 16:10; 33:53 on screen) when he connects tactical and technical with the outside defender. He begins by giving her credit for defending well in a previous seting and then points out that this setting was more challenging. But here Christian is teaching body position in anticipation and in closing. That’s a concept that is often taught in isolation. Here it is connected to a tactical setting and goal. The technical skill helps to achieve the tactical principle; the two are connected.
At 20:00 there’s a quick review before they play full field. Here Christian in a way summarizes the radical idea he’s using for the girls. “Force wide, organize central and retreat: that is the what” he says. That is the shared knowledge we are mastering, as individuals and as a team. “The how,” he notes, “you have to figure out in a billion different situations,” that is, the problem-solving and decision-making start now that you know what you want to do. And it depends on your ability to communicate and read visual cues. If there is a better summary of the role of knowledge in teaching I have not heard it.
I’ll leave the rest of Christian’s session for you to watch and enjoy. For me I keep thinking that if this was what teaching looked like on the soccer field: if we were serious about sharing knowledge about how the game should be played at the highest levels and then worked on HOW–how do we understand deeply what we are trying to do and then how we accomplish it in a thousand different settings when a thousand variables change—we’d be much closer to developing thinking players than if we persisted with the “discovery myth”. The discovery myth is the idea that somehow if we never tell players anything but simply ask magical questions we will unlock the knowledge hidden within players and they will infer the solutions on their own. This is simply not how human cognition works. And the beauty of Christian’s session is that it shows us a way to engage players in lots of thinking and decision making in a more productive and knowledge based model.