Coach Less; Learn More

Sam Hales
19 June 2022

As coaches, one of our goals is to help teach players to get better at the Beautiful Game. When we watch young players in a game or even in a practice, we can see so much in the way of skills and tactics that we want to “fix”. We can easily walk away from a game with a list of five or more things we want the players and team to fix. We then are faced by the challenge of cramming this long list of player and team tasks into two practices before our game the next weekend. This is the common scenario facing nearly every youth coach of the Beautiful Game. So, with this pressure in mind, coaches will run through each player and team task from their list for about 10 minutes over the two practices. And yet, they still feel at the end of the two practices that there is so much more for the coach to cover.

Then, and this is incredibly predictable, the team goes into the Saturday game and does not improve on a single task from practice. And, at half-time with great frustration in his voice, the coach tells the team, “We covered this in practice and why are you guys not doing what we practiced?” At this point, the coach should not be asking the players, but should be asking himself this question. And the question the coach should be asking himself is ‘Why are my practices not translating into better game performance?’ ‘Why are my training sessions not resulting in better individual play?’

One major reason why his practices are not translating into better individual and team game performance is that he is attempting to teach too much in his practice. As a coach, he is violating the principle of “Coach Less; Learn More”.  This principle at first seems counter-intuitive, but in practice makes complete sense. Every player takes time to understand what the training task is that the coach wants her to improve. At first, the player gets familiar with this task, but that familiarity does not translate into the game because she has not mastered that improvement. She has only touched the surface. For the player to truly master this task, she has to at first become familiar with “what right looks like”. Then she must iterate on that task under more and more game-like conditions until she has truly mastered the task to the point that she will apply it in the game. This process cannot be accomplished as a ten-minute chunk in one hour-long practice. Depending on the challenge of the task to the player, she may need two, three or more practices to achieve a level of mastery that will translate into game performance.  

An additional factor that complicates this challenge, is the players’ rate of forgetting of tasks. This issue is well addressed in the book by Doug Lemov called The Coach’s Guide to Teaching.  Every human being begins to forget how to do a task as soon as they stop doing it. The less experience a human has with a task, the faster he or she forgets it. This is true for intellectual and muscular tasks. For soccer players, this means that as soon as a training session ends, they immediately begin to forget what they have learned. To counter this forgetting, it is essential to repeat these tasks over time. Each time it is repeated the player retains a little more. The more unique and complex the task is, the more often the player will need to repeat it over time to achieve a level of retention that the rate of forgetting is negligible. By unique, I mean how unlike any other task it is. For example, the skill of long passing the ball with the outside of your non-dominant foot and controlling the curve of the ball is unlike nearly all the other skills the player knows. So, even after one practice where she appears to master that skill, a week later it is likely you would see a significant drop in her ability to perform that skill.  All of this reinforces the principle of “Coach Less; Learn More”. Coaching multiple tasks one time in one practice is simply ineffective and will not result in any significant improvement in game performance.

As youth coaches, we should not be coaching from game to game. Coaching this way tends to cause the players at the end of the season to have learned rather little.  Many “winning” coaches will counter this argument by saying his team was winning and therefore they were good. Well, this often happens because of a variety of factors and not because the individual players significantly improved. It could be the coach improved how he positioned players. It could be that individual players physically improved and that improved them as players. Even as a “winning” coach, it is important to compare your players from the start to the end of the season and assess whether they improved as much as they could or even should have. Sadly, the honest answer to this is often no.

To address this challenge, at the beginning of the season, coaches should look at the individual and team tasks they would like to cover for the season and compare that to the number of practices they have scheduled. Next to each task they have listed, they should assess realistically how long it should take for the player and team to master these tasks to the level the coach desires. With that total list of hours required to train those tasks, it is now time for the coach to make the hard decisions on what to prioritize.

Prioritization is essential because it is most likely that as a coach you have under-estimated how long it will take for the player and team to actually master the task. From his long list of tasks, the coach should pare down to 1-2 primary tasks that the coach wants to cover during each practice. This pace of teaching will improve the amount of learning by the players. By learning, I mean that the players have achieved a level of mastery of the skill that actually appears in games. If you can improve one to two tasks every game throughout the season without forgetting those tasks you have already “learned”, your players will be significantly better. It is clear from this, that by coaching less the players will learn more and become better players faster.