Let the Players Coach

By Tony Earp

How do you know when you really understand something? It is said that when you really understand something, you can teach it to someone else. If this is true, then an easy way to check for understanding in your players is to have them coach. Sounds strange? Yes, it would be very weird to walk up to a training session and see the players giving instructions and explaining a technical, tactical, physical, or mental skill of the game. Although it may be strange to see, it would be a pretty amazing display of understanding by the player. For a coach, it would be affirmation the player understands that part of the game. How else throughout a practice, or a season, can a coach really check for understanding?

One of the biggest mistakes I make as a coach is saying to players, “Does that make sense?” Of course, most of the time everyone says “yes” in unison, and then everyone takes the field and it is immediately clear that what I said did not make sense. One of the techniques coaches use to avoid this is to ask the kids questions versus just telling them the answer. By asking a question and having the player tell you what they could have done is a great way to check for understanding. Based on the player’s response, the coach will know whether or not the player understands what the coach wants them to do.

Could we take this a step further? While asking guiding questions during a training session to check for understanding, could you ask a player to lead an activity or part of a training session? Just as an example, by asking a player to lead an activity on 1v1 attacking, the player would have to explain a single part of 1v1 attacking, but review all the important “coaching points” with his teammates. The player would have to, with the coach’s help, coach the other players on the team in that skill area. Would that not help develop understanding of important principles and skills, that in the long term, would help the players learn those skills faster, and more importantly, understand how to apply them to the game?

As a teacher, I used this approach in the classroom all the time. I would ask the students to teach the class on certain sub-areas of a major topic we were discussing during that time. The students would create a presentation, lead the class through the presentation, and then provide an examination for their classmates to check for understanding. The students really enjoyed this process versus me standing in front of the room and just talking about the topic while they took notes.

They had to work with the material and know it well enough to teach it to their classmates. In terms of long term understanding and comprehension, and the skills of how to process information and use it, were the invaluable benefits to this process for the students.

A side benefit was that students felt empowered, like they were the adult (teacher) for a little while, and they had control over what happened in the classroom. It gave them complete control of their learning and their classmates.

This is something as a coach would be easy to bring to the practice field and gain the same benefits. With the players studying different skill areas or tactical focuses and trying to teach them to their teammates, they will gain a deeper understanding and take ownership of their development as players. Again, like the kids in the classroom, all of a sudden the kids are empowered to be the adult (teacher) for a little while and get to learn how to speak in a group setting, teach a skill to another person, and the confidence to lead a group of people to complete a set task.

The benefits of this approach are endless, but it would require coaches to give up a little control by giving the players the freedom to lead parts of the training session. Of course, like in the classroom, you need guidelines for the kids to follow to ensure that part of the training session is productive and meaningful for all involved.

I like to think of the playing field for kids as an extension of the classroom (because it is). As we look for different approaches to make a meaningful impact on our players, it is appropriate to look at the best practices of teachers in the classroom and think a little bit outside of the box with our strategies for our players to learn. Depending on age and level of the kids you coach, you can make the opportunity appropriate and something that will not overwhelm or underwhelm the players.

If you really watch kids, they love to teach each other what they know. It is a way for them to display a skill or something they learned. You see it all the time when kids play video games or play sports in the backyard on their own. Thinking back, many of the “tricks” I learned as a kid was taught to me by teammates before or after practice. Kids would go home, work on a new trick, and once they had it perfected, they could not wait to teach the rest of us.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com