Play, Learn, and Create

By Tony Earp
When coaching soccer, it is easy to get caught up in all the technical and tactical aspects of the game that you want your players to learn, and all are skill areas I am sure the players need to know very well to have success on the field. We know we want the players to learn those skills, but how do we approach teaching it to them, or a better question, how will the kids approach learning those skills? It is the approach that kids take to learning new skills that we need to pay attention to so we know how to teach it to assist in the process of learning. During a training sessions, I know the kids will want to play and that is how they will learn. How will I know if they picked up the skills? They will demonstrate a strong understanding, a mastery of those skills, once they are able to create things I did not ask them to do on their own without any direction.
Play is a great word because it can be used to describe so many different things. It can be used describe almost any situation or activity in which an individual, of any age, is doing what they want, when they want, and enjoying it. It can be done alone or in a group (small or large). Usually play involves very little structure or rules, but it still usually always has a distinct goal or purpose. Often one of the goals of “play” is to get better at whatever is being done. This is true even though someone playing would not probably point to that as being the reason, which is a great thing, and why play is so valuable.
For example, when I was a kid, we built ramps and rode our bikes off them in the street. Now we were playing, and definitely having a lot of fun, but at the same time, there was this internal push to get better at jumping off that ramp. Once we could go over one ramp and land it consistently without falling, then we wanted to go off an even higher and steeper ramp, even when we knew we would fall much more often and fail the first time we tried. If we kept going over the same ramp, at the same height, over and over, it would eventually get boring and we would not want to do it anymore. As kids, we did not think of it this way. We just did not want to be bored, and it is fun to be challenged. Even though we were not consciously doing it to get better, each time we reached a certain level, we tried to do a little bit more. It made it more fun, and it helped us get better. The fun usually can be found just outside where we are comfortable.
At the same time we were making ramps higher, just going over them and landing was no longer all we wanted to do. We could do that…now what? Well, how about a twist of the handle bars, or try to spin around in the air? I am not saying we never got hurt, but we were playing, having fun, and without anyone pushing us to do so, we were trying to get better… and we got better.
Think of a kid’s video game. If they completed a level and then just had to repeat it again, they would probably not want to play it very long. Although the game itself is fun, it is only fun because there is another challenge around the corner. When do kids stop playing a video game, usually when they have beaten every level or there is nothing left to accomplish.
Play is a critical part of a player’s development because it is the foundation of how we learn anything. It is nature’s coach, and the way we were born to discover our limits and surpass them. We did it as kids, and still might do it as adults in some aspects of our lives. When you think of a training session, play must be involved heavily within the session for kids to learn. We need to create that experience within each session to ensure the same sense of enjoyment and internal drive to try new and challenging skills is present as it is essential for learning and growth.
Now, when you play, there is a process in which you take to learn. You learn what works and what does not as you fail and succeed at the task. Let’s go back to my experience jumping over ramps on my bike as a kid. We fell off our bikes, got bruises, and were too scared at times to try something new. We would “inch” into new jumps or more challenging tricks. We failed a lot more often than we succeed. We “wrecked” the bikes and our bodies… at first, but than we landed more often on two wheels rather than our face. But after each fall, we thought about what went wrong, tried to fix it,and tried it again. This was the benefit of the “play.” There was no one there to say, “Don’t do that” or “Don’t try that again.” There was also no one there trying to talk us out of trying something. Trying to convince us we were not good enough or it was too risky. We determined what we were going to try again, how we were going to do it, and when we were ready. This is how we learned.
At practice or in a soccer game, it is the same. Things do NOT work a lot more often than they do work. The worst thing as coaches we can do is take the “play” out of the game, and tell kids not to try difficult skills, things just beyond their current level, again, and again, and again when they play. After each failure, we need to be the voice that helps them correct the mistakes, as well as the voice that tells them to try it again. The same fear free environment that we all are part of when we play needs to be created by coaches on the soccer field. It is the natural way the players learn new skills. We cannot expect players to play just beyond their current abilities while at the same time criticizing and chastising them after every mistake. The mistakes should not just be expected and welcomed, they should be a sign to both the coach and the player, that learning is taking place and development is in the process. The play is being used to learn. Frankly, when kids come to practice and expect a mistake free day, or focus on not making mistakes, they are no longer “playing” and that key element needed to learn is lost. It becomes more of a scripted environment, a staged reenactment of playing soccer, and the kids are just trying to memorize their lines to avoid any “boos” from the crowd (a coach or parent).
Now, once the learning is happening, and the skills and confidence are improving, players will then feel comfortable to create with their new knowledge and skills. That is the evidence that every coach should be looking for to see if their players truly understand the concepts being taught. Once the players take those skills and start doing what they want with them, things that the coach did not even ask them to do, the players are demonstrating a strong understanding and confidence with those skills. Their competency is on full display.
Don’t believe me? One of the most common things I hear coaches say is (me included), “The kids did great with this (skill/concept) in training, but never use it in the game.” Well, this is exactly why. In a scripted controlled environment, they can repeat what you are asking them to do. But in the unpredictable environment of the game, the players do not really have enough understanding to create using those skills in that environment. This is why games are the key times for coaches to observe what the players are doing and not doing, what has been learned or not learned. A lack of a skill used in a game that was the focus of training the week leading up to the game shows a lack of competency in those skill areas. I would suggest more “play” in training to help deepen the understanding.
This is the natural progression of getting better at anything without really thinking about trying to get better at it. We play. Through our playing, we consistently try to push our abilities by doing more difficult or challenging things that make the play more fun. We explore the unknown possibilities of our actions. It is where excitement and fun reside, and where learning finds its home. As the learning takes hold, and the knowledge and skills deepen, we enter into the best part of play… the ability to create. The ability to create starts the process over. It provides a new way to play, new things to learn, and then new things to create.. and the cycle continues.
If there is a training session format that I could recommend to all coaches, this would be it. It is the most natural, it is the most effective, and it is the one that we all enjoy. Let the kids play to learn, and then let them create with what they learned. In a training environment, the coach is the facilitator of the play, and does not have to be an inhibitor of it when teaching. While still giving instruction and providing correction, you allow the kids to play and challenge themselves beyond their current abilities. Then, you can sit back and enjoy watching them create beautiful pictures on the field on their own. Through play, your players learned, and now they can create when they play.
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
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: