INSPIRE: My Unique View Point & Book on Youth Soccer Development

Introduction

     It seems like it was just yesterday that my brother and I were running around the field playing soccer pretending to be in the World Cup. We would play this made-up game that instantly transformed us into famous soccer players scoring glorious goals. I would literally play for hours with a big smile on my face. The joy I got from playing further increased my motivation to improve and play more and more and more. However, the difficult thing for me was the lack of talented players and coaches for me to learn from. Without access to experienced coaches and talented players, I decided to try and educate myself. At the time there was no internet access and soccer on television was scarce to say the least. The only feasible thing I could think of was to buy some soccer books. By pure chance, the first book I bought was one of the best soccer books I could have ever purchased; it was called “Soccer Fundamentals for Players and Coaches” by Wiel Coerver.

     The book was written to increase the technical ability of soccer players. Sequenced photographs broke down every technique, so players could follow and learn them. I took this book into the backyard and started practicing.   I practiced not for days and months but for years. I literally gained most of my soccer technical ability by following the pictures in a book. My skill level went from very low to playing at some of highest levels in the country at the time. The story sounds very simple and almost untrue, but the reality is I was motivated, and I trained every single day for hours and hours. I enjoyed training and my own improvement provided me with further motivation to keep going. Even when I went to college to play I never stopped trying to learn. I would pull some of the better players aside and ask them to show me certain things. I would then practice what they showed me and then move on to the next skill. I would eventually figure out that specialization was important in my development as well. I wasn’t the fastest sprinter, so learning more 1 v 1 moves that relied on changes of pace weren’t that useful to me. Instead I focused on skills that would benefit my body type and physical attributes. Without even realizing it, I was getting very good at the process of learning. I was asking myself the right questions and looking for the answers so I could improve. My self-belief and self-esteem were very high due to the fact that I had come so far in soccer. I really felt I could succeed at any job or any task because I progressed so far. However, there was another factor that I credit for my personal and soccer development – the encouragement from my dad and others which served as motivation and validation for my efforts. It was the small things they said like “you really have improved”, “you looked sharp today” or “your effort was very good”.  It might not sound like a lot, but encouragement is a major component to learning. Without encouragement, guidance and people who care, learning can often be stifled.

     My goal is to change the way we think about coaching and developing youth soccer players. One of the major coaching issues in youth soccer is our desire to coach kids the same as adults. Parents and coaches want their U8 or U10 teams playing travel ball. They tend to get all involved in the league standings and focus far too much on winning. As winning starts to become the main focus we lose sight of player development and the simple enjoyment of the game. Another common obstacle in youth soccer is something called “Over-coaching”. Over coaching is when coaches tell the players exactly what to do every second of a game or in training. How many times have you seen coaches calling out where to hit every pass or constantly telling players where to be on the field? This type of authoritarian or dictator type of coaching prevents kids from freely making their own choices and really learning the game. Over-Coaching will bring about a counter productive effect on learning. I propose a better way of teaching would be to have coaches set up conditions & rules in small-sided games and allow the game to be the teacher. This would help eliminate over-coaching and let the kids learn by playing while having fun!

     The next important step in the process would be asking the “Big Questions” to guide the learning process. The big questions are questions that lead players down a path to explore and learn without fear on their own. Players will feel empowered because they will actually be in control of their own learning. This concept is part of an educational method called a S.O.L.E or Self Organized Learning Environment. I personally believe using S.O.L.Es will open up a brand new and exciting approach to coaching youth soccer. S.O.L.Es involve having players work together in various small groups (each with a leader) in order to answer the big questions the coach has asked. The kids will need access to the Internet in order to research and come up with answers to the questions asked. The questions the coach asks the should coincide with the soccer curriculum. For example, the younger players might be asked to “explain two ways to pass the soccer ball and demonstrate the technique”, while an older group may be asked “how can a team break down a team that sits”? Throughout this discovery process, the role of the coach is simply to encourage the players and praise their efforts as they come up with the answers. I provide recommendations for setting up a S.O.L.E’s in youth soccer in detail later in the book.

The main purpose of this book is to share new ideas on youth soccer development in simple but highly effective ways that are easy to understand and implement. Whether you are novice with no coaching experience or a seasoned veteran coach, I believe you will find the information extremely beneficial.

     I am asking coaches who decide to implement S.O.L.E’s with their team after reading this book to let me know how their teams are progressing over the months. I am interested in hearing how the methods are working for you. I am happy to read your emails and give you my thoughts.   Enjoy the book!

 

Using S.O.L.E’s In Youth Soccer Development

(Self-Organized Learning Environment- SOLE )

     There hasn’t been a huge shake up in youth soccer coaching in a very long time. Yes, we have progressed in many ways since I was a kid, but nothing that is a total game changer has been introduced for years. This is where the concept of self-organized learning environments or minimally invasive learning comes into play. There is virtually no research about this when it comes to sports. However, based up my own experiences I am confident that creating and implementing self-organized learning environments or SOLEs into soccer will greatly change the way we develop and coach players. Soccer-centered SOLEs may very well lead to a major turning point in youth soccer development. I understand that this is a big statement but there are already many proven examples of how and why SOLEs work so well. What I am presenting is an easy way to introduce this concept of learning directly into your current soccer curriculum. If you prefer to keep your current curriculum go ahead and keep it, but base it around SOLEs. Before I get into the details of how exactly to implement self-organized learning environments into the soccer curriculum, let me cover a few specifics: What exactly is a SOLE and how does it work?

 

What is a SOLE & How Does it Work?

     The concept of self-organized learning environments was invented by Dr. Sugatra Mitra, a physicist and educational researcher. The concept started out as something called “minimally invasive learning” but now it is referred to as a SOLE. SOLE learning requires children to organize themselves and structure their own learning. using external resources usually the internet.

Basics of SOLE Learning Today:

  • Children should be put into teams of 4-5 students each. It is beneficial to have a few teams working in a room together so that they can share ideas and knowledge.
  • Each team should have one “captain” or “team leader” who is in charge of keeping order in the group. Allowing all members to contribute and collaborate.
  • Each team should have access to one computer preferably with a widescreen monitor.
  • Children that are computer savvy can start working right away on the given task. If they have no computer experience then some of the earlier time is spent figuring out how to use the computer. One of Dr. Mitra’s first experiments involved putting a computer in the wall of a slum in India to see how quickly the children in that neighborhood would pick up basic computer skills. Not only did these children lack computer skills, they didn’t speak English; yet, they not only figured out how to use the computer, they taught themselves and other English.
  • Children should be allowed to switch to another team at any time (trade).
  • Children can attempt to recruit any student to join their team that they want but it must be a trade with another group to keep group numbers even.
  • The groups are given a question by the teacher and asked to “go find the answer”. The students are not guided or coached after that point. They are just given encouragement from a mentor/teacher, internet access and the members of their group to work with.
  • Younger kids even taught older kids as they browsed the internet, sent email and played video games.
  • Children can go over to other teams to observe what they are working on. They should not feel competitive with the other teams. Rather it should be seen as a positive thing to make sure the entire class succeeds.
  • After a set amount of time the groups will present their results to the class as a whole.

Role of the Teacher/Mentor in a SOLE

     The role of the teacher is to offer encouragement and praise, for example saying things like “you worked very hard”, “I am so impressed with you” or “I didn’t know that at your age”; “I am very impressed you found that out”. When running a S.O.L.E there is no such thing as a bad question from a student. All students must feel free and be encouraged to ask as many questions as possible of the teacher or each other. However, the teacher should never directly answer the child’s question with the final answer. Teachers will ask the children to dig a little deeper or ask them if they can look in a different place to find out more information. If the children are stuck and need a hint, the teacher can give one but it is better if the teacher says something like, “I am here for you to help in anyway, but my hope is you can do as much as this on your own with your group”.

     These guidelines for SOLEs are in place for a reason. For example, allowing children to leave their group and join another prevents one child from dominating the group or another child. With regard to team size, if teams have too few group members then interaction will not be encouraged enough, which is crucial for the learning style to work. It was also found that when children were offered “easy” compared to “hard” questions, they tend to choose the “easy” questions if they were alone. However, teams or groups were more inclined to choose the “hard” questions. Lastly, using one-computer per/group forces kids to share, collaborate, communicate and come up with their own rules and roles. Collaboration is one of the cornerstones of why this learning method works.  

     In order to effectively teach the students a subject like soccer the teacher would have to ask the important “Big Questions”. Asking the “Big Questions” requires some knowledge, so students would be following a logical developmental path. A soccer coach might ask questions like “What is a 1v1 move and why would you want to learn them?” “What can my teammates do when I have the ball and need a person to pass the ball to?” or “What is does shielding the soccer ball mean in soccer and what are the important things to know about shielding the ball?”

To be most effective the questions should reinforce the planned curriculum.

 

SOLEs in Action: Case Study Examples

The examples are numerous but let me give you just a few that demonstrate the positive impact of S.O.L.Es to date:

  • The impact of access: An underperforming class in the slums of India, knowing no English was able to raise its academic tests scores from failing to passing. The class raised its scores so high that they actually matched the scores of their peers at one of the richest highest performing schools in India.
  • The power of discovery: 6 year old children learned to search the internet on a free computer set-up in a communal area on a street in their neighborhood, after learning how to use the computer, they eventually used their new internet skills to improve their overall academic performance in school.
  • The benefits of collaboration: Italian students with no previous exposure to English were placed into teams and asked to find the correct answers to difficult questions written on the board in only English with no instructions. Teams were encouraged to share and collaborate, eventually all teams had developed their own unique solutions/answers to each question.

The benefits of S.O.L.Es are quite remarkable and there are many examples of S.O.L.E’s in action on YouTube, I would encourage you to look them up as well as the talks by Dr. Mitra (Ted Talks). Watching the S.O.L.E’s in action and listening to Dr. Mitra should help you grasp the concept even better. The next question is can this work in soccer and sports training. My answer is “yes”.

SOLEs Proven Long term & Short-term Results

Dr. Mitra’s research was conducted in many different countries around the world. His studies proved the following be using SOLEs:

* Children became computer literate with no prior computer experience

* Children learned enough English to use email chat and search engines

* Children learned to search the internet to find answers to questions

* Children improved math and science scores drastically in school

* Children showed ability to answer questions on advanced subject matter above their years

* Children developed better social skills

* Children were able to determine what was real and a fraud when it came to information on the internet

* The internet provided the information but the children had to learn the best strategies for getting the information and making sure the group works well together with all members having a role to carry out.

* SOLEs enabled children to become independent critical thinkers

* SOLEs seem to multiply the children’s ability and intelligence.

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