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Avoid Becoming A Helicopter Coach

“Step, drop, slide, take the space, switch it, look forward, use your goalkeeper, double, find (whomever), down the line, play early, support him/her, man on, turn, hold it, overlap, dribble, pass, shoot! …” and the list of commonly and frequently heard soccer terms goes on and on.

The question is, who is barking out these instructions during games to players faced with problems to solve? The answer, far too often, is the coach. The results can be effective, assuming of course that the players actually hear what the coach is saying, or likely yelling. But if the long-term aim of learning to be a soccer player is to perform effectively and autonomously in a variety of situations and contexts in the game, then the role of the “helicopter coach” is essentially counterproductive. Indeed an essential question for any sports coach is the same one facing all teachers: what do we want our student athletes to be able to do on their own when challenged by any new “test” of their abilities?

The effective athletic coach (not to mention music, drama and dance coach, among others) understands that the performance—the game—is ultimately the best teacher. The oft-repeated coaching cycle of model-practice-feedback-practice-performance-feedback provides the key to developing good learning habits in players. (Such is true, too, with musicians, actors and dancers.) Well-designed and implemented training throughout the course of the year (pre, in, and post season) allows performers to be at their best come game days. During the season, of course, video analysis can prove indispensable, both in terms of breaking down what went right and wrong in the previous game and in preparing players for what to expect from their next opponent.

When coaches want to empower players to make quick and accurate decisions in response to changing situations under pressure at game pace, then they must prepare them to be able to apply the key ideas they teach in practices by gradually reducing the players’ dependence on the coach for solutions to the problems confronting them. This is also true in an academic setting. If, for example, history students are conditioned to wait long enough for the teacher to provide the answers then how can independent learning be cultivated? This was humorously illustrated in the history class scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Ben Stein, in the role of the teacher, answers all of his own questions and the students just look on bored.

Independent learning takes time, but players who take ownership of that learning will remember, understand and apply it more effectively than those who are constantly told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. It is certainly possible, even desirable, to have a Socratic “classroom” on the soccer field notwithstanding the reality that many players are accustomed to and feel more comfortable with the omniscient coach as autocrat. By posing challenging questions to players in practices or in video analysis sessions, such as “given what we’re trying to accomplish here, what could you do differently in this situation?” coaches develop problem-solving skills and better decision makers. Players become better equipped at self-assessing their performance. A culture of ownership evolves. This, of course, is not to suggest that there are not times when coaches as teachers need to be prescriptive, particularly when new kinds of technical and tactical training are introduced, or a different systemic approach to a new opponent might be warranted, or at pivotal moments in the actual games themselves. In the end, however, don’t all coaches want to build teams of critical and creative thinkers on the field?

In evaluating Germany’s success in winning the 2014 World Cup, Ed Smith wrote in the Economist, “The fast passing [German] game relies on an interchangeable crew of attacking players. … The goal scorer becomes incidental: the chance falls to the best-placed attacker. Everyone’s job is essentially the same—to keep the ball moving until the killer opportunity arrives. This requires not only high skill but also the evaluation of risk and superb judgment. Technique alone is not the point; it is technique directed by intelligence.”

Smith notes that Thomas Müller was neither a striker, nor a winger or a conventional midfielder during the World Cup. “What am I?” [Müller] once said to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I am an interpreter of space. That’s a good title, isn’t it?”

One imperative is clear to all: recruit highly technical players who are also effective “interpreters of space.” Think about the coveted smart player whose visual acuity and spatial awareness help him to ascertain the precise moment to make the through pass between two defenders in the 4 v 2 exercise. Coaches can promote such abstract thinking and processing information by consistently placing players in attacking, defending and transition-oriented training settings that require more and more complex decision-making with and without the ball. Accurate, useful, timely feedback from coaches will be vital in players’ learning to “read the game” more effectively.

Giving feedback is not giving advice or value judgment. It is simply telling a player that, “given the goal of the exercise, here is what I saw, and it did not work (or it did).” If a player does not understand the feedback, or does not know how to act on it, or needs help, then it’s time to give the advice. “This is what you need to do.” Saying “Good job!” praises a player, but unless it’s followed by the feedback explaining how or why it was a good job, a player might not be so sure.

Resisting the temptation to quickly give advice and instead to give feedback will pay dividends. When the players really absorb the feedback, they can start to give themselves and their teammates advice, which is crucial to developing both confidence and competence (and leadership) over the long term especially when it comes to game performance. The goal then is to gradually wean student athletes from always asking the coach “What should I do then?” or “Is this what you wanted?”

The presence of helicopter or “puppeteer” coaches is not limited, of course, to the soccer field. Many a “skating mom” can be found at a rink with a prospective Olympic star. In a non-fluid sport like baseball, where every pitch is essentially a time out, some coaches signal for each pitch to the catcher essentially relieving that player and the pitcher from thinking how to outduel the batter. Recently on ESPN radio, legendary quarterback Joe Montana, pointing to the practice of college quarterbacks under center looking to coaches holding up cards for the next play on the sideline bemoaned their lack of decision-making preparation for the NFL. All youth sports suffer from coaches, who, obsessed with winning, hover over players. A TIME magazine story a few years back recounted a Little League baseball game in Los Angeles, where a team had five coaches positioned around the nine kids on the field. In the final inning, the infielders were so inundated by multiple coaches’ shouted “advice” that they were looking at each other in confusion, unable to understand the competing voices.

One simple solution would be to have the coaches instruct during practices and between innings and let the kids make their own decisions during the games. From a soccer perspective, teach during training and video sessions, at halftime or when substitutions are made.

The helicopter coach presents the antithesis of the educator, one of the root words of which derives from the Latin educere, to “lead out or away,” indeed, away from reliance on a teacher. The distinguished educator Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl in the back of the schoolroom doodling away when the teacher comes by and asks what she’s drawing. The girl looks up and says, “I’m drawing God.” And the teacher replies, “But no one knows what God looks like.” To which the 6-year old responds, “Well, they will in a minute.” (TED, 1/6/07)

Especially in young players, exemplary coaches are able to build the capacity not to be frightened to be wrong, indeed, as Robinson exhorts, to be prepared to be wrong in order to come up with something original. In the process they educate their players into creativity rather than out of it, a sublime achievement for which the players and their future coaches and supporters will be most grateful.

Written by Bob Andrian

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