How Would They Know!

by Rodney Kenney

At the beginning of this essay on coaching soccer players it may not be evident where I am going, but stay with me and you may have the same “oh, I get it” moment that I had.

Many years ago I attended a seminar on “How to build quality into a product instead of inspecting quality into a product”. Still doesn’t sound like soccer? The speaker for the four day seminar was a Dr. Edward Deming. He was famous for teaching the Japanese how to build quality products after World War II. Before he went there in the early 50’s, the Japanese were known for cheap quality products and were finding themselves falling behind the likes of the USA, Germany, and England in manufacturing, that they now needed to compete if they were to become a strong independent nation after the War.

By the time I heard Dr. Deming speak he was in his late 80’s. He stood over 6’ 5” tall, a little bent over from age, but still had a strong booming baritone voice that demanded your attention. The key points of his talk are not relevant for this essay. He spoke all day long for the four days. Now comes the good part! As he spoke he would pause every so often and pound on the podium and yell “HOW WOULD THEY KNOW, HOW WOULD THEY KNOW?” I thought, wow this guy is either senile or trying wake up those people who had fallen asleep. He did this for four days! I didn’t get what that was all about.

Two weeks later I tried to introduce the need for a player to be at the top of the “D” on corner kicks to my U-12 soccer players I was coaching and they just didn’t get it. It seemed a simple concept to me but they were clueless! I was losing my patience and found myself raising my voice, which I hate to do. One of the players asked a simple question, “What does the top of the D mean?”

The light came on, HOW WOULD THEY KNOW? I assumed they knew what I knew. (Top of the “D” is at the top of the penalty arc.)

Dr. Deming was right, how would they know if they lack the experience we have or we don’t fully describe the concepts so all the players understand it. This revelation changed the way I train players which is to make sure they know not only the concept but the basic terminology used to describe it. Another example of this happened many years later when I was coaching in college and we had players from not only many different soccer backgrounds in the United States, but different countries. We were on a two game away trip to Tennessee in which we played on Friday and had Saturday off and played again on Sunday.

It stormed on Saturday, our off day, and the players opted for staying in the hotel instead of making our normal local Mall tour which we did after a short training session in the morning to break up the off day when we were away from home. We had been having trouble all year where it seemed we were disconnected as a team on the field. The head coach decided to have a meeting with the players to see if we could come up with a solution to our on the field problem. We ordered in pizza and as the players all sat on the floor of the hotel room eating we talked about the problem.

We had a Swedish center back who leads the defense; she was upset with her teammates because they never listened to her, as a consequence she had no confidence in her teammates. As it turns out, although she spoke perfect English, when things got dicey she lapsed into half English and half Swedish and none of the other players could understand what she wanted. This she had not realized. With that one “how would they know” moment, most of the defensive problems were solved.

The coach asked, “Are there any other problems with our communications on the field”, and sure enough there was. We had an English player in midfield and she always used the term “Second Knock”. As it turned out, no one knew what that meant. When she explained it meant win the second ball (another “How would they know” moment) the players know knew what she wanted them to do. Our game did improve and these are all examples of Dr. Deming’s “how would they know”. And I thought the guy was going senile!

As coaches we must understand that not everyone knows what we know and no matter what level we are coaching or how basic we think the concepts are, taking the time to fully defining the terminology you and your players use can improve your coaching skills and your team’s effectiveness.

What I do in one of our first practices each season is to give each player a sheet of paper with a list of terms I plan to use during the season and ask them to define what they think they mean. I then ask them to add terms and concepts they have used in the past and define them for me. I give this out as homework so as not to take away from skill practice.

The next practice we spend about 15 minutes going over the homework and clear up any misconceptions they may have and introducing to the whole team other terms their teammates may use during the year. I then give them a sheet with diagrams of the terms and ask them to match the terms to the diagrams. (Checking for understanding)

Since soccer is such a dynamic game and the need for communication is critical to on field team play I find this is well worth the time and effort. It is critical that, we as soccer coaches improve our communications skills and don’t take for granted that players know what we are talking about. Many players will not tell you when they don’t understand something you said because they are afraid you will think less of them as soccer players or they think their teammates will reticule them for being dumb. It is our job as coaches to make the players comfortable asking questions.

Otherwise HOW WOULD THEY KNOW?

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