Why you forgot all your Spanish

Maybe the school required language classes, maybe parents forced you into it. Maybe you dreamed of charming a girl in French or wanted to speak the language your grandparents spoke. Regardless, we took Spanish (or French) for four years in high school but most of us have forgotten it.

I often meet people who ‘used to play soccer.’ They switched to another sport, thought they lacked the skill, or burned out. Developing Youth Football Players by Horst Wein describes a model to avoid this. It’s a youth soccer development model implemented by Spain. The first day I tried its activities, my session fully engaged all kids and they tried hard. Probably my best session. And it showed me that from the child’s perspective my coaching method was the same outdated method used to teach me Spanish.

Worst part of language classes

Even today I can’t sit still for an hour to listen. How can children? In Spanish classes across the country, students fall asleep. The teacher scribbles verb conjugations on the board, and you write it down. Then he writes verbs with irregular conjugations, and you write it down. You’ll start wondering when you’ll ever use any of this.

Language classes should be sexy. It’s a new language! A whole new way of speaking, thinking, and communicating. It provides access to a whole new population – their movies, books, TV shows, and people. I don’t want the verb conjugation drills, I want the common phrases. I want to speak, not be told what to say. 

Every player loves scrimmaging, and we can tap into this to make sessions practical. Small sided games, from 2v2 to 4v4, simulate a match technically, tactically, and mentally. Simple rule changes allow me to target broad skills. For example, I initially had problems getting players to spread out. They would crowd around the goals because that’s all they saw. So I added another goal – each team had two goals to target, one on each wing. With this tweak alone the players saw the benefit in proper positions and naturally spaced out. 

Let me speak it (correctly) 

The best Spanish teachers forced everyone to speak by starting class with group conversations. Everyone had to chat. Conversations slowed when the kid who didn’t know Spanish spoke, but the teacher rarely intervened. Maybe a quick correction. Then back to the student. Some days everyone enthusiastically participated and the conversation felt authentic, we talked for the whole period. I really felt like I knew Spanish.

For 7-10 year old players, small sided games force everyone to play. In a 3 v 3, the ball will eventually, even accidentally go to the worst player on the team who had been hiding. Wonderfully, he now has to apply what he learned. Sometimes he’ll actually apply it, but when he repeatedly fails, I need to analyze what is hindering the player or the group. The games don’t teach specifics so I have to figure out if they need work on correctly striking the ball, positioning, or something else. I’ll then quickly do some corrective activities focusing on these techniques, and then send them back to the game. When introduced correctly, the players will enthusiastically do the activities because they see it can help them win their 3v3 game. When it goes well, you don’t even need to quiet them, because they want to learn in order to win.

Listening is boring 

No correlation exists between Spanish speaking ability and the number of minutes the teachers spoke. It’s hard to retain information by passively listening. The better teachers involve you in your own learning process by asking questions. Good questions – what/why/where/how. By struggling through them, we were basically teaching ourselves, and that’s when we learn best. 

My coaching questions were too simple. Do you think we’re too bunched up? Is it ok to pass back? Should you use your toe? You could listen to my tone and answer correctly. How can we move the ball better? What can you do when 3 defenders are in front of you? What parts of the foot can you use to pass? Now there are more answers. Now as one player answers it triggers something in another and hands shoot up to respond. They begin to think and correlate techniques with game conditions. They’re getting excited, they’ll try out what they said because they said it, they came up with it themselves

You can’t verbally teach soccer

On the field players are under pressure to make correct decisions – receive, dribble, pass, shoot – based on ball, teammate, and defender locations/movements all the time. Can I verbally teach all that? I’m guilty of yelling “pass/shoot!” to players during games, but then I’ve robbed them of their chance to think. They’ll just do what I say. I should instead be guiding them to the right decisions by providing many trials of real game situations during practice. Professional players try to dribble past several defenders, pass to a teammate surrounded by defenders, and even toe poke the ball to keep possession. They’re all correct if they work, yet every day I tell players to do it only one way. 

I’m not a school teacher, I’m a coach. I want to guide players to become intelligent and creative, and the latter may be ruined with lectures and one dimensional drills. By guiding them throughout small sided games and corrective activities, I can bridge the gap between practice and games. During games players can then see they’ve been in the situations before, and know what to do. They will start thinking, and learning for themselves. 

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As close as you can get to Horst Wein’s book without buying it: http://www.cbcdutchtouch.com/images/FUNINOYouthDevelopmentprogram.pdf

All this is easier said then done. Next week I’ll introduce you to my teams and some case studies on when I tried this out.

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