sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

U.S. soccer turns to a teacher to help its coaches

No Gravatar

So the U.S. men are shaping up a nice run in the Copa América tournament, but many feel that the men’s overall success in the world scene is still not there.

Why? Why, as a recent Atlantic article by Amanda Ripley asked, has a country with more than 4 million kids registered for youth soccer leagues “never produced a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo”?

The answer is multi-faceted, but a big part of it may be because of the kind of soccer training U.S. children receive: Rote, boring, drill-based instruction that is the opposite of the creative spirit of the game of soccer.

In her article, titled “Can This Man Save U.S. Soccer?”, Ripley describes how U.S. soccer officials were thus led to an “unconventional idea” about who’s going to “save” U.S. soccer: A teacher with “no professional soccer expertise” named Doug Lemov.

Ah, teachers.

Lemov, the article says, is well known in teaching circles, having spent years studying educators and training many teachers. (Not everyone loves him, though, especially those opposed to the charter school movement, of which he is a part; here is a scathing review of his book Teach Like a Champion that even challenges his being a teacher.)

U.S. Soccer came to him in 2010 after the organization realized that much of U.S. training was far from what other countries were doing. Our kids, for instance, play lots of games and spend much practice time running laps or standing in lines waiting at drills. As a coach who’s spent years at soccer fields, I can validate this.

“Soccer, it’s sometimes said, is a player’s game,” Ripley writes. “The 22 people knocking a ball around a big field are bound by few rules.” As a result, players become elite by decision-making prowess, not just mastery of “rote skills.”

Ripley also quotes Jürgen Klinsmann, a German who now coaches the U.S. men’s team, who has noted that it’s been difficult to get Americans to realize that coaches cannot be “the decision maker on the field,” but should instead be a guide. Indeed, I continue to be amazed by the number of coaches who want to “puppet” their players through a game.

Specifics aside, though, what struck me about this article is how Ripley frames U.S. Soccer’s approach as so unconventional because it turned to, well, a teacher to help others recognize and understand how to, well, better teach. Lemov, Ripley writes, works with coaches in fundamental ways; like teachers, they need practical training and feedback to succeed.

The question is why it’s such a surprise that you would bring in someone who’s thought about teaching to teach your own teachers?

Our culture can be downright hostile to teaching, oversimplifying it despite the fact that almost anyone who’s ever tried to teach anyone to do anything can remember how hard it can be. And many of those remembered moments, like trying to teach a kid a new game or a teen how to drive (see my own ill-fated efforts in that area here) were with learners who really wanted to learn something.

Why do teachers remains so woefully stuck in the respect game when it’s clear teaching is such a universally valuable skill that is so difficult to do well, let alone master?

By the way, Lemov wrote a short letter to the Atlantic the following month. He said he was “honored” to have been the subject of the article, adding, “Coaching is teaching, of course, just in another setting.”

However, he said he “strongly” disagreed with the headline and that “U.S. Soccer needs no saviors.” Even if it did, he added, “it would certainly not be me.”

A humble response — from a teacher.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

Latest posts by Scott Warnock (Posts)

Print This Post Print This Post

4 Responses to “U.S. soccer turns to a teacher to help its coaches”

  1. Love it Scott. Win Copa!

  2. Scott, When I played with the other kids on the street, or in the Armstrongs’ front yard,actually, we played touch football (American football, not soccer), wiffle ball, softball, and other games like Hide and Seek and “What Time Is It Mr. Fox?” We did not play soccer because that wasn’t in anybody’s background. Even though I was a lousy (American) football player in Phys. Ed. at school, I knew the rules of the game, I could throw a tight spiral, and I could surprise everybody on both sides by accidentally kicking what was supposed to be an onside kickoff way over the other team’s heads (no control).

    All of this was because I had played with the kids on the street at home every day for fun for years, not because a coach had had me practice my spiral repeatedly, scientifically isolated from the rest of the game.

    When kids who play futbol, or what we call soccer, for fun at home, they develop a dexterity with their feet simply because they need to “dribble” the ball past the other team, who are trying to kick it out of their sphere of influence, when the dribbler sees a team mate appear out of nowhere with clear space around her (we had roughly 50% boys and girls on our street, and after Deke, Carolyn and Judy were the best athletes), they can surprise everyone and pass the ball to the team mate.

    You’ve heard about writing without teachers, just to elbow my way in here? How about playing without coaches?

  3. Good post, Scott … thanks for sharing!

    You’re right about the U.S, not producing a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo … but ,really, there are only two countries in the world who have. But the United States HAS produced a Landon Donovan, a Tim Howard and – my son’s favorite – a Clint Dempsey … and I truly believe there are more on the way.

    I agree with Don that soccer isn’t in our background … but I believe that is changing. Soccer – at EVERY level of competition – has a higher profile than it did back when I was a high-schooler in Pennsylvania, back in the early seventies.

    When my son began playing club soccer in the Dallas Texans organization (same as Dempsey), he played for a British coach who shared both an incredible expertise and incredible passion for the game with his boys.

    Today, in Midland, Texas, we have a growing refugee population from Burma/Myanmar. Among other things, they are bringing with them a love for ‘the beautiful game’ that began in the cradle, and are sharing it with others … the same can be said for our immigrant population from Mexico.

    Here and across the nation, things are changing.

  4. Another fabulous article. Recently had a friend tell me she wasn’t signing her son up for summer soccer. She wanted him to have a break and enjoy more unstructured play time. She had made the same decision the previous summer and shared that it had a noticeable, positive impact on her son. She felt he improved his soccer game by playing soccer at the pool with his friends each day. I love her decision to let him PLAY!

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment