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.
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.
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