“Imagination is more important than knowledge!”

By Tom Turner, Director of Coaching, OYSAN

While Einstein definitely wasn’t talking about soccer when he uttered those words, he certainly could have been hinting at the value of a learning environment that emphasized creativity and problem solving over rote learning. At the World Cup, USA-99, it was noteworthy that the most gifted and creative players were from countries with the least organized youth soccer environments: Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil. The fact that this trend is evident on the men’s side has always been taken for granted, but the continuation of the phenomenon into women’s soccer merits notice and further exploration. If the women from these countries can emulate their male counterparts by emerging from relative obscurity and arrive on the world’s soccer stage with subtle ball control and original ideas, what is it about their environment that we must attend to? It is perhaps significant that players from these countries almost always develop their craft in multiple age group games over many years on sandlots and in alleyways, and generally without the “benefits” of structured coaching programs.

Coaching players to be subtle and creative is perhaps the most compelling and complicated challenge facing the Western soccer world today and, as fewer and fewer creative players emerge from the naturaland traditional route of unorganized play, the burden of “manufacturing” gifted and talented players has been assumed by national coaching organizations through the implementation of systematic training programs.

Sadly, the majority of these programs, including our own in the United States, are based on the Anglo-German Technical Model and the return has been less than spectacular for the time, effort and resources committed over the past 30 years. To appreciate why gifted players are more likely to emerge from unstructured environments, it is important to look at the nature of learning and the nature of unstructured settings. This article explores the elements of learning as they relate to player development and the benefits of a less-organized coaching environment.

The Technical Model

Thinking back to junior and senior high school physical education classes will provide a picture of the nature and failings of the Technical Model as it is still presented and practiced today. In those classes, the basic technical skills of the sport being taught were always presented at the beginning of each unit. This technical practice would always precede the games, which would take up the latter part of the unit once the skills had, theoretically, been taught and learned.

Each year, the unit would begin with the same basic skills and, generally, the same kids who performed well or poorly the year before repeated their successes or failings. Students would stand in lines waiting their turn to practice the techniques and the teacher would offer feedback on how closely the demonstrated performance matched the textbook ideal. There were no opponents present during these exercises. Skill tests, if they were given, would establish criteria for grading, such as dribbling around a set of cones within a given number of seconds, or shooting a certain percentage of free throws. When the games began, the large number of students on each team made it difficult for the weaker-skilled players to participate with any success and the teacher spent the class time organizing the rotation of teams, keeping score, order and cheerleading. More damaging, once the drills had been practiced, information on how to actually play the games was rarely provided to the participants; those players who lacked the skills to succeed in the drill activities were now destined to fail in the game activities because they also lacked understanding

So, why do years of free play experience at the younger ages seem to be more advantageous in cultivating competence and creativity? In the next installment will be some observations about young players growing up in a street soccer environment.

(Part two of this article to come in next month’s issue).

Tom Turner is a former U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach and Ohio North State Director of Coaching. 

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