By Paul Gardner
I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking at the Cal South Magazine -- it tells me quite a lot about the youth situation in one of our most important regions, and anyway, there are plenty of photos of smiling kids, and that’s always fun.
The May 2010 issue is no exception, but this one does contain an article that includes some information that seems to me highly debatable. Headed “Teaching the Teachers,” it tells the story of how Cal South is making sure that all of its coaches have a license of some sort.
Things start off with special youth courses, designed by Cal South for novices. The important guy here is the Cal South Director of Coaching Education, Steve Hoffman. It is evidently his ideas that the courses express.
Hoffman, you’ll not be surprised to learn, because it is such a common occurrence in American youth soccer these days, is English. From Liverpool. He looks like an amiable sort of guy -- we’ve got four nice photos of him, smiling radiantly, with various groups of young players -- most of whom seem to be Hispanic.
A lot of what Hoffman is advocating is not directly related to soccer, but rather concerned with teaching methods -- how to keep youngsters involved, and interested, how not to overload them and so on. It all sounds sensible enough.
But looking at what Cal South coaches are required to teach their young players raises some doubts. At age 11, for instance, we are told that full 11 v 11 games begin, while the players are taught the correct technique for “passing with the inside of the foot, chipping and lifting the ball for crosses.”
That, too, sounds pretty standard stuff -- but is it? To me it sounds like standard stuff from a 1970s English coaching course. Inside of the foot? In the fast-paced modern game, surely outside of the foot passing, made on the run (something that cannot be done using the inside of the foot) is more important, and certainly needs to be learned early. As for crosses, they are, of course, the absolutely basic staple of the English game.
The emphasis -- at least in the article -- does nothing to lift my misgivings about a coach from Liverpool teaching Hispanic kids how to play soccer. No doubt there is a comic side to all of this -- for Hoffman talks about “the language barrier” in American soccer. Anyone from Liverpool who mentions a language problem has to have a pretty good sense of humor. Though, frankly, when he makes out he didn’t understand what Americans mean by a “wall pass” (the term is English), things have gone a bit too far.
But it’s not so much what is being taught that bothers me here. It is an attitude that Hoffman spells out, very clearly, that I find unacceptable. An extension of the language barrier, if you like -- Hoffman says that Cal South’s coaches must “be speaking with one voice.” Already, the ominous shadow of orthodoxy threatens. That, it seems is what Hoffman wants: “A kid should be able to go from Ventura County to San Diego County and be coached the same way ... it’s so important that every coach across the region go through the same program.” The italics are mine.
He talks, disapprovingly, of two coaches having “a different idea of what a sweeper does.” You have the message now: Same is good, different is bad.
I find this an utterly misguided view of coaching. Soccer, of all sports, cries out for inventiveness and creativity, for diversity. But once coaches set up coaching schools, once they start working out curricula ... that’s when the problems start, because that’s when it occurs to them that diversity is actually a damn nuisance, and it would be much easier for them if everyone else simply did as they were told.
So a sweeper must always play in the same way? No more Franz Beckenbauers then. And there will, inevitably, be restrictions on when to employ, the most creative -- but the most rebellious -- of soccer’s skills. So, forget about Lionel Messi.
Remember, Hoffman is concerned here with the teaching of coaches. He wants all of them, in turn, to teach the same thing. That is typical coaching school practice. It means the imposition of an orthodoxy. I cannot see how that can possibly be the key to producing anything other than robotic players.
Coaches who get into this course-giving routine like to stress their role as teachers, and frequently use academic and didactic comparisons to make the point. After all, you could not have one geography teacher declaring that Paris is the capital of France, while another says it is Timbuktu, now could you? No you could not. Because there you are dealing with facts. One of them is wrong, one is correct.
But in the techniques that are used in playing soccer, there is precious little that is correct, in that absolute sense. There is not a correct way to play sweeper -- but there are quite a few different ways of playing it, in both personal and tactical ways.
No doubt, conformity simplifies the teaching process. But the aim here, surely, is to produce players, not to make life easy for the coaches.
It was supposed to be the delight of the Prussian military schools that if they posed a problem to a class of 20 officers, all 20 would come up with the same solution. In soccer, the delight should arise if a tactical question to 20 coaches is solved in 20 different ways.