What Teachers can Teach Coaches (Q&A with Doug Lemov, Part 1)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

I'm always a bit uncomfortable comparing coaches to schoolteachers because soccer is playtime and teachers have a significantly more important and far more difficult job than soccer coaches. But for sure there are similarities and coaches can learn from teachers. Doug Lemov, the author of “Teach Like a Champion,” one of the best-selling teaching books in the USA, and “Practice Perfect,” also happens to be a soccer aficionado who has been researching soccer coaching techniques. He has also coached youth and high school soccer.

SOCCER AMERICA: Since you’ve been observing some top youth soccer coaches, are there any significant traits you've noticed that successful coaches and teachers share?

DOUG LEMOV: Absolutely. I mean, there are a lot since, to me, coaching is a form of teaching. So of course there are deep similarities. One of the most important is a slightly obsessive focus on mastery. The great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, said that effectiveness in coaching (or teaching) was understanding the difference between "I taught it" and "They learned it." That’s one of the hardest skills in teaching but it's so important to look at what students are doing and say: "Are they mastering it?" and to take action if they're not. It takes humility and discipline to look carefully to see that, to observe and ask not, "are they doing it?" but "are they doing it right?" Successful coaches, like successful teachers, do that.

My daughter's coach gave a great example of that last week. He was working with the girls on maintaining possession in one-touch passing. He set up an exercise where 12 or so girls circulated around the inside a large grid (one third of a small indoor field). He asked to pass two balls amongst themselves, all one-touch passes, and to call the name of the girls they were passing to.

First, I loved that he started off telling them not just how to do the drill but how to do it right: ball on the ground, crisply weighted pass, receive the ball across your body. Don’t just do it. Do it right. But even with that guidance they struggled. A lot of knee-high balls. A lot of inaccurate passes. A lot of coaches would have been OK with it -- but he was really attentive to the failure rate; it bothered him that they were practicing doing it wrong.

So he stopped them and simplified the drill. He put them in two groups, each with two lines of five or six facing each other. He had them pass the ball first time back and forth, following their pass each time.

He said, “Girls, we’re struggling to get our passes on the ground so let’s groove our one-touch passing like this first.”

In other words, let’s get it right and then let’s make it more difficult.

Anyway, the best part was that even though the girls were now able to put the ball on the ground, there were still a bunch of inaccurate passes. So he put one group on the line at the top of the penalty box and one on the midfield line and he said, “Same drill; keep the ball as close to the line as you can. Try to keep every ball right on the line every time.”

Brilliant, because it set a high standard and it allowed them to see clearly and honestly whether they were getting it. My sense is that a lot of the poor execution was because they weren’t very aware of how far below a standard of true excellence they were. It all looked fine to them so why push to get better.

His change helped them self-monitor. I loved that. It’s so easy to tell yourself you’re doing a great job and so hard to say, on the other hand, “No, they’re not getting it and no matter whose ‘fault’ that is, it’s my responsibility as a coach to make sure they do get it.”

I might have been watching a great math or history teacher. That’s just how a positive outlier in the classroom would have approached it.

SA: In the “Teach Like a Champion,” you share excellent methods for getting students pay attention. Do you have some that would apply to getting a group of chatty, fidgety youngsters to pay attention for a few seconds on the soccer field?

DOUG LEMOV: Definitely. When I do workshops with coaches I’m often hesitant to include a section on “getting and teaching attention” but coaches always value it, even elite coaches -- it’s just not something most people ever get training on even if they know everything in the world about soccer.

In fact, even teachers often don’t get training on this stuff. So it’s a relief to know a bit about how to handle it. Getting people to pay attention is what I’d call an “endemic problem.” It’s a challenge that’s implicit in the work, completely expected and still difficult and thorny.

So the first step is to see it as an engineering challenge. It’s normal to struggle with it but people figure it out and you have to as well if you want to really build great players. In short, they will pay attention if you engineer the culture of your practices correctly.

(In Part 2 of our interview Doug Lemov shares his 5-step method for helping coaches communicate with their players.)

(Doug Lemov is the author of “Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College,” a study of teachers who get exceptional results in high-poverty schools. He’s also co-author with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi of “Pract ice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” a study of the art of practicing. His books have been translated into nine languages and he works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching. He blogs at

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at Woitalla coaches youth soccer in Northern California at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)

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3 comments about "What Teachers can Teach Coaches (Q&A with Doug Lemov, Part 1)".
  1. James Buckner, January 24, 2014 at 7:21 p.m.

    This is an excellent article. Many coaches think they have taught soccer because they have taught soccer and if the students don't get it, then it is the players' fault. I am anxiously looking forward to Part 2

  2. stewart hayes, January 26, 2014 at 11:15 p.m.

    Of course while it appeared from a casual observer that changing the drill to one that made it easier was better, we don't know if it was. Was there a control group being used? I would be willing to bet that if I took two groups and had one doing drills that they could do successfully and another struggling but playing competitive games to goals the group that struggled and played continuously difficult games would end up being the best soccer players.

  3. Doug Lemov, January 27, 2014 at 1:39 p.m.

    It's possible that you're right. But before you assume so, can i recommend Dan Willingham's (amazing) book Why Don't Students Like School? He's a cognitive scientist and demonstrates pretty compellingly that what we think is more rigorous (a steeper rate of challenge) is not always so. What learners respond to is a gradual and steady increase in manageable challenge. So in the drill in question they go back, simplify til they start doing it right and then ratchet up the level of difficulty again, encoding success as they go. (That's what the coach did). I think the neuroscience is pretty strong on this point-David Eagleman's book Incognito is another great read on the topic, if you want to geek out on it--you want players to practice doing it right and THEN accelerate the level of challenge. Practicing doing it wrong is much less productive even though it appears "challenging". Anyway i really think willingham's book (among others) is great. You can draw your own conclusions of course but it was really powerful for me. Oh, and i, like you, have never run a control group in practice.

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