Coaching from different angles and problem-solving (with Ben Cross)

(Doug Lemov, the author of best-selling school teaching books "Teach Like a Champion" and “Practice Perfect," works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching and has been researching soccer coaching techniques.)

By Doug Lemov

When he's not coaching the Revolution Empire's U-18 boys, Ben Cross is a Science teacher in Rochester, N.Y. There, he teaches his students to be problem-solvers, to observe carefully and use their knowledge and experience to propose solutions.

His teaching, too, relies heavily on observation and problem-solving -- his own. He constantly analyzes what his students need to know, how best to teach it, and where gaps in their knowledge lie hidden. His lesson plans are constantly changing in response to what he sees and one of his core skills is his ability to see what others might miss. On the soccer field things aren’t much different. His coaching is striking for its analytical approach and given Cross’ relative youth (he’s not quite 10 years out of college), represents a shift in both professions toward data-driven thinking and analysis.

Asked what his team would be practicing that evening, Cross began by describing his team’s performance at a recent tournament. He’d re-watched the games on tape, a far surer way to understand a team’s strengths and weaknesses that watching live as it removes the distraction of an uncertain outcome and allows a to watch exclusively to understand trends and causes and to roll back the tape to better understand and perhaps even tabulate key moments. Watching tape, in short, is a data-driven sport, and it had revealed to Cross that his team struggled in defensive transitions.

“We weren’t getting numbers on the ball when we lost possession. We weren’t getting pressure. So I’m trying to spend three or four sessions on basic team shape and team defense. When they lose the ball they don’t get back and apply pressure. I’m trying to systematically build that habit,” he says.

Since Cross is a teacher, it’s not surprising that his thinking reflects a lot of what top teachers do in their approach to effective instruction, but it’s worth reflecting on it a bit as his approach is both simple and powerful if more typical of teachers, perhaps, than coaches. First, Cross’s approach explicitly involves using data from performances to drive instruction; he’s teaching the most important skill his players haven’t mastered. And second, he’s teaching it with thoroughness.

DO FEWER THINGS BETTER. Cross has planned to teach the key topic -- pressuring on defense after loss of possession -- across at least three or four sessions, several weeks of practice. To top teachers, linking multiple lessons is a common theme. A topic like this one is too complex to hope for true mastery in just one hour, so a single session or perhaps two would essentially be wasted time, leaving players with incomplete knowledge of the skill their coach expected them to execute.

Great teachers grasp this fact and often prefer to do fewer things better, choosing the most important topics and providing sustained attention over time, just as Cross was doing. Third, Cross describes a goal of not just teaching his players how to press on defense but of making it a habit. He doesn’t want them to think to press when they lose possession during games; he wants them to press automatically and without thinking about it. To build a habit, too, takes time and focus -- again multiple lessons and fewer things taught to mastery.

“I don’t think a lot of coaches think in blocks like that,” says Chris Apple, Revolution Empire’s Director of Coaching. "A lot of them are reactive. Ben really tries to build core skills, to connect his sessions and to link his training session up to games.” And like Tony Lepore, Cross leveraged activities from the U.S. Soccer Curriculum, spending his time figuring out how to adapt them to his team’s need and link them together into a cohesive progression rather than inventing new drills.

But Cross’s data-driven approach doesn’t stop at pre-practice planning. After practice his plans go into an electronic file containing a record of every practice he’s done during the year. “I used to work all my sessions out on paper in magic marker. Now I go back and reflect on them afterwards. I look through my plans it from session to session and say ‘I haven’t done this yet’ or ‘this worked really well” I should do more of it.” Perhaps because of this constant reflection Cross is able to spot key gaps in his team’s preparation -- like defense. “The great majority of coaches spend the great majority of time on the offensive side of the ball,” Apple noted as he watched Cross’s team at work, “But Ben is very balanced.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising given his intentional approach that Cross was recently tapped as U.S. Soccer’s Developmental Academy Coach of the Year for the Northeastern Division. His practice certainly looks like that of an up-and-coming star, even in the buildup. At 6:56, on a recent late winter evening, Cross’s U18 boys wait in the lobby of a slightly cramped indoor facility for a group of U8s to finish before their 7 pm practice. Already Cross’ players are sorted into their groups for the first drill and are wearing color-coded pinnies Cross has given to the captains to distribute.

READY TO GO. Like Lepore, his meticulous planning allows him to circulate greeting players and previewing what they’d be working on and why. At 6:59, he’d moved his players to the side lines, and reminded them of the first drill. At 7:00 the whistle blows on the U-8 practice. Less than 30 seconds later, as the last mighty-mites wandered toward their parents, every player is in position and Cross’s team is at full tilt, a familiar warm-up involving pattern passing already underway.

The warm-up exercise is one they know well and execute regularly. Their familiarity with it allows them to set it up and run it efficiently at a moment’s notice -- every player knows where to go and what to do, and this points to one of the key reasons Cross’ players are so productive. He constantly re-uses his best frameworks for drills, adding variations to allow for emphasis on key ideas but, importantly, making those variations within a given drill rather than by changing to a new drill. This allows for productivity and efficiency.

By 7:10 the players have warmed up and encoded key patterns and skills and the the drill morphs from an activity reinforcing technical skill to an activity emphasizing technical skill and tactical decision. Today’s variation involves several balls circulating through the passing grid with players having to find a specific target man if and only if he is open. If not they must quickly play the ball to an alternative teammate. Soccer, it is often said, is a problem-solving game, and Cross’ players are quickly put in the position where they must to respond to uncertainty and practicing problem solving, a theme that recurs throughout his practices.

One of the key opportunities for a coach is learning to see the things others don’t watch or think about. What you see that others don’t is a competitive advantage. In fact perhaps Cross’s best tool is his skill at observation -- again it’s hard not to connect this to his other job as a science teacher -- a fact that underscores that part of being a coach is learning to gather data effectively by looking differently.

Consider this moment from practice: The pressing drill Cross’ team is executing involves two teams of four players and two neutral players who are always on offense. When one team loses the ball its four players are required to press and earn the ball back from the other six. As the yellow team presses the two players nearest the ball press aggressively, however, the two players farther back from the ball attack more slowly.

The difference in the pace is far from obvious -- only Apple pointing it out made me aware of it -- but it’s enough to allow the red team to escape and maintain possession- once, twice and then – tweet -- the whistle blows. Cross brings the team in: “Guys, let’s try that again as a team. When we press it’s got to be all of us ... ” What Cross has seen, two players in a group of 10 far from the ball doing what he’d asked but without sufficient aggressiveness, speaks to strong powers of observation -- and strong discipline.

A coach has to learn to watch differently from others, and specifically to resist the urge to watch the ball and the players around it, and scanning instead for the position of players off the ball or, as in this case, for the movements of defenders. Seeing, Cross demonstrates, is critical to the art of coaching and the first step to seeing well is self-discipline -- knowing your objective and staying focused on it at all times. “There was so much I wanted to correct,” Cross observed later, “So much I could talk about, but I had to make myself focus on defensive transitions and only that.”

Cross’s focus on seeing clearly what’s happening -- or not happening in his practices is evident once again in a scrimmage at the end of practice scrimmage. For a while, he observes from the near sideline where the other coaches are assembled, most chatting and sharing observations, but after a few minutes Cross dashes across the field to the other sideline and watches, alone, from the far sideline. “When you watch from the same side you see the same guys in close up and the same guys from far away,” he notes. “You see that part of the field better than others. It’s important to balance that. To remember to watch from different angles to see what’s there.”

(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 “Practice 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 Twitter: @Doug_Lemov)

Further Reading:
Making Critical Feedback Positive and Motivating (with Chris Hayden)
The Power of Planning a Practice (with Tony Lepore)

Earlier this year the Youth Soccer Insider featured a three-part interview with Doug Lemov:
1. “What Teachers can Teach Coaches”
2. "Say it carefully, quickly, clearly"
3. “Don't get mad at kids for struggling”
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