Closing the gap between curriculum and methodology: A necessity for development

One of the most common proofs of development expertise referred to by clubs across the country, and frequently described as such to their members, is the club “curriculum.”

This often described, but rarely seen, document is considered a guiding North Star when many describe the process for teaching and developing young players within their club. But while a club curriculum is helpful and positive, a curriculum-driven perspective reflects a need for significantly more thought and study that, if undertaken, would greatly improve the development environment for millions of players.

The word “curriculum,” the scope of the document itself, and its role within a club’s processes must be properly understood to create a better learning development. More specifically, a deeper discussion of what a “curriculum” is and is not, and how it relates to the other tools of learning and development, must occur in order for development promises to become development realities.

A “curriculum” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the courses offered by an educational institution.” Put another way, a “curriculum” is a catalog or listing of topics. While an exhaustive curriculum is certainly important in identifying all the concepts that must be taught to young soccer players in their formation years, a curriculum itself says nothing about the order in which these topics are taught, the manner in which they are taught, how they inter-relate, and many other incredibly important concepts in learning.

In other words, while a curriculum is an important starting point in development, considering a curriculum alone sufficient for good development is like considering a foundation slab and framing sufficient for a good home.

(Photo courtesy of FC Wisconsin)

Coaches could not claim to be development experts if their work was based on a book titled “1001 Drills for Soccer Coaches,” but that is in effect what is communicated when curriculum alone is considered evidence of expertise. Reliance on curriculum alone shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the learning process, raising serious questions about how much learning and development actually occurs within the club.

Beyond the very basics of having a curriculum, what clubs should be based upon, and what parents and young aspiring players should be looking for, is a clear and consistent “methodology” within the club across all age groups. This difference is far more than semantics – it goes to the heart of learning.

Returning to the dictionary, a “methodology” is defined as “the methods and principles used for doing a particular kind of work,” or “a system of methods used in a particular area of study.” A methodology, as contrasted with a catalog of topics and drills, is what distinguishes a plan for long-term and progressive learning from a randomly selected set of exercises randomly implemented. A methodology addresses all of the following:

What is Taught (the topics themselves, or as described here, the curriculum).

When it is Taught (the order of learning and the duration of focus).

How it is Taught (the activities themselves, and the manner of educational intervention).

The Frequency of Repetition and Progression (when and how to advance in complexity).

A methodology in a soccer club should lay out in great detail all of the topics that must be taught to fully develop a player from age 6 to 18, the order in which they are taught so that they progressively build sophistication, the manner in which they are taught most effectively (where there is ample room for reasonable people to disagree), and the logic or guidelines for progressing in complexity.

A soccer methodology should also be anchored by the concept of a Club Game Model (or a similar structure) that represents what the desired end product looks like – in great detail, in all four moments of the game, and in different areas of the field.

Creating a complete methodology can fairly be considered the lifetime work of an expert. It is a process that never ends because the methodology itself should be constantly evaluated, adjusted, and modified to reflect changing beliefs, new pedagogical and cognitive understanding, and the ongoing evolution of the game.

The intimidating scope of what is encompassed within a real methodology makes it far easier and more practical to borrow from existing methodologies than to create a new and unique one yourself – but every club must actually have a methodology to truly call themselves a club. As Doug Lemov has stated:

“Without a methodology, clubs are really a shopping mall, a collection of loosely affiliated teams, mutually branded and organized around a common location, but independently run based on whatever set of myths, beliefs and philosophies each independent coach ascribes to.”

A club must have a methodology because it is the methodology that is the foundation of the connections between age groups, the link between learning across age groups, and the common bond between coaches at different age groups. A methodology is fundamentally what transforms a group of teams wearing the same jersey at different age groups into a club with a learning trajectory that consistently goes up and to the right from age to age.

There are many areas where different methodologies may have different, even opposing components – and of course the Game Model to which they fundamentally connect can be very different from one club to the next. But there are more areas where every methodology should look similar. For example, every methodology should be based on the same science-based principles of teaching and learning, and on the same objective components of the game.

A methodology that does not provide a learning plan for each topic (a set of processes for scaling complexity that ultimately concludes with the 11v11 game), or that does not account for the four moments within the game (Attack, Transition to Defense, Defense, and Transition to Attack) is not a complete methodology.

It would be inaccurate to state that curriculum is unimportant. Deep, long-term learning requires a curriculum, but a methodology – and consistently enforced implementation of that methodology (another major gap in many clubs) – is what ultimately translates topics for learning into learning of topics.

As coaches and directors, we should all be studying various methodologies employed across the world at top development centers and espoused by top thinkers in the game – and considering how they compare, contrast, and align.

Instead of placing “curriculum” as the end of intellectual exploration, we would all do better to view a methodology as a living document created through constant study of the game, frequent discussion with or modeling from experts, and reflection on efficacy of various methods personally applied.

In the end, coaches and clubs that can distinguish between a “curriculum” and a “methodology” – and who actively seek to create the latter instead of passively clutching to the former – will be certain to be better at moving players from their current state of play and understanding to a better future state of play and understanding.

(Christian Lavers, whom you can follow on Twitter at @clavers1, is the President of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). He is also the Technical Director of FC Wisconsin.  He holds the USSF "A" License, the USSF "Y" License, and the United Soccer Coaches Premier Diploma.)

6 comments about "Closing the gap between curriculum and methodology: A necessity for development".
  1. Joseph Pratt, November 8, 2018 at 10:20 a.m.

    An excellent piece, Christian. I have often felt that many clubs are indeed like “shopping malls” as described by Doug Lemov. The Director of Coaching position needs to be about more than just recruiting coaches, it has to involve the full implementation of methodology throughout the club. Players and parents need to be confident that the development opportunity will be consistent across the club, and will not be entirely dependent on which coach a team happens to have. 

  2. Wooden Ships, November 8, 2018 at 12:11 p.m.

    Cogently stated. This is the mechanics (classicism) of player development. I hope somewhere in the glorious methodology, where adults can pat themselves in the back, that we not forget the joy, imagination and freedom (romanticism) we allow for the player. For without, it’s only half the requirement. 

  3. frank schoon, November 8, 2018 at 1:27 p.m.

    Yes, I agree on consistency from top to bottom when dealing with youth teams in the developmental process which Ajax has with their youth teams,as far as training, development ,tactics and technique. Here is the difference, the Ajax coaches/trainers, are made up of retired players, who can teach EVERYTHING and able to DEMONSTRATE the required skills at whatever level that is required.  
    Ajax stress individuality is the underlying girth of the youth players development which is not a phenomena here. I have a very low opinion of the licensed coaches here and their ABILITIES, technically speaking. The problem like Cruyff states with youth development is licensed coaches. 
    The licensing program allows incompetent people ,to have a license, be allowed to train and develop the youth. A good example from the past is Teofila (Nene) Cubillas, a world cup star, a great player, was flunked for a USSF B-license. Cubillas has more teaching technique ability in his  big toe than all those combined who got a B-license at this coaching course. We have gotten away from the simplicities of teaching/learning the game that was once so simple and now is hampered and stifled from the top, the classroom, characterized by the theoretical, dogmatic, programmed approaches and that is why we haven's created great individualists, ball handlers for the past 50years, leading to us to import a near 40 year players like a Zlatan or other players who mostly come from 3rd or 2nd world countries

  4. Bob Ashpole, November 8, 2018 at 1:53 p.m.

    Great article, but during the fundamental stage club planning is really not important because all clubs and plans should be teaching fundamentals generally the same way. Coaches either know the fundamentals and how to teach them or they don't.

    I admit that having a club as a resource is valuable in that each coach doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. I coached that level over 25 years ago with no club coaching resources. I had to come up with a curriculum, season plans, and practice plans from scratch. Wasn't that difficult or time consuming. Hours rather than days or weeks. Fortunately there were good  methodologies available in books so I only had to borrow that.

    If I had been coaching U14 instead, I would have been at a severe disadvantage without a DOC in support. The knowledge problem area is about how to teach the subject of team tactics in a player development setting rather than training a senior team. I have seen enough youth coaches trying to train youth players like a senior team to understand that is a mistake.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that club planning is generally great and necessary as long as we remember that teaching fundamentals is not rocket science, although it is the foundation supporting everything that comes after.      

  5. Kalekeni Banda, November 9, 2018 at 10:05 a.m.

    Well done!

  6. uffe gustafsson, November 17, 2018 at 3:19 p.m.

    I have one small comment, when you teach fundamentals or any drill, you really need to explain to the players the reason why you doing something, why this is important when game time is coming. Seen to many coaches do drills but never explained why we doing it. It seem a no brainer but unfortunately it happens to often.

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