Bridging the gap between: 'I taught it' and 'They learned it'

“What happens in the gap between ‘I taught it’ and ‘they learned it’?” asked Doug Lemov  in a recent “Club Methodology and Coach Development Course” that we co-taught in Raleigh, North Carolina for North Carolina FC Youth.

Understanding the cause of these two very different situations is critical to being a successful coach, and critical to the difference between “taught” and “learned” is a similar disconnect -- that between “knowing” and “doing.”

The “knowing vs. doing” contrast is most clear when considering a player’s ability to execute a technique. For example, a player may “know” what it takes bio-mechanically to bend the ball into the corner from 20 yards but at the same time be totally unable to “do” it. Often overlooked, however, is that the same concept of “knowing vs. doing” is just as relevant in decision-making. As a simple example, a centerback may “know” that when an attacking opponent is faced forward with the ball in midfield, without defensive pressure, and with vision of a teammate running across the defensive line, then the appropriate decision for the centerback is to drop back to defend the space behind. However, in the complexity and chaos of the game, the same centerback may fail to “do” this multiple times when these cues all appear as described, conceding multiple chances to score.

The gap between “taught” and “learned,” or “knowing” and “doing,” is an area of incredible challenge, frustration, and opportunity. Bridging that gap requires managing the emotions created when expectations don’t meet reality, considering the context in which learning and performance occur, and knowing the role of forgetting in the learning process.

Managing Emotions

When coaches feel that a concept has been trained but is not being executed, the response is often to blame the learner -- to assume the player is not focused, does not care, or has deliberately chosen to act contrary to expectations. While each of these things can theoretically be a problem that must be addressed, the reality is that in most environments players generally try to do what they are asked to do, make good decisions, and play well. In other words, they do not usually deliberately sabotage themselves, the session, the team, or the game.

Recognizing this fact is the first part in controlling the frustration and emotion that can be triggered in the gap between “taught” and “learned.” Considering what is happening in the player’s mind is the most important thing for a coach to do in these situations, and that process starts with asking what the player saw, what they were trying to do, and why they chose the action they did. The answers usually provide great insight – exposing areas for future teaching, previously undisclosed misunderstandings, or gaps in previous teaching.

Consider Context

Coaches work in two primary arenas: (i) training, where teaching and learning take center stage, and (ii) competition, where performance is the most important metric. Connecting these two arenas is the concept of transferability -- the degree to which what happens in training improves performance in the game. One of the biggest factors in successful or unsuccessful transfer from training to game is context, or in other words, how much training resembles the realities presented in the game.

The truth is, if desired, training can be designed to look almost “perfect” -- to allow a high rate of success and great control over the variables in the environment. The powerful and positive intention driving the thought to create very simplified or controlled activities is real: the more controlled, isolated, or closed an activity is -- the more variables that are eliminated or controlled -- the “better” the activity or session will look in terms of reduction of mistakes, instability, and messiness.

But the tradeoff in this Faustian bargain is that every step taken to reduce variables and context also reduces the degree to which whatever is being trained will actually impact performance in the game. In other words, when variables and context between training and game become too disconnected, the perception and behavior demanded in the session will be entirely inconsistent with the perception and behavior required in the game. When that occurs, unsurprisingly, players will be unprepared to solve the “trained” problem and there will be no improvement in game performance.

Effective training design requires a delicate balance between: (i) increasing the frequency in which the targeted situation or problem occurs, while (ii) ensuring the activity itself remains specific to the realities of the game.

Trainings designed with this balance allow development of one of the most important skills in sport -- the ability to attune to appropriate information in the environment, to ignore the “noise” and find the “signal.” In action, players need to be able to almost instantaneously recognize the information which is relevant to their decision while at the same time ignoring the millions of pieces of extraneous information coming at them from the environment. The only way to train this skill is to create sessions where players must sort through similar “noise” in training as they do in a game. Of course, coaches may design a session that makes it easier to find that information -- by reducing time or space constraints through manipulating total numbers, ratio of attack to defense, or size of the field -- but coaching must reduce complexity, not eliminate it.

Remember Forgetting

The concept of the “forgetting curve” is a game-changer in understanding long-term development. As Doug Lemov put it best, when finishing Monday’s training session feeling like the players have nailed the targeted concept, be prepared for the players to have forgotten more than 50% of these ideas by Saturday’s game if it is the first time they have heard them.

The forgetting curve recognizes that we are constantly in a state of learning, forgetting, and remembering -- we don’t learn something once and permanently remember it. The positive news in this, however, is that each time we go back to “remember” a topic, the rate of our “forgetting” slows and we retain more of the information for a longer period of time.

Applying the forgetting curve to coaching means that there needs to be a constant balance of teaching “new” information and re-teaching “old” information (and perhaps advancing complexity). For true learning and real skill transfer to occur, topics must be planned out over multiple weeks, or if that is unrealistic or impractical, there needs to be a recognition that what was trained in week 1 needs to be re-visited, at least partially, in week 2 and perhaps again in week 4, to insure it remains top of mind.

Closing the gap between “I taught it” and “they learned it” is where great coaches distinguish themselves in youth development.

(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 coached in the NWSL for several years and presents on various coaching education topics regularly.)

9 comments about "Bridging the gap between: 'I taught it' and 'They learned it'".
  1. Alan Goldstein, October 8, 2019 at 1:21 p.m.

    Good article. The preponderance of training exercises that have little to do with game conditions is one of the factors holding back youth development in the US. Another is failure to understand that repetition leads to familiarity and confidence which leads to performance. The movie scene introduction of a one - time tactic that wins the game isn't realistic. The article mentions exercises that are easy but don't resemble game conditions. The gradual increase of difficulty in training is necessary to improve the speed and accuracy of thought and action. Far too many coaches expect performance from undertrained players. Patience, effective training, positive reinforcement of correct actions and player understanding of desired outcomes lead to performance in matches. It's a lot of work. 

  2. frank schoon, October 8, 2019 at 2:28 p.m.

    Sorry ,  but when I read" Club Methodology and Coach Development Course" I sense the high brow of coaching and development that has infected soccer in a negative way. What once was simple and so PERFECT in developing youth, what Rinus Michels once stated was the the perfect training grounds for youth was street soccer/pickup soccer. These kids learned in those days, my days, all the little tricks, tactics, techniques, the thinking of how to beat someone giving the various conditions you play under, whether it be on concrete, grass, or on gravel field (on which Marco van Basten played a lot on) small ball, big ball, plastic ball, rubber ball, tennis ball, but never a real soccer ball unless it was on grass, and mostly wore simple street shoes or flats.
    All these kids learned on their own playing just about everyday, with older age (mixed ages)kids which is the SECRET ingredient in learning the game. With a mixture of older players, information, know-how was being sublimely passed on to the younger players as they learn from older better players, the technical and TACTICAL tricks.  By playing constantly, they learned through REPETITION, all the elements, many of the basic things; For example tactics was automatically learned, and more importantly the kids often see a particular situation beginning to form ahead of time and were therefore tactically prepared to meet the situation.  They begin to recognize what was going to happen and therefore respond accordingly. They took this info on to the soccer field when playing for a club.
    By playing in MIIXED ages the younger kids are forced to play faster, move faster, position yourself in a way to give yourself TIME in order to compete with the older kids which is much better than some coach telling you what to do.
    Kids in those days didn't have to be told, tactically what to do for they learned it on their own, unlike today's players who have depend on the coach telling them what to do what is necessary.
    Because of that kids had more leadership capabilities for they had learned on their own.

  3. frank schoon, October 8, 2019 at 3:04 p.m.

    There was an article in a dutch newspaper recently that was written by van Hanegem, known as the second oracle to Johan Cruyff. He was a famous player in his own right. The headline was, " We're driving the ESSENTIALS  of the game away". His point was that the sport has been infected, with so many new disciplines, sciences, diet strategy, athletic trainers, psychiatrist, Professors who never did anything in soccer but somehow attained a coaching license. In other words, were busying ourselves with all the new extraneous material that has nothing to do with teaching the basics, the elements of soccer that was so easily learned in the street soccer days. The players have not gotten any better technically, tactically from all this new stuff.  He states that in the  youth courses, the coach is taught to discover, GET THIS, "to find the child behind the player". WHAT GOBBLYGOOK!!!!!! This is how far we have gone astray from the excellent simplicities of youth development which was in street/pickup socce
    Van Hanegem ,asked , 'what is all this coming to"? He states the kids are not getting better in their skills, he could understand if they were. Van Hanegem asked "what happened to those simple days when kid learned all that was necessary, were better skilled, knew the game better than today's kids.
    The coaching has the effect of restricting, intervening, not allowing the kids to experiment, worse  the kids today follow the PROGRAMMED training methods of  the licensed coaches. What is so ironic is that kids don't need coaches in the beginning of their development. As Cruyff state these coaches are an anethema to the youth's development.  But today we have taking coaching/teaching to a professorial science employing fancy words like Methodology, coaching licenses ,all of it to impress the parents who willing to open that check book with the idea is that my kid is learning alot....

  4. Wooden Ships replied, October 8, 2019 at 9:35 p.m.

    Frank, we have Doctorates in street. It's not sexy, doesn't fly in US coaching circles/clubs. Saw this article, immediately thought of my St. Louis youth and you. 

    I was also just finishing a conversation with several coaches on the blasphemy of flip throw-ins. I'm a damn dinosaur and am rapidly approaching the BB King epiphany of "The Thrill Is Gone." Pink Floyd "We Don't Need No Education" sneaked in too. BUT, kids don't do as we did so it's not surprising. Hell, we might get sued for negligence if we allowed our children to play unsupervised. 

  5. frank schoon replied, October 9, 2019 at 6:32 a.m.


  6. frank schoon replied, October 9, 2019 at 8:12 a.m.

    Ships, I"m still laughing at your comments...brilliant....Doctorates in street!!!! ...........

  7. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2019 at 1:43 a.m.

    For me coaching was more like engineering than science. 

    Through experience you learn what works best and what doesn't work. Why something works is of interest to the academic, but not a concern of the coach.

    I certainly had enough training of all kinds and read many books, but ultimately you learn to coach by coaching, not reading a book. Books give you ideas, but coaching gives you answers.

  8. frank schoon replied, October 9, 2019 at 6:33 a.m.

    Bob, AMEN!

  9. Wooden Ships replied, October 9, 2019 at 10:41 a.m.

    Agree with that Bob.

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