Ask that coach, “Did you have a good practice today?” and he will likely say, “Yes, those kids got five hundred touches, and we practiced dribbling, passing, and shooting.” Ask the parents eagerly observing, and they might feel the same: “It was great! These kids really need those touches because in the game, they cannot dribble, pass, or shoot.” I used to think that as well. Today I would ask those parents and coaches a better question: “How many decisions did they make today?”
Sadly, the answer to that question is likely, “Not that many.” In spite of getting five hundred touches, the vast majority of those touches took place in the absence of any decisions, defenders, or direction, elements that are required to connect the practice environment to the game conditions in a dynamic game such as soccer. You may be developing technique, but you are not developing skill because those are two very different things. And without skill development, transfer does not take place. These are elements worth explaining.
I realize some people might argue semantics here, so here is how I define these terms: a technique is the ability to perform a physical task while a skill is the ability to deploy it in the competition environment. One thousand touches with no connection to the game would be like hitting one thousand balls off a tee in baseball; you might become a better swinger, but it won’t make you a better hitter. One thousand pitches from an overhand pitcher will not prepare you to face Jennie Finch. One thousand isolated touches a day will give you the technique, but without context in your training, those touches will not develop the skill to play the actual game.
Far too many coaches think skill is the aggregation of various techniques that are then applied in a linear fashion back into the competition.That fundamentally misunderstands the fact that skill is something that requires context to develop. You cannot separate it from context. You need problems to be solved in order to develop skill. In a practice with no game-like activities, with no defenders or direction to force decision-making, there may be technical development, but there is very little skill development. And without skill development, there is no transfer.
Transfer is the ability of a learner to successfully apply the behaviors, knowledge, and skills acquired in a practice environment to the competition. If the training environment does not mimic those game conditions or if it poses decisions and scenarios that are not encountered in a game, then transfer does not occur.
“Transfer does not happen often,” says Andrew Wilson, a researcher from Leeds Beckett. “It is spectacularly task specific. If you learn to perceive a task in one dynamic environment and that environment does not exist in the game, then transfer will not occur. It only occurs when the dynamic principles overlap.”
Wilson uses the example of passing in soccer. Two players passing a ball back and forth may be working on locking their ankle, placing their plant foot correctly, and following through so that the ball is hit in the right direction with the right pace. But that is insufficient preparation for passing a moving ball between moving defenders to a moving teammate in the exact space he needs to receive it at exactly the right time. “Behavior emerges in real time for the information the athlete is given,” says Wilson. “Context governs transfer.”
This is not to say that there is never a time to teach specific movements to one child with one ball. But why would you gather as a team to work alone? Would this group time not be better spent working in groups and working on the dynamic elements of the game, leaving individual work for kids to do at home? Shouldn’t the vast majority of your training sessions be focused on actual transferable skills and not simply technique? I certainly think so, and the research seems to back it up.
Todd Beane hears the argument all the time that you must teach technique before you can teach skill. He sees no reason to separate technical training from true skill development.
“Four things have to happen in milliseconds before you receive the ball,” says Beane. “What we train is how you can master time and space before you receive the ball so you can execute with efficacy.” Beane sees the game of soccer as a constantly repeating series of actions. Players must:
• Perceive the situation.
• Conceive of possible solutions.
• Decide on the best solution.
• Deceive their opponent, if necessary.
• Technically execute their pass, shot, or dribble.
• Assess their choice and prepare for the next play.
“Cognition has been divorced from so much of the training I see,” says Beane. “The thinking player is to be valued, and we need to train it and bring out the potential of every player and every person. Our kids here go home, and everyone will say, ‘OMG! You have become so much better technically.’ But if they find an extra meter of space, they find time, and any extra time increases the likelihood of technical execution. So, yes, we do ball mastery work, but we do it within the context of the demands of the game in a cognitively faithful way."
(John O'Sullivan is the founder of the Changing the Game Project and the host of the Way of Champions Podcast. His latest book, Every Moment Matters: How the World's Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams, from which this article was excerpted, came out in December of 2019. It is available in paperback and Kindle. His previous books are, Is It Wise to Specialize?: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Sports Specialization and its Effect Upon Your Child’s Athletic and Changing the Game: The Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids.)
At this week's United Soccer Coaches Convention in Baltimore:
• JOHN O'SULLIVAN: Thursday, January 16, 11:00 am-12 noon What is Your Club's DNA? Developing Your Club's Mission, Vision, and Values, Room: CC 328/329
• JOHN O'SULLIVAN & TODD BEANE: Friday, January 17, 1:30 pm-2:30 pm Developing a Club Methodology and Playing Style, Room: CC 328/329
• TODD BEANE: Friday, January 17, 2020: 4:30 pm-5:30 pm TOVO Training: Intelligent Position Play, KwikGoal Demo Field 2 Session Number: 256