The Art of the Classroom Session: Developing Young Soccer IQs
Decision making. It is an art, a science, an execution of precision in a moment presented or created in the game. The mastery of this is what separates the average from the elite. Coaches must be doing more than on-the-field practices and games to develop ball mastery for young players – specifically for their evolving mentalities and soccer IQ.
One thing I have found to be particularly successful in terms of comprehension, retention, and execution is a practice we have in a classroom setting. The players bring their soccer notebook/folder, a pen, and a laser focus. Coach brings an agenda (PDF) to follow along and a consistent message to convey.
Comprehension: understanding and a common age-appropriate language. A U9 team I had always talked about food – so we incorporated the soccer talk to include something they were particularly interested in. When split up to play, it was peanut butter vs. jelly or when wanting to create urgency to win the ball back immediately it was "don't let someone run away with your candy after taking it." I fondly remember one of my 8-year-old players making a suggestion in practice to the group to shorten "Banana Split" on the field to "BS" because it was easier to say and the other team "still wouldn't know what we were saying." Got to love the initiative; however, we resigned to shorten it to what the rest of the soccer world knows simply as "split."
Every player learns differently. Make sure they understand what you said, show you what you said, explain to their teammates what you said, then explain to you again. Total comprehension means they can even teach their parents what coach means by "find the banana split into space so your wing friend can run onto it behind the other team's last row."
Retention: repetition and something memorable. We hear it as one of the indicators of great coaches: It's not necessarily what you know, it's what you can get your players to remember. A conscious decision to incorporate a team soccer language, playing style, team identity, etc is one that can be invaluable. If they are saturated with the information at every moment in a consistent and positive manner, it becomes second nature. Beginning the classroom session with a fun ice breaker, a clip of the USWNT's latest moments, or a Barcelona highlight reel is something that gets the players excited for the session and creates a memorable moment you can refer to at a later point in a practice or game.
If you have the luxury of technology – film them in practices and/or games. Use the SLO-MO option on your cell phone or record on an iPad and edit it later. Show them analysis of what's going on in a classroom session. When they are on screen, they will be 100 percent with you – they are the stars of that particular show. Highlight them in the good and the areas to improve.
Execution: the confidence of making the right decision at the right time using the right tool in your toolbox. This is the final measuring stick for effectiveness of your classroom sessions. Can your players comprehend your vision, playing style, formation, session topic – retain it – and ultimately execute it in the moments where they present themselves in a game? This will be a difficult item overall to measure at it is not necessarily the individual's moment of brilliance, but rather the collective unit or rows executing the game plan competently.
An example of how I have done it with a young team playing 6v6: Do they step/drop together to keep their Big or Little W shape? When the backline of the opponent drops off, does the player with the ball recognize space to dribble/pass and are the wing friends recognizing space to move into in wide areas to receive the ball? Be sure to praise and acknowledge those moments as these overall show a team comprehension, retention, and execution on the big stage.
The Bigger Picture: do you have team issues that involve bullying, poor nutritional habits, or simply want to connect with your community? Do your parents need a classroom session on sideline behavior and/or college recruiting 101 advice? These are other topics that coaches can conduct in a classroom setting. Bringing other coaches, mentors, guest speakers, and experts can be just as effective to get a particular point across.
These classroom sessions overall are effective because it creates an intellectual environment that players are already hardwired to focus in on and learn. Bring the same passion, enthusiasm, and organization as you would put into an on-field session, and you will see results as you build their soccer IQs and further your players understanding and love for the game.
The following article has been shared by Kat Benton, a 2014-15 participant in the NSCAA 30 Under 30 program. Benton is currently the director of academies at the Salina Soccer Club in Kansas, as well as a Kansas ODP coach.
In addition to being a 30 Under 30 selection, Benton was also named a 2015 Rising Star by the NSCAA Women's Advocacy Group. She played recreational, club, and high school soccer in California. Benton moved on to play college soccer at Irvine Valley College, Santiago Canyon College, and Kansas Wesleyan University.
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