Opinion
Education Opinion

Open Goals

By Emmet Rosenfeld — March 17, 2009 4 min read

Last weekend I went to a soccer coaching clinic and a Piagetian seminar broke out. Gary Allen is the Director of Coaching Education for the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, and has played and coached for a lifetime across every level of organized soccer. What I didn’t expect to hear from him, for the first hour of the clinic, was a discussion of psychomotor skills and stages of development. One thing he explained that everyone could understand was the slanted jump rope.

Imagine a jump rope stretched out on the ground. As a coach, you tell all the members of your team to jump over it. Everyone can. Then you raise it a little, and they still can. But as you keep raising it, fewer and fewer kids make it over. By the end, only the best jumper is left, and all the other kids are on the sides watching. In effect, the one who is best gets the most practice, while the ones who need it most are only learning that they aren’t number one.

Instead, what if you held the jump rope at a slant? Kids array themselves along the length of it at a height they think they can handle. You can keep raising it by increments, but as you do, the best leaper finds it as tough as much as the most vertically challenged. Everyone “stays in,” and everybody gets maximum growth because they’re being challenged at their own level.

For his audience of parent coaches of young kids, Gary made the case that U.S. soccer in general, and our teams in particular, would be better if we focused on process and not results. By starting “select” teams at an early age, he argued, we reward kids who are fast, strong and skilled at that time. They learn to depend on their speed and strength and individual skills, which don’t emerge at the same time for all kids and, in the end, can take them only so far. Why? Our Darwinian process disallows the beautiful differentiation that happens naturally on the playgrounds of San Paulo.

Granted, we don’t have a tradition of soccer in the streets. In my neighborhood, it was schoolyard football. Teams were picked to be even, not with all the best kids on one team. If there was a disparity, you could always trade Joey for Tommy to even things up. We cared a lot about scoring, more than anything else in the moment. But we didn’t care as much about keeping score, and certainly didn’t tally games won and lost over the season.

This free-flowing play is what’s lost in a system designed to find the best kids early and put them on travel teams, Gary argues. The “peak performance” of the schoolyard -- evenly matched teams, blood struggle to win, no hard feelings afterwards—is sacrificed, and the cost is that players don’t develop problem-solving ability to match their ball skills. Because they see less game play, their abilities to improvise, react in the moment, and read situations aren’t cultivated.

This esoteric reasoning wasn’t why most of us were there on a Saturday morning. But Gary got into some good master teaching too. He took us into a gym where four kids appeared, two each ages 5 and 7, and led them through a series of drills. Simultaneously, he did something extremely difficult that I’m not sure the non-educators in the crowd appreciated as much as I did: he explained to us what he was doing and how was thinking each step of the way. Peeling back one’s skull to expose the thought process as you perform a skill, in addition to modeling the skill itself, is what I aspire to do in the classroom.

The drills progressed over the course of the model practice from simple to complex. Except they weren’t drills, they were games. That is exactly what motivates kids this age, rather than the makeshift stand in a line and kick a ball kind of thing I’d been doing as a coach in the past. First tag with everybody it, than Soccer Simon Says, next kids passing the ball through “gates” of parents’ legs that opened and closed on cue from the coach.

Each game had a point. When you are dribbling a ball and playing tag, you learn to keep the ball on your feet without staring down at them. When Simon says to step over the ball this way, or move it with the outside of your foot like this, he is teaching you moves that will juke an opponent’s socks off. Passing back and forth while looking for the open gate teaches the skills that help players see and adjust to a changing field.

The days following the seminar, there was a lot of email traffic among age group coaches about whether or not our kids should play with goal keepers. Mostly, those who had been to the session favored ditching goalies as Gary had suggested. Those who hadn’t were pretty convinced that the old way was fine and we were not teaching our kids the actual game of soccer without sticking one of them in the goal. There was a lot of passion on both sides. My co-coach and I agreed to disagree over a beer that evening.

Teaching of all sorts, of course, should be done with an understanding of the developmental stages of our students. We are the best teachers, coaches and parents if we allow kids to “maximize touches” and build skills in a “slanted rope” environment. Whether on the field or in the classroom, we all want to see our kids have fun, improve as players, and develop a life-long love of the game. Without or without keepers, those are goals we share.

The opinions expressed in Eduholic are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read