Coaching is a lot like teaching, but in a different setting and with some different context. While teachers are in a classroom and coaches are on a field, both want to see their students grow in knowledge, ability, and as people. 

As we get into the heart of the ECNL season, we wanted to revisit the December 2020 Breaking the Line podcast featuring the ECNL’s Coaching Methodology Advisor Doug Lemov. Lemov is a New York Times Bestseller and has published much-heralded books like Teach Like a Champion and, recently, The Coaches Guide to Teaching. As you can hear on the podcast, he is a brilliant educator of educators – someone with much to offer coaches in our league and beyond. (On a side note, Lemov will be returning to the Breaking the Line podcast on Oct. 13 to share more insights on coaching, teaching and getting the best out of players.)

Some of the big ideas Lemov shared in his first Breaking the Line appearance – player decision-making, memory retention, and giving feedback – are discussed below.

Distinguish the Signal from the Noise

It’s a phrase heard all throughout sports: “Player A has a high (insert sport here) IQ.” This phrase describes a player that is able to process the game quicker than their peers, which lets them make plays no one else sees coming. 

But what really is sports IQ? And is there a way to teach it?

The answer is yes. Or at least, yes – you can teach players to recognize the signals that lead to quicker decision-making. 

In order to do so, you must Distinguish the Signal from the Noise. 

Noise is everything that’s going on in a training session or a game. It’s your teammates, the crowd, a coach yelling, the position and movement of players, the score, distractions, every piece of information your brain consumes. Within this chaotic noise, a “signal” is the relevant information that prompts a good decision and action in the moment. Players need to learn the tools to distinguish between what is noise and what is a signal that leads to good decision-making.  In other words, coaches must show players what to look for, where to look, when to look, what the information means, etc. 

Giving players the tools to “see better” and discern what to look for as cues for various decisions allows them to make quicker, better decisions on the field. 

It takes time and practice to improve vision, perception, and understanding, but distinguishing the signal from the noise is key to successfully competing in a high-level, dynamic, and rapidly changing environment.   

Consistency of Language

A critical best practice that any club can implement is to ensure the organization’s vocabulary and language are consistent throughout all age groups and throughout all coaches.

If a player learns an idea or technique at the U10 age group, but a coach at the U14 level describes the same technique or idea in a completely different way, it often leads to confusion.  It can even lead to a false sense of understanding if the words used to discuss a concept by one coach are used to refer to a different concept by another coach in the same club. (Think about the term “front foot” and the various different meanings of that phrase depending on the club or coach!)

Having clear and consistent language throughout the club ensures that what players are taught in younger age groups is confirmed and expanded as they get older.

Performance Isn’t Learning – the Power of Forgetting

One of the most overlooked aspects of teaching is the power of forgetting. Most of what we have learned throughout the years we have forgotten. If you don’t believe that, try doing fifth-grade level homework in science or history. 

Learning is the acquisition of long-term knowledge or skills, while performance is what you’re actually able to do in the moment. Just because someone can “perform” a concept in the moment – after they have been training it repeatedly that day – doesn’t mean that they will remember how to perform it at the same level later in the week, month, or season.  Learning requires constant repetition, driving ideas and execution into long-term memory.  

If you teach players a new idea at training on Tuesday, they may perform it at a good level by the end of training.  However, if it isn’t revisited throughout the week, by the time Saturday rolls around, the players will have forgotten much of the details and won’t be able to execute it to the same level they did on Tuesday!  

To combat forgetting, retrieval practice is key – revisiting the idea or action, and forcing players to “remember” what they learned before. There’s nothing you can teach that won’t be forgotten to some degree, but you can at least slow and reduce forgetting, and increase recall quality over time. 

Building out training sessions in 4-6 week blocks to introduce new ideas and information and then constantly and consistently revisit will create marginal gains, which will then, in turn, transform learning into performance. 

Consistent Feedback

Finally, the most frequent ways coaches relay information to their players is through feedback corresponding directly to the players’ actions. Clear, concise feedback to your players will yield the best results. 

And the best way to do that is by giving feedback one piece of information at a time. 

As humans, we’re only able to hold one piece of information within our working memory, maybe two at the most. So when giving feedback to players, don’t lob five corrections their way and expect progress. Every player will latch on to different information, most of the information will be forgotten, and no one will be on the same page. 

Instead, give players one piece of information at a time. Have them work on that. Then, once they have utilized and applied that feedback, move on to the next. And then once that has been mastered, give another piece of feedback. 

While it may seem counterintuitive, in a training session, it’s better to stop play five times to relay one piece of information rather than stop once to give five. Players respond better to just one piece of feedback and will respond quicker, which will allow you to progress through training at a better pace while also creating change. 

We are incredibly excited to hear more from Doug Lemov in the coming weeks!