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How kids teach scientist and coaches

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

A recent twitter eruption over kids at practice kicking against a wall set the internet on fire with coaches and scientific skill experts taking various sides.

Is kicking against the wall a good thing?

The scientists and the coaches are faced off with the kids holding the ball under their arm wondering who to listen to.

There is a correct answer, but before I get too far ahead of myself I have to confess:

I may have practiced against a wall perhaps more than any soccer player on the planet. Well into my 50's I was still playing at the highest men's amateur level (D1) in my state and to keep up I needed to train, a lot on my own. I know where all the best walls are in the state. The best one is in Fridley, MN with 40 yards of perfectly cut grass in front of a 30 foot wall. I spent hundreds of hours there. Shooting, passing, free kicks, receiving, turning, my records were 550 keeping the ball up against the wall on one touch and 200 on two touch. I spent three or four times a week I spent 2, 3 even 4 hours there.

It is been a few years since I have been there, sadly the sidewalk is new, cutting through the space, still looks workable though...

Did it help me? Not sure. I was always good at ball striking. It did help fitness, I could see that. The question is was that the best use of my time?

To the sport scientist, especially the modern, Ecological Dynamics group, practicing on your own in isolation (kicking against a wall) does not 'transfer.' That is, that when the time comes to make that perfect pass, all those hours vs the wall will not help you.

They have some detractors, often on the practitioner side, the coaches on the ground. The most notable and vocal , who brings quite a bit of experiential heft, is Roman Jozak, the irascible architect of the Croatian Development system. Roman is an acquaintance of mine, and he is the immortal god of drilling, feedback, repetition, upon repetition always geared toward perfection--what Jozak calls 'automaticty,' the ability to go back and retrieve the correct technical solution, quickly without thinking. (I wrote about working with Jozak to bring coaches to the US here).

Coaches and practitioners will argue that it does, they will claim they 'have seen the benefits.' and point to restrospectives by greats like Zidane, Cantona, Berkamp, Best and more who all have spoken of spending hours alone with a ball and a wall. And it is hard to argue with Jozak and the Croatian run the last few World Cup cycles. they are doing something right.

But the answer could be right in front of us. As my friend from Salisbury Rovers, Deb Sayers, always says, the kids know already, you only have to ask.

This is not some hand holding, kumbaya, patronage, they actually know better than you. Better than that long time player who actually made it to the highest level, better than the sport scientists designing ways to prove a hypothesis, better than the best coaches in the world. After all there is an asymmetry of failure at work here. While the coach can move on the the next U13 team, and the scientist can try a different experiment, the kids can't waste years. They have much more to lose. They want to be the best in the world, the best that we have ever seen. They have one great protagonist on their side, evolution.

"Evolution is cleverer than you are." --Orgel's 1st rule

If they think they know how to do it--we should listen.

And what do kids want? They want to play.

I don't say this lightly of without experience.

As a coach I have put in my time. Thousands and thousands of hours training kids in dark winter gyms for years. I have studied development at academies all over the world.

But then I one day let kids play.

I am not a sport scientist, but I had a very interesting close up experience with the original Beatles of scientific skill acquisition.

I was at the 1st Kisakhalio Motor skills acquisition conference in 2015 Finland where Keith Davids took the stage and proclaimed: "We have the whose who,... the original Beatles of skill acquisition experts at this conference."

I took him at his word. Jean Cote, Keith Davids, Wolfgang Shullhorn, Jia Yi Chow, Duarte Araújo. I had read about some of these guys, I mostly did not understand it.

Kieth Davids, professor of motor learning at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University, is the leading force in the 'movement." opened his slides talking about environments of the future and included a project that we were working on for 2 years, Puckleball, a crazy rolly polly soccer pitch designed by the Artist Johan Strom. Strom came to St. Paul to create a design for our park.

Davids in Finland using Puckleball as an example of environments of the future

Our plan with Johan Strom to create Puckleball in St. Paul

It was a small conference at a small campus in the middle of nowhere, so over the weekend I was able to spent time with John, Paul, George and Ringo. I rode to the conference with Chow and his daughter who were planning on going skiing in northern Finland after the conference, I had breakfast with Wolfgang Shullhorn who captured the table with his stories of bobsledding in St. Moritz, I played floor ball with Jean Cote.

But this conference was definitely eye opening. So much excitement, like powered flight had just been invented and everyone was getting busy building airplanes and getting ready to fly.

Shullhorn was the most fun

Wolfgang Shullhorn. Easily the most fun. He was full of energy, funny. He said that each year at his university in Mainz, she would promise an 'A' grade to any student who could beat him in a 40 yard dash.

His thing was differential learning. Never repeating the same skill twice. He would have kids shooting a soccer ball with hands over their heads, or spinning around.

Jia gave his talk on Non Linear Pedagogy. Davids was the band leader and there were many more exciting and somewhat confusing speakers.

Floorball with Cote and friends

Why do soccer players develop in Brazil? Canadian Youth Sports researcher, Jean Cote wondered that as well. Cote is a staunch believer in sampling, playing lots of sports. He did many retrospective studies of experts. What did they ACTUALLY do when they were kids. He developed the play-practice continuum that is so important to understanding activities.

He is a promoter of playing lots of different sports, he calls it sampling, David Epstein leaned heavily of his research in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

But Cote encountered a problem with Brazil, because kids don't sample in Brazil, they just play soccer and who are widly recognized for developing the best soccer players on the planet. Solution: introduce the idea of sampling within a sport. So in his keynote adress, Cote suggested that while the brazilian kids just play soccer, they sample with beach soccer, futsal, street soccer, neighborhood, campo (11 v 11) and family games and schoolyard games all of which helps to create a more well rounded player/person/athlete.

While I think there is a lot to this, I felt like Cote it was somewhat missing the point. I played 5 sports in high school, if I played those sports today it would have been structured and heavily coached from the earliest ages. I would have gone from Structure Football, to structured Soccer, structured Tennis, structured Hockey and Basketball.

But that's not how I grew up. I simply played all those sports at the park with friends. I sampled sports certainly, and there are very good reasons I believe for those sports to be sampled. But perhaps at the same time it is important to sample the 'challenge level' within thos sports

Is 5 high structured, yet diverse sports that much easier on the child than playing just one?

Weren't the Brazilians sampling at fun as well? Was there something to the fun, rather than the more structured hard work that needed to be sampled?

Play at many sports.

I went to all the presentations, I had a short presentation myself on the 5 years of observing kids in the wild.

Non linear pedagogy, ecological psychology, differential learning, constraints led approach, it is all very intimidating and often difficult to understand, and I still do not understand much of it.

But what I saw that weekend was that that just as the Beatles searched for that perfect pop song, this modern sport science movement was searching for perfect play.

Throughout the week they presented their theories, research, and findings. All their studies led in one direction. Want to know how to get baseball batter to create a better launch angle? Want to be a faster runner? Want to get better at soccer? Golfer? Basketball free throw shooter?

The answer is play,

The simpler the better.

It was all about finding the play. All the terminology, the constraints, the affordances, a the dynamical systems theory are their way of working down towards a provable theory of play. The birds had discovered flight, Wilbur Wright had to reverse engineer it. ALl the science was just trying to reverse engineer play. Something was going on in play. With out a testable theory they were left testing their best guesses.

Play is the best teacher

So what does all of this have to do with kicking a ball against the wall?

It works if it is your choice

If you are having fun, then kicking against the wall will transfer skills--but If you are bored, doing it because the coach told you or some kind of homework, then it's a waste of time

So here is my homespun challenge to the scientists. Play is the best learning system, everything else is second best.

What the kids can teach the coaches

1) How to improve

Coaches have always revered free play (street, or unorganized play), million's of hours of experience of these coaches must mean something. Deep down they understand how important it is.

You not only need to make time for it, it needs to be the priority

2) think like a kid

Set up games that you would want to play--not what you think is good for then

Kids want to score and dribble--let them.

3) Beware of theindustrial youth sport complex

Coaches tend to coach teams, those teams tend to play in leagues with names like 'Super League.' These leagues have nice fields and the best refs and cost a lot of money that the parents are paying the coach. All coaches want to develop the next Messi, but they gotta win, which means they need results now. 'Play is good, but my coaching is better.'

Thus the better your child is, the less he or she will play and the less the chance that child has of reaching his or her potential.

What kids can teach the Sicientists

1) Practice leads science,

Practice often leads to the development of new scientific theories and discoveries. Through the process of experimentation and observation, practitioners in various fields are able to test and refine their ideas, ultimately contributing to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

2) Play leads Practice

Play can lead to practice in that in a play mindset new movements and ideas occur that can be practiced and tried.

3) "chercher le jeu" (look for the play)

In film noir, there is a saying used when trying to solve the mystery: 'cherchez la femme,' (Look for the woman).It is a cliche in detective fiction used to suggest that a mystery can be resolved by identifying a femme fatal. In the mystery of how kids get better at things, how they acquire skills, the expression we should use is "chercher le jeu" (look for play).

4) Transfer will always be second best

Scientist all are simply trying to find play, something any 7 year old does naturally. In fact, kids are born with the ability to play. Just as Chomsky proposes we are born with the ability to pick up language, what Chomsky calls universal grammar, children also will pick up the language of play--a sort of universal play; after all play precedes language and culture.

Kids playing with their friends will never be bested in skill acquisition research

Ability can not be built through challenge

What kids in play will teach us. We can accept these truths now or wait until the research confirms it.

Here are some of the many things science will confirm:

  • We are born with play, but it must be developed

  • A skill a can only be improved by making it faster or more efficient (less energy)

  • Kids who put more time in play will be injured less

  • Kids in play will complete actions with less energy

  • Kids in play will play with a more varied set of levels, kids, ages, intensity (both low and high).

  • The games kids play will show more representative design than a coach led training

  • Kids in play will show higher levels of tactical intelligence, anticipation and flexibility.

  • Kids in play will perform better under pressure (this may have been proven already)

  • Kids playing at a lower level will show greater skill acquisition

  • If you try to play to get better (coaches, players) you get worse, performance metrics will deteriorate

  • If you think you are 'talented' in something you likely played a lot as a child

  • Fun is a real thing and a sign of skill acquisition

  • Coach feedback hampers skill acquisition

  • Skill in games has more to do with how you move the bodies of the defenders than in moving your body

  • The higher levels players do less while teammates and opponents do more

  • Defenders enjoy being manipulated by attackers--they get something out of it.

So the very long way to our original question.

If training against a wall does not transfer, then why would pattern passing? Or 6v2 rondo? Or 8v8? With no two situations in soccer the same, what would 'transfer' mean anyway? Would you always be fighting last war.

Kids don't want to be taught--but they do want to grow.

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