It being the fall, my thoughts have turned to soccer – a topic near and dear to my heart and one surprisingly relevant to UbD.
The other day I was having a conversation with my older son about the big ideas of soccer. He was an accomplished school player, still plays in men’s leagues, and is an avid fan of the Premier League in Great Britain and world soccer generally. But he was surprised and a bit intrigued when I suggested that part of the problem with coaches and players in America is that they seem unaware of the “big ideas” of soccer central to success. In soccer as in school, you need big ideas to successfully transfer your learning – your skills and knowledge – in different situations.
So, what are the “big ideas” of the sport? Before I offer an answer, let me set the context in which I publicly offered my first answer. A few years ago I was asked to give a talk to a group of soccer coaches from Great Britain who work for a national program in soccer training in America called UK Elite after the President heard from a friend about UbD. He invited me to talk with them about the big ideas of soccer and how to help players internalize them. They were naturally a bit suspicious that some American bloke who seemed pretty academic could help them out but we had a wonderful discussion.
I proposed two big ideas to get us started: 1) offense is created when you create space and exploit it;  and, 2) your job as a player is not to play a specific position but to help your team.
These ideas are not unfamiliar to coaches. But players are rarely helped to be self-conscious and deliberate about them. Coaching typically – in soccer as in school –focuses on discrete skills.
For those unfamiliar with soccer, the idea of “creating space” means that the more the players’ deliberate movement opens up an area free of opponents, there is open space in which to make a pass that can easily advance the ball to a now-open teammate. Here’s a simple move to illustrate the point. If all three players on the forward line move on an angle to the right of the field the defense has the tendency to follow them (or at least watch them intently) and thus open up space on the left behind themselves for one of the backs to run for a pass. (This is a very common thing to do in football and basketball, but in soccer it is harder to see and do).
By contrast, any parent who’s watched a youth soccer game knows that the opposite tendency is the norm: the players on offense collapse space: they bunch around the ball, no one is open, and they lose control of it.
The second big idea – you’re a member of the team, not just a fixed position – comes into play at all levels of the sport. Many players on defense, for example, think that just because they are in the backfield on the left side, that they should never leave that area. In fact, in youth soccer games it’s not uncommon for the backs and the goalies to still be hovering around their own goal when the ball is down at the other end of the field in front of the opposing goal. In this case the defense should be helping their team play offense and be free for an errant ball so that they can shoot on goal just like any other player. Many possible scoring chances are missed because the ball bounces back from the goal mouth but no one from the shooting team is there to put it back on goal; they hang way back because they are “defensive” players. And to link back to Big Idea #1, the defense is unwittingly giving the counter-attacking team 60 free yards of open space in which to run.
Notice that these ideas are very much in keeping with Understanding by Design. We are talking about “big ideas” that transfer anywhere, any time, at any level of play; indeed, they transfer to other sports and make success in all such games more likely. Notice, too, that both big ideas deal with player misconceptions. When players “bunch” they operate under the enticing misconception that the closer we are to the ball, the better.  And when we feel that first and foremost we are a position and not a supporting member of the team we can’t imagine that a defensive player plays offense or that an offensive player plays defense.
The UK Elite coaches came up with a number of other big ideas but I want to highlight just one that we had a great deal of fun discussing: “winning requires legal deception – deceptive speed, direction of running, and direction of passing and shooting.”
The great soccer players deceive their opponents constantly: they vary their pace, their location, their intentions. (They also try to deceive refs about fouls and injuries, alas). By contrast, anyone who watches an American soccer game comes away with the depressing feeling that almost every next move on the field is predictable.
The key word in all of this is purpose. Many players are not taught to have one; they are just taught drills. Sound familiar?
My concern with getting players to have an aim, to truly understand the game they were playing, began decades ago when I was a varsity soccer coach. I just happened to notice one day that even my better players sometimes seemed to just run around, hoping good things would happen. One practice I vowed to do something about it. I announced before a scrimmage that I would blow the whistle at various times, ask everyone to freeze, and I would interrogate players, and ask them what they were doing and why they were doing it. If your answer was lame, I gave the ball to the other team. The players thought that this seemed like an interesting idea and were game to try it. Alas, they were bad at it, for days.
I soon realized that the problem was far worse than I’d imagined: the players not only failed to offer a reasonable account of their intentions when asked, but they seemed to lack any overall sense of strategy to which to refer; they didn’t understand their purpose. This was a shock – and clearly my fault. I grimly realized that we had never really talked about game-long and season-long strategy, only tactics.
I trust you see, even if you’re not interested in soccer per se, that this notion has wide applicability to education. Students, like players, are often unsure of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it; they just do it. But performance can only greatly improve once students, soccer players, or anyone else knows what they are trying to accomplish long-term and has a good idea about how they might accomplish it.
Over the next few weeks my players began to have better answers to my question (especially after I put forward two or three principles of play for them to refer to). Rather than slowing them down and making them think too much, like the centipede trying to think about its feet, this kind of purposefulness greatly improved personal and team performance.
Here’s further evidence of the need and value in making students “own” a purpose. My daughter’s former Varsity coach broke with tradition at halftime in all games. Instead of doing what almost all coaches tend to do – give a speech about what they saw and fire up the team for the remainder of the game – Griff asked three questions: What’s working for us? What’s not working for us, and what do we need to do to change that? And: What’s working for them that we have to shut down?  At first, the young women were completely tongue-tied: they had never been asked to understand the game as they played it! It took him weeks to get decent answers. Eventually, not only did the girls become more articulate and observant, they were able to tell themselves how to improve. Their second half game performance was invariably stronger than the other team’s, and they made the League Finals 3 years running.
Purposeful and effective performance thus requires three things: knowing what the bottom-line long-term purpose is, knowing ways of achieving the purpose, and knowing how to self-assess and self-adjust to achieve a purpose. This is how autonomous excellence is achieved – in any arena. Otherwise you get aimless running around and questions like “Is this ok? Is this what you want?”
If you put all these ideas together they tell us that we are under-achieving as I argued in my last post. Too often players have no strategic big ideas and are thus poor self-assessors and self-adjusters – just as in school. Too often players aren’t given a chance to ask and pursue essential questions – just as in school. Too often coaches stress discrete skills in highly scaffolded drills, leading to poor transfer in real performance – just like in school.
I often tell the story of Liz, my former co-captain whom I yelled at in a game: “Use all the drills we worked on this week!!!” In the middle of the game, she stopped running, looked at me and yelled back: “I would, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!!”  That moment was actually the beginning of UbD for me. And it might be for you: there are dozens of lessons to learn from watching kids try to move a ball around on a brisk fall day. I suggest you go out and watch a game this week.


8 Responses

  1. Funny, because I thought of my own sports analogy this week.
    Coaching JV field hockey back in the day, we were doing miserably — all the players clumping around the ball. One of our best players came out so some other students could play, and as she sat on the sidelines watching, she said, “We don’t spread out at all. I couldn’t see it from the field, but I see it from here.”
    Fast forward ten years to this week. We were doing a Harkness discussion in Grade 9 English, and I’m still trying to get them to understand that it’s a team sport and not an individual one. I told one overly talkative student that she could not speak the entire discussion that day, something painfully hard for her. At the end of the discussion I asked her how it was for her. “Awful,” she said. But then she added, “But I noticed that we don’t listen to each other. It’s so choppy.”
    “Had you noticed that before?” I asked.
    “No. Just today because I had to listen.”
    It was my feedback verbatim — she said it before I could. Sometimes it’s brilliant to change the field of play.

  2. Though not a soccer player — or even sports enthusiast — this “goal-seeking,” purposeful questioning makes all the sense in the world, on or off the playing field of the classroom As educators, too rarely do we ask ourselves why we do what we do. Even less often do we ask our students — which might create a beautiful cascade of bulletin board displays, but not necessarily long-term learning or understanding.
    Perhaps it’s all tied to a faulty teleological drive in life in general. Despite that, at least we should sit together in a faculty meeting and ask more Why’s. Winning the soccer game may itself not always be it on a literal level — but deep learning, whatever that term might imply, might win us more students convinced it’s about more than an “A.”

  3. […] Learning about Learning from Soccer. A blog post by former LC faculty member, Grant Wiggins. “Purposeful and effective performance thus requires three things: knowing what the bottom-line long-term purpose is, knowing ways of achieving the purpose, and knowing how to self-assess and self-adjust to achieve a purpose.” […]

  4. Mr. Wiggins:
    I’ve just learned of your work through Scott MacClintic and Al Romano of Pingry School. Interesting that the first piece of yours I came across is about soccer and learning. Below is something I posted on my blog, in response to a piece by Sam Chaltain. I would love to hear from you and to learn more about your work.
    Soccer has always been an important, joyful part of my life. On my personal calendar, the arrival of fall means soccer. Since 1960 I have enjoyed a portion of each fall either as a player, a coach, or a referee. I currently referee high school games.
    In the summer of 1966 I worked for a mining company in the Harz Mountains in Germany. I followed the World Cup that summer from black and white television sets in the bars and restaurants of the small town where I lived and worked. I celebrated Germany’s last minute comeback in the final against England to take the game to overtime, and agonized with everyone in the dining room of the small family restaurant where I watched the final, as an “Englisher Tor” became the goal that sent Germany to defeat. I remember the negativity and brutal fouls in that tournament that put Pele on the sideline, and the individual brilliance of Portugal’s Eusebio. Every four years since I’ve faithfully kept my appointment with the Cup, following it from the cramped radio room of a ship on the Mediterranean to a big screen in Madison Square Garden, to best of all, in person in 1994 and 1998.
    This past summer I happened to come across a piece by the gifted and important education observer, Sam Chaltain, written a day after Landon Donovan’s thrilling game winning goal against Algeria. Chaltain wrote about the changing environment in some successful American businesses and the lack of similar change in our schools.
    “If you’ve been watching the action in South Africa, you see why soccer is known around the world as the “beautiful game.” It’s a game of improvisation, and real-time adjustments, and unquantifiable synchronization between individuals. Broadcasters reflect this in the language they use to describe the players, using such elusive terms as “pace,” “rhythm,” and “flow.”
    “These are unfamiliar words to the average American sports fan, but they’re the proper words for a World Cup match because the action unfolding is both planned and unplanned — it is the result of years of skill development, discipline, and preparation — and the precise way it unfolds in the flow of the game cannot be linearly predicted, planned, and directed.
    “Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) gets this. He realizes the worst thing you can do, in an organizational context, is constrain people by micromanaging their activities. In the same way a soccer manager would look ridiculous by attempting to control the game from the sidelines — his work is largely done by the time the game starts, and the rest is up to the players — a business CEO must know what shared structures, and what individual freedoms, are essential.
    “At Zappos, this structure comes from the company’s core values — all 10 of which guide and inform every aspect of the company, from hiring to evaluations to interactions with customers. Because of this clarity, employees are largely free to determine how their day unfolds — and the company’s call-center employees don’t operate off scripts; they are trusted to represent the Zappos way in a fashion that also incorporates their own unique voice and method of self-expression.
    “Why is such simple, powerful wisdom so absent from our current conversations about public education? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that the learning process is, like a soccer match, more dependent on simple structures, improvisation, and freedom than it is on complex structures, standardization, and fear? And why do we think the best way to improve school cultures is by incentivizing behavior with financial rewards, when scores of leading voices in the business world know that such a strategy is fool’s gold?
    “I don’t know if President Obama is watching the World Cup. But if he is I wish he would heed some simple advice: when it comes to improving our schools, abandon the command-and-control mentality of the past, invest in freedom, not fear – and just go with the flow.”
    The “command-and-control mentality” Chaltain laments remains an overwhelming feature of our schools, public, private and charter. I recently watched a video clip from a charter school’s website. It is a proud demonstration of the school’s “culture”. The teacher is shown at the front of the room training kids in how to pass out and pass back papers. You can see adult observers sitting at the back of the room watching how smoothly this is all being accomplished. It is a horror, unless you admire efficiency in paper passing, which will doubtless make these students efficient and compliant paper passers later in life. If paper passing is so important, at the very least let the kids try to devise a system. This school may close the “achievement gap” as it intends, though I doubt it. I fear it will only create or sustain an “initiative gap”, training them, not teaching them for work where such compliance is valued. Where one gets a job as a paper passer I do not know.
    Back to soccer. Critics of our national team ask where is the individual flair that characterizes a powerhouse like Brazil, for example. The answer may be that nearly all children in this country play the game in organized, structured leagues. No kid ever organized those leagues. From age five forward soccer moms drive kids to regular soccer practice so they can be ready for their adult managed game on the weekend. You don’t find the pickup games, kids playing by themselves, little kids fighting their way to play with and against big kids, makeshift games with no adults around. Among other things, soccer involves endless experiments and calculations about time and space. In this country there is far too little play at soccer to discover and learn from failure and repetition. Though well meaning, there is too much adult directed practice, practice which shortcuts discovery and subtlety or not so subtlety leads toward player compliance. Practice “tested” by games in leagues with scores, standings, and measurable results. Kids don’t get to develop through hours and hours of pure play at soccer, taking delight in the trickery and skills they learn, building confidence in their ability and a desire to assert themselves individually in the course of a game. Even the “beautiful game” is not immune from the “command and control” virus. Soccer in this country, like schools and businesses, has to find its way beyond compliance dictated by extrinsic forces and allow intrinsic commitment to come to the fore.
    This is not just a problem with soccer here in the United States. Europeans are questioning how the over-managed development of youth players inhibits the individual style and imagination that contributes to the beauty of the game. Nor is this a problem akin to just soccer in this country. We can find Little League champions from around the world on network television in late August. You have to look harder to find pickup baseball games in parks and sandlots, places where kids play for the sheer fun of it. I recently heard radio announcers conjecture that the reason the NFL players have never been able to go on strike successfully is because they’ve spent their lives in a sport that is so hierarchical in nature, so dependent upon submitting to the will of authoritarian figures, that the players cannot muster the necessary independent collective will to negotiate successfully on their own behalf. They don’t know how to operate outside an imposed structure. Our youth sports world suffers in the same way our schools do, from adults who don’t know how to step back, or refuse to step back. Winning games now, today, becomes more important than player development.
    True, commentators used “pace”, “rhythm” and “flow” to describe the games this summer. At least in terms of the U.S. team, if one listened and read carefully, you could also discern the word “test”. Could the U.S. pass the test of getting to or through the next round? Talented teams would surely test our defense. The development of the game in this country was being given a “litmus test” in the World Cup. Unfortunately we “failed” our last test against Ghana.
    Chaltain’s questions remain paramount. How do we go about creating school environments, business environments, play environments based upon freedom, not fear? Why do adults fear creating such environments? Does everything we do have to be tested? Do we have to reform our schools with a race? How about a process? How about balance? We don’t need to take over and teach the game to our children. We need to let them play more on their own and discover for themselves the inherent beauty it offers.

    • Freedom, not fear; purpose, not mere compliance; thoughtful understanding not just recall – we have our work cut out for us, son’t we? Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoroughly and thoughtfully to my post.

      • I have been teaching for 21 years, kindergarten and first grade. Looking back at years of experience, my teaching has become more explicit. The students are taught the purpose of what they are learning. They are more successful and show growth more rapidly. I have also learned to have these discussions with students and see how they are more motivated and involved in their own learning. They are in more control of their learning. More freedom. More growth

      • It is eye-opening to me as well. I feel that in my own childhood as a student I was the one always working towards “is this what you want?” or “Is this right?” I succeeded but it was based on meeting expectations not my own personal goals and understanding of the purpose. As a teacher now, I understand how much more effective it is for the students to know and work towards the end purpose.

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