These days, he spends more time watching his own children on the soccer field than he does playing. He has seen them coached well, which fills him with gratitude. But he’s also seen them coached poorly. One of his son’s coaches sometimes yelled negative, perplexing things. “He would speak in these riddles: ‘Where should you be?’ ” Not knowing the answer, the boy would stand still, afraid of making a mistake. Lemov found the scene heartbreaking and also familiar; he’d had the same feeling many times before, standing in the back of classrooms, watching well-intentioned teachers flounder.
This coach, Lemov knew, was generously donating his time and doing what he thought was right. But coaches, like teachers, need practical training and meaningful feedback to do well. Teachers rarely get that support; coaches almost never do. And so, with Chesler’s help, Lemov set about identifying specific tactics coaches could learn from great teachers—establishing rituals so drills start faster, say, or helping players get comfortable making mistakes in practice. So far, Lemov has trained about 200 coach educators, who in turn teach rank-and-file coaches around the country. He and U.S. Soccer have also created an online lesson that will be required viewing for tens of thousands of volunteer coaches seeking the federation’s entry-level license.
This training will not look familiar to American adults who learned to play soccer at more traditional practices—where they ran laps to warm up and then waited in lines to take practice shots on goal. Little kids don’t need highly structured warm-ups, according to U.S. Soccer; they arrive ready to move. And kids of all ages should be touching a ball as often as possible, without wasting any time waiting around. Throughout practice, players need productive, quick feedback in a culture that encourages them to take risks and make mistakes.
Soccer, it’s sometimes said, is a player’s game. The 22 people knocking a ball around a big field are bound by few rules. Predictable patterns rarely occur. As a result, coaches can’t succeed by designing plays and ordering players to execute them, as they can in, say, football. Players have to make judgment calls in the moment, on their own.
This means that rote skills, while essential, are not in themselves adequate. “The thing that makes elite players is decision making,” Lemov told me. “They need to integrate not just how to do something but whether, when, and why.” He sees parallels to the difficulty many American students have solving problems independently. “If you give [American] kids a math problem and tell them how to solve it,” he said, “they can usually do it. But if you give them a problem and it’s not clear how to solve it, they struggle.”
Jürgen Klinsmann, a former soccer star in Germany who now coaches the U.S. men’s team, has remarked that it’s hard to get Americans to see that a soccer coach cannot be “the decision maker on the field,” but should instead be a guide. “This is a very different approach,” he told USA Today. “I tell them, ‘No, you’re not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field.’ ” Outside the U.S., most soccer players learn to play independently very early on; from the day they can walk, they are kicking a ball every free moment. In the process, they gain both physical and mental dexterity. “That’s not always [been] the case here,” says Jared Micklos, the Development Academy’s director. “We didn’t have a lot of unstructured play where kids could develop creativity. It was a lot of tournaments and pressure and sideline parents and trophies.” In the absence of back-alley pickup games, soccer players in the United States must develop their skills in supervised practices. That’s why high-quality coaching is so essential to nurturing world-class American players. “If we want better players, we need better coaches,” Micklos told me. “In order to get better coaches, we gotta coach them.”