|how children learn ::
Inside Soccer -- London, England
We are not all born with the inherent genius of a Pele, Maradona or Ronaldinho.
How much children get out of participating in soccer sport, and indeed how many
years they continue to want play it, depends on learning and continuing to
develop the skills which allow them to enjoy the game while remaining a valued
member of the team.
As Scott Lancaster, senior director of Youth Football for the National Football
League (NFL) says in his book 'Fair Play': "It's no secret when kids
experience improvement in their skills, no matter their athletic ability, they
will continue to participate and return to learn more in order to build on
No one child is the same. Coaches and parents need to be aware that all
children learn and build on acquired skills in slightly different ways
according to personality and age. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
There are many theories explaining ways in which individual children best
absorb information about sport, but most academics and teaching professionals
agree it can be loosely broken down into three distinct categories:
Kinetic - learning by doing, physical practice
Visual - through studying pictures, audio-visuals
Auditory - through listening to the spoken word
It is often said that sports-orientated children, particularly boys, have a
preference for kinetic learning, but this is only partially true and should
only be regarded as the entry point.
Although learning to play a physical game such as soccer may seem entirely
different from school learning, children will employ many of the same learning
techniques, or strategies, to enable progress in training and on the field as
they will in the classroom.
For coaches to be fully effective they need to have an understand of the
different ways in which individual children learn, how this changes through the
age groups and have the ability to combine different strategies to best enforce
the learning process.
John Allpress, National Player Development Coach at the English Football
Association (FA) and a contributor to this site, puts it like this.
"In modern player development the most effective practioners in the short,
medium and long term will be those who prepare and deliver the work in positive
learning environments that appeal to the mix of learning styles...
"It is not the easiest option to incorporate all of this into the daily
training of your players, but nothing worthwhile is ever really easy."
Putting it into practice
So how do we translate these principals onto the training pitch, at the park or
in the backyard? Taking the basic premises of how children learn we can
structure practices so that they do not exclude useful learning tools.
Kinetic learning - training drills, repetitive practice,
Visual - Use boards to explain tactics or videos illustrating
specific areas of the game. Encourage players to focus on particular aspects
when watching games on television
Auditory - Verbal explanation. Encourage children to ask
questions about what they have just done or heard -
'What is? Why do I? Why should I? How do I? What happens if? This aids
comprehension and fixes experiences or concepts in the mind
Learning by age group
Younger age groups, while relatively new to the game, are more likely to learn
the basic skills kinetically under verbal instruction. Once these have been
mastered, a more analytical approach will help them fully understand why
certain skills, techniques and tactics are effective and how they can better
Children at this age have relatively short attention spans and want to do
rather than be told how to do. Breaking down activities and drills into 5-10
minute periods helps prevent distraction and boredom. They have difficulty
divorcing themselves from the activity and will take negative feedback on the
results as criticism of themselves.
At this age children are naturally active and enjoy the physical side of
learning. However, they are also increasingly able to deal with abstract
concepts and working towards logical conclusions and are so more inclined to
listen to constructive feedback. They also increasingly seek approval from
their own age group and educators.
Physical and emotional development among young teenagers differs quite widely
and needs sensitive handling. This age group is now well equipped to think
abstractly, enjoy debate and often challenge adult solutions in favour of their
Ages 15 +
By this stage most teenagers are looking towards adulthood and increasingly
demand being treated as individuals. They can develop and perform complex tasks
and demand an increasing amount of input into what they are asked to do.
Allow ownership of learning
New developments in the science of learning emphasize the importance of helping
people take control of their own learning. Since understanding is viewed as
important, people must learn to recognize when they understand and when they
need more information. (How People Learn, Bransford, Brown and Cocking,
National Academy of Sciences 1999, Ch.4, How Children Learn).
While the youngest age groups learn primarily through play, as analytical
skills increase players are more likely to respond positively if encouraged to
come up with their own solutions and strategies for development in consultation
with the coach.
Rather than lecturing, encourage children to reflect and discuss. A child who
feels he or she is fully engaged in the process is far more motivated to want
to carry on learning.
Different players will need to learn and improve on different aspects of their
games. One may have high skill levels but a low tactical awareness, and
visa-versa. Therefore the coach needs to identify individual requirements
rather than trying to make a single programme fit all and risk leaving some
One of the best motivational tools for the coach is to identify shortcomings
with the child and then set realistic goals for the next progression. By
building step by step and being able to monitor their own improvement he or she
is motivated to move on to the next level and so on.
Players of all ages get a great kick from seeing, and having pointed out, the
impact that something recently mastered and successfully implement has had, not
just on their own game but also on those around them.
The importance of play, building confidence and learning
how to lose
All children have an inherent need to play. Play is the foundation of wider
social interaction, communication and co-operation. It is also, of course, fun.
When play takes the form of an organised team sport, with a winning side and a
losing side, there is a danger that the game is viewed purely in terms of
success or failure. The child may view their own merit solely on being part of
a winning team, how many goals they score etc....
There is a coaching adage that goes shout praise loudly, whisper constructive
criticism. Children know when they have made a mistake and yelling will not
encourage them put it right.
Even in defeat it should always be possible to pick out group and individual
positives and identify areas that can be worked on constructively.
It is the role of coaches and parents to re-enforce the positives of
participation. What the league table says should not be used as the only
benchmark, as it can not reflect individual improvement and enjoyment.
Reward effort as much as the final outcome
Combine advice or constructive criticism with praise and a
clear explanation of how doing something differently will help
Avoid ridicule or sarcasm
Remember each child should have their own level of
accomplishment to aspire towards
Turn your child's disappointment into positive motivation for
Keep practices original and fun
The ultimate measure of the youth coach or soccer parent is not the number of
trophies in the sideboard but whether or not the kids continues to want to go
back and leave with a smile on their faces.
Reprinted with permission from Inside Soccer
Dr. Javier Perez - Content Manager
European PhD, MPhil, MSc (Dist.), BSc (Hons) UEFA PRO Spain & UEFA A