It is possible that this journey began with a ball, a wall, and a dirt yard. It might have started sitting across from an international footballing legend. I think the journey started with a lecture. In any case, that is where the story of the journey starts. I was sitting in a handmade, packed earth church, the kind that evokes recollections of the Alamo. Out the window I could see two trailers, one with all the windows covered in foil. The man across from me was my boss and my mentor. He is also one of the greatest men I have ever known, personally, professionally and intellectually. He was disappointed in me. I had been 7 minutes late to work.
“When you are late, how does that appear to the kids? They sit there, half of them don’t want to be there anyway, most of them are ignored by every adult in their lives, constantly told they are unimportant. When you show up late, coffee in hand, you are telling them that coffee is more important than they are. Think about how that feels for a kid. Coffee? Coffee is more important than this child?”
This was one of the most important things that I would ever hear, and it changed my life immediately. In the decade that has passed since sitting in that church, I have made it a priority to not be late. I would rather be an hour early than 2 minutes late. It is Important to Be on Time. While I still think this is an important lesson, what I failed to understand at that moment was why this is important, and how that can be applied to other aspects of teaching. Punctuality is not important because it has some sacred position as a moral value. Punctuality is important because how you make people feel is an integral part of the educational process. Punctuality is one way to create an emotionally safe Environment.
Gifted with my newfound joy of punctuality, I haunted the soccer fields. I loved this game, I loved understanding it and thinking about it. I wanted to know it and share it. I had a notebook, and I went to every training session that I could, writing down what the coach did, what they said, when they said it, what games they built. I looked at what they wanted to accomplish, and what they did accomplish, and I filed away the things that I understood and wanted to use. At the high school I suggested certain games, some activities, in the hope of accomplishing what the other coaches accomplished. Some of them worked. Some of them did not.
I was confused. I did everything that these other coaches did; I even said the same words. I went and talked to some of the other coaches, ones who I respected. They said the reason those games didn’t work is that the players that I was working with were not good enough players. This lead to more confusion on my part. Didn’t practice make perfect? Wasn’t that the point of the activities? The failure I was experiencing was due to my not changing my Curriculum to appropriately match my audience, but I did not know enough to even think in those terms at that time.
I made it out of the first year. I took a coaching class with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body of US Soccer and our representative in FIFA, the World Football Association. The class talked about setting up cones, and the importance of preparation. I was concerned with making sure that everyone in the class knew that I was the best soccer player there. I scored goals, whipped in left footed crosses, slipped the ball through people’s legs at every opportunity. I did take notes, though. It is Important to Prepare. I still did not ask why it is important to prepare. I just took the tool, Preparation, and threw it in my Teaching Tool Kit, next to Punctuality. Preparation is part of how you create a healthy Environment, much like Punctuality. It also happens to be a critical part of Curriculum Development, but I did not consider that at the time.
I prepared. I set cones up meticulously. At church, I set up chairs and arranged visual art. There was a Scene. There did not seem to be a great deal of change in the success of my instruction, but I felt a lot better about what I was doing. Things Looked Organized. Somewhere in this part of the journey, I noticed that none of the people I respected, either in the church or on the field just winged it. They all had a plan. For some of them the plan was a series of activities scrawled on sheet. Some had multi-page outlines. They said things like, “It is hard to hit the target if you don’t know where it is”. The most organized coach I knew, who coincidentally was also by a very wide margin the most successful coach I knew, kept all his plans from all his practices, and had them filed on his computer by year. He said he was working on a “Curriculum”. It was the first time I had heard the word in a soccer context. I wanted to know why he was working on this "Curriculum". He said that this was his job, that he owed it to the kids to prepare. He gets upset when they come to practice hung over, not focused, without cleats, and so on. He has an obligation to do his part otherwise he is telling them that he is better than they are and whatever else he was doing was more important than they were. How will they buy in to being on the team if he doesn’t? I took that tool, though and dropped in right in the top of my Teaching Toolbox. It is Important to Have a Plan. I did not ask WHY plans helped. Series of conversations like this helped me understand that on an emotional level, much like Punctuality, the very existence of a Curriculum is part of the Environment.
This is what I knew at the time: It is Important to be On Time, It is Important to Prepare, and It is Important to Have a Plan. Armed with that and a handful of activities, I attacked. I got my own high school team, I took a job as the head assistant on a collegiate team, and I worked as an assistant in the club environment. Lots of things worked, and at the same time those same things would fail. I would run the same session at the high school as I would run at the college. At college it worked, and worked brilliantly. We won games. We won lots of games. We shared an environment that was vibrant and exciting and engaging for the coaching staff and the players. We went undefeated, setting all sorts of records. We won the league, the division, and the region. In the National Championship Tournament we destroyed the number one team in the country. Our only loss of the year came to the National Champions, when the referee called our winning goal back for offside, which video later showed was an incorrect call. The whole season was beautiful. It was a Disney movie. This was an example of accidental success, which is one of the worst things that can happen, from a learning point of view. At this specific juncture, the information that I provided, the way I provided it, and the social, emotional, and physiological atmosphere in which it was received were all aligned. My Curriculum and Environment were in harmony.
At the high school I did the same things. I ran the same sessions, held the same activities, used the same words. We lost. We lost a lot. Players were angry, angry at me, at themselves, at each other, just angry. Some quit. The school board approached me about my sideline demeanor after I kicked a coffee cup during a game, something that I had done in college to no remark. I was frustrated and, again, confused. My friends and colleagues said that the problem was that the players at the high school were not good enough, and that I should stick to what I was good at: coaching good players. At the high school I used the same Curriculum that was successful at the college, and tried to create the same Environment that was successful at the college, to no avail. I would become more confused when the attempt to use the same Curriculum and Environment would fail to produce the same results with the soccer team at the college the following year, but had success in the Advanced Soccer course I taught at the school.
I did not accept that. If good players were the only ones capable of learning, growing, and engaging in the process, then we needed more good players. I sat down with my boss, who was a brilliant man who had played soccer in five countries including a World Cup, spoke four languages fluently, and was shortly going to be moving on to run one of the richest, most elite professional clubs in the world. We sat in a coffee shop that was notable both for the crispness of the lattes, but also for the proximity to the tanning salon off of Sorority Row. He told lots of stories about professional and international soccer, and about burying his brother as a youth in Nigeria. We talked about books, and the conversation came to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book Gladwell offers a 10,000 hour theory, that mastery in a certain field rarely comes before the individual has invested 10,000 hours of observation, learning and practice in the field. My boss noted that of the elite soccer players he had known, all of them were the players they were going to be by the 16-18 year old range. After that point, there was refinement more than growth. We needed to get more hours to more players at earlier ages. Real player development happens earlier, and the better you do developing at the early ages, the easier it is to coach at the higher levels. I set about trying to build a system for developing soccer players foundationally, from the bottom up.
I copied a lot. Looked at programs from around the country, called them up asked them what they were doing and why they thought it worked. I learned a lot about field dimensions, parent interaction guidelines and presentations, and session length. I also learned a lot about misrepresentation, marketing, and creating profit in a non-profit setting. I had a curriculum. I led coaching seminars. I ran soccer camps. The lesson, my primary lesson, was there, it was everywhere. I used it, a lot, without thinking about it, the way we used gravity to sit down, or just to stay standing. The program I built for the attraction, retention and development of players aged 3-7 was wildly successful, growing from 23 players per session to over 200 in the span of three years. Other clubs were calling me to set up similar programs for them. Those programs worked, to a degree. I went and took another class from the USSF. I learned about keeping my socks pulled up to my knees, and about facing the sun when I speak. I did more slipping the ball through people’s legs, including sound effects, which were not appreciated. I heard about a concept of Progression, the idea that certain skill sets build upon other skill sets. I threw this is the Toolbox. This was an important part of a Curriculum.
My former boss was now in England making a name for himself on the international scene. I flew over to meet with him, catch some matches, meet the players, watch some training, talk to the coaching staff… It was a great week. The reserve manager, who since has gone on to manage two remarkable successes at middling clubs and now manages my favorite team, talked to me at length about the benefits of Neuro-Linguistic Programing (NLP) in training, the practice of intentionally creating subconscious reactions in another. In this case, the reactions that he was going for were understanding and engagement, though other NLP practitioners utilize it to achieve more nefarious ends. It was significant for me, in that I figured out that how you spoke to people was a part of the Environment that you were creating.
I watched the goal keeper training. It was conducted in French and lasted for 25 minutes. The goal keeper at the time was the best in the world and at the peak of his abilities. There is a real chance that at this particular moment in time this man was the greatest goal keeper to ever play the game. I had spent a summer running soccer camps in Prague, so I was looking forward to trying out my Czech, his native language. After letting me stumble over an explanation of how little Czech I actually knew, he interrupted in flawless English, “This will be easier. My English is fine.” This was a great illustration that the level of information in a particular communication is irrelevant if the language that you are using is incomprehensible.
I was growing into an understanding that optimal learning could only happen when the Curriculum and the Environment harmonized not only with each other, but with the target audience. The Curriculum informs the Environment, and becomes part of the Environment. In a way, the Environment is the actualization of the Curriculum. I did not really know how to find out how to translate what I wanted to teach to different audiences, but I knew that if I wanted to teach successfully I had to learn how to get my Curriculum and Environment to be able to anticipate and provide for the needs and abilities of my specific audience in order to maximize the comprehension and retention by that audience. To be clear, what you are trying to teach can not be separated from how you teach it, and neither can ignore who is receiving the instruction.