Theoretical Learning vs Practical Exerience

Let me begin by acknowledging that I am an avid reader. I also have a stated goal to learn something new every day. Hopefully several somethings new every day.  In regards to soccer I have a collection of over 500 books and videos. A library of potential soccer knowledge, if you will. Some are quite good and well worn. Others are complete rubbish and used but once.  Most fall somewhere in between. Today, I wish to focus on one book whose title and author I will refuse to name.

Got your attention?

I was an acquaintance of the author and agreed to review the book.  I found it simplistic and informative.  The whole premise was not to present new material, but to present material in a new way. New names were given to old activities. The book was illustrated in the manner of a children's book complete with caricatures helping to depict the new names given to activities. The pulse of the book was to not focus on proper technique but simply to find a way to "git r done."  A Larry the Cable guy approach to coaching soccer if you will.

In retrospect, it would seem the author was attempting to meld theoretical learning with his practical experiences and in doing so share his vision for coaching soccer. An admirable yet daunting task that he chose to present in as simplistic a manner as possible. Almost a noble undertaking in some ways.

For the most part the book was innovative only in presentation except for a section on defending - The Triangle Three. The premise was not bad, but the books instructions for how tactical aspects of soccer should be executed left many to question the author's sanity and those who sought practical experience with the Triangle Three reported back disastrous results. What was written in the book, simply was not practically applicable.  The author was most offended and the succeeding arguments damn near destroyed an on-line forum of soccer coaches until the sites administrator banned the author from further participation.

The point I seek to make is this - theoretical learning or book knowledge has limited value until practical experience is gained in the subject matter. It can be more beneficial to gain practical experience and then read material to gain a clearer understanding of the theory.

I saw the triangle three in action this fall. It was shredded by a team of average ability. I knew the coach employing it had read the book in reference here. The theory is sound but the instructions to apply it in a practical sense are ridiculously naive.

I have also seen a coach carrying a different book with him this fall. A book about a system of play he is introducing to a team. He's using the book, the theoretical learning he is gaining, as a step by step means to introduce and play the new system. Results have been less than desired because the coach lacks practical experience in teaching the system of play. I have three years of practical experience in the system and can pinpoint the areas where this coach is struggling in applying his book or theoretical knowledge.

My path to the system of play was a product of need. Three years ago my club team started out in a 4-4-2 formation but it quickly became apparent we did not have the correct combination of center midfielders to control the game from the 4-4-2. Really good opposing center midfielders gave us problems on both sides of the ball.  My on-the-fly solution was to withdraw a forward and play a 4-5-1 formation with an extra center midfielder.

Drastic change.

The 4-5-1 is really not a variation of the 4-4-2 as much as it is a form of a 4-3-3 formation.  It worked for us from the in-game moment that we begun playing it.  I had absolutely no book or theoretical knowledge to rely on. We all learned on the fly. It wasn't until after that first season of running the new formation that I had time to read books and study DVDs on our new formation.

Today the kids describe what we play as a 4-1-2-1-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-3-2... entirely dependent on which player you ask. I really do not care what they call it as they play it beautifully. What the books and DVDs helped define were which of the possible applications they espoused worked best for us. The theoretical learning provided us with ideas of how to get the most out of our practical experiences.  What the books and DVDs were not, were step by step how-to manuals for playing the system although some tried to be just this.

I firmly believe soccer is a players game. It is a living breathing thing that must be experienced to the fullest extent possible. We changed alignment and let the kids explore the possibilities to their hearts content. We made spectacular mistakes, but learned quickly from them. We found the path of least resistance as a team. Only then did we begin experimenting with theoretical learning to supplement our practical experiences. The result has been staggeringly successful.

This fall I am watching my son's high school team trying to run the same system. Their coaches have no practical experience with the system and are relying on book or theoretical knowledge to teach the system to the players. Several of our spring players are on this team and they are really struggling in watching their high school coaches make mistakes in the system that they have already experienced  2- 3 years ago. I watch the game film and read the coach's notes on the film.  He is correct in almost everything he points out, but it is also clear he is struggling to fit the practical experience he is gaining to the theoretical knowledge he has obtained. I can say this without reservation because I have the same books and DVDs that I have seen him carrying about these past few months.

I can point to actual parts of the books, specific chapters, paragraphs, sentences that are being misapplied. I see the mistakes in or misunderstandings of theory that play out in gaining practical experience. I have offered the benefit of my own experiences to the coach, but they have fallen on deaf ears. It is indeed difficult to watch this team experience growing pains in the system that I feel could be by-passed.  I do understand the coach wanting to put his stamp on the program, to make it his.

While I was learning how this system works I was not going it alone. The most valuable resource I had was the input players gave me from what they experienced on the field in games. The second most valuable resource I had was film study ... and specifically having coaching friends, peers and mentors evaluate that film with me. I learned from my mentors. Mentoring is the piece missing in this situation. Patience is what is missing from my perspective - my son is a senior on this team and while the coach is gaining practical experience the team is struggling to gain its footing. The season is a third over and they are struggling mightily. Needlessly so from my perspective.  I have complete faith this coaching staff will get it figured out, eventually. I am becoming resigned to the fact it will probably be too late for my son and his senior classmates. 

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