The Game is the Best Teacher Myth

Misunderstanding The Meaning

Many coaches will be guilty of using the phrase “the game is the best teacher”. I’m no different, as a coach I firmly believe that the best coaches spend little time coaching because they are creative in their session planning and how to structure sessions in such a way that the game leads players to problem solving in relation to any learning topic that might be in focus. What does that mean you ask? It means a coach who educates footballers on a topic by setting up a practice that is focused on problem solving surrounding the topic within a structured game like environment. Take for example the session pictured below this paragraph. If a coach was looking to focus on decision making when playing forward, he or she might break a session down to really give focus on the decisions of players when playing forward. The players within the session are freely allowed make mistakes and good decisions, the more they practice the more they work out the best route to working the ball forward. When I’ve said the phrase “The game is the best teacher” in the past I always assumed coaches understood that the game was only the best teacher if it was structured to be so. These past few weeks have really destroyed that assumption as I’ve come to both witness and speak to coaches who don’t understand the true meaning of that phrase at all. (Continued Below)

Hold on a Minute This Can’t be Right

It’s a freezing cold Friday evening and I’m early for a recreational game of astro. I decide to watch a training session that is taking place on the pitch next to mine. The kids are about twelve years old. I look on as the coach splits his players into two sides and then begins his brief chat. “OK guys we are going to work on shape, our defending has to improve on last week”. For the final twenty five minutes of the session the coach lets the kids play freely, numerous times he yells onto the pitch “shape, shape, get the shape”. It becomes apparent most of the teams defenders are playing in the red bibs, they are by far the better of the sides playing and are rarely having to defend at all. During the twenty minutes of play I rarely see organisation or situations that might attempt to expose the ‘shape’ of the red team. The coach stated he wanted to focus on shape, but from where I was stood there was absolutely nothing within the game that really tested or asked questions of the red team in relation to their shape, nothing in his session before this had been structured to focus on shape, it was small sided games followed by a bigger game for the entire hour. It just looked to me like kids running around freely in this bigger game. There was multiple situations where the red team would have been exposed on the counter attack due to lack of shape had their opposition had that bit more quality about them, not once was the game stopped or any questions asked of the kids about that potential weakness, the kids where just allowed play while every now and then those words “shape, shape” were yelled on. As I walked away from the pitch I overheard the coach speaking to one of the parents, it was a big eye opening moment for me and words I won’t forget in a hurry “They get nothing out of running around Paul, sure they could do that at home, the game is the best teacher after all”. It’s the first time I ever stopped and really thought about that statement “the game is the best teacher”. Could it be that some coaches actually think by just allowing players to play football that playing football alone will teach them everything and be enough to focus learning on everything, could it be that some coaches misunderstand the statement that “the game is the best teacher”. I had to go research this. (Continued Below)

Let them Play

Let them play, just let them play. You only have to do some quick google searches online to find thousands of articles and messages carrying the “just let them play” title. Much like “the game is the best teacher” message I suspected that some coaches are picking up the wrong message from this. Over the past few weeks I’ve used the Keepitonthedeck platform to reach out to hundreds of coaches at development age groups to ask them about their thoughts on “the game is the best teacher” and my fears were confirmed. There are coaches out there who don’t truly understand the meaning of this statement, there are coaches out there who use this phrase to justify lazy coaching sessions, there are coaches out there who think by simply letting kids play that they will learn everything without the need to focus in on learning topics.

Change the Message

At the beginning of this piece I made a statement that good coaches rarely coach. That phrase is not to say the coach doesn’t play a role in sessions, of course he or she does. It’s within the structure of sessions and how a coach creates a session that we see the skills/creativity of a coach. For coaches to be out there at development level simply throwing out two sets of jerseys and allowing kids play for an entire session thinking the kids are learning everything there is to learn is astonishing. So let’s change the message “the game is the best teacher” to “the game is the best teacher if it is used to teach”. What kids don’t like to play freely? of course kids love to play freely, every session should allow kids play a game without conditions, but as coaches by structuring sessions in the lead up to those free games with clear defined learning outcomes within them, then you’ll notice a kid carry what he learn’t into those free games more and more, you’ll notice development taking place at a much faster rate. Let them play, of course, but playing can also be within a structured set up that leads players to learning outcomes. “The game is the best teacher”, of course it is, but only if it is used to teach.