It being the fall, my thoughts have turned to soccer – a topic near and dear to my heart and one surprisingly relevant to UbD.

The other day I was having a conversation with my older son about the big ideas of soccer. He was an accomplished school player, still plays in men’s leagues, and is an avid fan of the Premier League in Great Britain and world soccer generally. But he was surprised and a bit intrigued when I suggested that part of the problem with coaches and players in America is that they seem unaware of the “big ideas” of soccer central to success. In soccer as in school, you need big ideas to successfully transfer your learning – your skills and knowledge – in different situations.

So, what are the “big ideas” of the sport? Before I offer an answer, let me set the context in which I publicly offered my first answer. A few years ago I was asked to give a talk to a group of soccer coaches from Great Britain who work for a national program in soccer training in America called UK Elite after the President heard from a friend about UbD. He invited me to talk with them about the big ideas of soccer and how to help players internalize them. They were naturally a bit suspicious that some American bloke who seemed pretty academic could help them out but we had a wonderful discussion.

I proposed two big ideas to get us started: 1) offense is created when you create space and exploit it;  and, 2) your job as a player is not to play a specific position but to help your team.

These ideas are not unfamiliar to coaches. But players are rarely helped to be self-conscious and deliberate about them. Coaching typically – in soccer as in school –focuses on discrete skills.

For those unfamiliar with soccer, the idea of “creating space” means that the more the players’ deliberate movement opens up an area free of opponents, there is open space in which to make a pass that can easily advance the ball to a now-open teammate. Here’s a simple move to illustrate the point. If all three players on the forward line move on an angle to the right of the field the defense has the tendency to follow them (or at least watch them intently) and thus open up space on the left behind themselves for one of the backs to run for a pass. (This is a very common thing to do in football and basketball, but in soccer it is harder to see and do).

By contrast, any parent who’s watched a youth soccer game knows that the opposite tendency is the norm: the players on offense collapse space: they bunch around the ball, no one is open, and they lose control of it.

The second big idea – you’re a member of the team, not just a fixed position – comes into play at all levels of the sport. Many players on defense, for example, think that just because they are in the backfield on the left side, that they should never leave that area. In fact, in youth soccer games it’s not uncommon for the backs and the goalies to still be hovering around their own goal when the ball is down at the other end of the field in front of the opposing goal. In this case the defense should be helping their team play offense and be free for an errant ball so that they can shoot on goal just like any other player. Many possible scoring chances are missed because the ball bounces back from the goal mouth but no one from the shooting team is there to put it back on goal; they hang way back because they are “defensive” players. And to link back to Big Idea #1, the defense is unwittingly giving the counter-attacking team 60 free yards of open space in which to run.

Notice that these ideas are very much in keeping with Understanding by Design. We are talking about “big ideas” that transfer anywhere, any time, at any level of play; indeed, they transfer to other sports and make success in all such games more likely. Notice, too, that both big ideas deal with player misconceptions. When players “bunch” they operate under the enticing misconception that the closer we are to the ball, the better.  And when we feel that first and foremost we are a position and not a supporting member of the team we can’t imagine that a defensive player plays offense or that an offensive player plays defense.

The UK Elite coaches came up with a number of other big ideas but I want to highlight just one that we had a great deal of fun discussing: “winning requires legal deception – deceptive speed, direction of running, and direction of passing and shooting.”

The great soccer players deceive their opponents constantly: they vary their pace, their location, their intentions. (They also try to deceive refs about fouls and injuries, alas). By contrast, anyone who watches an American soccer game comes away with the depressing feeling that almost every next move on the field is predictable.

The key word in all of this is purpose. Many players are not taught to have one; they are just taught drills. Sound familiar?

My concern with getting players to have an aim, to truly understand the game they were playing, began decades ago when I was a varsity soccer coach. I just happened to notice one day that even my better players sometimes seemed to just run around, hoping good things would happen. One practice I vowed to do something about it. I announced before a scrimmage that I would blow the whistle at various times, ask everyone to freeze, and I would interrogate players, and ask them what they were doing and why they were doing it. If your answer was lame, I gave the ball to the other team. The players thought that this seemed like an interesting idea and were game to try it. Alas, they were bad at it, for days.

I soon realized that the problem was far worse than I’d imagined: the players not only failed to offer a reasonable account of their intentions when asked, but they seemed to lack any overall sense of strategy to which to refer; they didn’t understand their purpose. This was a shock – and clearly my fault. I grimly realized that we had never really talked about game-long and season-long strategy, only tactics.

I trust you see, even if you’re not interested in soccer per se, that this notion has wide applicability to education. Students, like players, are often unsure of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it; they just do it. But performance can only greatly improve once students, soccer players, or anyone else knows what they are trying to accomplish long-term and has a good idea about how they might accomplish it.

Over the next few weeks my players began to have better answers to my question (especially after I put forward two or three principles of play for them to refer to). Rather than slowing them down and making them think too much, like the centipede trying to think about its feet, this kind of purposefulness greatly improved personal and team performance.

Here’s further evidence of the need and value in making students “own” a purpose. My daughter’s former Varsity coach broke with tradition at halftime in all games. Instead of doing what almost all coaches tend to do – give a speech about what they saw and fire up the team for the remainder of the game – Griff asked three questions: What’s working for us? What’s not working for us, and what do we need to do to change that? And: What’s working for them that we have to shut down?  At first, the young women were completely tongue-tied: they had never been asked to understand the game as they played it! It took him weeks to get decent answers. Eventually, not only did the girls become more articulate and observant, they were able to tell themselves how to improve. Their second half game performance was invariably stronger than the other team’s, and they made the League Finals 3 years running.

Purposeful and effective performance thus requires three things: knowing what the bottom-line long-term purpose is, knowing ways of achieving the purpose, and knowing how to self-assess and self-adjust to achieve a purpose. This is how autonomous excellence is achieved – in any arena. Otherwise you get aimless running around and questions like “Is this ok? Is this what you want?”

If you put all these ideas together they tell us that we are under-achieving as I argued in my last post. Too often players have no strategic big ideas and are thus poor self-assessors and self-adjusters – just as in school. Too often players aren’t given a chance to ask and pursue essential questions – just as in school. Too often coaches stress discrete skills in highly scaffolded drills, leading to poor transfer in real performance – just like in school.

I often tell the story of Liz, my former co-captain whom I yelled at in a game: “Use all the drills we worked on this week!!!” In the middle of the game, she stopped running, looked at me and yelled back: “I would, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!!”  That moment was actually the beginning of UbD for me. And it might be for you: there are dozens of lessons to learn from watching kids try to move a ball around on a brisk fall day. I suggest you go out and watch a game this week.