In the world of youth development, the battle for ideological supremacy reigns supreme in which both extremes argue back and forth, and yet we fail to see that nuance is dying a slow, and unfortunately painful, death. Nuance may be the most important word for the 21st century, especially in a time where social media is becoming rampant in its destruction of contextual discussions, replacing it with 140 characters of smug confidence in being absolutely right. We are in an age where a long-form discussion on a topic is boring, because who wants to read that article when that celebrity I follow on twitter can just call it "Stupid" and save me the read.
Recently, I have seen a debate about the battle between opposed technical development versus unopposed technical development, and it's one in which the soccer world has decided to forget the grey, and focus on the black and white. Remember that in almost all things, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and those that speak in absolutes present a great red flag for you to spot and run away from. The irony in this, of course, is that I've just presented an absolute in saying that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Never say never, eh?
Proponents of only opposed technical development argue that unopposed practice doesn't present any similarities to the game, and therefore there is no skill acquisition that can transfer to a game. It's "useless" or "ineffective" or even, if you're feeling daring, "a disservice to your players."
We have to consider several factors when it comes to unopposed vs opposed technical development. First, the argument can and should be made that given some context, team environments should present players with scenarios most closely related to the games. Especially when training time may be limited, it's important to create cues for our players in which the game is represented. Team sessions, in my opinion, should focus the majority (a word I have chosen subjectively given my own context) of training on opposed scenarios. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, why do we deride those who want to work individually on unopposed technical work?
There is an idea amongst certain clubs and educators in which we want to create automatism. I say "automation" rather than "automatism", and the idea is simple. Can we train a player in which certain habits become instinctual. The goal is to put players through repetitive actions and motions at which point their muscle memory takes over and certain technical actions are able to take place without any additional thought. If you constantly practice with a ball and a wall and practice receiving the ball with different parts of the body, eventually you are going to become unconsciously competent at this action. When you've picked up the cues upon which you know how and where to receive the ball, this allows you more time to process your immediate area as well as decide upon your next action in advance. Can we create automation through unopposed technical development? My thought is yes, we can.
Here is the important next step, though. Anyone can train to receive a ball off their chest automatically. The same goes for doing a cruyff turn, or playing a sixty-yard pass. The next stage in the development process is applying that in a game-situation and turning technique into skill. That is to say, the functional technique is now applied at the proper time and place in the game scenario.
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is can creating technical automation assist when we then enter a team environment in which we now have to develop and work with cognitive technical development? If you are "technically: competent at an action, will that aid in your cognitive development when the team environment is turning that technique into skill? Again, my thought is yes.
People may deride this and say this is anecdotal, in which case it certainly is. I am speaking from my experience, as well as my experience in observing and learning from other coaches and clubs. There is an idea out there in which research is the be all end all, and anecdotes are to be ridiculed. Research is an integral part in any walk of life, and as the game develops, we want to be sure that we are constantly putting our methods to rigorous scrutiny under scientific methods. The problem however is that we forget that not all research is created equal, and there is power in experiential learning.
It may be very easy to produce a research paper on best teaching methods for 5th grade mathematics, however if you speak to teachers in Philadelphia, or the Bronx, or Glasgow, or Los Angeles, they may all have different takes that adapt or tweak from the "proven" research. It is necessary to remember that the player is the syllabus, and the demands needed for one player may be different for another. We very quickly fall into the trap of reading what one theory and data set presents, or what one club presents, and assumes that is the gospel. Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Can we find effective ways in which we can help develop our players, understanding that while certain activities may be more effective than others, they are not mutually exclusive.
This leads into the last point. There is the idea in which if opposed technical development is proven to be more effective than unopposed, then what's the point in wasting time on the less effective option. This is where the holistic approach to development comes in, realizing that prioritization does not mean removal of all other parts. You can prioritize when and where you can institute your activities that bring about opposed skill development, but also accept that players can find time on their own to bring about unopposed individual development. You'd be foolish to lambast your player for playing with a ball and a wall in their backyard, yelling at them for not making things more realistic. At the same time, you can structure your team environment to one in which you prioritize what is most effective for your team and players.
This is about 10% of what's in my head currently. It's long. It's not a quick read, and it certainly isn't 140 characters with some emojis thrown in. Trust me, it's easy to write in absolutes and say that one method is right and one method is wrong. It's simple, it's quick, and unfortunately its very effective. If you want to develop yourself as a person, and a coach, however, you will need to delve into the grey area and bring out some nuance to the discussion.
Do yourself and your players a service, and bring nuance back from the dead.