"Let the game be the teacher."
Perhaps the most popular phrase within the development world, it also remains the most misunderstood because extreme viewpoints have taken place to combat other extremes.
The sentiment is fine, but the application is what has gone off the deep end. You see, "let the game be the teacher," has now manifested itself into "don't coach, let the kids figure it out by playing the game with no correction or interaction." Indeed, there are "coaches" out there who consider someone helping instruct and guide players at practice as something to be blamed and shamed! An act that should be punishable by death! It has quickly turned into a new catchphrase: “Just let them play.”
Over-coaching is a big problem within youth sports, but the new popular trend espoused by many is that we shouldn't coach at all. Rather, we should sit quietly as the players eventually figure it out.
Let's look at why this is a misunderstanding.
BUT! I have a secret for you.
Individual discovery learning is free! It costs nothing to watch soccer on the television and then go outside and practice what you've seen. It is free to play against the local kids at the park. This is supremely important for young boys and girls, even outside of the scope of soccer, but we now have people who want to charge you for this! There are people who are going to charge you to “Just let them play.”
You see, the practice you go to once or twice a week serves a very important purpose also. The coach can help correct and guide technical development, tactical understanding, social understanding, and much more. We have coaches and companies who are charging you where they simply sit and watch your kids play! Their defense is that the game is the best teacher. We have traded the extreme of over-coaching for the extreme of “Just let them play.” Don’t guide, don’t coach, do nothing or risk being called a dinosaur coach!
Imagine your child doesn't know how to swim and you send them for a swimming lesson. On the first day, the instructor is sat in his chair and asks the child to jump in the water. After all, the water is the best teacher! “Just let them swim!”
Imagine sending your child to school where they're given a pen and paper. Instead of teaching the younger boys and girls how to correctly create sentences, they're asked to just keep writing things down until they create their novel. No instruction, no correction, surely the kids will certainly just figure out that whole "grammar" thing and a best-selling novel will soon be on the way! “Just let them write!”
It sounds silly, doesn't it?
When you use different examples, the idea of simply letting an environment do all the teaching sounds nonsensical, because it is. The game provides THE BEST ENVIRONMENT to teach. If you’re a coach, you are getting paid (or volunteering) to coach. Coaching does not mean shouting instructions or screaming commands, but it does involve guiding and interacting with your players, not sitting in a lawn chair as you send players off into a 1v1 activity or a rondo.
If you’re a parent, and you’re paying money (and in today’s environment, a lot of money) for your child to practice and play with a team, they should be receiving guidance and help from the coach, not a facilitator to call for water breaks every 10 minutes.
Remember, children must have their own time to discover and figure things out, because it’s a critical stage of development. This, however, must complement the structured learning environment that the occasional practice creates. One without the other is like macaroni without cheese: rather bland and it leaves you with the feeling that something is missing!
The game is the best environment in which soccer can be taught. It is the best environment in which proper technical and tactical development can take place. We want to empower our players to start their own self-learning, but much like a classroom, a teacher is needed to help guide players and make sure they’re on the right path once in a while. Our “coaching” becomes much more nuanced, rather than commanding and shouting. Our coaching remains present, nevertheless.
The next time you encounter a coach who tells you that the game is the best teacher, which means that they get to sit the entire practice without saying a word, make sure your paycheck is going to “the game” also.