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Play the Way You Face

Dog soccerAs punishment for my sins, this semester I have three wholly or largely new courses, each of which involves material I’ve never taught. As a result, I have been thinking in a more fundamental way about my syllabuses. The two easy approaches are coverage (we’ll read everything!) and difficulty (I’ll unpack some super-challenging texts!).

These are powerful temptations, because there’s a lot of great stuff to read or do, and I’ve got a lot to say about most of the texts that I might plausibly assign. The real trick, though is in finding initial frames or themes that offer something accessible and new while maintaining enough conceptual richness to last over the semester.

All this reminds me of soccer.

Most weekends since November, I’ve watched my son play three or more soccer games,* which gives me a lot of time to listen to the coaches. This has been his first year in his indoor program,** which has meant a massive uptick in coaching quality from this guy. And if you’re around quality youth soccer coaches for any significant time, you will constantly hear them remind their players, “Play the way you face!

“Play the way you face” means, in effect, “don’t forget you can pass it backwards.” You don’t have to try to dribble through traffic on your own: You can pass it back, move into an open space, and the team can move forward.

I’m interested in the slogan for two reasons:

  • It’s a simple solution to a hard problem: The tendency of youth soccer players to clump pointlessly together around the ball, and then to try to dribble through that clump. Instead of bombarding the players with overly complex instructions, or asking them to coordinate extensively with others, the slogan reduces the complexity of the game while offering a powerful lever for creating space on the field. Of all the advice I’ve heard on a soccer field, “play the way you face” is the most immediately transformative, except, I guess, for “don’t kick it with your toe.”
  • At the same time, though, it’s bad advice. At least, it’s fundamentally incomplete. As players progress over time, they actually need to learn two different skills that re-complicate the simple rule: how to receive the ball in traffic such that they are able to move immediately to attack, and how to receive the ball with composure and make an attacking move, pass, or shot. A player who can’t get in position to move forward, or pass players in traffic, isn’t terribly helpful.

This is a basic form of scaffolding: The players are given a model that has immediate results on the field, allowing them to build confidence and skills. They then take those skills and use them to build a more complex understanding of the game and their roles in it.

It’s also a great example of what Mark called “uncoverage” last fall: “Play the way you face” is a simple instruction that lets youth soccer players worry about one thing: their own bodies in space. They don’t have to worry about spreading out, or maintaining your shape, or balancing the formation . . . yet. They just need to think, “ok, rather than make a difficult move here, I’m going to find my help.” Once they’ve started to figure out that they should look for help, they start to think about being that help for one another–that is, about maintaining the shape of a formation, balancing or opening up the field, and so forth.

And so as I put together these new classes, I’ve been trying to think about, not only the things that students need to take away from the classes, but also sequences that will afford them a similar experience.

Obviously, there’s a world of difference between college students and 8-year-old soccer players. But the idea that a class, or a unit within a class, might work in this same way–that is, be organized around ideas that are immediately useful or clarifying, while simultaneously building skills that ultimately complicate or dismantle that newfound understanding–strikes me as powerful. It turns out you don’t have to teach everything.

You just have to teach enough to help the students start to figure it out on their own.

Photo “rinji & mika” by Flickr user _tar0_ / Creative Commons licensed

*It’s because he likes playing in goal. Even indoors. There’s a shortage of quality keepers, and so he can always count on being picked up for other games.

**Look, I don’t want to get into a fight about kids playing in travel/premier programs. I will just say that we prioritize school, we’re careful about balancing his sports (he plays 3) and extracurriculars (art, guitar, programming), and that we do *not* see this as a sort of pre-investment in college or anything crazy like that.

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