One of the most critical aspects of being a successful coach is understanding whom it is you’re coaching, and how they best learn. This sounds straightforward enough, but adults often fail to recognize that children view the world differently and what we, adults, may find boring and monotonous may be novel and engaging to them, and in turn, vital to their learning process.
In, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shares several observations regarding children’s development in a segment that delves into the creation of the show Blue’s Clues. Blue’s Clues drew upon the most successful elements of Sesame Street, but there was a major difference between the shows. Sesame Street was intended to appeal to both children and adults, whereas Blue’s Clues had a specific target audience. Blue’s Clues target audience is pre-school children. Acknowledging that, many of the steps the show uses can still be applied to both classroom education and on the playing fields for children of all ages, if we apply some minor modifications.
“If you think about the world of a preschooler, they are surrounded by stuff that they don’t understand-things that are novel. So the driving force for a preschooler is not a search for novelty, like it is with older kids, it’s a search for understanding and predictability,” says Daniel Anderson (a pioneering television education researcher & Blue’s Clues designer). “For younger kids, repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they are not only understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, I think they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth. And Blue’s Clues doubles that feeling because they also feel like they are participating in something. They feel like they are helping Steve.” The Tipping Point, p. 126
Each episode of Blue’s Clues follows the same pattern, with the host, Steve, presenting the audience a series of clues (written or drawn on paw prints) that will help lead them to solve a puzzle involving the show’s main character a puppy named Blue. The clues begin simple and increase in complexity over the course of the episode. Steve asks questions throughout the show as he engages the audience and guides them to the solutions. The show concludes with Steve rehashing the clues in a slow and deliberate manner where he uses long extended pauses that adults can find awkward, but are in line with a preschooler’s thought process. Perhaps, the most interesting dynamic of Blue’s Clues isn’t the episode itself, but in the decision of the programming directors. The same Blue’s Clues episode that airs on a Monday will play each day throughout the week.
“Blue’s Clues succeeds as a story of discovery only if the clues are in proper order. The show has to start easy-to give the viewers confidence-and then get progressively harder and harder, challenging the preschoolers more and more, drawing them into the narrative. . . . The layering of the show is what makes it possible for a child to watch the show four or five times: on each successive watching they master more and more, guessing correctly deeper into the program, until, by the end, they can anticipate every answer.” Id, at 129
How can we apply the lessons of Blue’s Clues to our coaching? I believe that if coaches can incorporate four major themes from the show to our coaching we’ll be doing our players a great service both from an enjoyment and developmental standpoint.
- Construct your practice in the same manner day to day, week to week. Consistent structure will help the players establish a comfort level on what is expected of them and how the session will flow. Being consistent is a very important dynamic for a coach at any level, but even more so with the younger age groups. Once the players gain a familiarity with the practice format, it should also put an end to the question, “when are we going to scrimmage”. If you always finish each practice with a game, they’ll know that the scrimmage is coming and can remain focused on the exercise at hand. On a personal note, I would recommend beginning each practice with a street soccer game as an arrival activity. This helps address the same question listed above as well as giving the players an opportunity to express themselves.
- Progress Simple to Complex- Allow for early success to establish a baseline and confidence in all the players. Increase the complexity and difficulty in a manner that is challenging, but not overwhelming. It’s okay to make mistakes as the practice progresses, this enhances the learning process, but you don’t want to begin the session with an activity that is too difficult and plants the seed of doubt in the players mind from the outset. Remember, the proper ordering of the clues is vital to the show’s success.
- Provide Repetition- “An adult considers constant repetition boring, because it requires reliving the same experience over and over again. But to preschoolers repetition isn’t boring, because each time they watch something they are experiencing it in a completely different way.” Id, at 125. This is not to say that you need to run the same session with your team for 5 straight practices, but often by repeating an exercise or two from one practice to the next brings out a higher performance level since the players now comprehend the rules or objectives of an activity and can now focus on developing within the activity itself. I caution coaches against changing the activities for their own enjoyment, when by doing so you may be hindering the enjoyment-and development- of your players.
- Be a Guide- Steve has many characteristics of an ideal coach. He poses questions, pauses long enough for the children to respond (a good listener) and methodically rehashes what they’ve learned along the journey. As coaches, we should look to incorporate Steve’s skillfulness in asking questions with our players. Asking questions engages the player and makes them active participants in the learning process. Steve doesn’t provide the answers; instead he leads the children to discover the answers themselves. This concept of Guided Discovery is one all coaches should embrace and seek to improve upon.
Children learn in stages. With this reality serving as our starting point, it is our duty as coaches to recognize this fact and cater our coaching style to suit their needs. Although it can be tempting to try to speed up the development process to make the game look like “real soccer” quicker, if we attempt to force the issue we run the risk of overwhelming the child and stifling the development we were all so eager to see in the first place. Let’s coach like Steve! Have a plan and a methodical approach that guides the children, through exercises that offer repetition and age appropriate challenges, where we place the children in an environment where they find the solutions to the game.