For the last 4 years, I’ve coached elementary aged soccer in a community league. I have appropriate “credentials” for this volunteer position, including having been an all-state player in high school, I refereed this age group when I was in college, and I attend annual coaching clinics.
My current team is made up of 3rd and 4th grade boys. Because the organization that runs the league sees this as an organization for social development, kids are kept together according to age and their local school. We take all comers. Every child who shows up to a game is assured to play at least half the game.
As a result of grade skipping and red shirting, the kids on the team range in ages from the age of a 2nd grader to the age of 5th graders. The skills on the team range from this being the child’s first experience with any athletics due to past health issues, to kids who love soccer and have played in any opportunity afforded to them for years. I have 16 players on the team, six that show up every time on time with water and their ball, two have never shown up a single time, and another 8 who may or may not come. Of those occasional 8, two are absolutely reliable in notifying me that they won’t make it.
One kid I’m sure has autism, though his parents are either not disclosing it to me or are unaware of their son’s social skills deficits. They very well might be working hard in the background on his issues, but I do not have the appropriate training to address this child’s issues effectively. A few other kids seem to have ADHD based on the fact that they cannot participate in practice in the evening, but seem ok for morning practices and games (a meds issue?). Or maybe they don’t have ADHD, but they are just tapped out from a long day of school. Or maybe they are so far beyond the instruction of my coaching that they’re bored. Or maybe they have physical developmental issues that make it nearly impossible for them to do what I’m asking. I’m not sure what I’m working with here. No parent has talked to me about their child’s experience on the team. I’m guessing and doing my best to anticipate the needs.
As a result of experience, native ability, and complicating possible disabilities, I have a huge mix of levels of play on the team. I have players who are still working on the basics of the rules. I have players that are ready to learn a sufficiently higher level of play, but I know that teaching it to them will leave the other players without their basic instruction. Are we better off having kids make legal throw-ins each time, or having one player that can handle the ball really well? When I try to pair the two best kids together who have the potential to really excel, there’s no one for them to practice against except for me. This draws me away from the rest of the group. Likewise, if I pull aside the one child still working on the coordination of a throw in, something everyone else has mastered, the rest of the team does not learn. So instead I do as much individual coaching as I can on the sidelines when enough kids show up to a game that we have a sub. I work with kids who show up a few minutes early to practice. One kid has figured out I’ll work with him if he skips his water break.
In short, I’m failing to effectively differentiate for the members of my team. This is in spite of the fact that I’m rarely working with more than 10 players at a time. I’m someone who knows my field well from the perspective of player, referee, and coach. I’ve undergone continuous development for my craft (coaching clinics), and I’m a professional educator at the university level that understands the theory and practice of differentiation. And yet, I cannot differentiate effectively and consistently for this group. This has been reflected in their performance on the field (it pains me to see some kids regressing from the start of last year) and their dwindling attitude towards the sport. It’s hard to feel good about what you’re learning when you keep losing while simultaneously being bored or confused or both.
In what way can we expect a teacher with 25 kids in a class to differentiate when some students may or may not have basic skills in place and other children working far beyond grade level? Throw in inconsistent attendance as many school contend with, and I’m starting to think it’s simply impossible.