Kids play soccer to sell ‘hotel-room-nights’

From the website of a new youth soccer complex opening in my area:

Tournaments are expected to generate 18,000 room nights each year for [name of city] hotels.

That is the primary purpose of competitive youth soccer in the U.S.: selling hotel room nights.

From that perspective, it’s doing pretty well. Maybe a little too well.

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Putting the cart before the horse: a ‘signal or cause’ saying

Have you ever heard someone say, “I need to buy a treadmill so I can get in shape.”

After a few months, these treadmills go unused and collect dust.

“But, I know people who stay fit and they have treadmills.”

Those people stay in shape because they have made exercise a priority. The treadmill is a signal of their priority, not the cause of it.

If you want to get in shape, you first have to make exercise a priority. That can be done without a treadmill.

Buying the treadmill first is putting the cart before the horse.

The consistently fit buy the treadmill as a supplement to their exercise routine — not as the centerpiece of it. It’s used on rainy or busy days to keep their priority.

I saw a tweet recently calling for building 600,000 futsal courts in the U.S. to give kids more places to play pickup soccer.

I agree that lack of pickup soccer is a key problem with soccer in the U.S., but building the courts before soccer is being widely played, informally, is putting the cart before horse.

The tweeter sees futsal courts in soccer-playing countries and thinks that’s the key to getting more kids playing.

Those futsal courts are a signal of a soccer-playing culture, not the cause of it.

My town has two street hockey courts that haven’t seen action since the 90s when that fad faded away. Simply having the courts doesn’t motivate anyone to play street hockey.

They sit there unused like the treadmill collecting dust.

More futsal courts will come when parks and rec directors see kids all over their town playing soccer in driveways, backyards and parks.

In fact, two areas in my metro area have futsal courts where a lot of pickup soccer is played. Those areas are rich in soccer-playing cultures from soccer-playing countries.

Signal or cause?

I heard about this study about how attaining the American Dream may be influenced by your neighborhood in the news.

This part caught my attention:

Chetty found, according to NPR’s Morning Edition, that if a person moves out of a neighborhood with worse prospects into to a neighborhood with better outlooks, that move increases lifetime earnings for low-income children by an average of $200,000. But moving a lot of people is impractical, so researchers instead are trying to help low-performing areas improve, according to Morning Edition.

I find it surprising that the suggestion to move a lot of people is discounted for being impractical.

It should be discounted for confusing a signal with a cause.

I heard a good analogy on an episode of EconTalk podcast once (I believe) that illustrates the slip up:

Since wealthy people vacation in Monaco, you should vacation in Monaco if you want to become wealthy.

Vacationing is Monaco is the signal of being wealthy, not the cause, vacationing there isn’t likely to make you wealthy.

Likewise, parents moving to neighborhoods with better outlooks may be a signal of what produces those better outlooks, not the cause.

A hypothesis to consider is that the values parents instill in their children is the biggest contributor to producing better outlooks.

That may show up at the neighborhood level because parents tend to move to neighborhoods where other parents share their values.

If true, then moving folks to better outlook neighborhoods or recreating other signals of those neighborhoods in worse prospect neighborhoods may not be effective ways to produce better outlooks.

Personal Preference Bias

The researchers of this study say that the kids picked last in gym class do not exercise as much as adults, possibly due to the emotional scars of being left out.

Maybe they were picked last in gym class because they, and their families, were not interested in physical activity and sports to begin with.

They experienced less volume of physical activity outside of gym class and hadn’t built as much competency as others who had been more active.

I’m guessing it’s that lack of interest for physical activity that carried into adulthood.

I doubt being more inclusive in gym class will change how active they are as adults.

I’m also guessing the emotional scars of being picked last aren’t as big as the researchers are making out. Most of us have experienced at some point.

If you are interested in the sport, that might be the feedback you need to work harder.

If you’re not interested, you tend not to care much.

Think that’s a stretch? Consider a a topic that doesn’t interest you, like the accordion.

Would you be scarred if you got last chair in accordion band? No.

Would you be more likely to play the accordion as an adult if you had been given a higher chair over someone who was better at the accordion than you?

Not likely. You’d see through the farce.

Folks are drawn to the accordion or not.

If you were forced to take an accordion class, you’d do the minimum to get through it.

The problem with studies like the gym class study above is that the researchers value physical activity, themselves, and they project their preference on everyone else.

I call that personal preference bias.

If you aren’t active, researchers assume it must be for some fixable reason.

Maybe you just don’t share their preferences.

Maybe the better answer is to let the kids who aren’t interested in gym do something else, if they’d like to.

Personal preference bias is common in public policy. Studies on education, for example, suffer from it and it clouds their judgement just like above.

The biggest problem in education isn’t schools or funding or teaching methods. Those things have long not been obstacles.

The biggest problem is some folks simply do not value education (or at least, one-size-fits-all, K-12 college prep + sports life education) as much as others do.

To them, school is like that accordion class that you don’t want to take. They just want to do the minimum to get through it and then get on with life.

The U.S. lacks a soccer ball culture

Here’s a great tweet from Tom Byer:

Good timing. I’ve been working on a similar thought.

For me, it comes down to how much time kids spend discovering the ball, self-directed. The ball culture fosters this in soccer-playing cultures.

Not only does the US lack soccer culture that doesn’t promote discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture hinders it.

Some of the top young players now, like Pulisic and Sargent, are good examples of what spending lots of time working with the ball outside of organized play can do.

Nearly anything that is wrong with soccer in the U.S. can be traced back to whether it helps or hinders kids from discovering the ball, self-directed.

Here are just a few examples I’ve seen…

What wins at young ages

Winning soccer at young ages is mainly the result of being the biggest and fastest. This doesn’t encourage kids to discover the ball.

Parents lack of knowledge

They simply don’t know what activities they can do with their children to help and when. I can attest to that. I didn’t.

This also hinders in how their interpretation of the soccer experience giving ample reasons from the best to the worst players at young ages to keep kids from discovering the ball.

Examples — For the best: They don’t need to. They’re doing just fine without it!

For the worst: They’re just in it to have fun and to be with their friends. I don’t want to force them to work with the ball and ruin their love for the sport.

Those same things are said about kids in other sports in the U.S., but with an “and”, as in…AND they should be improving fundamentals, too.

For example, parents don’t interpret the 26 to 24 tee ball wins of their 5-year-old as a sign their kid doesn’t need to improve catching, throwing and deciding where to make the play.

Rather, they get their kid out in the yard and play catch with them. They watch baseball on TV and point out where the fielders are making the play.

Scheduling

Another factor is the schedule of sports that has emerged in the U.S. Each sport has carved out its own season for survival (football=fall, basketball=winter, baseball=spring).

Because of this, it’s common to think it’s unhealthy to play a sport, year-round. Yet, most soccer playing countries do so without problem.

While those countries play organized soccer 10 months a year, the pace is moderate and games more convenient, making it easier to work other activities into the schedule.

There, they have one game per weekend at the neighborhood club, especially at the lower and intermediate levels of play.

Compare to the U.S., where it’s common to have 3-4 tournament games and hours of driving, even at low and intermediate levels. That makes it harder to do other activities.

And, who wants to touch the ball when they get home from such long weekends? Few.

Misinterpreting the numbers

It’s often said that we have the numbers. Millions of kids play soccer in the U.S., after all!

But, it’s not just a numbers game. Most of those kids have zero desire to discover the ball.

What percentage of those players, for example, can juggle 100 by the time they turn 10? From my experience, less than 5%. Maybe 3%. In soccer-playing cultures this is like learning to catch and throw a baseball, or shoot a basket in our culture, both of which can be done pretty well by 10 year-old Americans, both who play and do not play organized sports.

The other 97% will tell you why juggling is unnecessary.

How many of those kids play soccer with their friends for 2-3 hours after school a few times a week? Not many.

I bet these percentage are much higher in soccer-playing cultures.

More

These are just a few things that I see that do not foster a soccer ball culture in the U.S. There are many more.

Incidentally, in my city, we have pockets where ball culture is alive and well, in areas with high immigrant populations.

There are usually pickup games in these pockets.

When the suburban, non-ball culture teams play teams from these areas, it’s usually no contest, not only on the ball, but game IQ, too.

I’ve coached from the suburban side of these games. The other team would warm up with a juggling circle, while we struggled with basic pass-and-follow line.

Their coaches didn’t need to joystick their team’s play. Those kids knew how to play on their own. Their coaches were mostly quiet, every now and then calling a player to adjust positioning or something.

Without direction, our kids would repeat basic errors like dumping the ball to the other team in front of our goal.

It eventually dawned on me that the other kids had been playing soccer and with the ball all their lives.

Our kids, even with a few rec seasons, only had a few months behind them and zero ball culture.

Exhibit #3: Why U.S. Men’s Soccer team struggles

This interview with the guys that run US Soccer coach licensing process confirms that they are fine with how expensive, time consuming, inconvenient, exclusive and elitist the process is and and don’t see much reason to change it.

Exhibit #1 is here. Exhibit #2 here.

Germany and Iceland took the opposite approach 10-15 years ago and worked to get as many coaches as possible educated. It seemed to help.

Of course, why wouldn’t it?

The case for juggling (a soccer ball)

I run into a surprising number of soccer folks who don’t think juggling helps you become a better soccer player.

Their logic is pretty much: “You don’t juggle in a game, so you’ll be better off practicing the stuff you use.”

That’s too simple. Though juggling isn’t used in the game, it has lots of benefits.

Juggling trains you to use your whole body to control the ball and improves your ability to read and react to it. It also reduces your chance of injury*.

Engaging your whole body and enhancing your ability to read and react to the ball improves all aspects of ball control — 1st touch, passing, dribbling, shooting, winning 50/50s and tackling.

It trains you to use your whole body by training you to stay in the athletic position and light on your toes.

The athletic position is when you could snap a photo from the front of the player and draw a rectangle that intersects shoulders, hips, knees and toes.

This position helps reduce injuries by more evenly distributing game forces across your whole body.

Extending outside the athletic position concentrates forces into small areas of your body, like knees, ankles, hips or hamstrings. Play the tape back on many injuries and you will see the injured player was reaching a leg outside the athletic position.

The athletic position also helps you leverage your body weight and core strength, which improves ball control, strength of tackles and power on shots. Pay close attention to a  well executed bicycle kick. You will see the player did a back flip in the athletic position, driving all of his or her body weight and core strength into the ball.

Juggling has all these benefits, plus once you get half way decent at it, juggling is a fun way to pass the time and it can be done just about anytime and anywhere.

Juggling is not the only thing a player needs to work on to become a complete player. But, players who don’t juggle won’t reach their potential and increase their chances of injury.

Juggling can be learned at any age.

In soccer-playing cultures, it’s common for players learn before age 8 and not remember when they couldn’t juggle.

I learned in my 40s. In a way I’m lucky for that because I got to experience all the improvements I listed above as my juggling improved, so I could tell you about it. Had I learned it when I was 8, I may never had made those connections.

*A side note on injuries: I recall reading years ago about a study that showed that the ‘quickest’ (over short distance) players tended not to make it to the top of the game due to their propensity of getting injury. The hypothesis was that fast twitch muscles are more susceptible to injury than slow twitch muscles.

I have another theory. The quickest players tended to rely on their speed and not develop their skills and athletic position as much through practice like juggling. It could be that is what really causes more injuries.

It seems like there are more and more quick and skilled players coming in the top levels of the game like Vardy, Mbappe and Pulisic. Perhaps the skill work they’ve put in, including juggling, has helped them stay in the athletic position more and stay healthy.