Make it fun

When I’ve juggled a soccer ball around beginning soccer players they ask, “What’s the secret?”

My standard answer is, “Lots of practice.”

The look on their face says it all, That doesn’t sound like fun, I guess I won’t be learning to juggle. And, they don’t try.

I wonder if it would better to say, “Make it fun.”

I’ll give that a try and see.

There are lots of ways to make it fun.

The biggest hurdle is getting to 20 juggles consistently. Once you get there, progress speeds up.

It took me about a year of relatively consistent practice to get there. It took my son about 5 months of more consistent practice to make it.

Here are a few ways to help make it fun.

These are just thought starters. Be creative and help your kids come up with their ways.

  1. How many juggles in a row: right vs left.
  2. How many total juggles can you get in a minute? Left only, right only, alternating. Dropping is okay.
  3. How long does it take to get to 100 juggles (dropping okay)? Left, right, alternating.

Also, if you don’t think juggling helps, here I make my case for how it helps make your whole game better.

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Here’s a political movement I can support

More than 62 percent of California residents vote YES to have Daylight Savings Time year-round

It just makes a lot sense. I’ll take my daylight in the day, please.

Informal/formal knowledge ratio in sports

When the team of 10-year-old suburban soccer kids that I coached played against teams from Latino neighborhoods in my city, it was clear that their players had better ball mastery and game knowledge than our kids.

I wondered what I was doing wrong, but I wasn’t sure how I could cram all that information into practice.

Soon after, I drove past an all-ages pickup soccer game at a high school field and recognized some of the kids from the teams we played against.

There was my answer. As Tom Byer says, culture matters.

It dawned on me that 90% of what they knew about soccer they learned informally, at pickup games like that, practicing on their own and following their heroes.

This is what I call the informal/formal knowledge ratio: the percent of the skill and knowledge of a sport learned from informal vs. formal play.

For the suburban soccer kids I coached, 95% of what they knew came from the organized setting.

Seems obvious. For our beloved sports, 90% of skills and knowledge comes from informal play — catch and driveway basketball, for example.

The organized parts of those sports are more focused on taking the raw skills and knowledge developed in unorganized settings and refining that last 10% to contribute to team performance.

Organized soccer in the U.S. tries to do the impossible task of making up for the lack of informal play and it simply can’t do it very well.

It’s like the difference between learning a foreign language in class and going to live in a place where the language is spoken.

Soccer culture in the U.S. lacks informal and fun skill-building games

In the 80s movie The Karate Kid, Danielsan thought he was doing chores for Mr. Miyagi in exchange for training.

He didn’t realize the chores were part of the training.

While waxing Miyagi’s cars, sanding his floors and painting his fence and house, Daniel accumulated thousands of reps on the foundation moves of Miyagi’s defensive style of martial arts.

This culminated in one of that movie’s most memorable scenes, “Wax On Wax Off.”

In it, Daniel complains about busting his hump for four days on these chores and wants to know when the training will start.

Miyagi responds, “Not everything is at it seems.”

He then demonstrates that the chores were the first part of the training by showing Daniel he has the basic moves to build from.

While the movie is fiction, the Miyagi learning approach is true to life.

Sports that become part of a culture spawn simple, complementary activities and mini-games that also become part of the culture.

These games/activities seem to be meant for fun. But, as Mr. Miyagi says, “Not everything is as it seems.”

Like Miyagi’s chores, these games also build reps in skills useful for the sport. They also spread these skills to a wide base.

Examples of such games in the U.S. are playing catch, “21”, OUT and HORSE. These are fun and help improve basic competencies in the three main sports in the U.S.: baseball, basketball and football.

Ten year-old’s in the U.S. that can’t catch a baseball or make a basket are the exception, not the rule.

Unlike Mr. Miyagi’s chores, these games are fun. Instead of  being assigned by a coach, kids play and discover them on their own.

Kids are also motivated to learn them so they maintain street cred with their friends and family.

The odd part is that so few truly appreciate how much these games contribute to the overall talent level in sport.

They give too much credit for organized sports, ‘x-factor’ athletes or great coaches and totally miss the much more important contribution of unorganized play.

A key problem holding soccer in the U.S. back is that these simple, fun and self-directed soccer activities are not a part of our soccer culture, yet.

These are some of the simple “playing catch”-like soccer activities that kids in soccer-loving cultures play:

  • Juggling
  • Monkey-in-the-middle
  • 1v1 take-away (score by taking ball or nutmeg) and 1v1 with goals
  • Futsal, or small court/small field soccer that can easily accommodate 1v1 to 5v5 games, just like our driveway basketball

When I say part of their culture, I mean kids want to play these all the time with wide ranges of age and ability involved.

They are played at school, after school, at family gatherings, on their own, just about whenever and wherever.

I read about how it’s common for kids in Spain, for example, to play 10 hours of monkey-in-the-middle a week for fun. Many American soccer teenagers have barely accumulated that much time on that game in their life.

Getting kids to play these games is trickier than simply encouraging them play. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t stick.

That’s where culture comes in. There’s a difference between a coach encouraging them to play and kids wanting to play because their friends, family and neighbors want to play. Their interest gets piqued when they see someone older that is head and shoulders above everyone else. They want to be like that. So, they work at it to get better.

I’ve seen this, firsthand, at this party that I wrote about last year.

This is how activities like catch and ’21’ stick in our sports culture. And, these are the reasons why a ten year-old that can’t catch a ball is rare.

Likewise, in soccer-playing cultures it’s common for ten year-old’s to cleanly receive a soccer ball on their back foot, while in the U.S. it’s not only uncommon, it’s not even well-known that that’s a thing.

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.

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.