Why soccer sucks in the US

Brian Costin does a great in this interview describing how monopolies hurt and competition helps in soccer.

I especially liked the following:

…the top 50 metro areas are significantly underserved as well. Greater Manchester in England has roughly the same sized population as Chicago, Illinois, 2.8 million. Manchester has seven professional soccer clubs in just the top 4 tiers of sport (Tier One: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tier 2: Wigan Athletic, Tier 3: Bolton Wanderers, Rochdale, Tier 4: Oldham Athletic and Salford City). All of these teams have aspirations to make it to the top tier of the sport, and five of the seven have played at the top level at some point in their history. Two of these clubs are super clubs regularly competing in major continental competitions. 

On the other hand is Chicago, with one professional soccer club which happens to be the worst non-expansion team in MLS over the last decade despite having the country’s third largest economic market all to themselves. If the United States had an open soccer system like the rest of the world I would not be surprised to see a half dozen professional soccer clubs or more competing in different levels of the pyramid in Chicago within a few decades, not to mention many more clubs in the full metropolitan area which totals 9.5 million people. Selfishly, as a Chicago resident, I’d like to think one of these teams would have a little bit more ambition than the Chicago Fire. Competition tends to do that.

People steeped in American sports tradition don’t understand this.

Salman Khan and Soccer

I like this quote on education from Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy:

The traditional model [of education] penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery [e.g. time to move onto next subject even if you only mastered 90% of the last one].

We encourage you to experiment.  We encourage you to fail.  But we do expect mastery.

I think this applies to how we’ve structured youth soccer in the U.S., too.

Being overly focused on results at young ages penalizes experimentation and failure. So, we get kids who have won lots of games, but never acquired the competencies to play 11v11.

Soccer then graduates these kids to 11v11 based on their age, rather than their mastery of things needed to be competent in 11v11.

This results in a lot of kids making it to the 11v11 game lacking the basic mastery needed for the game.

Many never catch up or even realize they are behind.

In 11v11, they do not get enough time on the ball to make progress. I’ve seen kids who had been making good progress move to 11v11 and stagnate.

The few hundred touches they get on the ball in team training each week and the 50 they get in their weekly game is about 1% of what they need to get better.

What’s worse, they are placed into brackets of similarly incompetent players, so it’s never obvious that they lack these competencies.

What are these basics?

Receiving, shielding, dribbling and passing the ball with 60-70% or more effectiveness (i.e. keep the ball with your team at least 60% of the time it comes to you). I see too many kids in 11v11 who are 20% or less effective on these and everybody seems okay with this.

Stopping an attacker from making progress to your goal with the ball. This should be in the 80s or 90s, but too often I see players less than 50% on this and that seems acceptable.

I’d also expect players to have some basic communication down pat before playing 11v11, like calling for a pass (drop, square, through) and help teammates make decisions (time/on turn, carry, leave).

When I see players playing 11v11 incapable of these things, I think of Khan’s quote. Somewhere along the way we have said mastery is not an expectation. That needs to change.

Good handout for new soccer parents

One of the best things I read on the internet recently is Chris Kessell’s first handout to new parents in his soccer club.

It’s well written and efficient. I’ve tried to write about a lot of these concepts so they might be understandable to folks new to soccer and I know how tough it is. Chris did a great job.

Just a couple nits…

I agree with one commenter to his post about word-smithing, “Encourage your young player to make mistakes.”

I might suggest adding, “…and learn from them.”

In my experience, when I’ve ‘encouraged mistakes’, I’d see repeated mistakes without learning. When I asked why I keep seeing the same mistake, they’d respond, “You said mistakes are okay.” Adding the expectation about learning helps with that.

My other nit is that #9 should be #1. It seems like common sense, but it’s not in the soccer world.

What would I do different as a youth soccer coach now?

If I were to “coach” youth soccer with what I know today vs. what I knew when I was coaching, I would do things differently.

Rather than participating in organized leagues and tournaments, I would spend my time finding and organizing all-ages pickup games around town for the kids to participate in with kids from soccer cultures.

I think 2 hours a week of that would do 10x more good than the model of club training, games and tournaments within skill bands that is typical of youth soccer.

My “10x” estimate comes from playing against teams with kids from soccer cultures. Usually the score was, or could have been (if they didn’t let up), 10-1. Those kids were coaching and communicating with themselves on the the field.

The kids on those teams weren’t superstars. They were just competent in soccer’s skill and tactical basics by age 8 to 10 like American kids tend to be competent in baseball’s or basketball’s basics by the same age, for the same reasons — they have games and activities in their home lives that spur the development of those basics while having fun, so when they come to the team environment they have the basics to build on.

That doesn’t mean that they all become elite players. It means the same as when when 8U baseball teams play against kids with beginner skills equivalent to a 5U tee ball team, it will be a blowout. The 8U may look like superstars, but they aren’t. The just have more of the basics.

I remember watching tee ball games and thinking they should be scored by the number of outs a team can make at first base, because that is a rarer occurrence than scoring runs. The kids did not have the ability to consistently field the ball, decide where to throw, throw and make the catch at first base in the time it took the runner to get there. A typical game may have 2-3 outs at first and 25+ runs.

But, by age 8 or 10, most kids have played enough ‘catch’ with parents and friends in their yard, have to have improved their consistency on fielding, throwing and catching to 80 or 90% or better, and getting the out at first happens most of the time when it should.

The key problem with soccer in the U.S. is that most kids never get much in the way of something equivalent to ‘playing catch in the backyard.’ So, you wind up with older players that aren’t much better than where they were when they started, which I wrote about here.

What’s the difference between competitive and rec soccer

As I was learning soccer, I had a tough time telling the difference between rec and competitive. But, I finally learned.

For competitive players, organized soccer is a small part of their soccer world. They’ve learned 5-30% of what they know about soccer in organized soccer. The rest comes from home, friends and their own interest.

For rec players, organized soccer makes up 80-100% of their soccer world.

Soccer clubs package and sell rec soccer as competitive soccer to parents, so a lot of kids are playing rec soccer, but think they are playing competitive.

Parents can’t tell the difference. Same uniforms, backpacks, cleats, officials, soccer fields, coaches, trophies and costs. The coaches have the same licenses and probably played college or semi-pro, somewhere, even if you never heard of the college or team.

What is different is what is played on the field.

In rec ball, most of the game is 50/50s, turnovers and incomplete passes.

This results from lacking the basic skills of trapping, dribbling and passing the ball because rec players only have a fraction of the cumulative repetition they need to build the muscle memory and foot-eye coordination to be competent since they rarely practice on their own.

In competitive, most of the game is the team working together to keep the ball with high pass completion and building on basic passing patterns and working into more complex patterns to try to get a shot.

This results from players being competent with trapping, dribbling and passing the ball because they have enough cumulative reps in their lifetime to have built the muscle memory and coordination.

There is much more to soccer than these three skills, but you need these to get there and rec players never can get there because they can’t do these three things.

Imagine baseball if the players can’t catch or throw. Imagine basketball if the players can’t catch, dribble or pass. It would look like much of ‘competitive’ (expensive rec) soccer in the U.S.

Rec players are the players I wrote about in the previous post. They fell in love with playing, but never fell in love with the ball. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if all they want to do is show up and play, save yourself time and money and keep them playing in the local rec league.

The good news is, from my perspective, the effort to become a competitive player isn’t immense. It’s amazing what some practice can do.

The bad news is that rec players won’t do it.

Bang for your improvement buck: Love for the ball vs. love of playing

One problem with the way organized soccer works in the U.S. is that it gets kids to fall in love with playing soccer without falling in love with the ball.

The problem is that they love to play it, but they don’t love to practice it or have too many thoughts about getting better.

What’s not to love about playing? We make quite the production of it. Nice uniforms, nice fields, nice soccer complexes, officials and lots of folks cheering on the kids.

Even sideline toxicity sends the message that the kids are doing something important if adults get that worked up about it.

Why get better? They get to play either way, and occasionally, even if just by luck, they get to be the hero.

I agree with Tom Byer. Kids don’t quit soccer because of all the BS ‘the research’ points to. They quit when the kids who love the ball are kicking their teeth in and they realize they are years behind them and it would take years and effort that they aren’t willing to put in to catch up.

In other words, for all those years they loved to ‘play’ soccer, they never actually learned some of soccer’s ball basics.

Equal play time in youth sports, Part II

From Twitter (I’m Seth):

I wrote more about my experience here.

We overestimate how much development happens during games. We think it’s 80% of development when it really should be about 5%.

That overestimation makes us believe play time is more important then it really is, which is why coaches tweet about equal play time and parents might lose their marbles about it every now and then.

Organized games should be viewed like math tests. Tests aren’t the place to learn math skills. The learning happens while preparing for tests. The test is where you show what you learned.

If you did not prepare for the test, you might learn a few things while taking it, but just a tiny fraction had you prepared.

I think we would be much better off if we view organized games like that.

Bad News Bears Soccer

I’ve watched too many games over the past couple years of high school aged kids where the following passage from Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home, comes to mind:

“Soccer is a passing and shooting game, but passing and shooting has to come after learning how to control the ball. And passing and shooting comes so much easier if you do that.

I watch kids’ teams play soccer and despair sometimes. ‘How can they be so bad?’ I ask myself. Most kids can’t even move the ball from one foot to the other.

What’s the problem?

The problem is people don’t know what the problem is.”

The problem is that there are basics of the game and these kids don’t have them and as Tom points out, nobody seems to notice.

They can’t receive, pass or dribble.

Most of their first touches turn the ball over and often put the opponent in a better spot.

Passing completion is less than 20%, which is mostly luck when it does happen, and too many passes are right to the opponent.

Balls are often dribbled directly into the defender’s feet and lost, without any visible attempt go around the defender.

Goalkeepers repeatedly distribute the ball directly to the other team.

The few scoring chances come at the tail end of strings of lucky events, rather than purposeful action.

It’s mostly 50/50 ball as neither team ever has possession of the ball for more than a few touches. In fact, it’s a 50/50 ball even if the ball is at the feet of a player.

The players have no idea how to communicate with each other beyond blaming others for their own mishaps.

Dumb soccer debate: Isolated vs. opposed training

Is there a sport that doesn’t require both?

Is there a sport where the amount of one or the other doesn’t depend on the current skill level, or whether the movement is new to player?

Is there a sport where skills aren’t first built in isolated training and then honed under pressure and in competition?

‘But, Ronaldo was created in the opposed training environment of street soccer!’

Has anyone asked him if he ever worked on new moves on his own, at home or on the sideline waiting for next, before trying them in out against others?

Here’s what I notice about those on either side of the debate.

Advocates of opposed training deal primarily with players who develop 95% of their skills away from training, at home or in pickup. Out of sight, out of mind. Since they don’t see how much effort these players put into those skills, they think all players have that level of ability or they think they got to that level of ability with their opposed team training environment and discount the effort the players do on their own.

The opposed training advocates also tend to straw man the “isolated” side of the debate as if the other side believes isolated training is the only thing needed. I haven’t seen anyone who believes that. Rather, they support progression from isolated to competition.

Those who advocate isolated training typically work with players that do not work on their own or play pickup to develop their skills and need a healthy foundation of isolated training to build muscle memory before working up to using in competition.

Why do kids quit sports?

When I discuss this topic with folks, I’m often referred to ‘research’ that pins blame on things like toxic sidelines, pressure to win and bad coaching.

I’m treated as a heretic to suggest that quitting sports is natural and our goal shouldn’t necessarily be to reduce the attrition rate.

While I’ve seen my fair share of toxicity (and probably contributed to some), I am skeptical that improving on those will reduce attrition, though I am all for improving on those.

I addressed that topic a few years ago here.

I believe kids quit sports because they’re just not that into it and have interests they are more into.

I’ll add that I am skeptical of the validity of research. In the business world, I’ve too often seen similar market research that tries to identify reasons customers switch brands. I’ve watched too many managers lose their jobs building initiatives around those findings to find out fixing those reasons didn’t move the needle on customer behavior.

When a former player identifies reasons like toxic sidelines for quitting the sport, the obvious follow-up question is, “If toxic sidelines were eliminated, would you keep playing?”

Most say no, which means that wasn’t the real reason.