Tom Byer urges parents to lay small soccer balls around the house so their toddlers can start playing with the balls (no kicking) as soon as they they can walk to learn basic ball skills, namely how to move with the ball.
He also advocates that a sport being a part of the culture is vastly more important than anything else.
When I coached soccer, at nearly every practice and game, I encouraged players to work with the ball on their own and play with friends or family.
And I was disappointed because it rarely happened.
I couldn’t figure it out. They seemed to enjoy soccer, but their joy didn’t carry outside of team events.
Byer contends that soccer players often quit the sport between ages of 10 and 13 because they don’t have the ball skills to compete, so it stops being fun.
I think there’s an additional dimension to this.
Somewhere between ages 7 and 10 kids get better at organizing their own play time and games with friends.
They don’t organize soccer games because they don’t have the right set of skills at that age for it to be fun. Kicking the ball into space and running to it is fine in organized competition, with parents and coaches cheering from the sideline. But, it’s just not a very fun game to organize in the backyard.
I’ve seen these kids organize basketball, baseball and football games. It might be a simple game of catch with a baseball or football, or a game of ’21’ on the driveway basketball hoop.
Why are these games more fun for kids this age?
Because culture has given these kids the basic skills in these games, starting at the same ages Tom recommends introducing the soccer ball, and we don’t even realize it.
Throwing and catching is a basic skill used in all three of our main sports. By age 8, many American kids are competent in these.
But, these are rather complex skills. To catch, you have to be able to ‘read’ the ball in the air, project where it’s going and then coordinate your body to get your hands in the path of that ball. To throw, you have to judge the distance to your target and impart the right weight and path to get the ball there.
Many kids start learning how to catch and throw before they can walk, by tossing plush toys back and forth with Mom and Dad. In toddler-hood, this might transition to small, soft toy balls in the yard, eventually to Nerf balls, tennis balls, baseballs, footballs and basketballs.
Playing ‘catch’ with your child is a national pastime. We don’t play catch to create the next crop of pro players. We do it because it’s what we know. It’s a way to connect with our kids, it’s the way our parents and grandparents connected with us when we were kids.
This is what it means for a sport to be in the culture.
An unintended result of this playing catch is that by the time kids turn 8, they are fairly competent in a basic skill required in three sports and pee wee coaches don’t have to spend nearly 100% of practice getting kids up to speed on this basic.
Sure, they can probably use some tweaking to their technique by a knowledgeable coach, but 85% of the work of being able to get the ball to the right place has already been done.
Some believe the competence comes from the kids becoming coordinated, but I would encourage these folks to switch their catching and throwing hands in baseball. If it was just a matter of growing into your coordination, you should be just as good either way, but you’re not because that’s not where your 10s, if not 100s, of thousands of reps are.
It’s muscle memory starting from about age 1 or 2.
Another result, is that by the time the kids start organizing their own games, they have the basic skills to play the games, which makes it more fun for them and more likely that they will play and practice it on their own.
They probably don’t even remember when they couldn’t do the basics. If you ask them, they’d tell you they could always do that stuff and it’s natural — because they learned the basics before their long-term memories kicked in.
This is where the dimension I would like to add to Tom Byer’s observations takes place. The kids who have the basic skills to make playing the game more fun will play more on their own and will get even better, which will further separate them from the other kids.
So, a key problem to soccer development in the U.S. is that kids don’t have the basic skills by the time they hit this age, so they don’t play enough pickup to get even better.
If they get to that age without the basics, then acquiring the basics is too much like work and most kids simply won’t do it.