A fundamental reason kids don’t play pickup soccer

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 the golden age of self organized play, 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.


Anson Dorrance on 3Four3

The 3Four3 podcast with guest Anson Dorrance is a great listen!

I wish I would have heard when I was starting out in soccer.

Anson is good with words.

I wasn’t surprised, deep in the podcast when he explained he had an English major, thinks language is important and seeks to use language to inspire and motivate. It shows. He communicates simply and very effectively.

I thought Anson did the best job I’ve heard, so far, of explaining a few elusive soccer concepts.

Direct vs. Indirect Soccer plus Development vs. Winning

Being able to play both styles is important. But learning to play indirect takes time and patience.

This is him, paraphrased:

At U10/U12 and below wins come from direct soccer and putting a couple fast kids up front and a couple kids with big kicks at the back and sending the ball forward for the fast kids to run onto and finish.

This an example of winning that doesn’t develop.

Direct quote:

“Development is all about creating a philosophy of player development that doesn’t have as its priority the most effective way to win [for young ages] because the most effective way to win at a U12 level is what I described [direct soccer].”

Seven elements of athletic character

He has seen his share of talented players that lacked a few of these and it doesn’t go well. He looks for these traits:

  • self discipline
  • competitive fire
  • self belief
  • love of the ball
  • love of playing the game
  • love of watching the game
  • grit

The importance of 1v1’s

I thought it was a odd sign from the universe that I listened to this podcast on the same day I read about Belgium’s approach to youth soccer.

Dorrance coached the US WNT when the team members didn’t get much opportunity to train together. He encouraged them all to play the game in it’s simplest form — 1v1’s — on their own. Many of them were dating high-level men soccer players, and they played a lot of 1v1’s against them. He credits this as key to the success of his World Cup winning team.

Strange Headline on Bloomberg


You might think from that headline that someone took Jack Ma’s stuff and kicked him to the ground or something.

Alas, from the second paragraph:

The chairman of India’s refining-to-telecoms conglomerate, Ambani was estimated to be worth $44.3 billion on Friday…

Ma’s wealth stood at $44 billion…

It turns out, Ma wasn’t actually hurt in the ‘toppling’ and none of his stuff was taken. He’s doing just fine. Just another example of clickbait journalism.

It turns out the economy is not a zero sum game. Jack Ma and this other guy can both be doing well at the same time without taking away from each other.

And, by the way, the customers of their companies probably come out ahead, too.

Positive sum is good.

Winning Does(n’t) Matter

This article about how the approach to coaching soccer in Belgium may have contributed to their success at this year’s World Cup is a good read.

I especially like the following two points:

Point #6: Winning Doesn’t Matter

We don’t have league tables until the Under-14 level. That was one of the big battles for us. Coaches shouldn’t be concerned about tables and trying to win trophies before this age – they should be thinking about developing players.

Coaches are inclined to focus on winning the game. That makes them play the big, strong players who give them the best chance of winning, so the late developers end up on the bench 75% of the time.

I agree. Team wins at young ages are poor predictors of future success and can be achieved in ways that do not make kids better at soccer.

While ‘4v4 to get more touches’ sounds good in theory, in reality the two fastest kids get  80% of the touches and the other 6 kids chase them.

While team wins don’t matter at young ages there, in Point #2 the author describes what type of winning does matter in Belgium and how it matters (bold added):

Kids want to play football in their own way, not the way adults want to play. If you put a child on an adult’s bicycle, they’ll say, “are you crazy?” But this is what happens in football, we ask them to play 11 v 11 or 8 v 8 at a very young age. They are not able to do it.

As a child, how did you start playing? In my case, it was with my brother, playing 1 v 1 at home, in the garden, in the garage, dribbling and scoring.

We created a format that is tailor made for this. We put one player in the goal and one on the pitch and at five, six years old, they play 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper and they adore it. They have a lot of touches, a lot of scoring opportunities. It’s all about that fun environment and fun means scoring goals.

They play two halves of three minutes, then they go to the next pitch. The winner goes to the left and the loser to the right. After one or two games they’ll be playing against a similar level of opponent and everyone scores goals, everyone wins games, which makes it fun.

They may be onto something.

1v1 skills — both attacking and defensive — are so important for team success.

1v1’s is a great way to simplify the game for young kids, while also building skills that will help later on.

Plus, winning still matters! But, it’s just used to sort the kids to face like competition.

I can imagine this has several benefits in addition to what he described above.

Players stand on their own results. Those results also provide clear and direct feedback for kids and parents.

For example, average players can’t mistake the successes of their advanced teammates as their own.

Parents can’t shift blame for poor results to teammates, nor can they complain that their child is playing in the wrong position, not getting enough play time or not getting enough chances to score.

This also makes it easier for kids to figure out what to work on at home. In a full team environment, there are so many things to work on, it can be overwhelming.

Does this answer the participation trophy debate?

I think this also sheds light on the mistake made by Participation Trophy advocates.

What they get right is that team records are not helpful at young ages.

What they get wrong is what to reward. They reward showing up. Showing up does not build fundamentals.

The approach used by Belgium above rewards building fundamentals.

Fitting this into my player development model.

Here I recommended kids gain competence in 5-a-side before graduating to 11v11.

The Belgium approach makes me think I missed a step.

Maybe the steps in the competitive ladder should be:

  1. Soccer starts at home. See Tom Byer.
  2. 1v1+GK competitions
  3. 5-a-side
  4. 11v11

Ages shouldn’t matter. Competency should be what progresses players through the steps. I see a lot of kids who get interested in soccer at 10 or 12, but have a hard time finding a spot on a team because they need too much work on the basics relative to kids who started younger. This progression would solve that.

If you’re new to soccer, whether your 6, 14 or 42, start with home practice, a lot of 1v1’s, then 5-a-side before moving on to 11v11.

Protectionism and Big Government Policy

From Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek:

A Protectionist is Someone Who…

… upon noticing that cardiothoracic surgeons earn high incomes concludes that the nation would be enriched if the government adopted policies to increase the number of citizens who suffer from blocked arteries and congestive heart failure – thus artificially increasing the demand for the services of cardiothoracic surgeons.

I think this example can be used to demonstrate the folly of another well intended, but misguided, phenomenon in politics:

Advocates of solving things with big government policy (maybe there’s a better description) are folks who…

… upon noticing that cardiothoracic surgeons earn high incomes concludes that we can help more people earn high incomes if the government adopted policies to increase the number of  cardiothoracic surgeons – thus artificially increasing the supply of  cardiothoracic surgeons.

I can imagine the support for such policies:

  • More cardiothoracic surgeons is a great thing! More is better.
  • Let’s help everyone realize the dream of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon!

But, just as Boudreaux’s example shows how dumb it would be to artificially increase the demand for cardiothoracic surgeons, it’s just as dumb to artificially increase the supply of them because we can easily predict what will happen.

Cardiothoracic surgeons will cease making such high incomes and big government policy advocates will scratch their heads for 5 seconds before coming up with the next big government solution to that problem, rather than realize where their thinking was flawed in the first place.