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 a culture that promotes discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture actually works against developing ball mastery.

I know that sounds strange. It seems pretty simple to understand that it’s a fundamental.

But, here are just a few things that work against that…

Kick and run — While this attitude is slowly changing, many unfamiliar with the sport still see it as pretty simple, you just kick and run and there’s need for ‘fancy footwork’ (or, what I like to call “the basics”).

Sadly, it took me about 2 years to learn, as a coach, that I was wrong about this. It took my team playing against another team that did have some basics. I wish I would have played a team like that much sooner.

Misunderstanding of how touch develops — Lots of folks do appreciate touch, but just don’t understand how it develops. They think it just eventually comes with age and coordination. They don’t realize that it can start at an early age and takes a lot of practice.

I doubt that the folks in a ball culture explicitly realize this, either. It’s not like they are forcing their 2 year-old’s to dribble through cones with the express intent of developing ball mastery.

Rather, they teach and play with their kids in simple and fun games to play with the soccer ball, just like we teach our kids simple and fun games with baseballs (all variations of catch) and basketballs (all variations of 1-on-1, etc.) that build lots of repetition without realizing it, because it’s fun.

Aversion to playing with the soccer ball outside of organized soccer — I’ve scratched my head on this one for years. It amazes me, and lots of others, how few soccer players even look at the ball outside of organized events.

They treat it like a job that they don’t want to bring home. It doesn’t help that parents don’t want kids to have balls in the house, or a wall to kick the ball against. And, they seem to believe that practice should be enough to learn to ‘kick a ball.’

I think this goes back to the previous point — kids and parents simply don’t know simple and fun games.


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 always: “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 teaches you to lock your ankle..

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*.

Locking your ankle, 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, which is the position most conducive to good juggling.

Watch someone with juggling experience stop a ball.

They have a clean touch. They ball looks like it’s stuck to their feet with tape or by a string.

They tend to move their whole body a little bit with a little hop on their plant foot to absorb the ball’s momentum, rather than just sticking their foot out and having the ball bounce off.

When they are a really practiced, that whole body movement is barely perceptible, but it’s there.

The athletic position is when you could snap a photo facing the player and draw a rectangle with the corners at the shoulders and toes and lines intersecting the knees. I call this being in your box.

I think this position may help reduce chance of injury because it more evenly distributes game forces across your whole body.

Extending outside “the box” cause forces to concentrate into small areas of your body, like your joints or hamstrings.

Play the tape back on many injuries and you will see the injured player was reaching outside their “box”.

The athletic box position also helps you leverage your body weight and core strength, improving touch on the ball, control, strength of tackles and power on shots.

Pay close attention to a well-executed bicycle kick. You will see the player does a back flip while maintaining the athletic position, driving all of his or her body weight and core strength through the ball.

Even good headers come from a player in the athletic box position.

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

Juggling is not the only thing players need to do. But, players who don’t juggle won’t reach their potential and may 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 was lucky enough to learn to juggle in my 40s, so I got to be fully aware of all the improvements 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 injured. The hypothesis was that fast twitch muscles are more susceptible to injury than slow twitch muscles.

I have another theory. The quickest players tend to rely on their speed and they don’t put in as much effort to develop their ball skills, which in turns leads them to not maintaining the athletic box position.

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

The answer is both: parents and USSF

I enjoyed reading this Twitter thread between Alexi Lalas and soccer fans regarding the role of parents and USSF. This is one of the gems from that thread.

I agree with Alexi. Parents should take more ownership.

But, I also think the USSF is missing out on easy ways to help.

Many parents who spend so much time finding ‘the right’ club and coach to help their child ‘reach their max potential’, miss the lowest hanging fruit — what their child does at home.

As Josh Sargent’s Dad points out about his success, “It was Josh.” I’m sure Josh’s club helped. But, it doesn’t develop all players into a Josh. As his Dad points out, Josh was always working with the soccer ball on his own. Same with Pulisic.

So, if your kid is doing that, then by all means, spend more time finding the best club and coach.

If not, start there. Also, read Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home (I didn’t realize there’s Kindle edition!).

What can the USSF do?

This, by no means, lets USSF off the hook.

When I was a know-nothing soccer parent/coach, I visited the US Soccer site in search of answers to basic questions…

What can I do as a parent, at home, with my child to help develop basic soccer skills?

What should I be teaching a group of 6 and 7-year-old’s at practice? (Then later, 8-9 year-old’s, and so on).

I didn’t find the development handbook adequately answered these questions.

Two years into coaching, I joined my independent team to a club.

On day one, the club’s director pulled me aside for 10 minutes and showed me how to teach proper technique on a few soccer basics: inside-of-foot receiving and passing, outside-of-foot dribbling and basic changes of direction.

He said, “We teach them how to keep the ball, then we teach them to shoot. It takes time, but you have to work on this stuff every training. The first step to success is proper technique.”

Direct and simple!

It worked, too. We didn’t win state cups, but the players finally began their journey toward playing real soccer and their improvement was noticeable. Now, several years later, they keep getting better.

I remember thinking, Wow, why didn’t I find that on the Internet? Why isn’t that on the USSF website?

It should be.

How US Soccer sees itself

US Soccer thinks the soccer community exists to provide it with position.

Soccer federations in other countries think their position exists to facilitate the best competition among the soccer community.

This view was inspired by this quote from Braveheart.


Misplaced animosity

Ads for the Tru TV channel’s show, Paid Off (where winners get their student loans paid off) ends by asking a contestant what they would like to say to their creditors.

They usually answer with something like, ‘F you! I don’t want to pay you!’

I understand the point is to be funny, but I find it just plain dumb. Seems like a strange attitude to have toward folks who helped you out.

What’s next? A show where charity recipients punch the donors in the gut?

Tom Byer’s Message: Condensed

Children can start learning to move with the soccer ball at their feet as soon as they can walk, or sooner.

It’s exactly what we do in the U.S. with baseball, basketball and to some extent, football.

Do you think most 10 year-old’s in the U.S. can throw a baseball to within inches of a target from distance because they suddenly gained coordination?

No, Dummy. It’s because they’ve been playing catch with stuff since before they could walk. It was the 8-9 years of repetition that built the coordination to do that.

Example of a sport in our culture:

Show a 4 year-old kid playing catch or 1v1 basketball with an adult. Some physician somewhere smiles and thinks, how great and healthy it is for that kid to bond with the adult and get some physical activity.

Example of a sport not in our culture:

Show the same 4 year-old playing 1v1 soccer takeaway with same adult. Same physician has concerned look and thinks, 4 is way too early for such sport-specific specialization, that could lead to injury, unrealistic expectations and burnout.