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.

Personal Preference Bias

The researchers of this study say that the kids picked last in gym class do not exercise as much as adults, possibly due to the emotional scars of being left out.

Maybe they were picked last in gym class because they, and their families, were not interested in physical activity and sports to begin with.

They experienced less volume of physical activity outside of gym class and hadn’t built as much competency as others who had been more active.

I’m guessing it’s that lack of interest for physical activity that carried into adulthood.

I doubt being more inclusive in gym class will change how active they are as adults.

I’m also guessing the emotional scars of being picked last aren’t as big as the researchers are making out. Most of us have experienced at some point.

If you are interested in the sport, that might be the feedback you need to work harder.

If you’re not interested, you tend not to care much.

Think that’s a stretch? Consider a a topic that doesn’t interest you, like the accordion.

Would you be scarred if you got last chair in accordion band? No.

Would you be more likely to play the accordion as an adult if you had been given a higher chair over someone who was better at the accordion than you?

Not likely. You’d see through the farce.

Folks are drawn to the accordion or not.

If you were forced to take an accordion class, you’d do the minimum to get through it.

The problem with studies like the gym class study above is that the researchers value physical activity, themselves, and they project their preference on everyone else.

I call that personal preference bias.

If you aren’t active, researchers assume it must be for some fixable reason.

Maybe you just don’t share their preferences.

Maybe the better answer is to let the kids who aren’t interested in gym do something else, if they’d like to.

Personal preference bias is common in public policy. Studies on education, for example, suffer from it and it clouds their judgement just like above.

The biggest problem in education isn’t schools or funding or teaching methods. Those things have long not been obstacles.

The biggest problem is some folks simply do not value education (or at least, one-size-fits-all, K-12 college prep + sports life education) as much as others do.

To them, school is like that accordion class that you don’t want to take. They just want to do the minimum to get through it and then get on with life.