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.


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