Improve the bottom to improve the top

In his book, Soccer Starts at Home, Tom Byer challenges conventional wisdom/intuition about sports development.

His biggest challenge is to the belief that soccer skills are too advanced for young children to work on. Conventional wisdom holds that these skills come later, after age 8.

Tom thinks (and has shown with his own kids and pointing out kids from soccer cultures) they can and do start to develop as early as the child can walk, with the right activities.

I’ve seen soccer folks agree with Byer on that point, but disagree with him on another key point he makes:

To improve the top level of talent we have to improve the bottom level.

They believe the U.S. has plenty of top talent, so they think the key to moving forward is a matter of devoting more resources to that top tier to make them even better.

It’s easy to make this mistake. The top-talent seems to be there. They are really good.

But, still something seems to be missing in that top talent compared to talent from richer soccer playing cultures.

What’s missing? Tom Byer gives us the answer to that one, too. This is from his book:

“The best way to make the ‘elite’ player better is by raising the level of the lower-level players. They in turn will push the elite players to become better. Imagine you have a team of 20 8-year-old players. Three of the 20 are very skillful and the other 17 are not. Those three good players know they will most likely play every minute of every game and in their preferred position, even if they goof off or miss practice. So there is often a complacency with the best players who invariably are not pushed into making themselves better. But imagine if all 20 of those players have a similar technical ability. The competition then becomes much more fierce; they will fight to retain their position on the team and work harder to become better players.”

I’ve written about this before here, about an agent who places American players into European clubs. He says a key difference he sees between U.S. and European youth soccer players is the sense of where they are headed.

He said the American youth are happy to be best on their current team and there isn’t a competitive atmosphere to inspire improvement. The comes through as relative laziness in practice and games.

The European youth are working toward making their club’s first team someday and there’s a much more spirited competitive atmosphere to demonstrate they are heading that way. They’re competing for spots against other players who are just as good as they are, which motivates them to work harder on their own, in practice and games.

I’ll vouch for what he sees on the American side of things. I’ve seen it first hand and from interactions with other coaches, it’s common.

So, what does this mean?

Take Byer’s advice. We currently introduce kids to soccer through organized activities and expect clubs to teach them the skills they need to succeed.

He thinks that’s backwards. The kids should have those skills first, before joining organized soccer.

I think this is more like how we know other sports work. Kids typically know how to throw, catch and hit before joining a competitive baseball team.

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