The function of soccer culture

In each episode of John Pranjic’s 3Four3 soccer podcast he plugs 3Four3’s coaching training program.

One of his best selling-points for their coaching program is that helps coaches get past the “trial-and-error discovery phase” of figuring out what activities work and getting right to activities and coaching points that will make a difference in the players and team.

While writing the previous two posts, it dawned on me that soccer culture serves the same function for individual players.

Becoming a competent player from scratch has two has two general periods:

A. 2-5 year period of trial-and-error of learning about soccer and what’s important. This phase is filled with dead-ends, traps and road blocks. One example is simply underestimating the importance of ball skills.

B. 3-5 year period of developing competency on basic skills like first touch, dribbling and passing.

Soccer culture is a shortcut past the first period, because the culture has already discovered what’s important and made it possible to achieve that with activities that develop the basics in fun, unorganized activities with nobody noticing.

In baseball culture, we know one such activity as “catch”. Examples in basketball are 1-on-1, OUT and 21.

Soccer culture activities include juggling, monkey-in-the-middle and 1v1 to 3v3.

In addition to being played in unorganized settings, it’s with people ranging in age and ability, which enables knowledge transfer between generations and ability levels that doesn’t occur in organized settings sliced by age and ability levels.

In the U.S. soccer culture, it’s typical for kids to learn how to self-organize and enjoy playing a game of monkey-in-the-middle (which develops about 60% of the basic skills useful in soccer) in their teens.

In stronger soccer cultures, kids learn to play this on their own and have fun as early as age 5. And they play it a lot.

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High School soccer stunts passing of soccer culture to the next generation

This is a continuation of my previous post on how high school soccer hurts soccer culture in U.S.

I have nothing against high school soccer. It’s just that an outcome is that hurts, rather than helps, making connections between younger and older players.

Those connections are vital to help pass on soccer culture.

Clubs in soccer playing countries foster these connections since high school age players play for the club’s senior teams, practice on the same grounds and coach younger players (which also helps keep costs down).

Kids in these clubs want to watch their coaches play on the weekend and play like them. While their current results matter, they also want to become like their coaches.

Younger players in the U.S. don’t have this extended view benchmark of where they want to go. They just have current results.

This hit home when one of my players ran into the local pro indoor team practicing at a field that we often practiced on, by accident. We moved practice that day, but that player’s Dad didn’t get the email.

We had attended some of their games to help spark an interest among kids, so he knew of them and was surprised and excited to to see a pro team practicing there.

His Dad introduced him to the GK, the GK gave him his gloves and he became that kid’s hero. His Dad bought season tickets and took every chance to see the GK again at fan events and training camps the team offered.

That player was one of the 4 players who regularly played GK on my team. They were all about the same level of ability and were content with that.

Over the next year, that player excelled. His “goalposts” had moved from being good enough on our team to playing like his hero and that made all the difference.

I recall the first game where he made a diving save and how much he looked like his favorite goalkeeper while he was doing it.

Of all the players I took to HS, college and pro matches hoping to spark an interest in how the game is played at higher levels, that was the one success story that that I know of.

The rest of the kids complained about how boring it was.

The difference was the connection that kid had made by accident. Knowing someone on the field made it a whole more interesting to him.

Imagine if all the kids could make that kind of connection.

Consider how far it sets us back that our system doesn’t foster such connections, while countries with strong soccer cultures do.

How school soccer hurts soccer culture in the U.S.

This 3Four3 podcast with Jordan Ferrell as guest is a good listen with some key reasons why soccer languishes in the U.S.

One of those reasons is found just past the 38 minute mark and comes just after host, John Pranjic, describes his visit to a sports club in Europe where sports fields surround an athletic club where parents can do spin classes, lift weights or play basketball while or grab a bite or drink at the club’s restaurant while their kids are at soccer training.

Pranjic says:

It felt like a community. It felt like those people had ownership in the club. That’s something we could replicate in the United States, and nobody’s doing it.

Ferrell adds on (emphasis mine):

honestly, we’ve just moved the sport club into the academic world and that’s killed it because once you finish from an institution, you’re an alum, and alum move in different places and the ones from the community who aren’t alum aren’t as invested.

I described how the fragmentation of school sports hurts the soccer culture in the U.S. in this post. Here’s a snippet:

In the Netherlands, the youth teams in their clubs play on Saturdays and the adult teams play on Sundays. The youth players often attend the adult games. They know the adults because they practice near them and are coached by them, so they want to see how they do.

In the U.S., clubs and school sports fragments this experience. Eight-year-old’s in the U.S. aren’t coached by 15-year-old’s who play for the high school team and they aren’t interested in watching the high school games to be like them someday, because they don’t know them.

In the U.S., the players’ bubble is their individual team, or maybe the club’s top team at their age level, not a senior team.

So, high achievers are content with being ‘best on their team’ and not having a good role model to demonstrate what a complete player looks like.

I’d add that in the Netherlands the player’s bubble is the adult senior team. Rather than being content to beat players of their own age, they set their sites on how players on the senior teams play.

More in the next post…

Winning doesn’t mean much if you aren’t any good…

…and a big problem with soccer in the U.S. is that there are many ways to win without being any good.

That’s true from top to bottom.

The MLS limits the number of good players on a team to even out the competition. It thinks close games attracts more fans.

Youth are separated into age and like skill groups where they can feel successful. The thinking is that winning keeps more kids interested longer.

The downside is that too many people win without being any good. That doesn’t help them get better because it isn’t clear that they need to get better.

Imagine watching a basketball game where players dribble the ball high and away from their body and turn the ball over frequently. Most of the passes they make get intercepted, and they can’t catch a pass. Players with the ball dribble past them easily.

This is what soccer in the U.S. looks like to me: too many players don’t even have the basics. I think a reason is that there’s a lot of winning and incentive to learn the basics.

The point of sports should be to win. But, it should be about winning by being good, not by watering down the competition.

One small example of this is juggling. Players and coaches alike have pleaded their case to me that practicing juggling is unnecessary. “It’s just for show,” they say, because you don’t use it in a game. “Work on the stuff that you actually use,” they say.

It is true that you don’t need to practice juggling, if you only play against others who also don’t know how to juggle.

But, when a juggler and non-juggler go into a 1v1 or 50/50, I’ll put my money on the juggler coming away with the ball.