Youth soccer in the U.S. is a Rube Goldberg machine

Near the end of this episode of John Pranjic’s 3Four3 podcast, he and guest Joey Cascio discuss how soccer in the U.S. is designed to be noncompetitive.

For example, when there’s a U6 team beating all other teams by 6 or 7 goals, the first thought is to split that team up to balance them out, rather than looking for ways to move that team up to challenge them more.

This reminds me of when I moved from coaching rec to club soccer, I was surprised with the complexity and bureaucracy involved with getting kids playing a game.

My naive self thought it should be as simple as it is to get kids playing rec or indoor soccer: Sign waiver, Pay for your spot, Play.

It’s not that easy.

Try-outs happen one week a year, dictated by the state association. Kids and parents are expected to make a 1-year commitment to a club during that one week period, which puts a lot of pressure on players and coaches during that condensed period of musical chairs — and sometimes the best decisions aren’t made.

There’s lots of paperwork — waivers, birth certificates, photo ID player cards, club rules, guest player forms, rosters, travel permits, secondary roster permission forms and facility insurance forms.

There’s player check-ins and roster checks before games and tournaments.

Distinctions between skill and ability levels are confusing. What level do you play? A/B/C; 1/2/3? Is 1 good, or 3? Premier? Elite? Gold/Silver/Bronze? Red/White/Blue?

Some of this bureaucratic overhead is meant to help keep competition balanced (e.g. keeping teams from using ringers to get wins), as mentioned on the 3Four3 podcast, thinking that will keep kids and parents interested longer.

But, to me, youth soccer looks like a Rube Goldberg machine: an overly complex device made to do a simple task — getting kids — many who don’t even have the basics — playing a game.

It seems like there’s massive opportunity for improvement.

Getting over the hump holding most kids back from getting better at soccer and the role of culture

In the previous post, I wrote about how Jimmy Conrad took the reigns to improve at soccer.

He got over the hump of doing the minimum and hoping things would click.

When I coached, I experimented with ways to get kid over that hump.

I figured if the kids do the minimum, progress will be slow. If they gain an interest in learning the sport on their own, it can speed progress 5-10 times.

I couldn’t find anything that had a lasting effect.

One example: I assigned homework hoping kids would see how that extra work would improve their game performance and motivate them to do more.

They saw the improvement. But, it didn’t take long for them to credit their improvement to other factors, “It wasn’t the homework. I’ve been playing for 3 years. I think things are just finally clicking for me.”

In my experience, it seems like a small percentage of folks like Jimmy figures it out on their own, while most don’t.

Maybe that’s true for most things and part of the reason there’s a normal distribution (bell curve) of talent.

Maybe the beauty of a strong culture is that it doesn’t rely on kids having self drive like Conrad.

A culture overcomes this with activities kids think are fun and elements that keep the kids doing those activities.

Culture succeeds by getting more kids, not just the self-driven ones, doing things that improve their ability, which shifts the whole bell curve over.

I also encouraged the players to play monkey-in-the-middle when they got together outside of practice. This basic activity is a common feature in soccer cultures that teaches 1st touch, passing, communication and defending, like how playing “catch” in our culture teaches kids to catch and throw a baseball with high precision.

What I found is that you can’t simply transplant the activity without the rest of the culture that has elements that help overcome barriers to playing the game.

The boys couldn’t keep the game going on their own.

Inevitably, there would be one player who would end up in the middle too often and sabotage the game for everyone by doing stuff like kicking the ball away.

The boys tried to solve the problem by telling those kids to go home and work on passing, which made things worse.

The boys also knew who the bad passers were, so they would try even harder when the ball went to them, because they knew that was their easy ticket out of the middle.

How does culture solve this problem?

It finds ways to involve everyone of varying abilities to make it fun for everyone.

I once watched these same boys organize a game of pickup baseball.

Rather than telling the weaker baseball players to go home and learn to play, they evened out the teams and took it a little easier on the weaker players (fielding a hit slowly giving them a chance to make it to base), to make it fun for them. They also coached those players, even if they were on the opposing team, on what to do to help them improve.

Why couldn’t these same boys make do this with monkey-in-the-middle?

I think it’s because they hadn’t learned soccer through culture (backyard play with friends and family).

They had learned it through adult-led activities where the adults did all the balancing, often without the kids knowledge.

So, instead of telling the bad passer to work on his passing, maybe the could have lightened up the pressure on him when he had the ball and gave him some tips on how to trap the ball and where to pass to.

Maybe they could say that he gets 3 turnovers before he goes to the middle and when he’s in the middle, maybe they could have taken turns on making a weaker pass after a few good passes that he could intercept.

I always imagined how much better those kids could have been if they spent two hours a week playing monkey-in-the-middle on their own. What if, after learning how to do that, they spread it at recess at school so others could learn, too?