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.

Culture shifts the soccer talent bell curve to the right

In the previous post, I wrote about how Jimmy Conrad described on the 3Four3 podcast how he took the reigns to improve at soccer as a youth.

In my experience, only a tiny percentage of players take ownership of their game, until it’s too late.

As a coach, I experimented with lots ways to get kids to take ownership because I figured it would accelerate their progress over just showing up to practice.

But, I couldn’t find anything that stuck.

For example, I assigned simple homework hoping the players would see how that extra work improved their performance and spark motivation to do more.

They saw the improvement. But, it didn’t take long before they stopped. “Hey Johnny, are you keeping at your homework?”

“Nah, Coach. I’ve been playing for three years and things are just clicking for me, I don’t think the homework was helping.”

The beauty of a strong soccer culture is that it teaches kids the sport’s important skills without them ever knowing it. It does it while they are having fun and bonding with their friends and family.

Culture doesn’t need to convince kids about delayed gratification and working hard to improve. It teaches them while they are having fun and bonding with their friends and family.

It does this with simple activities, like monkey-in-the-middle and juggling, pickup soccer, and generational transfers of knowledge through all-ages activities.

The U.S. has this in baseball, basketball and soccer. We start learning to throw and catch a baseball very young. By age 10, most kids can do it well. We attribute that to improving coordination

But, pay close attention to a 10-year-old, or 30-year-old, who never played catch, and you might be convinced of the simple game’s uncanny ability to serve several purposes: have fun, bond and also shift the talent pool of baseball players to the right.