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?


Jimmy Conrad on 3Four3 podcast

John Pranjic had a good conversation with Jimmy Conrad on this 3Four3 podcast.

One of my favorite parts was hearing Jimmy describe his journey on discovering how to get better at soccer and taking ownership of the game.

He went to the local school to hit the ball against the wall and practice juggling. He started off thinking he was pretty good, but the first day was humbling. He wasn’t nearly as good as he thought. He went home after 10 minutes because (emphasis added)… was easier to play video games, it was easier to live vicariously though that than to really go out there and test myself. BUT…in fairness to me, I went back there the next day and just fought through it.

And SLOWLY I started to get better.

And once you get a little taste of, ‘hey, wait a second, this game is becoming a little bit easier for me’ and I go out to practice with my own team and getting a little bit better than the better players and nobody knows why or how I’m doing it, man, it becomes a full blown drug.

So, all of sudden that 10 minutes turned into 15, 15 turned into a half hour, half hour to 45, to an hour to an hour and half. My Mom would have to come to the school to come bring me home.

And then you start thinking ‘okay, this is helping me on my game, where else can I get better at?’

So, I started to run a little bit more, started to lift weights, and you really start to [think] there’s no way anybody’s going to beat me, because I’m the only one holding me back.

Most kids don’t make it through to that discovery process. Their own brains won’t let them.

For example, kids think they are pretty good, like Jimmy did at first, and never get humbled by that humbling experience. Rather, they make excuses or don’t care.

My other favorite part of the podcast was when Jimmy discussed the importance of Tom Byer’s stuff:

I think the hidden thing with his [Tom Byer] thing…what I think is really important about the pullback and the stuff that he works on, these little movements, is the weight distribution, getting your body and your muscle memory very comfortable with shifting from left to right and right to left, and I don’t think that gets talked about enough, because that movement is really important in terms of how you play and how you create your balance, and how you can hold off an attacker’s skill or how you can cut on a dime and still accelerate out of that cut.

He’s putting all those things in place at a young age so you don’t even think about it anymore, your body already knows how to move and that is super important.

Yep. I think weight distribution is key to all technique in soccer. That’s what I was trying to say here about the importance being in the athletic position. I wish I would have used the term ‘weight distribution’ there.

Does the Mexican National Team subsidize MLS?

A recent Twitter thread explored why potential MLS team owners, like St. Louis FC, are willing to pay a $200 million franchise fee to get into the MLS.

A point made there was that a Ligue 1 side in France’s top soccer league just sold for $110 million, so how can an MLS side with no history be worth more?

Twitter users Ian Mailoux and Paul Cox laid out specifics of soccer market in the U.S. that I hadn’t considered before.

I was aware that MLS owners all each have a stake in SUM (Soccer United Marketing), which owns broadcast rights for MLS and US National Team matches.

But, I undervalued what that stake was worth.

I didn’t think MLS and national team match broadcast rights carried enough value to justify $200 million MLS franchise fees.

I considered these, plus MLS team revenue, to be a breakeven proposition for MLS owners, at best.

I assumed the owners were willing to pay high franchise fees, betting soccer would grow to NFL or MLB proportions in 10-20 years and then they could sell their teams for multiples of what they paid.

But, the folks above pointed out that SUM also owns the broadcasting rights to ANY soccer match played in the U.S., including Mexican National Team matches played here.

I’ve attendedĀ  MNT friendly and USMNT Gold Cup game in the same city. The MNT friendly drew more than double the USMNT, if that’s any indication to the what the difference in value in broadcast rights might be.

So, having broadcast rights to MNT in the US starts to increase the value of a stake in SUM above breakeven.

I imagine that a stake in SUM includes broadcasting rights for games of major tournaments played on US soil like the Gold Cup and the big one: 2026 World Cup.

Adding that to the valuation starts to make the exorbitant franchise fees look more reasonable.

This also sheds light on other recent actions taken by US Soccer.

I thought the single-focus pursuit to host the 2026 World Cup was mostly for the good intentions of bringing the game to the states to stoke interest in the sport.

Silly me. It makes more sense that the payout to SUM owners from the broadcast rights to those games was the prime motivator and why the MLS (/SUM buy-in) franchise fee is up to $200 million.

The franchise fees allows SUM/MLS to monetize some of that 2026 money now, to keep the lights on.

It also makes sense how US Soccer has snuffed out competing leagues and has gained tighter control of lower divisions, like the USL: so it can control the broadcast rights of those leagues.

Those probably aren’t worth much now, but why should SUM chance another league — that it doesn’t own broadcast rights to — getting a foothold on their monopoly?

Why can’t kids organize soccer pickup?

In a couple of recent 3Four3 podcasts, Pranjic and guests talked about the inability of American soccer kids to self-organize a pickup game.

I’ve experienced that myself.

They wrote it off as something to do with kids these days.

I don’t think so.

Why? Because, I’ve seen the same kids who couldn’t organize a soccer pickup, organize pickup baseball, football and basketball games.

Why could they organize pickup for these sports, but not for soccer?

I think one reason is because they have more experience playing these sports in informal settings with mixed ages and ability levels and have picked up on the subtle solves for getting the game going and keeping it going.

Most of their experience in soccer has been coach-led.

I think the other reason is that the kids haven’t yet developed the skills to make soccer more fun in anything other than an organized game of kicking the ball into space and running to it.

That game doesn’t translate to smaller areas and smaller numbers, like a 1v1, for example. I wrote more about that here.

Short answer: culture.

Why don’t Americans score goals in the MLS?

Top MLS goal scorers (as of 8/14/2019):

1. Carlos Vela, Mexico

2. Josef Martinez, Venezuela

3. Diego Rossi, Uraguay

4. Wayne Rooney, England

5. Kacper Przybylko, Poland

6. Kei Kamara, Sierra Leone

7. Felipe Guitierrez, Chile

8. Charles Gil, Spain

9. Alejandro Pozuelo, Spain

10. Mauro Manotos, Columbia

11. Saphir Taider, France/Algeria

12. Jozy Altidore, USA

Goal scoring is soccer’s top ball skill. Consistent scoring requires high-level ball mastery.

It’s “striking” to me that in the USA’s top soccer division (a league considered to be in the third tier of pro leagues around the world), that the top 11 goal scorers are not from the U.S. They are from countries with strong ‘ball-centric’ soccer cultures.

This is one result of the US “participation culture” in soccer, as I wrote about in the previous post, where ball mastery is treated as an afterthought.

The feedbacks for encouraging ball mastery in the participation culture are weak or negative and the ball mastery light bulb doesn’t turn on for too many players until it’s too late (usually about 10 years too late) to be able to catch up to the levels of mastery achieved by players from ball-centric cultures.

Why the U.S. Men’s National Team hasn’t improved in 30 years

This Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast has a good discussion about isolated technical training (i.e. ball mastery work) during soccer practice and what he heard while taking a pilot USSF’s pilot Director of Coaching course.

The podcast host, Mura, took the pilot course and says that part of the rationale presented in the coaching course to not do isolated technical training at soccer practice, in favor of more game play, was to make practice more fun to keep kids interested and playing longer.


Soccer cultures that produce world level talent are centered on mastering the ball from early ages. Mastering the ball takes a lot of practice, against opponents and on your own.

U.S. Soccer culture is centered on participation with ball mastery at early ages as an afterthought.

The last 30 years proves that participation doesn’t improve top level talent.

If kids don’t think ball work is fun, then we are attracting the wrong kids or we need to come up with more fun activities that get kids enjoying working with the ball.

If you look closely at ball-centric soccer cultures, you see they have these activities along with knowledge transfer among large age bands (e.g. pickup game with ages from 3 up to adult), encouragement to learn (e.g. the worst juggler gets picked last).

I’ve seen this firsthand here in the U.S.


I drove past a local park yesterday and saw construction crews pouring a concrete pad. I checked online to see what they were doing.

They are installing new pickleball courts.

A couple stories down the webpage, they had news another new project, installing a soccer goal in a park, that they proudly stated was made from scratch by one of their employees to save money.

LOL…For pickeball they build brand new stuff. For soccer, they put a random, homemade goal in a field to save money.