Good discussion about true competition on the 3Four3 podcast

Guest Ben Fast and host John Pranjic have a great discussion about the nature true competition that is lacking in soccer in the U.S. and the role of governance in this 3Four3 podcast.

It would make Austrian and George Mason University economists proud.

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Yes. Free Play Soccer.

I enjoyed this 3Four3 podcast with Ted Kroeten.

He talks about what he has discovered with free play and soccer for kids, through his Joy of the People, that organizes free play with kids.

Here are some quotables from the pod:

“Play early, learn late.” Sums up that young kids learn more playing with each other than having coaches direct them.

In terms of learning the sport: “The best soccer is closest to home. Playing in your basement is better than your backyard. Play in your backyard is better than your local park. Play in your local park is better than your local club. Play your local club is better than a travel team.”

“I cannot teach better than free play can deliver at the young ages.”

“Some of the things we discovered from free play. Feedback is inappropriate. Feedback between kids on the field is totally appropriate. Feedback from coaches is not. Telling kids to work on things, their weaknesses, is not appropriate. Letting kids understand what they can and cannot do from each other is totally appropriate.

While listening to this last quote, I thought back to the times where I could have been quiet. What kept me from being quiet? Parents expected me to coach, not be quiet. There were games where I was quiet and it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear that I wasn’t coaching.

Ted has thought about free play deeply and sees the complexities of the learning, copying from each other, and subtle forms for feedback that simply can’t be replicated in team practice.

In one spot he mentioned how a kid might learn that if he doesn’t pass to a player, then that player may not put in as much effort on defense later.

Or, when he was left behind on his local hockey team when his buddies moved to a travel team and he selfishly taught the others how to play better hockey so he could have some challenging competition.

The host, John Pranjic, recalled a time at a similar free play experiment that 3Four3 ran where the kids couldn’t solve the simplest things like picking teams or setting out cones because they were so used to adults doing all that for them.

I’ve had similar experiences coaching soccer. I recall a time warming up before a game when we told the players to get into 4v1’s. In one group, every kid had a ball. In another group, nobody had a ball.

Neither group was making any headway to get to one ball.

All stood waiting for us to tell them what to do. The other coach said, “Guys, if we have to tell you how to get one ball per group, we’re in trouble. Solve the problem!”

It wasn’t that these kids couldn’t solve such problems. They just didn’t have the free play experience in soccer and we’re use to doing what adults told them.

Around the same time, I watched these same kids organize free play in baseball, basketball and football. They could pick balanced teams, set up the field or court, and make other equalizing adjustments that selfishly kept everyone playing longer without any adult intervention, all learned from free play in those sports.

“Coaches are overrated”

The following is from a recent 3Four3 podcast with guest Mike Woitalla of Soccer America.

Here Mike discusses an observation from working with kids in a Soccer Without Borders program, which helps children of immigrants to the U.S. participate in soccer (from about the 30th minute).

What I really enjoy about these Soccer Without Borders kids is that their skill level is incredible. They’re from all over the world. A lot of them are from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, a lot of them came from Central American countries.

And very few of them were ever coached and their skill level was just absolutely incredible, simply from playing, which kind of confirmed what my belief has always been, that coaches are overrated when it comes to the technical part of soccer. Brilliant soccer comes from kids playing and exploring on their own terms.

I agree.

This is Tom Byer’s point of what culture, and only culture, can do.

But, what we consider to be incredible technical skill is as normal for folks from soccer cultures as throwing and catching baseballs and shooting hoops is to us.

I made this point to a fellow coach and friend. He played HS basketball.

We were coaching a group of soccer players who did nothing with the ball on their own outside of practice, making progress on basics, like receiving the ball, very slow.

I said to him, “Basketball coaches have it much easier.”

He asked, “How so?”

I responded, “Did your basketball coach have to take up so much time in practice working on basics like this?”

He thought about it for a bit.

“No. I learned on the driveway with my brothers. I had the basics before I joined the team. The coach just ran our asses off to get us in game shape and taught us X’s and O’s. If we didn’t know how to play, we wouldn’t have made the team. He wasn’t there to develop our individual skills. That was on us.”

I could see the veil lift and he asked, “What are we doing?”

After that, he texted me photos of kids he saw playing soccer on their own near where he worked, in a part of town that brought soccer culture from other countries.

He saw several groups of kids playing daily and it was a constant reminder of why our players struggled to complete more than a handful of passes in a game.

Winning matters

This tweet from Gary Kleiban got me thinking about winning…

While most people in the thread after that focus on the importance of winning and how to balance player development with that, I was more interested in this part (emphasis added):

…if one wants to develop competitors (in game and in life).

Is a winning drive developed or innate?

I think it’s mostly innate.

Coaches build teams with a competitive drive primarily by selecting players that already have that drive already and then using that to their advantage.

This is the same in education with efforts to measure and reward teacher quality. Teachers that do best on these measures tend to fall into two categories:

  1. Those who game the system to get the students best-suited to help the teacher achieve the quality measure in their classrooms.
  2. Those who happen to get a classroom full of the best suited set of kids for the quality measure randomly.

Like #1, winning coaches become good at recruiting players with a competitive drive and desire to win. These players also tend to put in the most effort off the field to get better.

Not to say that good coaches won’t help these kids get even better. But, probably not as much of it has to do with the coach as we all think.

A-students tend to be A-students no matter who their teachers are. Same goes with B, C, D and F students.

I encourage coaches who think they can develop the winning mindset to take over their club’s lower level teams.

I generally see coaches who try to keep their reputation up, keep a safe distance from these teams. Or, if they do need to take over those teams they will bring seed the team with a few of their higher level players to help the results.

That being said, I think coaches can help players learn how to process wins and losses, while having winning as the objective.

More to come on that.

Why U.S. Soccer is hypocritical for de-sanctioning NASL’s Division II status

U.S. Soccer de-sanctioned NASL’s Division II status because the NASL wasn’t in compliance with U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Standards of minimum number of teams and minimum number of seats in the stadiums, among other things.

I wonder when FIFA will de-sanction U.S. Soccer since it doesn’t comply with FIFA standards of promotion/relegation, training compensation and solidarity payments, among other things?

An unintended consequence of US Soccer’s Professional League Standards

U.S. Soccer’s PLS (Professional League Standards) sound good when you first hear about it, but as you learn more you see how it they can actually hold the game back.

The US Soccer Federation instituted the PLS in 2010 for good sounding reasons like protecting the safety of fans, preserving the experience of the game (e.g. field size requirements), to help make sure the teams are well financed to protect pro players from not getting paid and providing markets stable teams.

Some things the PLS dictates are the minimum number of teams a league can have, the population size of the area where the teams play and the minimum number of seats needed in stadiums.

I’d like to illustrate one negative unintended consequence of these standards.

The Kansas City market has a Division 1 (MLS) and Division 2 (USL) soccer, both operated by Sporting KC/MLS.

The Division 2, USL team, Swope Park Rangers, used to play their home games in an easily accessible, small, quaint venue with 2,000-3,000 seating capacity.

This field sits in a complex where youth teams play and has hosted Kansas City’s former NWSL team, college championships, the DA championships last summer, as well as USL’s Swope Park Rangers (see below).

Swope FieldIt was a nice, convenient alternative to Sporting KC. Low key, easy to get to and made for a nice relaxing, and inexpensive evening of soccer.

I coached on other fields at the youth complex while Swope Park Rangers and NWSL games were going on and encouraged players to go watch after our game.

I saw youth and their parents walk across the street and pay the $5 so sit on the grass berm to enjoy and learn from high-quality soccer being played on this field.

But, that venue did not have the minimum number of seat required in the PLS for a Division II team, so mid-season last year, the Swope Park Rangers moved their home games to Sporting KC’s home field to satisfy the requirement.

That quaint, small soccer atmosphere now looks like this:

IMG-4521

The empty, cavernous feel makes you a little sad for the players and fans.

You can dictate the number of seats a stadium can have, but you can’t dictate that they be filled with fans.

Swope Park Rangers were better off at their previous field as was the Kansas City soccer community, for having this convenient alternative.

Sporting KC fills the above stadium for its games and Swope Park Rangers used to draw a pretty good crowd to make for a nice atmosphere at its previous venue.

They also lack the convenient draw of the youth players in the same complex.

In my opinion, if US Soccer wants to grow the game, it needs to stop doing dumb stuff like this.

Three Rules for Business Success

In 2017, I wrote my Business Rule #1.

Here’s a more complete list.

#1: Have what customers want.

#2: Have it where they want it.

#3: Have it when they want it.

They sound simple. Most laugh when they hear them.

But, businesses too often violate these rules.

Sometimes they violate these rules because they miscalculated.

Coke’s New Coke disaster is an example of that. A key mistake Coke managers made was to assume the results of blind taste tests represented how customers would behave in the real world. One difference, for example, was that while a sweeter drink fared better without food, lots of folks  preferred original Coke with food.

Sometimes it’s a conscious trade-off.

The chef in the linked post closes the kitchen in her restaurant when the last person who’d like to eat there finishes ordering. Most other restaurants, however, make the conscious trade-off to close the kitchen at a set time every night, because keeping it open later doesn’t pay off.

Sometimes they simply don’t understand what their customers want. There’s a shocking number of folks in business in this camp.

In the early 2000s, Walmart became so singularly focused on low prices — what they thought their customers wanted — that they let the client experience slip. Stores got sloppy and checkout lines were long as they tightly managed their cashier labor.

Even price sensitive customers, like myself, got turned off and discovered that you ‘get what you pay for.’ I found myself frequenting Target more. The prices were higher, but the stores were well kept and the checkout lines were short.

It turns out that while price matters, so does convenience and experience.

To Walmart’s credit, they noticed and responded by investing in client experience by cleaning up their stores and shortening the checkout lines, just as they are now responding to the new conveniences innovated by Amazon.

The best businesses over the long haul tend to do the best job at developing a deep understanding of these simple rules.