The importance of the ‘paradise on top of the mountain’ in igniting interest in soccer, or anything

I’m reading Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

In it, Coyle reinforces a key ingredient that I think is missing in soccer in the U.S.: cues that ignite an interest in the sport and guide long-term development toward mastery in youth, or as Coyle describes: “a paradise at the top of the mountain.”

Coyle illustrates the point with a few talent hotbeds. He writes about KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools and how KIPP teachers use making it to college to ignite interest in being good students and guide their long-term development, and how that starts in the first minutes a child is in the program:

If we had to classify the primal cues the KIPP students received in those first few minutes, they would fall into three categories.

  1. You belong to a group.
  2. Your group is together in a strange and dangerous new world.
  3. That new world is shaped like a mountain, with the paradise of college at the top.

These three signals might seem unique. But in fact they’re identical to the primal cues that any young Brazilian soccer players or Russian tennis players might receive, if you replaced the word college with the words being Ronaldinho/Kournikova.

I think there’s more than wanting to be like Ronaldinho, or now Neymar (the book was published in 2009) or Gabriel Jesus. Those top level successes serve as one level of inspiration.

But, young soccer players in Brazil have closer-to-home role models that they aspire to be like, as well: their older siblings and neighbors and the local club’s first team who are all pretty good.

They are more likely to interact with these role models than their counterparts in the U.S.

First, there’s more free play where kids of all ages play together and younger kids learn from older ones.

Contrast that to the U.S. where free play in soccer is almost nonexistent, so that first level of ignition from the older to younger kids doesn’t take place.

Second, in the soccer clubs, the older kids might serve as the younger kids’ coaches. The young kids get to know them and want to watch their first or second team games on the weekends, which further motivates them to want to play like their older heroes, so they, too, someday can make the club’s first team.

Since, school sports aren’t a thing in Brazil like they are in the U.S., these first teamers don’t disappear from the club for half the year to play with their school team, with strict rules to keep them from playing with their club during that time. So, they are there more often to build those relationships with the younger players.

And, this is important. If you’re an 8 year-old and your team is winning, it’s easy to think you are doing well and don’t have anything to work on. You no vision of what to work toward.

But, if you’re an 8 yo, and winning games, but still not playing like your team’s 16 yo assistant coach, then you feel like you have something to work toward because you know that is what it will take to make it to the first team some day. You have a vision of what to work toward.

Contrast this with the U.S. where club soccer kids are separated in age and skill levels, and rarely get to interact with older players. They’re coached by adults. So, these youth don’t get to know the club’s teenage players or the local high school’s players.

Because of this, it’s rare for the second level of ignition to take place, within the club, where younger players want to work toward being like players who are just a few years older than them.

In other words, soccer players in the U.S. rarely get a glimpse of the the right “mountain with paradise at the top,” when it comes to soccer.

So, they are more like the 8 yo’s winning games and not having a long-term vision of what they should be working toward. They think, “We’re winning. We must be doing something right.”

Co-ops and employee-ownership

These two forms of business organization are interesting since they align two of the three main stakeholders of organizations.

REI Co-op is a retail co-op that sells outdoor recreation equipment. I am a co-op “member”. I paid a $20 one time fee for the honor.

I receive my dividend each year in the form of product discounts that add up to 10% on what I spent the previous year.

The co-op aligns the interests of the customer and owner, because they are the same people. Customers want good quality products and services and good prices.

As owners, though, we also want the co-op to stay in business so we can keep buying good stuff, so we don’t want prices to be too cheap, or else the quality we desire as a customer may be sacrificed.

Because of this co-op customers may more aware that reasonable prices (rather than rock-bottom prices) serve their interests than customers of other types of organizations.

Credit unions are similar. They are essentially banks owned by the bank’s customers.

One of my parents worked for an employee-owned company.

Employee ownership aligns the interests of the employees and owners, because they are the same people.

The employees want to be paid well and also want the product quality and prices to be reasonable so the business will continue to do well.

Employee-owners may be a bit more aware of where their paychecks come from than employees of other types of organizations.

I wonder why these types of business organizations aren’t more common.

What if the union bought GM? Instead of having to bargain with management about compensation, they could pay themselves what they want.

Or, how about a streaming service owned by it’s members? What would that look like? Could that compete with Netflix?

“Vested interests are universal”

Every once in a while, we experience moments of clarity. I experienced one while listening to this EconTalk podcast.

In it, Terry Moe discusses the special case where the power of vested interests in the New Orleans school district was wiped out after Hurricane Katrina and the effects that had on the re-emergence of the public school system there. It was a very interesting episode and well worth a listen.

The moment of clarity is here, with Moe speaking:

Let me just take a step back and say: Vested interests are universal. Every institution in every policy area generates vested interests. And these are interests of people who get the services of those institutions but also who get the jobs that those institutions generate or the business contracts that those institutions generate. And, this is true in agriculture; it’s true in defense; it’s true in the environment–you name it. And it’s not just true in this country: it’s true in every country; and it’s been true throughout time. This is a universal thing. All institutions generate vested interests, and those vested interests have a stake in protecting their institutions from change because those institutions are the source of their benefits. And in many cases, those benefits, like jobs and profits, have absolutely nothing to do with whether the institutions are performing well.

And so these vested interests, which have a stake in investing in political power, will use their political power in order to stop reforms even when the institutions are performing very badly. And that is the problem that all societies face, and that our society faces, in trying to have a healthy democracy in which our institutions actually work. When we have institutions that are failing, the vested interests will still protect them and make it virtually impossible for us to reform them.

This is true in state, federal and local government, U.S. Soccer, business, non-profits, school districts, universities, unions, tenure and so on.

All these things can be good.

But, a question rarely asked is what happens when they aren’t performing well?

What brings about change that might improve performance?

Do those changes threaten vested interests benefiting from the current system?

In my opinion, competition is a more preferable option to limiting the power of vested interests than natural disasters. It acts is the same manner on vested interests without all the collateral death and destruction.

A balance in how people think problems should be solved

One thing I wonder about is why there seems to be close to even balance between folks who think the way to solve problems is from the top down and those who think bottom up problem solving is better.

For a deeper source on these two visions, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s book, “A Conflict of Visions.”

Those with the top down vision will tend to think that the way to solve global warming is with governments enforcing standards on us, which is top down.

Those with the bottom up vision will tend to think that innovative solutions from people tinkering in their garage might be a better way to attack the problem.

Or education, those with the top down vision will support having one standard for education ‘that works’ and just implementing that.

Those with the bottom up vision think that one standard is elusive and impractical, because few things are ‘one size fits all’ and will tend to support more local approaches to education.

Or, even in soccer. Those with the top down vision think that improving soccer in a country is a matter of the country’s soccer federation doing the right things.

Those with bottom up vision believe the answer is more in the grassroots and incentives to encourage folks other than the federation to solve soccer’s problems.

I have not seen a good explanation for why there’s close a 50/50 split in this thinking. Is there a good explanation?

Living in a Crowded Bubble

Last night at the grocery store I found myself experiencing what I call crowded bubble phenomenon.

The store was pretty empty, except wherever I happened to be. No matter where I was, someone would pop out of nowhere to obstruct my path, get in front of what I was looking at or compete for a last item on the shelf.

This happens on occasion. Sometimes while shopping, while driving or at a restaurant. Sometime while buying things online. It seems that it often happens that whenever I get the urge to buy something, lots of others do at the same time.

While driving, it manifests in several ways. Sometimes a slow driver is in front of me, going 10 mph below the speed limit. As they turn off I think I have a clear run ahead, another driver pulls out in front of me with the same 10 mph below speed limit.

I look around and there is nobody for a half a mile behind us or ahead of us.

Or, as I’m driving on a highway, at nearly every on ramp someone is merging in at just the right placement to cause me to have to change lanes or slow down. Usually, though, just as the merging car is getting up to speed, another car in the left lane pops out of nowhere to keep me from moving over.

It happens enough that even passengers notice and comment on it.

In restaurants, my family refers to this as ‘my fans,’ as in, ‘it looks like your fans have arrived.’ More often than not, they usually arrive after me, rather than before me, so that does seem like a bit of good luck.

We often get to a restaurant just as there is a small wait for a table, and within a minute or two, the restaurant gets slammed.

It might make sense if we often go to restaurants on the front side of normal dining hours. But, these instances really stand out when it happens outside of normal dining hours.

Just last week, I went to a BBQ restaurant to grab some food for a family gathering at about two in the afternoon. It was empty when I arrived, but within in five minutes it was jammed packed. I had to laugh.

Now, all of this could just be cases of confirmation bias. That is, I notice and put more weight on the times when these happen and don’t put as much weight on when they don’t. And, I will admit there are times when they don’t happen.

But, I really start to wonder when folks who aren’t with me all the time notice, as well.

US soccer youth need role models

Here’s another good Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast.

In part of it, host Mura and his guest discussed coaching teams of different ages. Mura said he has coached U9 and U17 girls teams at the same time and felt it was beneficial for both ages.

In this post, I proposed that a key missing ingredient in US youth soccer was the lack of a immediate role models for younger players to aspire to.

Our structure prevents it, while the club structure in other countries fosters it.

There the club’s first team is the equivalent of our high school/local college team. But there are couple huge differences.

There, the 1st teamers don’t disappear for half the year during a high school season. They are always at the club for the younger kids to see and build relationships with.

There, the 1st and 2nd teamers coach the young ones to keep costs down. So, the young kids get to know some of the 1st teamers and want to watch them play and emulate them.

There, the clubs also tend to have their own grounds, so it’s common for players of all ages to get to know each other and for mixed age play to occur. Here, most clubs get space wherever they can and it often means that club members don’t ever see each other or get to know each other because they practice at different places.

U.S. youth have nothing like this on a systematic basis. It may happen by accident in some clubs, like Mura’s, but it’s not the norm.

I think this helps the younger kids work on their long-term development so they can someday play like their role models someday.

Since kids in the U.S. don’t have these role models, they are content to be the best on their team at something and aren’t interested working toward being able to play like a role model someday.

I heard Mura echo some of this in the podcast and say we need more mixing of the age groups. He said the younger girls looked up to the older girls and wanted to play like them.

He mentioned another dynamic I hadn’t thought about. He said it was beneficial for the older girls, too. They adopted the younger girls like they were little sisters and they enjoyed encouraging and helping them out.

That made me think it might help a 17 year-old to see younger kids to see how far they have come. People tend to forget that development is a years long process and they seem to think that how good they are now is how good they have always been.

Preventing injuries in soccer

The last Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast with health care professional from the HSS Sports Safety Program about sports injuries is worth a listen.

It’s the first I’ve heard anyone support my pet theory that sports injuries are caused more by improper body positioning than overuse. The HSS program offers a free 10-15 minute online course (at the link above) to teach proper technique for accelerating, decelerating and changing direction.

I’m going to check it out.

I explained my pet theory last year in my post, The case for juggling.

It’s all about forces. When your body is in proper position, game forces are spread across the body evenly. I think proper position is shoulders, hips, knees and toes are contained within a rectangle.

Reaching outside of that rectangle results in concentrating game forces into smaller areas of the body and are more likely to results in breaks or tears in muscle tissue. That might be someone reaching out with their foot to make a tackle and concentrating all the force from the ball and player behind the ball into the ACL, for example.

It just so happens same position is also most effective for executing soccer’s skills.

You will win more tackles if you aren’t reaching because you will have your body weight on your side.

Staying in that position improves everything — dribbling, passing, receiving and even defending.

That’s one reason why training proper technique on soccer skills is important. It not only makes for better players that can make it to higher levels, but it also reduces the chance of injury.

I also think that the perceived ‘rise in sports injuries,’ (if there is one), is more due to having more teenagers in the sport who don’t know proper ball technique. Bad technique + the weight and strength of teenagers = damage.

The podcast host offered another theory to explain the purported rise in sports injuries: kids not getting a lot of free physical play time as kids, and never learning the motor skills to keep them in proper position.

Anyway…I enjoyed that Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast and I recommend it.