Soccer culture in the U.S. lacks informal and fun skill-building games

In the 80s movie The Karate Kid, Danielsan thought he was doing chores for Mr. Miyagi in exchange for training.

He didn’t realize the chores were part of the training.

While waxing Miyagi’s cars, sanding his floors and painting his fence and house, Daniel accumulated thousands of reps on the foundation moves of Miyagi’s defensive style of martial arts.

This culminated in one of that movie’s most memorable scenes, “Wax On Wax Off.”

In it, Daniel complains about busting his hump for four days on these chores and wants to know when the training will start.

Miyagi responds, “Not everything is at it seems.”

He then demonstrates that the chores were the first part of the training by showing Daniel he has the basic moves to build from.

While the movie is fiction, the Miyagi learning approach is true to life.

Sports that become part of a culture spawn simple, complementary activities and mini-games that also become part of the culture.

These games/activities seem to be meant for fun. But, as Mr. Miyagi says, “Not everything is as it seems.”

Like Miyagi’s chores, these games also build reps in skills useful for the sport. They also spread these skills to a wide base.

Examples of such games in the U.S. are playing catch, “21”, OUT and HORSE. These are fun and help improve basic competencies in the three main sports in the U.S.: baseball, basketball and football.

Ten year-old’s in the U.S. that can’t catch a baseball or make a basket are the exception, not the rule.

Unlike Mr. Miyagi’s chores, these games are fun. Instead of  being assigned by a coach, kids play and discover them on their own.

Kids are also motivated to learn them so they maintain street cred with their friends and family.

The odd part is that so few truly appreciate how much these games contribute to the overall talent level in sport.

They give too much credit for organized sports, ‘x-factor’ athletes or great coaches and totally miss the much more important contribution of unorganized play.

A key problem holding soccer in the U.S. back is that these simple, fun and self-directed soccer activities are not a part of our soccer culture, yet.

These are some of the simple “playing catch”-like soccer activities that kids in soccer-loving cultures play:

  • Juggling
  • Monkey-in-the-middle
  • 1v1 take-away (score by taking ball or nutmeg) and 1v1 with goals
  • Futsal, or small court/small field soccer that can easily accommodate 1v1 to 5v5 games, just like our driveway basketball

When I say part of their culture, I mean kids want to play these all the time with wide ranges of age and ability involved.

They are played at school, after school, at family gatherings, on their own, just about whenever and wherever.

I read about how it’s common for kids in Spain, for example, to play 10 hours of monkey-in-the-middle a week for fun. Many American soccer teenagers have barely accumulated that much time on that game in their life.

Getting kids to play these games is trickier than simply encouraging them play. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t stick.

That’s where culture comes in. There’s a difference between a coach encouraging them to play and kids wanting to play because their friends, family and neighbors want to play. Their interest gets piqued when they see someone older that is head and shoulders above everyone else. They want to be like that. So, they work at it to get better.

I’ve seen this, firsthand, at this party that I wrote about last year.

This is how activities like catch and ’21’ stick in our sports culture. And, these are the reasons why a ten year-old that can’t catch a ball is rare.

Likewise, in soccer-playing cultures it’s common for ten year-old’s to cleanly receive a soccer ball on their back foot, while in the U.S. it’s not only uncommon, it’s not even well-known that that’s a thing.

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Tom Byer’s Message: Condensed

Children can start learning to move with the soccer ball at their feet as soon as they can walk, or sooner.

It’s exactly what we do in the U.S. with baseball, basketball and to some extent, football.

Do you think most 10 year-old’s in the U.S. can throw a baseball to within inches of a target from distance because they suddenly gained coordination?

No, Dummy. It’s because they’ve been playing catch with stuff since before they could walk. It was the 8-9 years of repetition that built the coordination to do that.

Example of a sport in our culture:

Show a 4 year-old kid playing catch or 1v1 basketball with an adult. Some physician somewhere smiles and thinks, how great and healthy it is for that kid to bond with the adult and get some physical activity.

Example of a sport not in our culture:

Show the same 4 year-old playing 1v1 soccer takeaway with same adult. Same physician has concerned look and thinks, 4 is way too early for such sport-specific specialization, that could lead to injury, unrealistic expectations and burnout.

Winning Does(n’t) Matter

This article about how the approach to coaching soccer in Belgium may have contributed to their success at this year’s World Cup is a good read.

I especially like the following two points:

Point #6: Winning Doesn’t Matter

We don’t have league tables until the Under-14 level. That was one of the big battles for us. Coaches shouldn’t be concerned about tables and trying to win trophies before this age – they should be thinking about developing players.

Coaches are inclined to focus on winning the game. That makes them play the big, strong players who give them the best chance of winning, so the late developers end up on the bench 75% of the time.

I agree. Team wins at young ages are poor predictors of future success and can be achieved in ways that do not make kids better at soccer.

While ‘4v4 to get more touches’ sounds good in theory, in reality the two fastest kids get  80% of the touches and the other 6 kids chase them.

While team wins don’t matter at young ages there, in Point #2 the author describes what type of winning does matter in Belgium and how it matters (bold added):

Kids want to play football in their own way, not the way adults want to play. If you put a child on an adult’s bicycle, they’ll say, “are you crazy?” But this is what happens in football, we ask them to play 11 v 11 or 8 v 8 at a very young age. They are not able to do it.

As a child, how did you start playing? In my case, it was with my brother, playing 1 v 1 at home, in the garden, in the garage, dribbling and scoring.

We created a format that is tailor made for this. We put one player in the goal and one on the pitch and at five, six years old, they play 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper and they adore it. They have a lot of touches, a lot of scoring opportunities. It’s all about that fun environment and fun means scoring goals.

They play two halves of three minutes, then they go to the next pitch. The winner goes to the left and the loser to the right. After one or two games they’ll be playing against a similar level of opponent and everyone scores goals, everyone wins games, which makes it fun.

They may be onto something.

1v1 skills — both attacking and defensive — are so important for team success.

1v1’s is a great way to simplify the game for young kids, while also building skills that will help later on.

Plus, winning still matters! But, it’s just used to sort the kids to face like competition.

I can imagine this has several benefits in addition to what he described above.

Players stand on their own results. Those results also provide clear and direct feedback for kids and parents.

For example, average players can’t mistake the successes of their advanced teammates as their own.

Parents can’t shift blame for poor results to teammates, nor can they complain that their child is playing in the wrong position, not getting enough play time or not getting enough chances to score.

This also makes it easier for kids to figure out what to work on at home. In a full team environment, there are so many things to work on, it can be overwhelming.

Does this answer the participation trophy debate?

I think this also sheds light on the mistake made by Participation Trophy advocates.

What they get right is that team records are not helpful at young ages.

What they get wrong is what to reward. They reward showing up. Showing up does not build fundamentals.

The approach used by Belgium above rewards building fundamentals.

Fitting this into my player development model.

Here I recommended kids gain competence in 5-a-side before graduating to 11v11.

The Belgium approach makes me think I missed a step.

Maybe the steps in the competitive ladder should be:

  1. Soccer starts at home. See Tom Byer.
  2. 1v1+GK competitions
  3. 5-a-side
  4. 11v11

Ages shouldn’t matter. Competency should be what progresses players through the steps. I see a lot of kids who get interested in soccer at 10 or 12, but have a hard time finding a spot on a team because they need too much work on the basics relative to kids who started younger. This progression would solve that.

If you’re new to soccer, whether your 6, 14 or 42, start with home practice, a lot of 1v1’s, then 5-a-side before moving on to 11v11.

The answer is almost always, ‘not enough reps’

As a coach, I’ve noticed that too many coaches and parents vastly underestimate the amount of repetition required to gain competency in the sport’s core skills and tactics.

They seem to think that if a kid practices something a few times, they should be able to do it competently from then on.

I’ll admit, I was once in that camp.

But, I learned fairly quickly that when a player is flubbing a basic, the answer is almost always that they haven’t had enough quality reps, usually by several orders of magnitudes.

A lot of people knowledgeable about the sport miss this because they don’t remember all the reps they put in over the years.

The better kids on the fields are usually the ones who have accumulated the most reps.

Some have had the benefit of coaches that knew the right reps to work on and focused on those in a reasonable order.

Some have benefited from having family, friends, siblings or neighbors that helped provide quality reps — mainly through fun activities that they didn’t really think were reps — like simple games of catch with a baseball or OUT with a basketball.

You can tell a kid a million times to get their shoulders over the ball, instead of reaching in, for a tackle and they will still reach in. It’s sort of like telling a kid to do calculus instead of algebra. It doesn’t work, unless they have the right preparation.

The only way I’ve seen to correct reaching in is lots of repetition on basic foot skills like inside-insides, passing and dribbling, because all these train players to keep their feet and shoulders in a rectangle — the athletic position — and use their full body to control the ball, instead of just their feet.

It’s okay that kids quit sports

In this article on Changing the Game Project (dot com), an organization trying to breathe sanity back into youth sports, the author goes over some reasons why kids quit sports and things that can be done to help.

As a youth coach, I’ve had some parents forward this article to me when they disagreed with my coaching.

Here is a snippet from the article:

As I have stated here many times, 70% of children are dropping out of organized sports by the age of 13. Whenever I mention this sad statistic, people come out of the wood work saying that it’s only the kids who aren’t good enough to play that quit. They say it’s an age where school, jobs and other interests take precedence. These things are true and contribute to a part of the dropout rate, but they are not the entire picture.

We don’t simply lose the kids who cannot make varsity; we lose many of the best athletes on our teams.

One problem is that the author, John O’Sullivan, doesn’t quantify how much these other factors contribute to the dropout rate or how many of the best athletes quit.

Basic math tells us that the vast majority of kids who dropout are the kids that cannot make varsity. If only the top 20% of kids make the varsity team, that means 80% don’t. If only the top 5% of the high school athletes make a college team, 95% don’t.

In my experience, around ages 11 – 14 kids come to one of a few reality checks.

They may realize that even being average in a sport takes work they aren’t willing to put in, because they simply don’t enjoy the sport enough or they’d rather be doing something else with that time.

Or, they come to understand the odds of them becoming a college or pro players is really low.

Even some of the ‘best’ quit, because they might be at the bottom of the top 20%. They’re better than 80%, but they don’t get a lot of play time, so they decide that getting a job to earn some money is more worth it than riding the bench. That’s basic opportunity cost.

I appreciate O’Sullivan’s efforts to want to take adult toxicity out of youth sports. That’s a worthy effort that doesn’t need to be tied to improving the dropout rate.

There’s nothing wrong with a 70% sports dropout rate by age 13. I bet that has been consistent for decades (and possibly has decreased as there are more ‘competitive’ sports clubs out there that provide alternatives to high school sports) and it tracks the winnowing of the field to make the cut for high school, college and pro.

If efforts to keep kids playing sports longer work, it may have some ill consequences — mainly, keeping kids from doing other things that may be more worth their while.

Winning and Losing Part I

As a parent and a coach of youth sports, I’ve learned a few things about winning and losing over the last several years.

For example, wins and losses are often not what they appear to be. And, for many parents too much of their own ego depends on whether their kids win or lose.

Wins and losses can be great teachers, but they can be deceiving, too. Drawing the right lessons can be a challenge. Adults are excellent at drawing the wrong lessons.

It’s easy to convince yourself that your team is really good and has made a lot of progress after beating a weaker opponent. I’ve done it. I’ve seen parents do it. I’ve seen pro teams do it.

It is then a let down when you face a superior team and find out that you’re not quite ready for the college scouts just yet.

But, I think it’s important to understand that there’s much more that goes into a win or loss — especially in youth sports — than whether you’re good or not.

One factor, for example, is the relative age effect, which I wrote about in this post. It’s the idea that kids born closer to the age cutoff tend to do better because they have a few extra months of body development.

I had my doubts whether it really existed. Though, it seems there is plenty of evidence for it and now I believe it matches with my personal experience.

As I’ve watched a group of kids age over a few years (admittedly small sample size), I noticed that the kids born closer to the age cutoff tend to dominate — at least, physically. But, I still had my doubts.

The most convincing evidence for me, though, was when we played younger teams. Our B/C-players suddenly looked very good against players that they had the same age advantage over as the A players on our team had on them.

Many wins and losses in youth sports leagues are nothing more than an age mismatch.

Merit or Relative Age Effect?

From Seth Godin’s blog: The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy:

Ask the well-meaning coaches and teachers running the tryouts and choosing who gets to play, ask them who gets on stage and who gets fast tracked, and they’ll explain that life is a meritocracy, and it’s essential to teach kids that they’re about to enter a world where people get picked based on performance.

Or, they might point out that their job is to win, to put on a great show, to entertain the parents with the best performance they can create.

This, all of this, is sort of dangerous, unhelpful and nonsensical.

I explored this in my post, The Great Participation Trophy Debate.

I agree. Most kid sports, even at the beginning levels, is structured to entertain parents, and like it or not, select on ‘merit’ rather than teach the kids and have fun.

As Gladwell points out, this quest for wins really sorts out the relative age effect, rather than true merit.

I wonder how many potential stars — or just run of the mill good players — this chases away before they realize that the primary reason they weren’t as good as their teammates is because their teammates had several crucial months of development on them.

And, the reason they never got much of a chance to develop was because too few youth coaches do their job and give them chances to improve.