Bad News Bears Soccer

I’ve watched too many games over the past couple years of high school aged kids where the following passage from Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home, comes to mind:

“Soccer is a passing and shooting game, but passing and shooting has to come after learning how to control the ball. And passing and shooting comes so much easier if you do that.

I watch kids’ teams play soccer and despair sometimes. ‘How can they be so bad?’ I ask myself. Most kids can’t even move the ball from one foot to the other.

What’s the problem?

The problem is people don’t know what the problem is.”

The problem is that there are basics of the game and these kids don’t have them and as Tom points out, nobody seems to notice.

They can’t receive, pass or dribble.

Most of their first touches turn the ball over and often put the opponent in a better spot.

Passing completion is less than 20%, which is mostly luck when it does happen, and too many passes are right to the opponent.

Balls are often dribbled directly into the defender’s feet and lost, without any visible attempt go around the defender.

Goalkeepers repeatedly distribute the ball directly to the other team.

The few scoring chances come at the tail end of strings of lucky events, rather than purposeful action.

It’s mostly 50/50 ball as neither team ever has possession of the ball for more than a few touches. In fact, it’s a 50/50 ball even if the ball is at the feet of a player.

The players have no idea how to communicate with each other beyond blaming others for their own mishaps.

Dumb soccer debate: Isolated vs. opposed training

Is there a sport that doesn’t require both?

Is there a sport where the amount of one or the other doesn’t depend on the current skill level, or whether the movement is new to player?

Is there a sport where skills aren’t first built in isolated training and then honed under pressure and in competition?

‘But, Ronaldo was created in the opposed training environment of street soccer!’

Has anyone asked him if he ever worked on new moves on his own, at home or on the sideline waiting for next, before trying them in out against others?

Here’s what I notice about those on either side of the debate.

Advocates of opposed training deal primarily with players who develop 95% of their skills away from training, at home or in pickup. Out of sight, out of mind. Since they don’t see how much effort these players put into those skills, they think all players have that level of ability or they think they got to that level of ability with their opposed team training environment and discount the effort the players do on their own.

The opposed training advocates also tend to straw man the “isolated” side of the debate as if the other side believes isolated training is the only thing needed. I haven’t seen anyone who believes that. Rather, they support progression from isolated to competition.

Those who advocate isolated training typically work with players that do not work on their own or play pickup to develop their skills and need a healthy foundation of isolated training to build muscle memory before working up to using in competition.

Why do kids quit sports?

When I discuss this topic with folks, I’m often referred to ‘research’ that pins blame on things like toxic sidelines, pressure to win and bad coaching.

I’m treated as a heretic to suggest that quitting sports is natural and our goal shouldn’t necessarily be to reduce the attrition rate.

While I’ve seen my fair share of toxicity (and probably contributed to some), I am skeptical that improving on those will reduce attrition, though I am all for improving on those.

I addressed that topic a few years ago here.

I believe kids quit sports because they’re just not that into it and have interests they are more into.

I’ll add that I am skeptical of the validity of research. In the business world, I’ve too often seen similar market research that tries to identify reasons customers switch brands. I’ve watched too many managers lose their jobs building initiatives around those findings to find out fixing those reasons didn’t move the needle on customer behavior.

When a former player identifies reasons like toxic sidelines for quitting the sport, the obvious follow-up question is, “If toxic sidelines were eliminated, would you keep playing?”

Most say no, which means that wasn’t the real reason.

How do you inspire love for the soccer?

I don’t know. Do you?

If so, please share.

I discussed this recently with another coach.

He told me something that I used to believe strongly, too: part of the club and coach’s responsibility is to develop interest in the sport.

I still believe that. But, my experience tells me that club and coach is a tiny part of that process for most kids.

Early on I thought sparking an interest would be easy. There were times I thought I was onto something, but the raised interest seemed to revert to the mean of barely interested after a short time.

Too often, unexpectedly, I found that teaching kids the fundamentals was counterproductive to sparking an interest. I discovered some kids loved the unstructured chasing of the ball and the game lost its magic for them as they learned there was some method to the madness and they were expected to learn it if they wanted to continue to play.

I also noticed that kids from soccer households seemed to like soccer more than those that didn’t. Pulisic and Sargent are great examples. It’s obvious that both were much more strongly influenced by coming from households where both parents had played at relatively high-levels than by their club experiences. Has either even mentioned an influential youth coach?

Few kids, maybe 10%, not from a soccer family developed a true interest in the sport. Some liked the activity, but not enough to do anything on their own. Others simply didn’t like it and quit as soon as their parents let them.

That’s why I like Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home. He’s onto something that we overlook about all sports: a good deal of interest level and skill acquisition occurs starting at age 1 or 2 and is a product of the environment and activities that engage the young kids in their home.

We believe kids ‘get coordinated’ between ages 7 and 10 and can suddenly throw baseballs with pinpoint accuracy, for example. But what really happens is that many kids have been playing catch with all sorts of things since they could walk and we overlook how instrumental those 6-7 years of unstructured development were.

Go some place where kids don’t grow up playing catch and watch an otherwise coordinated and athletic adult try to throw a baseball for the first time and they look as coordinated and accurate doing that as a typical American 5-year-old.

If the goal is to grow soccer and improve the men’s players at the top level in the U.S, I think there’s a 10x better chance starting with the route Tom has identified rather than what we currently have.

The system we currently have rewards participation, rather than progress, and keeps kids doing the activity of soccer (rather than developing as soccer players) long past what their interest and ability level would warrant in other sports.

How many 14-year-old competitive basketball players are there who never played pickup basketball or shot on their driveway or park hoop for hours on end? Probably not many, unless they are tall and can block shots.

How many 14-year-old competitive soccer players do we have who have never played pickup soccer or shot on a backyard or park goal for hours on end? Too many. Maybe most.

Who is responsible for developing a soccer player?

One problem with the participation culture of soccer in the US is that too many parents and players hand the keys of development over to clubs and coaches.

Clubs and coaches don’t do much to dissuade that idea, because it’s a selling point.

Contrast that with clubs in soccer countries, where the player owns their own development and they see the club as a place to showcase their ability, compete to get better and maybe get some helpful guidance from coaches along the way.

How differently do players in these two environments behave? Exactly how Kephern Fuller described on a 3Four3 podcast that I wrote about here.

Fuller has experience in American and European soccer clubs and here’s how I summarized the astute observations he shared in that podcast:

He said a key difference is the players knowing where they’re going. American kids don’t have a good sense of this. They are content to say they’re the best on the team and their team has had some success, but they don’t have a sense beyond that of what good soccer looks like or what kind of player they are working to become.

He said, European kids have a much clearer picture of what they want to become. This shows up in the effort they put in on and off the field and how seriously they take and compete within a drills during training.

That’s because European kids own their development, while American kids let development be something that happens to them.

It’s okay for kids to quit soccer

A few weeks into one season, the parent comes to me and says, “Sorry, we’re done.”

“Why?”

“You told him to practice for 10-15 minutes a day with the ball. For 3 weeks, I asked if he practiced like coach asked. Every time the answer was no. 10-15 minutes a day isn’t too much to ask. If he’s not going to follow through on his end, not even once, that tells me he doesn’t want to play”

Respect.

Most parents won’t make that call.

Pro/rel is the cause, not the effect

Saw on Twitter:

This is like saying that before we allow competitors to McDonald’s, we must have viable competitors to McDonald’s in every inch of the U.S.

In other words, nonsense. Ed has cause and effect backwards, putting the cart before the horse.

The infrastructure Ed desires results from a system that incentivizes it, not from hoping it happens while preventing the incentives that results in it.

The best way to get competition to McDonald’s is to allow it to happen by opening the system to let competitors emerge. Some of those have resulted in large chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, Chili’s and Red Robin, and a plethora of local joints.

A must-listen to podcast for soccer parents and players

Gary Kleiben and John Pranjic nail it in their latest 3Four3 soccer podcast on the 5 components of player development.

I wish I would have had this 10 years ago when my child started soccer and I started coaching.

They identify these 5 components:

  1. The household/parent/family influence.
  2. The playing on your own influence.
  3. The pickup game influence.
  4. The structured club training influence.
  5. The personal training influence.

I just wanted to transcribe a few awesome nuggets from this podcast for posterity.

Pranjic says that parents without soccer backgrounds “are easily impressed by coaches with all kinds of cones, flags and sticks for kids to dribble around and jump over — that looks very professional. When you see kids out there all in unison doing all these step overs, dribbling through the cones it looks like there’s work being done. But, as a group of 15 or 20 kids, as a team, that’s not what they should be focusing on for those 1 to 1.5 hour sessions. I don’t know if that’s been talked about enough.”

It’s not talked about enough. I spent years as a coach in this conflict and many coaches know this is a huge selling point for parents.

He continues, “What should a parent be expecting from this structured training environment?”

Kleiban responds, “You can look at it as development curves. Everybody’s going to develop and get better with more and more touches on the ball. That’s obvious.”

I’d say that’s not obvious to many folks with and without soccer backgrounds. That’s why they fall for the trap Pranjic described and think of the club as nearly 100% of a kid’s soccer identity.

“What might not be obvious is an appreciation for who you are up against. If you’re doing all these technical drills in the club environment and not learning the team game, compare that to somebody who is learning the team game almost exclusively within the team environment, and then doing the technical work on their own. You’ve already lost. You’re falling further and further behind the curve.

You want that situation inverted.You want in that team environment having your player learning the team game, with a sprinkle of individual skills, and outside the team environment, learning the individual skills stuff, on your own, with personal training, with your family and friends.

And then you’re set up to properly compete and move up the competitive levels.”

In my experience, most parents and kids without soccer background and about half with soccer backgrounds, expect the club environment to develop all the skills and team aspects.

Kleiban then describes in more detail the aspects of team play: “Tactics are about how are you going to play as a team and an individual player being able to understand how they fit into the team collective and what their decision-making is supposed to be.

When we talk about a style of play, each individual on the team has a specific role and what that means is that there is a set of correct and incorrect decisions for a particular position, and that player via communication with the coach needs to understand what is a correct decision for this style of play for that position and what is an incorrect decision, depending on the context of the situation that the player finds themselves in. So, if you’re right back and we are on the attack with the ball on the left side of the field, what should his or her position be like and why.”

I’ve seen coaches tell players that they need to work on their decision-making, but then do not give them examples of correct and incorrect decisions and why those are correct or incorrect. That, to me, is as useful as a coach yelling, “Play harder!”

Pranjic: “I hope what people take away from this is that soccer is not random. If your team is focusing most of its time on technical aspects, then in the game you’re watching is random soccer.”

Here’s the main reason I stopped coaching — the players would not do the work on their own. We’d train on team play, but they could not execute because their technical skills were so low and they did not care to improve it on their own. Then, we’d train on technical skills, but then they couldn’t consistently make good decisions and they’d play random. And it became apparent to me that if the kids wouldn’t do their part on their own, then the parents were just hiring a babysitter.

Regarding the topic of speed of play. “In the U.S. that phrase is interpreted to how fast the players and ball move, but what it really means is how quickly decisions are being made and how far in advance.”

One example from my coaching days was that kids would receive the pass, get it under control and then look up and start thinking about what’s next and anything and everything was an option. By the time they made a decision, they were losing the ball.

The team framework should move them to the place that they already know their 5-6 correct options before they receive the ball, in context of their position and the situation, and use the time they have to evaluate and execute the best one, while adding some deception to throw the other team off a bit.

Regarding playing on your own vs. “opposed playing”: Kleiben: “Let’s say you’re a 13 year old and going to the wall or the racquetball court and spending time with the ball, it’s almost a meditative practice where it’s you and your own mind. And it’s you developing your own mental fortitude in a different sort of way and saying hey, I’m going to improve X, Y or Z in my game without anybody else around.

If you want to improve your left foot, what better way than to be by yourself and doing a thousand different touches against a wall or more than a thousand and then grinding away and seeing every repetition as a success or failure as to how you wanted to stroke it, I think it’s just crucially important that you can’t get in a pickup, team or personal training environment.”

Bang for your buck: game time vs play time

Continuing with the theme of my previous post, if you see organized game time as the main way for players to improve, you’re making a bad investment.

You are making this investment if you ask your child’s coach, “How is she supposed to improve if she doesn’t get enough play time?”

Is a piano recital the only place a piano student improves?

Is a math student the only place to learn math?

You will get more bang for your buck to see piano recitals and math tests as ‘top of the pyramid’ exercises.

‘Top of the pyramid’ moments are meant to motivate effort in the middle and base layers of the pyramid to foster mastery.

In piano, lessons are the middle layer and self-practice is the base layer. In math, class is the middle layer and self-practice is the base. Without the base, recitals and math tests don’t go so well.

In soccer, games are the top of the pyramid, with practice in the middle and self-practice/play as the base layer.

Most kids who might miss a few minutes of their equal game time, get zero play time at home.

The best way to earn more game is with more play time.

Bang for your improvement buck: soccer and cycling

In my bicycle racing days, we giggled at newbies who showed up to a time trial with their shiny new top-end bikes that cost 5 times our entry level racing bikes.

Why? Because they didn’t yet know that 90% of your performance was determined by your training and 10% by your equipment. The best investment you could make was getting your butt in shape. That was worth minutes in a 10 mile trial, while the best equipment was worth seconds.

I see the same mistake made in youth soccer when parents want their kids in the best clubs but don’t think about the thing that’s about 10x more valuable: developing a love for the ball.

The best team will make a player 10% better. Developing a love for the ball will make them 100% better or more.

Bicycle racers are known snobs, but at least we let the newbies in on the secret after their dismal showing. Many responded by training their tails off and closing the gap.

It might help if more soccer folks were like snobby cyclists. Thinking back, I’m amazed that when I was a newbie soccer player in adult leagues and couldn’t trap, dribble or pass worth a hoot, not one soccer snob suggested that I go spend copious amounts of time with the ball.

Key message: Parents, if your kid doesn’t spend much time outside of team stuff working with the ball, don’t expect much. It’s not the club’s fault when they don’t become rock stars. Help your kids focus on the activity that has 10 times the return than just showing up to practice. Put that first, club second.