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.

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Competition and monopolies in soccer

I thought the following dialogue about monopoly and competition from this 3Four3 podcast, with guest Ciara McCormack, was well said (around the 36 minute mark, emphasis added):

Host John Pranjic: The lack of competition, the lack of ideas being thrown into an arena, to let it fight it out and see which is best, that is what Canada lacks, that is what United States lacks, that is what Australia lacks, when it comes to soccer.

You get this one-size-fits-all attitude, from the top-down, that mindset alone is what kills the soccer environments in those three countries

Guest McCormack: There’s a reason in our societies, economically, that monopolies are frowned upon. It’s exactly the thing you are talking about. The lack of creativity.

I always liken it to, if I step on the field and I know I’m in the starting eleven every week — I can be good, I can be bad, I can sit and pick flowers the whole game and line [something] — and I know that I’m starting every week.

I’m not becoming better. People around me aren’t becoming better. They become stagnant.

Growing up in Canada, I’ll use my White Caps experience as an example. That was the only club team you could play for if you wanted a shot with the Canadian team.

The amount of power that gives the people in charge to treat the players what ever way they want, it just creates this awful culture.

When I was in Denmark, that would never have happened. You’re at a club and things aren’t going really good, then you go to another club.

Then another club starts with revolutionary ideas, that club rises to the top…

Exactly.

As I’ve mentioned before, we all have two powers: the power of voice and exit.

Pranjic and McCormack here describes negative consequences of not having a strong enough competition, or low power of exit, in a soccer federation.

These principles of voice and exit are true for all organizations from governments, private enterprises, schools, soccer federations and, as McCormack points out, teams.

It would be interesting to go deeper into how soccer federations are organized in other countries to compare to the U.S., Canada and Australia.

From my uneducated point of view, many seem to see their role more about fostering competition at all levels, rather than being in charge of competitions at levels.

For example, while U.S. Soccer seems focused on dictating the how many seats must be in stadiums and the minimum population sizes of team markets, England’s FA is more about ensuring that any team playing good soccer has a chance — no matter the size of their stadium or city.

I believe those in U.S. Soccer prioritize stability. That’s why they focus on stadium and market size. They think that will keep teams around, even when their results aren’t great.

I believe those in England’s FA prioritize the quality of soccer. It’s not that they don’t care about stability, but they believe stability comes from good soccer, not from the number of seats in the stadium.

Respect for the ball

Here’s a couple good highlights from this 3Four3 podcast with a soccer dad.

Words of wisdom, from a soccer dad to his daughter about how to approach the game:

Respect the game. Respect your opponent. Respect your teammates. And, have respect for the ball.

I learned when I was coaching that one of the toughest things to convince kids and parents from non-soccer backgrounds was to have respect for the ball.

Kicking the ball down the field works early on. Why mess with the “fancy” stuff?

Having respect for the ball and learning to master it doesn’t produce immediate results. It won’t improve your game that much next week or over the course of a season, but it builds over time.

On playing pickup:

The thing that really irritates is street [i.e. pickup soccer] or futsal that’s not free…and that is artificially created to be super safe and it never works. It has the opposite effect. You might as well be playing club soccer because the same people are running it. Not say club soccer is bad. It’s not. We obviously play it.

But it has to be organic. It has to be free flowing. It has to come from the right place.

And, the players who are participating on it, at some level, have to get it. And the parents have to to get it and see the value in it.

If you don’st see the value in it, then it’s a real hard sell.

People ask all the time, you know, ‘futsal and street, what’s the point? You’re going to get hurt. It’s just for fancy footwork and they’re not really scoring goals and what do you see the benefit of it.’

Well, if I have to explain to you, then it’s not worth it, because you don’t get it. Sometimes it’s not always about the results, it’s about the process.

If you boil it down, street and maybe futsal to a lesser extent, is soccer. So, if you got a kid that can go play street for 4 hours, well maybe that’s the sacrifice for that week and maybe the [club] game isn’t.

But the sell for that is real difficult.

That 4 hours of street ball is more true soccer time than the average club soccer kids get over the course of a season.

Playing pickup in any sport is an important dimension to development. The best basketball players spend countless hours on their driveway hoops and in the park with friends.

For some reason, that lesson doesn’t seem to translate well to soccer, until its too late.

Good advice for coaches and parents of soccer players from 3Four3 podcast

In this 3Four3.com podcast, John Pranjic describes the importance of setting a culture for your team.

He describes an important first moment with the team (bold mine):

It’s the moment when you meet with your team for the first time. It’s your first opportunity to establish a proper team culture. It’s when you set the tone for the work that you will do together. And it’s a moment that becomes a reference point for you to come back to whenever necessary.

Having that reference point is great advice. But, what should you reference?

Quoting Brian Kleiban, a successful 3Four3 youth coach:

Brian introduced the players part of the deal. The two things that he says are non-negotiable. Two things that only they can control.

Players don’t control the quality of the field. They can’t control the actions of their teammates. They can’t control their opponents.

The only thing players have total control over are themselves. More specifically, players control their own level of focus and work ethic.

Just like the players cannot control the quality of the field – the coach cannot control the amount of effort a player puts into training. Only the player can.

This is an important reference point to set with parents, too.

Some parents work hard to find ‘great’ and motivating coaches, but fail to encourage their kids to put in the effort.

They think the coach will mold their child into a star, not realizing that how much effort the kid puts in is the biggest factor in that.

Coaches, like schoolteachers, can only do so much. The best teachers have had their share of C and D students. The best coaches have also had their share of flame-outs.

I also recommend setting the following reference points with parents:

  1. Questions about your child’s position and play time should sound like, “What does my child need to do to earn more play time/the chance to play a different position?”
  2. If you’d like to discuss subjects not related to your child — e.g. other players, what we work on at practice, team strategy — let’s first discuss how much effort your child puts in on and off the field.

For every conversation about a child’s effort, I’ve had 20 on other topics where more could have been accomplished discussing their child’s effort.

These reference points will help keep players, parents and coaches focused on the number one factor that will help the players — their own effort and work ethic.