Putting the cart before the horse: a ‘signal or cause’ saying

Have you ever heard someone say, “I need to buy a treadmill so I can get in shape.”

After a few months, these treadmills go unused and collect dust.

“But, I know people who stay fit and they have treadmills.”

Those people stay in shape because they have made exercise a priority. The treadmill is a signal of their priority, not the cause of it.

If you want to get in shape, you first have to make exercise a priority. That can be done without a treadmill.

Buying the treadmill first is putting the cart before the horse.

The consistently fit buy the treadmill as a supplement to their exercise routine — not as the centerpiece of it. It’s used on rainy or busy days to keep their priority.

I saw a tweet recently calling for building 600,000 futsal courts in the U.S. to give kids more places to play pickup soccer.

I agree that lack of pickup soccer is a key problem with soccer in the U.S., but building the courts before soccer is being widely played, informally, is putting the cart before horse.

The tweeter sees futsal courts in soccer-playing countries and thinks that’s the key to getting more kids playing.

Those futsal courts are a signal of a soccer-playing culture, not the cause of it.

My town has two street hockey courts that haven’t seen action since the 90s when that fad faded away. Simply having the courts doesn’t motivate anyone to play street hockey.

They sit there unused like the treadmill collecting dust.

More futsal courts will come when parks and rec directors see kids all over their town playing soccer in driveways, backyards and parks.

In fact, two areas in my metro area have futsal courts where a lot of pickup soccer is played. Those areas are rich in soccer-playing cultures from soccer-playing countries.

More thoughts on 5-a-side

After posting this recommendation on changing the structure of youth soccer in the U.S., I thought of a few more thoughts to add.

Pickup soccer in the U.S. is lacking

Much of the 5-a-side played in the Top 10 FIFA countries is unorganized (e.g. street soccer). Similarly, a lot of the play in the U.S.’s beloved sports is also unorganized (e.g. pickup basketball).

We underappreciate how much skill development takes place in pickup play.

Progressing players to larger fields by age, rather than skill, may not be as detrimental if kids supplemented their organized play with pickup play.

I believe more pickup play is another step in the right direction, but getting more of it is not a straightforward problem to solve.

Playing more 5-a-side in organized play might help their skill development and help them see different ways to play soccer.

When kids think of soccer, they think of a big field, lots of players and two large, netted goals. If those conditions aren’t met, they don’t play.

When I first started playing soccer, as an adult, I met with a group of other adults in a local park to play pickup. We played on the youth fields with small, netted goals and marked sidelines.

There was a group of Latinos who played pickup at the same time on the next field.

One day we showed up and the goals and lines were gone for the winter. We couldn’t imagine playing without these props! What were we to do?

We started laughing when we looked over to the Latino pickup group and they were moving trash cans and setting up their gym bags as make-shift goals.

Of course!

This example demonstrated how much their soccer-playing culture had taught them to improvise and play no matter what, while we still were operating in the domain that we must have marked fields and netted goals to play. But, we learned to improvise that day.

This is no different than ‘our’ sports. I’ve watched my son and his friends improvise with baseball and basketball in the same way.

For example, four or five of them get an impromptu game of baseball going in a sloped driveway, complete with make-shift bases, using ghost-runners to keep the game going. They didn’t need a ball diamond, with nice bases and a manicured outfield to play baseball.

These same kids, who had been playing organized soccer for years could not and would not improvise with the soccer ball.

More exposure to the small-sided, small-court game might help players realize that they don’t need a full field, marked sidelines and netted goals to have fun, just like generations ago kids discovered that playing 1-on-1 or ’21’ with a hoop on the driveway was just as fun, if not more fun, than the regulation game of basketball.

The answer is hiding in plain sight 

Every winter soccer coaches tell parents how indoor soccer and futsal will help their children’s foot skills.

Each Spring, I hear parents comment at the better ball control their kids display on the soccer pitch after a winter of futsal.

Many already know the benefits of futsal, but go ahead and resume full field soccer in the spring and fall and watch many of their kids bumble around with sloppy ball control instead of sticking with the thing that is making the most impact until their child is competent to move on.

Playing more 5-a-side will help prevent position specialization too early and make more creative players

Pushing kids into 7v7, 9v9 and 11v11 at young ages has another downside, it pushes position specialization too early.

With 6 to 8 fairly distinct positions it becomes difficult for players to rotate and learn the responsibilities of more than a couple positions.

5-a-side is much simpler, yet has the base elements of tactics used in 11v11. It gives players ample opportunity to play different roles during a single game.

I shudder to think how many players don’t find their potential as a striker because their strengths at age 10 or 11 suited them more for another position. Over the next 7-8 years those players get a fraction of shot attempts than the players suited to be a striker at age 10.

In 5-a-side, all players get multiple shots each game, building their database on multiple ways to finish.

In 11v11, the majority of players can go for seasons without taking a single shot.

It’s not surprising to me that scoring creative goals is not what U.S. teams or players are known for. The pool of developing scorers in the U.S. is unnecessarily restricted at a young age by the structure of soccer, itself. Lack of pickup play doesn’t help that.

Update: On his Twitter, Jon Townsend recently pointed to a great article he wrote about futsal in 2014.

Want the U.S. to excel in soccer? Then youth should be playing 5-a-side until they earn their way onto the big field

Here’s a good account of the soccer culture in Brazil from Mike Singleton and a key part of his commentary about the Brazilian soccer culture and how futsal is integrated into it:

2) Futsal demands great technical skills and forces high speed of play (both thought and execution) upon players. In addition, players have to learn the basic principles of the game to play futsal and play both offense and defense … our players seem to sometimes take breaks in transition from one to the other in either direction.

3) The goals set up on multiple beaches and stands to watch beach soccer games show how pervasive a love this country has for soccer.

4) The goals set up in every small park in every neighborhood shows the pervasive love of soccer … these parks rage from sand to grass to turf to concrete.

I agree. I also think there’s more to it.

In the U.S., youth advance to the next field size and number of players on the field by age. For example, when a child turns 8, they progress from 4v4 small field soccer to 7v7 soccer on a bigger field.

This age advancement takes place before most kids have mastered the level they are on.

I have a simple recommendation to fix this: Advance kids by competency, instead of age.

A child should play 5-a-side until he or she has the skills to move on.

Soccer basics are 1st touch, dribbling, passing, tackling, winning 50/50s, defending and shooting.

If kids move up to more players on the field before they are proficient on these basics, their progress will slow down, by default, because they will get fewer touches on the ball.

I see the results in my local soccer league.

Each age bracket has 8-10 divisions of ‘premier’ teams and 2-3 divisions of ‘rec’.

Only the top 2-3 ‘premier’ divisions have players who are proficient on most of the basics (often, just barely).

The rest are filled with players who aren’t competent in most or all basic skills. Playing full field soccer doesn’t give them near enough touches on the ball they need to improve and many of them quit after a few seasons because they don’t improve.

I believe they’d improve quicker and maybe would stay more interested if they played 5-a-side soccer until their skills were ready for the larger field, instead of pushing them onto the larger field before they are ready.

Click here to see my More thoughts on 5-a-side post.


Exhibit #2: Why U.S. Men’s Soccer lags

Typical soccer court in Brazil:

steet soccer Brazil

Typical soccer field in the U.S.:

Soccer fields US

Notice some differences:

  1. The soccer courts in Brazil are convenient to where the kids live, fostering lots of unorganized play. If there are homes near the U.S. soccer fields, they are distant. U.S. soccer fields are too often built on land far enough away from where kids live, that it’s only convenient to play through organized play when their parents can drive them.
  2. The Brazilian soccer court is small, this fosters development of ball control in tight space. The U.S. soccer field is large. This fosters kicking the ball into space and running to it, especially at youth levels when all too often the fields are much too large for the number and age of players on the field. These large fields favor future track stars and do little for developing soccer skills that will help on the world stage.
  3. The Brazilian soccer court has kids playing on it. The U.S. soccer field does not. Sure, U.S. soccer fields are burgeoning on weekends, but the rest of the week they’re empty, while the Brazilian soccer courts are busy all week long. Even on the weekends, when U.S. soccer fields are busy, each team only gets so much play time, so play time still pales in comparison to kids in Brazil playing several times a week at their local court.
  4. The Brazilian soccer court is concrete. The U.S. soccer field is grass. Not only does the concrete help the Brazilian kids develop ball control, but it’s also playable more of the time. Games and practices on grass fields get canceled due to rain and have seasons where the groundskeepers rest the fields so the grass can grow back.  All, the while the Brazilian (and other countries where soccer courts are common), are playing. Plus, maintenance of a grass field is constant. A concrete court needs new paint every 10 years or so.
  5. The large fields in the U.S. are not conducive for pickup play. You need 10-20 people or else it’s nothing but running. Like basketball courts, soccer courts are conducive for small sided games, even 1v1, so play is more likely to occur more often.

I don’t believe just building soccer courts is the answer. The soccer courts in Brazil exist because the kids were playing in the streets because they love soccer, so their local parks department built the courts to serve an activity that was already prevalent.

If you just build soccer courts in areas where people aren’t already playing street ball, then my guess is those courts will go unused.

So, the courts are really just a marker for soccer culture, rather than a cause.

But, I don’t think building a few courts and fostering more small-side, unorganized play would hurt. More on that in a future post.