The U.S. lacks a soccer ball culture

Here’s a great tweet from Tom Byer:

Good timing. I’ve been working on a similar thought.

For me, it comes down to how much time kids spend discovering the ball, self-directed. The ball culture fosters this in soccer-playing cultures.

Not only does the US lack soccer culture that doesn’t promote discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture hinders it.

Some of the top young players now, like Pulisic and Sargent, are good examples of what spending lots of time working with the ball outside of organized play can do.

Nearly anything that is wrong with soccer in the U.S. can be traced back to whether it helps or hinders kids from discovering the ball, self-directed.

Here are just a few examples I’ve seen…

What wins at young ages

Winning soccer at young ages is mainly the result of being the biggest and fastest. This doesn’t encourage kids to discover the ball.

Parents lack of knowledge

They simply don’t know what activities they can do with their children to help and when. I can attest to that. I didn’t.

This also hinders in how their interpretation of the soccer experience giving ample reasons from the best to the worst players at young ages to keep kids from discovering the ball.

Examples — For the best: They don’t need to. They’re doing just fine without it!

For the worst: They’re just in it to have fun and to be with their friends. I don’t want to force them to work with the ball and ruin their love for the sport.

Those same things are said about kids in other sports in the U.S., but with an “and”, as in…AND they should be improving fundamentals, too.

For example, parents don’t interpret the 26 to 24 tee ball wins of their 5-year-old as a sign their kid doesn’t need to improve catching, throwing and deciding where to make the play.

Rather, they get their kid out in the yard and play catch with them. They watch baseball on TV and point out where the fielders are making the play.

Scheduling

Another factor is the schedule of sports that has emerged in the U.S. Each sport has carved out its own season for survival (football=fall, basketball=winter, baseball=spring).

Because of this, it’s common to think it’s unhealthy to play a sport, year-round. Yet, most soccer playing countries do so without problem.

While those countries play organized soccer 10 months a year, the pace is moderate and games more convenient, making it easier to work other activities into the schedule.

There, they have one game per weekend at the neighborhood club, especially at the lower and intermediate levels of play.

Compare to the U.S., where it’s common to have 3-4 tournament games and hours of driving, even at low and intermediate levels. That makes it harder to do other activities.

And, who wants to touch the ball when they get home from such long weekends? Few.

Misinterpreting the numbers

It’s often said that we have the numbers. Millions of kids play soccer in the U.S., after all!

But, it’s not just a numbers game. Most of those kids have zero desire to discover the ball.

What percentage of those players, for example, can juggle 100 by the time they turn 10? From my experience, less than 5%. Maybe 3%. In soccer-playing cultures this is like learning to catch and throw a baseball, or shoot a basket in our culture, both of which can be done pretty well by 10 year-old Americans, both who play and do not play organized sports.

The other 97% will tell you why juggling is unnecessary.

How many of those kids play soccer with their friends for 2-3 hours after school a few times a week? Not many.

I bet these percentage are much higher in soccer-playing cultures.

More

These are just a few things that I see that do not foster a soccer ball culture in the U.S. There are many more.

Incidentally, in my city, we have pockets where ball culture is alive and well, in areas with high immigrant populations.

There are usually pickup games in these pockets.

When the suburban, non-ball culture teams play teams from these areas, it’s usually no contest, not only on the ball, but game IQ, too.

I’ve coached from the suburban side of these games. The other team would warm up with a juggling circle, while we struggled with basic pass-and-follow line.

Their coaches didn’t need to joystick their team’s play. Those kids knew how to play on their own. Their coaches were mostly quiet, every now and then calling a player to adjust positioning or something.

Without direction, our kids would repeat basic errors like dumping the ball to the other team in front of our goal.

It eventually dawned on me that the other kids had been playing soccer and with the ball all their lives.

Our kids, even with a few rec seasons, only had a few months behind them and zero ball culture.

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Inside Soccer Playing Culture

One thing that gets overlooked in the discussion about how to improve the state of soccer in the U.S. is how much soccer is not a part of American culture.

I got to see first hand what a difference that makes when I attended a backyard quinceanara on my wife’s side of the family, last year.

I snapped this photo at the party:

kids playing soccer

The family is Mexican and Honduran, which are heavy soccer-playing cultures.

There was up to 12 kids out there kicking the ball around and they ranged in age from 3 to 20.

They didn’t play a soccer game like we know it, with goals and teams.

In this photo they were playing keep away. The guy with the ball would try to keep it, make a few moves to beat the defender and the closest guy to him would try to put pressure on him to stop him and try to get the ball.

A player possessed the ball for about 5 – 10 seconds, on average, then they’d pass it on to someone else and that pair would do the same thing.

Every now and then they’d do a 2-3 pass combo to attack an imaginary goal and shoot, but that wasn’t the main purpose of the game.

Notice the young kid with ball. He’s using the inside of his foot to control the ball and keeping it under his shoulders. He has basic technique down at a young age.

Another game they played was a simple 1v1. One guy had the ball, the other defended. The attacker tried to control the ball past the defender. The defender tried to keep the attacker from beating him and tried to get the ball.

After the attacker got past the defender or when the defender got the ball, they’d switch roles. I believe they kept score. A point for beating the defender. A point for getting the ball. They played best 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 5.

A few weeks later, my adult indoor team played against a Hispanic team. Before and after the game, their team spread across the field, paired off and played this simple 1v1 game.

These games worked well with the age differences while working on key fundamentals. The games were like simple versions of sports in our culture like 1-on-1 or 21 in basketball or ‘catch’ with a baseball or football.

All these games are fun and increase reps on fundamentals to where they become second nature.

I tried the first game with the 10 year soccer team that I coached. Here are some of the differences I saw.

Birthday party kids: Maintained their spacing well. Allowed them to move the ball around and have passing options available when the attacker’s dribbling options ran out.

American kids:  A herd of 3-4 chasing after the ball, knocking each other down to get it and often clogging up the attacker’s passing lanes.

Birthday party: Even the youngest kids had a fine 1st touch and played it away from pressure, kept the ball under their shoulders and stayed in an athletic position (shoulders over toes).

American kids: Many of the kids had a heavy first touch and often played the ball right to a defender. When they kept the ball, their next touch created a 50/50 when they kicked the ball out from under their shoulders and chased it. They too often reached for the ball with their foot, getting out of the athletic position and becoming unbalanced.

Birthday party: The closest guy naturally became the defender and started pressing to contain the attacker and wait for the mistake to tackle. It was almost like they were being switched on. As soon as the guy near them got the ball, they changed their stance to become more defensive and closed space to pressure.

American kids: The closest guy often avoided defending, moving away from the ball leaving a big gap for the attacker to play into and causing confusion among other players on who was going to defend. They wanted to be on offense only or wanted to be on the ‘good players’ team, so didn’t want to defend when the good players had the ball.  When they did defend, they dived-in for the ball, becoming unbalanced, and got beat.

Birthday party: The kids communicated passes, where to play the ball and moved around to be open for a pass.

American kids: Silent, staring at each other, standing like statues instead of moving around to get create open passing lanes.

The American kids aren’t beginners. Many have played for years.

But, they’ve played only in adult-led settings with kids in their 1 year age group and similar skill level, so they can feel competitive and successful. They haven’t discovered the game on their own they’ve had enough success with ‘boom and zoom’ soccer that they’ve had a difficult time understanding why they would want to play any differently.

I often hear these 10-year-olds brag about how many seasons they have played soccer, yet many don’t have the technical skill of the 6 year-old kids at the birthday party, because they haven’t put the reps in on their own.

Back to the party: After 20 minutes of soccer, the older kids moved on to running American football plays. Meanwhile, the younger kids got the soccer ball and kept trying to emulate the moves they saw the older kids doing a few minutes before, building their skills up.

I witnessed, firsthand, soccer being handed down through culture, without adults on the sidelines coaching every step and acting like every mistake is career-ending.

Their culture puts more focus in the early years on 1v1 skills. What little soccer is in our culture puts more focus in early years on big kicks and athleticism.

In their culture, they have refined their 1v1 skills by the time they turn 10. Most don’t even remember a time when they didn’t have those skills because they learned much of it from ages 2 – 7 by emulating their older family members and neighbors.

In our culture, that type of skill development often starts about age 10.