Tale of two teams: raise the bottom to push up the top

Tweet from Tom Byer:

The following example supports that point.

Setting: Sideline of scrimmage at youth soccer practice where I assisted.

Team One: Academy, top division team.

Team Two: Beginner to intermediate, but a year older.

If you judge the the teams before they scrimmage each other you might expect Team Two to dominate. They are older, bigger and look more athletic. A lot of the Team One players look bookish.

Once scrimmage begins, you quickly learn you are mistaken. Team One dominates and keeps the ball 90% of the time.

When Team Two gets the ball, they are lucky to get three touches before giving it back to Team One.

It’s like watching 6th graders (Team One) compete against 2nd graders (Team Two) in math. Of course, the 6th graders will look like geniuses, if you have nothing else to compare to.

But, Team One isn’t great, even though they are “elite” and win a lot.

They just have the basics down. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus are still to come.

Team Two represents the bottom 60-70% in my area and Team One the top 10%.

Comparing to traditional US sports of basketball and baseball, a team with a similar level of proficiency in either of those sports as Team One has in soccer would be low B or C level and Team Two would be in the bottom 10%, if playing at all.

Here are some key differences I noticed between Team One and Two players.

When players wait on the sideline to sub into scrimmage, Team One players work with the ball without being led. They juggle in groups, play 1v1, pass or dribble around backpacks and water bottles. They can all juggle 50 to 100.

Players from Team Two need need adult direction or they goof off. They think the academy players juggle to show off. “You don’t use it in a game,” they reason.

Team Two player have played organized “soccer for years.” They will tell you that, but they also exhibit no interest in discovering the sport on their own. They don’t see the need to touch the ball outside of practice and could barely name a single player on the local pro team. They are a step better than beginners, learning close to 100% of what they know about soccer through the team. They are often the first ones in their family to play soccer.

Team One also played organized soccer for years. But, its players are curious about learning to master the ball and game, learning about 90% of what they know outside of organized soccer through family and/or on their own. Many came from families whose parents played soccer, or have older siblings who play.

That’s what Tom Byer means by raising the bottom to lift the top. If Team Two had basic proficiency, they would push Team One harder to improve.

In non-soccer cultures the mindset is that kids learn soccer in organized settings with qualified professionals at the helm.

Byer’s suggests flipping that by expecting kids to learn the basics before they join a team.

That’s more like how we think of basketball and baseball. That’s part of the reason we start playing catch with kids when they’re toddlers and buy them Fisher-Price basketball hoops.

Parents expect more from soccer coaches than coaches of other sports. If their kid can’t make a basket, they encourage their kid to practice more.

That mindset is flipped in soccer. If their kid can’t score a goal, they ask why the coach hasn’t taught them how, yet, and start to doubt if the coach knows what they’re doing.

First ball, then game

Wise words from Tom Byer in the tweet below:

“Fall in love with the Ball first and the game follows.”

 

“No Kicking”: my informal title to Tom Byer’s “Soccer Starts at Home”

Keeping with Tom Byer’s advice, I gave small soccer balls to family members with small children for Christmas with the following instructions:

  • These are for inside use, so you can work with the ball year round no matter what the weather is like outside.
  • No Kicking.

When I said, “No Kicking,” the response from adults and kids was the same, “What? Isn’t that was soccer is?”

Then, as Tom recommends, I showed the kids what that meant. I showed them pullbacks, turns, moving the ball in all directions and playing nutmeg 1v1 to learn how to protect the ball.

The kids started trying to do that stuff.

Time will tell if they keep it up.

I thought I’d report on the response I got from saying “No Kicking.” It got their attention and made them think.

Improve the bottom to improve the top

In his book, Soccer Starts at Home, Tom Byer challenges conventional wisdom/intuition about sports development.

His biggest challenge is to the belief that soccer skills are too advanced for young children to work on. Conventional wisdom holds that these skills come later, after age 8.

Tom thinks (and has shown with his own kids and pointing out kids from soccer cultures) they can and do start to develop as early as the child can walk, with the right activities.

I’ve seen soccer folks agree with Byer on that point, but disagree with him on another key point he makes:

To improve the top level of talent we have to improve the bottom level.

They believe the U.S. has plenty of top talent, so they think the key to moving forward is a matter of devoting more resources to that top tier to make them even better.

It’s easy to make this mistake. The top-talent seems to be there. They are really good.

But, still something seems to be missing in that top talent compared to talent from richer soccer playing cultures.

What’s missing? Tom Byer gives us the answer to that one, too. This is from his book:

“The best way to make the ‘elite’ player better is by raising the level of the lower-level players. They in turn will push the elite players to become better. Imagine you have a team of 20 8-year-old players. Three of the 20 are very skillful and the other 17 are not. Those three good players know they will most likely play every minute of every game and in their preferred position, even if they goof off or miss practice. So there is often a complacency with the best players who invariably are not pushed into making themselves better. But imagine if all 20 of those players have a similar technical ability. The competition then becomes much more fierce; they will fight to retain their position on the team and work harder to become better players.”

I’ve written about this before here, about an agent who places American players into European clubs. He says a key difference he sees between U.S. and European youth soccer players is the sense of where they are headed.

He said the American youth are happy to be best on their current team and there isn’t a competitive atmosphere to inspire improvement. The comes through as relative laziness in practice and games.

The European youth are working toward making their club’s first team someday and there’s a much more spirited competitive atmosphere to demonstrate they are heading that way. They’re competing for spots against other players who are just as good as they are, which motivates them to work harder on their own, in practice and games.

I’ll vouch for what he sees on the American side of things. I’ve seen it first hand and from interactions with other coaches, it’s common.

So, what does this mean?

Take Byer’s advice. We currently introduce kids to soccer through organized activities and expect clubs to teach them the skills they need to succeed.

He thinks that’s backwards. The kids should have those skills first, before joining organized soccer.

I think this is more like how we know other sports work. Kids typically know how to throw, catch and hit before joining a competitive baseball team.

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 a culture that promotes discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture actually works against developing ball mastery.

I know that sounds strange. It seems pretty simple to understand that it’s a fundamental.

But, here are just a few things that work against that…

Kick and run — While this attitude is slowly changing, many unfamiliar with the sport still see it as pretty simple, you just kick and run and there’s need for ‘fancy footwork’ (or, what I like to call “the basics”).

Sadly, it took me about 2 years to learn, as a coach, that I was wrong about this. It took my team playing against another team that did have some basics. I wish I would have played a team like that much sooner.

Misunderstanding of how touch develops — Lots of folks do appreciate touch, but just don’t understand how it develops. They think it just eventually comes with age and coordination. They don’t realize that it can start at an early age and takes a lot of practice.

I doubt that the folks in a ball culture explicitly realize this, either. It’s not like they are forcing their 2 year-old’s to dribble through cones with the express intent of developing ball mastery.

Rather, they teach and play with their kids in simple and fun games to play with the soccer ball, just like we teach our kids simple and fun games with baseballs (all variations of catch) and basketballs (all variations of 1-on-1, etc.) that build lots of repetition without realizing it, because it’s fun.

Aversion to playing with the soccer ball outside of organized soccer — I’ve scratched my head on this one for years. It amazes me, and lots of others, how few soccer players even look at the ball outside of organized events.

They treat it like a job that they don’t want to bring home. It doesn’t help that parents don’t want kids to have balls in the house, or a wall to kick the ball against. And, they seem to believe that practice should be enough to learn to ‘kick a ball.’

I think this goes back to the previous point — kids and parents simply don’t know simple and fun games.

Why wait for a program? Get started NOW

On Twitter, Tom Byer recently posted a message thanking all the people for the direct messages he has received about starting programs with their local soccer associations.

What program do you need?

Read his book.

If you are a parent of a young one, he says get some small balls in the house. Show your kids how to move the ball in every direction while keeping it close. Play some ‘take the ball’ 1v1 with them, so they learn how to shield it with their body. Discourage just kicking it. Discourage using hands. Keep the ball at their feet and move with it.

Just do that.

If you run a Bitty soccer program, stop doing shooting and passing stations. Start doing the above and teach parents to do it at home.

I’ll add, if your child is older than 6 or 8, it’s not too late! I’ve seen kids of all ages improve once they start practicing with the ball consistently. I’ve improved, myself, at a much more advanced age.

What to expect

Be patient. In my experience, it takes 3-5 years of consistent effort to become decent, no matter what age you are when you start.

That fits Tom’s experience with his own kids and fits with the acquisition time of similar motor skills needed in other sports.

You will see some noticeable improvements in as little as a few weeks and improvements along the way, but don’t lose sight of the 3-5 year time frame.

It’s too easy to get complacent after making some progress and let months or a year go by without touching the ball.

It’s also easy to get frustrated during long plateau periods where you are touching the ball, but the progress isn’t noticeable like during your ‘quickening’ periods. Keep at it.

After the first 3-6 months of improvement, progress gets choppier, but still happens.

What Tom describes above is a soccer equivalent to playing catch with baseballs and footballs or playing OUT and 1-on-1 in driveway basketball.

These basic and fun activities help people of all ages learn basic motor and coordination skills they need to compete in all these sports.

Players in these sports who don’t do these activities outside of team practice will not be playing these sports much past 10 years old, just as Tom says that many kids quit soccer when they realize they don’t have the technical competence to compete.

What is technical competence?

I’d like to put some concrete on that. I’ve seen Twitter posts attacking Tom along the lines of…”How do you measure technical competence??”

If it were baseball, I doubt many people would expect a 10-year-old who can’t catch a ball to make it onto a competitive team. That player’s technical deficiency is obvious to everyone. We all know the cure. Go play catch!

Yet, I’ve seen competitive DIVISIONS of soccer filled with players who can’t trap the ball and few seem to notice.

That’s the cultural problem Tom highlights.

We know baseball well enough to know that catching is a basic skill needed by all players.

We don’t know soccer well enough to know that trapping the ball is a basic skill needed by all players. People who don’t know soccer don’t know what a good trap looks like.