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.

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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.

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.

“Soccer Starts at Home” III

I agree with what Tom Byer says about getting kids started early and in the home to develop their technical soccer skills.

But…

It’s good to keep in mind that doing this won’t turn everyone into World Cup/Premier League players, just like playing catch doesn’t turn all kids into pro baseball players.

But, it will result in a larger pool of players that can make it that level and more and better competition among those players, just like playing catch does for baseball.

Also, I hope Tom’s simple advice won’t be warped into activities for those younger than 5 years old like ‘2- a-week technical training camps led by UEFA licensed coaches’ and ‘elite competitive leagues’.

It doesn’t take a former Yankees coach to play catch with a four year old nor does it take a former Manchester United player to teach a 3 year-old how to pull the ball back. I’ve seen this taught by 5 year-old’s.