To Play or Not to Play
Thursday, April 19, 2012
A few months back an old high school friend emailed me with a dilemma. US Soccer announced that its Development Academy was moving to a ten-month schedule and that players on these teams wouldn’t be allowed to participate on their high school teams. I am told that my friend’s son is a very good (but not great) player. He might earn a college soccer scholarship, but he’ll never play for the national team. He’s not sure if playing academy soccer is worth missing out on the high school experience. My friend asked for my opinion, and here’s my response.
Ahhhhh yes... to play or not play high school soccer? The million dollar question with no right answer. I've had a couple dozen parents ask me this one over the years and my simple answer was always, if she wants to play, then let her play.
I've never bought into the idea that high school soccer stymies development for the simple reason that it is one more soccer environment. People used to say (and I'm sure some still do) that indoor soccer was bad for development and as far as I'm concerned, that was a load of crap. Indoor soccer is phenomenal for technical development because it limits the impact of physical tools such as speed and size and slide tackling. It constantly makes players solve problems on the ball in tight spaces, and the only way to do that is with technique.
Here's my view of high school soccer as it applies to advanced players: yes, the level of play is going to be lower, but I think there is a value to that if you approach it properly. The best way I can translate it is to explain my approach to training the college kids in the spring. Keep in mind that I am speaking only for myself and not every college coach will agree with me. In the fall, we focus on building the team. It's as much about tactics as it is about technical development. We can't afford mistakes in the fall so we're always searching for perfection and that limits the opportunities for players to experiment and develop technically.
But in the spring, it's all about technical development. In the spring we want our players to experiment; we want them to make mistakes - thousands of them - because that's the only way a player expands her technical skill set. It's trial and error for a long, long time until eventually the player develops a mastery of a new technique to the point where she is willing to use it in a match. In the spring we want our players putting more tools in their toolbox. That won't happen if they don't feel the freedom to make mistakes. And that's a freedom they don't enjoy during the fall when results actually matter. I hope this is making sense.
So for an advanced player, I see high school soccer as a great chance to experiment and gain confidence with new techniques. The stuff a player may be afraid to attempt against high level players... against players who aren't so developed, he will have a great lab for experimentation. (Think of a Yankees pitcher going down to 'A' ball to work on his slider).
This belief that immersing players in the highest possible level at all times is not exactly bulletproof. Just look at Freddie Adu who was thrown into the MLS at age 14. Ask US Soccer how that one worked out. I think dialing down the competitive arena every now and then is actually better in the long run.
Anyway, that is my philosophical soccer argument. Here is my personal one:
I loved playing high school soccer and it was a big part of my life and it helped me make a lot of great friends like yourself and Nello and Weasel and Murph and on and on. I really can't imagine what would fill that hole if I went back in time and lived life without soccer at Hun. You know, I barely remember the games, but I remember how great it felt going out to the field with you guys and how much I loved getting ready for preseason and how much I loved the stupid stuff we did on van rides. It was also pretty cool because it provided a small degree of celebrity and gave me an identity in an environment where I really didn't otherwise belong. Plus, I was proud to represent my school and I had an amazing time doing it.
The problem with US Soccer (the federation) is that everything they put in place is designed to win World Cups. Your boy's social development is not a consideration. It's all about identifying the 30 or so players (out of a few million) who have a chance of comprising the best national team a few years down the road. Honestly, I think it's way out of line for clubs to keep kids from playing for their schools and I'd love to see someone get a lawyer and take the issue to court. But that's just me.
The problem is, if your kid has to make a choice, I really can't tell him what choice to make.
I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Could make a good article for publication. Plus, I'd just be interested at learning the sides of it I'm not even considering.
Now… this is the part that I left out.
Do you know why our country of 311 million hasn’t put together a legitimate contender to win a World Cup? Because soccer’s not our thing. I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but soccer is just not our culture. Sure, it’s a hobby to many and a passion to some, but it’s not the measuring stick of our national worth. It’s not the genesis of celebrity. Soccer players aren’t stars in this country. They might be stars to soccer people, but unless you follow MLS, those guys are pretty unrecognizable. They are the athletes that can actually fly coach because it won’t cause a disruption. In the rest of the world, soccer is not just the passion of soccer people; it’s the passion of the nation. And it consumes them!
The typical US soccer experience is to train twice a week with your club and then play a game or two on the weekends. In between those events you have Facebook and Twitter and American Idol and PlayStation and baseball and basketball and wiffle ball and more internet and on and on and on. And to be fair, I don’t think that sampling from a larger menu is such a horrible existence. Variety is good. But it’s not how you win World Cups.
We dabble in soccer. The rest of the world specializes in it. Where we dip our toes, they are submerged. They play it. They watch it. And they emulate those who play it when they are done watching it. Even the people who aren’t any good at it still follow it. And not just every four years.
We drag our kids to club practice. In other countries the soccer club is the social center. The kids ride their bikes there and they train four times a week (notice a problem already?) and play games on the weekend. On the nights they don’t train, they may pedal to the club just to hang out, maybe even watch the senior team train. They all aspire to one day play for their club’s flagship team – the one where the players get paid. And many dream of playing on the much bigger stages of the EPL or Serie A or LaLiga. Soccer is legitimately a passion. You think your kid has a true passion for soccer? Here’s a great way to find out. Next week, aside from the time he spends with his team, clock how many hours he spends with the soccer ball. Yes, your son may LOVE playing soccer. But does he love it enough to train on his own? Because let me tell you, if he does, he’s in the vast minority. And I guarantee you that his clone in England, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Argentina and Uzbekistan certainly will be training outside of training. Why? Because it is more fun than anything else he can imagine. It’s actually more fun than Facebook! The culture of his country has taught him that.
Have you ever driven through England – outside of the big city centers? Everywhere there is a patch of grass you’ll see kids playing pick-up soccer. They’ll throw down some shirts to make goals and then they’ll play. I can’t even tell you the last time I saw American kids playing soccer without a coach there to set out cones. It’s as if without coaches there is no soccer.
Americans are great at playing pick-up basketball! Anywhere there’s a court you’ll see at least a few guys out there. But basketball courts lend themselves to pick-up games. For starters, if you shoot and miss, you don’t have to chase the ball sixty yards. If you’re playing soccer by yourself, even if you shoot and score, you still have to chase the ball and dig it out of the net. Do you know fast that gets old? And really, isn’t shooting so much more fun if you have a goalkeeper with you? But they’re just not that easy to come by. Basketball is so much easier. You shoot… and as if by magic… the ball comes back to you. One person with one ball is enough to play and enjoy yourself for long periods of time.
A few years ago Steve showed me an article from some soccer publication (can’t remember which) where a coach was pondering the nagging question of why America trails the world in soccer. He said something to the affect that all three-year olds looks the same the first time they kick a soccer ball, whether the kid is American, Brazilian, German or Chinese. And that’s probably true. A short time later I took an international trip and observed a soccer club that was training a bunch of different age groups in its indoor facility, including its U-6 team. Now I don’t know what it looks like for three-year olds, but I can tell you that it looks a helluva lot different by the time they turn five. These toddlers were light-years ahead of any five-year old I’ve seen in our country.
In the U.S., we have to entertain our players or they quickly lose interest and their effort declines proportionally. But these kids… their approach to the monotony of technical repetitions was dwarfed by a passion for achieving perfection. I watched this team go through a “follow your pass” exercise around the outside of a 20x20 yard grid for 20 minutes (I timed it). The exercise never varied except to occasionally change the direction of the passing from clockwise to counter-clockwise. This is the definition of soccer monotony and these kids absolutely attacked it! Their passes were technically pure. They could all receive a ball and actually prep it. And most shocking of all… after each pass, without encouragement or commands, without pleading from the coach, the player who passed the ball burst into an all-out sprint. Every. Single. Time. For 20 minutes! Izzy’s on a soccer team now and she gets bored after five minutes of “Protect Your Pet.” And let me tell you something, Protect Your Pet is a whole lot more entertaining than Follow Your Pass. It’s a little bit of a nonstarter though because no one on Izzy’s team can actually pass a ball anyway. I don’t think any one of them could move a ball twenty yards without kicking it at least four times.
Later that night I watched this team break into an intra-squad scrimmage of 5v5 + Ks and I saw the most incredible thing… they PASSED THE BALL! On purpose! To their teammates! Sometimes they even passed backwards! I saw one player DUMMY the ball into the path of his teammate and it was absolutely the right choice. The kid was FIVE!!!
If this doesn’t sound extraordinary to you on almost an interplanetary level, then you’ve obviously never had the pleasure of working with five, six, seven and eight-year old American players who follow the ball around the field in one amorphous blob, who don’t even realize when the ball has gone out of bounds, who only pass if… NO, who NEVER pass, and who would never even consider the concept of dummying the ball.
But these kids... they played 5v5 and they had shape. Good shape. Good TEAM shape. It was youth soccer that actually looked like soccer. They could actually trap a ball – with their feet. Not once did I see the flying double shin trap – a fixture in American soccer even at the high school level. I watched the goalkeeper catch and then quickly bowl the ball to his teammate. And he did this without first backpedaling to the center of his goal-line, another signature move of the young American goalkeeper.
When the keeper got the ball, his teammates quickly spread out to stretch the field. This is an interesting contrast to the American style which dictates that when a six-year old goalkeeper picks up the ball, four of his teammates try prying the ball from his arms, tell him he stinks, and then ask if they can be the goalie.
This experience scared me. These kids were so far ahead of our kids that it’s actually impossible to convey. I was in total disbelief. It was like seeing a UFO. And this was not Brazil where an argument might be made that kids are actually born with a soccer-friendly gene. These were not Germans who I could imagine marching in columns into a facility of soccer excellence. This wasn’t England, Italy, Holland or Spain. This was… wait for it… Iceland! Yes! Iceland for Pete’s sake! And nothing against Iceland because it is a beautiful country full of wonderful people, but let’s face it, the population is 317,000 and half the year is spent in darkness. Atlanta has bigger suburbs! But if you took any American team of five, six, seven or eight-year olds and put them against these Vikings, the score would be laughable. Everything would be laughable. At that age the two nations are playing a different sport. So you see, the fork in the road of our soccer cultures begins before high school… before middle school… and quite possibly before the first grade.
If the U.S. is to catch the rest of the world, it will surely be from a combination of our sheer numbers and some sheer good fortune. Every time I travel internationally I am reminded that our hobby is their heartbeat. Will locking kids out of high school soccer change that?
Honestly, I just don’t know.