There is a vigorous debate going on in the soccer world these days about the balance between proper training and free play. As you will see from my previous articles on the subject, I am a huge advocate of free play, both within an organized training session, and by creating an environment that encourages kids to go out and start up a game on their own.
We hear over and over how kids just do not play pickup anymore, and I get asked all the time “How can you encourage them to just go play?” Recently, I learned a fantastic way from one of the US’s best up and coming young coaches, Mark Spiegel, the Director of the South Central Soccer Academy’s U8-U10 program in Indianapolis, IN. It’s called “Make Your Own Ball Night.”
We have learned that it is alright to be a kid for the night. – Mark Spiegel
Spiegel was a promising player at Butler University when an unexpected ball to the head caused a traumatic brain injury, effectively ending his soccer career at the age of 19. Saddled by pain, ongoing headaches, and memory loss, he was forced to drop out of school and moved back to Kansas City with his parents. For the next few years, he struggled with his injury, but eventually returned to Indiana, finished his degree, and got into coaching. As he says, “Coaching made my head hurt worse, but my soul feel better. It gave me a purpose.”
Spiegel took over the U8-U10 Academy at SCSA four years ago, and instilled a player development philosophy focused on putting the kids first. “We want every child in the Academy to feel celebrated…and in that celebration that there’s room for failure, so a kid isn’t afraid to fail; we also try to get the most out of each child and find out each child’s potential.
“Make Your Own Ball Night” is exactly what it sounds like, an evening where players are encouraged to make balls out of plastic bags, old socks, duct tape and other items that children around the world stitch together to make balls. The night evolved after a planned mission trip to Uganda for Spiegel fell through. In preparation for the trip, he had done a lot of research and planning, and the change he felt from that work was something he wanted to bring to the players in his Academy.
“Our goal in the Academy is to teach not only the love of the game and the skills and fundamentals needed to play it, but also bigger life lessons like character, leadership and service,” says Spiegel. “This night was created to get us to stop for a second and think about how lucky we are and to make us realize that the world does not revolve around us.”
Now in its third year, the coaches at SCSA call it “The Greatest Night of the Year” and the kids follow suit. Even the parents have caught on, and now send emails filled with videos, stories and pictures of them creating the balls with their players. They come out and watch the event and click pictures as the players buzz around. The event has become a catalyst for the community and culture Spiegel and his staff has spent the last 4 years trying to create.
The night is one of joy. Kids have the pressure of it all stripped away and as a coach you are reminded that this is ‘Just a game.’ – Mark Spiegel
“The night revolves around TRUTH and uses a soccer ball to allow us to hear and see it in a new light,” says Spiegel. “We still play soccer but we see the game from a new, unique and humbling perspective. We go barefoot and play with the imperfect and misshapen soccer balls that we create. And the process is just as important, if not more important, than the actual scoring of goals on the night of the event. Parents and kids watch tear filled YouTube videos of children playing with these balls in impoverished countries, kids get to take ownership and be creative, and the two weeks leading up seem to be a conversation about the event.”
The basic structure of “Make Your Own Ball Night” is simple. The kids just show up and play with their homemade balls (as well as canned food and clothing to be donated to local charities and overseas children in need.). The coaches attempt to celebrate every ball that comes through by looking at it, juggling it and high fiving the player for making it. Then the players split up and play small sided games.
After playing for a while with kids their own age in like age groups, the players come together for a short speech about the “why” behind “Make Your Own Ball Night” and then go back and play. At the end of the session, they mix the players up so that the 9 year olds get a chance to meet and take on the 13 year olds and so that the 14 year olds have a chance to connect and get on the same level as the 8 year olds. This allows the club to be a place where players come to be a part of something bigger than themselves, simply by playing.
“But this is soccer in the US,” says Spiegel. “We have a few detractors. Some parents think preparation for games is more important and that a practice spent barefoot running after an egg shaped handmade ball holds no credence in the development of the next Graham Zusi. But these voices are becoming the exception.”
Mark Speigel and his staff have created something special in Indiana. They have given kids ownership of the game, and every part of it down to the ball it is played with. They have shown the power of FREE PLAY.
As he so eloquently states, “The night is one of joy. Kids have the pressure of it all stripped away and as a coach you are reminded that this is ‘Just a game.’ We have learned a lot from this event. We have learned about the power of invitation. We have learned about the power of a ball and the common language we have with those around the world. We learn to play. We learn to give back. We learn that without ACTION following TRUTH, lives are not changed. We have learned that it is alright to be a kid for the night. We have learned that challenging kids of any age to think about hard issues is possible and is beneficial. “
Free play, education, social awareness, and children taking back the game and making it their own; now that is something I think we all can get behind.
(If you are interested in setting up your own “Make Your Own Ball Night,” you can. In mid-September, SCSA and Indiana Youth Soccer invited all clubs in Indiana to hold an event on the same night, and it was a huge success. Why not be the first to set this up in your own state?)
Editor’s links on Free Play:
+ The massive importance of free play
+ An alternative to our youth soccer development structure – more free play
+ Algonquin Sports for Kids: Improving skills of U-6s, U-8s through free play
+ Friday nights done right at Vienna Youth Soccer (Va.)
+ Watch ‘Pelada’ Trailer