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Commentary Sep 24, 2014

An alternative to our youth soccer development structure – more free play

Editor’s Note: Every once in a while, some of the comments on our original articles and blog posts will be so good, that they deserve to be their own article. Today is one of those days!

The following was originally submitted as a comment on Dr. Wendy LeBolt’s blog titled “Julie Foudy offers an alternative for our childrens’ soccer development“, where the regular SoccerWire.com contributor published her thoughts on our recent extended interview with U.S. Women’s National Team legend Julie Foudy. It was a great examination of several of Foudy’s general opinions on what’s wrong with the youth game today, and Dr. LeBolt did a great job of pointing out several areas where Foudy was much closer to answering her own questions than she gave herself credit for.

Then a reader named Kirk Cypel offered these expanded thoughts that really hit home with we also feel is really missing today – more free play.

Enjoy (and please comment.. maybe you’re comments will get you published next)!

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An Alternative to Our Youth Soccer Development Structure – More Free Play

By Kirk Cypel,

The USA has a great basketball tradition. There are basketball hoops all over the country, in city parks, suburban driveways, school gyms – everywhere. Many kids grow up playing “pick up” basketball. They learn the game by playing the game. They are driven by the love of the game. They invent strategies and techniques that work for their individual body types, strengths, and weaknesses. With years of court experience behind them, some of these kids rise in the sport and join organized teams. With any luck, they work with coaches who help them perfect individual skills and who mentor them in how to play as a team. But for what is probably a majority of our greatest basketball players, their careers started by playing the street game, learning to take risks and experiment. We don’t have a parallel line of development in soccer.

When’s the last time that you saw a bunch of kids playing a “pick up” game of soccer? We have leagues and coaches and uniforms and schedules. Soccer practice can be about as inviting as Saturday school. With a heartfelt desire to “improve” our children’s experience, we create the opposite result by organizing, formalizing, regimenting and squeezing every last bit of joy out of the experience.

From England to Brazil, we see kids playing street soccer, loving the game without formal organization. So great is the desire to play soccer that, when finances don’t allow, these kids will sew a makeshift soccer ball from rags, they’ll construct a field with materials at hand.

When’s the last time you saw kids “improvise” a pickup game with makeshift soccer equipment? When’s the last time you saw a bunch of kids just kicking ball around for the heck of it? We don’t see these things often enough. It’s as if we’re teaching our kids that soccer must be played in a formal team setting. We fool ourselves into believing that coaching is more important than experiencing. It’s the wrong approach. We need to create excitement about playing the game for no other reason than the pure joy of touching the ball. When ready (not prematurely) our coaching system then needs to channel that spirit towards more organized play.

We fool ourselves into believing that coaching is more important than experiencing

And the coaching system doesn’t help. Our coaches forsake teaching the game for winning. Kids will play faithfully for a team for multiple years, only to be cut when a better player comes along (this tragedy is nowhere more pronounced than in the goalkeeper position where kids never learn field play, receive grossly inadequate training, are expected to sacrifice their bodies, and are then “discarded” when they fall behind the curve). I’ve heard more than one too many youth coaches complain about their teams – I suggest that if a coach cannot look at a losing team constructively then it is time to get out of the game. Youth coaches shouldn’t be measured by a winning record, they should be measured by how many of their kids stay in the game for the long term.

In sum, our soccer system reminds me of how the former Soviet Union used to play basketball. Their reason for playing basketball seemed less focused on playing the game and more focused on winning (in particular, beating the US). Their movement of the ball seemed so awkward relative to the fluid play of the US. By contrast, I see the same stiff play among many youth [soccer] teams.

That’s not to say that we don’t have talent. We have tremendous talent. In a country with a population of over 300 million – with many families having roots in soccer-playing countries – we are bound to have talent. We just don’t have a depth of talent that is commensurate with our population. At the youth team level it is often difficult to find 11 players with great talent (let alone having a deep bench). Watching my daughter’s playing career, it occured to me that the difference between winning and losing teams had little to do with actual coaching but whether the coach would be successful in recruiting a larger talent pool.

Soccer’s a beautiful game. There’s constant action. How many of our soccer playing kids actually watch the game on TV? How many of our kids go to see college games? It strikes me as strange – that many kids who play the game are not active fans of the sport.

Finally, there’s a lot to be said for giving our kids a break from soccer. Let them discover other sports, other interests. If you play a team sport, it’s good to balance with more personal/individual endeavors. It will help to develop them physically and emotionally.

In sum, as Dr. LeBolt subtly suggests, you can’t buy sophistication. We gain sophistication by making something more than a mere activity, we gain sophistication by making something part of our passions and our lives. We make that happen by giving kids the freedom to love the game without pressure and preserving the joy of this game for a larger percentage of the population. We’re all about putting together a winning team. This mindset weeds out players prematurely. With love for the game, it will become a greater part of our culture and that love will drive the creative development of our players.

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 + More Posts on “Free Play”:  The massive importance of free play and Friday nights done right at Vienna Youth Soccer (Va.)

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