I’m reading The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson and it’s making me question what we’re doing in youth soccer.
If you read books like The Talent Code , or just listen to popular wisdom, you know that the best players “come from the streets of Rio and Buenos Aires.” In fact organizations like Street Soccer seek to train players by re-creating the atmosphere of the streets the world over. And Hodgkinson’s book would have us believe the children are overschooled and overmanaged. He quotes Neil Postman: “Children’s games are disappearing, Postman reports, replaced by ‘highly organized, expensive and adult-oriented sports clubs like Little League baseball and Pee wee football.’ Americans are ‘insisting that even at age six, children play their games without spontaneity, under careful supervision, and at an intense competitive level . . . .Children’s play has become an adult preoccupation, it has become professionalized, it is no longer a world separate from the adults.’”
Later in the book, when his wife arranged tennis lessons for his 5 year-old son, Hodgkinson’s reaction was: “I remember being aghast ( . . . ) What sort of madness was that? Saturday mornings are for lying around doing nothing. (. . .) Here’s a tip: Don’t let them anywhere near the soccer team (. . . ) You will find that your weekends are completely ruined by having to drive them to matches all over the place. Organized sports is the enemy. Skateboarding, yes. That is free, you can do it anywhere and there are no parents involved, or very few. But team sports? No, no, no.” He goes on to support kids playing freely with minimal adult intervention, as kids do when playing soccer unsupervised.
Which leads me to wonder – am I the luckiest guy in the world, getting to be part of the recreational fun of 17 happy, well-adjusted boys, or am I just another authority figure reinforcing blind adherence to schedules,
processes and limiting roles? Am I channeling fun, or as Pink Floyd suggests, taking these lovely boys and turning them into “another brick in the wall”? Would my guys do better, and be happier, having free soccer play for 90 minutes?
Like Scrooge asked on Christmas Eve, “Is this what I must become, or if I change now, can I change this picture I see?”
One way to blend these extremes – avoiding team sport at all costs on one hand, and drilling values of competitiveness and submission to authority on the other – might be to coach my team in a facilitative manner. Jeff Wilson, the Technical Director of my club, San Francisco Vikings, stopped by to observe one of my practices the other day. Part of his feedback was that I should correct technique more often. I’m pretty lax when it comes to that, because I would prefer that my boys develop their own ability to discern subtle distinctions between what they do and what others do. For example, one of my players, David, has poor passing technique. His ankle is too loose and his contact is too far toward the toe end of his foot, instead of near the heel. I hadn’t said anything, but after Jeff’s visit, I did. Have I been of service in doing this, or have I robbed David of an opportunity to develop his autodidactic abilities?
Usually what I’ll do is ask the player what he notices. I’ll lead the conversation, sure, but I stay out of the critical thinking process. If David can’t figure out what is happening with his technique, I’ll ask him to observe someone with better skill, like Sam A.. If that doesn’t work, I’ll ask him to train with Sam. If that still doesn’t work, I’ll ask Sam what he thinks about David’s technique.
There is much talk about ”Let the game be the teacher” and that’s all well and fine, we’ve all had coaches whose method was to bring the bag of balls at the beginning of practice and take them in at the end. We looked down at these guys because they didn’t teach us anything, they in fact may not have known anything. At the same time, we’ve also had coaches who “taught” us so much we’d get cold standing on the field listening. Interruptions disrupt flow, and flow is the natural state of performance. Soccer is unlike the “Big Three” of America sport (baseball, basketball and football) because the games in those sports are completely coach-controlled. Coaches are geniuses, wizards, and generals who call every pitch, tell batters whether to swing, baserunners if they can steal. They dictate basketball and football plays where each player has an “assignment” to either fulfill or fail at. A teammate of mine who also played football once said that a coach had told him that soccer was “like one big pass interception” because that was the only time in football that players didn’t have a set task to accomplish. They had to improvise, having suddenly changed from offense to defense and vice versa.
If soccer is a “Football is a game you play with your brain” [Johan Cruyff] how do you develop your brain, except by thinking for yourself? I think my role is to create a good question or challenge for the boys, like how to play through the midfield with the fewest touches possible, by making a game of two-touch, for example, and then let them find the answer themselves.
And there is the self-serving pragmatic angle. If I intervene less, “let the kids play” and become the Idle Coach, how will I be perceived and rated compared to a coach whose sessions are a cavalcade of colored cones,
speed ladders, Pugg goals and a tightly regimented schedule? Will I draw complaints if all I say to my players when they have questions is, “what do you think?”