Monday, October 8, 2007

Sam's Blog - Reviving the pickup game - Oct. 8

Sam’s Blog will be a weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer.

Whether you call it street soccer, a sandlot game, a kick-about or a pickup game -- this is the way that millions upon millions over many decades have learned to play soccer. While the pickup game has not disappeared in the USA, it is not used in soccer as it could be. There are millions of kids playing soccer in our country, so why do we not see pickup games at every turn?

There can be many reasons why so few pickup games happen in youth soccer. They include a sedentary lifestyle, the vacant lot doesn't exist any longer, even the design of neighborhoods nowadays means there is little or no yard on which to play, parents are reluctant to let their kids play away from home without adult supervision, soccer facilities are closed except for scheduled events, or the kids simply don't know how to organize a game.

There can be more reasons and some of the ones I've noted are beyond the direct control of most soccer coaches. But the one that is the most disturbing to me is that kids don't know how to organize their own games. How has it come to pass that kids can't throw down something to mark goals, pick teams and play?

Well part of the answer is that we coaches have taken the game away from the youngsters. We over-coach and we over-organize. Coaches, parents and administrators need to take a step back and give the game back to the players.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, coaches had to be a focal point of most soccer experiences since so many of the kids were just then being introduced to the game. Unlike today, there were very few televised soccer matches, and in many communities none at all.

Professional and college team were not nearly as prevalent as today, so a chance for a kid to go watch adults play the game was few and far between. Even to watch a World Cup match you had to go to a theater for closed-circuit TV to see a game. Consequently the coach had to demonstrate all of the ball skills, show players how to position themselves on the field and teach the rules.

While that's still true to an extent today, the models of how to play the game for a child to see are many. The coach no longer needs to be at the center of a novice's soccer experience. Now keep in mind that coaches are not alone in the need to give the game back to the players.

Our organization has been a double-edged sword for American soccer. The ability to organize has created teams, clubs and leagues. It has created from nothing soccer complexes that dot the land and in some cases are of quite high quality. The organization has provided for coaching and referee education that is very good. The game has grown tremendously over the last 35 years on the backs of volunteers for the most part. But the organization has a down side too. We adults meddle too much in the kids' soccer world. We plan everything! From uniforms for U6 players to select teams at U10, the adults are too involved. The kids don't know how to organize a pickup game because we have never let them.

OK, so good organization is an American trait. But what might be driving the compulsion to infiltrate adult organization into child's play?

As a sports nation we suffer from the "too much too soon" syndrome. Many adults involved in youth soccer want so badly to achieve success (superficially measured by the won/loss record and number of trophies collected) that they are bound to treat children as miniature adults. Unfortunately it is the adults who lack the patience to let the game grow within the child at its own pace.

In the National Youth License coaching course of the National Coaching Schools the idea of street soccer is presented. This is a way for the club to begin to give the game back to its rightful owners, the players. The club provides the fields and supervision for safety (but no coaching) to let the kids show up and play pick up games. Granted it's not as spontaneous as a neighborhood game, but it does provide a chance to play without referees, without coaches and without spectators.

This means the kids are free to learn how to organize themselves, solve disputes, become leaders, rule their own game, experiment with new skills, make new friends and play without the burden of results.

If the club wants to provide an even better fun-filled learning environment, then put out different types of balls to use in some of the games, encourage the kids to set up fields of different sizes, allow mixed age groups to play together and even co-ed games. The kids have a lot they can learn from each other. After all, players learning from players has produced Michele Akers, Pele, Johan Cruyff and many other world-class players. That same unencumbered environment has produced the multitudes who support the game.

When we adults give the game back to the players, in some small measure we are most likely to keep more players in the game for all of their lives and then the odds improve for the USA to produce its share of world class players. Youth soccer now lives in the culture it created over the last 30 years. Will we evolve?


Geoff Brown said...

This is the kind of thing we do at Trinity Lime Rock's summer soccer program (Sunday mornings in the summer instead of Sunday School, and open to the community).

It works really well, and has the advantage of kids playing in mixed age ranges and both sexes together. We do virtually no coaching, BUT I have discovered that the kids simply will not organize themselves if there is a coach present.

They seem to feel that they have to be divided into teams; that they cannot manage this themselves. It's not a problem to do it, but it continues to amaze me that it's so. I'd like to hear ideas on how to get them to take this over as well.

Anonymous said...

Why kids can not organize themselves??...I think the key is passion!!. I am not sure that overcoaching is the problem. Basketball has lots of coaching, yet kids can organize pick up games. In America, soccer comes from the parents when they sign them up to a league. After the game is over where do they go???. They go about their lives, possibly not to touch a soccer ball until the next game. There is no Soccer drama in TV to watch (i.e River plate vs Boca Juniors), no neighbors talking about Ronaldinho, No uncle visiting talking about the MLS game last night. Our kids don't feel the soccer energy nor the soccer love. They don't see the neighborhood kid with exceptional ball skills that they want to imitate..etc..etc.etc..

All those elements come into play for kids to create a soccer fantasy world, the same way they want to play with toys pretending, they will want to pretent they are soccer superstars, they will start organizing themself, one kid will pretend to be Pele, another mardona another ronaldinho, another kaka. It starts at an early age..Trust me..I experienced it first hand.

I watched my first world coup final when I was 6 years old. It was 1970 Brazil vs Italy. They whole country where I was born was paralized. I saw Pele pass the ball to a sprinting Carlos Alberto on the right flank and him firing that ball to the net. I remember this vividly, there were lots of grown ups in the house watching the game. I remember them screaming GOL!!!!!!!!!. When carlos Alberto scored. I was captivated by the game ever since. All of a sudden the neighborhood kids started imitating, talking about plays etc..etc.

And we started organizing pick up games since then.

You see my plays U8. He is a player well above his peers, great dribbler, great vision etc..etc..

But the passion is not there. It all came because I showed him the game. He still has not created a fantasy about the game. WHY??

Well think about all above and but change the sport (i.e football). That were the fantasy is comming from. They listing kids talk about Tom brady, Terrel owens, or Chaq and Kobe

I can only hope that changes one day

Our kids need to develop the fantasy about the game. Only then, the game will come from them, not from us.

My 1/2 cent

tftjf said...

I somewhat agree with the comments about passion, but there is definately something to "kids can not organize themselves".
Last week I took my 8 year old daughter and her two friends to a soccer clinic featuring Abby Wambach. Twenty minutes before the start there was about 40 kids spread out on the field for the U8 group. My girls asked if they could play a game. I said go ahead, and their response was "We need you to do it." I suggested they go ask other kids and start a game, but they said they were afraid. I finally agreed that I would play a game "with" them, but they needed to choose the game, make the rules/ teams.
In checking out the other age groups, it was the same thing. 200 soccer players standing on fields with soccer balls at their feet waiting for a grown up to organize them.
These kids had some of that passion that you mention is lacking. They knew players names, stats (several kids corrected her when she incorrectly said her career # of goals), etc. They had taped the World Cup games. Some of the older kids claimed to get up and watch some of the games before school.
These kids love soccer and were ready and eager to play, but they just waited until an adult said what to do.

Anonymous said...

If we want this we need to model it. Why do they wait for us to set up a field and goals and assign teams? Cause that's what happens at practice. I know we have limited practice time with the kids, but it is very useful to have the kids help you set up the field, instead of arriving early and laying out all the cones to perfection. You need two teams to scrimmage give them the assignment of making two equal number of teams with equal abilities. They can do it if asked to and waited upon. Guide them to these things as well as to the techniques and tactics of soccer. Let them have ownership of their practice and their game.