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15 Years

Joy of the People®

(JOTP) is a Non-Profit 501(c)(3) that promotes the idea of soccer free play as a way to build healthy kids and communities. At JOTP we believe that youth sport should be inclusive, fun, creative and cooperative long before it becomes competitive. 


Our Mission

The Mission of Joy of the People is to support the idea of unstructured play as important part of a child’s development; To build small soccer spaces for kids to play; To serve disadvantaged youth; and To build community spirit.

Our Accomplishments

The Powered by Joy Model

JOTP has developed a culture-shifting youth development model, Powered By Joy, that places PLAY at the center of development. Our motto is As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible.

Our Success:


• 15 years! Serving the community every day

• 2019 Project Play Champion, Aspen institute

• Over 1600 hours of no cost free play per year

• Over 2000 kids a year

• Field of Joy—All season turf field

• 17,000 free meals served per summer



f you build it they will play

The year was now 2009. I slid a piece of paper across the table. We met in the South St. Anthony Recreation Center, the first as our new non-profit, Joy of the People (JOTP). We had set up JOTP as a partnership with the City of St. Paul to take over the running of the center that was struggling for viability. We named the non-profit after a Brazilian soccer player of the 50's and 60's Garrincha, who was so much fun to watch the fans called him, Allegria do Povo, 'Joy of the People.' The non-profit's mission was to try to bring back free play and a more balanced approach to youth sports. 


The rec center, opened in the 1970's built as a neighborhood meeting place for kids, was situated in a mostly industrial section at the very west point in Saint Paul, perhaps dead center between Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The park included two softball fields, a baseball field, two tennis courts, a playground, and a half-court basketball court. The building, a brown and brick functional space, housed a classroom, a lounge, a kitchen, and a small but bright and airy gym. Our goal was to see if we could create a ground zero of free play for kids.



Printed on the paper was the weekly schedule for the gym. 


But now I could see that Victor was upset about something.


What is it? I asked


Where is the Free Play?


It's there, I said, 7 am here, 11 pm there.


You're hiding it.


He was right.

In 2009 

We had very few kids, and I wanted to develop them quickly. I thought that required my training. Victor and the rest of the board wanted the free play. I felt that free play was important but not as important as my coaching.


Victor asked me to give it a chance.


So we set loose what kids we had that winter. I would pick the kids up after school, drive them to St. Paul and let them play. They played futsal, a popular Brazilian game played on basketball size courts with a small low-bounce ball, girls and boys, some playing some doing cartwheels, some hula hooping. I would ask them just to be productive and play.


We defined free play as self-directed, no coaching, everyone invited, everyone plays, coaches and older players could play, but they were not allowed to coach.

So Let the play begin

We just let the kids play. Often they they played, but more often they didn't. One day kids dug up some plastic bats in one of the back storage rooms and spent the next two days chasing each other around the building, with them.


So later in the winter, I received a phone call from a director of a small futsal tournament wondering if we could fill a spot. I wasn't expecting much. 


I should have known better.


I asked a friend to coach the team because I knew he would not coach, just sub to keep playing time equal. As the kids progressed through the tournament, they seemingly recognized the situation in front of them as if it was just another of a thousand games they had played at the center, the JOTP kids played with absolutely no fear, enjoying themselves as they moved through the tournament winning the group. They played with lightness and calmness and took lots of risks. They qualified for the final against a team from a club that generally dominates tournaments like this. U11 boys soccer is generally an intense age group. Often clubs race to create top teams around this age, enticing young families with promises of top development, leagues, coaches, etc. They gather players and then coach them as hard as they can. Lining up for the final the other team sported matching bags, warm-ups, and uniforms. There were coached by a friend of mine and we had played on Minnesota Thunder together. The JOTP kids showed up in spray-painted t-shirts they made the night before--and they could not have been prouder. But there was a bigger difference between the two teams than their kits and gear. It was their defending skill.


When first introduced to free play, kids at the Joy of The People center, played no defense. All they wanted to do was score and were uninterested in everything else. Often they would stand flat-footed on the floor, as an attacker moved near (they rarely even moved to the ball!) the youngsters (mostly 8 and 9 year olds) would take big, no, HUGE swipes at the ball, as if they were going to break the leg of the attacker. Generally, the attacker saw it coming and would skip by leaving the kid with a big whiff. 


I desperately wanted to correct the situation, but it was free play; therefore, it was not my role, and I left it. This continued throughout the winter. 


But then they somehow made it work for them.


In the final the opposition played impeccable first defender. 'First defender.' is a pedagogical curriculum term used in soccer dealing with the first opponent on the scene. If you look up 'first defender' in any coaching book it is up there as the most important early game skill. Like learning the vowels after learning the letters, 'first defender' is the ability to deny the ball carrier forward progress, buy time for his teammates, and ultimately win the ball back. It is meant to deny the opposition from creating any useful danger from the point of attack. 


They got low, they moved their feet, they shut down our chances of dribbling forward. They shut down shots and crosses. They were well coached. 


Meanwhile the JOTP kids were charging right at the ball. I understood this came from the free play. They meant well, they just wanted the ball. Seeing these kids flying at them the kids from the big club just sidestepped the action. I thought, "yeah, I probably should have taught them first defender." 


But if you step back, you can understand why those JOTP kids ran at the ball. It could be that they were poorly coached, that's true. Or it could be that they were just being kids, and following their own pedagogical curriculum, 'the kid curriculum.'


Is there power in allowing kids to be kids? As play went on we were about to find out.


Somewhere along the winter, in those hundreds of hours of unstructured play, those frozen, lazy feet, those crazy swipes at the ball, had transformed into occasional, smart, darting feet of pickpockets. The big swipes at the ball were still there. But, now, sometimes they were getting beat by the dribble, sometimes there was a foul, but also, some of the time the JOTP kids were stealing the ball, tapping it behind the surprised dispossessed attacker and moving deftly around to pick it up and attack as if they had done it thousands of times before. Well, they had. The kids had spent the winter wanting the ball and going after it, and somehow they figured out a way--and luckily they did it before it was coached out of them. Those many hours of free play had not developed classic first defenders, it created ball thieves.


Like the street basketball player that can strip you of the ball when you drive for the basket wondering where the ball went, the JOTP kids, nurtured the fun before the optimal. First defender in basketball or soccer is important, but very hard, sometimes thankless work. It is way more fun to let the player go by and try the trick of reaching around to tap the ball away. And that's what the kids did during those 'mindless' hours: accumulating practice of stripping the ball off dribbles. 


This follows Orgel's first rule nicely, get the ball as easily as possible. 


And, perhaps more importantly, the reverse is true: if you are not playing against defenders who get in close, very, very close, then that player will not have a chance to train against realistic and mature defenses. Looking at it this way, the 'kid curriculum' is more accurate than the traditional coaching curriculum.


As the futsal final went on, the big club kids got would glance at their coach looking perplexed 'hey, where is their first defender? Can they come that close?' They had never seen kids come for the ball like this. They looked like they had never practiced against anything but first defenders who stayed low and did not dive in. They lost the ball as they tried to penetrate and became more tentative. Meanwhile, the JOTP kids were not swayed, they attacked whether they had the ball or not. The JOTP kids won the game on a steal and breakaway.


They won the game on something that 99 out of 100 coaches would say was a weakness, a deficit that needed to be addressed and fixed. They had taken a weakness and made it a strength.


For over 30 years I have been coaching all ages, boys and girls, college, High School, Adult, high performers. to beginners. skills programs, camps, futsal, you name it. Coaching soccer over so many years, on the ground as kids gain skills, I was able to divine where those skills emerged from. As sure as a F16 pilot can determine the flying object defying physics in front of him is a UFO, I could see where play defies our understanding of skill acquisition.


I could see that if I had followed the prescribed curriculum, I would have taught these kids proper first defender and robbed them of the chance of discovery. If I was making a mistake on something so basic as first defender, where else was I making a mistake?


The psychologist Jean Piaget once beautifully said, “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” 


It was at this point I decided to take free play seriously. Play was not just good skill developer, it was a better skill developer. 


Could it be that play and fun outpaced the deliberate practice of Ericsson and company? Where could we find examples of this? We needed to find a model, and what better place to look than Brazil?

Ted and Victor meeting with Carlos Alberto Parreira at SoccerEx in Rio.


The expert model

Seeing different skills emerge from the free play we wanted to find out more. And if you wanted to find out how skills grow from enjoyment and play you had best put Brazil on your calendar. Widely regarded as a breeding ground of the world's top talent, they have won more world cups than anyone else (5), and they did it with an infectious flare and style. At one point in the early 2000's professional soccer players were the nation's second largest export after cane sugar. In Brazil, the beautiful game is big business.


Speaking of big business, in late 2012 I traveled to SOCCER EX in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil with Victor Kasanezky, a fellow player and coach. and cofounder of Joy of the People. SoccerEx is a global soccer business conference that brings together the world leaders in the sport including international players and managers--the likes of: Carlos Alberto Torres, Ronaldo, Mário Zagallo, Roy Hodgson, Bebeto , Zico, Ruud Gullit, Ronald DeBoer, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Roberto Ayala, Jay Jay Okocha, Caju, Paul Breitner, Gaizka Mendieta. and many others. 


The conference was held at the far edge of a small peninsula between their famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. A temporary convention center was built on an giant rock at the very edge of the peninsula that offered other worldly views of the of the curving, 2.5 mile copacobanna beach that ended with the iconic beach mountain Pão de Açúcar (suger loaf). Most of the events were held at the convention center, but also at other spots sprinkled around Rio. They built a street court on the beach with stadium, music and dj, you could walk the back and forth and hang with Ruud Gulit and Ronald Deboer, or join Roy Hodgson who had just been named the English manager on his morning walk along the beach, but be ready to stop and watch the net volley games, a sort of 2 v 2 sand volleyball--but with no hands that Hodgson could not get enough of.


Looking for clues to build a new curriculum for kids, our plan was took look closely at past and current trends and get thoughts on free play and its role in that development. Throughout the week we had direct access and often sat down with these leaders to talk about their own experiences, their philosophies, and ideas. 


Being that this was a soccer economic conference I was not too excited to sit through a branding and marketing best practice session. But that is not what I found at all. What drives the economy of soccer? No matter if the panel discussion was Imaging, Branding or Stadia, the conversation always drifted to Player Development. Who is doing it? How they doing it? Spain? France? Germany? England? (no). The entire economy is built on the players that fill stadiums and sell shirts.


And the group that sold the most tickets, that is still considered the gold standard was Brazil.


A solution looking for a problem.

At the Brazil CBF booth they had a loop of film showing all the goals in their five championships.   Over and over in at full speed and then slow motion, the loop was mesmerizing, especially the older footage.  Between 1958 and 1970 Brazil was untouchable.  It's hard to imagine now but they were light years ahead of the world on an individual skill level.  


What was going on?  What was their secret? How were they so far ahead?


A couple of brief moments from their breakout 1958 give us a hint. Both moments are brilliant, one quite spectacular, so much so that it may have blocked out any real message that might be understood. The first moment is the third goal of that 1958 final. Pele, just 17, accepts a ball on his chest angling it away from the covering defender, with the ball headed toward the ground the Swedish sweeper looked to kick him and the ball out of the stadium. But Pele simply lifts the ball over him softly, leaving the sweeper swinging at air, as the ball came back down Pele slammed it home. It was so incredible, perhaps still the best goal ever to be scored in a final, it would be easy to pass off Pele as gifted, godlike, born special, a genius and prodigy. Talk to the average Brazilian and they see talent as innate, special, and Pele was special. His gifts were god given. 


The fourth goal is the moment I want to look at. The situation is this. After a shot from Didi, the ball has been blocked by the Swedish defender and is rolling away from goal toward the left corner of the box with two massively athletic Swedish defenders moving powerfully toward it, like trained sprinters their bodies low, knees driving--a terrible beauty of human movement.


From outside of the picture glides in a slim figure, carefully as if on an icy walk, but moving surprisingly quickly. It's clear the three of them, two charging Swedes and a slight Brazilian winger will arrive at the ball at the same time, and it's not a fair fight. 


You see the little man moving in for Brazil is not just anybody, the left winger is Mario Zagallo who will become the beating heart and soul of Brazilian soccer. He will have a part of all five world cup wins, as a player in 1958 and 1962, as head coach 1970, as an assistant 1994 and 2002, and he is about to make his introduction.


Zagallo is gliding, controlled running, so smooth, readying himself. One of the Swedish defenders pulls up confident for the counterattack. Then Zagallo does something strange, he turns himself away from goal to make himself small, like a turning sideways to avoid a passing bus, or like a fencer, giving away little to contact. The big Swede gets to the ball with full on with force, but Zagallo lightly swings his right foot at the ball, surly too lightly? Zagallo contacts the ball at just the correct time, not too late or too soon, too high or too low, not too heavy or light. He catches the defender using too much force, trying too hard, is Zagalo using the defender's strength against himself? The big defender struggles for a split second, but soon momentum carries him forward. Zagallo pauses to let gravity do it's thing, the defender stumbles by, face planting in the turf. Zagallo is now gliding in, alone with the goalie, he switches the ball to his preferred left foot and slots the ball under the charging keeper. Effort, strength, endeavor, meet your master: skill.


I watched this loop over and over waiting for this moment. The skill that Zagallo used in this 50/50 tackle is only born of the street. There is no drilling this type of confrontation. This is the problem of a curriculum. No coach, planner, theorist, would think of this--and if they did they would have no idea of how to teach it. Zagallo, playing for fun as a youth must have encountered this type of situation before, thousands of times, watched, learned, tried many different variations and knew, without thinking, that the defender, the ball, the distance called on this one technique, he made that decision and he executed it. Game over.


It was never really a fair fight, Zagallo wasn't the athletic monster that Pele or Garrincha were, he was everyman, he was small and thin. He was nurtured, like all young players were at the time in Brazil, at the parks and courts, every day. "Academies" as they exist today were not around in Brazil back then. Instead they just waited until they players turned 16, 17 before bringing they kids on trial to the club. In Zagallo's case America Football Club of Rio de Janeiro at 17. 


Brazil's love of play had unwittingly created a best practice. 


I was starting to see that 'street ' skills were diverse, more adaptable and ready for use at the right time, a solution looking for a problem. Research is now lining up with these practices, the randomness, the affordances, implicit learning, intrinsic motivation, and low anxiety, the science is saying, is more effective for motor skill acquisition. 


The big Swedes may have trained hard to develop linear speed and even slightly beat him to the ball. While Zagalo also trained, its just that he didn't know it was training, it was play. The joy of free play had given Zagallo all the tools he needed to separate the ball from the Swedish defender and helped win a world cup, and then 4 more.


In 1958, 1962, and 1970 Brazil simply "outstreeted" the world. Their dominating generation was forged of a culture where everyone plays, a lot. Brazil was in love with soccer. Everywhere there were games, fields could not keep pace. The multiplier effect allowed them to try things. Culture demanded it was pleasing to the eye. The skills and ideas were born and grew there. 


Now Pele's goal was a street move as well, but with his out of this world athleticism and audacious maneuvers it was easy to be dazzled, and see soccer as born into him, a product of divine grace. Lesson, there is no great moments, spectacular and blinding like Pele, or simple and subtle like Zagallo, without play.


If Brazil's vaunted pick up games disappear so will that special play at the World Cup level. And some Brazilians (the great Zico, most notably) are concerned that culture is dying. 


"We have always had a formidable free play culture, but that is going away," said Zico at a presentation  The lack of space, the building on open spaces, the safety issues are keeping kids from interacting; and, clubs are robbing the most vibrant free play environments too early, from the age of 8 they are signing street kids into academies.  The once vibrant Free Play culture that produced players from Zito to Pele, to Garrincha, to himself was no longer the primary developmental tool.  That role had passed to the clubs and their academies.



One of the evening events was hosted by the Turkish Soccer Federation at the copacobana hotel, yes the hotel Barry Manilow made famous. The massive second floor balcony stretched the length of the hotel and overlooked Avenue Atlantic then the sand and sea. Past the avenue, low lying beach lights aimed at the ocean, casting a stark white rhythm of breaking waves and sand soccer goalpost, skeletal monuments of play, white against the black ocean. The sounds of crashing waves, mixed with the light traffic, of course a boss nova band, and animated conversations on the beautiful game.


We were talking with Roberto Ayala. Ayala is a looming figure in Argentine soccer. He is soft spoken and courteous. He takes in everything and pauses to speak.  He was a dominant, yet elegant center back, having  captained Argentina more than Maradonna and leading them  and his club team Valencia (Spain) through many great competitions.  He has always been one of my heroes for how he can bring the ball down ("Soccer Tennis"). 


What was your most important time in your youth development? Victor asked him in spanish.


"When I was 13 and I joined River Plate."


This didn't seem right.


Find the play.


"Victor, ask him what he was doing before that, when he was 8, 9 10?" 


Victor, having grown up in the US, Paraguay and Brazil, spoke fluently in English, Portuguese and Spanish. He could get by in Italian, French, and almost any other language spoken at Soccer ex. His status as a translater grew during the week and it was not uncommon for him to be pulled away by famous players like Ruud Gulit and Richardo Rocha to name two, when a specific translation was needed.


"Oh I played every day. Same court, close to my house. My mother would call me in to dinner and I would sneak out to play some more."


We had heard this all week. story: "we played everyday." Before school, after school recess, with friends.  Caju played barefoot on cobblestones,. Alex, everyday, Denilson, everyday. Carlos Alberto, everyday. Mendietta, everyday. Gulit, de Boer, Okocha, everyday.  But there is more, each one of them while recounting the stories would lighten up, smile, laugh--it was almost always their favorite time--just playing for fun. 


And then the question that for me changed everything...


"Ask him if he thinks that had anything to do you his development."


There was a long pause.


"I never thought of it that way"Ayala said, "that free play i was doing when I was 8, 9 10, 11 was important to my development...I thought I was just better than everyone else, after signing with River I always returned to play with my friends whenever I could."


This answer perplexed me. "I never thought of it that way." We were seeing skill development emerge from free play, why wouldn't he recognize it? It should have been: "yes, free play made me the World Cup player. Free play built all of my skills." 


But it wasn't. Almost every player we spoke to grew up in unstructured play environments. Free play. If free play--the play that all the those great players were doing actually worked--why were they not giving it direct credit? 


The answer we came up with was that Free Play was important, just a piece of development, like a vital nutrient or vitamin required for overall healthy growth, maybe indispensable, but just a small piece, a growth period or phase, and not near as important as the formalization of coaching or joining an academy. After all that's what the experts mentioned most. 


Maybe we were looking at it wrong. Remember the lesson of Zagalo, remember the free play kids at the futsal tournament. There was something more going on.


Find the play.

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