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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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?
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