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Best soccer is closest to home

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Two Stories

This from 2009. Trying to Pitch our club to merge with a new elite academy, a who's who/original Beatles of MN soccer legends stood before us. Their proposal: merge and create a super club with thousands of elite players, all being pushed, the very best coaching staff, aggressive tournament and travel schedule will develop the next generation of soccer players.

Then one of our board members asked, "Tell us how you grew up?"

They got all excited, "so we lived close, we would call each other and meet at the park, everyday, we just had fun."

"Huh," said the board member, "Sounds like you guys developed under our model." Then I was invited once to serve on a panel for Minnesota Youth Soccer Winter symposium. The topic was recruiting and the the question put to the panel was is recruiting best for the kids? Does it assure development? The three other panelist all agreed that given the correct environment the best players get better when playing together. Yes, was the general answer. "No," I said. "Recruiting the best kids create the best teams RIGHT NOW, but they do not assure those players, currently the best of the best, will develop to their fullest potential, in fact, it's likely that they will not. " The best soccer is played closest to home, I said. Soccer in the basement is better than soccer in the backyard. Soccer in the backyard is better than soccer at the neighborhood park. Soccer at the neighborhood park is better than that at your local club, and your local club is better than the elite team across town. By moving across town to play for the elite teams, especially at the younger ages, players are taking a huge risk with their development. Here's why: 1. Time Zidane, De Stefano, Puskas, Cruyff, Maradonna, they all played at their local street as much as they could. They were not in their cars driving to White Bear Lake, they were out their doors and on the street. The closer to home the more time to invent, and create. By the time kids are eight we are loading them into cars. Remember those pesky 10,000 hours. 2. Honest, correct feedback I warn coaches that coach to kid feedback is like a long range walkie talkie, lots of static with only some of the words get through. Kid to Kid feedback is like a broadband connection, it's immediate, fast, clear, and brutally honest. Feedback, as they say, is the breakfast of champions. Closer to home are the people you trust and understand and respect--giving feedback even more power. Far from home, playing with a person who is good but doesn't know you too well--that person will hold back feedback--good and bad, tempering the time spent learning. 3. Locus of control Playing close to home kids will likely feel in control. They decided to play, they put in the effort, their organization, effort, leadership and play improves the game--they are in control of their development. By taking the kid across town that locus become about the new environment. The control is passed to the coach or other outside agent. Kids start to believe that only this new environment--be it the elite club across town, or the great coach with the powerful team is the next step to get to the highest level. But with the player feeling in less control the hope of getting to the next level is left to chance as much as anything else. 4. Friends Baby bears wrestle with each other to prepare themselves for the fighting skills required as they grow. Play, especially in a team sport setting similarly allows kids to experiment on the skills required to be successful in life: Respect of others, giving your best effort, balancing hard competition with play, experimenting and acceptance. If you have friends that are near by you are more likely to bring out the best in each other. 5. Fun Environment By playing with friends and family close to home you create an environment that sets the example and consistently produces excellent learning and growing experiences. Most of all this is fun, and fun is now associated with learning and getting better. These experiences are what we drive our kids all over town for--learning a how to Cruyff spin effectively is likely to have many more repetitions outside your house as at the game in White bear. Because they want it to continue kids learn to care for and shape that precious environment, they understand innately that without that perfect balance their learning (and fun) stops--it can really become a living thing. Kids today are not that different and if given the chance would love the opportunity to try it. Elite kids suffer Kids playing elite leagues suffer this more than anyone. Imagine what your local neighborhood game would be like if the best two players were sent across town? Chances are those players were the organizers, leaders, holding up the tradition, without them the local game dies out. And the elite players themselves are missing touches, honest feedback, and the chance to experiment with friends and family. I have seen many, many kids recruited away to join elite teams, I have rarely seen continued growth--it's more common to see their development flatline. This will always hold the US back. Advice? Play with your kids, don't try to teach them. Play to win, that's important, winning is not. Enjoy yourself, experiment with what you can do with a ball, keep learning, as a kid or an adult show inquisitiveness. Play pick up yourself and enjoy it. Keep kids where they are. Be confident they can learn where they are. Don't buy into the calls of the elite club--did Tony Sanneh move across town to play? Did Victor Kasanezky? No they played with friends, a lot. Don't push, let the kids drive it, until they are 16 or 17, they don't need to go anywhere--just play and play a lot. One of the panelists stopped me afterward, he currently runs that large elite club (they found others to merge) and in no way do I begrudge him. This is what he believes is best for kids, interestingly, he turned to me after the discussion "Ted, I always enjoy your thoughts, but I don't get half of what you say."

As adults, the half that we don't understand is Play.

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