A plan to spur pick-up play

By Adam Tinkham

Nearly all discussions in the soccer coaching community of the United States concerning how to improve youth soccer arrive at the conclusion that youth players do not spend nearly enough time pursuing soccer on their own and/or in a street soccer or pick-up soccer environment.

It does not take much research to discover that the world’s top players all have one thing in common: at a very early age and the subsequent years, they had a soccer ball with them at almost every waking moment and participated in pick-up games at their school, in the neighborhood or nearby park, almost daily.

The difference between an aspiring, American youth soccer player and, for example, a Brazilian or Argentine, amounts to thousands of hours and touches as early as the age of 10. With closer examination, it would probably be revealed that American youth soccer players often spend more time in transit -- to and from soccer games and practices -- than they do on the ball. As a coaching community we are not providing the necessary foundation at the earliest ages for players to have the greatest chance of success and discovery. So what can we do?

U.S. Soccer has tried to address this problem with the youngest players, called Zone 1 in their parlance, by issuing a well-researched curriculum to be used across the country by youth clubs willing to take the time to read it, understand it, and apply it. This is, no doubt, a step in the right direction but does not get the soccer ball out of the bag in between training sessions and games.

Training sessions must, again and again, return to working on the technical with the most fundamental aspects of the game still unlearned. So, under-8, players become under-9, and then under-10 with only limited passing and trapping ability. All of the money, time, and travel spent for what exactly?

This issue will not go away, is one that I take very seriously and would like to be a part of the solution, or at least working toward the solution. Technical mastery leads to tactical wizardry and thrills millions of spectators around the world. Jurgen Klinsmann took the U.S. national team job wanting to play a more possession-oriented style, and perhaps has done so, but also quickly learned the limitations of even our top players and was forced to return to a more athletic style that has been our ticket to success as far back as the famous win against England at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950.

We need to create artificial (lightly supervised), pick-up environments that are readily available for children of all ages and economic realities. The days of kids going out into the neighborhood for unstructured and unsupervised playtime are mostly if not completely behind us. Some would suggest futsal on defunct tennis or basketball courts, games at the local park district and after-school program, and these are all good ideas. The challenge, I believe, is to make it fun and consistent enough that kids and parents will come back time and time again, daily if possible.

We are attempting just such a program in Chicago that utilizes a field system that was imported from Europe. (To learn more, please visit It is portable and creates an ideal playing environment to maximize fun and learning in a 3v3 or 4v4 format. We have worked with schools to set up our field on their grounds, inviting children to use it after school, and later hosting 5v5 games for recreational adult players.

We have received positive feedback from the principal and local homeowners about the influence on the community, but we would like to reach many more youth players, in and outside the club environment, than we are. There is much potential and application for such a field system but the momentum has to be created jointly.

Our effort is one example of how we can move American soccer players along to the 10,000 hours required for mastery, or, simply discover at an earlier age that a child’s passion lies elsewhere, thereby potentially saving a family many thousands of dollars and hours spent driving on weekends. It can also serve in the fight against obesity.

There are many, many possible directions. Ultimately, this is an appeal to the coaching community, to soccer governing bodies, to youth clubs, to parents, to schools, to all interested in the welfare and good health of children to come together and create environments for them to discover just how beautiful the beautiful game really is.

(Adam Tinkham is a USSF "A" licensed coach who has been working in youth soccer in the Chicagoland for more than a decade. He coached at the Division I collegiate level for six years and is currently a staff coach at Team Evanston in Evanston, Ill. Tinkham was a member of the U.S. team that finished fourth at the 1989 U-20 World Cup and earned all-ACC honors at the University of North Carolina.)

16 comments about "A plan to spur pick-up play".
  1. Bill Dumler, November 9, 2012 at 8:18 a.m.


    USSF needs to take a trip to Brazil, to learn about futsal and futsal courts. Not to visit the big cities but visit smaller cities and towns. Every park you go to has a futsal court or a futsal/basketball court. I drive through my city passing lonely basketball / tennis courts that could easily converted to support futsal. I think looks great but again needs adult actions. Build futsal courts and people will use them.

  2. Dennis Mueller, November 9, 2012 at 8:42 a.m.

    This is something that has been on the lips of knowledgeable coaches way over a decade. I remember Bob Bradley and Manny Schellscheidt saying the same thing over 25 years ago. It is very easy to say that is what is needed but it is a whole lot harder to get it to happen. Unsupervised play of any kind is in short supply no matter the sport. It is hard to order the kids to have fun!

  3. Brian Something, November 9, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.

    I did this with the last program I was a part of. I had to make sure to explain very clearly to parents that this was not training or instructional. Just pickup where their coach happened to be kicking around with them. I didn't give any more instruction than I might have in a pickup session with adults.

    I told the kids the goals were there all week if they wanted to come any other time. Several told me their parents wouldn't allow them to come without an adult present. *smh*

  4. mark courtney, November 9, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

    In my second year of club soccer ( have a U9 son ) I realized this from day one. We have all these experts ( Federation whatever ) all these coaches with a piece of paper that that says they spit out proper answers to a standardized system/instructor ( unlike Basketball, Football and Baseball - how absurd !!!) and no one realizes that we do not play soccer in this country - we play soccer drills! I have seen kids show up and if there is not an adult telling them what to do - they will kick goals because they do not have a clue about how to simply PLAY! Parents are idiots ... all the money, traveling for tourneys ... but most potential is wasted because kids do not get together and play FOR FREE - increasing their time with the ball.

  5. Richard Weishaupt, November 9, 2012 at 11:09 a.m.

    I could not agree more. It is a challenging problem that requires a lot of creative thinking. 1. parents and children are losing the concept of going over to the park and just playing with whoever is there. You see this in every sport to some extent, although soccer is among the worst. 2. we need more courts/fields and access to them. I once tried to organize a semi structured pick up game for all the soccer plying kids I knew -- travel and intramural. We could not find a field in a public park that would let kids just play without getting a permit. Fortunately we haven't gotten to the point where you need a permit to play 3 on 3 basketball, but we're moving in that direction. Think kids in Brazil need a permit? 3. Parents need to take such games seriously. Half the parents on the travel teams I coach think the function of the team is for them to network with their upper middle class peers. In short, this will take time and there is a lot of work to do.

  6. J Poppen, November 9, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

    Turf management needs to be relaxed too. There have been many occasions that my sons have tried to play on fields (both at their clubs and at city parks) only to be asked to leave to protect the grass. Silly, isn't it? Leave at least some goals up year round.

  7. I.b Inyang, November 9, 2012 at 12:05 p.m.

    The most important phase for every Young Athlete is early acknowledgement of natural Athletic attributes in a Child. This will lead to heightened awareness of the Child's natural tendencies to playfully indicate early interest in sports by their choice of playing with spherical objects. It doesn't necessarily have to be a Soccer Ball, it could be an orange or a tennis ball or a muff ball. Natural instinct to chase after things and the love for outdoors are also good signs to watch out for.

    The Parents or Adults in the Child's life should manage, regulate and encourage such playful activities as it subconsciously helps the Child to develops manual dexterity. The Adult should provide non disruptive monitoring and mentoring to aid intimate study of the characteristics of the spherical objects based on innocent play and observation by the inquisitive Athletic Child. I'm sorry if I divert from the main topic of discussion because the passion for the Most Beautiful Game on Planet Earth runs way too deep to be explained in simple sentences on this medium.

    The street pick up games is simply complicated due to unarticulated demand for individualistic ball mastery skills. The Young Players who lives on the same street knows and understands almost all the players in the neighborhood so they can easily use mobile devices to organize informal games if, when, and where they prefer to play.

    Truth be told, when Soccer Player start earning NFL, NBA and MLB level of player salaries; I'll guarantee that the DAWN of Youths Crowding the most tiny park or open play ground on the land, it might be here sooner than we know it. I do believe that exposing the Youth Players through international Soccer and Cultural exchange programs frequently will help in skills exposure/acquisition. I LIVE THE GAME...Live Well, Be Well and Stay Eternally Blessed!!!........I.b

  8. Wesley Hunt, November 9, 2012 at 3:54 p.m.

    Soccer is played 11v11 but the skills are best learned early at 5v5 or less. When this country started playing soccer it was a suburban upper middle class movement. Lots of big fields and complexs were built clubs and leagues were formed and the whole experience was heavily coach and parent directed. The kids are the same....all kids are the same, they want to chase a ball they want to score a goal, = but becasuse of who they are culturaly they never got a chance to discover the game on their own. In addition the big field is not as enticing is a futsal court or small sided field where even a couple of kids could start playing areound without feeling dwarfed. The problem in changing this that their is no money to be had in making tennis and basketball courts into free futsal courts and the kids are much more busy than they used to be.

  9. Joseph Krantz, November 9, 2012 at 6:14 p.m.

    Maybe the USSF can create an ACADEMY PICK-UP PROGRAM

  10. Kent James, November 10, 2012 at 1:52 p.m.

    Your assessment of the problem is spot on, but your solution seems to be in the wrong direction (why a portable field with boards?). You dismiss the conversion of basketball/tennis courts to futsal courts to easily. One reason many players don't play futsal is they don't know what it is, which is where coaches need to educate their players (and more importantly, their parents). The advantage of futsal is it does not take much space, and more importantly, you don't need to care for the fields (no being unable to play because the grass is a foot high). And of course the greatest benefit of futsal is that it rewards footskill and tight ball control, which we desperately need to develop. The USSF should make a concerted effort to build futsal courts, especially in big cities where fields are impossible to come by. These could either be stand alone, or perhaps courts that are shared with either the tennis or basketball communities (if that helps in the construction/expansion). As you note, there should be minimal adult supervision, perhaps limited to overseeing who is using the courts (or playing with the kids). And age groups should not be too strict; perhaps limited to three, Under 8, 9-14, and 14+. You could even have responsible older kids play with the younger ones. As you note, it's sad when kids spend as much time in the car as they do with the ball; opportunities to play with the ball need to be expanded, and futsal is the most realistic way to do that.

  11. Tony Everett, November 10, 2012 at 2:33 p.m.

    Pure Game offers a simplified, inclusive, non-competitive form of soccer play combined with character education to children and adolescents in poor, primarily Hispanic neighborhoods in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Its mission is to help these vulnerable children build self-respect, realize their potential, learn to cooperate and contribute to the community, and gain the confidence to make positive choices in life. This style of small-sided soccer encourages youth to "kick the ball about", we don't coach, we don't teach, we just let kids be kids and have fun on the soccer field. As a result more kids are enjoying the game and being creative with it.The beauty of this is the fact we are creating positive, safe environments for these kids to belong so they can learn life lessons that steer them away from the negative influences that surround them. Because we are less concerned about the soccer player, and more concerned about the person, soccer becomes fun and the person develops into a positive member of the community. I would love to share more if anyone would like to hear it.

  12. Luis Arreola, November 12, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.

    There must be a motivation to go out and play. There is grass or empty bball and tennis courts everywhere just like in Mexico or Brazil with better conditions. So Futsal isnt exactly the answer, although I agree that it would help. In Mexico kids have players they idolize and want to play like so they go out and try the moves and get that fire going that will take them as far as they can go. In USA you see this with Basketball. These kids get all their moves, tecnique and most importantly their own personal style of play from these usupervised pick up games. Until more and more kids have a USA great or plenty of them this will motivate them to go out and play on their own. What kids love to see is style, skill, flair and a Unique personality in their favorite Pros. Not guys that only hit, run fast, etc. Futsal brings a lot of skill and tecnique but lets motivate them to get in there.

  13. Kenyon Cook, November 12, 2012 at 4:48 p.m.

    It is a shame that the business of soccer is denying our players of the most precious thing we have to offer, THE GAME. THE GAME was my teacher as a child growing up in Europe and Central America. Here is a little relief:
    I have come up with a 3v3 game that most resembles free/pickup play, but in an organized and competitive environment. Go to and read about our innovative approach. It is not more of the same. This is only our 4th season, but we are open to offer our turn-key tournament to any club in the country.

  14. Kent James, November 14, 2012 at 1:08 a.m.

    Luis, you're right about the motivation. The kids need to be inspired to emulate the pros. Then they need to be provided an outlet for them to play. I think it's getting there, but slowly. As adults, we need to get the kids to engage in the professional game by watching it with them and talking about it with them (and inviting their friends over to watch...).

  15. Jon Metz, June 16, 2015 at 4:25 p.m.

    In my opinion, apart from setting up fields and building futsal courts city councils should communicate to youth via projects like and meetup as they already have a certain community and a platform for organizing pickup games.
    Only supporting such sites one can properly communicate with nowadays teenagers.

  16. Ben Anderson, July 18, 2015 at 3:29 p.m.

    Jon, thanks for this link. this is really cool!

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