We sometimes walk in the neighborhood. We see fathers playing football or baseball with their kids in the street. We see parents shooting at the hoop in front of the garage with their kids. We never
see fathers or mothers playing soccer with their kids in the neighborhood. We never see kids playing soccer in the backyard with their siblings or friends. We live in a middle-class suburban
neighborhood. What is interesting is that most of these kids do play soccer in recreational or competitive youth leagues. They only play soccer in the “organized and coached” practice
sessions and in youth/high school games. The parents spend up to $10,000 a year for their kids to play “organized” soccer.
My wife who grew up playing soccer with the kids in
the neighborhood in Turkey cannot understand how the kids never play soccer in the backyards or in the mostly wide streets with little or no traffic. The answer is simple: There is no soccer culture
in this country. That is a well-known fact.
For the parents of those kids, football, baseball and basketball are the sports they grew with. Maybe some of them played soccer, maybe some of
them even watch MLS, EPL, USMNT and USWNT games, but still their sweetheart is not soccer. Since the WC 1994 in the USA, things have changed a lot in this country, but still there is not a soccer
culture in the mainstream American way of life. It will change for the better, but it might take decades for soccer to be interwoven into the American sports culture fabric for good.
is also a well-known fact posited by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson
that you need to practice at least 10,000 hours to be a top-class piano, chess or soccer player. It is also
thought that kids in South America reach the 10,000-hour mark by the age of 13, whereas the European kids reach at the age of 20 or more.
It is clear that you cannot reach the 10,000-hour
mark by practicing and playing ”organized” soccer for couple of hours a week. Underprivileged kids of Latin American and African countries play soccer all day long with their friends on
the beaches, streets and dirt fields. This is how they reach the 10,000-hour mark early in life. It is a way of life for them and their families. When the European teams bring them into their
academies, they already have very high technical skills developed through many hours they spent playing “unorganized” soccer.
In today’s information age, kids of
affluent societies spend less and less time outdoors. So building up 10,000 hours through formal coaching and organized soccer is nearly impossible for our kids. There are two options: Involve the
parents and the home and/or backyard soccer into the process and start the training process at an earlier age. Tom Byer
is an American soccer coach born and raised in the Bronx is
living in Japan for the past 20 years. I met him during the NSCAA (now United Soccer Coaches) convention in LA this year. I had heard about him, but I was honored to meet him in the convention. Tom
has changed the Japanese youth development landscape. China has asked him recently to be an adviser for their School Football Program.
If you like, you can read his book “Soccer
Stars at Home (*)” for more details, but in summary he says that motor learning in kids start as early as 2 years old and they can develop these motor skills aimed at developing control of the
ball in their own home. He actually tested this approach with his two sons with astonishing results. Both kids when they joined U-8 organized soccer were ages ahead of their peers in ball control
skills. There are now serious research results sending tremors across the “golden age of learning” paradigm fault line. Golden age of learning paradigm says that kids learn basic soccer
skills between the ages of 10-12.
Maybe the only way to reach the 10,000 hours of practice threshold in this country is to start training the kids at the ages of two or three. Naturally,
one can question Tom’s approach and take it with a grain of salt. On the other hand, we see everywhere soccer schools for kids as early as three or four years of age. These schools are
extensions of the pay-to-play system. You pay a company and trust them with your kids with the hope that their coaches will use correct techniques to develop your kids’ soccer skills. These
soccer schools will never help your kid to reach the 10,000 hours of training threshold, but they will definitely reach your wallet.
At this point, the solution lies with parents. If you
look closely at the upcoming U.S. soccer stars, you will either see parents who played the game at a high level or parents that dedicated their lives to the development of their sons and daughters.
’s parents are a very good example of this approach. You do not have to a soccer star to be a good soccer parent, but you should support and encourage your kids to play
as much soccer as possible, whether it is at home, in the backyard or at a close-by soccer field at the earliest age possible. Until the age of 6 or 7, your kid does not need organized soccer or
formal coaching. What they need is their parent’s approval, encouragement, appreciation and support. You don’t have to be a soccer wizard to provide that. The kids will then start enjoying
the company of the ball and build up their ball handling techniques.
One of the best moves of U.S. Soccer was the Player Development Initiative or the Mandate. Through this Mandate -- the
implementation of which started this month -- the structure of the U6-U12 age group will be completely overhauled. Although I had some doubts
in the past about the implementation of the mandate, my first impression is that
it will implemented fully may be with a few exceptions. I doubt that the rule that states “results and standings should not be recorded” along with limitations on travel might still not be
applicable in practice.
The fact that now U-8 and below play 4v4 without goalkeepers is a revolutionary step forward. This way the kids will have more chance to kick the ball and more
chance to score goals and more chance to enjoy the 40 minutes of play. What the coaches and the referees – though I do not think we need referees for these games and the Mandate agrees with me
– should do is minimal for these age-group games. My colleague Mike Woitalla brilliantly outlined what coaches should
do for these age groups. It is that simple.
The coaches, parents or referees should just be big brothers/big sisters for the U-8 age groups making sure that the kids enjoy themselves and do not hurt each other. That is what all we
need for those games.
Once we can mobilize the parents to direct and encourage their two 3-year-old kids to play with a small ball in the house, in the backyard by themselves or with
another kid at the same age, then we will be able to simulate “street soccer” at a very early age. The threshold of 10,000 hours of practice will be peanuts then. Ahmet
Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of
Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.
(*) Tom Byer’s Soccer Starts at Home
, 2016, T3 K.K. Publisher, Tokyo, Japan