My most recent article centered on the assertion that “comfort zone hinders maximum performance.. The first of the two-part Comfort Zone series ended with the following: “You can extend the assertion that “The comfort zone hinders maximum performance” to other aspects of the game. The players at all levels of the game in the USA are in a relative “comfort zone."
Especially the fact that soccer in the USA is basically a middle-class, white-collar and suburban white person’s game might tell us why the players in our country are relatively in a “comfort zone.” Our beautiful game is played mostly by underprivileged, blue-collar family kids in non-perfect environments elsewhere. This might be one of the reasons why our player development might not be as good as we wish it to be. Our players who are in a comfort zone have problems maximizing their performances. But this is another topic for another article: “Comfort Zone (II)”.
Now let us start digging into this dimension of our assertion by telling the stories of two fictional kids who lived in two cities that I know well.
Ali is a 12-year-old kid living in the “gecekondu” neighborhoods of Istanbul. (Gecekondu is a Turkish word meaning a house put up quickly without proper permissions, a squatter's house, and by extension, a shanty or shack). His father works in a factory and his mother is a housewife. His father can barely make the ends meet for his family with his salary. Ali has four siblings, all younger than him. He has to share a bedroom with his two younger brothers. They live in a 900-square foot gecekondu. He is a 7th-grader but he is not a good student. He helps his uncle in his little grocery shop during the summer vacation. He is a talented soccer player who plays for one the city’s professional soccer club’s U-13 team. Ali’s father’s pastime is watching soccer games on TV. He is a passionate fan of one of Istanbul’s “big three” soccer teams. Until he was selected to the U-13 team through a tryout, Ali played pick up soccer with his friends nearly all day on dirt lots or streets since the age of three. After he turned 8, he started playing in one of the unaffiliated neighborhood teams with older kids. That is when a scout of the professional club saw him and invited him to the tryout. Until then, Ali played soccer with his old sneakers. The professional team bought him his first real soccer shoes. His father is actively supporting his son with the hope that one day he will be a professional player and end the family’s financial misery. Since the club does not allow for the parents to watch the training sessions, his father only goes to his son’s home games. Ali goes to the training sessions by a city bus.
John is a white 12-year-old white kid who lives in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Austin, Texas. His father is a lawyer and his mother is a CPA. John has a 9-year-old sister. They live in 4,000-square foot mansion with a nice pool. He is a 7th grader and he is a pretty good student in school. He is also a talented soccer player who plays for the local DA’s U-13 team. His mother played some soccer in high school and his father is actually a football fan but started watching some soccer games on TV since his son started playing soccer at the age 5. John attended organized soccer clinics and sessions since the age of 5 like their neighbors’ kids. He joined a local youth club and when he was 9. The scouts of the DA watched him after a referral and he joined the DA after that. His family spends about $5,000 per year for him to play youth soccer at the DA. He has some of the best equipment money can buy and recently his father hired a personal coach to develop some of his ball skills. He always played on good grass fields or turf. He practices with his team three times a week and plays on weekends. In his spare time, he likes to play various e-sports games. The whole family attends all of John’s game home or away. His father supports his son’s soccer enthusiasm with the hope that he will eventually get a Division 1 college scholarship and with understanding that he does do well also in the middle school he attends.
So here is the question of the day: Which one has a better chance of becoming a soccer star that can turn professional? Ali or John?
John is definitely in a comfort zone both on and off the field. He has other options in life in case he does not turn out to be a soccer star; like getting a good college degree and a proper job. Even if he does not get a college scholarship, his parents can afford to pay for his college tuition. He might also get bored and burned out around the age of 15 and choose to go for other sports or other hobbies.
Ali, on the other hand, is not in a comfort zone off the field. You can easily substitute Ali in Istanbul with a young boy in Buenos Aires or Abidjan. Playing for a free-to-play team makes life a bit easier on the field side for the family. He will most probably keep on playing youth soccer until he turns professional or quits the idea of becoming a professional. By then, the system will make sure that he gets high school diploma. But he will hardly be able to do basic arithmetic or learn any craft. So Ali’s and his family’s only chance in life is for him to become a successful soccer player although the numerical odds are against him.
So these two fictional and subjective examples might support the assertion that “comfort zone hinders maximum performance”.
Let us look at some facts and objective criteria. USA so far did not develop any world male soccer stars. Christian Pulisic might be one but that is too early to say. The only game in the USA comparable to soccer in terms of global proliferation is basketball. Football and baseball are more local than global. The USA develops some of the best basketball players on the planet. The same geography and the same economy unfortunately do not develop soccer stars.
Could it be that most of the soccer players in the USA are in a comfort zone and hence do not reach their maximal performance level?
There are two studies that might shed a light to this question. One of them is from 2015 when "journalist Roger Bennett and University of Chicago economics professor Greg Kaplan produced a study comparing the background of each U.S. men’s soccer national team member from 1993 to 2014 with every NBA All-Star and NFL Pro Bowl player over the same period. Socio-economic data from the players’ hometown zip codes were compared. The study found the soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the U.S. average. The NBA and NFL players came from communities that ranked lower than average on those same indicators.“
The same Aspen Institute report tells us: “The focus in soccer often turns to Latinos because of their large population in the U.S. and lower median household incomes — $45,148 compared to $62,950 for whites and $77,166 for Asians.” One would think that due to the inherent soccer culture in the Latino community they would be the premier source for developing global soccer stars. In other words, if our assertion is true then most the kids of the Latino community who are not as much in a comfort zone as their white or Asian counterparts would have a better chance of maximizing their performances like Alis, Juans or Didiers of this world.
The other study which is a more recent study tells us another story. In this study, all current professional soccer players developed in the USA were mapped based on the metropolitan area of origin which is based on where a player grew up, not where he was born. The players’ socioeconomic status or ethnicity is not recorded along with metropolitan area of origin information. Actually, until recently, U.S. Soccer did not keep a record of the youth players. Now in order to be in compliance with FIFA Connect project, U.S. Soccer started compiling information regarding registered youth players. This data will include the country of birth and country of citizenship.
The results of the study might sound astounding for some of you but did not come at all surprising for me. Since I live in Texas, I will share examples from Texas. According to some measures Houston -- the fifth-largest city in the country -- is the most diverse big city. Houston ranks dead bottom in the top 25 cities in the USA in terms of developing professional players compared to the population, Developing one professional player per 492,316 inhabitant.
On the other hand, Austin, where our fictional character John lives and which is not as diverse as other Texan cities, develops one professional soccer player per 235,092 inhabitants. Cities like Brownsville (population: 175,023) and Laredo (population: 244,731) which are nearly 99 percent Hispanic produced no professional players.
This might conflict our assertion that “comfort zone hinders maximum performance,” but does it? Did these current professional soccer players in the country really reach maximal performance like their counterparts in basketball? From a global perspective, this does not seem to be the case. So what is hindering the Latinos -- who are not in a comfort zone -- to reach their maximal performances? If one thinks that Latinos are not immersed in a soccer culture or show apathy towards soccer, then I have nothing to say. If not then, it is a problem that every stakeholder of our game in this country must think about.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of 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, TX.