The vital street soccer ingredient -- that early freedom to mess about

How the new era of American youth soccer will or should unfold after the coronavirus interruption has reignited discussions covering all facets of children's experiences on the soccer field. This article by Paul Gardner  ran in an April 1991 issue of Soccer America.
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There is nothing so enjoyable -- according to author Kenneth Grahame  (Wind in the Willows) -- as "simply messing about in boats." As one who has been known to get seasick standing on the shore merely looking at a boat moving gently up and down, I'm not so sure about that.

But I think I know what he was getting at. This is the same thought that Jerome K. Jerome came up with in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.” What he was saying was that we take things too seriously -- and that in so doing we end up getting them wrong.

Maybe things would go better if we just allowed people to "mess about." To enjoy themselves.

So there's the connection to soccer (in case you were beginning to wonder). Because we hear so much talk from so many involved people about the curse of overcoaching of young players. Why can't we just let 'em play? has become a theme of youth soccer. Almost everyone seems to think it's a marvelous idea. When was the last time you heard anyone defend heavy coaching for kids? Any one making such a stand today would be tarred and feathered and employed as a halftime attraction at an indoor game.

Yet ... if nobody would dream of overcoaching, why do people keep complaining about it? Because it does indeed go on -- perpetrated by people who are quite sure they are not doing it. Adults, of course -- straying into a child's world that they no longer understand.

Look at that phrase of Grahame's -- "messing about." It implies childishness. And childishness is always a word that we use in a pejorative sense -- even when we apply it to children. Messing about is childish. It is unproductive. It is a waste of time. It must not be allowed. It is wrong.

But again, no one really expresses matters like that. It is simply that adults always feel they know better, that they can improve things, that by butting into the children's world they can help the little ones. That, by making play more sensible to the adult mind they make it more enjoyable to the child mind.

So the adults -- with the best of intentions -- interfere. Put another way -- the coaches overcoach. Structure rears its ugly, inevitable head and messing about is banished. Children, I guess we would all agree, love to play, need to play. I don't necessarily mean at soccer, I mean just playing at anything. We agree -- but do we know what we mean?

What is play? Play is "activity engaged in for amusement or recreation; sport, games etc; often, specifically, the natural activities of children." That's what my dictionary says. I don't know that that gets us much further, any more than the knowledge that play can be classified as "biologically irrelevant or useless" behavior.

More to the point is the obvious fact that play has something to do with laughter and fun. In her Psychology of Play, Dr. Susanna Miller has this to say: "Freedom of choice, not being constrained by other people or by circumstances is a hallmark of play ... lack of constraint from conventional ways of handling objects, materials and ideas, is inherent in the concept of play."

It is, I think, that lack of constraint that leads -- in the eyes of adults -- to the dreaded messing about. A child must not be allowed to build his pyramid starting with the apex downward, I mean that's just plain silly, it must be explained that he's got it upside down. Must it be explained?

Can not the child be left to find that out for itself? Is there anything more typical of childhood, more downright childish, than the wish to explore, to find things out? And is there a better way of learning than by exploring and experimentation? Does the fact that an adult knows certain things won't work entitle him to take away from the child the beauty of working it out for himself? To deprive the child of the wonderful excitement of discovery?

I'm talking in general terms, but the soccer connection is obvious. The soccer child should be allowed to mess about with the sport. Do what he likes with it. Explore the possibilities, shape them to his own abilities and to his own personality. If he doesn't have any feeling for the sport, well, he shouldn't be a soccer player, probably never will be one. That is not a crime. The crime is to insist he keep playing when he's not interested.

The young soccer player does not need -- is greatly inhibited by -- the presence of an adult telling him what to do and what not to do. And that is what coaches most often end up doing -- however much they may protest otherwise. As I said earlier, it is all done with the best of intentions. But should it be done at all?

Consider the matter of street soccer. There seems to be a consensus in soccer these days that street soccer is the best way to produce players. Or used to be. Trouble is that with modern highways and traffic jams on the one hand, and a hundred competing recreations on the other, we don't have much street soccer any more.

Not to worry -- we (read "the coaches") will simulate street soccer. Not a bad idea at all -- after all, what other choice do we have? But being coaches, being imbued with the teaching, technical approach to the game, they promptly get it wrong. Street soccer must first be analyzed (in a technical sense, of course) to find out what makes it tick.

The answer is obvious, clear to everyone. More touches of the ball. The teams are, we are told, smaller so each player has more ball contact. Hmmm. My memories of street soccer involve what I recall as hordes of uncouth monsters. That was why I used to arrive early, to play with just a few kids until the older boys arrived and the teams got bigger and bigger. At that point, if you wanted any ball contact at all, you had to work bloody hard for it.

The other conclusion from the analysis of street soccer was that restricted space is important. So the coaches can now come up with the modern version of street soccer: small teams, restricted space, small goals. Add a dull, totally unimaginative name -- small-sided games -- and you've got it.

Or have you? I have a feeling that the coaches have ignored the vital ingredient of street soccer. The fact that it was never really seen by the participants as anything more than messing about. Sure, plenty of good players started that way -- but did they take part with the attitude of "now for another training session that will help make me a better player and get me a job as a pro"? Huh! Messing about, and the fact that adults disapproved, was justification enough.

That second point is vital. I just cannot envision what sort of reception an adult, a coach, would have received had he turned up and tried to start telling everyone what to do.

Street soccer was kids messing about, they were enjoying themselves -- and they were learning in the best possible way. By doing more or less what they liked, by taking the criticism or the praise of the other kids, by finding out for themselves what worked and what didn't, what they could do and what they couldn't.

Sure, by that time, the world of constraints was beginning to close in, but there was still much left of the magical world of childhood fantasy and exploration. There were wonderful feats accomplished in those games, and it was mostly the personal skills that stood out. Team play there was, but it was a spontaneous sort of cooperation. It came not from any tactical plans, but from young players who were realizing that team play worked, that it was fun. Kids who developed an instinctive way of combining with other players. There was never, I'm quite sure, any deep thinking about any of this.

You can see, can you not?, what sort of player is going to develop from that sort of atmosphere. He's going to be skillful, and he's going to be willful. He'll know how to look after himself, he'll be confident, maybe cocky, because he's self-made and he's proved to himself that he can do it. He will have his own way of doing things. He will have learned to take responsibility for what he does, because no one else (well, no adult) has ever told him what he should be doing. He will have a unique, clear style. There will be a distinct personality about his playing.

I agree that a factor in all that will be "the number of touches" of the ball. But I do not believe it is the most important factor. Surely, it must be clear that you can bring up young players solely on small-sided games with an astronomical number of touches -- and that this is no guarantee at all that they will be players?

That early freedom to mess about, to be free of the crushing burden of adult wisdom -- that is the most important thing. Soon enough the adults, the coaches, will arrive with their deadly somber mission. They will then set about "correcting" things. The coach as Corrections Officer.

At what age one stops being a kid -- I'm not sure about that. But does anyone know? Clearly, at some point, coaching comes into the picture. But at what age? And what sort of coaching? We really don't know the answers to those vital questions.

All that we can ask of the coaches at this stage is that they stop behaving as if they do know the answers. It may, I fear, be asking too much. The whole inane structure of coaching courses and coaching badges, which get ever more complicated and ever more divorced from the reality of the game, is working in the opposite direction.

Mark ye my words, the day will come, verily it will, and probably quite soon -- when the USSF inaugurates a special course scientifically designed for youth coaches.

I shudder to think what will be taught in those courses. For I do believe that the best youth coaches are those who love the game, who love kids and respect them on their own terms, who will encourage and coax and chide and mock and laugh and gently nudge things along. That is all hopelessly unscientific, but those qualities are worth any coaching badge you can think of.

They are qualities that will really allow kids to play, to have fun. Or simply to mess about.

8 comments about "The vital street soccer ingredient -- that early freedom to mess about".
  1. Wooden Ships, May 18, 2020 at 9:45 p.m.

    I remember this. Should be the introduction at the next USSF gathering!

  2. Frans Vischer, May 19, 2020 at 3:56 p.m.

    The intrusion by adults is not only in the kids development as players- it also evolved into Everyone Wins, so everyone gets a trophy, parents wanting to avoid their child getting hurt, or their feelings hurt, everyone is equal. They want their kids to grow up in a clinnically safe environment, where taking chances is frowned upon.
    Childhood can be difficult, and being the last one picked on a team is painful, but so is life. The better, tougher players rise to the top and choose to play with those that challenge their abilities. 

  3. frank schoon, May 20, 2020 at 9:38 a.m.

    Ships, Frans, can you imagine this was written 30years ago and Ships still remembers it...As I began to read this, I didn't realize that this was an "oldie but goodie" from way back. The point I want to make is, there are some golden nuggets in here but nothing has ever been done as far as the USSF taking the ball and running with it. That Ships state "this should be an introduction at the next ussf ( NOTE ,THIS ORGANIZATION DOESN'T DESERVE TO BE CAPITOLIZED) gathering is telling....

    Frans, I know you have to have some dutch ancestry with that name for even your last name has also been anglonized from Visser to Vischer....You better check if you have a mackerel in your back pocket ,somewhere....I fully agree with nyou on this 'everyone has to have a trophy' BS......
    Realize, the field of psychiatry, psychology, although I find it interesting and I admire listening to Jordan Peterson in how he debates, his world view and how he logically express himself,  does not excuse this damn discipline to seep into soccer, by his cohorts....

    To me the kids who grew up playing street soccer, were never confronted with this 'psycho' baloney or hearing arguments about lack of funds to play....what garbage! They just played pickup in the street and became good players and they learned to survive under the competition. Parents in those days were trying to work and survive after WW2 were not concerned about everyone needing a trophy. As a matter of fact the kids in my days didn't even want their parents around them otherwise one was considered a momma's boy....

  4. Frans Vischer replied, May 21, 2020 at 11:50 a.m.

    Frank- yes I was born in Rotterdam, though our name was always Vischer. My family immigrated to the US just as Dutch soccer grew to prominence. I was 11, February 1970. Practically no soccer to be seen here then. I was a Feyenoord fan, and a few months after we arrived Feyenoord won the Europen Cup, which we learned from relatives in Holland. Then Ajax went on a tear. I missed it all. I mentioned to you before- years later I was fortunate enough to meet Johan Cruyff.
    I became American in almost every way, except sports. I detest American reliance on statistics, TV announcers blabbing on and on, incessant commercials and time/outs with coaches controlling every minute detail, resigning players to being robots. 
    Back on topic- I grew up playing soccer on the streets, loving the freedom, learning from the other players and trying their moves, etc. Thats the best way. 

  5. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2020 at 5:50 p.m.

    Frans ,my family on my mothers side are all from Rotterdam and my grandmother maiden name was also Vischer of Visser.....

    I still remember that year when Feyenoord won everything and I can name every player on that team. To me that was the best Feyenoord team ever and one of the greatest in the world at that time. But since that time Feyenoord soccer is poor soccer. The last time I enjoyed watching them was when Cruyff played for them.

    Yeah, I feel the same way you do about the sports here as well the commentators. But you know what Holland is following the American trend of sports broadcasting although not as bad. Van Hanegem criticized quite on how dutch broadcasting is going

  6. Bob Ashpole, May 20, 2020 at 12:30 p.m.

    So many adults have either forgotten--or worse--never knew the simple joy of kicking a ball.

  7. Frans Vischer, May 21, 2020 at 9:24 p.m.

    Agreed, Bob and Frank. 
    I still play every Saturday, with a bunch of buddies- most of them much younger than me. (Of course not now during the Corona virus.) But I love playing still. 

  8. frank schoon replied, May 22, 2020 at 9:05 a.m.

    Frans , I wish I could play.... You lucky dog. I have both knees replaced.

    I'm booked to go to Holland in July and I hope I can go. I plan to take a bike trip(fietsen) through Rotterdam,from park to park, also in Den Haag. I have 2 bikes stored in Holland, and every year we drive to an area like Hilversum , Lage Vuursche, Soest ,Zeist back to Hilversum...It could take 2-3 hours with stops. We don't bike (fietse) for exercise although it is, but we enjoy to just tour and see things along the way. Go to Youtube and type in biking in Hilversum for example and you'll see nice bike tours. Sometimes I sit there and it is so meditative seeing Holland the way we grew up.... This is what we do every year for 2 weeks. My wife is American and she loves biking there...also guess what ,it is a flat country, great....

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