Thursday, December 31, 2009

Youth Coaches: Wither the Cone?

I have the great honor and pleasure of coaching my son's 13-under soccer team. I'm not the best teacher, but I do my best and we win our share of games, and certainly by the end of the season, there's a marked uptick in the quality of play from the start of the season. That's my benchmark.

Trust me, I'm competitive and I want us to win every time we're on the field, but I hold that back from my team. I try to get them to execute on the things we practice, think defense first and good things will happen. It's the way I do things.

Now honestly, these kids aren't innately skilled with a soccer ball. I choose that word innately very carefully and purposefully. Most of them can't juggle a ball. Most can't really dribble very smoothly through cones. Most rely on their athleticism to succeed. When I was a kid and played youth ball, it was for a Portuguese social club. Our coaches were immigrants who played for the club's senior team and volunteered to get a youth program off the ground. We spent a few minutes at the start of every practice in a big circle just passing the ball to one another. Then we'd play games. Right foot. Left foot. Not to get too Dr. Seuss, but it worked. Soon, the ball was very friendly to me. I knew how to deaden it and redirect it in the direction I wanted. At home, I would try to juggle it the way our coaches and older players would. I'd manage a few taps and touches, and steadily got better at it.

It's kinda like catching a baseball in your glove. You really can't explain how you do it, but you know you can. The ball becomes part of you. I know before it gets to me what I want to do with it.

My team doesn't. And it's my fault. Our fault.

We put down cones and do it by the textbook. And while it's our fault, it's not our fault. Americans don't play soccer. Our coaches didn't grow up playing soccer. They grew up playing baseball in the park with friends. There were no textbooks on playing second base, you just knew to keep your glove down, use two hands to catch it, and throw to first. No one talked about positioning, footwork. There were no cones, no drills, it was "Hey, who's got the ball? Someone bring a bat?" American soccer coaches at the youth level are volunteers, just like me. Guys and girls who coach because their kids want to play and the town league needs coaches. Some of us play and know how to coach. Others do their best. We're all to be applauded.

But as the applause dies down, I think it's time to leave the cones at home.

There was a thought-provoking article in the Boston Globe recently about soccer development in the U.S. The gist of the article was that youth players should Hog the ball, kid, as the headline suggests. While I think the article makes a big leap to suggest that the U.S.'s World Cup woes come from this passing-oriented, dull, void-of-creativity approach at the youth level, I think there's a lot of validity to the overall premise. We don't nurture football players to play the game. We teach them from a manual, and don't nurture any instincts for the game. And again, it's not our fault. Volunteer moms and dads don't know any better, especially about this low-scoring, boring-to-watch-on-TV game that usually ends in a riot [how's that for a capsule of football cliches?].

I don't know how many of you coach, but do you cut your best players loose? Do you scold a kid for trying to dribble through the opposing team's defense and take a difficult shot if chubby Bobby or Susie is open, even though chubby Bobby or Susie couldn't shoot the ball into an open goal if they were standing on the goal line?

Who knows? Maybe there's a bigger statement to be made here about how our kids are being raised and society's ills. I won't let my kids ride their bikes to the park, which is maybe just two miles away from us. Never. Too many creeps in this world. That's our thinking today, and it's sound thinking. But 25-30 years ago, I rode my bike 2-3 miles to the park to shoot hoops or get into a baseball game with other kids. Wouldn't think twice about it. Times have changed.

It's New Year's Eve and the end of a decade. America has grown up a lot as a football nation, and our kids have grown up playing youth soccer. It may take another decade or generation to see if we were right about our clipboard-and-cones approach to teaching the game.

Me, personally, I'm leaving the cones at home next season.

Bless you guys. Thanks for reading. And a happy, safe new year to you all.

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