The massive negative impact of our weak soccer culture and low population density

This is a long post, but I think it’s an important one. I hope you stay with me on this.

One of the themes on my blog is a concern that we might not be emphasizing creativity, risk taking, and ‘craziness’ enough in our youngsters. Click here and here for a couple of posts on this topic. We might be over-coaching and creating too many clones (click here for post).

But do we really want to pay good money for (quality) coaches to just supervise ‘street soccer’ and organized free play? In other words, most coaches might well be doing precisely what they should be doing, similar to youth coaching in Europe.

So if we assume for a moment that it’s not so much a coaching weakness in our country then what might explain (all or part of?) the skills and creativity gap between players here and those in Europe and Latin America?

It is very likely that much of this gap develops when our players are young, between the ages of, say, 5 and 12, maybe 14.

The critical difference between youngsters here and in Europe and Latin America is the lack of free soccer play during school breaks and later in the day in neighborhood parks and backyards.

This leads to a huge gap in hours played per week and a huge loss of creative play opportunities.

There are arguably two main reasons for this: first, a lack of pervasive soccer culture here (still), and, second, much bigger distances and busier roads that make walking or biking to a neighborhood park or a friend’s backyard much more difficult for our youngsters.

The lack of pervasive soccer culture makes it difficult to get a critical mass of soccer free play during school breaks, which is where our youngsters spend the majority of their time.

My son attended the German International school here from Kindergarten through grade 4. Soccer was everywhere…the boys played during every break, talked a lot about soccer, wore soccer jerseys, and traded stickers of soccer players.

I remember this well from my own time growing up in Germany – we played soccer pretty much during every school break (often using just a tennis ball) even if we just had ten minutes and then often got together after homework to play some more on some neighborhood grass patch.

My son then switched to our local American neighborhood school and it all pretty much ended. In fact, he became reluctant to wear his (expensive) soccer jerseys because some of the kids were making fun of them.

Since this school switch the only touches on the ball he gets are during his team practices – probably only a third the touches he was getting before and now everything is structured drills and systems of play. And it’s this professional coaching that I’m willing to pay for, of course, not just supervised street soccer.

To quote from a recent research paper on this topic:

“In other countries, soccer is as important as family and religion. It is the sport that every kid growing up plays first, and a major part of this is how relatively inexpensive the game is to play. And in poorer countries, kids need nothing but a ball and some space. They’re not playing twice a week at practice. They’re playing seven days a week just for fun. And this is where many of the great soccer nations stand out from the United States. As a result, this education and push for technical mastery of skills is lost, and true development falls to youth clubs, where the kids may only be for 3-4 hours a week. Development is stunted because the sport is not engrained into American culture yet.

Klinsmann acknowledged this same issue being the biggest difference between American players and players from global soccer powers:

“One thing is certain: The American kids need hundreds and even thousands more hours to play. That is a really crucial thing. If it’s through their club team, if it’s through themselves, whatever it is. The difference between the top 10 in the world and where we are right now is the technical capabilities and the higher pace. In a high-pace, high-speed environment, to keep calm on the ball, to sharpen your minds so you know what to do with the ball before you get the ball. That’s the difference right now. You might have technically gifted players here, but once you set the pace two levels higher, they lose that technical ability because they’re getting out of breath or their mental thought process isn’t fast enough.”

The second issue about greater distances and our lower population density is also an important factor. It is much more difficult for youngsters to get together after school to just play some soccer. Jumping on a bike to the nearest park or your friend’s backyard is just not feasible in most areas and even if it’s feasible for some there isn’t enough critical mass of players that turn up to play.

The population density of urban areas in Europe is around three times higher than here, and around six times higher in Latin America (data source here). This makes it much easier to get together to play.

In most parts of Europe and Latin America the odds are high that simply turning up at a park with your cleats will get you into a pick-up game. And it’s much easier and safer for youngsters to move about their neighborhoods.

This might also explain why Hispanic youth here tend to be much more creative and skillful. They tend to be much more immersed in soccer culture from birth, are more likely to be playing soccer in their neighborhood schools and with their dads and siblings, and tend to live in neighborhoods with higher population densities. They are constantly surrounded by a strong soccer culture and can play the game pretty much every day.

Unfortunately, many of these same Hispanic youngsters typically don’t have access to quality professional coaching as they get older, partly because of our expensive pay to play system. So they drop out of our player pool as teenagers. But that’s a topic for another day.

There is no quick fix for this and there’s no one to blame. It will take time for our soccer culture to strengthen and become more pervasive.

It’s difficult to overcome the population density issue, but it would be a big win for soccer to be voluntarily played every day by a critical mass of kids during school breaks. And wearing a soccer jersey to school has to become ‘cool’.

Many of our soccer coaches might well be doing a very good job given what they have to work with.

It might be as simple and as difficult as that.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

7 thoughts on “The massive negative impact of our weak soccer culture and low population density

  1. The SFUSD and their after-care programs have been a complete disaster as far as the opportunity to play soccer goes. The entire premise of recess has become 1) no contact, since contact leads to conflict 2) no games where there are winners and losers, if at all possible (with the exception of 4-square) 3) when a game is played, make sure 40 kids are on the field/court so no actual sport can occur. My kids left elementary school without actually knowing how to play kick-ball, since they were discouraged from playing teams–everyone just took turns kicking the ball. I’d say “Only In San Francisco”, but I think this might be common in the Bay Area now.

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  2. Interesting thoughts.

    Here are my thoughts on the subject:
    1. If your supposition is true (US kids dont play enough street ball) then how is the womens team so good? Can we not figure that out and then apply it to the men? Or is it that womens soccer elsewhere just sucks as bad as ours (Ajax has no womens program at all for example), so we are at least competitive?
    2. I dont think i buy the “They play more soccer hours so they’re better” model. If thats all it was then why arent all the middle east countries rock stars? I grew up there and the kids there do nothing but play soccer too. On dirt fields, with goals with no nets, and old crappy balls, and no shoes. And they arent “Brazil” by any stretch of the imagination.
    3. Id argue the bigger issue here in the US is our propensity for “winning” and for coaches to “tell” kids how to do things, and in what order, and when and under what circumstances. And then to yell at them when they get one little thing wrong. And to put teams together with a few rockstars, and play the ball long, and “just win baby”.
    4. I’d also argue the good hispanic kids arent good because they play more in their free time. I’d argue that hispanic kids play soccer, and, at least relative to non hispanic (NH) kids, very little else. So, for Hispanics, all their best athletes are playing soccer, and playing it 100%. Vs the NH kids having many of their better athletes playing lacrosse, baseball, basketball, swimming, water polo as well as soccer. In other words, you’re getting the best of the best of the Hispanic community on the soccer field, and you’re not for the non-hispanics. I’d also argue that Hispanics dont have the “success” at the end of the road that you’d expect, not solely becuase of lack of access to expensive soccer clubs. But instead because they take “winning” to the extreme – its all about winning, from age 8 and up, and that leads to a team/win focus vs the “individual development” focus of the Europeans and to a lesser degree the non-hispanics in the US. As a result the hispanic kids are less individually developed by the time they get to 14+.

    I wont pretend to have any answers – cause i dont. I think its a complicated issue that needs many small changes. If i was to pretend i knew the answers id say they’d look something like:
    1. Focus more on training and less on games – so as to de-emphasize “winning”
    2. Spend a lot more time developing coaches – training them to coach individuals instead of teams, encourage risk taking and creativity, not bench the “worst” kids on a U8 team 50% of the time, inject fun into their programs, incorporate fitness and speed and edurance into their practices, etc. Create coach mentoring programs. Promote and give bonuses to “excellent” coaches. Etc.
    3. Not maintain the rigid heirachy of “teams” within clubs – Top, Middle, Bottom – with very little player movement. This creates stagnation of player effort, does not reward effort and creativity, and releagtes a player who is not passionate at U8 to a crappy team for most of their carrer.
    4. “Organize” freindly scrimmages with mixed age groups and sexes. No refs, no coaches – just adults. In other words “replicate” the park environment. This will inject fun, creativity, mentoring, etc back into the kids soccer experience. Yes its not the random get together of European parks, but its probably a good facimile.

    Thats all for now….

    Andrew

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    • Very much appreciate your thoughts, Andrew.

      A strong soccer culture that leads to lots of time with the ball as the kids grow up is a necessary but not sufficient condition to join the, say, top quarter of soccer nations.

      Other factors such as national wealth, population size, quantity and quality of facilities, coaching quality, player development curriculum implemented by the national soccer federation, level of corruption, unique national cultural traits that influence playing style, etc. play an important role also. This explains why the soccer mad Middle Eastern countries don’t feature in the top soccer nations despite lots of ‘street soccer’. And it also explains Germany’s (relative) slump until recently.

      What all of the top soccer nations have in common though is a strong soccer culture that surrounds the kids from birth to adulthood.

      In our country I believe that the weak soccer culture and lack of time with the ball at school etc. is a key deficiency. Our player development approach and coaching needs improvement also, but I firmly believe that what our 5 to 14 year old kids do in their own time outside the four to six hours per week of structured coaching is very important and I suspect that until this changes it will be difficult to join the top even if we had the best coaching in the world.

      About Women’s soccer: one of the key reasons for our relative strength is, paradoxically, because of our weak soccer culture here. In soccer mad countries girls/women simply weren’t encouraged to play the game. Pretty much everywhere soccer was/is seen as a man’s sport. There’s a lot of machismo about this. This has started to change these last ten or so years with many of the top soccer nations starting women’s soccer leagues, creating clubs, and even the pro clubs such as Bayern Munich now with a women’s team.

      Because of this lack of soccer culture here in the US women’s soccer never faced strong societal resistance. It was able to develop and grow pretty much unhindered. Girls were never really discouraged to play the game. Often the opposite actually.

      More broadly, the role of women in society changed sooner here in (most parts of) the US. In virtually every other country girls and women kept their traditional ‘softer’ roles for longer, which discouraged sports. Many countries still have this issue, which will keep them back on the soccer front.

      Add to this positives such as a large population, quality facilities, and relatively high wealth, and we can see why our women are so strong internationally. The gap has been shrinking though and it will be interesting to see how our top women do these next twenty years against strong soccer nations such as Germany, Brazil, Sweden, and Japan.

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