Imagine yourself in the Camp Nou watching a Barcelona league match. Look out over the ninety thousand electric charged bodies and take in all of the atmosphere. Notice the different types of fans, young and old, male and female, those who have played and those who have only been a part of the game through support for their team. As the match finishes, a victory for the mighty Barca, see yourself walking out of the stadium along with the many other socios. Smell the joy in the air and the complete comprehension of what they just witnessed. Another victory taking their club three points closer to the goal of lifting the league championship. Listen in to the conversations as families and friends discuss the events that had just unfolded in front of them. Hear them argue about players and their roles. Watch them dissect the good and the poor from both sides of the ball. Now scan the store fronts and cafes. There in front of you sit more passionate displays of support and heated conversations over a craft of the local finest. Mother’s wave their hands to emphasize their points while sons and daughters begin to take out their super charged emotions on a ball in the street. The –match is only the centre of a larger event that will last all day and night.
These matches, won or lost, are more than just a small ball being shared amongst 22 men.
This is life.
This is everything.
On our North American shores we have never quite hit that level of culture. We have the game and huge participation but our societies have yet to live the game and it is a frustration of many a football coach who aspires for more.
There are many answers to this questions and unlike many, this piece will not profess that there is only one route for us to get there. This is not a black and white argument. All the answers live in the gray. Timeline? Unknown. Surely the answers to creating a thriving football culture exist in better coaching, more of that better coaching at lower ages, a more complete organizational pyramid, a more complete media understanding of the game, improved grassroots exposure, and many more items that each could be an article themselves, or even hundreds of articles. The idea that professional soccer has graced North America again I view as a plus so our future generations can attend live matches. While not perfect it is still a plus. Increased television coverage has and also will continue to be a benefit to building a soccer culture. Inspiration is a beautiful thing.
However, no matter the level that we improve coaching or the professional level of soccer, one walk out to a soccer complex to watch youth matches will instantly illuminate what I think may be our biggest challenge. Adults simply do not understand the sport. Unlike the general understanding of hockey in Canada and the dissection of American football in the United States, soccer is a misunderstood sport. The finer points of the game are completely missed by most and instead of trying to figure out more about the game, which requires people to do some work, the default lens most use is one that they are familiar with. The one developed by other sports they have grown up with.
Roughly twenty five million people participate in organized soccer with the vast majority of those numbers being in the youth ranks. The market impacted by that many registered participants is staggering and could probably be argued that easily a third of the population of Canada and the U.S. would be directly connected to the sport, whether as a player or a relative. How does one even begin to contemplate educating that many people?
Over twenty years ago Amercian Tom Byers was presented with the same conundrum in Japan. How to inform people of what soccer was and what development of the sport might look like. I won’t go into the story in full but check out what he accomplished and how it was done. It is truly fascinating and inspiring. In a nutshell, he started with educating parents. Japan did not have the participation numbers so Tom started essentially from scratch. Here, I think it is possible to inspire quicker change. But first, before you can get to the end goal, you must know where you are starting.
I believe the language of soccer could be a powerful change agent. Like teaching kids to read at school we start with the letters of the alphabet and move into small words and then to reading comprehension. In my estimation, at the grassroots (youth and adult versions), the very base of the pyramid where well over eighty percent of the numbers lie, we assume our adults can read Shakespeare. As coaches we speak to our parents as if they should understand the nuances of our sport, the sport we are so passionate about. They don’t. But could. The base is where the future fan is. The base is where the scarf purchasers are. These people will influence the future of the game so our experienced coaches and experts can train the pockets of elite players. I work at the base of the pyramid. This is the area where very few players or families will ever make the top level. These people make up the vast majority of those who will become our fans, like those we described coming out of the Nou Camp. Not tomorrow, but one day.
They barely know the alphabet and they hardly understand the little words. We need to teach them to read.
Teach our kids those words. They will teach the adults in turn.
Moving with the analogy of learning the alphabet and then onto small words I submit that early football education should be all about comfort on the ball. Whatever that takes during the early years, from 2years old through early school years. That’s the alphabet part. Moving on from the letters we learn the meaning of our first word. This is as far as our general public may have ever made it comprehending football language. We think they understand more but I think they have never made it past the very simply word, PASS.
Sure, American football has passing, basketball uses the pass, and so does hockey. Every team sport seems to have a variation of it so it is concluded by the well meaning adults that they actually understand what it means in soccer. Having seen it before in other sports they skip over the true understanding of our game and all the beauty that comes from sharing the ball. Our volunteer coaches have never made it beyond grade 3 in soccer terms. Mind you it isn’t really their fault. They couldn’t teach the finer points of playing to pass the ball. So they don’t but are happy to join in with the sideline attendees in belowing “pass it” over and over. In my opinion our whole infrastructure falls apart from there. The word win become more important than learning more important words or even expansive variations of the basic terms, like perhaps possession. Without understanding there will never be real conversations amongst passionate fans. Just shouts to “boot it”, “kick it”, “not down the middle”, or “get it out”…no matter what level of soccer they end up watching.
They can’t read. We need to teach them. We? Yes we. The coaches of local soccer. Those same coaches who talk about formations and speak over the heads of most of our sideline supporters.
It is time to show off your team. You need to show what it can be. You need to talk about those basic words of soccer, starting with the most important one, PASS. Begin to inform your parents of what a passing game could look like at all levels they watch and why it is important for development. Don’t know why trying to teach keeping the ball is important, then it is you that may need to go back and brush up on the letters and small words. Or even learn them for the first time. Don’t worry, we aren’t judging, nobody has ever helped you since the day you were handed a bag of balls and a bunch of tiny jerseys. You got thrown into the deep end. I know a lot of people that made it through high school without ever learning to read. They grew as a person when they admitted it.
So, it’s time to show yourself your product. Show us your product. Talk about your product and where it will go. Talk about it with your parents so they begin to learn the words. Back foot, receiving, shoulder check, touch, weight, runs off the ball, and more. Very small words but powerful.
Can your kids keep the ball for a certain number of passes per match? Will you try? Will you stop trying to coach levels beyond the years of your kids so they can simply anchor their love of this sport in one major concept at a time? Will you really delve into what it means to pass the ball?
It doesn’t become possession until the word pass is understood. It may never become possession. It doesn’t matter. These are the future socios. Their understanding of what it is doesn’t have to come with being able to do it. Only so many will ever play the beautiful game at the highest of levels.
It is time to teach the twenty five million soccer participants, and their supporters, the language of international football. Starting with the most misunderstood little word, the PASS.
Go. Play Better.
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