Why didn't the American men's soccer team qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
Simple: Kids in America grow up playing soccer in shoes.
Oh, that's not the whole answer, of course. But after decades of coaching youth soccer, Carlo Celli and Nathan Richardson (language professors by day) had a revelation. It came on a morning when they were about to put some talented 9-year-old boys through the usual drills.
That day, a couple of the boys happened to bring along their kid sisters. Another one had a friend with him who hadn't played soccer before. The coaches' plans went out the window. Instead, they threw up their hands and told the kids they could just play
They thought it would be a wasted session.
Instead, it was like Thomas Edison flipping a switch.
The kids did "just play." And in amazement, the coaches watched them becoming more creative in their moves than ever before. The kids were concentrating better. They were energized and excited. And when the hour was up, they didn't want to leave.
It was the difference between practicing scales and jamming with friends.
That morning changed everything, as the coaches write in their new book, "Shoeless Soccer: Fixing the System and Winning the World Cup." After a few of these free-form sessions, the coaches "no longer needed to set up goals or even pick teams." They add: "The kids arrived, organized themselves, and started to play and create their own games. A couple of parents stood to the side, in case we were needed, which rarely occurred."
Celli realized that he should never spend "another minute lecturing the kids about strategies or running drills." He says, "As coach, I should let the kids play."
His goal was not just to see kids have more fun. He's a coach, after all. He believes in the game, not just messing around. But through fun, the kids were getting the lessons he couldn't teach them formally. "As the kids were left alone, the quality of play actually increased."
Playing on asphalt or a patch of scratchy grass far from any parent or coach is how most of the world's kids start playing soccer. But in America, Celli has seen the rise of what he calls the soccer-industrial complex.
In many American youth soccer leagues, the price tag can reach $700 for a season. There are the uniforms to buy. The shinguards. The trophies. The team photos. The membership fees. And then there are the shoes, which Celli and Richardson have come to distrust.
"Pele learned to play barefoot. His name was 'The Shoeless One,'" says Celli. Not that he really expects kids to ditch their shoes, but when you are barefoot and kick the ball with your toe, you don't keep doing that for long, because it hurts. It's basically stubbing your toe. Instead, you instinctively learn to kick the ball correctly.
Organized soccer in this country is also strictly stratified by age, which makes no sense. "When you're a kid, you naturally admire someone who's two years older than you," Celli says. "The adults are like aliens." In a gaggle of neighborhood friends, the younger kids copy the older ones. It's a lot easier to try to keep up with a friend than to concentrate on a lesson.
Ditch the shoes — and the parents and the pressure — and we're coming for the World Cup.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.