Something wrong? No worries. Just rub some money on it.
In the United States, conventional thinking suggests that investing in an assortment of bells and whistles is necessary to create top professional players. Well, maybe we’re over-complicating things.
Here is a list of just a few items on the laundry list that U.S. soccer culture implies are required to develop a top level professional player: (1) expensive cleats that bend the ball for you, (2) access to transportation or a car, (3) regular structured training sessions from U8 to through the end of high school, (4) access to the best competition available regionally or nationally, (5) athletic trainers, and (6) soccer-specific stadiums, or at least immaculately manicured lawns.
Given all that we seem to think goes into the development of a top professional player, why is it that countries with scores of kids who play barefoot, lack access to reliable transportation, play on dirt pitches, and lack access to coaching and facilities develop players who turn into some of the most technically-sound players in the world?
Maybe it’s imagination. Although tangibles certainly influence development, a cursory look into the upbringing of some of the world’s greatest players reveals that development doesn’t just come down to money. Or, said another way, the absence of the things that we believe we need won’t necessarily impede the development of top players. Let’s not forget that we have all of the tangibles, but have not been able to translate tangible assets into a consistent supply of top level players yet.
Soccer is a game of imagination as much as it is a game of tactics. Having the imagination to intuitively dance through a tight space as an after-thought versus making a conscious decision to do so may be the difference between a Messi and a Donovan. How you play as a kid is formative. Kids need to be able to imagine, and coaches are not the only source of imagination.
Perhaps the lack of access to regular top level football impacted the ability of kids growing up in the States only a few years back to be able to regularly imagine. The long absence of soccer from our televisions had an impact on our imaginations. Without seeing what’s possible, it’s hard to imagine. Travel to Brazil, Argentina, across Africa or Europe, and you’ll find that kids playing in the street have imagination in abundance. They’re surrounded by the game. Even without a proper ball, plastic bags and rope can fill the void.
Player after player tells stories about formative experiences growing up in these types of environments. All they needed was some imagination. Real Madrid’s Malian midfielder Mahamadou Diarra gave us a peek into his childhood in A Beautiful Game: Football Through the Eyes of the World’s Greatest Footballers (via The Guardian (UK)):
My first memory of football is playing in the street when I was eight or nine in Bamako [Mali's capital city]. There were 18 or 20 of us. Quite a lot of them have gone on to become professional players. We set out our own pitch, put stones down a metre apart to make a goal, and played two hours without break. The best!
We’d get an old ball – one that had burst – from an older brother, cut a whole in it and stuff it full of old clothes so we could keep using it. Those balls were hard, no bounce at all, but playing in the street was easier for us.
Diarra’s comments reveal that many things were lacking during his childhood that most of us consider essential to player development. But the one thing that wasn’t lacking was imagination.
Similarly, in the United States, there is no shortage of inspiration for kids dreaming about the NBA, NFL, or MLB. In so many neighborhoods, all you need is a milk crate, a few nails, and a tree to play basketball, and your imagination could take over. I’m not naïve enough to believe that gear and facilities don’t have an important role in player development in the United States, but more than anything, it’s a culture of imagination that needs to be cultivated.
Infrastructure is important. This isn’t a matter of scaling back of the haves. For instance, soccer specific stadiums can be part of the imagination-building exercise. Taking a young, impressionable mind to a rocking Red Bull Arena filled to capacity can create dreams that might not capture the imagination of a young player in a 60,000 seat, but relatively empty, Giants Stadium. When the Red Bulls played in Giant Stadium (yes, that’s a pun), you probably spent 50% of your time watching the game, and 50% of the time examining the empty space. Now, Red Bull Arena allows fans to spend 50% of their time viewing the spectacle on the field, and 50% of their time thinking about how much better they are than everyone else.
Perhaps an Imagination Plan needs to be incorporated into the MLS strategic plan. If you take a child from Bamako or Accra and a typical kid from the U.S., I’m not convinced that the kid with all of the advanced training regimes and access to top level gear will turn out to be the better player. I think the track record speaks for itself. We need to make sure that resources are not just allocated to technology and training regiments (although these two things are also important), but also to developing the right culture around playing the game that encourages creativity, a willingness to beat players, and instills a confidence that is grounded in more than just fitness and rigid tactical training. Watching our youth national teams shows that we are headed in the right direction. But we need to find more ways to encourage imagination-building at the grassroots level.
Next month, I’ll be heading to Africa and will interview a number of these impressionable minds. Children without televisions can tell you about a memorable goal last week. They’ll tell you about trekking to the local pub to sit outside and watch matches as their elders rant about their latest representative playing in Europe. For all of the advanced technology that we have, there’s something that we can learn from these kids. Perhaps it’s simply that player development is about more than material goods. It is about how you dream.
So next time you want to tell your kids to stop daydreaming, hold on a moment because they might be daydreaming about soccer. And if they’re not, encourage them to start.