Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Is Overparenting Soccer’s Grass Ceiling?

The loss by the US to Belgium in the World Cup round of 16 will lead to all sorts of endless speculation about what this means for soccer in the US. As an extremely casual fan who can barely understand why there is not a fixed off-sides line like in ice-hockey, gridiron football, and basketball I think US soccer is a testament to the limits of overparenting. What do I mean?


First, I have been to Brazil and traveled around extensively. In essentially every vacant lot in every neighborhood I saw kids playing pick-up soccer. This was also true in rural areas. Contrast this to the acres of well-manicured fields in suburban America, hyper-organized youth programs, teams named Suburban-United, and minivans galore. The only pick-up games you see are when the immigrant adults show up on Sunday mornings and it is Bosnia vs. Somalia for an hour or two.


Second, drive around “nice” neighborhoods in the US and you see basketball hoops in the drive ways. Have you ever seen a soccer goal? While the NBA is populated by mostly African Americans, it turns out many are not as ghetto as we think. The relentless backyard games played by the Miller family (Reggie and Cheryl) are keys to what made them great players.


Third, all over the country in cities and towns large and small there is “a court” someplace where endless games of pick-up 3 on 3 take place. Everyone interested in becoming a good player knows where this court is and at the better ones you will find a collection of players ranging from solid high-schoolers to people headed to the NBA. Frequently these games have rules like “makers takers”, meaning if you score your team keeps the ball and if your team wins you keep the court. There are no parents, no officials, no fancy uniforms, and no Gatorade on the sidelines. There is also a phenomenon known as “noon-ball” at many YMCAs where in the summer middle aged men give the young guys lessons about holding, hacking, and the finer points of getting an edge. In the parent run world of suburban soccer would this be tolerated? What would happen to Jr’s self-esteem?


Finally, as I watched the US struggle against Belgium to mount attacks I kept asking myself where is the electrifying player who can make it happen? There was no Magic Johnson or Brett Favre to pull it out against long odds the way Lionel Messi did in Argentina’s win over Switzerland in the final minutes. I am also sure that while Magic Johnson and Brett Favre perfected their skills via formal practice, the roots of those skills were developed on playgrounds with no parents around.   My bet is that no one drove Magic to the park in a minivan and taught him the no look pass. The paradox of US soccer is maybe that it has to get less organized to get better. Minivans can only go so fast and take you so far.



3 Responses to “Is Overparenting Soccer’s Grass Ceiling?”

  1. July 18th, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Brian says:

    I think its unfair to blame organized soccer for the failure of our young people to hold pickup games. I coached my kids for years; unfortunately, for my kids and their teammates, if it wasn’t for organized practice and games they would be even less inclined to put down the video game and get out and play.
    And in my suburban neighborhood, basketball courts, baseball fields, etc all seem to sit unused unless there is some sort of scheduled game or practice (or are being used by adults).

    I am surprised that the immigrant pick up games you mentioned hasn’t translated into their kids, who are American of course, growing our talent pool in the sport.

  2. August 1st, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Greg says:

    I’ve just found your blog via Alex Hutchinson and his article ‘Talent v. Training in Runners’ and have to say I’m immediately intrigued. Your content is right up my alley, your articles are timely, and (as in this post) your ideas are out-of-the-box and thought-provoking.

    However, (and not to ‘overparent’ here) I was shocked by your choice of words when referring to African Americans in the NBA not being “as ghetto as we think.”

    Your use of the word ‘ghetto’ here is extremely offensive and borderline racist, akin to the offensive use of the words ‘gay’ or ‘retarded.’

    I’ve never had a problem calling people out for insensitive (and frankly, ignorant) language and have learned a great deal myself when called out by others. I don’t intend for this to be a personal affront but rather an encouragement to consider our use of language and how it affects others.

    All that aside, I love the blog and plan on being a regular visitor.


  3. August 1st, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Michael Joyner, M.D. says:

    Thx, for the feedback I was unaware of the connotations you mention. I have had at least one person object to the “suburban” characterization as well.


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