It took place decades ago, but, in retrospect, it might be the most memorable practice I ever attend.
The venue is not particularly flash, a distant corner of a community field in a small mill town on Vancouver Island. A mid October Saturday morning, just after 9am. The sun is out, but a breeze off the inlet freshens. Leaves me glad for the protection of a heavy wool sweater.
Faint white lines mark the playing area, roughly a 30-meter square. Twelve youngsters, age six, fill the space. Most wearing cleats, some sporting shin pads. Baggy shorts hang down to their knees. All but one in a sponsored yellow T-shirt. Each of them with a soccer ball.
The kids are full of energy, rushing around. Dribbling haphazardly, changing direction, experimenting. Losing possession of their ball, then regaining it. Sometimes shooting at the two battered parking cones that frame an imaginary goal.
Squeals of delight fill the air.
A teaching colleague of mine just so happens to be the coach. He sidles up, offers me steaming hot coffee from his thermos. Then retreats to a position up against a nearby chain link fence.
“When does the session begin?” I ask.
He looks at me quizzically. “What do you mean?” he replies. “It started ten minutes ago.”
And so it goes. I watch as the players literally improve before my eyes. Very occasionally, my friend ventures on to the field. Always with the same instructions. Heads Up. Keep the ball close to get around an opponent. Then big touches to get away.
Now and then he removes a ball or two from the group. Instantly, the action changes, those without looking to steal or intercept. Instinctively, those in possession turn away, look to shield or protect the ball. Or pass to an uncovered teammate.
Half an hour later the practice ends. There are smiles aplenty, as the dozen happy boys and girls head home. On the surface, it appears the coach contributes little or nothing. Yet, in fact, by staying for the most part out of the way, allowing his charges the liberty to discover for themselves, he provides a gift without measure.
I reflect on my own formative years. Basically, until age twelve, maybe even later, I am responsible for my own athletic development. It is a magical time. Endless freedom, alone or with friends, allows skills to flourish. Throwing, catching, dribbling, shooting, kicking, skating, stickhandling, swimming, swinging a club, becomes second nature.
Then, slowly, inexorably, times change. Technology takes an ever growing hold, teenagers slaves to television, computers and smart phones. Ball diamonds, swimming holes, lacrosse boxes, grassy parks, frozen lakes and ponds, back yards, asphalt courts, empty completely or remain sadly underused. Pickup games become a thing of the past. While upgraded facilities, from recreation centres to fieldhouses to arenas to gyms, ensure that what once were almost exclusively outside pursuits now take place indoors. And will never go back.
Unstructured play, and the agility, coordination, awareness and artistry that might come with it, dies a death.
In its place arrives order and shape, everything now organized and arranged by adults. Encouraged by parents and fearful of missing out, children rush to join teams. These teams enter leagues. Everything runs on a schedule, winter, spring, summer and fall. Far too many games and tournaments, never enough quality practice time, precious few moments for inventiveness and mastery of skills. Too many coaches focus on results, on teaching systems. Safety first rules the day. Players rigidly follow instructions, stick to set patterns, play by rote, afraid of making errors.
Add in battalions of sports specialists, all of whom, even if wonderfully capable, just add to the expense and pressure. Indeed, swing and skating coaches, kicking gurus, shot doctors, technical directors, mental skills practitioners, strength and conditioning experts, fitness consultants, chime in with their expertise.
This can’t be much fun. If it was, a distressingly large percentage of young athletes, the majority before the age of fifteen, would not burn out or quit, would not look to escape the sporting hamster wheel. Too often, barely given time to exhale or recover, they never find those precious windows to express themselves.
These teenagers will soon become adults. If their own athletic, or likewise musical or arts experiences are a bit solemn, overprogrammed and lacking a certain joie de vivre, hopefully they can at least imagine purer, simpler times.
It is easy for me, as I just need to recall my own upbringing. Or hark back to one particular, long ago soccer practice. Of youngsters, mostly left to their own devices, attentive and learning. Without even realizing it. Creativity, and perhaps most importantly, joy and laughter, on full display.
I am reliably informed that an adult, on average, laughs only ten times a day. Yet, by way of comparison, a six year old laughs daily closer to thirty times that number!
So, perhaps we might reconsider our overall approach to youth sport.
How to do it?
First, allow plenty of free time for exploration.
And be six again.