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The Team that Coached Themselves Won the Tournament

Free play resulted in courage, confidence, and a national soccer championship.

Steel Sports, with permission
The Championship Team
Source: Steel Sports, with permission

In a previous post (here), I described lessons young people learn in informal sports, where they direct their own activities and solve their own problems, that are not learned in formal sports, where adult coaches and officials do the directing and problem solving. In informal sports, kids learn how to negotiate, compromise, take responsibility, and create their own ways of playing. They learn how to be leaders, not just followers. Now, here’s an inspiring story illustrating that informal play can also result in improved team play in subsequent formal games. The information I present here comes in part from an interview that Lenore Skenazy held with Ian Hughes (here) and a follow-up interview I held more recently with Hughes.

Hughes is National Director of Development and Curriculum for Soccer for Steel Sports. Steel Sports is a youth sport organization, specializing in baseball, softball, and soccer, with thousands of players and hundreds of coaches across nine US states. Three years ago, the leaders of Steel Sports—including founder Warren Lichtenstein, President Mark Cole, and Coaching System director Steve Jones, as well as Hughes—decided to incorporate free play into their program. One location hosted “sandlot games” of baseball, where the payers developed their own rules and organized themselves. Subsequently, many of the coaches, in soccer as well as baseball, began to start each practice session with 10 to 15 minutes of free play, where the players played together in their own ways before the formal practice.

According to Hughes, players loved this experience so much that they began showing up early and running to practice rather than walking. Hughes also noticed, with the soccer teams he coached, that the players became increasingly confident and creative in their free play, which carried over into their formal games. They seemed to have more fun on the field and seemed to take more responsibility themselves, so they needed less coaching during formal games.

One team that Hughes coached this past summer—a 16-year-old boys’ five-on-five soccer team in Plymouth, Massachusetts—developed such a take-charge attitude from their free play that, with Hughes’s blessing, they chose to coach themselves in their tournament games. So, Hughes just sat back and watched, as that team won game after game. They won the regional championship, in Massachusetts, and then went on to Virginia, where the champions from eight regions competed for the national championship. And there he watched as his team became national champions for their age group. Yes, the team that coached themselves won it all!

Of course, we can’t say for sure that the Plymouth team won because they coached themselves. Hughes says they were good players to begin with, and I’m guessing that they had learned lots of fundamentals from Hughes before the tournaments began. But Hughes thinks their self-coaching, on top of the extra confidence and skills they had developed in free play, contributed greatly to their success.

Hughes observed that free play led the boys to talk much more freely among themselves than they had before, to let one another know what they were doing and encourage and advise one another. It also led them to pay more attention to what was happening over the whole field, not just around their own feet. It led them to try out new, creative, sometimes risky moves (such as an over-the-head bicycle kick), which they would not have dared to try before. My own way of saying this is that free play led them to be more playful, even in their serious tournament games, and, as the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky pointed out long ago, playfulness leads us all to be a head taller than we are when we’re in a more somber state of mind.

Hughes noticed, in these uncoached games, that the best players often chose not to start. They preferred to sit on the bench in the early minutes just to observe what was happening, apparently taking a measure of the opposing team’s strategies, strengths, and weaknesses, so they could use that knowledge to inform their own play and advise their teammates. They were doing what any good coach might do, but with the advantage that they knew, perhaps better than any coach could know, what their own capacities were and how to best use those capacities given the current conditions of the game.

I think there is a lesson here, not just about sports, but about all organized group activities. Sometimes the people doing the job know better how to do it than their coaches or bosses do, and the wise coach or boss knows when to step back and just let those people do it. For an example of this in the business world, see Ricardo Semler’s books, Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend. Semler inherited a big manufacturing company from his father and, for personal health reasons, decided to turn the running of it over to the employees rather than try to manage it himself. This led to much improved employee happiness and sense of responsibility, and the company thrived and grew as it never had before.

We are so ingrained with hierarchy—in our schools, businesses, and other institutions—that we rarely try the experiment that worked so well with Plymouth’s five-on-five soccer team and Semler’s company, the experiment of trusting those on the ground to make their own decisions.

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