Saturday, June 23, 2018

Soccer (and Play)

With the World Cup of soccer on, and me coaching boys U9/10 again this season, I thought I would write a brief post on the power of play. My next major book project is a book on the playful society as a "realistic utopia". And in addition to reading extensively on play, I have also immersed myself in different types of play over the last 4 years. Here I will just briefly mention soccer.

For 14 years I have coached young kids soccer. The age group (boys 9-10) that I am coaching this year is my favourite age to coach. The games have referees, we place 6 vs 6. And it is the first age where the kids in our league play with goalies.

I find it fascinating to observe how, when assigned to the goalie for the first time in their lives in a soccer game, the young boys respond. Most of them have only played offense or defense before, and the most basic rule of soccer is: DON'T USE YOUR HANDS!! It can take a few years before a young soccer player really internalizes this basic expectation with soccer. So when they first become the goalie, their training to internalize the rule "don't use your hands!" can be strained. Many of them find it difficult to make the transition to a goalie. Once in net they either simply don't use their hands, or if they do, it is with great hesitation and ambivalence.

After a bit of experience inhabiting the conflicting imperatives of "don't use your hands!" and "use your hands!", most boys come to realize that the imperatives of soccer are role-specific. With some experience, they eventually learn to effortlessly shift back and forth from the one imperative to the other. But initially this is very hard to do for most of them. What soccer teaches them, among many other things, is to inhabit the multitude of identities of a team player in soccer. When in offence you are a striker, with a chance to please the crowds and bend it like Beckham. When on defence you realize that this is basically the bread and butter of a team at this age. If you lack a solid defence you are done for. And when goalie you take on a radically different identity- having the ability to touch and grab the ball.

A physical form of play like soccer, which obviously develops many physical skills (e.g. endurance, strength, balance, etc.) also facilitates emotional and cognitive development. You learn to play as part of a team, you learn the virtue of having an effective division of labour, you learn to inhabit different roles/identities and rules within sport. Having the opportunity to observe and coach young children soccer for the past 14 years has been an invaluable experience for me.