The McDonaldization of American soccer

Extract: …let the game do the teaching. The kids are here to PLAY and not to WORK. They worked enough in school, where they’ve been helped enough to solve problems that they might only be mildly interested in. Why subject them to more adult supervised instruction towards a goal that they probably don’t share or agree with? “Do I really have to throw the ball in the air and trap it with my thigh? If I do that in a game, wouldn’t it be a hand ball?”

 “Generally speaking, there are only a few natural (top) talents! Youth trainers work more often with players of limited talent who are able to learn to become good players in a specific position. These players will from here on be called the ‘work talent’!
Rinus Michels, TeamBuilding, p. 182.

“If you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right. If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war.” Col. Robert Killebrew

The two comments above may appear unrelated to youth soccer but they are not. The methods that we choose to train the children play a role in the finished product that they become. (Product, how long they stay in the game and their level of proficiency.) Those methods are the tactical means to reach a strategic objective. When you’re faced with two distinct groups, natural talents and work talents you’ll need a flexible tactical approach. A one-size fits all mentality will be sure to leave one group or the other shortchanged.  Developing natural talents and work talents are two different strategic objectives.

First, we have a hard time accepting that the vast majority of children are simply work talent. Natural talents are very rare. Making that mistake sets you up for the next one, choosing the wrong strategy. It’s the belief that the majority of players can get to the top and play any position. That real talent can be taught, that skill can be mandated, that hard work alone is all that’s required for success. This has consequences for how the team trains which we’ll look at next.

The term McDonaldization was coined by University of Maryland Sociology Professor George Ritzer as a means to reinvigorate the Weberian critique of the nature of modern society through the present-day fast-food industry, which is also seen as a model for an increasing number of sectors of American society.  First written in 1993, The McDonaldization of Society looks at ‘the processes by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’ (Ritzer, 2000: 1).  The term he uses is an amplification and an extension of Weber’s theory of rationalization.  Ritzer writes: ‘McDonaldization affects not only the restaurant business, but also education, work, health care, travel, leisure, dieting, politics, the family, and virtually every other aspect of society.  McDonaldization has shown every sign of being an inexorable process, sweeping through seemingly impervious institutions and regions of the world’ (Ritzer, 2000: 10).  As with Weber’s system of formal rationalization, the McDonaldization process is characterized by efficient, calculable, predictable, and increasingly controllable means of human beings…

There is no question that greater efficiency brings many advantages, but it is quite important to remember that the methods used to increase efficiency are typically organized and operated by organizations to further their own interests and they are not always the same of the customers. (The emphasis is on the coach’s problems and not on the player’s problem). Note though, the more we encounter efficiency, the more of it we crave, and as a result, we often end up clamoring for that which may not be in our best interests…

The stress on calculability brings with it many advantages, such as the ability to obtain large numbers and sizes of things at a relatively low cost.  On the other hand though, the fact that in a society that emphasizes quantity, goods and services tend to be increasingly mediocre, which can be a negative in the long term…(Compare a burger from 5 Guys and McDonalds. We accept poorer quality in the name of efficiency.)

As a result, the world in which we live has become increasingly predictable.  And for the most part, most of the population comes to expect, and even to a certain degree, demand predictability.  However, many have found that a predictable world can easily become a boring world, and something sterile… (Do 9-14 year olds want to be bored?)

Weber would argue that contemporary recreational activities have become highly rationalized, even though recreation can be thought of as a way to escape the rationalization of daily routines.  George Ritzer points out that once sought after escape routes have themselves become highly rationalized, embodying the same principles of a bureaucratic system.  He writes:

‘Among the many examples of the rationalization of recreation are ClubMed, (Curves, Strip Mall Karate shops) chains of campgrounds, and package tours.  Take, for example, a thirty-day tour of Europe.  Buses hurtle through only the major cities in Europe, allowing tourists to glimpse the maximum number of sites in the time allowed.  At particularly interesting or important sights, the buses may slow down or even stop to permit some picture taking.  At the most important locales, a brief stopover is planned so visitors can hurry through the site, take a few pictures, buy a souvenir, then hop back on the bus to head to the next attraction’ (Ritzer, 2000: 25-6).

With the rationalization of even their recreational activities, people do live to a large extent in an iron cage of rationalization.

‘Efficient systems have no room for anything smacking of enchantment and systematically seek to root it out of all aspects of their operation.  Anything that is magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, and so on is apt to be inefficient.  Enchanted systems typically involve highly convoluted means to whatever end is involved.  Furthermore, enchanted worlds (Passionate hobbies) may well exist without any obvious goals at all.  Efficient systems, also by definition, do not permit such meanderings, and designers and implementers will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them…With regard to calculability, enchantment has far more to do with quality than quantity.  Magic, fantasies, dreams, and the like relate more to the inherent nature of an experience and the qualitative aspects of that experience, than, for example, to the number of such experiences one has.  (In the end, quality remains while quantity fades.) An emphasis on producing and participating in a large number of experiences tends to diminish the magical quality of each of them. Put another way, it is difficult to imagine the mass production of magic, fantasy, and dreams.  The mass production of such things is virtually guaranteed to undermine their enchanted qualities…No characteristic of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability.  Magical, fantastic, or dream-like experiences are almost by definition unpredictable. As a general rule, fantasy, magic, and dreams cannot be subjected to external controls; indeed, autonomy (Player centered and owned) is much of what gives them their enchanted quality.  Fantastic experiences can go anywhere; anything can happen.  Such unpredictability clearly is not possible in a tightly controlled environment (Coach dominated).  It is possible that tight and total control can be a fantasy, but for many it would more a nightmare than a dream. (Top players, like George Best and Cruyff chaff under a coach’s control. In fact, both of them saw themselves as entertainers first and sportsmen second. They valued play over work.) Such cold, mechanical systems are usually the antithesis of the dream worlds associated with enchantment’ (Ritzer, 1999: 96-9).

Without doubt we are a nation on the move. Time has been compressed through technology and the idea of multi-tasking. We have also given up our freedom to determine our own future by relying on experts to tell us how we should do things as opposed to how we can do things.

When these factors come into play in youth soccer adults become impatient with the rate of growth that children demonstrate. Parents want more and sooner. This means a greater reliance on experts and even more efficient means to reach some smaller end. We encourage Foot skills sessions to learn an endless number of tricks, Velocity Sports to improve an ever growing number of physical needs, i.e. speed, quickness, jumping, turning, stopping, starting, flying starts and on ad infinitum.

What cannot be escaped is the opportunity cost. You simply can’t get something for nothing. What you get with an overemphasis on details divorced from ‘soccer’ is the Home Depot version of the sport. Players who have been trained how to use an incredible number of tools but, on the field can’t fix a simple problem. They make knowledgeable sales people but lousy carpenters, plumbers and electricians, soccer’s attackers, defenders and midfielders.

Look at the Coaching Points document. It shows a well thought out program for a single coaching session. It is very organized and provides salient coaching points for each activity. It clearly moves the players through a predictable pattern, on a predictable schedule towards a predictable end. The end of the session. Ironically it’s a series of certain steps towards an uncertain future. Only at the very end of the session are the players confronted by what they came for. Winning, losing and playing. Being soccer players.

Paradoxically sessions like this create a need for more sessions like this. Parents and coaches often view improvement by how well the players appear to master each separate activity. (Although they often mistake the players merely going through the motions as improvement and improvement is measured from the start of the drill to the end. “They really know where to run now!”) The players usually see it differently. They are the “Coaches problems” that the players need to navigate in order to get to the scrimmage. “Doing something to do something for the appearance of doing something.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is trying to get away from this very type of organization. They want players to bring order out of chaos and they cannot do that in this type of session. The players are presented with a completely structured picture, there are no problems to solve, decisions to be made. Their involvement is limited to pleasing the coach by doing what he or she asks. The coach is the sole source of feedback and reinforcement. The game doesn’t exist.

They also want clubs to try to develop creative, quality players. We have more then enough McDonald drones on the field. The best way to do this is FIRST, to “Unlock the game within the child.” Allow them the opportunity to explore the game on their own terms. Because few children have been exposed to a world where the adults trust them enough to do this they’ll be hesitant to take the lead at first. They need to overcome the training that our P.C. culture has ingrained in them up to now. Soccer is a game where the most important people are the players. They need opportunities to step up and take real ownership BEFORE we start to worry about teaching the correct way to do anything.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of developing a good baseline of techniques. But technique is not a strategy, it is a tactical tool. The strategy is to develop soccer players and the best way to do that is by using the small amount of team time that the players have playing soccer.  When the players truly embrace the game they’ll be open to suggestions and assistance. They’ll understand their own limitations and problems in the context of something they enjoy. Until then, mass training is giving them answers to problems they don’t have or care about.

The links at the bottom this page will give you a short look at what Michels calls “Natural Talent.” In these examples it is fully developed. Ask yourself a few questions, can you mass-produce players like this? How many sessions of Coaching Points will it take to produce this type of soccer? Or, would those sessions break the talent that the coach has been presented with?

The chances of producing players like this are very small. The chances of discovering players who have the potential are actually better. The difference is in what happens between the discovery and the end. Natural talent requires room to grow and encouragement to experiment and fail. And the success and failure comes to them on their own terms. It’s through self-discovery that they develop the necessary motivation to improve.

Ironically even the work talent gets more benefit from games then from mass drills. They learn how to play in relation to the natural talents. Everyone learns the hard lesson that there must be piano movers as well as piano players and it soon becomes apparent who is who. This is what Michels means by playing a specific position. Ultimately everyone must make a positive contribution to the team in the objective of winning the game. You can only learn your place in the team by playing in the team in a game. Drills, mass training, provides nothing in this sense.

There is no easy answer of how to help the kids prepare for the game. But there are certainly wrong answers. Assuming that getting enough mass training is beneficial is a fallacy. Every player does not have the same problems, require the same solutions or even brings the same set of expectations at any time. Yet the assumption at the heart of mass training programs is that they do. This belief only benefits the trainer by making his or her job easier. It’s a form of “Soccer in a box!” Standardized pat answers to complex questions where you can coach from a clipboard and a stopwatch.

A better answer, and also the hardest, is to let the game do the teaching. The kids are here to PLAY and not to WORK. They worked enough in school, where they’ve been helped enough to solve problems that they might only be mildly interested in. Why subject them to more adult supervised instruction towards a goal that they probably don’t share or agree with? “Do I really have to throw the ball in the air and trap it with my thigh? If I do that in a game, wouldn’t it be a hand ball?”

Kids need help to learn how to play. They are living in a ‘Play deprived world’ where opportunities for group play are very hard to find. This is the key to US Soccer’s adoption of the Dutch Vision. Help the players play better soccer. Help them to make a greater contribution to the game. Help each as an individual in the context of the game itself. Not in the context of a coach inspired drill. This approach caters to both the natural and work talents. It assumes nothing about the players and allows anything as possible. It is not driven by should and must’s but by can and tries.

No question it is also the hardest way to coach. It requires the greatest insight into the players, the game and the destination. It requires the wisdom to know the difference between what is possible and what is probable. It has a clear destination and only a feeling about the next step. The strategy is clear and the tactics, well we’re working on it. That is why I emphasize, “Get the strategy right first, and organize the game. After that you can develop your tactics, pick the details.”