This was a tough summer for anyone who cares about soccer in the United States. The men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and on the day of the championship game won by France a front-page story in the New York Times described a participation drop among kids. But the seeds of systems-level reform are starting to take hold. On October 16 at the 2018 Project Play Summit, Ludovic Debru and Nico Romeijn, top officials from the U.S. Soccer Federation and French Football Federation, shared ideas on how to promote both development and participation (WATCH). Can we train more coaches and make more room for late bloomers, kids from lower-income homes, and free play – as France did in transforming its youth model? The session was moderated by Tom Farrey, executive director of our Sports & Society Program, who teed up the conversation with this reflection.
Ten years ago, I wrote a book that altered the trajectory of my life’s work. I was hoping its insights somehow would bend the arc of youth sports in America as well, given what I had learned about the modern-day challenges in providing experiences that align with best practices in child and athletic development. My interests began to shift from breaking down problems as an investigative journalist with ESPN to identifying shared solutions with The Aspen Institute. Walked into the boss’s office, asked off E:60, and started dreaming of what’s possible. How to help sports tell its best story.
The model that France uses to develop soccer players was a catalyst.
I wrote about that model in the fourth chapter of the book, Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. The methods the French deploy to cultivate talent in its youth population were a revelation to me — counter to so many of the features that we had tacitly embraced in the U.S. Upon visiting France and talking with the architects of their system, I came to understand how Les Blues came to win the 1998 World Cup, and why the U.S. had yet to develop even one field player who could be described as world class, despite having more children in soccer uniforms than any nation on the planet.
The knowledge is even more relevant today, with France winning the 2018 World Cup and the U.S. watching from home, eliminated by Trinidad & Tobago in the qualifying round. It hurts to even write that, as an American who loves soccer and really wants us to figure this out — to discover and share with the world our very best selves. Soccer has a way of doing that, expressing national character in its most elegant, physical form.
At the time of my visit to Clairefontaine, the national training center for France’s soccer federation just outside Paris, most of the players who later played in the 2018 World Cup were between ages 10 and 14. That doesn’t mean all were training at the national center. On the contrary, only three players on France’s roster spent time at Clairefontaine, whose staff selects just 23 players a year — at ages 13, 14 and 15 — to groom full-time at the center. Kylian Mbappe (above), the explosive 19-year-old forward who moves like a NFL running back, was one. The rest came up through clubs elsewhere in the country.
The chief value of Clairefontaine, instead, is its success in creating a coherent development culture that now permeates all levels of the game in France. That starts with a commitment to providing youth coaches in towns and cities across the country with the skills to present the sport in a manner that recognizes what children need to grow in the game, technically and emotionally.
We still don’t have that in the U.S. Here, youth soccer remains a landscape of well-meaning volunteers, winging it. Through our Aspen Institute Project Play initiative, we track the number of coaches trained in the key competencies in working with youth, via data supplied by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s annual household survey. In 2017, just 32 percent of youth coaches said they had received any training in sport skills and tactics. Only 28 percent claimed to have been taught effective motivational technique with kids. Better coaching is key to stemming attrition in soccer, which gets kids earlier than any other sport and by age 7 or 8 starts losing them in droves.
But there’s more to learn from the French model than that. Below is what I wrote in Game On and how it contrasts with our model, if we can call it that; how soccer is dispensed in the U.S. varies across states and even communities. As you can see, many features the French put in place are designed to keep adults from acting on their worst impulses. For me, it was a key insight: The best sport systems don’t actually build great athletes – instead, they work with coaches to build a wide base at the grassroots, then let the talent to emerge. It’s more gardening than manufacturing.
Looking back at what I wrote in Game On, I can’t say every observation was spot on. But this chapter certainly was a preview into what would unfold a decade later. I share it in the hope that it helps us finally get right in the U.S. – a true sleeping giant that soccer leaders aim to awaken.
LES RED, WHITE, AND BLUES
The Americans, Seriously.
So declared the headline in a New York Times magazine piece a few weeks before the 2006 World Cup was held in Germany.
And Lord, didn’t many of us want to believe it. Anyone who had ever been called unpatriotic for appreciating a well-struck in-swinger, anyone who grew up going to North American Soccer League games as a kid (as I did in Fort Lauderdale), anyone who wanted to see U.S. soccer succeed at the highest level because the game is the global language and cultural fluency matters in the midst of an unpopular, isolating war—all of us, in our hearts, hoped that maybe this was our time. The U.S. had made the quarterfinals in ’02 and now was ranked No. 5 in the world, behind only Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Mexico. Sure, there are always raised eyebrows about FIFA’s rankings, whispers and screams that wins against weak teams are given too much weight. But the vibe from national team coach Bruce Arena was one of smoldering confidence, even Long Island cockiness, projecting the sense that while he didn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver, a run deep into the monthlong tournament in Germany would not surprise him and shouldn’t surprise us. The Americans, he suggested, would marshal their traditional strengths—fitness, competitiveness, physical play—to neutralize opponents. Arena said, “One day, when we get it right and become the best, it’s because we did it our way, no one else’s way.” Nike, chief sponsor of the national team, suggested that perhaps that moment was at hand, insisting in print ads that soccer was now as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. The ad noted that the sport’s 17 million U.S. participants—a grassroots juggernaut—was greater than the total population of Holland. “By sheer numbers alone,” the ad read, “we are going to sweep over most of the globe.”
Then the games began.
In the opener, a 3-0 washout to the Czechs, the Americans looked like college kids chasing old pros around the pitch. It was 1998 all over again, with the US failing to muster any kind of offensive attack. Passes were made without precision. Balls skipped off the feet of wide-open teammates. Analysts questioned Arena’s tactics, while Arena in turn blasted his designated star Landon Donovan for a supposed lack of aggressiveness. DaMarcus Beasley, the speedster, was a nonfactor, too often passing back. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller punted into areas of the field populated only by Czechs. In the next game, the U.S. gutted out a 1-1 tie with eventual champion Italy when the Azzuri accidentally knocked the ball into their own net. Nevertheless, the Americans through two games had generated just one shot on goal, fewer than any other team. With a 2-1 loss a few days later to Ghana, an African republic the size of Oregon, the Americans disappeared from the World Cup. Just as dispiriting, there were few, if any, highlight clips to savor, no moments of brilliance to make a fence-sitting sports fan back home fall in love with the team. Once again, theories were advanced for why we just can’t get it right—and why in 30 years of purposeful effort the US has yet to deliver one world-class player. The venerable if soccer-snarky Frank Deford crowed that the game just isn’t in our DNA. Others proposed that soccer doesn’t sort out winners and losers clearly enough to endear itself to athletically gifted American boys who grow up hearing that ties are like kissing your sister. Some pundits wondered if the supposed psychic disconnect flows from the nation long ago having declared its independence from England, the birthplace of soccer.
Sure. Maybe that’s it.
Or maybe it’s just that a country reaps what it sows.
I know we’re supposed to loathe the French. But they once went to war against the English, too. On our side. And let’s face it, they do soccer pretty well. Maybe there’s a thing or two we can learn in frog land.
Two weeks before the World Cup is set to begin, I take a plane to Paris, then a train to a small village an hour southwest of the city, then an auto- mobile deep into the heart of the Rambouillet Forest. As my cabbie turns his Renault onto the entrance road of the national training center for the French Football Federation, it hardly seems like we have arrived at the world’s foremost soccer academy. The place is perfectly tranquil, save for the chirping of birds and the gentle rustling of leaves. Rhododendron bushes with pink and white flowers line the playing fields that lead to an old castle at the center of the grounds, making the training center feel like an arboretum. There are few signs of grand athletic ambition anywhere until the cabbie reaches the castle and—pow!—we are blinded by the gleam of a humongous, golden, gaudy replica of a World Cup trophy whose design and scale seem more fit for the lobby of some Las Vegas theme hotel. France won the right to hoist the monument during the 1998 World Cup with a 3-0 victory on home soil against Brazil in the championship game.
A few minutes later, I am in the second-floor office of André Mérelle, the sage I have come to see. As the federation’s director of youth development, he oversees the grooming of the next generation of would-be French stars. The wall to the right of his cluttered desk is lined with group photos of boys from the past decade who have been selected for focused training as teenagers. Each year 1,500 13-year-olds around France are identified by scouts as having the most promise, with 650 of them earning tryouts at Clairefontaine, as the training center is commonly called. They come in waves of 50, until a final 24 are offered scholarships to live there and train on weekdays after school.
“Take a look,” Mérelle says, firing up a DVD on his laptop. “This is what we do.”
The video is of the last day of tryouts, the final cut. From its bird’s-eye angle, the camera pans across a row of boys lined up shoulder to shoulder in blue jerseys. Immediately, one of the first characteristics that reveals itself is their ethnicity: The first eight or nine are of African descent and very few after that are of European stock. When I ask Mérelle about this, he takes my notepad and draws a picture of a dough- nut with a small hole in the middle. The hole, he says, represents Paris. The doughnut represents its sprawling suburbs where most immigrant families live. Wealth dominates the inner city, so here the poor—mostly first- and second-generation transplants from former colonies such as Senegal, Cameroon, and Algeria—get pushed out to the ’burbs, with their high-rise concrete blocks and nearby manufacturing jobs.
“This is where we get the gifted players,” Mérelle says, shading in with his pen the eastern side of the doughnut. He draws an X at the bottom. “Henry is from here,” he says.
That would be Thierry Henry, now one of the world’s top strikers. To the basic American sports fan, the face might look familiar. He’s the other guy with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer in those ubiquitous Gillette razor ads. He’s also the “close friend” that Tony Parker enthused about in the press conference after his San Antonio Spurs wrapped up the 2007 NBA title, in which the flashy point guard became the first Euro to be named MVP of the championship series. Henry, on break between seasons, wore Parker’s No. 9 jersey while watching the final game in the stands and posed with Parker later, holding the Spurs’ fourth trophy of the past decade.
Soccer aficionados don’t need any introduction to Henry, as they know the résumé. Two-time MVP of England’s Premier League, where he played before moving to FC Barcelona. Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer. Those familiar with the sport marvel at his prodigious talent: the combination of size, explosion, and invention. Though 6-foot-2, he is masterful with the ball, with a dribbling style that is not fixed. Defenders are forced to give him space to operate. But left alone, he can be deadly, too, knifing in from the wing to launch a powerful shot controlled for speed, spin, and placement. He’s good with his noggin, too. In a 2006 World Cup semifinal match, Henry elevated near the goalmouth to deflect a pass into the roof of the net for the winning margin in a 1-0 victory against Brazil. He looked like Randy Moss rising for six in the end zone.
When Henry arrived at Clairefontaine at age 13, he was given access to some of the top coaches in the country. They worked with him to develop the choices he makes when he receives the ball, how to read the game flow, and the mastery of skills such as juggling, kicking with both feet, crossing, heading, and shooting with precision over power. By contrast, there was little emphasis on building strength, speed, and other physical traits that typify the US game. If Henry tried something new with the ball and failed, he was not punished. Experimentation was encouraged as much as good form was, and no matches were played during the two years he was in residence here. That depressurized environment allowed him to develop and refine his talents, which he then put to use in weekend games with his home-area club team. By 17 he was starting at the highest professional level in France, and by 20 he was the leading scorer for the French team when it won the ’98 World Cup.
Every prospect accepted into Clairefontaine receives the same type of intense technical and psychological polishing. It’s two hours a day, five days a week of skills, skills, skills. Since Henry left the academy, more than 80 players who came to train here have gone on to play professionally, including two fellow starters (Louis Saha and William Gallas) on the ’06 World Cup team.
Investing in 13-year-olds is a highly speculative business. At that age, a boy who went through puberty early might dominate a late bloomer who actually has superior talent—and more upside. To understand their growth potential, X-rays are taken of the left wrists of the final 50 prospects to pinpoint their “bone age,” which often differs greatly from their actual age.
Mérelle, hunkered over his laptop, points to a tall boy in the lineup. “This one is 17,” he says of the boy’s bone age. “This one is 11 … This one is 13 … ”
He smiles, marveling at the biological differences. “Incredible, huh?” Elsewhere, early bloomers gain access to elite teams simply because they’re bigger, stronger, and faster than their age peers. One study of Portuguese prospects found that soccer “systematically excludes late maturing boys,” who often drop out of the game as a result. Even a few months of physical maturity can make a difference in access to select teams, and thus, to top coaches. The phenomenon is called the Relative Age Effect. Children born in the last three months of a selection year—just before the cut-off date in assigning kids to age-specific teams—are significantly underrepresented at the youth levels when compared with those born in the first three months. The downstream effect of that discriminatory process can be seen at the pro level, where players born in the first three months of a given year are far more common. The pattern of skewed birth date distributions has been documented in other sports as well.
The careful identification and development procedures at Clairefontaine inevitably get much of the credit for delivering world-class athletes. But a high-end soccer laboratory isn’t primarily what sets France apart—there is a similar, if less sophisticated, under-17 residency camp in Florida affiliated with US Soccer that has helped groom such players as Donovan and Beasley. Indeed, the true strength of the French system stems from what happens with players at the local level, even before they get selected for special training at national and regional centers. As Mérelle says, with equal parts emphasis and acknowledgment, “Henry was already good in front of the goal when he came to us.”
It all starts with falling in love. Which isn’t just a French thing
In 1985, the University of Chicago educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom studied the development histories of 150 elite athletes, musicians, artists, and academics going back to their early childhood. He found striking similarities in their paths to excellence. He wrote that “no matter what the initial characteristics of the individual, unless there is a long and intensive process of encouragement, nurturance, education, and training, the individuals will not attain extreme levels of capability in the particular fields.” They worked hard. They benefited from the guidance of high-quality mentors. They were given opportunities to achieve mastery.
But before any of that could happen, at the entry phase the sport or activity had to capture their imagination. A wild romance was born somehow. The same development was later found in a survey of US Olympians, whose affection for their sport would serve as fuel for self-improvement throughout their careers.
How to spark such passion? The impulse of many modern parents—even those with the most modest of hopes for their child athlete—is to attempt to arrange the marriage through early, persistent doses of organized team sports. In many US communities, the process is set into motion around age 4.
Let’s head back to Connecticut for a minute. Just across the inter-state west of New Britain is the more affluent, middle-class-and-up Farmington Valley. Here parents deluged with marketing messages about providing children with the “very best” enrichment programs often have the resources for a series of sign-ups, sports-related or otherwise. Stay-at-home moms ferry their tots from Gymboree classes to sing-along music sessions to infant swimming lessons, hoping to give their Little Einsteins every developmental advantage. (Set aside for a minute the fact that Albert Einstein himself didn’t talk until age 3.) The Saturday-morning soccer program for preschoolers at the area YMCA—with its chalked fields, regulation-size balls, and structured drills—is just another manifestation of that thinking.
For the final 30 minutes of the hourlong session, the blue team matches up against the orange team in a “noncompetitive”—that’s what the catalog says, at least—match. Play is dominated by the two or three most physically advanced kids, who kick the ball hard and give chase, the pack forming behind them in the shape of a teardrop. Some of them keep dribbling right past the end line toward the neighboring grave- yard, until a parent corrals and redirects the flock back onto the miniature pitch. Some of the kids seem engaged. Most seem bewildered or even bored. A girl standing in the goalmouth makes like an airplane, altogether uninterested in stopping a ball from slowly rolling into the net. A boy in cleats pouts as his father tries to nudge him off the sideline, frustrated at his son’s lack of aggression. “He just needs to get more of that killer instinct,” the father says to me. The boy had spent much of the game hugging his dad’s leg, uncomfortable with the idea of stealing the ball from other kids. “He’s used to sharing. He tells me, ‘It’s their turn to kick it, Daddy.’ ” Hey, on children’s TV, that’s what Franklin the turtle might do.
When the referee tweets his whistle at the end of the nongame, the parents whose children happen to be enjoying the action let out a collective deflated “Awww.”
The preschool exercise at the Y serves as a portal into a system that regards competition as the preeminent training tool. Starting next year, when these kids are in kindergarten, they will be able to start in the town’s recreational leagues, with their once-a-weekend games and sideline orange slices. But with fall and spring outdoor sessions, many kids will be playing dual seasons. At age 8, travel ball begins, with its select groups of boys and girls playing outside the structure of the rec league and representing their towns in tournaments and games around the state. By age 9, some teams will be playing as many as four games a weekend during the fall and spring. They play on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day; there are few holidays from organized soccer. A couple of years later, some of those kids also will get invited to join private, often for-profit “premier” clubs that draw talent from a wider area. By the end of elementary school, the very best child athletes could be playing 100 outdoor and indoor games a year—twice as many as the best French teenagers.
This is not the way great players are made, Mérelle says.
“Everyone wants to win games. That’s good,” he says. “But how do you win? If you’re too focused on winning games, you don’t learn to play well. You get too nervous, because you’re always afraid to make errors.” The French system recognizes the value of unstructured play. And that innovation and passion bloom when children are given the time and space to create games on their own. Without uniforms. Or league standings. Or game clocks. Or emotionally invested adults. It’s an inspired place in which improvisation rules, rewards are intrinsic, playing personalities are developed—and a child learns to see things that don’t reveal themselves as readily in formal games.
At ESPN The Magazine, we arranged a conversation between Henry and Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, who has twice been voted NBA MVP. The French soccer star was well aware of the talents of Nash, who compensates for his relative lack of height (6-3) with brilliant play- making and an ability to create space where none seemed to exist a split second earlier. Henry—who once gave Nash a tour of Clairefontaine (“one of the best days of my life,” Nash says)—told Nash that he and Parker were among his favorite athletes to watch.
“Tony has the same view you have on the court—that soccer player’s view,” Henry said.
“I’m excited to hear you say that,” said Nash, who had the advantage in both nature (he’s the son of a former soccer pro) and nurture (he grew up playing lots of soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and basketball, both organized and pickup) working for him.
“You see more than what is in front of you,” Henry said. “I hear people watch you and say, ‘What a pass!’ And I’m like, What do you mean? Because for me, it was obvious.”
Sports scientists have a name for this seemingly supernatural talent: field sense. It’s the ability to anticipate the movements of people and objects in motion, and it takes many forms. It could be the act of finding the open man just before the player breaks free. Or flicking a puck into the corner of a net guarded by a goalie who fatefully leans a quarter- inch the wrong way. Or predicting the trajectory of a Beckham bender in a soccer game. And while some people may have more of an innate capacity to develop the skill than others, researchers now believe that it’s a talent that can be trained for—through, ironically, free-form play.
One of the leading scientists in this area is Australian skills-acquisition expert Damien Farrow, who, in interviewing elite athletes, discovered the value of loosely organized games in the development of flexible thinking and acute spatial awareness. “We should be modeling our programs on that,” Farrow has said. “And what do we do instead? We put children in regimented, very structured programs, where their perceptual abilities are corralled and limited.”
In Brazil, the legendary home to jogo bonito (Portuguese for the beautiful game), unstructured play is the standard when young. Poverty is widespread, so children kick balls and makeshift balls in alleys, on beaches, on small, enclosed courts, anywhere, with friends and neighbors and parents and grandparents. This is how most of the Brazilian greats, from Pelé to Ronaldinho, were introduced to the sport. Organized games are delayed until age 8 or 9. The result? Brazil has such an abundance of talent that soccer observers say the South American nation could probably field four separate teams all of which would be competitive in the World Cup.
France, like the US, is happily burdened by wealth in most areas. Parents can enroll their children in soccer clubs at just about any age and often do starting around age 6. So to protect the development of child athletes from the natural impulse of adults to have kids compete immediately—“We suffer from that here too,” Mérelle says—the French push coaching education, perhaps more vigorously than any soccer federation in the world. Nearly 20,000 coaches from the youth level up have received certificates for completing classes at the federation’s Paris training center. Training isn’t mandatory at the lowest levels, but it’s common. And information gets pushed down the pipeline 340 days a year to the thousands of local clubs that work with kids. A youth coach would have to be a recluse not to know the federation believes players must be allowed the freedom to express themselves with the ball. That ball control while moving is the basis of the French game. That the focus must be on attacking skills. That 7-year-olds shouldn’t play in formats any larger than five-on-five, to maximize touches and keep everyone involved. That no child should get slotted into one position until well into his teenage years. That individual technique is far more important to teach through age 16 than tactics are. That coaches need to be quality demonstrators, so that kids can visually lock down the fundamentals. That yelling at players should not be tolerated. And, above all, that training must be fun.
French children typically play no more than one game a week, and the seasons aren’t endless. Even as high as the 13-and-under level, most club teams play 30 or 35 games a year, max. Such restraint leaves ample time, energy, and motivation for kids to kick a ball around in the neighborhood, the sort of unsupervised environment where imaginations soar most effortlessly. It’s been this way for decades. Henry, when not being coached on a well-worn pitch, spent many hours booting a ball against concrete walls in his suburban ghetto. Zinédine Zidane, the three-time World Player of the Year who retired after the ’06 World Cup, received instruction as a teenager in one of the French federation’s regional training facilities—but no one, including Zizou, would suggest that the origins of his sorcery began there. His exquisite feel for the ball was developed years earlier in the crowded, government-built projects of Marseille, messing around on the gravel of his town’s central square and in the living room of his family’s apartment where, through his trial and error, all the lights got smashed out.
The highlights these players would go on to deliver are the kind that creates soccer devotees.
“Remember when I came to France for your game against Ukraine?” Nash asked Henry in their conversation. “At one point, Zizou played it to you, and you played it back. You hit it hard, and it was heading between his knee and his waist. He let the ball hit him, but the way he rotated his hips, it stopped on the grass. Didn’t bounce, didn’t do anything. He was like a martial artist. I can’t even explain it.”
“I know what you’re talking about,” Henry responded. “To receive the ball that way you need to relax the right part of your body.”
Relax. A foreign word to those caught up in the maelstrom of American youth sports.
Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. The book has been used in university courses across the country and led to the creation of Project Play, which develops, applies and shares knowledge to build healthy communities through sports. In the coming months, look for a 10th anniversary edition that includes updates on the book’s themes and characters, including the child athletes who were profiled. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @tomfarrey.