Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sam Chaltain and the Beautiful Game

Soccer has always been an important, joyful part of my life. On my personal calendar, the arrival of fall means soccer.  Since 1960 I have enjoyed a portion of each fall either as a player, a coach, or a referee. I currently referee high school games. 

In the summer of 1966 I worked for a mining company in the Harz Mountains in Germany.  I followed the World Cup that summer from black and white television sets in the bars and restaurants of the small town where I lived and worked. I celebrated Germany’s last minute comeback in the final against England to take the game to overtime, and agonized with everyone in the dining room of the small family restaurant where I watched the final, as an “Englisher Tor” became the goal that sent Germany to defeat.  I remember the negativity and brutal fouls in that tournament that put Pele on the sideline, and the individual brilliance of Portugal’s Eusebio.  Every four years since I’ve faithfully kept my appointment with the Cup, following it from the cramped radio room of a ship on the Mediterranean to a big screen in Madison Square Garden, to best of all, in person in 1994 and 1998.

This past summer I happened to come across a piece by the gifted and important education observer, Sam Chaltain, written a day after Landon Donovan’s thrilling game winning goal against Algeria.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-chaltain/dear-mr-president-just-go_b_624407.html  Chaltain wrote about the changing environment in some successful American businesses and the lack of similar change in our schools.
“If you've been watching the action in South Africa, you see why soccer is known around the world as the "beautiful game." It's a game of improvisation, and real-time adjustments, and unquantifiable synchronization between individuals. Broadcasters reflect this in the language they use to describe the players, using such elusive terms as "pace," "rhythm," and "flow."
“These are unfamiliar words to the average American sports fan, but they're the proper words for a World Cup match because the action unfolding is both planned and unplanned -- it is the result of years of skill development, discipline, and preparation -- and the precise way it unfolds in the flow of the game cannot be linearly predicted, planned, and directed.
“Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) gets this. He realizes the worst thing you can do, in an organizational context, is constrain people by micromanaging their activities. In the same way a soccer manager would look ridiculous by attempting to control the game from the sidelines -- his work is largely done by the time the game starts, and the rest is up to the players -- a business CEO must know what shared structures, and what individual freedoms, are essential.
“At Zappos, this structure comes from the company's core values -- all 10 of which guide and inform every aspect of the company, from hiring to evaluations to interactions with customers. Because of this clarity, employees are largely free to determine how their day unfolds -- and the company's call-center employees don't operate off scripts; they are trusted to represent the Zappos way in a fashion that also incorporates their own unique voice and method of self-expression.
“Why is such simple, powerful wisdom so absent from our current conversations about public education? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that the learning process is, like a soccer match, more dependent on simple structures, improvisation, and freedom than it is on complex structures, standardization, and fear? And why do we think the best way to improve school cultures is by incentivizing behavior with financial rewards, when scores of leading voices in the business world know that such a strategy is fool's gold?
“I don't know if President Obama is watching the World Cup. But if he is I wish he would heed some simple advice: when it comes to improving our schools, abandon the command-and-control mentality of the past, invest in freedom, not fear - and just go with the flow.”

The “command-and-control mentality” Chaltain laments remains an overwhelming feature of our schools, public, private and charter.  I recently watched a video clip from a charter school’s website.  It is a proud demonstration of the school’s “culture”.  The teacher is shown at the front of the room training kids in how to pass out and pass back papers.  You can see adult observers sitting at the back of the room watching how smoothly this is all being accomplished.  It is a horror, unless you admire efficiency in paper passing, which will doubtless make these students efficient and compliant paper passers later in life.  If paper passing is so important, at the very least let the kids try to devise a system. This school may close the “achievement gap” as it intends, though I doubt it.  I fear it will only create or sustain an “initiative gap”, training them, not teaching them for work where such compliance is valued.  Where one gets a job as a paper passer I do not know.  

Back to soccer.  Critics of our national team ask where is the individual flair that characterizes a powerhouse like Brazil, for example. The answer may be that nearly all children in this country play the game in organized, structured leagues.  No kid ever organized those leagues.  From age five forward soccer moms drive kids to regular soccer practice so they can be ready for their adult managed game on the weekend.  You don’t find the pickup games, kids playing by themselves, little kids fighting their way to play with and against big kids, makeshift games with no adults around. Among other things, soccer involves endless experiments and calculations about time and space.  In this country there is far too little play at soccer to discover and learn from failure and repetition.  Though well meaning, there is too much adult directed practice, practice which shortcuts discovery and subtlety or not so subtlety leads toward player compliance.  Practice “tested” by games in leagues with scores, standings, and measurable results.  Kids don’t get to develop through hours and hours of pure play at soccer, taking delight in the trickery and skills they learn, building confidence in their ability and a desire to assert themselves individually in the course of a game. Even the “beautiful game” is not immune from the “command and control” virus.  Soccer in this country, like schools and businesses, has to find its way beyond compliance dictated by extrinsic forces and allow extrinsic commitment to come to the fore. 

This is not just a problem with soccer here in the United States.  Europeans are questioning how the over-managed development of youth players inhibits the individual style and imagination that contributes to the beauty of the game.  Nor is this a problem akin to just soccer in this country.  We can find Little League champions from around the world on network television in late August.  You have to look harder to find pickup baseball games in parks and sandlots, places where kids play for the sheer fun of it.  I recently heard radio announcers conjecture that the reason the NFL players have never been able to go on strike successfully is because they’ve spent their lives in a sport that is so hierarchical in nature, so dependent upon submitting to the will of authoritarian figures, that the players cannot muster the necessary independent collective will to negotiate successfully on their own behalf. They don’t know how to operate outside an imposed structure.  Our youth sports world suffers in the same way our schools do, from adults who don’t know how to step back, or refuse to step back.  Winning games now, today, becomes more important than player development.

True, commentators used “pace”, “rhythm” and “flow” to describe the games this summer.  At least in terms of the U.S. team, if one listened and read carefully, you could also discern the word “test”.  Could the U.S. pass the test of getting to or through the next round?  Talented teams would surely test our defense.  The development of the game in this country was being given a “litmus test” in the World Cup.  Unfortunately we “failed” our last test against Ghana.                

Chaltain’s questions remain paramount.  How do we go about creating school environments, business environments, play environments based upon freedom, not fear?  Why do adults fear creating such environments?  Does everything we do have to be tested?  Do we have to reform our schools with a race?  How about a process?  How about balance?  We don’t need to take over and teach the game to our children.  We need to let them play more on their own and discover for themselves the inherent beauty it offers.     




  1. Bill,

    Thank you, first of all, for the honor of a post that builds on my World Cup article. But thank you most for adding such a key insight to the analogy. You are exactly right -- our hyper-organization of youth soccer relates to our mechanical approach, as contrasted with the Brazilians. There is something to be said for taking two backpacks, picking up the rocks and sticks, and creating a pitch for you and your friends to play, purely and without judgment. That doesn't mean we need to do away with all structure and organization -- far from it -- but it does mean we need to be more attuned to the essence of what we value in different things. In soccer, it's rhythm, pace and flow. In education, it's learning, self-discovery, and acquiring the skills and self-confidence we need to be successful in our work, relationships, and society. Like Menelaus told Telemachus, "There should be moderation in all things." Bravo.

  2. Excellent and very interesting!! Also amazing how many points mentioned here we talked about on the way to our games...