Soccer: Not Authoritarian Enough for Americans?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Will Leitch at Sports on Earth sees an indictment of American culture in the following quote by Juergen Klinsmann, coach of the men's national soccer team:

When you talk to coaches and parents, it's very difficult for them sometimes to understand that the kid in soccer is self-taught. Coaches, different from baseball, basketball and American football, with a lot of timeouts and plays and all that stuff, are really just more the inspiration of the whole thing -- the guide, in a certain way. But he's not the decision maker on the field. This is a very different approach. Parents and coaches think they are making the decisions. I tell them, no, you're not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field. So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out.
Leitch speaks of the "fetishizing" of coaches (and the "pampering" of athletes) in American sport as if coaches don't really matter, which is why I think he gets Klinsmann's advice half-wrong:
I will never understand why we think the people running around and sweating are loafing while the ones paid to supervise them are the ones working hard.
If this isn't an example of the Marxian Labor Theory of Value permeating the culture, then I don't know what is. Work -- decent or better, anyway -- requires brains, and is not necessarily a heavily physical pursuit. Work, including sports of all kinds -- as Klinsmann's attempted radical overhaul of American soccer demonstrates -- demands that someone assume some kind of thinking role. In sports, the coach takes on much of that role, whether as provider of inspiration, instructor, tactician, or strategist. Leitch sounds like he doesn't think coaches are working hard, and this would explain his notion that American admiration for good coaches is some kind of hunger for authority, which is out of line.

I think he may be right that Americans are more likely to admire good coaches, but I think it is because, at least on an intuitive level, we generally see the need for brainpower to guide physical labor. Perhaps, because the player has to do more of his own thinking in soccer, the role of the coach is not so obvious to many Americans. Perhaps, in addition, the lesser autonomy of players in American sports makes Leitch's charge look more credible than it is. The trend of helicopter parenting does, too, but this is a new cultural development that would appall Americans of past generations.

I don't think of Klinsmann as urging Americans to become less American -- and would not regard it as a good thing if he were. Improvisation is an important strand of our culture -- as our scientific and technological leadership, our original form of government, and much of our art (jazz music, for example) attest. If anything, Klinsmann is urging Americans to embrace one of the best aspects of our culture by reminding us that more improvisation occurs on the pitch than off in soccer. Perhaps he is also doing us and our kids a favor by calling off the helicopters.

Is U.S. soccer, as Leitch asks, too "hung up on" coaches? I think so, but not for the reasons he puts forth. I think Americans are having to learn what makes a good coach in soccer in much the same way we have had to develop an appreciation of other aspects of the game.

-- CAV

P.S. Leitch notes -- and I really appreciate this -- that, "Mocking soccer from an American perspective might have felt clever 10 years ago; now you just look like an idiot." I think, though, that part and parcel of that mockery is the idea that the sport is completely alien to our culture. I disagree with both anti-soccer bigots and anti-American ones on that point.

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