Japanese Youth Soccer – How they differ from US

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Written July 2nd, 2013 by Hiroki Kobayashi

Japanese Youth Soccer – How they differ from US

Why does Brazil always play soccer like Brazil? Why are the Brazilians always good at dribbling the ball? Why is Barcelona so good with ball possession? Why do national soccer teams tend to have their own “style” of soccer?  The environment in which kids grow up playing soccer and the culture of coaching are two keys to determining the playing style of every nation.  The Japanese youth soccer system is a great example of how environment & coaching influence playing style.

When compared to the US, Japan has a very unique environment for children playing soccer, and also a very different approach to coaching. These differences in environments and coaching method make the playing style of Japan unique and distinct from that of the US.

Background of youth soccer in Japan

Youth soccer in Japan has been steadily increasing in popularity since the beginning of J-league (the professional soccer league in Japan), which was started 20 years ago.  Academics in Japan are given very high priority over everything else, so after elementary school, kids who love to play soccer face a dilemma between pursuing a higher level of soccer or focusing more on school.  In Japan, your academic history is the most important factor when acquiring a job, so parents tend to be stricter on their kids with their education.  A lot of kids stop playing soccer after middle school, simply because they can’t fit it in to their regular school and night school schedules.

For those few children who make soccer a priority, they often make the same commitment to their development as they do to academics. That isn’t to say that they disregard academics at all.  That’s far from the contrary.  Education is still VERY important in Japanese culture.  It just means that parents and players will make room in their schedules.   It is normal for Japanese youth soccer players to practice early in the morning every day as a team before school starts, and then practice after school.

[testimonial company=”Division I Harvard University, Starting Forward” author=”Hiroki Kobayashi”]While they are less likely than other countries to produce superstar soccer players,  their commitment to perfection will eventually lead to Japan being more represented than the U.S. in the elite professional leagues of the soccer world.[/testimonial]

Japanese Playing & Coaching

Young Japanese soccer playerAlthough it has started to change recently, Japanese kids generally grow up playing soccer on dirt fields, rather than grass fields.  This is because of a lack of investment in facilities and the difficulty to maintain grass fields due to the weather.

Playing soccer on dirt fields has two very different influences on the Japanese kids. First, playing soccer on the dirt makes it difficult to control the ball, because the ball never stops rolling and makes unpredictable bounces.  This has both a positive and negative effect. For example: As a result of this irregular surface, players tend to become more skilled at controlling the ball. Conversely however, players choose to dribble less often, because when they dribble, it is harder to keep the ball under control.

In addition, playing soccer in the dirt comes with another side-effect: more appreciation of the sport. Unlike artificial grass fields or natural grass fields, the dirt fields get worse each time someone plays on them. Therefore, the kids are taught the importance of maintaining and to cleaning the field after every use.  Even when it rains, players still go to the fields, but not to practice – only to drain them. In addition, their soccer cleats (boots) get dirty after playing on the dirt, so they learn to brush them clean after each practice.

Through the continuous processes of cleaning the field and their equipment, Japanese soccer players eventually begin to develop a deep appreciation for the privilege of playing the game. This appreciation is the root source of the typical Japanese “sincere” playing style and fair-play spirit.

Japan vs USA

Japanese players raking a soccer field

An aspect of the sporting environment that distinguishes Japan from the US is the SEASON SYSTEM. In the US, kids often grow up playing more than one sport, due to the season system. For example, a lot of American kids play soccer in the fall, basketball or ice hockey during winter, and play baseball in the spring.  On the other hand, in Japan it is normal to focus on just one sport at an early age, and every sport is played throughout the entire year, with no off-season. As a result, players in Japan touch the ball more, and therefore tend to be more skilled with it.  On the other hand, athletes in the US who play other in addition to soccer tend to be more competitive & physical and better all-around athletes, but lack the finesse that year-round soccer players possess.

Japanese Coaching

Coaching at an early age has another big impact on how kids play soccer. Although it does depend on coaches to some extent, traditionally, Japanese kids are taught that making mistakes is not good. For example, it is very frequently seen in practices that whenever players make mistakes, such as dropping the ball while juggling or shooting “off-frame” (wide or over the goal), they have to go through some sort of punishment like running a lap around the field. Some coaches even yell at kids in the game when they make mistakes, which of course teaches their teammates to do the same.  This discourages players from taking risk and making mistakes. This is typical Japanese “perfectionism” which is seen everywhere in Japanese culture.  Just like Japan’s reputation for making high quality consumer electronics and cars, the Japanese youth soccer coaches have a reputation for high quality play and accuracy.  They demand and expect PERFECTION.  Subsequently, although the kids obtain very good techniques, the kids also learn to avoid taking risks. In the end, kids, being afraid of making mistakes, opt to take shots less often and avoid making long-range passes.  This results in high level team play, short & accurate passes, and a possession oriented style.  It also means that Japan is less likely than other countries to produce superstar soccer players, but more likely to be represented in the elite professional  leagues of the soccer world.

Japanese Professional Soccer

J-League: The Japanese Professional Soccer LeagueWhen you watch games in J-league (Japan’s professional soccer league), you will see that – although players are really skilled – there are less long-range passes and less shots taken during the game. In fact, the average number of shots taken by a team during a game in 2012 was 10.9.  That is lower than the average of 12.8 shots taken in MLS games (citing below). This is be because Japanese players may have a better understanding of risk, and know that careless passes and shots will result in them losing the ball.

Comparing the MLS style of play to the J-League, you’ll see Americans play a more direct and physical style of soccer, with bigger passes, fewer diagonal runs and harder tackles.   The style of play in the MLS today mirrors the way the American players were coached when they were younger.

Changing the Outcome

Over the past couple of years, Spanish football (soccer) from the national team, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid has dominated the international competitions, and a many teams have attempted to learn and play the “tiki-taka, total football” style that many of the Spanish teams play. Where most teams fail though is that when you want to copy another team’s playing style, the most effective way might be to copy the environment in which the players grew up and interview their previous coaches about their coaching methods.  Players on Barcelona, for instance, literally grew up playing soccer with each other, so the chemistry on the field is nearly impossible to duplicate by anyone else.

http://www.j-league.or.jp/data/view.php?d=j1total&t=counting&y=2012

http://www.mlssoccer.com/stats/team?season_year=2012&season_type=REG&op=Search&form_id=mls_stats_team_form

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About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1978). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

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