As his health club empire approaches its third decade, Bahram Akradi’s latest Life Time endeavor is more about sense than cents, more an homage to his past than a fixation on his future.
He wants kids in the United States to enjoy pickup soccer the way he did throughout his childhood in Iran.
“In every neighborhood, there were goals, which were sometimes just a few bricks, and a bunch of kids,” says Akradi, who was born in Tehran, Iran. “You pick one (player), and I pick one and when there was 5-on-5 you play.
“That was every day, after school, my whole life growing up.”
At least until he was 17… when he emigrated to the United States.
He struggled to find consistent and convenient opportunities to play the game he loves in the U.S. — and Akradi believes that widespread challenge is limiting this country’s soccer standing worldwide.
“In order for the U.S. to have a chance to compete against Brazil or Argentina, or one of those (top) countries, our kids have to have a chance just to play,” says Akradi, the founder of Life Time, which now has 135 gyms in 38 major markets across the US and Canada. “I like the combination, where there are specific teams with games and coaches and tournaments. Then add on top of this a layer where they can drop in and just play.”
In sweat-soaked soccer gear, Akradi takes a break from playing and scans what had long been the indoor practice facility of the Minnesota Vikings and has been transformed into six, small-sided soccer fields. Because it’s December in Minnesota, there’s snow and ice outside, yet each of the fields are teeming with players ranging in age from 6 to a man in his 60s.
This realization for Akradi is not only professional but also personal, though a few clear-cut facts remain: The Life Time Sport facility, while it is unique in the U.S., is not free to use like many are in other countries.
Meanwhile, about 4,500 miles away in Barcelona, Spain, New England native Todd Beane shares his son’s daily routine at school.
“They have a two-hour lunch break, with the option of going home for lunch or staying at school,” Beane says. “Most of them stay, eat quick then play on the futsal court outside.”
Early in his professional career, Beane connected with legendary soccer player, manager and executive Johan Cruyff and helped create Cruyff Football, which is widely credited with revolutionizing youth development for local and national programs throughout Europe, Africa, South American and Asia. He has now founded TOVO Institute, which trains coaches and players from all over the world.
He reflects on his childhood growing up north of Boston and in New Hampshire, when he and his friends played kick the can, hockey or an assortment of sports, including soccer.
“But now,” he says, “it’s video games and playdates scheduled months in advance.”
Bahram Akradi speaking to the youth players before a pickup game at Life Time Sport
Here are three reasons why young players in the U.S. need to play more pickup soccer:
As a little boy in Germany, Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t concern himself with scholarships and fees to play for clubs.
“I grew up just coming home from school and eating, doing homework, and then it was four or five hours just playing soccer,” Klinsmann, the former U.S. and Germany national head coach, told goal.com. “And it was all unorganized and it was all buddies in the street and in the neighborhood. Then you started to join your local club team and you’d train maybe once or twice a week and you had a game on the weekend, but that was more like a little supplement to all the soccer we were playing on our own… You learned the game by playing it in the streets with your buddies.”
Akradi’s experience in Iran was similar. But to highlight the inherent differences, he points to his son’s usual schedule in hockey.
“They practice two to three times a week, and they play one to two games a week,” he says. “That’s five or six hours a week. I sometimes played soccer for five hours a day.”
And there’s a physical challenge unique to soccer: You rely on your feet, which you don’t challenge as frequently and differently as your hands.
“You’ll never become anything like Messi, unless you touch the ball every day,” Akradi says. “And I mean every day! You have to be able to play the sport without thinking about that and that only comes with more touch, more playing.”
Brandon Busbee recalls testing Life Time Sport’s pickup concept with a suburban club team’s 13-year-old girls.
“The ball went out of bounds,” he recalls, “and they all looked at me.”
Busbee didn’t rule one way or another.
“You got it,” he told them, suggesting they could sort it out.
The general manager at Life Time Sport, Busbee oversees a sparkling soccer facility with world-class indoor turf and outdoor grass fields.
But Klinsmann and Akradi shared how resourceful they had to be in order to play. There was almost always makeshift goals, rarely any grass and usually a concrete “field.”
Beane’s Spanish neighborhood also has modest spaces for the children to play pickup soccer.
"In our humble town, there’s very few fields,” he says. “What there are, are cement slabs. It’s very basic but that’s all that they need. If they have four or five kids, they play a game.”
Beane suggests that people in the U.S. may “overthink that process.” Adults obsess about where the kids play, who will train them.
“They just need a safe space,” he says. “We don’t want to over-program or micro-manage our kids. Training comes with judgment. Free play comes with joy and learning.”
Interestingly, one of the top American players ever can relate to Klinsmann and Akradi’s childhoods. Clint Dempsey and his brother Ryan grew up in a trailer park in Nacogdoches, Texas, and they didn’t have access to organized soccer. But they played pickup games with other kids in the neighborhood and studied videos of legends such as Diego Maradona, according to a 2010 Boston Globe story.
Irv Smalls is the executive director of FC Harlem New York, a soccer program committed to youth of color ages 10 to 19. Smalls remembers being amazed when he toured London with leaders from Chelsea Football Club, one of the top clubs in England’s Premier League.
There were no barriers to children playing soccer. Coaches didn’t obsess about training, instead focusing on fostering a love and passion for the game.
Space is obviously limited where Smalls’ players are in New York, but they open up the time and space for them to play unstructured.
“The best benefit would be the creativity,” says Smalls, who played American football at Penn State University. “That’s the critique of our national team; they’ll outwork you but the creativity is not there.”
Busbee grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he fondly recalls his youth soccer experience. But as he’s coached and managed at various levels and in different capacities of the sport, he believes kids need more chances to play without adult influence.
“It gives the flexibility for players to take risks and be creative,” he says. “I think structured team play doesn’t always allow for that, because we have such limited time together. Coaches have things that need to get done.”
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In Iran, Akradi says every neighborhood had one or two unofficial leaders.
“One or two kids had to rise up and say, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is how we’re doing it. This is where we’re going to do it.’ ”
It wasn’t just about showing up. The kids had to make an investment to make the games happen.
Akradi sees elements of those challenges in the younger workers who he meets with and employs.
“I see it as a huge problem in our work force. The Gen Z and Gen Y are every bit as smart, but they aren’t leading,” he says. “They take orders. They don’t step out.”
Disputable calls and team selections can be among the reasons pickup games break down or devolve. So strong leaders who can proactively and reactively address issues can maintain order.
Busbee says empowering young people to self-organize — picking teams, communicating what’s in bounds and out of bounds, when a game ends — has benefits that extend beyond the fields.
“You can gain a lot of experience,” he says, “and better perspective.”