Sweat the Small Stuff

I often reflect on the times I spent with a ball at my foot as a young player. Each memory floods forth starts with the little moments at the park or courts playing a simple game. These days, driving through town by a local athletic complex, I often see young players shooting on an open goal or dribbling against one another. I can’t help but smile to see a new generation enjoying time on the pitch in a fleeting season of youth.

Most of the time, the players out on the fields are out there, not working on a specific skill or task, waiting for their team practice to start. Some don’t go out there to work on their game so much as they go out there to pass the time (and possibly the ball) and it made me recall the importance of specificity not only in this game — but in the pursuit of excellence towards a discipline.

Part of coaching and writing about the game is thinking about the specificity of this “simple game” and how important attention to detail is for the competitive player. Of course, this could apply to any pursuit, which is why it’s worth examining.

Doing the little things well is a skill and if a player can form good habits early on, they can begin to find new levels, abilities, and approaches that will likely extend beyond the pitch. However, I believe that an individual can always get on the right path if that’s not where they started. The trick is recognizing the difference between good and bad habits and understanding which ones you’re reinforcing in an honest and objective manner.

Here is one defining experience of mine that remains a vivid and valuable memory…


I am around eight or nine-years-old. My father’s white Toyota Truck comes to a gentle stop. I unbuckle my seatbelt and for the first time in the twenty-minute car ride to the park, I stop rolling the ball at my feet. On my body, my red Umbro uniform is still clinging to my body and my grass-stained socks are rolled down low. My black and red Mitre boots are on the floorboard, still tied and my feet are jammed into a pair of off-white and scuffed Reebok Classic trainers.

On my face is a scowl, which is intensified and confirmed when I catch my reflection in the side-view mirror.

At this point in my life, I’ve been playing organized soccer for four years and this is the first year of truly competitive play, and due to an opening in the older division and a lack of competition at my age group, my team is “promoted” up a few divisions.

On this particular day, at least if my memory serves me correctly, we’ve just played our first game in an age division three years our senior and several skill levels higher, too.

We lost 6–1.

At first, losing didn’t matter to me. We accepted the result. The inevitability was obvious to us even at such a young age. I was actually OK with the game being over until a teammate’s father said, “It’s fine, guys. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

That’s when something clicked in my mind.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Admittedly, I was incensed and, of course, immature.

The entire ride home, my father tried to distract me from the result. The truth was, I couldn’t care less about the scoreline. It was the manner in which we played that bothered me. Even at such a young age, I was quite a bit more introspective than my teammates. 

It also helped that father was an elite swimmer and knew the pitfalls of letting results affect attitude in such a powerful manner. But, I felt something pull at me, something I couldn’t ignore.

Deep down, I attempted to come to terms with my ego and realized it wasn’t even my teammates or the team’s performance that put me in such a sour mood.

It was my own.

The fact of the matter was I played on a team of good players. Even then, however, I played more and was exposed to better competition than my teammates, which is why I was so disappointed and lost in my performance.

Every time I tried to dribble or perform, I was too slow, clumsy, and rigid to be impactful. I lost possession and lost control of my emotions without even considering that the opposition was older, more talented, and stronger than us. They had more experience than we did. They were better in every position.

My failure to recognize this at the moment was pivotal.

And my histrionics were contagious. My teammates reacted to every mistake they made, too.

It is an odd thing to admit frustration like that at a young age. My parents never put negative pressure on me. There were no car ride coaching sessions after the games. If I wanted to talk about soccer, we’d talk about it. Otherwise, my parents remained mindful of their influence on me and my malleable mind.

The phrase I tethered my ire to was “don’t sweat the small stuff”.

In hindsight, I wish I could thank whoever it was that said those encouraging words. Although it angered me in the heat of the moment, it afforded me the opportunity to really think about my performance and my behavior and reactions. Moreover, it allowed me to grow.

After rebuking my father’s attempts to go fishing (he always had our fishing rods and tackle boxes in the back of the pickup truck) or to go get lunch, he finally asked me what I wanted to do.

“I want to go play. Right now.”

At that moment, I don’t think he hears me. But, he pulls off at the next exit and motors towards a nearby park. 

My eyes meet my father’s and he nods. 

Part of me thinks he’s calling my bluff. But, I am serious. I want to work on something, anything. There has to be some catharsis.


Grabbing my ball, I pull the door handle and step out of the truck. He tells me to go play. Underfoot, the concrete parking lot is smooth and flat yet strewn with random cracks complete with weeds and grass jutting out here and there. 

I place the ball on the ground and look at the parking lot surface before turning back to the truck. My father walks over and tells me to play. He knows I’m looking for guidance, but he’s not going to simply accommodate my petulance. He leans on the hood of the truck waiting for me to relent in my stubbornness and ask for guidance. 

In a sensei’s voice, rather than that of a father’s, he instructs me to dribble freely and use the cracks, parking lot lines, and debris as indicators to perform a move, turn, or a change of pace — and to perform as though this were an actual game so I would just sloppily go through the motions (that would be a complete waste of time).

As I dribble around in my trainers, it occurs to me that we have in fact called one another’s bluff. 

I didn’t think he would pull over and he didn’t think I would get out and dribble or be coachable for that matter with an intensity and precision absent in my matchplay. Before long, he’s using his Timex Ironman watch timer to prescribe times for me to dribble at pace. After a few 30-second bouts, this has turned into an informal yet intense training session.

My father’s approach was simple: instead of pouting and harboring a negative attitude, go out and put that energy to working at the very thing that we naturally avoid or resent.

He also realized that if I had the energy to complain, I had the energy to work harder. Mind you, this wasn’t a punishment session. I was the one who demanded to go play. He just added structure and some interesting parameters around it at my request.

At that moment, however, something remarkable happened.

I was sweating the small stuff. 

In fact, I was pouring sweat. It was invigorating and liberating. With every dribble or bead of sweat, my negative performance and attitude were purged out of my system.

The next week, we won our first game. 

My attitude was obviously better. But a post-game routine was created. 

We returned to the parking lot for more dribbling practice, which soon turned into dribbling patterns mixed with striking the ball against a brick wall and passing it against parking lot curbs to practice taking the ball out of the air and continuing my dribbling. 

Before long, I looked forward to spending time playing in that cracked concrete parking lot with my father just as much as I looked forward to playing in the games.

Perhaps it was borne out of petulance and negativity. But, through those elements, I was able to extract a valuable lesson.


Some people say, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

I disagree.

I believe if you’re truly striving for improvement and excellence in the game in any capacity, the small stuff is precisely what you should sweat. I could be perfecting a move or technique, honing and improving fitness, studying and applying some mental endurance — you need to pour sweat often.

Obviously, there are a few layers here as this is a literal and figurative principle. 

Application and focus don’t have to be purely physical pursuits and tasks. In fact, I would argue that thinking, reflecting, speaking about, and studying crucial aspects as a form of gap analysis is often just as beneficial to improving.

Attention to detail (a better way of saying “sweating the small stuff”) is one area everyone can improve in almost immediately. 

Attention to detail relates to one’s ability to efficiently allocate their cognitive resources to achieve thoroughness and accuracy when accomplishing tasks. These skills allow players to improve their training habits, productivity during sessions, efficiency, and performance during meaningful competition. 

Without oversimplifying these routines, which vary for everyone, it’s clear that the top players I played with or against or have coached make quality a priority. They all developed focused routines that allow them to address their weaknesses in a variety of scenarios and through simulation-based exercises to improve upon them. This type of approach also enables and teaches players to be present and to manage the moment in the pursuit of that specific task.

In the narrative of my childhood, what started out as my lack of maturity was really my inability to process and articulate a deficiency in my skillset. The trigger was simply a teammate’s father innocently encouraging us, which in hindsight, was the best thing he could have ever said because it motivated me to take action.

Sweating the small stuff is important, but don’t get it confused with obsessing over failure and rushing to frustration.

 Without my father (an accomplished triathlete and swimmer), I would have wasted the opportunity in an angry fit. The guidance he provided wasn’t coaching, but teaching me to be present — to focus only on the 30-second dribbling bout I was in for the duration of the time. Once that was over, it was time to let go of that set and move on to the next.

The process also allows an individual to minimize distractions. By devoting time and effort to the specificity of a skill or behavior, all the energy and focus can be directed towards preparation, performance, and completion of a task. At the very least, by engaging in systematic repetition, a person can practice, rehearse, and fine-tune the micro-processes of something they may be struggling with and apply it with more confidence over time. 

The opposite approach is often the most common, which is to avoid mistakes. To only train that which we are proficient in and when things go poorly in a game, to leave it to luck and circumstance to get remedied. That rarely works. The better approach is not to avoid the difficult things, nor is it to around them. It has been said that the quickest way to reach a progress point is go right through the difficult part, which is usually admitting something needs to be addressed to yourself. 

It’s too easy to get distracted and detached from the path of mastery or self-improvement. Sometimes, the better approach is focus on the “sticking points” or hindering aspects of your skill-set and work on them from a physical, emotional, and cognitive aspect. Again, don’t frame this as a negative chore or task. Don’t consider this work to be beneath you either. This step in particular is what the exceptionally talented individuals in any discipline do each and every day in some capacity.

By minimizing distractions and getting to the root of what the controllable hindrance is, individuals can focus on manageable chunks of information to process and work on in their own time away from the conventional setting. In the narrative above, that place was an empty parking lot away from my teammates usually after playing in a game. 

Operating in principles of specificity can be helpful. It forms a bridge from the macro to the micro-view, which is valuable as it allows a person to deconstruct their thought process and simplify complicated tasks. 

This “chunking” effect also provides ample opportunities to take breaks and detach from the larger picture, which is important because it’s so easy to be overwhelmed.

Remember, it’s OK to sweat the small stuff. In the words of late and great Greg Plitt, “Every action has a purpose. When every action has a purpose, every action has a result.”

If You Get the Chance, Die on Your Shield

I remember talking to a dying man whose body was riddled with cancer and regret. He tried to focus on the positive aspects of life, the warm memories of younger years and the adventures and splendors of youth. Over the last weeks of his life, we’d discuss the fairness of fate—at least through the lens of a terminal illness and the inevitable robbery it would commit by taking a life without permission and with little warning.

In the remaining weeks of his life, we went on drives in his truck. I drove him around with the windows down to let the July warmth circulate the cab — the rush of the summer had the power to make an ailing man smile. The radio was switched off so we could talk about everything and then nothing for long stretches. Some conversations started with a unique energy, the kind an overzealous runner starts a foot race with before succumbing to the horde hot on his tail that eventually passes him up leaving the runner alone with his thoughts and fleeting energy reserves. Some of these conversations weren’t conversations at all. They were just utterances and then long stretches of silence while the man slept in the sunshine hitting the passenger seat while the wind caressed his ailing body and anguished soul.

After a few weeks with his condition rapidly deteriorating and his mind wavering between the brutal reality of the hand he was dealt by the hardest of dealers and the blunt force fatigue that rendered him listless, I finally heard the words everyone else had proclaimed and that he finally uttered: “It’s not fair. It’s not supposed to be this way.”

I said nothing. I thought about everything. How is it supposed to go then? I thought.

Everyone thinks they’re going to die on their shield. They think they’ll go out in a blaze of glory or at the very least, in the comfort of their own constructed world in a warm bed surrounded by family and friends. Some of these people may even think they’ll have the opportunity to replay the game film of their lives, enjoying each spectacular highlight reel that make up the years and eras of life well-lived.

And least that’s the dream—the ideal way to consider things and perceive a heavy subject the most positive way possible. As the weeks wore on and he finally closed his eyes for the last time I felt a sense of sadness and relief for him because he moved beyond accepting that he was going to die soon. It was the regret of things left undone and people left unloved. That hurt him. That pain was real.

So, what does this mean to people who came here to read about soccer or sport in general?

It means that reality is a hard teacher — perhaps the hardest of them all. Players often think they’re going to have this moment of extreme grandeur in the biggest game of their lives and that their final kick of the ball will be sending that ball into the top corner as the final whistle signals the end of the match of all matches. The reality is so much different in that we don’t know when or what that final kick will look or feel like. It could happen in a state title match under the stadium lights with the whole community looking on…it could come in the pouring rain of a collegiate contest with the real world beckoning on the other side of that final whistle. For most of us, it’ll come in the dimming lights of an old indoor facility or on a frosty pockmarked Sunday league pitch.

If I’ve learned anything as a player, coach, parent, and author it’s that nothing is ever as it seems. And that’s OK because not everything has to be extraordinary. I think we’ve forgotten how to just let things happen.

In the last few years, I’ve taken some time away from coaching and writing to raise my sons and devote time to family and my corporate career. People asked me why I stopped writing and I didn’t have answers because the reality was I never stopped writing…I just stopped sharing what I was writing mainly out of exhaustion and intentionality.

Perhaps it’s just a perpetual case of writer’s block. But I think it’s more than that — it’s the expectation that cripples progress. The expectation that every piece of writing had to be epic and better than the last. The expectation that those who enjoy reading my work needed those words to move mountains for them. That’s a real monster to allow license to metastasize in your moral fabric — and it kills slowly by paralyzing potential and production.

But in that time, I published my first book, found out my wife and I will be welcoming another boy into our lives any day now, and dramatically advanced my corporate career. And I learned the lesson we all learn — radical changes often happen without fanfare or warning. You just wake up one day and the world has evolved, you have changed, that which was so important in previous seasons of life holds a new meaning now.

I often think back to the lessons I learned as a player and I am continually astounded at how many are applicable to life away from the playing field. And that’s the beautiful thing about having the courage and mental endurance to explore your memories — you extract meaning from seemingly unimportant events in the moment.

So here’s my reintroduction to writing regularly. Much of what I’ve written about in the past will still be the cornerstone and bedrock of my content. Some pieces will be more like this — all over the place but universally understood and relatable. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just write more and share it with the world because these days words matter more than ever.

Far too often we tend to think life has grand plans in store for us, which I believe to be partly true. The real god power lies within us — the power to destroy or to create greatness. Choose wisely.

It’s Just a Ball: The Story Behind the Book

When I was first approached to write a book stemming from an article I wrote for These Football Times that was subsequently featured in The Guardian, I was shocked. For starters, I had been a writer for a while, but I wrote privately. I never published my work until I started writing for TFT. The article, as mentioned in the book, was the launching pad for a deeper idea — the relationship between a person and a ball.

The process of writing It’s Just a Ball may seem simple on paper because that’s where people believe the process takes place when you write a book — on paper. The reality, as I found it, was a book is written on countless long runs, boring commutes, stream of consciousness free writing sessions on napkins or old notebooks at the pub or on an airplane. It’s reworked and discussed at length with people in snippets to the point of exhaustion that can make a writer overthink everything and anything. At least this was my experience. For years, I toiled at what I thought people expected me to write and deliver. For years, I became obsessed with new ideas that stemmed from my own experiences as a player and as a coach.

I wrote, deleted, rewrote, and refined each page to the point I had to stop the project the first time I attempted to write the book.

Why?

For one, I was conflicted on where the book was going. I wanted it to be personal, but not necessarily about me. I wanted to share the common language of football from my perspective, which I found was multifaceted and complex, yet I was missing the simplicity and beauty of what it means to love this sport. So, hours turned into days that turned into weeks, months, and years of research, drafting, editing, and working with a brilliant and patient editor at Bennion Kearny.

After several years of slowing adding to the book and hitting walls of writers’ block that seemed to come in waves that would never crest, I decided to do what I call “the rewrite”.

Many writers can attest to this, but we often try to write with the audience at the forefront of our mind and at our work. We try and craft each word envisioning what people will think when they read the words. And this is where I went wrong. So I dove back into my notes — those initial notes about why I should write a book — and what I found was a new purpose that was there all along, I just overlooked it.

On the top of a sheet that I used to draft my first skeleton outline, I wrote, “What connects us all in this game? The ball. It’s just a ball.”

I started the rewrite and dedicated myself to capturing the feelings of being a young boy playing with a ball. Days on the streets running with a ball at my foot, games where I saw myself evolve as a player, systems of development that I studied that I could finally see manifest in my own players’ development, bridges from other disciplines like music, theater, art, writing, or other sports connecting back to soccer.

And so, back to the start I went. I redrafted the book word-by-word, memory after memory — some painful and regretful, others beautiful — all potentially lost to the sands of time, but now captured in-print.

With each case study, interview, article, or story there is a personal anecdote. But that is not what is most important about this work. What is most important is you, the reader. I want you to read the book and I want it to take you back to when things were simple and most pure because whether we are playing at elite levels or we’ve hung up the boots for good or we never played the game and just enjoy watching it as fans or parents — it was always about finding one’s self out there with a ball underfoot.

I realized this was not a how-to guide for developing top players. This was about the experiences that we all share, overlook, misunderstand, and spend our time pondering that relate to life and the game.

It finally became clear that I was writing a book for you, the reader.

Taking Ownership of Your Development

wuilmar-matias-morales-591940-unsplash

Photo by Wuilmar Matias-Morales on Unsplash

It’s easy to claim or take ownership when things are going well. Oftentimes, positive results are due to a series of good moves, actions and reactions, and circumstances that benefit an individual or the collective.

But what about when things don’t necessarily pan out as intended?

Do you take ownership of the bad as willingly as you do with the positive results and outcomes?

I see people (players, coaches, parents) who love praise. They don’t shy away from the plaudits and more often than not, the recognition they receive is well-deserved.

However, when things don’t go according to plan and outcomes are less favorable there’s often a natural reaction for people to distance themselves from that shortcoming. I’ve done it. So have you. After all, we are human. There’s a insatiable urge to assign blame and deflect from ourselves.

“It wasn’t my fault the team lost.”

“It wasn’t my mark that scored the goal for the other team.”

“It wasn’t my job to pick up that late run at the far post.”

“I completed all of my passes.”

“My team didn’t follow the game plan the way I coached it.”

“It wasn’t my kid that lost possession in the defensive third.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing, as true as those isolated scenarios may be this is still a rudimentary exercise in deflection guised as advanced distancing oneself from the outcome.

When things go well, the defection disappears and it’s all about jumping on the caboose of the train headed to greener pastures.

Here’s where people get hung up – the final action may have not been in their realm of roles and responsibilities, but what about the instances and moments leading up to that unfavorable action or outcome? 

It is in this deconstruction where the most learning should take begin and take place. In fact, I would even go so far to say that the outcome is obvious and is therefore, less valuable (we can’t change it) because what matters most is course correcting the reactions and actions that transpire leading up to that goal conceded, game lost, or whatever the situation may be.

In other words, the outcome, albeit important, is not where the emphasis of reflection should take place. The leading actions is what matters more.

For players, perhaps it’s their starting position, communication, reaction time, compete level, ability and willingness to make an extra run or tackle or simply track someone else’s mark.

For coaches, perhaps it’s down to communication and observation before things go south. Maybe it’s down to preparation in training.

Regardless of outcome, taking ownership is crucial for player development as well as personal development.

Taking ownership always involves decision-making. I’ve said that decision-making is an actual skill for many years and I firmly believe that skill needs to be refined and improved on with some degree regularity or it will atrophy.

Through reflection, a self-audit, or simply taking stock of results and outcomes stemming from those decisions I’ve learned to make consistently better decisions. The context here pertains to action(s) on the field and of course, off it.

I often reflect on the decisions and their importance to the larger scope of a journey. There’s no getting around it – the decisions one makes will no doubt dictate the life they lead – and live. 

When you think about it, each day is a series of decisions and processes broken down and sequenced to form a schema of events we call days, weeks, months, and years.

Players are often less aware as they should or could be about decisions they make that affect their development as a player and as a person.

Create a vision and share it. For coaches, it’s about making players feel part of something bigger than themselves. Getting total buy-in is a crucial element that comes down to being able to communicate your philosophy/mission/vision early and often. The other part is seeking continual input so players see what you see and are committed to working toward that result.

For players, it may mean goal setting to a granular level. Identifying the how in a task is critical. Maybe it means extra technical or scenario-based training sessions that provide added context and repetition for a skill that needs refinement. Perhaps it’s telling your coaches and trainers your tangible goals and checking in with them to make sure you’re displaying a degree of maturity and buy-in on your end. Remember, coaches need guidance as well – they’ll respect players who communicate clearly and realistically.

Set some goals. How often do you seek the ideas, knowledge, and insights of people in your ecosystem? Now, how often do you write that message and feedback down and action upon it? Players are notorious for simply wanting to improve without creating an actual action plan to go about that improvement path.

Players love to assume everyone is there for them and their needs – this is not the case. Coaches, trainers, and teammates have their own goals to accomplish and they likely are working towards their own, not yours. This is why Point 1 is crucial.

Explain Your Why. Don’t identify your reason for doing what you do. Explain to yourself and then explain it others. Rationalize where you on your journey (or where you think you think you are). Don’t just assume with understand where you are and where you want to be without making it crystal clear they understand why that task/goal is important and why you’ve engaged them in that process.

Explain Your Why Not’s. So you’ve done the creative thing and identified the purpose for your journey. Maybe it’s to play at the highest possible level given your circumstances and resources. Maybe it’s to coach at a local club or get more coaching education. Perhaps as a parent, it’s about understanding your role in the whole picture.

This part is difficult. Explain why you’re not on your way to that next step. Maybe you’ll get a bit angry about it. Hell, you may even see yourself or others in a different light or through a different lens. Good. And let’s be mature about it. This is beyond deflection and blaming others. Write down a few things that YOU could and should do, today, right now, that you simply aren’t doing. Start there and examine why you are NOT doing what you need to do.

Have one good day. This is important. When things are going wrong and you aren’t seeing progress. Start scaling things down. Do something within your control even if it’s not for you and see how you feel. That part is crucial. Do something positive and proactive. Maybe as a player you show some gratitude to your parents, coaches, and teachers for once. And mean it.

Maybe for coaches, you get the hell off social media for a week and make your own training plans or rewrite your philosophy of coaching without trying to appease the masses and con them into thinking you’re someone you’re not.

Whatever it is, start with having one good day. Plan out a few things you want to accomplish. Be intentional. This may start as getting a good workout in. Then build on that progress with getting proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Then build on that with limiting the time you engage with people and things that bring you down (log off Twitter for a day). Read a book you’ve been putting off…watch a movie…but have one good day.

Then decide that’s what you do from here on out. Take ownership of having a good day. Plan it and execute it to the best of your ability. This isn’t easy.

Run the hills. This is the last point. Run the hills. Literally, if you’re a player, sure, do some hill runs. Learn to embrace that struggle. But this is more than running. Running the hill is understanding that the struggle is always present. You can walk the hills when you’re exhausted. But if you have the energy and power, approach the battles and obstacles with a sense of purpose. Run them. Sure it may be a bit uncomfortable, but you’ll be running the day and it won’t be running you.

In closing, taking ownership of your development means a lot of different things to everyone. The reality here is there is always enough valid blame to go around. This message should be beyond that blame-game. If you can control something, take ownership of it. If you have no control over the situation, take ownership in how you react or handle that situation.

Explore the Edge of your Limits

“You only know yourself when you go beyond your limits.”  — Paulo Coelho

Player development is an inexact science bordering on alchemy. Finding the right team in the right environment with the right coach is a challenge. And when we find those favorable conditions, we don’t want to disrupt that system. This is most certainly the case when a team is constructed around a player rather than around a particular philosophy or model.

But what happens when personal progress stagnates and plateaus?

What happens when progression turns to regression?

The conventional way of thinking suggests a player should find a team and environment where they can hone their skills with confidence and a high success rate. However, what if we flipped that logic in an effort to create a more resilient player with a higher playing capacity that ultimately provides for them a higher ceiling both as a player and as a person?

Most, if not all, great players must find themselves on a team in which they are the worst player. Hear me out because this isn’t as radical as it may sound. This is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Oftentimes, it’s playing up an age (or several) groups. Or perhaps it’s a change of scenery and standard of training and playing (moving from a recreational to a competitive team).

The truth here is blunt and it simple: players need to train alongside people that make them feel (and look) like the worst player on the team. There are few things more motivating than playing and training around like-minded individuals willing to work harder to raise the level of play for the collective.

This is important because too many players have very little idea what the next level looks like, plays like, and feels like. However, they all want to reach that next level.  The reality is the journey to that next level is going to involve a fair amount of sobering realities. In order to make progress, it’s important to be humbled every now and then.

I remember the first time I made what I’ll call “the leap” from my normal team with my friends in our cozy league where everyone knew one another to “the next level.”

The leap was necessary as I was no longer improving with my current team. I was 13-years old and my development had stalled. Training sessions had become stale and games were not pushing me to up my level, so to speak. In fact, I remember more than a few times I realized that I had outgrown a team composed of players I called friends. My motivation waned and much like the others, I began to go through the motions.

And so, I opted to make the leap to play on a team several skill levels and years more advanced than the one I needed to leave if I was to continue to develop as a player.

Such a change was drastic nearly 20 years ago. I found myself on a U18 team coached by a two former pros who played in the original NASL. These guys knew the game. They understood competition. The players I’d soon call my teammates were savage competitors. You see, as I was “still learning” my trade, they were honing theirs.

These guys had no time for a skinny 13-year old who served only to get in their way, misplace a pass, or be a hindrance instead of a help in a game. Many of them were preparing to play for top universities or go abroad to try playing professionally.

I’ll be honest, the transition I made was drastic and extreme. And I’m not suggesting anyone be thrown onto a team five years older. But the basic lesson learned is that I needed to be pushed in all aspects of playing, training, preparation, and mentality augmentation. It felt good not to be “the man” anymore. I remember understanding how to learn from my teammates. I watched their mannerisms and training habits.

My own abilities were strained at first and everyone knew it. There was no hiding. However, after several painfully embarrassing and humiliating sessions my ego was not only put in-check, it was put to the sword. It was at that very moment that I could see the changes manifest in my play. Before, I didn’t prepare to train because I didn’t need to with my former team. I also didn’t miss playing for my former team — not in the least. I was more than happy to be the worst player on this team if it meant I would ultimately improve in the long run.

With this new team led by former pros, I learned to “switch-on” before training started. I realized I needed to do everything in my control to improve away from the team dynamic to help bridge the gaps. Things like paying attention to my fitness and strength, improving my first touch, pushing my thought processing (speed of thought), and asking questions and creating a dialogue with my teammates were priorities.

It wasn’t before too long that I realized I was changing as a player and as a person. The safety wheels were removed and with them, the shackles of safety were cast to the side. I learned to play two-to-three steps ahead of the play. The attention to my movement ahead of the ball and off the ball became more deliberate. I began to understand the game within the game a bit more with each outing.

As intimidating as the new environment was at first, it didn’t take long to understand the rules and to become part of the team.

  • Arrive ready to compete
  • Work hard
  • Don’t let fear control you
  • Do your best to raise your level of play on the day

I don’t have all the answers for players who are currently in situations where they are stagnating and I know it’s not the easiest thing to change clubs or teams or coaches. I do, however, think it’s important to seek the game out in its variety and at least immerse one’s self in different training environments or with a different training group/technical coach to provide a fresh and more objective perspective. At the very least, playing pick-up games with more talented players can make a world of difference.

“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”  — Bruce Lee

The End Product is Only Part of the Story

I recently watched a professional ice hockey game and heard the commentator say, “He makes it look so easy.”

Over the course of the break in play, the commentary pair made parallels to other sports and athletes in such a way that seemed to overlook a reality we’ve all heard about, few of us have lived, and even fewer can fully appreciate or understand.

Watch enough professional soccer games and you’ll hear similar phrases: “They made it look so easy with that movement but where’s the end product?”

Here’s something we already know…it’s not easy.

It looks easy, but it’s not.

It’s something else.

And so, it got me thinking about a topic I discuss with players, parents, and clients all the time.

The behind the scenes efforts.

During a recent training session, I demonstrated a few technical movements and some agility and fitness work to make sure my expectations were observed and absorbed by the players. I also model this when necessary to reaffirm that I will never ask my players to do something I haven’t done myself, couldn’t do myself, and won’t do myself.

That’s just my style. Yours may be different. That’s OK. Back to the point.

A player struggling with the work scoffed and said, “That’s easy for you, you’re the coach.”

I was glad they said this because it was a teachable moment.

I told the player it’s easy for me because I’ve worked on those skills, movements, and abilities my entire life…when nobody was watching and when nobody cared.

I then told them it was largely in preparation to play but ALSO to coach THEM.

It hit home (thankfully). Their attitude shifted and it was one of those rare moments were the message was received by the person AND the player (it’s important to consider both when coaching).

Here’s a premise I take to players and clients so they can think about the process and journey on which we are embarking.

How much do you really know about someone if you’ve only seen them their best? Or perhaps, if you’ve only seen them in a performance?

People often look at someone on the surface and come to a series of resounding and assured conclusions.

This is risky and it’s dangerous.

For most people, it’s quite easy to look at the finished product standing there before them and make assumptions that hide valuable information and details that can be applied to their own journeys.

Looking at the personalities, habits, and traits of the greats in any sport is valuable.

What’s even more valuable, however, is examining athletes in disciplines and arenas in a variety of sports, contexts, environments, and even the time or era in which they honed their skill-set.

Much like Cristiano Ronaldo is lauded for his insane and obsessive physical and technical supplemental training habits, or Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s obsession with winning and competing in ALL facets of life aided their development and approach to honing their craft the fact of the matter is we must understand one very important principle:

“Championships aren’t won in the theater of the arena. They are won in the thousands of hours of training and the 5 AM runs in the rain when everyone else is sleeping. That’s where it’s won” -Greg Plitt

Truth be told, if you want to unlock the contributing reasons Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard — two footballers known for getting extra sessions in on the training pitch, in the gym, and with their coaches — it’s important to understand what we’re really looking at when we see them on the pitch on match-day.

We’re seeing the thousands of extra repetitions, hundreds of extra hours studying and working on their craft, and countless of hours spent in preparation for the performance.

The same is true in any discipline. Musicians rehearse for hours until their fingers bleed, backs ache, and bones hurt for an audience of none.

Writers who have more rejection emails and letters than anything published.

Runners who train in the dark, puke on the track, get torn up on the trail, and train years for a single race or event.

Weight lifters who are methodical in their diet, sleep, rest, and workout patterns while everyone just believes it’s steroids that make them strong

The artist who sells his work for cheap on the street corner or gives their work away for years before they ever get a place at an expo or is picked up on contract by an creative agency who will pay them to pursue their passion.

You get the idea.

Now let’s think about ways to connect this closer to home.

Think about the mother and/or father who coaches, volunteers, takes on more jobs, has side gigs to buy the right boots for their son or daughter, works longer hours at job they’d rather not give more of their time to so they can provide knowing they’ll get no praise or be shown no gratitude for enduring.

Hell, I know parents who want to help and contribute by setting out cones and reading books I recommend so they can feel more in-touch and in-tune with their child.

They do this so they can have some sense of self-worth.

I see it when perhaps their child or spouse does not.

This is honorable in my opinion.

The point is the end product is final stage of the pursuit, which is itself a journey laden with struggle, triumph, progress, change, pain, and sacrifice.

Doing the hard thing is often the right thing.



Technical Development Materials available on Amazon

Photo by Logan Fisher on Unsplash