Far Post Footy

A Tale of Withstanding 

Note: The following account is a personal anecdote. It contains language, experiences, and lessons many will deem extreme. The purpose of this post is merely to share the experience. It contains no advice. If you are easily-offended then this entry is not for you.

I will never forget the day I really grew up in soccer. Having moved from the Bay Area in Northern California to Chicagoland changed many things. I had no friends, finding my way in a new place with a different identity was challenging, and for the first time since I was four years old, I found myself playing on a local team of players who approached soccer recreationally, not that there was anything wrong with that approach, it just wasn’t for me.

The first few weeks playing with them was rough. These were baseball and basketball players participating in soccer — not soccer players. Such is the reality of American youth sports and although I played ice hockey, tennis, and ran track, soccer was my passion. I was spoiled in California. I played year round outside in great competitive environments. Here, I had to find these environments.

Anyway, I’d been a competitive player for many years, but this baptism in blood, mud, sweat, and tears came at 13-years old. I remember the day my father pulled me out of training with the local team composed of players my age and proceeded to drive me a few towns over to another club. I was still in my training kit — muddy boots, matted hair, wretched-smelling training bib on — when he told me I needed to play with a better group. We had discussed finding a new team, and we’d both had enough of the bullshit approach with the current team. No coaching quality, no playing identity, players dipping out of practice early to play other sports yet demanding playing time come the weekend. I think my father saw me regress in both my ability and my enthusiasm with the latter being more of the concern.

We had a rule: play or participate in whatever activity or sport you want, but be committed and honest with the effort put forth. For those that don’t know, this message was from my father who himself was an elite triathlete and even more elite swimmer who narrowly missed out on the qualifying swimming trials for 1972 Olympic Games due to a car accident where he and his family were hit by a drunk driver at a stoplight. In any event, he had a unique approach to parenting and for a high-level and highly-knowledgeable former athlete of truly elite status, he didn’t waste time lecturing or yelling. But he also knew when his kids weren’t happy.

He’d obviously planned this extraction exercise for some time. I thought about what team I’d be going to and if I would get to know any of the players and who knows, make a friend or two. What I didn’t know was by ‘better’ he meant play with a group that was older, meaner, tougher, and then better. We showed up as these players — all of whom looked like men (because they were) filed out of their vehicles carrying only a pair of boots in their hands. The players my age brought patch-laden soccer bags and water bottles with their names in permanent ink written in their mother’s handwriting with them to training. These guys only carried their boots and car keys.

Blown away by the fact they could drive themselves, I wondered if they were coaches. Suddenly, a man whose calves were the size of cantaloupes walked up and shook my father’s hand. He wore six-stud Puma King boots with the laces undone and tucked up into his socks, which were rolled down to his ankles — he’d just finished playing with the previous group.

“This your son?” he asked while studying me.

“Yes.”

“Go warm-up, he said. “Grab that bag of balls and take it to the field.”

No introduction, no acknowledgement, no handshake. Just an air of indifference that shot out of his steel-blue eyes. Once at the field, each of the players walked over and ignored me as they grabbed a ball and started passing and dribbling. Some did keep-ups. Others just laced up and took to running.

Again, no introductions — the man with the giant calves walked over to me and said, “What the fuck are you doing just standing there? Get on a ball and start passing.”

In a state of moronic shyness, I jogged over to each group of players showing for the ball nonverbally. No passes came my way. So, I meandered to the next group — again, no passes came my way. Suddenly, I was planted face-first onto the turf. My ears ringing, my head buzzing, and my face stinging. One of the players had pinged a ball at me when I wasn’t looking and connected.

No apologies. Just laughs before they carried on warming-up. The training session was a series of intense 1v1, 2v2, 5v5+2 drills before small-sided games to four goals. I was put on various teams and got run over, pushed down, and embarrassed. My father watched from the sideline with a stoic look. He and the coach conversed. Eventually, I broke.

There’s a certain threshold of embarrassment a young player (and person) reaches before the mind goes blank and the body follows. I bit my lower lip, which was quivering as I felt the tears coming. I jogged up and down the pitch during the scrimmage trying to get involved when one of the players intentionally trod on my right toe. I felt the nail snap as my foot throbbed in synchronization with my heartbeat and blood leaked in my boot’s toe box.

It was at this moment when I felt what commentators call “a rush of blood” and what they describe as “losing his head”. I stole the ball from a teammate, dribbled through a few players and hit a shot with venom well off target. A teammate started to yell at me to which I said, “Fuck you! Get another ball in play!”

“What did you fucking say to me?” he replied.

“Fuck. You.” I said, standing my ground.

Suddenly passes came my way. Tackles flew in and I returned the favor. I went from asking for the ball to demanding the ball. I played a step ahead of what I was used to and learned that competing was less about surviving and more about performing a step ahead and ‘putting out your fires’ when you made a mistake. When training ended everyone shook hands. The older guys tussled my hair, told me good job, and to collect the balls — especially the one I shanked into the next county.

Just as I started to take my boots off to examine my shattered right foot, a guy named Reece whistled and said, “Keep those on. We’re not done.”

Reece was a giant of a striker. Built like a rugby fly-half with a crewcut, Reece was dominant. That day and every training session thereafter, he ask me stay after training and serve him crosses of all types for at least an hour. Some days, he drove me home. Others, my father just waited in the car until we finished — a sacrifice he made after a long day at the office. 

As a striker, Reece would attempt bicycle and overhead kicks, diving headers, side volleys, and the like from different angles, speeds, and service types. It was perfect. I improved serving the ball on-the-run and from stationary positions. He got to work on the extravagant. But it wasn’t a chinwag and fun-time. It was actual work. He laid into me when I miss-hit a cross. I let him know about it when he didn’t execute well on a good cross.

If we weren’t crossing we worked on shooting exercises. I’d play a ball in to his feet, chest, or blast it at his throat and he’d control it, turn and fire on goal. Other times, we’d pass back and forth before I’d play a ball in and immediately turn from provider to pursuer trying to tackle him. Like all good players, he switched the roles so I could get some reps, too. After the first week or so, others stayed after when Reece — the clear leader — set-up extra training exercises. I felt compelled to stay and others elected to as well. But most days my father and my coach talked while Reece and I got in a mini-session.

We worked on shielding, tackling, crossing, passing, rondos (if numbers permitted), everything — training was competitive and it was purely supplemental. I was lucky. Not all teams have players who take younger ones under their wing.

He was tough on me but for the right reasons. At first, I thought he would make me collect his errant shots and mindlessly tee him up for sitters. But after each set of services and shots he’d collect the balls with me and say things like, “If you serve a moving ball, you can whip it in easier. Try that for the next few,” or, “Gotta hit a few of these fucking overheads here because that’s what it takes.” 

After only a few team training sessions in the crucible I developed a different mindset. I couldn’t really out-muscle these guys, but I could play quicker, get better technically, and think proactively instead of reactively — I had no choice, really. Failure to elevate and own this aspect of my game would lead to marginalizing myself and decreasing chances to play. Eventually, I earned playing time on the wing and in the middle of the park — both presented unique challenges. I got to start some games, got yanked in others, and usually subbed on.

In an environment playing with older and better players vying for opportunities to play at the next level meant there was no time for sensitivity towards a 13-year old mucking it up or not competing. Most of the time I was reminded I was in the way.

The coach told me early-on, “Worry less about the other team and more about letting your own team down.”

On some level that stuck with me. At first, I wanted to improve because I needed to. Then I wanted to get better because I wanted to be accepted. But ultimately, I wanted to improve to contribute and help the team. Perhaps the point where this became most clear was during a game against a men’s team. I subbed on late in the game and got absolutely clattered. Three of the guys who’d given me the most shit during training stood up for me. These same players also pushed me on when I did something well.

Soccer, like all team games, is ruthlessly tribal at the higher levels. I think this is why I stuck with playing up several years — partly of out necessity and partly out of intrigue to see how I could evolve as a person and as a player.

This stuck with me and in these moments of madness at training or in games, I realized that the learning opportunities were plentiful. The worst game performances left me feeling inadequate. The best ones made me more eager to continue to improve. The older players managed their diet and fitness outside of formal training; so, I learned to do the same.

Reece wasn’t there to be my buddy. Sure, he was mentoring me but he was a pure savage. On my second visit to Europe to play — this time as a 13-year old on a U-18 team — Reece was lighting up goalkeepers in Holland, Germany, and England. In Nijmegen, he dislocated a goalkeeper’s shoulder on a shot he hit with such ferocity into the top corner that the keeper attempted to knuckle over the bar. In Cologne, he was my roommate and he did 100 burpees and 100 push-ups before breakfast every day.

But it was in Göteborg where Reece connected with a whipped-in service from our left winger with perfect timing to score the type of overhead kick he’d trained relentlessly to execute and master every day after training.

The best moment, however, was when Reece ran over to me, not the left winger who served the ball in, and celebrated — grabbing me in a headlock and yelling, “Hell yeah! We did it!

It was then and there I realized that Reece had used me and I used him to improve. Again, he wanted to be the best he could be. That required a certain degree of buy-in from me. The entry fee was extra hours after training and thousands of failed attempts. He knew I needed more work. I just assumed he needed a practice dummy.

What was interesting about Reece — and players like him — is they take ownership in the audacious. They aren’t doing heel-flicks and circus tricks because they look fancy. They are, however, taking hundreds of attempts at the audacious overhead kick or side volley because there’s a chance it could happen in a meaningful game. These players explore the limits of their ability and push themselves to level-up their skill-set because they could, not because they should.

Reece stayed over in Europe to try and play the game we loved. I know he made his way into the lower divisions in Germany and played some semi-professional games in England. It’s wild to think about how well he could have done today with increased exposure, access, visibility, and resources. But, that’s a fool’s game to play in hindsight.

Years later, I reflect daily on how the game has changed for better and for worse. There aren’t many players like Reece that I’ve seen. Nor is there a culture incentivizing players to embrace the challenges of the game on their own. I can’t believe how angry I was at times that I was thrust into the lion’s den. But I was also grateful because I improved so much faster than I ever would have in an unchallenging environment.

I am not saying the path I took was the best way nor would I recommend it as times and standards have changed and improved.  What I am saying is this path worked for me. I improved as a competitor, I matured as a person, and learned more than I ever thought I would — and that made the struggle worthwhile.

Good Enough is the Death of Greatness

I’ve never understood the phrase “good enough”, especially when it comes to challenges related to the pursuit of excellence in any discipline. Admittedly, I get a lot of inspiration from personalities and methodologies from sources outside of the soccer world. Not long ago, I was driving to work and I heard the phrase “Good enough is the death of greatness” from notable strength and conditioning (and wrestling coach) Zach Even-Esh on a podcast with Jerred Moon.

Give it a listen. In fact, I recommend listening to experts and coaches in other modalities and sporting arenas to learn from because much of the lessons they have to offer are valuable and applicable. Strength and conditioning coaches and running experts are more methodical than people give them credit for, and to be legitimate resource in those communities requires one to document everything, have a proven track record performing the tasks themselves or with pupils, and all the methodologies are lodged deeply in the scientific and objective.

But back to the phrase “good enough”.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize these are my opinions. They are not suggestions for others.

As a player, if I was told, “Jon, that’s good enough…” I would be confused. Good enough is merely a phrase and an attitude that, to me, means the bare minimum level of performance, application, or acknowledgement has been reached and it’s OK to let off the gas pedal. Mediocrity is acceptable…that’s what it means.

As a coach, if I told my players, “That’s good enough…” that’s really me telling them we aren’t interested in pushing back against the ceiling. It would indicate that I am satisfied with less than their best.

Good enough is merely settling.

It is here we get into the murky territory of finding out when enough is sufficient.

Here’s something I’ve learned as an endurance runner with goals that extend beyond merely finishing the race and more importantly, as someone who understands what complacency can do to a person and a collective.

Good enough is a dangerous place. It’s a dangerous frame of mind. It’s a dangerous attitude to adopt and a crutch to carry the weight for a person.

Players don’t know how to struggle.

They just know they’re struggling.

There’s a massive difference between the two. For example, when I am running a race and training through a brutal workout, I have choices: quit before I start, cut it short when it gets tough, or push through. Other than the risk of injury, the first two choices fall under the “I’m good enough” or “this is good enough” category of bullshit cop-outs. If those were actually true, I wouldn’t be struggling with the notion of enduring and completing them.

The last one, however, is what I want players to embrace.

The successful players are seldom more talented than the others. It generally comes down to quality hours and a willingness to learn from the difficult periods. The best players are the ones who work the hardest for the longest periods of time. They are also the ones who are willing to exist in that space where shit just goes wrong, feels uncomfortable, and where they slog through situations that test them, longer than others.

Here’s a good lesson from the differences between two types of players.

Some players struggle and look for a way out as fast as possible. They are usually bailed out by coaches and parents who see this struggle and make excuses, feed them lines of enabling influence, and fight their battles for them. That player has regressed.

Other players struggle and they know they’re going through a rough patch. Instead of looking for a way out, they look for a way to stay in the struggle. They embrace the suck. It’s what MUST happen for any type of growth. This is where the mind sharpens, the body follows, and resiliency is honed and strengthened.

Think about it this way, if it’s a dip in form, a flaw in technique, a skill that needs to be honed — the easy thing to do is pack up and head home. And there are certainly times where recalibrating and coming back at another time is acceptable. However, too many players pull the eject cord too early and jettison themselves back into their safe spaces.

This is what I love about endurance running. You can’t fake your way through the miles. This is what great strength and conditioning athletes embrace about their craft — the weight doesn’t  move itself. It’s you versus gravity. As Henry Rollins once wrote, “the Iron never lies to you.”

Great footballers stay a bit longer or arrive earlier and work on that weak foot. They embrace the struggle because they understand the coaching adage that says, the end of your comfort zone is where growth occurs.

Fear is a great motivator and it’s a great asset. Fear is not the enemy. Fear is merely jet fuel. Some use it to self-immolate. Others use fear to propel them to new heights. The presence of fear is raw energy. How we use it is up to the individual. Don’t be controlled and conquered by fear. Use it to conquer and control whatever the situation is.

The last point to make here is about praise. Coaches praise players for mediocre action. They praise players for showing up on-time, for wearing the right training kit, for picking up after themselves. What kind of nonsense is that? Have standards gone away? Are they that low with modern coaches? Do you feel if you don’t dole out praise you’ll be fired and have to cater to the mountain of parent concerns and emails that need to end up in your Spam folder of your email anyways?

Look, encouragement is important and I’m not advocating we don’t encourage players. But be careful with giving praise. Make players EARN that praise. Applauding the mundane is hackery. Applauding effort that continually leads to mistakes, turnovers, fouls, and the disruption of a system of play and formation is bullshit, too.

Don’t do that. Applaud and praise them when they fail and make mistakes and then seek to correct it. I don’t believe in praising actions that are part of the job description. Again, that’s my opinion. I do believe in praising actions that display a willingness to grow even when the chances of failure are greatest. It’s up to you to delineate between bravery and stupidity — we aren’t asking our players to track players relentlessly until they drop or to act recklessly. But we do want our players to be critical thinkers and free to solve the problems presented to them.

If you take nothing else from this post, understand that raising the standard is up to you. What kind of example are you setting as a coach? What kind of standard are you NOT living up to as a player? These are critical questions but they are necessary.

Be careful with giving praise.

Good enough is the death of greatness.

What you Say vs. What they Hear

Note: For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus heavily on some of negative interactions with one particular coach to illustrate a point. Understand that for every negative discussed here, there are far more positives that made-up my time as a player.

“It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.”

What a simple, yet profound statement.

Coaches must understand the variables and factors involved in communicating a message to a player or a team. Tone, volume, actual word choice, rate of speed, proximity, timing, and context are all important and coaches who master these elements are more effective than those governed by impulse and emotion, which are not bad but must be used carefully.

With all that being laid out…the single most important element in communicating coaching points is NOT what you say; it’s what THEY hear. 

Where one player reacts positively to direct, loud, blunt communication and directives others will shrink into themselves and shut down. Some players come from a robust background of candid communication and can handle a firm verbal volley and others need the ‘arm around the shoulder’ approach off to the side. And yet there exists another subset that can’t even make eye contact (a skill, in my opinion) and only hears but can’t listen to what’s being said. Players are unpredictable, which means coaching communication needs to be predictable and consumable.

Granted, there are players who need to be more resilient, open, and receptive to hearing and being told what they don’t want to confront about their game, decision-making (another skill), and the situation. Good coaches recruit leaders within the team dynamic to pass messages on-the-fly because they understand the value of peer-to-peer learning pathways.

The following  article highlights the dichotomy between good coaches that may be rough around the edges, intense beyond player understanding, forceful in their delivery yet justified in their intent and coaches who yell and pontificate for the hell of it.

My motivation for this entry is not to tell other coaches what to do, but rather to share what I’ve learned from both a lifetime playing the game and now in a role as someone coaching high-level players. Understand that not every interaction is going to be great and not every player deserves praise or to be coddled. That being said, coaches need to attempt to ‘stay in their lane’ so to speak and make sure the issues pertaining to soccer are the focus as we are developing people as well as players.

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As a player, coaches had done my head in over the years. I’d been screamed at, had things thrown at me, been physically shoved, humiliated, degraded, ignored, blamed — you name it, I experienced it. Most competitive players can attest. Driven players learn to cope in different manners and don’t allow bad coaches and communicators to dictate their trajectory in the game.

One of the first times I discovered this side of competitive soccer, I was 9-years old. I was playing at the U12 level and the coach was a former pro. When you think of football’s ‘Hardman‘ archetype, this man fit the mold almost too perfectly. But he was a great coach.

It was one of those cold, late-autumn games where we were getting pummeled by both the other team and the windblown gusts of sleet stinging our faces. I can’t remember that the stakes of the game were too significant but the result didn’t matter to our coach. When we panicked, he watched in silence, his piercing gaze scanning the field from under the hood of his jacket. He was interested only in our willingness to “be brave with the ball”, to “keep it”, and to try and “play through the difficult conditions”. He didn’t want us to compromise our style or give in to the parental cacophony of shouts to “boot it” at every opportunity.

This coach knew the malaise of the game was only going to be exacerbated by the weather and the yelling that came from parents and the opposing coach, who didn’t stop screaming at his team the entire game. I was fortunate to have a good coach like this at such a young, formative time. I would go on to play for him for a few more years.

Make no mistake, his intensity was visceral. His message was always clear. We heard what he said. It seems that former pros baptized in the blood, mud, and sporting climate of an America that disregarded soccer in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were masters of direct, to-the-point communication. They were agents of the dark arts of motivation. The were disciples of discipline. This bluntness helped me and many others.

We entered the foray of competitive soccer soft and malleable and emerged each year carved of granite, armed with a resolute mentality, and charged with learning how to motivate ourselves. Have a bad first touch, you better find some time to remedy that shortcoming. Need to train more, better get after it on your day off. Yes, coaches of this ilk yelled and hammered home points to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. The big difference, however, is they knew when to shut it off.

The great coaches who are passionate about their role and who are heavily-involved with the active development of their themselves and their teams are masters of using the extreme to reveal the subtle. Therein lies a great lesson.

Juxtapose that experience with the first time I actually loathed the coach-player interaction. It wasn’t fear, but contempt that I felt for one particular coach. It was in high school in a closely-contested, heated affair against a local rival. Off in the corner, away from admins and parents, we gathered for halftime. He put his arm around me while the team gathered around and attempted to put me in a vice-gripped headlock ‘to fire me up’ in front of the other players. I twisted out of it and shoved him off me.

He got in my face.

To this day, I don’t know what possessed him to lash out like that and I don’t know how I remained composed.

I was not only his captain, but also the buffer between the players and his fury. I suppose he felt if anyone could ‘handle it’, it was me.

Just like a sappy, cliched script of a straight-to-video movie, we won that game. I scored the game winner. The black-and-white Brine ball hung in the air after their keeper punted it. As a center midfielder, my job was to win these middle-of-the-park, aerial contests. I noticed I had a few meters of space, so I opted to bring the ball down instead of heading it even though I heard the shrill voice of a seething coach yell “AWAY!”

I didn’t defy him. I just knew the right decision was to control the ball off my chest and get it on the deck to play. I could see him slam the clipboard out of the corner of my eye. Then he disappeared. Dribbling through the obstacle course of swinging legs and creating a bit of space, I found myself running through on goal. Their goalkeeper had cheated off his line. A quick glance up, a deft chip, and the ball was in the back of the net. Game over.

In the most disgusting of displays he ran up to me in celebration. I rebuked him. Tore his hands away from me. Lashed out at my teammates who swarmed me. Kicked a corner flag out of the ground. And walked off the field in an angry display.

The whole scene was a microcosm of soccer as I knew it. The collision of the good with the bad and it stood out like an oil spill. The two elements were together — occupying the same space — but they didn’t mix well. The real damage would come later when the oil tarred and tarnished everything it touched. Players took sides fearing castigation from the collective or the coach.

I knew at 16-years old that his man was at war with himself. He made self-contradiction a theatric display and often out-coached himself in a panic while failing to make any adjustments at training or during competition. Games were won because he a few actual players — not because he was a positive influence.

Truth be told, youth soccer had given way to the heightened competitive game of my teenage years. Having little-to-no options in comparison to today’s player, I learned if I wanted to play, I had to learn to deal with this clown. In so doing, I became a shadow of my vibrant self of years former — especially when coaches like this ramped up the intensity of their delivery and tried to lay siege on our emotional and mental canvases. Players who were subjected to the verbal barrage and mental warfare learned to either: shut down, shut up, and eventually, in my case, to shut it off.

The game had became robotic and players became drones. The training environment was stale. He printed his coaching plans before training or just winged it. He used an outdated coaching manual to drum up archaic drills. He trained us in learning how stand in line, kick one one another up and down the field, and to block him out and yet in the most paradoxical way, expected us to play a beautiful brand of soccer on game day.

In other words, we trained like Buffoon Town and he yet expected we play like Barcelona.

It became his game, not ours.

That same coach was known for benching players when college coaches came to recruit us. Clipboards didn’t last long with him. Neither did hats or folding chairs. The coaching role was his chance to “get his” because he was bitter about his own insecurities.

This joystick, half-hearted coaching culture still exists and I contend it produces less talented players, but even worse, less happy people.

Much of this, admittedly, sounds either all-too-familiar or horrific.

Perhaps it was, but I try not to hold grudges because it helped me develop as a person as well as a player. At least I learned how not to act and what not to do.

Look, I’m not advocating coaches don’t show emotion. Nor do I believe the coach I had represents anyone but himself. The real value of this jaunt down memory lane is about the effects and practices of great coaches.

Coaching is an art and a science. I remember the good ones didn’t express a desire for us to work hard or tackle anything that moved — their energy and the tone of their delivery made it clear that such things were expectations. They just demanded we take the field with a competitive zeal that paired with a willingness to apply what we’d trained each week.

Good [youth] coaches understood that a few things that every coach reading this ought to take stock of immediately.

  1. The game is not theirs; it belongs to the players.
  2. Players will listen to the delivery, not the message more often than not.
  3. If you’re shouting on the sideline come game day of a youth game, that is YOUR issue. What is happening during the week’s training that necessitates you need to help and joystick the players come game day? Figure it out.

The bad ones — the clipboard, hat-wearing, whistle-blowing, laps-lines-lectures-addicted clowns that make the game unbearable need to be called out. I’m not talking about the ones who don’t know any better and are sincerely trying their best without any significant background in the game. Nor am I targeting the coaches that are still finding out who they are as individuals and put in difficult roles.

I’m talking about the poisonous hacks plaguing far too many sidelines. I’d argue that these coaches devalue the profession and role. These ones throw tantrums on the sideline, talk about how the perceived collective failure affects them, and take credit for any success.

Egotists rule the game when hackery is rewarded.

People are focused on the wrong aspects of the game. An ugly, kick-and-run game resulting in a meaningless win is considered more important and more heavily-valued than a loss or a draw where a team tries to play what is considered a better way.

If you grew up playing in the [North] American soccer system, it’s likely you had a few bad coaches and hopefully some good ones. I suppose the same can be said about coaches everywhere. Good coaches don’t necessarily stick out or stick around as much or as long as we’d hope. They are smart and know when to cut their losses and move-on. Much like good players, they seek out the best environments to spend their time, energy, and knowledge.

The game has a way of taking more from people than it will ever give back in return. Coaching, in many ways, has become an exercise in chasing the dragon. It doesn’t have to be, but for many it is.

So, let’s return to the point of this post.

Coaching is complex. I won’t make excuses for bad coaching practices, hacks posing as coaches, and people who cheapen the discipline through copy-and-paste methods to pass off as knowledge and ingenuity.

As a coach, I’ve considered what’s really at stake when I train players and it takes me back to one of my favorite quotes from Johan Cruyff, which might serves as the ultimate lesson in humility and understanding the discipline of coaching.

“Before you can coach others first you must learn to coach yourself.”

It’s important to try to abide by a simple principle and consider how to act, react, and be proactive to best communicate with players.

I view ranting and raving to players as the ultimate grandstand. It’s effective for some but that effectiveness is lessened with frequency. More importantly, a coach’s words are not nearly as important as the message the players are receiving. This is why leadership is important to pair with coaching.

Great coaches become experts in becoming an expert (think about that one). They also recognize the importance of being present and as a result can delineate the difference between a coach who enjoys ‘being there’ and a coach who’s ‘just there’.

In any coaching dynamic, great coaches understand that there’s a difference between merely being fit for a position and being a good fit for it.

Some of the best coaches I’ve worked with, played for, or just merely observed from afar know that the key is measuring character, resolve, ability, and skill NOT when they or their players are at their best, but rather when they’re at their worst. This is a real test for many coaches. 

Both players and coaches have a tendency to milk a situation for more than it is leading to false perceptions of what the actual situation really means or signifies. One game, one good or bad sequence, one season should not define a player. Framing situations in the right context is essential. Recognizing when this is happening in both one’s self and in others is critical.

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In closing, great coaches treat players like rubber bands. If they are constantly stretched but not pushed to the brink, they maintain their usefulness and spring. Stretch them too much and they will snap.

featured photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@toddquackenbush

Scanning as a Skill

Imagine the following scenario:

The ball circulates haphazardly across the backline in a well-rehearsed movement. The opposition decides to press the team in possession and unleash two marauding forwards in a rush of overzealous ‘pressure’. The team with the ball begins to panic and its #6 (it could be any player, really) drops in to receive the ball.

“Pick your head up!”

The coach’s shout echoes across the field but it’s too late. As the scene plays out, another youth player gets caught in the snares of indecision. In commentary it’s often referred to as ‘caught between two minds’. A player receives the ball, puts their head down, struggles to decide what to do next, boots (love using that word as a verb) the ball away or is tackled and the other team almost scores.

Cue the token finger-pointing.

This scenario will likely play on-loop for not only the entire game, but possibly the entire season — or even for a player’s entire time playing soccer.

What happened?

It’s called many things: awareness, vision, checking your shoulders, or more colloquially, ‘taking a peak’ and ‘having a look’.

I call it scanning as a skill.

For the sake of not beating around the bush, I’ll be blunt: this country’s players don’t know how to do this (scan the field) effectively, if at all. This is partly due to the fact our players don’t train and play enough in situations where they feel comfortable under duress; and partly due to the reality that many of our players lack the technique, confidence, and competence to control the pace of the game before and when they receive the ball.

It’s frustrating to see a lack of poise and ability to simply lift their heads up to see what’s going on and this happens at all levels.

Perhaps it’s down to poor coaching or coaches who don’t teach, stress, or rehearse it. Many coaches I know don’t even consider scanning a skill. To them, it’s just something some players have and others do not, or don’t need (?).

As a coach, it’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of possession-based exercises in the hopes of developing players and ultimately, a team, that will translate the skills stressed in rondos or in small-sided games to meaningful competition.

Before we go any further, let’s pause and identify what’s missing.

As coaches, we can aim to develop players and teams all we want, but I contend that even before identifying ‘player development’ as a goal or target objective, we must develop something else first — the right culture. Developing a proper learning culture, in my opinion (yours may differ), should come before or at least go hand-in-hand with developing skills, principles, and methods for players and teams.

Any ingratiation based on a particular philosophy of play requires different phases that must be executed to reach an objective. Phases such as: introduction, [scaled] integration, rehearsal, more scaled integration followed by team-wide and player-centric implementation — all of which are geared towards achieving a proactive, positive, and ultimately, effective style of play take time and repetition; lots of it.

One issue I’ve observed is the fracture between perception and execution. For example, many coaches, at all levels, depend heavily on a development method such as rondos to introduce, teach, and reinforce principles like: possession, receiving the ball under duress, communication, quick thinking, reactive vs proactive movements, pressing in pairs, splitting those pairs with short, accurate passes, and a slew of other elements, which is why rondo-based training is such an attractive and effective exercise.

The problem, as I see it anyways, is the transfer of those aforementioned skills onto the field of play. All too often the expectation is hinged upon the same frenetic, high-energy, condensed series of plays present in rondo variations, but in bigger space with more on the line. This is fine to a point, but a massive element is missing: scanning on and off the ball.

For these purposes, scanning means an available player or a player in possession is looking for viable options to penetrate (on the dribble or with a pass) before the ball arrives to: trigger an attacking movement, release pressure from one side of the field to the other, retain possession, counterattack, or build an attack with numbers.

To do this off-the-ball, players must identify, create, and occupy space to receive the ball without losing it. Essentially, this is dependent on losing their marks and arriving in the right gaps to receive the ball effectively. While in possession, players must have the confidence, awareness, and composure to put their foot on the ball (if necessary) to see what options are available. it may seem counterintuitive, but slowing the play down is essential.

At the top levels, scanning is a skill and should be regarded as such well before players are expected to exhibit it during meaningful competition. Here’s where the fracture lies: rondos teach, exploit, and reward anticipation to great effect in unparalleled ways. They also teach composure and reward quick thinking and smooth technique. However, all too often what happens in games is a hurried version of possession-based play. Players arrive in the right spots, but the ball may or may not be there. Good teams will exploit this and press even more, forcing the frenetic pace of play to regain the ball as high up the field as possible if sense players aren’t able to see the game a step or two ahead of time.

To me, this is why scanning as a skill is a principle that must be focused on and taught. The expectation in the modern game is to keep the ball, exploit usable space, and regain possession high up the field (if possible). In a Four Four Two performance piece, Nottingham Forest defender Michael Mancienne sheds a bit of light on why scanning is a skill for a center-back:

“When I pick the ball up from the keeper, I’m always looking to pass the ball forward. But if there is nothing on, then you need to stay relaxed and not give the ball away.

You’re playing in a vital position, so if you slip up with the ball at your feet, the chances are the opposition are going to score.

Stay calm and dribble the ball out, or even be confident enough to look to the sides and maybe play a one-two with one of the full-backs.

Either way, you are creating space for team-mates by shifting the opposition into positions they don’t want to be in – they’ve got to come looking for the ball.

If there is an option in midfield, make that short pass. If not, then there’s no shame in hitting the ball long, provided it’s into the right areas.

If you’ve got a forward who is quick then you can put the ball in the channels for him to race on to, whereas if it’s a player who can hold the ball up, then try to dink a ball up to him so the team can build an attack from there.”

Scanning can be trained many ways the most obvious being playing out from the back in training to reinforce the habit-formation required to consider it a skill. Another area we see scanning done to perfection is in the center of the park. There is no shortage of good examples of scanning from players like Pirlo who make the game look so easy, but I can assure you it’s anything but easy.

Having the awareness to understand space (zones), know where opponents are and how fast they can close down that space, knowing where the passing lanes and avenues will open up, and embracing the reality that top players must receive AND retain the ball under pressure takes practice. Much of skill here is partitioned into different segments.

  1. Recognition (vision/awareness): knowing where/when to pop into space to receive the ball, create openings, take the appropriate angle and establish the right body position for the specific scenario
  2. Technical Efficiency: the ability to receive the ball, retain possession (shield, outplay in 1v1 duels) and play out of situations via passing or dribbling
  3. Composure/Confidence/Coaching: These three are coachable and require repetition, rehearsal, and guidance to ingrain these elements into a player’s psychology (to a point)
  4. Frequency: ability and willingness to get on the ball throughout the game (don’t hide/ball watch).
    4a. Risk-Reward: decision-making ability to continually scan for options and stay involved
  5. Follow-up play: extension of positional responsibilities to be an outlet in different sectors of the field (don’t watch their pass and remain stationary).

Overall, I could go on about the player’s roles here, but I’ll end with urging coaches to do some actual gap analysis of their teams and players. Note when, where, and how the breakdowns occur and identify how to train those scenarios to instill confidence, composure, and competence into a team. Possession soccer should mean more than merely passing the ball. To me, it means breaking  lines with vertical passes to players and spaces (occupied and unoccupied) to advance the play when opportunities permit. It means circulation and recirculation of the ball to isolate opposing players to create 4v2’s, 3v1’s, or 2v1’s in sectors of the field. It means outplaying the opponent in one-on-one duels.

Most importantly, however, scanning HAS to be regarded as a skill. This comes from the coach. The higher the level of play, the less time there is on the ball and subsequently, the less time there is to coach this principle. Our domestic game, at every level (Youth, Development Academy, College, Professionally), the deficiencies stemming from the lack of proximal, distal, and situational awareness are too prevalent.

The game has evolved beyond the purely athletic and too often the assumption that possession soccer is only an aesthetic form of the game takes precedence. Modern [competitive] soccer at all levels is more and more cerebral, tactical, and technical than it was in the past.

Decision-making is a skill. Scanning is a skill. Composure is a behavior that needs reinforcement. None of these can really improve until the people coaching the players begin to recognize what works and what does not from session-to-session and game-to-game. Gap analysis is a non-negotiable. If we can create a culture that values scanning as much as it values goals and moves while fostering a learning environment that rehearses these scenarios and doesn’t use playing time or marginalization as tools to ‘punish’ players when they lose the ball, we help the players enjoy the game by adding another element to their skill-set.

If coaches don’t consider something a skill, guess who else won’t…

 

 

 

photo credit: abigailkeenan.com 

Effort over Outcome

We live in protectionist times. As young players (and people), we aren’t armed with the skill-set to process losing for many reasons. One, we associate losing with failure. Second, losing has consequences (coaches, pay attention) associated with it that extend into ‘punishment’ (extra running, lack of playing time, lengthly lectures, finger-pointing, ostracizing, etc.). Third, soccer in this country is judged heavily on wins and losses, and that’s a real problem.

Think about how many bad teams win games by hook or by crook and all of those errant passes, late challenges, that tactical chaos, lack of discipline, and downright odd passages of play that are instantly forgotten. Somewhere along the way, ‘win at all costs’ had such an effect on generations of players and coaches that the pendulum swung to the other side of the spectrum and opened the door for the ‘trophy generation’…where mediocrity was rewarded ad nauseam.

As a player, I couldn’t stomach losing. Growing up, wins and losses were the measure of quality or the absence of it. In the early competitive [structured] environments I played in there was little-to-no ‘analysis’ of the game’s nuances, intricacies, and details. When asked how the game was or how they played, players responded simplistically with ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Performance was assessed and judged based on wins and losses. The practice of calculating statistics, analyzing positive periods of play, and taking note of snapshots of play that indicated a contradictory story to the final score-line was still over a decade away.

In short, player and performance assessment were completely subjective.

This collective mindset did a few things to players:

  1. Hampered their ability to judge their own performances as outcome was what really mattered
  2. Rewarded effort, which proves to be toxic (leads to trophy generation mindsets and expectations)
  3. Let bad coaching, poor player performance off-the-hook depending on outcome
  4. Allowed players and coaches to throw one another under the bus as nuance and details were overlooked and outcome was the measuring stick of ‘success’
  5. Paved the way for a ‘Cop-out Culture’ to permeate and take root in soccer
  6. Framed outcome only in wins/losses, not in ‘how good a player/team becomes over X period of time

Over time, I began to loathe the phrase “good effort” when myself or a teammate made an error because effort didn’t cut it; at least not in the era and environment of youth soccer I grew up playing. Effort was some murky primer that was applied before final judgment was passed down by a tribunal of coaches, parents, and teammates acting as judge, jury, and executioner — every week.

Here’s another reason why I began to hate talk of effort: somewhere along the line “good effort” was replaced with the phrase “my bad”, which is a cop-out. Our soccer has a problem with a ‘Cop-out Culture’. Over time, and if you’ve coached, played, or watched enough soccer, you can expect to hear a cacophony of “my bad’s” resonate at every game or training session in this country.

Competitive players don’t want to hear their teammates excuse themselves with “my bad”, they want them to put out their fire. ‘My bad’ is as shallow as it is useless. “My bad” doesn’t regain possession or block a shot. “My bad” won’t win the ball back, make the recovery run, implore a player to do better the next time, or make amends through performance and effort. “My bad” is empty phrasing. “My bad” ensures one thing: that players will say it over and over while ignoring the root issues and absolving themselves of accountability.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I’ve said, “my bad” when I’ve made an error, and it felt like a cop-out. But this isn’t entirely about cop-outs. This is more about that first phrase, “good effort”.

Why is that?

For players in my generation (and those that came before it), the game was different. Coaches were expected to extract weakness from a player and cull it from the team. Braggadocio was common practice and the accepted modus operandi for competitive environments and it’s likely still the case. Machismo was another attribute that coaches needed to see from players. The problem is some players just aren’t wired that way. The real problem is coaches tended to look for and applaud the wrong qualities in players.

Truth be told, my best friend growing up was a really shy, introverted person and until a certain age, through various obstacles and periods of adversity, guess what kind of player he was? Yep, shy and introverted. He was also the most skilled, most effective, and most reliable player on the field. The problem was that a culture of coaching and social dynamics mistook shyness for softness and his contributions were diminished because he wasn’t a madman out there. Perhaps this issue still permeates youth soccer.

So, what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of things?

We have viewed effort the wrong way…as mere participation. In many clubs and environments, effort does equate to mere participation. Simply showing up and going through the motions is acceptable and there is nothing wrong with that in non-competitive (recreational) environments. But for the competitive environments, effort has to dovetail into application.

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.”
—Michelangelo

Truly driven players work extremely hard at their game. Day-in and day-out, they’re playing, training, and tweaking their game to the point of exhaustion to improve. The graft and grind is unappreciated and often unnoticed, especially when a bad coach takes the reins of a team. That grunt work of getting thousands of touches on the ball in a day, running when it’s easier to ignore fitness, working on that week foot, playing up a few age groups knowing it will be a punishing experience, studying the game…of it indicates that we have another issue here…entitlement.

When outcome is all that’s really valued, the aforementioned process gets diluted and undervalued (or maybe devalued). Michelangelo said it best, “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.”

For competitive players and teams, effort with application is a much more important and accurate measure of performance, at least in my opinion. In an age where showcases, friendlies, and lengthly league seasons fill up a player’s calendar, wins and losses become a separate measure. But what I’m really talking about here is positive habit-formation in all playing instances (training, pick-up, meaningful competition, supplemental technical work, etc.) because analyzing and applauding effort with application there contributes to positive performance outcomes in games.

Additionally, if players know that their whole basis of play and performance is judged on a score-line, they tend to stop playing the right way (the system of play/philosophy they’ve been introduced to) within their role and skill-set and start playing solely to win. Granted, there is a time and place for the latter and I encourage players and teams to augment their style during meaningful competition; however, let’s focus on choosing what to applaud or acknowledge.

When one truly applauds effort over outcome, young players can connect application with their performance. But let’s go beyond the surface level here and challenge ourselves to understand a conditional: If effort (with application) is the focus, it can also be viewed so one can see how that effort and application contribute to an outcome.

Moreover, it’s important to applaud effort with a view of framing the outcome as the reward.

However, there’s a catch. Rewarding effort can prove toxic (note that rewarding and applauding/acknowledging effort are very different) because the players going through the motions will continue to do so and the players who propel the team forward (those who pair effort with application) will notice and respond negatively.

Overall, results and outcomes are part of the process. Acknowledging true effort with application allows coaches and players to get a better view of their contribution and performance. There’s a difference between merely showing up and taking part (participation) and consciously doing the right things time after time, even at the risk of failure. In a win/loss-centric culture, soccer in this country has taught its players to avoid any instances that could result in losing, which itself is a valuable lesson and a leveling mechanism to keep ego in-check.

Look, every player has played a wonderful game only for their team to concede a soft goal or be on the wrong side of the score-line for no logical reason. That’s part of the torture and allure of the game. It’s easy to see why players have a tangible ‘fear’ of losing…they equate it with punishment and failure. By applauding true effort (making a recovery run, taking a player on when the time is right, looking to break lines with a pass, etc.) the focus is on actual play instead of solely the result.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s pretty simple. Focus on the process and the result will take care of itself. Take ownership in encouraging focus and grit because once the process, however unglamorous that may be, holds more stock, the outcomes become better.

After all, in the words of author Robert Collier, “Success is the sum of efforts repeated — day in and day out.”

Grounded by Gravel

“I trained 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little but played 3-4 hours everyday on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?”

-Johan Cruyff

Consider reliability and resilience as skills. At first, these don’t seem like skills and fully understanding and appreciating them as skills takes some work, reflection, and humility.

Early in my soccer education, I learned what resilience meant in the larger scheme of things. That education wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was a bit brutal and a lot gritty, so what I’m about to share with you is merely my experience — not one that I wish upon anyone else (or their child). You may even find that we share similar experiences.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when I viewed resiliency as a skill, I just know it took a fair number of embarrassing moments, beatings (both metaphorically and literally), and a great deal of reflection over the years. Getting cut from teams, left off travel rosters, denied scholarship money, playing paltry minutes, dismissed and blackballed by clubs and backstabbers posing as friends — this is life and it is indiscriminate.

I grew in San Jose, California during the dot-com boom and I attended a Catholic school in nearby Sunnyvale.

Our teachers were nuns. They didn’t give a damn about our feelings, and I don’t say that to tick the boxes of the ‘mean nun’ narrative — it was just the reality. One episode involved our teacher refusing to let any of us (in the First Grade) use the restroom. The result was horrifying. After a few weeks of watching kids literally piss themselves in class, I checked my emotions at the door and made sure to use the restroom beforehand.

Another episode involved a kid making a hilarious yet inappropriate gesture with an animal cracker during a class birthday party. The nun caught him and made him repeat the gesture, while standing on a desk in front of the class 100 times. As tears poured down his face, the class looked on — laughing at first until his embarrassment became ours, too. The mental warfare waged on us on this level was incredibly effective. It became a mental mortgage many of us would invariable carry well beyond those classroom walls.

These aren’t traumas, but they are episodes I hope aren’t present today. To that end, we learned some valuable lessons through these odd experiences, which would go on to help in other aspects of life.

Each day, I dealt with the difficulty not because I wanted to, but because I had to. My mother and father are compassionate people. I didn’t grow up lacking a thing. I had clean clothes, food, shelter, love, all the good things in life. They listened to every gripe and cry we brought home. However, they didn’t bail myself or my siblings out of difficult situations.

“Simple, not easy.”

I love this phrase. It describes childhood well: simple times but not always easy. Hell, it’s apropos to life at any age.

As a kid I played soccer or some other sport daily. I played on a club team at the weekend. During the week, I played pickup or street soccer with the local kids, most of whom were Latino. They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, but kids tend to be fickle and once a game started we set aside our differences and just played. Winning a pickup game meant dealing with insults, lash outs, and inevitable grass match scuffles.

There’s really nothing like street ball. Pick any sport, the lessons learned and skills gained are strikingly similar. In each place I’ve lived, the street game always kept me grounded.

There were days when I was King of the Court. Dribbling through a paddock of planted feet, dodging errant elbows, ducking doubt and letting the game takeover and put me on autopilot. It all felt euphoric. At recess it was adrenaline-fueled fury.

Think of a player’s mentality like a muscle. Work on it and it becomes stronger. Failure to train it and challenge it leads to atrophy.

The street game trains a player’s mentality and attitude like no other environment. Movements become automatic. Improvisation, technical ability, speed, skill, tenacity, intensity, humility — these all have a place in street games. And what’s more, skills and attributes learned on the street get unleashed in formal settings.

Think about how that works; each day included thousands of touches on the ball, hundreds of micro-failures of this move or that feint. Dozens of shots turning into goals between our soaked jumpers or book bags acting as posts. No fear, just an excess of competitive zeal, furious self-regulation, and an appetite for the creative oozing from every pore. No parents, no real rules, the occasional fist fight — that’s the game.

The only real dictating force was the flickering street light that signaled it was time to turn-in. The street player elevates their game to a new level when they hear: “Next goal wins.”

Those days when I felt on top of my game were plentiful and somewhat frequent; however, for every ‘successful’ day, there were scores more where I was pulverized on the pavement. Literally beaten by players who may or may not have been any better or more talented. They just won and I lost.

I was grounded by gravel.

Street soccer is the great equalizer in so many ways.

Here’s what I mean: playing soccer with and against Latino players as a kid was formative. Losers often went home with damaged pride, ripped clothes, bloodied elbows and knees, and sometimes, without the ball they’d arrived with — such was the cost of losing. Most times, the victors were older players who took it personally that we dared to play against them. To teach us a lesson for putting up some resistance, they’d do what all bullies do and taunt and tempt us. Some would punt our ball over a few fences or an overpass.

The losses were infuriating. The score didn’t really matter most days, the experience was the currency one sought. Back then, I never thought much of playing time with my organized team. Some games, I played the entire time. Others, I rode the bench so others could ‘participate’. I didn’t like that — not the sitting bit, but the ‘participation’ opportunities granted to players who didn’t seem to care as much as I did.

Of course, I was drawn to the game by a more emotional force…one that was a bit more primal. Deep down, I knew if I ever showed up in my neighborhood with an attitude of apathy like some of my teammates did at organized soccer, I’d be completely destroyed or worse, not welcomed back to play street games.

My point is the street game defined who I was as a player. Sometimes I was great. Other times, I was a complete head-case. Many years on, I know why. The game meant so much even though there was nothing more than pride on the line.

But that’s enough isn’t it? 

That earnestness and swagger we admire in players abroad are elements that have become rarities in his country. We see it in our other sports — where players hone their craft through tens of thousands of hours in the shadows, far from the spotlight. Basketball players devising games, exercises, and scenarios. Gridiron football drilled for hours in cup-de-sacs all over the country. Makeshift hockey rinks and baseball diamonds cultivate what’s missing in our soccer.

I think this type of intuitive experience in the game has faded with subsequent generations because players these days have so much given to them. Too much comes easy with players nowadays and at the risk of sounding like more of a curmudgeon, I think it’s true.

We can see it in the absence of a savvy swagger that can only be cultivated over thousands of wins, losses, and hours on the street playing that unglamorous style of soccer that has no trophies, no parents, no orange slices and Capri Suns.

Through habitual over-labeling, over-praising, over-coddling, and far too many bail outs over years, players enter the dogfight looking the part with their label and status, pressed kits, flash boots…but often without the requisite spine to support a frame that lacks the intestinal fortitude to compete and enjoy the pursuit of playing with pride.

To me, that can be fun. We’ve crossed a precipice where ‘having fun’ and ‘being serious’ can’t co-exist. Why not? Athletes who excel and seriously commit to the process and pursuit tend to find the outings enjoyable and fun, even if they’re difficult at times.

I don’t know if there’s any call to action here. I certainly can’t and don’t advocate anyone to instruct their kids to go to the sketchy part of town looking for a gritty version of the game the way my friends and I did.

We just wanted to play. We just wanted better because it wasn’t easy for us — so we sought out new challenges.

My hope is simple. Ween players off the Charmin soft, No Fear Shakespeare version of the material and let them wrestle with the real version for a bit. Let them find the answers on their own, in their own time, even if it means struggling. Grant them the room, license, and opportunity to fall down so they can pick themselves up again.

We need to teach players that their soccer education isn’t just something gained the same way our formal educations are — a pay-to-play system that serves a valuable purpose but not without the supplemental learning.

We don’t get this in singular, structured  environments. I learned all the Spanish slang terms thrown my way. I dished out some colorful language as well — especially when I rejoined my ‘organized’ team at the weekend. Those were my friends, yet they were shocked at how competitive and aggressive me and a few other street players were in games that ended with “Two-Four-Six-Eight who do we appreciate?” *Insert the opposing team’s name* and some Capri Suns and orange slices.

Their version of fun was different and that’s OK. It just wasn’t what I wanted from the game during my competitive formation.

In hindsight it was because most of them played soccer once or twice a week in this structured environment with parents, praise, and treats aplenty. It was an extracurricular, maybe even a chore for many. To me, it was life! Where I went, the ball went as well. Walk to school, why not dribble? Go jogging, take the ball and figure out how to run on pavement with a ball at my foot.

I played the majority of my soccer far from the eyes of parents and coaches. I was fortunate to get opportunities in both settings.

Therein is where I began to learn another lesson: self-management. Fun, for me, meant competing in more ways than just the scoreline. Some games, I was a nightmare. Immature, unabashed, youthfully lost. I couldn’t handle losing a tackle or the ball, let alone a game. I had no skill in dialing it down (yet) because I was so used to the competitive nature of playing against people who were older than me, stronger than me, faster and meaner and more skilled than me…and who just plain didn’t like me…’just because’.

All of this helped me.

I had fun playing, competing, battling. The game was fun when I extracted the fun out of it; not when someone told me to ‘go have fun out there’.

There were many days where I questioned why I continued playing street games. The easy answer is because I was one of those players…it became part of a lifestyle (and it beat sitting inside).

Show up, work on skills, play mini-games, work on that weak foot. If nobody else showed up, it didn’t matter.

The more complex answer is I was ambitiously arrogant. As my skill level increased so did my confidence and resiliency. I enjoyed the tussles; enjoyed proving myself. After a while, the struggles lessened and I became used to adversity.

Over the years, I balanced both settings, organized and pickup soccer. Pickup soccer was fun and formative. No coaches, no rules, no real structure expect for letting ourselves explore our personalities and expressing them through our [free]play. Club soccer had the resources, structure, and organization a player needs to improve within a talent pool.

Some days, games would last hours; other days, games would last until a gang of older kids stabbed our ball or kicked it onto Interstate 280. The only rule (and it was unwritten) was to play in that setting one had to pay the entry fee: one had to be resilient. Telling our parents that the other kids were mean or weren’t playing fair did far more damage than dealing with it through self-reliance.

Most of us walked home feeling a belly full of fire for the next game. It was also normal for every kid to wait until they turned the corner to let a few sobs out before getting it together, wiping the tears, grime, and snot away with a tattered sleeve before walking in the house.

Some call it the School of Hard Knocks — I don’t think it was remotely close to that. It was a cultural cauldron we called childhood.

I realize that much of what I’ve told is lost on today’s audience and that, too, is OK. I don’t wish the struggles and overt prejudices we dealt with where I grew up upon anyone. But I also hope we aren’t firmly lodged in an era where our players young and old are made of glass.

Sports shape our personalities in odd ways. I wouldn’t have survived playing with that ragtag group of miscreants if I buckled every day. Many days, I wanted to buckle. And some days, I buckled.

Part of what makes someone who plays soccer a player or baller or competitor are the failures and tough times. With enough rejection comes resiliency. Most of these tough times are tests that challenge the mind and psyche in ways nothing else can.

As a player, you will likely lose more games than you will win. That’s the pull. Coaches will tell you things you don’t want to hear, but you need to listen. You have two choices: buckle under the pressure or be resilient.

At the simplest level, I’d encourage everyone to get out and play the game away from the conventional setting — that version of the game has an empty slot on the team sheet waiting for your name.

Get out, scuff up your kicks, play until the street lights come on, enjoy those blisters and scrapes — you’ve earned them.

A Lesson in Losing and Accountability

Losing comes in many forms. On the simplest level, losing can be thought of not being victorious in meaningful competition. Going one step further, it can mean losing an actual opportunity or chance.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the ‘art’ of having a bad game because there’s a myriad of ways to process and grow from difficult situations. The reality is losing is inevitable and yet, people are reluctant to experience it. Serious players, coaches, professionals in any industry must deal with losing.

What I find troublesome is not losing itself, but the reactions of people who experience loss. Adversity and resiliency are important elements of life. However, after spending the bulk of my life immersed in American soccer circles another element has creeped in that’s more of an indictment of where society places itself: entitlement.

Society in a nutshell:

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You see, people assume others are looking out for your self-interests. In reality, people look out for their own self-interests.

The chances are great that you have dealt with losing on a personal and professional level. These things happen — the world is indiscriminate.

In terms of playing, good players have bad games; great players learn from those bad games. And bad players, well…they let losses and obstacles bulldoze them over and over again. They bury themselves and don’t understand the only way to improve is to grow up, which is painful.

All worthwhile progress requires sweat equity and a pain tax. If this were not true, everyone would snap their fingers and be where they wanted to be — undeservedly so.

Weakness and a lack of intestinal fortitude is pervasive these days and I look across the landscape of the American game and I see a generation of players that need to toughen up (not in the beat-your-chest-show-em-who’s-boss way, either), but I find they aren’t allowed to toughen up.

Why?

Too often, people shelter themselves or their players from adversity. They remove accountability from the equation and thrust blame on others. This is when things like playing time, roster spots, marked progress and improvement become talking points. Is the game littered with bad decision makers? Yes. Is the system seriously flawed? Hell yes it is.

Knowing that, why would you ANYONE leave their own progress up to chance? Why would an individual put total faith into the hands of a club, coach, or club coach whose main source of income is based-on customers (parents) paying the club fees. And let’s not get distracted — this isn’t about pay-to-play, which is not going anywhere.

This is about accountability. Look, believe it or not, players need to be in control of their own development on their own time more than they think. The players who go far are the ones who train, study, and apply themselves to their craft when it’s uncomfortable. Rain, snow, wind, mud — these elemental things do not concern the driven player.

So, what’s the lesson in losing?

Watch this:

People perceive time in funny ways. Some choose (wisely) to live in the present. Others resign themselves to reliving the past. Then there are those who live in the murky world called ‘the future’ — or as we more commonly call it: tomorrow.

The thing about people and more to the point, soccer players (and athletes in general), is it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking of themselves as the ‘finished product’. Such a misguided and warped perception of one’s level is dangerous for a multitude of reasons.

Some think they’ve arrived. Trust me, if you’re reading this, you haven’t arrived. Furthermore, and this might sting a bit — it’s very likely that you’ll never arrive because if you truly dedicate yourself to something…that Process is on-going. Another trap is placing self-worth in trinkets that define the trophy generation. People who do this have a hard time realize the game isn’t just about medals, awards, and superficial types of recognition.

Sure, those are important in the right context. Accountability is more about achievements over a span of time and the acquisition of skills that make navigating the game easier as a player improves.

It’s easy to be lulled into a cyclical mindset — more a pattern of habit and behavior — where a person believes they are done growing. Seriously driven players are never truly done learning, evolving, and yes, losing. Even long after you hang up the boots — when the game is done with you — you’ll still grow; maybe not as a player, but rather as a person.

To that end, you are never done losing.

You will lose when you think you’re winning. You will lose off the field. Losing is an opportunity for growth, self-evaluation, and for true learning. Losing is part of life. It’s also something that can trap people in the past and can shackle them when others make progress.

To evolve, you must learn to lose.

Good players are in a constant state of change and evolution. Objectively bad players tend to remain the same. They make the same mistakes, assume the same things, don the same poor attitudes, weak mentalities, poor character choices, and work in the same things that don’t improve them as competitive players.

Yes, I’m talking about the ones that hear but rarely listen. Perhaps the procrastinating player is a better example. The “I’ll do it tomorrow”-types have literally accumulated so many “I’ll do it tomorrow”-like empty promises to themselves they begin to stack them up.

How many tomorrow’s have become yesterday’s?

How long are you willing to let that happen?

You don’t get those days back.

One of the most important skills is surrounding yourself with people who want you to succeed. For players, this means finding the right coaches/trainers and teammates. For coaches, it means engaging and learning from people with more experience, quality immersive hours in study or on the field, and more robust networks than you have. It means recognizing there are people who want to see you fail and will do as much as possible to see that happen. As a player or coach, you simply can’t let negative life forces hold you back and hole you up.

We exist in times defined by a collective lack of accountability; where people blame others for all things negative. To a degree, that’s the natural exercise and default response; however, it cannot be the exercise or default course of action and train of thought when things go awry.

Being accountable is different for everyone. Some simply don’t have it within themselves to confront the ghost within and sort themselves out. Others are professional deflectors — blaming everything but the true reasons and causes for their perceived or actual lack of progress.

In cycles of non-progress, people will see your progress as their failure.

The reality is soccer is a simple game made complex by the people who play it. Or, in blunt terms, made complicated by one’s failure to do the little things well.

When things go haywire it’s often helpful to go back to basics. It’s often a matter of defining whatever it is where the breakdown occurs. Take training as an example. I’ve yet to meet someone who has defined what training means to them or rather to put an actual definition on something that is the bulk of their experience in the game (you have more training opportunities than actual games in your life).

Train (verb): To exercise according to a set schedule, with the dual objectives of becoming more proficient at that sport, and learning to hate the sport you are working so hard to become good at.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was to adopt a “better than zero” mindset. This is something you need to do on your own time, which adds another challenge.

Here’s an example: a striker is struggling with playing with their back to goal. Their first touch pops up to their throat and their shots are off-balance and well-wide of the mark. Is it an easy fix? For some, maybe; but for others it’s more of a puzzle.

The easy way out is to get frustrated ensuring the whole process falls apart.

This is where the weak-minded and unmotivated crumble.

They are unwilling to get hundreds of repetitions posting up and receiving the ball in various ways. They see a mountain where there is only a series of tiny molehills. They don’t want to work on the little things:

  • initiating contact with the defender,
  • movement to get open,
  • checking their shoulders to know if they can pivot and turn to face them up or have to outplay them to get a shot off,
  • focusing on proper technique when receiving the ball.

Repeating it again and again is an inconvenience. Really? I’d think losing again and again would be…

Put the pieces together, count your reps, and remember: what gets measured gets managed.

Invest and trust the process. Understand you will lose along the way.

Focus on progress…then focus on perfection.

Fitness as a Lifestyle

Running abroad

Last week, my wife and I travelled to Ireland to visit my sister, Laura and her family. On that trip, we made sure we took the time to take in the sights and experiences that travel to other countries affords us. My sister and I share a passion for running. However, her dedication to fitness, self-improvement, running as a lifestyle is on another level, which I tremendously admire. Over the years, she has tinkered and dedicated herself to finding what best works for her — re-calibrations of her training plans, diet, and lifestyle. Her husband, David, has done the same and their lifestyle and quality of life has dramatically improved.

Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains of County Wicklow, Ireland is a small village called Roundwood. The roads in this part of the country (literally the countryside) are basically the width of footpaths in the U.S. and are ridiculously tricky to navigate. They are also perfect for running and training. Rolling hills turn into banked turns and the straightaways are deceptively difficult. The amount of skill it takes to run these roads and hike and climb some of the mountains effectively and safely reminds me of what it takes to be successful in soccer.

sugar loaf west

 

Laura and I have run pretty much every distance together including marathons. We’ve paced one another, each playing ‘the rabbit’ to help the other maintain focus during those difficult stretches of a race or training run. However, last week’s trip revealed something about fitness that is often overlooked — it’s far more effective when it’s a lifestyle, not a chore. 

So how does this relate to soccer?

Mental endurance is as important as physical endurance

Not all fitness is equal. There’s a really good phrase that everyone should remember: The mind leads, the body follows. It’s really more of a mantra, but it relates to one’s mental endurance, which is arguably the trickiest variable. Running the country roads or climbing the Great Sugar Loaf with Laura required mental endurance before it required any physical output. Listening for cars (remember, they’re on the other side of the road), being mindful of your foot placement on unsteady ground, using the appropriate stride length, cadence, and turnover rate to negotiate a hill, corner, ascent, and descent demanded focus.

great sugar loaf

 

The same is true in soccer. Stages of training, match play, and even time away from the field require mindfulness and focus. When the mind goes (due to fatigue, immaturity, stress, anxiety, etc.), technique and tactics usually go, too. A big reason I believe in deep practice, visualization, and repetition training is the way it challenges the mind and body to the point that training simulates game-realistic scenarios and enables players to improve. It doesn’t take long to watch players and figure out who has the mental endurance to value attention to detail in their approach. The great Terry Michler has a great line: “the small things make the biggest difference.”

Fitness should be a lifestyle, not a preseason task

One constant that trips to Europe have revealed is the fitness level of top players (or those who want to be considered ‘top players’) is always remarkably high…even in the offseason. Let me explain: when I was a kid and playing in the Netherlands, we rode our bicycles everywhere. When it rained, we cycled to training. When it was dreadfully hot, windy, or inconvenient, we were on the bicycle. Not once were we subjected to two-a-days, made to run laps for the sake of running laps, or made to do punishment runs.

If we ran laps it was with a ball and it was usually a warm-up or cool-down exercise. Sometimes, running laps with a ball was a dribbling exercise to effectively teach the different technique required to push the ball out in front while accelerating. When we did team runs, they were through the park in small groups or teams with fun objectives like “touch 100 different trees in 15 minutes”. After training, it was back on the bicycle and on to the next adventure.

Some 15 years on, it’s always remarkable how many people depend on their own two feet to get them from Point A to Point B. They’re cycling, running, walking everywhere. Now, I know things are different in the States with distances and public transportation options, but I’m sure there is plenty of carryover that can be applied here.

I went over to England for a few days and found the same was true with most of society — even in Central London. Granted, driving a car is expensive in Europe, the majority of footballers (young and old) were either cycling or jogging through the city streets to football courts, parks, fields, and city squares. I was on a bus in Westminster near the London Eye where I saw guy in his 30s running with a ball in a cinch bag weaving in and out of the tourists, cabbies, and foot traffic. By the time the bus reached Trafalgar Square he was still running. Ten minutes later in Green Park, there he was — tirelessly playing pickup with a group of friends.

footy cage

The takeaway here is fitness is something that has become a hotly-debated subject, and for good reason. We still have coaches putting young players through the meat grinder and running them into the dirt during preseason. Look, I love running. I’ve run marathons and ultra-marathons; however, I’d never advocate some of the crucible-style running practices coaches put their players (many of whom are average players at best and need to be getting as much contact time with a ball as possible instead of running aimlessly) through at the start of a season.

Stealing Time for Fitness

I won’t pretend to know how to calculate all the ‘down-time’ we have in a day. I will, however, tell you from personal experience that a few tweaks here and there will pay massive dividends in short and long term when it comes to fitness.

My sister has a phrase that I’ve come to appreciate: “When it’s a priority to you, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”

It’s no secret that the top players take the time to do the little things well. Whether it’s monitoring their water intake each day, arriving 10-15 minutes earlier (or staying a bit later) to work on their game, eating like a high-performing athlete, getting more sleep each night — the top players are always in state of calibrating their lifestyle around the game.

Some of the best players I’ve worked with literally carve out pockets of time to make these tweaks, which I call ‘stealing time to do the simple things’ (remember Terry Michler’s quote about the little things).

The following are little things I’ve done to help me reach fitness-based goals:

Instead of waking up and checking my phone for emails or getting on social media, I get a 15-30 minute run in; that way, I’ve started my day out with some physical activity after sleeping. Other times, a light stretching (yoga) session before and after doing a quick bodyweight circuit does wonders for the mind and body.

Here’s another ‘trick’ to use: As a player, I was rarely without a ball of some sort. I’d take a ball or mini-ball with me (just put it in my bag or the truck of my car) and get some juggles or a quick kick-around with friends. Years on, I’ve translated this to running and working out. Whether I’m training for a marathon or just trying to get back into shape, I never find myself without a pair of running shoes and workout clothes nearby (I stash some in my car).

When things get really busy, I walk my dogs with my rucksack (with a 25-pound plate inside) on and even walk around the office with it on. Is it weird? You betcha! But does it help me? Absolutely.

The best way to get fit is by playing the game

As an experienced runner, I can tell you that no amount of miles, races, and training blocks directly translate to ‘match fitness’. Honestly, the best way for players to get fit is by playing the game. Does track and road work help build that foundational base? Yes. However, nothing gets a player fit like actual scrimmages and match play. Don’t overcomplicate this thing called fitness. There is no substitute for playing the game.

I accept that in the U.S., there’s a culture of bravado and toughness that has found its way into soccer. At its worst, a ‘running over soccer’ approach does a few things: The unprepared coaches often use running-heavy preseasons as a sort of proving ground for young players that need to be playing. It also deflects from a coach’s lack of functional training material, their ability to effectively manage a training session or block, and takes away from the game itself.

Each time I’ve gone overseas, the players I encountered never really had any sort of preseason running plan. The expectations are simple: show up fit, ready to compete, and ready to learn. This is easy when it’s a lifestyle, not a task to be feared. Footballers enjoy running and the serious ones will show up fit.

Fitness is what works for you

If you’re hellbent on keeping a running log and incorporating all the running your body is capable of into your preparation, that’s perfectly fine if that’s what works for you.

On the other side of the coin, there is NO excuse for a lack of fitness. How fit/unfit you are is literally the ONE thing you can control and if you’re the type of player who wants to leave it up to chance come preseason, that’s on you. You’ll just have no right to complain about the outcomes stemming from work you DID NOT put in when the others (who may not be as talented as you are) did before reporting for team workouts. 

At the end of the day, fitness is what you make of it. I’m not going to denounce running plans and fitness tests in the game — they have their place and they are essential. The point I’m making is one must be mindful to best ensure the fitness being assessed matches the demands of the game the individuals/team will play.

Superman Complex or Savior Syndrome – the Inconvenient Truth about American Soccer

Think of American soccer the way people viewed cars and technology in 1950s science fiction mail-order catalogs. Everyone thought we’d have our flying car by now, right? In essence, the quandary morphs into what I call the ‘Jalopy-to-Flying Car Theory’. The impatient and uninformed firmly believe it’s possible to go from a jalopy to a flying car without iterations. Reality and history have proven otherwise.

American soccer suffers from many ailments – one of them being perception. For the truly invested, these issues are uncomfortable to describe in the same sense as placing toothpick under your big toenail and inexplicably kicking a wall with that same foot-uncomfortable. That’s what this article feels like to write.

For the uninitiated, the sociological and sporting issues of American soccer are ingrained in the fabric of a country used to dominating other sports in global competition. The aim is to win and fast-track accomplishment to the point shortcuts and shortcomings are ignored.

Imagine the U.S. — a nation seeking greatness in world football — as a curious, yet roguish child. This child’s attention is hell-bent on reaching the cookie jar on the top shelf, so much so that interest in finding the quickest way to the top creates a diversion away from all the necessary ingredients strewn about the countertops.

The pursuit trumps the recognition that this child, with some guidance, could learn how to combine the ingredients to make what it covets so much, but that takes time and effort. Leaping on the countertop, stepping over the hot stove and knocking anything in its path aside become priorities in repeated failed attempts to reach the jar.

Perhaps a more measured approach would force them to question the process. The sheer unlikeliness of reaching the top is not due to a lack of effort, but rather a lack of understanding; and who’s to know if that elusive jar even has anything worthwhile inside?

If you look hard enough, you’ll see the game everywhere. Several years ago during graduate school while thumbing through a Modern Classic anthology titled Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies, I found one of those lines that in hindsight, accurately sums up the state of American soccer (but only under the condition that one concedes the issues exist in the first place): “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

The reality is American soccer is not some floundering mess of a sport too delicate to question or criticise; but it is a mess. Its popularity and incongruence is unlike any other sport in the United States in that it is siloed in soccer-mad hotbeds and cultural pockets — both urban and suburban — in ways that systematically create a chasm between those dedicated to improving the game and those taking a more pedestrian interest in it. Where one city or state prides itself on the caliber of the players and teams it produces, others have no idea what the local soccer scene looks like.

This is American soccer. The ingredients (players), instructions (coaches and curriculum), environments (available playing space, leagues) — it’s all there. The process and application (systemic reform top-to-bottom), however, lacks refinement. American soccer exchanges have truly become a pissing match between: “We should not…” and “Yes, we should…”. What comes after the ellipsis doesn’t really matter so much as the fact these conversations occur in the first place.

So, what is holding American soccer back?

For starters, American soccer needs to smash through its self-imposed ceiling. The low-hanging fruit is addressing the system, which is full of barriers, self-imposed ceilings, closed leagues, all in massively competitive sporting landscape with an equally massive landmass.

American soccer is defined by the fiefdoms it is composed of and their collective ability to work against one another to ensure progress comes secondary to unnecessary stagnation. The more troubling truth is the domestic leagues, which were created to presumably help develop the American player, are indulging more than developing.

It’s entirely plausible that the domestic game has reached a point of diminishing returns and is at risk of holding the professional American player back. Historically, this hasn’t been the case. Past iterations of US Men’s National Team (and MLS, A-League, etc) rosters were a good mix of players who had to take the journeyman route to the professional level. Hell, some of them weren’t even considered ‘professional’ or lacked a club and were ‘employed’ and contracted by USSF due to a lack of opportunity.

These players hemmed their development together by scraping through an underfunded, fragmented system, which usually led them to the crucible that is college soccer and ultimately to the professional level as relative underdogs and nobodies. They did all of this when there was no money in the domestic game, a paltry level of support, and a collective negative biases toward the sport from the mainstream demographic. The cacophony of chants and cheers heard at watch parties, in pubs, and in stadiums across the country we’re used to today wasn’t there — the silence, however, was deafening for previous generations of players who played a game America’s collective mainstream sporting consciousness viewed with scorn and apathy.

• • • •

US Soccer MLS

Read  |  The Fermi Paradox of American soccer

• • • •

The national team players from decades past knew struggle, ate failure on a daily basis, and showed back up at the buffet line of adversity for second helpings. When it came to competing with better footballing nations, those generations of players may have lacked the skill, tactical nous and overall ability to play teams off the park, but they weren’t outworked or out-fought. But the game is more than grit and grinding out results.

So what has changed? Football has evolved and so have the values and requisite skill-sets. There is a whole generation of American fans and players that grew up supporting the players who eked by for the chance to ply their trade in a sport the country ridiculed at every opportunity. They know the very sports channels broadcasting soccer today made a mockery of it less than a decade ago.

Players of previous generations weren’t just tough, they were more akin to global footballer than many of the Johnny-come-lately’s who show up to US soccer watch-parties clad in American flag bandanas soaking up the Budweiser-infused sweat oozing from their pores would ever know simply because people ignore the past.

As much as Major League Soccer was designed to help produce and develop the American player – which it did in the first phase of its existence – it can and should be argued that the league has at least partly marginalised this development with expansion, and constructing rosters that have at least (if not more) foreign players than domestic products. Additionally, the marquee foreign players are well-passed their prime. Sure, a few have played well and made a positive impact on the field and helped popularise the game for fans, and this cannot be ignored or devalued. However, they’ve already made their name and their money, and yet, Major League Soccer is relying on a tried and tired business model to sell season tickets, merchandise, and attract casual eyes to its product. In short, MLS is opting for a business model over a sporting model.

In essence, for as much progress as Major League Soccer has made as a business and to a lesser, but very important extent, in the realm of player development, the stark reality is the US is producing capable players, but not the type that can compete and excel in the right competencies the world’s game demands. Additionally, the increase of teams in a league created to further the development of the American player has seen the overall talent level diluted.

Expansion is necessary for any growing league and the implementation of second and third tier leagues plus development leagues to complement the collegiate system – which is going nowhere – is steady progress, but it doesn’t seem to be ticking the right boxes enough.

There’s something lurking in the shadows in American soccer that needs to be exposed. The opportunities and sheer exposure for today’s player in a world that has eyes on everyone and blistered thumbs clicking away at smartphones on social media have done a few things.

Firstly, it’s made every prospective talent a self-appointed celebrity, ensuring they read their own press. Too many young players think they’ve arrived. This makes sense as most of the players in the current system have the money or are the benefactors of those with the funds to help their progress and live in areas with the right coaches and teams.

Secondly, it’s shown players a universe of high-quality play abroad that players 10-15 years ago could only read about, dream about, or see by stepping on a plane bound for destinations unknown with a pocket full of calling cards, a duffle bag and passport in one hand, their hopes and dreams in the other.

The US is producing excellent players; it’s just not producing the right kind of players. And this isn’t about producing blue-collar, terriers who will chase the ball like drones. This is about producing players — the kind that can differentiate between decision-making and problem-solving on the fly. The kind that wants the ball to feet so they can outplay the opponent while retaining possession instead of blasting it out-of-bounds or up the pitch to the other team.

Sure, bravado and bravery are assets, but with the resources, finances and exposure to great soccer in today’s game, the US ought to be producing a lithe blend of capable, complete players that will battle and compete. The American game needs players who will be technicians but who are also willing to become ruthless in the pursuit of victory.

So how do we improve? For starters, one must understand the truly global football ecosystem is a world that cannot be ‘nurfed’. Like many principles governing the natural order of life, the strong tend to feed off the carcasses of the less resilient; burrowing their snouts in the body cavities of the weak. The same is true in football. World football is indiscriminate. Players learn difficult yet valuable lessons growing up on a voracious diet of cutthroat street and park-based sessions.

In this global football ecosystem, the most talented, ruthless and resilient are eventually and inevitably snapped up by feeder clubs through dedicated scouting networks that refine these rough-around-the-edges players into more polished footballers; perhaps even candidates for top academies where talent and all the intangibles of playing ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’ until their feet were raw, their eyes became sullen and mad with passion to play one more game of ‘next goal wins’, and panels of the ball were worn off will pay dividends. This collective experience of struggling and developing an insatiable desire to compete is a player’s currency.

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Villa NYCFC MLS

Read  |  The cost of $100 million

• • • •

Over time skills like creativity, leadership, toughness, intelligence and malleability – which often cannot be taught – are mechanisms of a barter system that serves to funnel out even more footballers. Players are tested to such a degree that the process turns formerly Charmin soft kids who play football into footballing Frankenstein’s foaming at the mouth, ready to be unleashed in the competitive feedlots governed by a ‘best versus best’ ethos. This environment weeds out what cannot compete.

For the US to truly become a powerhouse in the game it must adopt similar principles the world is governed by regarding player development. Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel is one of the most progressive minds in the modern game. He, like his predecessor Jürgen Klopp, never played at the highest level of the professional game, which is likely a major factor in their ability to understand how to get the best out of young players. Tuchel pointed to a few inconvenient truths regarding youth development in an article featuring the development of Leo Messi.

“We are giving young players such spoon-fed solutions and excellence and luxury in their professional and private lives that we are in danger of breeding formulaic footballers — players who can’t problem-solve, who can’t deal with adversity, who don’t know how to cope when things get tough or unpredictable.

“I’d like to make youth team players’ conditions harder: Make them clean boots, ensure that their bus might break down every so often, turn off the dressing room air conditioning, make them play on bumpy, challenging pitches.”

American players don’t normally experience such an upbringing. The journey of the American player has trace elements of this rawness, but historically it typically takes place in the other sports where young players have to claw their way to the top.

Generally, this isn’t the case with American soccer. The sport is based on unique governing and societal principles that have seen it become viewed as an affluent sport since many with money can continue the journey, which all too often dictates who progresses through the ranks of the youth game more than talent and resilience.

Regardless of nationality, all players learn the football journey is a fairy-tale indeed. The reality, however, is for 99 percent of aspiring players anywhere in the world, it’s a fairy-tale that lacks a storybook ending. It is precisely the understanding of that reality the United States needs to grasp. Beyond the semantics, marketing and purchased playing time, when a player emerges from the American system, regardless of their potential, marketability, age, or even ability, the global game and its corresponding standard awaits – and it is unwavering.

To this end, the journey for the American player might be a fairy-tale gone wrong. Beyond the borders of a paradoxical version of the sport, the global standard awaits. One that demands a national playing identity, which is dependent on the type of long-term player development defined by learning over winning at the youth level so that winning is an expectation at the older levels. Perception, again, is everything.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of American soccer the collective incautiousness of a country that pursues and views the world’s game with a ‘paper over the cracks’ approach. For a nation with an alarmingly dominant sporting pedigree and history, it’s astounding how many simply cannot, will not, and do not understand the implications of two non-negotiables of world football. The first: the process is simple, the application is hard; and the second (really an extension of the first principle): setting goals and meeting goals is a simple thing, but it’s not easy.

American soccer’s origins date back to the 1860s, yet for some reason the US seems to believe all good things will come to pass with a fractured system and the accommodation of anti-competitive league models and winning over development practices. Such a notion is akin to the infinite monkey theorem, which metaphorically states that a monkey randomly mashing the keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce a given text like the complete works of William Shakespeare with a degree of certainty. Under the current practices, this is American soccer (recall, if you look hard enough, football appears everywhere). It cannot and will not reach a higher level without a more dogged approach that ties the top to the bottom.

Perhaps it starts with accessibility. Turning unused real estate into soccer cages, free for any and all to play, which takes initiative and city planning, can be done. It might take more corporate funding to help staff and stock clubs and academies with dedicated staff or the freeing up of monies to help alleviate pay-to-play, which is not going away. The promising aspect of these elements is they are being discussed and even addressed, just not on a national scale yet. The Development Academies are starting to produce the talent expected from that system subset, which will raise the baseline level of talent across all spectrums of the game.

• • • •

MLS

Read  |  Can MLS produce its own Lionel Messi? (No, it can’t)

• • • •

As it’s come to pass, the self-imposed ceiling on soccer has defined and affected the sport in every way possible. Every generation of players produces a few raw gems that have the weight of the sport’s success or failure placed on their shoulders. These players, whose talents are perceived to be ‘world class’ to Americans  – based on marketability, proximal and distal competition and player pools, and the actual eyes assessing their ability – are generally considered average abroad.

Where those hopes and dreams once broke the collar bones of a certain 14-year old that MLS turned into marketing collateral and fodder, it now turns to a 17-year old American playing in the Bundesliga. Before them, there are numerous episodes of collateral damage to potential careers strewn across modern American soccer’s storyline be it a dual-national selecting or supposedly snubbing the US.

Such a process has seen promising players flame-out once they step onto that plane to go abroad and this process is continual, cyclical and cynical. In essence, American soccer is still waiting for its own version of Superman to save it. The truth, however, is that American soccer is going to need a lot more than Superman. Why? Simply because it doesn’t need ‘saving’ so much as it needs to be tested in the waters of brutal competition both domestically with its league structure and play extending from the academy level to the professional level.

If American soccer hinges its hopes on Superman to save it, then it must rid itself of the kryptonite. In the past, that kryptonite was the nation’s perceived attitude of apathy regarding a sport championed and dominated by immigrants during a time when nationalism and patriotic pride aimed to separate Americans and their sporting ideals into a divisive “us vs. them” mentality. In his 1945 essay, The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell attempted to explain behaviour and the influential nature of sport:

“Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.

“Also, organised games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative labour.”

Such nationalistic Groupthink is dangerous — even today. At its very core, soccer is as much a sport as it is a cultural mechanism. A culture that loves soccer exists; however a culture that demands better practices for its soccer has yet to take root in the US. The existing soccer’s directive is centred on protectionism and shrouded in self-limiting its product over all else.

For example, Major League Soccer, a single entity league operating as a central unit, controls much of the narrative of the American game. The media, the level of play, the pageantry, all of it is popular, but none of it seems authentic to American eyes that were wide open before 1996. When the assembly of American soccer fans expect national team players to have competent baseline technical ability, the league swoops in to protect the asset.

The audaciousness of the American game is also a dangerous agent. When a country’s sporting values hinge on entertaining over evolving, assumptions replace realistic goals. Many will point to the fact the United States has produced what it believes are world-class players and teams. And even more will point to unfair biases towards American players and coaches (true or not) as reasons bordering on excuses as to why the country doesn’t produce the calibre of player that can be inserted into the world’s top sides week-in and week-out or produce senior national teams that don’t just compete, but win against the game’s powerhouses.

Whether American soccer is waiting for Superman or suffering from a self-imposed, self-limiting saviour complex (or both), it’s time for the US to quit straddling both sides of American soccer’s proverbial fence, where the perception of soccer being a ‘young, vulnerable sport that could disappear if the establishment is questioned’ must dissipate, while concurrently, aggressively and foolishly expecting whomever is in charge of the sport’s direction to accomplish rapid advancement bordering on a quantum leap to reach the top levels of the game.

One thing is certain, the US must focus on looking inward instead of outward to resolve the problem, so to speak. Until it can confront the ghost – the boogeyman in the closet – by owning and aiming to correct its faults, we’ll be having these discussions in a few years when another generation of talent withers on the vine and masses of American fans look to another emerging generation’s starlets and dub one of them Superman while bottle-feeding him kryptonite.

Again, perception is everything.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

The Art of Self-Sabotage

*This post will focus on players, but the principles mentioned can (and should) be applied to coaching as well. 

Players and coaches think they know how to improve; but their actions and the corresponding results (both literally and holistically) often suggest otherwise.

Here’s why: far too many players train their perceived strengths way too much, way too often, and for way too long. Additionally, they’re training the wrong skills way too much, way too often, and for way too long.

Don’t believe me?

Players and teams usually train to their strengths because they can get more accomplished in limited amounts of time, can enjoy the session, and opt to bypass the ‘pain-points’ in the pursuit of ‘winning’ soccer. This is why many players, given the choice, will shoot wildly at the goal before working on some basic foundational activation exercises before training. This may also be why some players will watch hours and hours of YouTube clips featuring the best freestyle footballers on the planet, yet can’t watch 90 minutes of a televised game uninterrupted.

Think about it — when was the last time you worked on what you were worst at long enough and focused enough to make any progress? When was the last time you deconstructed your game to the point where you could rebuild it? Imagine the game is a long distance foot race. You’d love to just be fit, but you know that you have to attack the root of the problem day after day so that on race day, your strengths will shine through. That means doing the real work. Much like with running, you can’t fake your way to the top in soccer — you will be found out.

This is where self-sabotage can help. The accepted definition of self-sabotage as a psychological phrase is rooted in the belief that engaging in certain behavior(s) create(s) problems and interfere(s) with long-standing goals.

Scenario: My left foot isn’t that great, but I’m very good with my right foot and it’s gotten me this far so why train the left?

Reality: The further you go in the game, the more you’ll be required to use both feet with proficiency because if you can’t someone else can and will.

Players of all levels will do anything to avoid self-sabotage; and if you subscribe the strictly psychological viewpoint, that’s a good thing, right?

Not quite; think of all the questions centered-around training practices and methodologies we are inundated with in this age of information. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a flood of fancy rondos and it’s tempting to work only on the glamorous elements like shooting and learning a new skill that will no doubt ‘wow’ teammates and parents alike.

I’ve said it before, but when you decide to get out of our own way, you’ll make positive progress.

How often do you act against your self-interest only to later ask yourself why you self-destructed when the moment mattered most.

Why did you flub that shot in front of goal? Oh, it was on your weaker foot, huh?

Why can’t you connect a pass over distance with confidence and some degree of precision? Oh, you spent hours playing video games instead of training that skill.

After all, the chances are great that you’ve spent hours blasting a ball at the net with a horde of teammates before training and have passed to teammates countless times with your dominate foot…but are those ‘skills’ what you really need to work on?

Hint: things go wrong when the game presents a challenge you didn’t prepare for…

For me, the disconnect is most prevalent and impactful in two phases: Perspective and Application. In the Perspective phase, players operate within the realm of their collective and perceived strengths — ‘I think I have a great shot; therefore I will dedicate hours exclusively to shooting with my dominant foot’. Very seldom do they intentionally work on their weaknesses (more on this later).

This pattern doesn’t make the Application phase difficult to carry-out — no, it makes it difficult to even reach! 

Allow me to remove the discussion from soccer to help explain.

I was 12-years old the first time I shot a compound bow, my target was a rubber bull elk in a simulation course. The target moved slowly and a recording of the bull elk bugling created a cacophony of chaos. I notched a carbon core arrow, clipped the release hook into the slot on the bow string. I exhaled, rested the bow in the fleshy webbing between my thumb and index finger, checking the balance bubble to ensure the bow was level.

I located the 35-yard pin in my sight and drew back with my release trigger finger far away from the trigger. Pulling until my back muscles tightened and my breath trembled until I hit the let-off point. There, I relaxed…until the target started moving. My body tensed up, my breath quickened, and my heart started beat through my ribcage because something was happening that I had not prepared for nor had I imagined. In essence, I had no idea how to handle something unpredictable happening. I released an arrow traveling at 300-feet per second. The bull elk target awaited my arrow — and it’d have to wait longer.

You see, in my excitement and impatience, I’d let my balance waver and the overall task break down into several different imperfect tasks. I was arrogant enough to believe that in my mind, since I had done everything ‘right’, that I would still hit the target. Perception. My folly was I had failed at the penultimate moment, the one that mattered most. Application.

However, the real mistake was much worse: I believed myself to be right and the bow to be wrong. I believed that what I felt or what I thought I felt was a better indicator than what simply was. What an invaluable lesson.

My self-sabotage was complete when I shot arrow after arrow — sometimes hitting the target irresponsibly and unethically (this would maim an animal in a real hunt) as my frustration detracted me from taking the ‘right’ shot so I could instead take ‘any’ shot. That sounds oddly familiar to the sideline of a soccer game: a player gets within 40-yards of the opponent’s goal and the ignorant scream SHOOT IT! because they want ‘any’ shot instead of the ‘right’ shot. And, they’ll do this over and over again (see: definition of insanity)

My uncle, an experienced bow hunter, finally stepped in, stopped me and talked me through the process until it became processes.

Now, let’s apply this soccer. Serious players don’t just want to get better (‘everyone wants everything’) — they are willing to embrace the difficult things. Most do all the build-up tasks correctly, but fall short at that critical moment.

Here’s how self-sabotage can be used to help instead of hinder.

Step 1. Find the things you’re terrible at and do them over and over. When you’re done, and you’re a little less terrible at them, repeat the process. When that weakness is strength, find a new weakness. Repeat.

Step 2. Stop spending so much time on the things that you’re already great at; work at them, yes — but it’s THOSE other skills — your weaknesses — that you need to work on until the street lights flicker on.

A certain degree of self-sabotage is required for you to improve as a player and as a ‘task servant’; because that’s what you are — someone who carries out tasks for the betterment of your team. To get to the level of “servant”, you need to toil away at the unglamorous and uncomfortable. It’s been said before but real progress begins where your comfort zone ends.

This isn’t about doing the mundane, idiotic things over and over again like a robot with a pulse. This is about real work. This is about finding out what you’re made of by putting yourself through challenges that only you can overcome. Too often we want to succeed the first time we do something. We look at a superior player and think: I want to that by the next time I play…

Nonsense. That’s an insane place to take yourself. It’s unrealistic — and many are conditioned unrealistic in the pursuit of mastery in a given discipline.

There is a reason excellent: musicians, writers, runners, swimmers, weight lifters, carpenters, artists, and footballers continue toiling away at the basics and keep those hopes (or delusions) of grandeur within grasp but at arm’s length — it’s because they’re not arrogant nor are they ignorant enough to run before they can walk.

In fact, the really good ones embrace the crawl across the dirty floor, scraping their bellies on the gravel and glass of a thousands failed attempts and shattered dreams — only to get to the point where that crawl is mastered.

Then they walk, but not they don’t walk far because like all great journeys and the associated challenges accompanying those journeys, they get tripped up and trampled.

Then they either quit or they get up. And again they crawl, then walk, then get tripped up, and they repeat this process over and over. However, the more they toil away…the more they challenge themselves, chase their own shadows as they train alone in the moonlight, the more they wake up before the alarm clock, the more they wrap their split shoes up with fresh strips of duct tape…the closer they get to running.

Once someone who’s willingly been through that vicious cycle emerges, the harder and faster they’re going to be able to run. That means approaching the game a bit differently than you did before. Instead of working on that amazing shot, work on the half-turn with the ball and that burst of speed to open up space so you can take that shot. Instead of watching hours of video clips of players who don’t defend pannas (nutmegs), work on perfecting that first touch — with your weaker foot.

Understand that the majority of the people you encounter will see you making progress while they (or their kids) stagnate. They’ll claim you’re too hardcore, selfish, harsh and abrasive.

The best case scenario is they’re right and you ignore them and leave them in the wake of your progress and in your rear-view mirror.

The worst case scenario is you listen to the peanut gallery and let them infest your mind and live there rent free, which is on you, not them. These people are scared of excellence. And they want you to stay where they are because seeing you succeed reminds them of their shortcomings; they don’t want to choke on your exhaust fumes any longer.

They’d rather you don’t make progress not because you’ll get too far ahead, but because they fear being left behind.

Those people are in it for different reasons.

These people are not part of your journey.

You will outgrow them and if you aren’t or don’t envision this, you’re likely already falling behind.

Find a task you’re terrible at and do it until you’re not terrible at it. Repeat.