Far Post Footy

Explore the Edge of your Limits

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

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

But what happens when personal progress stagnates and plateaus?

What happens when progression turns to regression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

The End Product is Only Part of the Story

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

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

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

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

It looks easy, but it’s not.

It’s something else.

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

The behind the scenes efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is risky and it’s dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

This is honorable in my opinion.

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

Doing the hard thing is often the right thing.


Technical Development Materials available on Amazon

Photo by Logan Fisher on Unsplash

Lost in a Performance

For as long as I can remember, I’ve replayed scenarios and sequences of games gone awry in painful detail; to the point I have to wonder if what I am accessing and recalling is what actually happened — or is it merely a subjective rendition of the performance?

Personally, as I got older and the stakes in the game got higher, the practice of assessing performances extended to training sessions in addition to match play. The exploration of the minutia is a double-edge sword with a faulty hilt because one cannot hold onto such moments, nor can they wield them in actuality.

I’ve always taken note how the players that I coach reflect on their performance — if they do so at all. For most, it’s not really a reflection but more of a reaction — a momentary outburst in the moment. For others, it’s a practice of self-immolation whereby they douse themselves with vats of criticism before anyone else can.

This type of reflection is a deep practice and quite a personal one.

Instances in a game gone astray can be broken down to a series of highlights detailing individual mistakes or triumphs. What is quite perplexing, however, is the perception of  the performances often become a staple for players at a young age — especially if they are playing in competitive environments. Naturally, coaches play a role, too. Although, perhaps the biggest of these factors is the interaction between a player and their parent(s).

Of course, there is value in self-analyzing one’s individual performance as long as it presents opportunities to learn and to eventually improve.

But, this is seldom how it works.

Most people have heard the phrase paralysis by analysis, and it’s an important one to comprehend. Analysis framed in objectivity is a powerful tool. When that analysis is doused in the waters of subjectivity it often marinates in negativity and obsessive self-critique cycles. Additional input from coaches and parents who are not playing, developing, and learning the game often splatters confusion on the canvas of a player’s mind.

Such feedback loops can prove toxic and permanent in the long run.

Recently, I returned to the field of competition after taking time off from playing when my first son was born. Although I have been on countless training pitches putting in hundreds of hours in training settings — as a coach. But when I took the field again as a player I found myself caught in that same old feedback loop from my youth — just like the players I coach find themselves in now — replaying sequences and scenarios again and again.

So, I decided to explore this more. I found that the highlight reel of plays, both good and bad, droned on in my head during my commute. Instances flickered behind my eyelids when I’d lay down to sleep.

I thought to myself, is this really happening again? Me, a grown man, caught in the cyclical storm of performance contemplation.

Two games later, my performances began to improve as the pace of the game and chemistry with my teammates developed again. Oftentimes, the fail-point or performance fault-line was the result of a lack of synchronicity between teammates. I took note that these instances, if not kept in-check and managed properly extended into the land of hypothetical and extraneous situations, which did not help me gain any positive insight or any opportunity to extend my learning. I reminded myself that one should often worry most about that which they can directly control. Those elements that are out of our control tend to muddy the already murky waters ever more.

Personally, this whole episodic return to my playing days and all the feelings and reflections associated with those days led me to conduct an experiment of sorts. I wondered why I was so affected by performances on the field but not so much to other pursuits of mine such as running.

Fast-forward to a few days later, after a shorter race that I used as a simulation for an upcoming marathon. After the race, I walked around and took in the scenes, talked to other runners, recalled moments of triumph and struggle, and separated from the event with relative ease. Later, when I reviewed my mileage analytics and running metrics — all objective analysis — I found that the race performance was decent given the training I put in and my fitness levels and experience running road races. Overall, it was not great but not terrible. But something was different — I was completely at peace with the performance.

I hit my splits. I felt so-so. I handled the conditions the best I could on the day. I ran well and certainly accomplished my goal of getting time on the legs and miles under my belt in a race setting.

Suddenly, the lightbulb flashed on in my head.

The obvious takeaway is competition. On the field, it’s 90 minutes of antagonism between two teams where the result often hinges on the outcomes of the individual battles on the field. In running, for example, I am not competing with elites nor am I really making decisions and competing in ways that determine the outcome for anyone but myself.

Yes, it’s intense and physically demanding — but it’s not soccer.

The second epiphany is a bit more intriguing:

When I really think back, it turns out I was never analyzing my on-field performances. I was never really contemplating these flash-points of games long since consigned to memory.

I was being consumed by performance.

Somewhere during our development as competitive players, we face the barrage of questions from teammates, parents, coaches, and ourselves about what transpired on the field — often on the car ride home or at the kitchen table that same day. That barrage becomes an echo chamber that serves as a cacophony of assumptions and harsh judgments tethered to moments that are long gone — if they even happened as we remember or as they’ve been recounted to us.

There is value in considering a few elements.

Firstly, players ought to understand that it’s entirely possible and plausible that they could perform at very high levels and do everything well and still lose the game. That’s a big aspect.

The second element is understanding the variances affecting performance are many and some are out of a player’s control.

Assessing performance is valuable but we must not make ourselves into tragic heroes of our own mythology — chaining one’s self to the crag while an eagle tears out your liver each day is more of a hindrance than a help. Players often punish themselves before anyone can do it for them, which is telling of the true values of the current soccer ecosystem.

And yes, winning is important. Performance, however, is different from winning and losing. This is why it’s important for coaches and parents to applaud effort before outcome for young players. Performances will undoubtedly consume players — that’s because competitive players care about outcome and execution and winning games. Losing and having flaws and weaknesses exposed hurts, and the competitive part of a player’s DNA sees those as reflections of themselves.

Additionally, those negative outcomes tend to affect a player’s enjoyment level, too.

Players need to tread carefully as there are two dangerous avenues that I’ll highlight that get way too much traffic.

The first one is what I call the Atlas Effect. All too often, players volunteer themselves to be Atlas and put the weight of the world on their backs and shoulder the responsibility of everyone and everything that occurred. This is a bizarre practice but it’s tied to the concept of ownership and accountability. If not kept in check, the Atlas Effect becomes a default setting and is perceived as a grandstand or failure to extract the important elements from an individual performance.

Go to any youth game or training and you will often hear the repetitive echoes of “my bad” for any and every mistake regardless of degree and placement on the field. “My bad” is a conditioned response that’s borderline theatric, which has become part of the soccer player’s lexicon.

The second avenue is arguably more dangerous. That is the avenue of avoidance and apathy. Players who tune-out performances and don’t own their contributions or actions on the field perhaps out of fear or true apathy. This is a poisonous cycle that usually results in internal strife and external conflict.

Performance is a tricky element. There are team and individual performances to account for, so players and coaches must be careful in assessing and reflecting. Give performances time to breathe. Learn to let them go if they begin to consume your mind and action. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last performance” or something to that effect. Be careful with that one.

Think of performances as opportunities to learn. The moments are gone, so it’s best to extract the usable data and reflect on them objectively. After all, there’s an art to having a bad game as much as there’s skill in learning to move on.

 

Image credit: @anthonytori via unsplash.com

For Jim…

Driving to work yesterday, August 13, was a bit different. It was my 34th birthday and the traffic was heavier than usual as school resumed. I stared at my phone more than I’d like to admit as it navigated the best path to escape the choke-points in the traffic. It wasn’t the GPS that I was looking at, though. I was waiting for a phone call — one that I received every year on my birthday from Jim Hart.

That call never came.

You see, Jim was never afraid to pick-up the phone and talk — sometimes at odd hours of the night or morning. Often, what should have been a ten minute conversation morphed into a two-hour discussion about the game, teams, coaching, These Football Times, and Chelsea or Liverpool Football Club. Jim loved a good chat.

Whenever I’d meet Jim we shared stories over pints of beer with an occasional foray onto the bourbon trail of whatever establishment was crazy enough to let us hang out. Jim was a man of stories from his extensive travels and his experiences were rich in imagery and visceral emotion.

Over the years, Jim would send me a text or email and it was as though his excitement jumped off the screen. You could tell he was itching to talk because his messages were full of funny typos. I can imagine him typing it out — he’d fat-finger a word here or there — no backspacing necessary. He’d just fire it off to his friends. As a writer in the football world and also in the corporate world, this annoyed me in the most hilarious of ways.

That was Jim.

I thought he was just messing with me because he know how much I was a stickler for grammar and sentence construction.

He knew how much I value writing for These Football Times and I knew how much he valued his friends.

And that’s where we should probably start. Jim reached out to me many years ago when he discovered my writing on Far Post Footy and then on These Football Times. He sent a few emails to me commending the quality of my work. Usually, those emails from people with funny aliases in their email addresses (Victor Scamorza was indeed a funny character!) raise an eyebrow before getting deleted. But there was something sincere in Jim’s tone. He was serious and genuine.

He always signed-off his emails with: “Your friend, Jim”.

I remember our first phone call. I was at a Toys R Us near Chicago buying my niece a gift. He called and I was surprised that to hear a voice much softer and older than I imagined. He told me about his time traveling the world and how he discovered football and how it brought him peace in his life. He told me stories about the game — each that could stand alone as a documentary or feature article itself.

As the years went by, Jim and I started a non-profit organization with the help of some other friends with the goal of providing outlets for underserved communities and coaches to enjoy the game. He didn’t want to produce professional players. He didn’t want a penny in return. He wanted to bring happiness to the people. He wanted to use the game as the vehicle to deliver that happiness. And he did.

As I continued writing for TFT, Jim saw the brilliance of the platform and wanted to get involved so I introduced him to a man I owe so much of my success to in Omar Saleem. Omar published my articles from day one and he helped me believe I could change the world with the power of the pen, so to speak. In fact, he may not know it but it was Omar who pulled me out of the depths of a deep depression many years ago. His encouragement continues to turn TFT writers into true champions of the craft. And so it was Omar that gave me the platform to write. It felt only natural that Jim and Omar be introduced and eventually meet and work their magic together.

So much has been said about Jim’s impact not only on the game, but in people’s lives. He would give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. Time and time again, he offered to pay for those with no means to pay. His generosity is a rarity in this world. He did it all out of love.

Jim was my podcast partner. We hosted what seems like hundreds of podcasts on a variety of platforms together. We’d wake up at 2 a.m. to call the other so we could interview someone on the other side of the planet. We joked about my dogs and his cats making noise on the podcasts, which he nicknamed “Pet Sounds”. We had a cadence and chemistry on the podcasts that made three hours seem like three minutes.

One of my favorite memories is waking up at 2 or 3 a.m. and having to call Jim 20 times so we could get Andrew Flint on a call for a podcast. It was Jim’s idea to do the podcast and the guy slept in!

“What time is it in Russia?” I asked.

“Shit, I don’t even know what time it is in my house!” Jim responded.

When my son was born, he asked about him frequently. He told me how lucky my son was to have me as a father. He thought the world of my wife, Sara. Jim and I spoke recently about putting together some ideas for These Football Times. We wanted to write a book together. Jim spoke fondly of every writer at These Football Times. He adored Omar like a brother. He wanted the best for all the writers.

Many may or may not know this, but Jim had discovered a zest for travel writing. He planned to travel to different football stadiums and venues and write about his experiences. Jim’s free spirit and encyclopedic knowledge on all things Grateful Dead, Chelsea Football Club, Calcio, politics, and computer science were truly magical.

We did our best to understand one another beyond the football. Jim and I spoke about the ups and downs of life. His love for classic and folk rock music always intrigued me. His stories of days surfing some major swells or climbing yet another mountain were not boastful — he truly believed in the human spirit.

I am forever grateful to have known Jim.

To some, he was the gentle voice of The Lob or a Year Zero Talk.

To others, he was one of the brilliant minds behind the magic at These Football Times.

Many will remember him as the hilarious man on social media that chimed in on a debate, stirred the pot, and of course, who built bridges and connected people.

Jim was my friend. I will miss him dearly.

This song is dedicated to Jim Hart — a true gentleman.

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
Good night and joy be to you all

Shopkeepers and Footballers

 

The following is a list of ideas and phrases I developed, found, culled from speeches/articles/podcasts/life over a year ago. I never got around to publishing them or much of anything. Most of this is both life and sport related. It’s all relative to improvement and development. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be the end-all-be-all of any one particular school of thinking. It’s just a collection of thoughts — that’s it.

  1. Players and coaches both need to understand and live this phrase: “In order to have, you have to do. In order to do, you have to be.” In other words, to achieve any sense of trust, you have to perform trustworthy actions. In order to do that, you have to be inherently trustworthy. The big caveat and universal truth of this statement is you can and should replace the word “trust” with any actionable quality and adjective. Think: greatness, powerful, talented, dedicated, committed, disciplined, etc.
  2. External competition is a misnomer. Before you can compete externally, you must first learn to compete internally. That is, you must have a purpose — one that drives you to be better than previous versions of yourself. However, competition as an action is less of a battle than it is a leveling-up process. Competition is the introduction of adversity. When done correctly, this is a net positive.
  3. Everything within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  4. “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”  Not everything is about direct instruction and the dependency on it. Players are conditioned to only accept direct instruction, coaches are conditioned to only deliver it. Not everything is ready to be taught when we want to teach it…it takes time and it takes rounds of failure. When both parties are receptive and engaged — progress begins.
  5. The job of a player/coach is the same as a shopkeeper. It’s up to you to open the shop every day. One cannot be successful if they aren’t open for business and aren’t willing to partake in commerce — the exchange of time, ideas, and energy — on a daily basis. If the shop is closed, there is no commerce.
  6. Mentorships: Not every player, coach, or individual is worthy of mentorship. It is NOT a coach’s job to mentor someone if it becomes clear that whatever it is you’re trying to help them with isn’t a priority to them. If you can say, “This is just not important enough for you,” to their face and stand by that assertion, it’s time to cut them loose and move on. Without commitment and reciprocation and application, the pupil is not willing to learn. See point 4.
  7. How to deal with a great apple turning into a bad apple. Give advice, give guidance, but be wary of that one bad apple that threatens to spoil the bunch. Remove it before it’s too late. You’re doing both parties a great service with clear communication and blunt and honest messaging.
  8. On Groupthink: Too many people think they have an entourage but in reality the entourage has them. Influencers will take over. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially in team dynamics. Engage in critical thinking. Be creative. Be an independent and free thinker. Challenge your own ideas before you blindly accept them as infallible.
  9. Relationships MUST be built on trust and they MUST be voluntary. Teammates have to trust one another. Coaches have to trust their players and players must trust their coach and his/her intentions and philosophy. The one relationship that’s most overlooked, however, is the relationship with the self. This relationship is often the hardest to maintain, manage, and care for as it’s also the most important relationship we have.
  10. RESISTANCE: Introduce and overcome resistance — that’s what professionals do. Avoidance of things that challenge us is damaging to our development.
  11. “Seek first to understand then to be understood”: It’s easy to criticize that which we do not understand or accept on the surface. Conducting a self-inventory and analysis of not just what we don’t understand, but also why we don’t understand something is a valuable lesson in intentional thinking, patience, and maturity.
  12. It’s much easier to define what you’re against than it is to define what you’re for: see number 11.
  13. What you think is way less important than how you think: see number 11.
  14. Strategy without execution is ineffective. An average strategy with great execution is far more effective and greater than a great strategy with poor execution. Related: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit” — Henry Rollins. Experience is king.
  15. One person can change the world for the better so long as they don’t care who gets the credit. This saying is found in a number of different texts in a variety of different phrasings. The truth remains constant. Focus on progress and development more than focusing on getting credit. People will focus on the result over the method most of the time anyway.
  16. What gets measured gets managed. Get your reps in. Repeat. I’ve always subscribed to this methodology in most aspects of playing, training, studying, working, coaching and life in general. Obviously, quality over quantity is a factor but there is little wrong with repping out on the good things in life.
  17. Focus on progress, not perfection. This is simple. Adopt a “better than zero” mindset. Positive changes arrive incrementally. Work on moving the needle a little bit at a time. Whatever you do, just keep going.
  18. We must to become experts in becoming an expert. Work on the process…to find a solution, we need to learn how to work the problem. Study, apply, fail often, repeat. There is a lesson to be learned — you just have to look a bit harder.
  19. Use the extreme to reveal the subtle. Illustrate points and teachable moments with care and clarity. We are stubborn creatures. Oftentimes, it’s best to see the dramatic outcome of a poor decision or a series of poor decisions or behaviors to really reveal what’s causing them in the first place.
  20. There’s a difference between a person who’s “being there” and who’s “just there”. There’s a difference between being fit and being a good fit.
  21. The key is measuring character, resolve, ability, skill is NOT when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our worst.
  22. Treat people like a rubber band. If you constantly stretch it too much, it will snap. If you carefully stretch it to the brink while being mindful not to cause too much stress, it doesn’t snap. It becomes more pliable.
  23. Don’t look back. We aren’t going that way. Remember that it’s important to reflect and learn from the past, but we can’t go back nor should we try to…don’t dwell on the things that cannot and will not change. The sooner you realize it’s never going to be the same again the faster you can begin to make progress and ensure a better future.
  24. “It’s not what you say…it’s what they hear”. Choose your words, choose your tone, choose your delivery method.
  25. “Skill that is untested does not equate to actual skill.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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.

—-

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.

fullsizerender-3

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

<head>//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({
google_ad_client: “ca-pub-4040752593775716”,
enable_page_level_ads: true
});
</head>

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 

 

<head>//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({
google_ad_client: “ca-pub-4040752593775716”,
enable_page_level_ads: true
});
</head>

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.”