For as long as I can remember, soccer in the United States has been littered with snake oil salesmen posing as experts, coaches, and resources. The first time I noticed the hokey ploys that reinforced soccer was somehow destined to remain perceived as a mainly a middle class suburban sport was at youth soccer tournaments. Growing up in Northern California and playing in ethnic leagues, this troubled me. When I moved to Chicago, it annoyed the hell out of me. Inevitably, people made their way over to the tents filled with overstock merchandise and tournament t-shirts.
Predictably, kids and parents flocked to these makeshift merchandise marts and proudly exited wearing some of the dumbest shirts and clutching the stupidest devices and gadgets I’d ever seen. The shirts had sayings that read, “Soccer Mom” or “7 Days without Soccer Makes One Weak” and other inane, cringe worthy phrases and adorned with the token image of a black and white hexagonal ball, even though I don’t think I’ve ever played with one that looked like that. Perhaps growing up with parents who worked incredibly hard and did the most with scant resources conditioned me to scoff at these charlatans.
In many ways, I’m fortunate to have been part of a generation that didn’t grow up with a cell phone. I didn’t receive my first cell phone until I graduated high school and it was purely used for phone calls and simple text messages (which, were charged “by the text” back then). As odd as it may sound, I’m fortunate to have grown up in a time when the world was still a mysterious and big place.
I’m fortunate because constant distractions didn’t flood my day and threaten to detract me from my goals. Sure, there were distractions, but nothing like what young players are faced with today. I recall having a conversation with one of the area’s top club coaches. I didn’t play for him and he knew me because he and my uncle attended the same college.
Every so often, I’d see him watching my games. He wore a pair of muddy work boots, had an unkempt beard, a pair of blue jeans, a tattered Chicago Sting t-shirt and a Carhartt jacket. I think he might have lived in his pickup truck. He was a man who didn’t subscribe to the flashy status quo. Occasionally, he’d invite me to train with his team comprised of players en route to some of the nation’s top universities and one slated to join the then Nike-sponsored program Project-40 (now Generation Adidas). I could have sworn he brought me to train with his team just to frustrate me, but in reality it was to help me see where the bar was set for the area’s top talent — and where I was. And boy, was there a gulf in age and ability.
I vividly remember the conversation.
“If you want to continue to develop you need to find a squad where you’ll be the worst player. I bring you in to train with my older guys because their speed of play and ability is just the bare minimum of where you need to be.”
I nodded and felt a bit uneasy because I knew this well before he told me. He continued.
“Each day those bastards battle. They hate losing. They might even hate each other. And I don’t care. The list of guys trying to be on their game and tournament roster is longer than you can imagine. You happen to be three years younger than most of those guys, so I don’t mind inviting you.”
I looked down at the ground, processing the message. He ended with one final message.
“You aren’t doing enough to improve. If you’re not giving up something to play this game,” he started.
“Like what?” I interjected.
“Like sleep. Going out with your friends. Watching TV. If it’s a distraction and you follow it, you’ll go nowhere. You have to become ruthless and force to be reckoned with. Those players don’t fear pissing you off. They won’t get disappointed if they let you down. There’s a reason. You’d better get a fire burning in your belly, son.”
After a fair amount of sessions getting the shit kicked out of me with this older team, a few things clicked:
1. There is no shortcut to improvement. There are ways to expedite your progress, but taking shortcuts is for fools. I learned early on to do the little things really well. That made the complex parts of the game seem easy.
2. In order to get you have to give. Or give something up. Although this coach didn’t tell me exactly how to do what he asked, I began to figure it out. That meant getting up at 5 am, sneaking out early to dribble a soccer ball through my neighborhood to a park where I’d work on my deficiencies for an hour or so before school. After training and dinner, I went back out on my own. It was my way of doing what I could with limited resources and access to the game everywhere else.
3. Unpopularity was a good thing. As much as social interactions are important there has to be a point when a player decides to make sacrifices to better their level of play. These sacrifices aren’t popular, they aren’t glamorous, and they aren’t rewarded until years down the road.
4. When you see things like this:
Take a moment to laugh and then take a moment to understand that improvement and real progress, happens away from the smartphone, the television, the computer, and the video games. There is no substitute for getting out there and working.
5. Intensity is a lost art. Parents and players assume intensity is bad. It’s not. Controlled and useful intensity should permeate all facets of a player’s preparatory work and match performance.
6. Whenever I returned to my age-level team, I was a man possessed and raised my own play so that my teammates had little choice but to do the same. I wasn’t popular at times. I demanded more from myself and my teammates and I learned to channel that intensity while turning it on and off. After training or games, it was done. However, during training or games, diesel fuel coursed through my veins. Over the years, most of my teammates had similar qualities as I progressed through the game, which is what happens. The farther along you get, the more everyone else matches one another’s intensity and qualities.
6. Excellence is not available in the App Store. The world is littered with pretenders. In the United States (and perhaps Canada), the soccer world is rife with righteous people trying to sell you something. A stupid video making guarantees titled with buzzwords like “elite” “premier” and “world class”. If they have to put those taglines on there, are they really what they claim to be?
Note: There are a lot of great coaches, teams, programs, and environments out there that are well worth the money and time. Your ability to discern the ones that aren’t worth a second look is imperative.
The takeaway is simple
Players: Complacency is easy. Laziness is easy. Mediocrity is a disease. If you aren’t dedicating hours of supplemental work to your game, it will show. Get away from your comfort zone and challenge yourself. If it’s windy, rainy, cold, whatever it is outside, it doesn’t matter. When you are not training somewhere someone else is. And when you face them, they will win. If you aren’t playing street soccer or on a team that pushes you, the game is passing you up. Find places to play and get out there. It doesn’t have to be formal or official.
Ask yourself, “Have I done enough to actually improve?”
Coaches: Build a network of both like-minded and different coaches. Learn from them and proffer your experience with others. Share your knowledge but remember that coaches are always in a state of learning. What worked for your team three years ago doesn’t mean as much to others as you think it does. Evolve or die off. Accountability falls on you as well as the players. Don’t go ask them to improve while you remain stagnate. Don’t talk about how you could coach anywhere but you’re gracing these kids with your grace and presence.
Parents: Again, keep your mouths shut. Sending passive-aggressive emails, gossip, and non-verbals solves very little. If there’s something that needs addressing, consider your part and your child’s part in the soccer dilemma before unleashing hell.
You see things at a 1:1 ratio. Your little superstar, to the coach, is seen at a 1:23 ratio. You can’t want it for your child. If you see playing time as the most important factor in your player’s experience, please figure out why they aren’t playing in the first place.
Are they really good enough? Should you, as a parent, be fighting their battles for them? What can they gain from your intervention? Are they dedicating enough hours to their game to make not playing them an impossibility? Additionally, it’s unlikely you know what position your child is best in. Think about your role in their development. Try being less of a cheerleader and more of a sponge because you’ve got a lot to learn as well.
Starve the ego, feed the soul.