This post is a look at the college soccer experience and reflects the graft and grind required to persevere and learn a few things along the way — more life lessons than anything related to soccer. This recollection does not reflect anyone’s views but my own. I write about the college soccer experience as this is the level most youth players aim to reach.
January, 2006 — sheets of sleet rained down on the first day back from winter break as myself and the other members of Men’s soccer team filed into the Shively Strength and Conditioning facility at the University of Kentucky, which like everywhere else, was locked in the dead of winter. Gone was the vibrancy of summer workouts, PDL competition, and preseason’s anxious excitement. The buzz of expectation had come and gone as many reflected back on the ‘what might have been’s’, ‘why didn’t you’s…’, and ‘if only’s’ as the university’s ancillary team of fitness coaches and physios readied us for the unglamorous task of off-season workouts.
Reporting back from a month away from campus (and structure), which was comprised of decompressing in the form of sleeping in, eating like an idiot, drinking with hometown buddies, and playing a few pick-up games (maybe) was always interesting. Most of us knew there would be Hell to pay in the form of fitness tests, flexibility assessments, and the re-introduction to a somewhat regular fitness regimen.
It took me exactly one collegiate year of playing Division I ball to ‘figure it out’ when it came to the enigma that is ‘the off-season’. At our level, we all knew that for serious players, there is no real off-season — just short breaks of supplementary play and fitness retention.
Gone were the seniors and guys that transferred out at semester’s end; what remained was the rather unmotivated nucleus of a team, a roster whittled down, that trained like madmen for a hacked-up Spring season where, in the eyes of the players, very little mattered in terms of things to ‘play for’. Once you understand the politics of college soccer at this level (in this case, Division I), you understand that new recruits and transfers on scholarship dollars would command playing time whether their actually ability and work rate suggested their asses should be on the track, in the weight room, or on the bench.
You also understood that recently available scholarship funds were briefly up for grabs in the forms of book money, a few credit hours paid for, and maybe some housing funds to be spread out among those who’d earned the paltry reward as most college players were ‘in need’.
I remember talking to a former club coach who astutely posed the question (which I will now pose for you): Do you know the difference between Coach ability and Coach-ability?
The following is what you need to know.
The sobering reality remains the same: it is up to the collegiate player to utilize the resources at their disposal in the form of strength and conditioning coaches, tutors, professors, counselors, and physios to keep themselves focused, in-shape, and healthy.
In fairness, coaches have to justify and validate their recruiting decisions and the currency of this transaction was always playing time. College soccer, at least how I experienced it, was just as much about a coach’s ability as it was a player’s coach-ability.
So, what does this really mean?
It’s simple; or at least it is now as I reflect on those times. A coach at this vaunted level of the game in the United States and Canada has results-based decisions to make. Coaches have a set number of scholarships to allocate and they have to extract every ounce of sweet, blood, and effort from their team as a 3-to-4 month sprint of a season approaches. In theory, it’s sometimes more politics than it is performance-based — and if you’ve played college ball, you understand what this means as you often find players amongst your ranks that are more track athlete, bookworm, equipment manager, than soccer player; and that’s OK.
For players, it’s about being coachable. Recall that roster I mentioned — it has soccer players and it has the others. The others, as it were, are actually more important than people think. They’re the ones who coach sought out or who can afford to attend (don’t sap the scholarship funds) the school and won’t complain so long as they’re part of the team.
Oftentimes, these players will run through a starter, outwork everyone, and have their own agenda because their playing career up to this point has been one built-on blue collar principles. If you’re reading this as a skilled high school player, be warned — this player is lurking out there, waiting to take your spot on the dress squad. Are you going to let that happen? Start thinking about and doing something about that now. If you’re mailing it in now, don’t bother playing collegiate ball — you’ll get destroyed again and again. And mom and dad won’t be able to complain to anyone.
Many of them you’ll consider ‘in the way’ or subpar, and in pure soccer terms, that might be true. However, these players are coachable. They will put their head where others put their boots because they want to play and don’t know how to express themselves other than through a flurry of energetic output — often to the detriment of anyone playing on their team during training. Coaches love these assets. They are pawns who respawn after getting tackled, running until they drop during a Beep Test, and hold onto every word the coaches and captain says. These fine individuals are the ones who hold onto hope because each training session, to them, is a World Cup Final. There’s beauty in that type of over-exuberance.
The college player, regardless of their ability, is always at risk raw end of the deal at some point in their college years. Seemingly minor injuries will derail a season in an instant. Heaven forbid you suffer a concussion — these days, say goodbye to the season. Grades, off-field conduct, compliance, family and social life — all of these are factors that somehow play a part.
Therein lies the challenge: the coach’s ability vs the coachability of a player.
Look, everyone is happy when they’re playing — and for some, the results don’t matter as much as their name and stats on the box score do. Such is the nature of adolescents being used as assets (student-athletes). The politics and nonsense of the youth game seeps into the college game, too. Coaches somehow put stock into what Timmy accomplished in the conference-that’s-barely-on-a-map, or what Steve accomplished in the provincial league-of-where-the-hell-is-this-England.
Translation: The coaches won’t see everything. They can’t, really. At least not in this system. Again, if you’ve played collegiately, you’ve seen the players from towns with a population (generously labeled) 600 that racked up 421 goals in four years; or a foreign player (they’ll get a full scholarship at the international tuition rate, believe me) that can’t so much as connect a pass to justify their scholarship money and the playing time they magically garner.
So, how does one manage? Well, let’s make a few things clear.
- Nobody cares about what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s fair and what’s unfair. For players, it’s time to buck-up and figure it out — if that means “playing the coach’s game” — do it. If that means logging extra sessions after training on your own, hitting the track, weight room, study hall — do it.
- It’s not their fault the coach recruited them. Seriously, they did something others did not — get noticed and get recruited. All power to them. Too often, American players feel entitled because they were “the man” in high school or with their “academy”. Honestly, none of that means a thing after high school or outside the world of youth soccer. Don’t be that sappy “I was All-State in high school” clown.
- Coaches are focused on results, not feelings. This is universal. Coaches don’t care if you’re feeling down, that your girlfriend cheated on you, that Organic-Chemistry is a sadistic filtration class. They are focused on their jobs and getting results without making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
- Would you play you? Why? You’re that good, huh? Could it be your biggest problem is, in fact, you — your attitude, work rate (or lack thereof), your grades, your actual ability has stagnated (remember, college soccer is NOT the place for development), the fact that others are simply better than you at soccer, following directions, and are tougher?
- Ego check. This is your best friend and worst enemy. Be humble, be confident, don’t be a jackass. Simple.
- Play, don’t get played. It is up to you figure out how to get on the field, get more scholarship money, pass your classes (actually learn something), and make good decisions. The pizazz of being a student-athlete can get the best of you — don’t get played by distractions and emotions — this isn’t high school.
- Support staff — more important than you think. Athletic trainers, assistant coaches, tutors, Teaching Assistants, counselors, team doctors, equipment managers, grounds crews, concession stand operators — these people want to see you succeed. Listen to everyone. Be nice. Be grateful.
- Enjoy the struggle. It ends sooner than you think; enjoy it as much as possible. The game owes you nothing.
The takeaway is most players aspire to play at the collegiate level. In the global context, this level is far below what it could be — however, I’ve seen way too many people who’ve never played or couldn’t play at this level bash it to bits. This article isn’t for them. The college game, as imperfect as it may be, is not the enemy, nor is it as terrible as keyboard warriors claim it to be. What they’re seeing is a condensed system that champions the worst of American valuations of what it takes to be a functional and capable soccer player: ability to run, jump, hit, chase, tackle, etc, — all over technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, and discipline.
Here’s a trade secret: the pretty soccer where teams possess the ball is rare; here, teams pounce from the word ‘Go’ and take their chances as they present themselves. It’s not pretty; however, it’s what we have.
This article is but one of many that I intend to write to help players get a player’s perspective of the experience; if for no other reason other than it would have been awesome (and amusing) if someone had told me this stuff before I played college soccer, which by the way — was a great experience for me. I met some of my best friends, learned under some fantastic coaches, and the lessons gained as a student-athlete have helped me in every job I’ve held in the professional world.