Taking Ownership of Your Development

wuilmar-matias-morales-591940-unsplash

Photo by Wuilmar Matias-Morales on Unsplash

It’s easy to claim or take ownership when things are going well. Oftentimes, positive results are due to a series of good m

oves, actions and reactions, and circumstances that benefit an individual or the collective.

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t my fault the team lost.”

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

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

“I completed all of my passes.”

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast audio associated with this entry can be found here

Kick-Out Hunger Campaign

Part of my mission in attracting readers to this site is to raise awareness of the issues that extend beyond our game that we can affect positively through soccer. One of these missions is the Kick-Out Hunger Campaign that provides non-perishable food items, soccer supplies, and monetary donations for local community centers in the St. Louis-Metro East areas. Donations are always appreciated but not required. Thank you.

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Explore the Edge of your Limits

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

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

But what happens when personal progress stagnates and plateaus?

What happens when progression turns to regression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End Product is Only Part of the Story

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

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

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

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

It looks easy, but it’s not.

It’s something else.

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

The behind the scenes efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is risky and it’s dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

This is honorable in my opinion.

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

Doing the hard thing is often the right thing.


Technical Development Materials available on Amazon

Photo by Logan Fisher on Unsplash

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.