Effort over Outcome

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

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

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

In short, player and performance assessment were completely subjective.

This collective mindset did a few things to players:

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

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

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grounded by Gravel

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

-Johan Cruyff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Simple, not easy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was grounded by gravel.

Street soccer is the great equalizer in so many ways.

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

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

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

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

But that’s enough isn’t it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this helped me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lesson in Losing and Accountability

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

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

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

Society in a nutshell:

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-3-22-56-pm

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

So, what’s the lesson in losing?

Watch this:

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

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

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

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

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

To that end, you are never done losing.

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

To evolve, you must learn to lose.

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

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

How many tomorrow’s have become yesterday’s?

How long are you willing to let that happen?

You don’t get those days back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the weak-minded and unmotivated crumble.

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on progress…then focus on perfection.

Fitness as a Lifestyle

Running abroad

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

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

sugar loaf west

 

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

So how does this relate to soccer?

Mental endurance is as important as physical endurance

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

great sugar loaf

 

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

Fitness should be a lifestyle, not a preseason task

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

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

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

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

footy cage

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

Stealing Time for Fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best way to get fit is by playing the game

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

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

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

Fitness is what works for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is holding American soccer back?

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

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

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

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

• • • •

US Soccer MLS

Read  |  The Fermi Paradox of American soccer

• • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • • •

Villa NYCFC MLS

Read  |  The cost of $100 million

• • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • • •

MLS

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

• • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, perception is everything.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

The Art of Self-Sabotage

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those people are in it for different reasons.

These people are not part of your journey.

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

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

Rules to Play By

Here are 25 strategies or pieces of advice that can help you elevate your game — or at least give you some new insights. Most these are more about life than sport; however, it’s important to see the overlap where ever possible.

  1. If you expect every person you meet to be rational, truthful, and loyal you’ll spend way too much time being annoyed and ultimately, disappointed. Most people fit the bill; you just shouldn’t hold high expectations for self-serving people.
  2. Never be governed by emotions; anger and self-loathing are negatives that other people don’t want in their lives. It’s OK to have emotions, just don’t be ruled by them.
  3. Others don’t want you to solve their problems; they just want you to hear them complain long enough to convince themselves they were ‘right’. It’s less about being right or wrong and more about learning to listen and when necessary, learning when to walk away.
  4. It’s not about the shoes. Stop spending time trying to look like a footballer and start spending time being a footballer. Fashionistas need not apply.
  5. It’s unacceptable to not be proficient with both feet. Find a wall, find a ball, get to work.
  6. Find at least one positive from the worst days. This applies to coaches, players, and parents. Dwelling on the negative is exhausting and keeps you down.
  7. The only player you need to compare yourself to is the player you were yesterday.
  8. More often than not, the right thing to say is a pat on the back.
  9. Coaches: shelf the halftime speech. Make your players tell you what they see and experience. It’s their game, help them mature by making them own some of the decisions and narrative.
  10. Disappointment is part of the game. You’ll learn much more from losses than you will victory…if you’re paying attention.
  11. Think before you speak. And when you speak, put things in perspective. See Number 2.
  12. Find a dose of real talk. Talking to friends and family is fine, but they’ll tell you what you want to hear. Seek the advice of someone whose work you admire and respect.
  13. It’s not OK to hold things against others to the detriment of the greater good. More often than not, a disagreement can be solved with a dose of humility. Own your part in the fall-out.
  14. Take a day off from the game. No social media, no television, no video games. Focus on learning to disconnect from time-to-time.
  15. Create something every day. New plans, a new drill, make up a new move, set a new goal.
  16. You are not special — you are you. Self-entitlement has led many a good player astray.
  17. There is no excuse for not playing pick-up soccer. Find a game, start one at the park, seek out informal opportunities to play.
  18. Be a fountain, not a drain. Build relationships, stop bringing others down due to stubbornness and immaturity.
  19. Embrace the challenges the game presents. One day, you’ll miss the grind.
  20. Run at least two miles a day. It’s less about the fitness, more about finding a routine that gets you up and moving.
  21. Appreciate what you have…even if it’s not ideal. There are millions who have nothing yet appreciate everything.
  22. Watch a game on mute and with your phone on airplane mode. Study what’s happening on the screen.
  23. Be careful what you say to others — most people are itching to tell your secrets to others.
  24. Politics pollute the game. Don’t play the politics game. If you find a situation untenable, it’s time to move on.
  25. A mistake made more than once is a decision (more on this later).

It’s up to you to decide what applies to your game and life. Part of the improvement process is learning to identify where the disconnect lies and working on strategies that help, not hinder. Set your sights on attainable goals and don’t live in the past (try not to live in the future either…that’s a fool’s errand).

Chaos Theory

Circus Time

We’ve all seen it…players arriving a bit early to training congregate as they tie their fluorescent-colored boots. A few fire-off a Snapchat while off in the distance near the penalty area, there’s a group of players smashing pot-shots in the direction of empty goal rarely hitting the target. The routine continues. Light-hearted conversation is followed by wild shots at that goal. Most of the balls end up somewhere off in the distance; one out of every ten shots end up in the goal.

This is how many American [youth] players approach training (or games).

Welcome to American Soccer.

I’m guilty of repeating plenty of phrases related to player development; phrases like: ‘one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof’ and ‘when we value technique the way we value effort we will have made progress’ that I say ad nauseam not for self-validation, but because I want others to understand the implications of what I’m saying.

Chaos Theory

It is my belief that American soccer continues to be governed by Chaos Theory.

Soccer people in this country are guilty of throwing shit at the wall and hoping whatever sticks will yield excellent results. Hell, we’re so sensitive in this country that in an attempt to ‘bring everyone along’ we water down hard truths and tough methods (that should themselves separate the pretenders from the serious, the strong from the weak) to ensure the lowest common denominator is better served than those we need to be pushing and encouraging more.

You know what happens when you water down really good and dare I say it, tough-as-hell methods of player development? 

The answer is you get what we’ve always had — technically deficient, tactically mediocre, and fundamentally erratic soccer. 

The copy and paste methods employed by parent-coaches, the over-labeling of club soccer, the haphazard and disjointed approach to individual and team training, the focus on the tricks and flicks over the fundamentals, the very way the Federation operates — all of this is chaos.

The above scenario is not something I’ve conjured up, nor is it a reflection of every team. It is, however, a routine that accounts for many teams. The more disturbing thing that scenario can easily be copied and pasted into the pregame routine for many American teams (Canada, I’ll let you speak for yourself on this…).

Knowledge is More Than Trivia

I am encouraged at the depth of knowledge many young players have regarding teams, tactics, skills, and football-centric trends. Most players can rattle off statistics, know what boots their favorite players wear, can rehearse the goal-scoring celebrations of their heroes, and have a near encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of the game except for one glaring area: how to play it. 

Before you misunderstand me (I wouldn’t blame you for doing so), I’m not saying many of our young players can’t play. I’m saying many don’t know how to play the game. That is, they don’t see the connections between the tasks demanded and how those tasks translate to the bigger picture (more on this in a bit).

Players don’t know why they do something, they just do it. A player and a coach MUST see value in what they’re training or implementing to fully get the most out of that element. Players exist in a wonderfully forgiving cyclical vacuum of trial and error. The smart ones have the wherewithal to begin to put patterns (good or bad) together to form habits (good or bad). Most also fail to apply these lessons when it matters. The application phase, in my opinion, is where things begin to go haywire. 

Purposeful Coaching

Allow me to deconstruct my assertion regarding players not know how to play. This is not a fault I place wholly on players. We should at least begin where I think the disconnect begins — coaching. I believe most coaches are well-intentioned, capable individuals. Many have dedicated decades of study and hundreds of hours of practice to their craft and they have expensive licenses to show for it.

However, the level of coaching education in this country simply isn’t good, affordable, or accessible enough. This happens for many reasons, but the crux of the issue may well lie in the fact most coaches are out to win at all costs. The pay-to-play system turns players (and their parents) into customers and most coaches don’t have the time or knowledge to fully apply the principles their counterparts overseas simply don’t have to worry about as much. Winning over learning defines the game at the youngest ages.

Technique on Your Time, Tactics on Mine 

Most coaches simply don’t have enough quality at their disposal to maximize their effectiveness as an instructor. For example, youth coaches ought to be able to implement possession-based principles of play (if that’s what they consider important) with technically proficient players. You know, players capable of receiving the ball across their body, passing to the lead foot, playing composed, intelligent soccer, and who have the ability to carry out the coveted tactical deployment. The reality is the American player is technically deficient. To this end, our coaches at the U15-17 level don’t have the time to dedicate entire sessions on teaching technique or technical aspects — and let’s be honest, they shouldn’t have to dedicate copious amounts of time to the purely technical aspects. That should have been accomplished by a grassroots coach at the U8 level.

The problem is, however, that our grassroots coaches are at the mercy of a top-down approach — let’s call it a Trickle-Down Approach. Again, the problem is nothing of quality is actually trickling down, watering the seeds of the grassroots game. So few resources, knowledge, representation, and idea generation are readily accessible to the grassroots coach because much like our pay-to-play system, coaches are at the mercy of a bureaucratic system turned elitist adult education funnel. The Federation issues mandates that it may or may not enforce. Issuing edicts that affect those at the bottom the most is a lazy way to feign improvement, but hey, it ‘ticks’ the box, right?

Naturally, there are a plethora of other issues related to coaching education and pedagogical practices applied to soccer, but much like the American player, the American coach is an enigma — completely capable until that application phase. Let me try to bring this full circle.

Find the Real Purpose of Everything and Anything

Ask any player or coach you know this question in relation to anything they do from juggling a ball to using a certain formation over another: “What are you really doing this for?”

Believe me, this isn’t a deep question.

The carousel of the American game needs to be slowed down to the point people who are resistant to learning can get off the ride and those who want to improve can begin to ask themselves what their purpose is in everything they do. The problem is the U.S. is a country that’s OK with ‘not knowing’. When it comes to soccer, the default excuse for the lack of progress sounds something like: “Every other country has had soccer for 100 years, we’ve only had 20 years here…” (not true). In the corporate world, there’s a phrase people toss around that aptly describes American society: We don’t know what we don’t know. 

I am willing to bet our young players have very little idea why getting extra touches is really important. Most will revert to a task-based modus operandi that’s been drilled into them by the American educational system: “Because my coach, teacher, parents told me to…”

And that player is not wrong.

The American educational system has turned kids into Pavlovian dogs requiring a signal to trigger a response, which in-turn yields a behavior resulting in a reward. In this case, acknowledgement from a figure of authority.

The teachable moment (another cringeworthy phrase) lies in asking: “What is the real purpose of X?”

We want our players to see the connection between the tasks required (prompted or unprompted) to improve and the transfer or translation (application) of those tasks in meaningful competition. Once they can answer questions beyond: “Because I was told to…” a bit of progress is at hand because they’re answering, not just responding (note the difference).

Think of how much more focused, driven, and aware an individual can become once they find their purpose. Now imagine a team with that mindset. The same should be demanded of coaches.

See the Value in Everything and Anything

Good coaches teach good teams and players that everything should be purposeful. Chaotic soccer is not the goal. Kick-and-run, haphazard methods lacking excellence are what we have and it shows.

I’ve yet to see a good team have a scenario where the players are taking wild shots at an empty goal before training or a game. Why? It’s simple: the good players — the ones who can see the forest through the trees — they’re not interested in that stuff. They’re out there partaking in rondos, juggling to find their touch, jogging with a ball, getting their mind right, passing with a buddy, or getting some meaningful touches before real play begins.

What you don’t see players blasting the ball inanely at an empty net because there’s so little value in that exercise; plus, they’d rather score a goal when it matters.

Haste Makes Waste

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

If there is one piece of advice for anyone overseeing, encouraging, or involved in the development of young players it is this: haste makes waste.

One should not assume that “the route to the top” is possible by anything other than taking the stairs,  not the elevator. Success is culled from struggle. Step-by-step, hour after hour, not for days, not weeks, not months, but for years. So often, those who should exercise the power of experience (in terms of age) do not exercise patience with regards to player development; instead hinging progress on results rather than performance. Granted, the two are connected; however, I’ve seen many a great player suffer at the hands of being on a bad team or involved with a bad coach or club.

Here’s the problem…I find people aren’t interested in advice. They are, however, addicted to asking questions whose answers they have no interest or intention of finding or applying. Young players are plagued by this due to their youth and lack of experience. But coaches and parents are masters in hearing over listening.

Look, I’ll be as honest as I can regarding the delivery of this message, the questions you seek are not merely as important as the answers you will receive or find and your ability to apply them.

When I tell a player to perform thousands of functional touches on the ball each day, I don’t tell them because I think they’re bored and need a new hobby. Nor do I think they yearn to become a freestyle footballer. I tell them because their technical game lacks refinement and it is their responsibility to remedy this aspect.

What that also means is when I tell that player’s parent or coach a solution, it’s not to hear my own words to validate myself or convince others I’m right. It’s because I want to see players evolve and for this to happen, people need to listen.

Listening is a skill. Receiving messages, sifting through the delivery, processing the information, all of this is not easy. The next step is even more critical — application. People generally fail at this application step over and over in many aspects of life. This is how we accumulate experience and learn. However, soliciting information that someone else is more than happy to give in return and repeatedly failing to follow through or heed the message is an insulting exercise in the inane and the utterly insane.

Here’s a quick story:

I once trained with a running group before my first ultra-marathon. The group consisted of experienced runners, bold athletes, trained triathletes, former collegiate athletes, and couch-to-5/10K veterans looking to extend their race distance significantly. The leader of the group had experience running Boston before it was trendy…in a pair of Onitsuka Tigers and cotton socks…hungover. There was no race distance he had not covered. Quite simply, he was a freakish machine of sinewy running perfection. He didn’t look like a runner — instead he looked more like a triathlete who ran every day but never considered it training unless his mind was right.

Every training run we’d split up in groups based on race distance (some trained for marathons, others trained for 50Km or 50-milers, etc) and ability/fitness level. Each subgroup had varying end-points and distance markers to help customize the training for us. Every single session one individual who was a bit heavyset asked him a question: How do I improve my speed? How do I get fitter? Why do my joints hurt? Is my technique OK?

Every time without fail, someone with more ability or experience gave him answers. And every week this guy would have yet more seemingly random questions. This continued until he asked me a question. As a guy learning and testing what my endurance and mental toughness limits were, I felt that I was in no position to give him answers to the questions he asked me. So, 17 miles into a long run, he asked me: what kind of music do you listen to so that you can hit your splits?”

“What?” I asked in disbelief.

“Your music…what kind do you listen to?” He asked again.

“I don’t have earphones in and I don’t have music on. I hit my splits based on the clock, not music,” I responded.

“OK, but if you did have music what would it be? Rock or techno or something…”

I realized then and there this guy was scared of not knowing. He was a great runner when he allowed himself to just run….and, maybe learn and when he allowed himself the time to exist in his own head without the need of reassurance. Maybe he liked the small talk…and anyone who’s running insane races tends to talk to deflect fatigue or distance themselves from the mental and physical anguish.

Some people like to hear their own voices.

I pushed the pace to the point he could not waste his breath asking questions. He fell back and I could hear him struggling, his breathing out of synch with his cadence, and I could sense his form wavering.

At the end of the run he looked at me and said, “What the fuck was that for?”

I stared at him and said, “Thank you for pushing me through those last few miles.” I patted him on the back and handed him a water bottle and began my cool-down. The leader of the group walked up to us and said, “Why did you try to run Jon’s pace? You aren’t training for his race; you’re training for your own.”

That’s when I heard him at it again.

“What would you say…” by this time I walked away knowing his questions was merely a deflection.

People have questions and I’ve found that for many, answers and reassurance is what they seek. But, the more I reflect on this, the more I find that many ask questions and yet fear the answers. They have little interest in being told something that doesn’t align with their desires.

We have too much of a good thing.

When I was a young player, had to ask the coach the questions in-person or on the phone. Cold call. My parents could not and would not ask questions on my behalf. The generation before me had even less to work with; yet today, the helicopter parents and accumulators of knowledge are fighting battles, seeking answers, and acquiring knowledge they are not applying or relaying to those they say they intend to help.

“How can my kid get to Europe to play?”

The better question always lies in the answer regarding an inquiry like this: “Is he/she the best player in the area?”

“Well, *insert reasoning and verbal vomit on why their kid isn’t doing X*”

I have been tempted to say: “Get on a plane to Europe, pack a ball, done.”

I’m not joking when I say it’s OK to harbor ambitions and dreams for your players, yourself, or others. It’s more than OK to seek answers to questions, but you must learn to listen, to process the information, to cull meaning from it all, and to apply it.

Haste makes waste: rushing a player or yourself through something is an exercise of regression. Dominate the local player pool, then aim just a bit further to the next level, and then the next, and so on and so forth…

A sobering truth is Europe is last place a player of average work ethnic, technical ability, low mental endurance, and helicopter parents/coaches should go. They have hundreds of kids in waiting that are not only better, but more suitable options for their academies. Take care of business at home first and you will find the journey much more worthwhile.

Returning back to where we started…

“10,000 touches a day on the ball seems like a lot…I don’t think I can do it. What do you think?”

“It is a lot. And you’re right, you probably can’t do it because you won’t do it. But I’ve also posted numerous segments, WODs, videos, on this…that’s what I think.”

The answers are there and they are painfully simple.

Train, be tough, be creative, only seek advice you intend to follow, develop the skill-set and mindset to succeed without falling prey to your own ego, don’t be an enabler, and remember that asking questions is OK, but asking questions is merely part of the process. Don’t pat yourself on the back from reaching out…apply what you’ve learned and let others pat you on the back instead.

Thank me later.

Exercise of the Discipline

Discipline — it’s like a muscle. At least, that’s how I want you to think about it from here on out. Discipline is both a skill and a methodology. Those who subscribe to the notion(s) of self-discipline tend to fine-tune their processes en route to reaching their goals. Let me take the discussion away from soccer to help illustrate the point.

My parents live next door to a professional pianist from South Korea named Young Park. Young is the mother of two teenagers and works as piano instructor, is a full-time faculty member at a music institute; and for the past 17 years that I’ve known her, Young has operated with a sense of constant dedication to the practice (and profession) of playing the piano.

Every day at 5 a.m., Young gently and methodically plays simple scales. This happens every morning without fail. She did this when her kids were babies; she did this before taking the hour drive to attend classes to get her doctorate degree in Music and Piano Performance; she did this before seeing her husband off to work each day. I could hear the muffled notes from my room and I noticed how the patterns were actually progressions. She didn’t start by playing classic and complicated piano pieces. The basics were the foundation.

Think about what it takes to adhere to such a lifestyle. She’s not complicating the task, nor is she arrogantly trying to play the most complex concertos. Every morning, she gently plays Adagio — slow, an indication of being “at ease”. Very rarely do her morning practice sessions remotely resemble anything considered Allegro — played at a fast, lively tempo. She operates mainly in Adante — a moderate tempo sometimes oscillating between successive scales and chord progressions.

Everything is simple and everything builds upon itself. By the time her morning session was coming to an end she would piece together amazing progressions that could convince any passerby that she just started playing at that complex moment.

I’ve admired this for years.

The trick is not that she plays at 5 a.m., but that’s part of it. The key here is Young starts her day by tapping into the very skill set she has built her life around as the remainder of the day will be split between being a mother, teaching students, working, and taking time away from her music. She masters the simple to increase her proficiency at the complex. By the time she’s performing with an orchestra, in front of a panel of professors assessing her, or instructing students — she’s put in thousands of keystrokes, chord strikes, and hundreds of chord progressions. Every. Day.

Now, how does this apply to soccer?

First off, I want to make myself clear when I say: this applies just about everything in life.

It’s like a muscle. Nobody wants to work hard; they do, however, want the result.

There’s only one way to get there — persistence training. Persistence training comes in a variety of forms, but let’s just consider every time an individual plays as training (yes, we can include games if you’d like). There’s a discipline aspect to training…a player has to decipher WHY they are training. Is it about vanity (to be ‘the best’)? Perhaps they train as an act of appeasement (‘My parents and coach will get mad if I don’t practice’ or ‘My parents told me to practice’). Are they training for the ‘love of the game’ or out of a sense of duty to themselves? I want you to note the difference between appeasement and training out of a genuine love for the game.

On the more application level it means being coachable and engaged in your own process. Listening during training is part of being disciplined. Respecting your coach and parents is being disciplined. When others talk back to their coach, teammates, or parents, do you?

It means keeping track of your grades, arriving on-time, showing up to play instead of just showing up because ‘you have to’, and it means you stop taking things (soccer is one of them) for granted.

Here’s the problem with young players, their coaches, and their parents: They have one eye on the future and no focus on the present.

Worry not, this is also a larger problem regarding the sport in this country, but let’s keep this at a controllable level.

The exercise of the discipline is about forming habits and patterns that extract the negative and hone the positive activities that help you. It means working through the tough times even when things get murky and challenges arise more frequently. Think of the way a bodybuilder, power lifter, marathoner, or sprinter trains their body. They are methodical. Their diet, their supplementation, sleep/rest patterns, water intake, caloric limits, aerobic and anaerobic thresholds measured. Set after set, day after day, workout after workout all with the attention to detail and focus on the NOW instead of the future.

For any player, regardless of skill level, this means getting touches on the ball; this means studying the game at the molecular level (watching and re-watching games for reasons other than the result); this means playing pick-up games, playing alone if that’s what it takes; this means focusing on mastering the basics before trying the complex (believe me, the complex isn’t so complex once you master the basics); this means creating time to train in the rain, heat, snow, under the street lights down the street — just play.

Discipline comes in many forms and it’s may not seem that easy to structure your life around being disciplined regarding a sport, so here’s a well-known piece of advice. If you’re able to apply consistency, honesty, discipline, objectivity, resilience, and persistence to a game like soccer — think of the type of student, employee, coach, parent, or whatever role you eventually occupy — you can be.

For young players hoping to play beyond high school, think about that statement.

If you’re dedicated to your craft on the field, the chances are you’ll be able to apply a lot of this to your studies and pursuits off it.

In closing, I implore you to think of discipline as a muscle — if you don’t work at it, that muscle (discipline) WILL atrophy.