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.
It’s been far too long since I last posted an entry; and for that, I apologize. I’ve spent the last month or so trying to solve what seem like complicated mysteries of player development and have come away with some findings that I wanted to share with you. It’s important to note that what I culled from my discussions, studies, and analysis over the past six weeks isn’t anything profound, but it shouldn’t be ignored.
Twitter has become a cesspool of idiocy. Yep, our favorite stomping ground and congregating place has become “noise” — perhaps it was always thus. Nevertheless, I have contributed to the idiocy far more than I ever should have; more out of frustration and boredom than any intended malice.
So, where does this leave Twitter in relation to soccer-centric discussions? It’s simple: nobody is going to change their behavior, interactions, or decisions because you want them to because everyone finds value in those elements in different ways. However, I challenge people to get back to using Twitter to share ideas, foster healthy debate, inquire about other methods, to help others, to learn a thing or two along the way, and to celebrate just how small the world of soccer has become with such a platform. Yes, there are idiots. I have been one and you have, too. That’s OK. We care about opinions — both our own and those of others.
More often than not, people gravitate towards shouting into the wind at those who have long ago blocked them. I encourage people to continue to shout, but not at the expense of actual work. The supposed “leaders” of the game, the mouths spewing ignorance into a microphone, the “journalists” writing bland puff pieces and charging by the word — they hear you; they just aren’t listening. Hold summits with those you interact with, write articles, contribute to discussions with NEW ideas, address issues in your community to help spark change at the top, and ignore the wind-up merchants.
You know less than you think. We all know a lot less than we think we do. Don’t feel insulted, feel inspired and eager to learn more. I am guilty of this as well. I can harken back to my playing days and apply a ton of institutional knowledge to my discussions, coaching, and writings on the game — and I still haven’t scratched the surface of what it means to be truly knowledgable. That comes with experience and collaboration measured not in days, weeks, months, or even years — but decades of application. Listen to others, don’t just hear them.
For example, the amount of dad-coaches and soccer-mommies I see rail against the collegiate system is getting borderline boring and hyperbolic. Most of their kids will never be good enough to play at the level — a level that drastically stifles development, needs a Mt. Everest size of reform, and has become low-hanging fruit. Look, I’m not defending college soccer — those who know me know that I am as critical as anyone; but here’s the thing: it’s an extension of youth soccer. That means it’s a business focused on student-athlete recruitment, retention, and you guessed it, results. Colleges know many of its recruits come from middle class backgrounds. They aren’t recruiting in the inner cities, why would they? There isn’t a demand for that (yet) and they want recruits that grew up in the system.
There is no time for development. There is need for it for a college coach as long as the line of salivating parents who’ve bought into the idea of throwing thousands of dollars at an “elite” youth “academy” will lead to a college soccer scholarship.
Those shouting the loudest are saying the least. Why? Well, should a college coach call them up with a sales pitch, they’d be all ears — and nobody could and should blame them. College is expensive. They know it, you know it, we know it. The style of play, type of player, personality required, etc. that will NOT change until the NCAA/NAIA changes and the USSF figures out that the 18-22 age group is stagnating and regressing in college. Good luck with that.
Additionally, more than half of the people railing against the state of the [North American] game have NO idea what they would do if the change they covet were to actually happen. If you think the closed-system is political now, imagine what an open system would do your son or daughter’s sensibilities…egos would be put through the wood chipper. And, that’s what needs to happen.
If you coach or have a kid who plays, understand this: in an open system things get exponentially more competitive in terms of development as the talent pool is unleashed and the dam breaks and the market is saturated. Clubs pop out of the woodwork as investment paths are forged and monies directed toward development become streamlined provided solidarity payments are paid.
This also means if you’re a bad or mediocre coach in the current system, you’ll be an unemployed (or unemployable) one in an open system. If you’re an All-Conference, All-State player, you’ll have a teddy bear and that cheaply made plaque to hold on to as the level raises with the tide, drowning any and all recreational mindsets and multi-sport hangers-on. That’s what we need.
The system is set-up for you to fail. Let’s cut the fluff: The American Dream is NON-existent in American soccer. What does this mean for you? If you’re a player, it means your days are severely limited as are your opportunities. Every day you don’t train or decide not to apply yourself is one less day you have to make an impact as a player. It also means in relation to what the world has on-tap, you aren’t even in the same galaxy as players your age abroad; players who are doing more with less amid greater challenges and more desperate circumstances.
As a parent, it means you need to stop whispering sweet nothings into your son or daughter’s ear about how they can play in Europe or South America. They can’t. Why? Well, for every one or two Superstar Samantha’s or All-Conference Aaron’s here, there’s 1,000 unknown kids that are willing and capable of doing more than most American players can even imagine. Tasks like catching a crowded bus alone before running miles upon miles to get to and from training without the positive reinforcement of a helicopter parent day after day, for weeks, for months, for years with the understanding that it may not work out for reasons unknown.
Players: before you think about Europe or South America or where ever you think you’d somehow “breakout” and “be seen” understand that no club “over there” is going to take the risk, investment, or go through the hoops for an American “maybe” when they have 1,000 real deals in their own county. Dominate the local talent pool first; followed by the regional one; then, you can dare to think about going abroad.
Build it and they will come. This one is simple: if you don’t support local soccer in some capacity, you are part of the problem. This is the problem with American fandom. If there’s a local amateur team trying to compete, a town NPSL or PDL team playing in front of an audience of none, and you claim to want professional soccer in your town — go away. Change starts with fostering a culture that loves the game in both glamorous and unglamorous ways.
Sure, it’s OK to want the big show in town, but start by supporting your local club(s). The reason people are against an open professional league system is they don’t understand it. It’s not American and they are — so they fear it. Those people will likely never be open to such change. However, if it is to happen, the country as a whole had better start growing and supporting local clubs on a massive scale.
Additionally, this has NOTHING to do with Major League Soccer. Open systems are NOT for things structured like MLS. Open systems can be regional, even city level. Regionalize amateur, semi-professional, professional (this term is used loosely here) leagues in a tiered system to keep travel, costs, and risk at a minimum until investment occurs.
If necessary, do this outside of USSF — it doesn’t care and aims NOT to serve the masses, but instead to serve the elitists. That’s OK, they cannot hear you shouting from their lofty towers atop the castle. However, they can’t ignore the masses when they move the foundation (and the needle) and have a robust enough movement and system to foster the country’s potential.
So, you’re telling me the future is bleak? No. Quite the opposite. The future has never been brighter. The connections and access players and coaches (and parents) have to the game today is amazing; and it’s growing.
Here’s what we need: create what they have in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, where ever — here. That means getting off Twitter for a few hours a day and getting down to the local town hall and convincing them to build, fund, or entertain building a soccer cage. Start a street soccer league. Support start-up coaching companies, share ideas, publish those ideas, be willing to start from scratch.
It means taking a break from convincing someone who’s clearly addicted to Major League Soccer (or other sports) and willing to defend that system and structure well into the night, and instead hosting a free kick-around in your community a few nights a week. It means using the methods used elsewhere, which you have studied and not just heard about on Twitter, to great effect. It means writing letters to organizations, clubs, and garnering support to better the grassroots game.
Start a club. Then, start a league. Create a five-team league comprised of local players and operate outside the current system. Make development the priority. Look, the system will tell you to play by its rules — that’s merely a suggestion. I routinely play in or watch the local Hispanic and Bosnian leagues hidden away at the parks that nobody goes to or at rundown indoor facilities on that side of the train tracks — and I see the same culture you’d find in Europe and South America. It can be done. It’s here.
We just need to connect them with us to become we. You have more power than you think. Stop conforming to what they tell you and let them conform to what we do.
Find your “Why”. Why do you play, coach, love the game? Find your “why” and you will begin to find the “how” for most of the questions plaguing you about the game. If you’re “in it” for the paycheck understand what that means. If you’re “in it” for the hopes of a college scholarship, study-up…a lot. If you’re “in it” just to go through the motions, that’s fine — you just aren’t allowed to be upset when things don’t pan out the way you’d hoped.
I used to subscribe the notion of conformity. That doesn’t mean I drank the Kool-aid or nodded like some plastic bobblehead. It does, however, mean that I had to make a decision about why I cared so much about the game. Perhaps my words mean nothing to anyone else.
It meant being an advocate for positive change, being a life-long learner, writing about things honestly, understanding that the seeds I plant will be reaped by someone else years later, writing hundreds of articles for no money, understanding that my ideas will seem crazy (years later, I’ll be saying, “I told you so”), and building upon ideas that hopefully become realities.
I’m here to help the player, coach, parent out that still needs a compass and map to navigate the landscape of American soccer. I’m here for them because very few were there for me (and countless others) beforehand. Let’s bridge the gap and mend the fractures keeping the American and Canadian game back — even if it means being a bit radicle and brave, which are required elements for change.
In closing, at the very core of finding your “why”, you’ll need to find something else…your backbone.
This post is a look at the college soccer experience and reflects the graft and grind required to persevere and learn a few things along the way — more life lessons than anything related to soccer. This recollection does not reflect anyone’s views but my own. I write about the college soccer experience as this is the level most youth players aim to reach.
January, 2006 — sheets of sleet rained down on the first day back from winter break as myself and the other members of Men’s soccer team filed into the Shively Strength and Conditioning facility at the University of Kentucky, which like everywhere else, was locked in the dead of winter. Gone was the vibrancy of summer workouts, PDL competition, and preseason’s anxious excitement. The buzz of expectation had come and gone as many reflected back on the ‘what might have been’s’, ‘why didn’t you’s…’, and ‘if only’s’ as the university’s ancillary team of fitness coaches and physios readied us for the unglamorous task of off-season workouts.
Reporting back from a month away from campus (and structure), which was comprised of decompressing in the form of sleeping in, eating like an idiot, drinking with hometown buddies, and playing a few pick-up games (maybe) was always interesting. Most of us knew there would be Hell to pay in the form of fitness tests, flexibility assessments, and the re-introduction to a somewhat regular fitness regimen.
It took me exactly one collegiate year of playing Division I ball to ‘figure it out’ when it came to the enigma that is ‘the off-season’. At our level, we all knew that for serious players, there is no real off-season — just short breaks of supplementary play and fitness retention.
Gone were the seniors and guys that transferred out at semester’s end; what remained was the rather unmotivated nucleus of a team, a roster whittled down, that trained like madmen for a hacked-up Spring season where, in the eyes of the players, very little mattered in terms of things to ‘play for’. Once you understand the politics of college soccer at this level (in this case, Division I), you understand that new recruits and transfers on scholarship dollars would command playing time whether their actually ability and work rate suggested their asses should be on the track, in the weight room, or on the bench.
You also understood that recently available scholarship funds were briefly up for grabs in the forms of book money, a few credit hours paid for, and maybe some housing funds to be spread out among those who’d earned the paltry reward as most college players were ‘in need’.
I remember talking to a former club coach who astutely posed the question (which I will now pose for you): Do you know the difference between Coach ability and Coach-ability?
The following is what you need to know.
The sobering reality remains the same: it is up to the collegiate player to utilize the resources at their disposal in the form of strength and conditioning coaches, tutors, professors, counselors, and physios to keep themselves focused, in-shape, and healthy.
In fairness, coaches have to justify and validate their recruiting decisions and the currency of this transaction was always playing time. College soccer, at least how I experienced it, was just as much about a coach’s ability as it was a player’s coach-ability.
So, what does this really mean?
It’s simple; or at least it is now as I reflect on those times. A coach at this vaunted level of the game in the United States and Canada has results-based decisions to make. Coaches have a set number of scholarships to allocate and they have to extract every ounce of sweet, blood, and effort from their team as a 3-to-4 month sprint of a season approaches. In theory, it’s sometimes more politics than it is performance-based — and if you’ve played college ball, you understand what this means as you often find players amongst your ranks that are more track athlete, bookworm, equipment manager, than soccer player; and that’s OK.
For players, it’s about being coachable. Recall that roster I mentioned — it has soccer players and it has the others. The others, as it were, are actually more important than people think. They’re the ones who coach sought out or who can afford to attend (don’t sap the scholarship funds) the school and won’t complain so long as they’re part of the team.
Oftentimes, these players will run through a starter, outwork everyone, and have their own agenda because their playing career up to this point has been one built-on blue collar principles. If you’re reading this as a skilled high school player, be warned — this player is lurking out there, waiting to take your spot on the dress squad. Are you going to let that happen? Start thinking about and doing something about that now. If you’re mailing it in now, don’t bother playing collegiate ball — you’ll get destroyed again and again. And mom and dad won’t be able to complain to anyone.
Many of them you’ll consider ‘in the way’ or subpar, and in pure soccer terms, that might be true. However, these players are coachable. They will put their head where others put their boots because they want to play and don’t know how to express themselves other than through a flurry of energetic output — often to the detriment of anyone playing on their team during training. Coaches love these assets. They are pawns who respawn after getting tackled, running until they drop during a Beep Test, and hold onto every word the coaches and captain says. These fine individuals are the ones who hold onto hope because each training session, to them, is a World Cup Final. There’s beauty in that type of over-exuberance.
The college player, regardless of their ability, is always at risk raw end of the deal at some point in their college years. Seemingly minor injuries will derail a season in an instant. Heaven forbid you suffer a concussion — these days, say goodbye to the season. Grades, off-field conduct, compliance, family and social life — all of these are factors that somehow play a part.
Therein lies the challenge: the coach’s ability vs the coachability of a player.
Look, everyone is happy when they’re playing — and for some, the results don’t matter as much as their name and stats on the box score do. Such is the nature of adolescents being used as assets (student-athletes). The politics and nonsense of the youth game seeps into the college game, too. Coaches somehow put stock into what Timmy accomplished in the conference-that’s-barely-on-a-map, or what Steve accomplished in the provincial league-of-where-the-hell-is-this-England.
Translation: The coacheswon’t see everything. They can’t, really. At least not in this system. Again, if you’ve played collegiately, you’ve seen the players from towns with a population (generously labeled) 600 that racked up 421 goals in four years; or a foreign player (they’ll get a full scholarship at the international tuition rate, believe me) that can’t so much as connect a pass to justify their scholarship money and the playing time they magically garner.
So, how does one manage? Well, let’s make a few things clear.
Nobody cares about what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s fair and what’s unfair. For players, it’s time to buck-up and figure it out — if that means “playing the coach’s game” — do it. If that means logging extra sessions after training on your own, hitting the track, weight room, study hall — do it.
It’s not their fault the coach recruited them. Seriously, they did something others did not — get noticed and get recruited. All power to them. Too often, American players feel entitled because they were “the man” in high school or with their “academy”. Honestly, none of that means a thing after high school or outside the world of youth soccer. Don’t be that sappy “I was All-State in high school” clown.
Coaches are focused on results, not feelings. This is universal. Coaches don’t care if you’re feeling down, that your girlfriend cheated on you, that Organic-Chemistry is a sadistic filtration class. They are focused on their jobs and getting results without making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Would you play you? Why? You’re that good, huh? Could it be your biggest problem is, in fact, you — your attitude, work rate (or lack thereof), your grades, your actual ability has stagnated (remember, college soccer is NOT the place for development), the fact that others are simply better than you at soccer, following directions, and are tougher?
Ego check. This is your best friend and worst enemy. Be humble, be confident, don’t be a jackass. Simple.
Play, don’t get played. It is up to you figure out how to get on the field, get more scholarship money, pass your classes (actually learn something), and make good decisions. The pizazz of being a student-athlete can get the best of you — don’t get played by distractions and emotions — this isn’t high school.
Support staff — more important than you think. Athletic trainers, assistant coaches, tutors, Teaching Assistants, counselors, team doctors, equipment managers, grounds crews, concession stand operators — these people want to see you succeed. Listen to everyone. Be nice. Be grateful.
Enjoy the struggle. It ends sooner than you think; enjoy it as much as possible. The game owes you nothing.
The takeaway is most players aspire to play at the collegiate level. In the global context, this level is far below what it could be — however, I’ve seen way too many people who’ve never played or couldn’t play at this level bash it to bits. This article isn’t for them. The college game, as imperfect as it may be, is not the enemy, nor is it as terrible as keyboard warriors claim it to be. What they’re seeing is a condensed system that champions the worst of American valuations of what it takes to be a functional and capable soccer player: ability to run, jump, hit, chase, tackle, etc, — all over technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, and discipline.
Here’s a trade secret: the pretty soccer where teams possess the ball is rare; here, teams pounce from the word ‘Go’ and take their chances as they present themselves. It’s not pretty; however, it’s what we have.
This article is but one of many that I intend to write to help players get a player’s perspective of the experience; if for no other reason other than it would have been awesome (and amusing) if someone had told me this stuff before I played college soccer, which by the way — was a great experience for me. I met some of my best friends, learned under some fantastic coaches, and the lessons gained as a student-athlete have helped me in every job I’ve held in the professional world.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the size of the things that bother them.”
Every player has that game. You know, where their first touch turns into a second then a third touch only to trickle out of bounds; or worse, to the opponent who wasn’t even pressuring the ball who’s now clear through on goal. These are the games that everyone fears as they bring out the worst in everyone from the players to the parents to the coaches. So, let’s get a few things out of the way:
Bad games are part of life.
There are a million things a player cannot control that contribute to poor performance; players need to focus on what they can control.
Improvements occur in chunks and don’t happen overnight.
Progress hinges upon a player’s ability to: learn, listen, apply, take risks, persevere, analyze, and process.
Bad games don’t determine playing “careers”, bad habits do.
Bad games are not the same as bad results; bad games are performance-based.
Be realistic, honest, and take ownership and then move on.
Let’s tackle the first concept. Bad games are part of life. For starters, consider the importance of reflection, which in this context, is a non-negotiable. Those who can’t or won’t exercise the skill of self-reflection are resistant learners, stubborn, in denial, or all of the above. Reflection can be a difficult process but it doesn’t need to be, nor does it need to be lengthy because there are usually certain tendencies or habits that result in poor performance. Reflect on those behaviors, not the negative outcomes. For example, identify poor starting position, reading of the play, or willingness to initiate contact before entering the rabbit hole of what resulted from that occurrence (a goal was scored or a game was lost).
This leads to the second concept. Some players are surrounded by teammates that simply aren’t good enough. A fact of the game is not everyone is at the same talent level. As the game evolves and a player develops, the level of play exposes the thought process and speed of thought in players, or the lack thereof. It’s painful to watch a good player make the right runs over and over again only for a teammate to keep their head down and attempt the audacious. It’s borderline tragic watching a player try to carry-out ridiculous instructions from the sideline (yes, from both the coach and the parents).
Other times, the other team has their act together and negates any and all chances for a player or team to have a positive impact on the game. Anyone who’s watched the game recognizes just how quickly things unravel. It starts with individual breakdowns and those lead to team-wide mishaps and panic. Players make poor decisions, which in turn dictate team-wide outcomes. Time and time again, good players will tell themselves or allow themselves to be told they had a bad game, which may not be the case.
However, this point is not intended to deflect blame on the coach or one’s peers. It is important to take stock of one’s actions within the context of the team’s objective. For example, a midfielder should consider their impact offensively and defensively. This is where focusing on what is within direct control is the goal. Oftentimes, a player looks at the fact their team lost or the opposition scored and attributes that to their own poor performance. One the surface it’s natural to “own” that letdown; however, many times the breakdown is that of a teammate’s failure or an opponent’s talent. Coaches and players need to be careful in this arena of processing poor performance. Deflecting blame and absolving one’s self is not a solution — it’s actually quite a damaging behavior.
Losing presents us with opportunities to be critical of performance and to identify improvement points. These improvements must be controlled (manageable and realistic) and worked on as quickly as possible after a game. Decompression periods might be a necessity, but the sooner a player or team can get back out and work on the areas they fell short in during a bad game, the sooner they can improve and move on. This concept sounds like a no-brainer, but many players and coaches avoid their mistakes and weaknesses rather than focusing on them.
Maturity is an attribute everyone has to work at consistently. Maturity comes in a variety of forms and can always be honed. For a player or a coach to truly make progress, they need to exhibit growth in their maturity. Progress is dependent on an individual’s ability to learn from: their past mistakes, new skills, good examples (watching a better player operate in the same position). It’s also necessary to learn strategies to help keep them on the right path. These same individuals must also learn to listen. Listening is different than hearing. Most people get emotional when things go wrong and the first thing that goes out of the window (after technique) is their ability to listen. Listen to other people, especially those who have more extensive experiences and who are trying to help.
Application is paramount. Applying new principles and learned material is itself a skill. Without application, individuals spin their wheels and go in circles. Application requires a degree of controlled risk taking. Taking risks is important as it demonstrates boldness and the bravery to try something knowing that failure is a possibility. The next part is analyzing performance. When a player is asked how they played and they respond with one-word answers, they aren’t analyzing — they’re retorting. Self-analysis puts events into perspective. It’s also a great opportunity for an individual to be their own critic and get to the root of the problem. This whole exercise is the act of processing one’s performance.
Watching individuals, especially players, react to poor performance is quite revealing. Most youth players have unnecessary pressure as a constant in their lives. Oftentimes, that pressure is placed there by coaches and parents, but it can be of the player’s own doing as well. The level of dejection, sadness, anger, or apathy is often a learned behavior. For really young players, this is as much chemical as it is environmental. Beat a player down enough and these negative outcomes become their reality. For example, a player can literally learn to fear the response of their coaches, peers, and parents more than the result itself.
There is always another game to play — and another opportunity to improve. Bad games do not make bad playing “careers”; however, bad habits do. Bad habits are much more detrimental than any single game. Part of learning this lesson is realizing that performance mastery is more about consistency than anything else. Those who can churn out consistent positive performances have figured something out when others have stagnated and are mired in their own misery.
Bad games are not the same as bad results. A player or coach can have an abysmal game and their team can still win. This is dangerous. Try not to pair performance with results too far in this context. Yes, a good performance usually yields good results, but on the flip side, think of all the individuals who are bailed out by a result. This is why “winning ugly” is a thing in youth soccer. If performance is valued over arbitrary results early-on, learning becomes primary and scores become secondary. Of course, winning matters — it’s why we play the game, but remember to place learning on the same level as winning.
The last part of dealing with bad performances is realization. Realize that the game has come and gone. Understand your role in your performance and truly think about it at the micro and macro level. That means processing it as functionally as possible and then making the effort to move on; don’t dwell on the negative, but recognize your negative habits and work to eradicate them. Identify areas of improvement and be mature about them. The best players and coaches often take losing and poor performance personally. That doesn’t mean they punch holes in walls, kick puppies, or lash out at others. They process the event and work towards improvement instantly by separating emotion from reality.
Bad games are part of life. Don’t fear defeat, don’t run from your weaknesses, and don’t blame others for your shortcomings. Remove emotion from the event, don’t invite negativity, blame others, or whine. Figure out what you need to do to make immediate progress, even if it means listening to others, taking a step back, shutting your mouth, taking a breath, trying a new approach, whatever it is — get it done.
This article topic can be applied to all talent and age levels. However, the context of this article is not recreational soccer. The level of play described is USSDA or “academy” soccer.
What You Need to Know:
Technical improvement and training need not be complicated and fancy — it should be simple, to the point, and consistent.
Mastering the simple will make the complex seem simpler.
Young players have the creativity coached out of them too early and too often.
Self-analysis is a skill many players avoid out of a fear of addressing their weaknesses.
Practice is an act, not a place that fosters the majority of technical and fitness-based improvement.
Finding creative solutions to technical problems is still lost to many youth players.
True player development requires creativity.
Lately, I’ve seen discussions and debates of all types regarding player development. Plenty of important topics are ruminating around soccer circles on a larger scale than ever before, which is great. This article is not about the merits of one belief system or style of play over another. This article is about identifying and exploring the ways players approach necessary areas for improvement and providing some contextual explanations that hopefully lead to unique solutions and more clarity.
A few years ago, a former player of mine reached out to me asking for advice — technical in nature. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief that this player’s problems weren’t along the lines of: “My new coach doesn’t like me” and “I never get to play the position I’m best at” — to me, those are much more complicated and personal issues that I likely cannot (and will not) solve for a player.
Player: “Coach, I need help running with the ball. Like, I can dribble fine, but I don’t think I’m able really run with the ball, you know? My coach has me playing as a right midfielder so I have lots of opportunities to run at players but I slow down for some reason and when I try to dribble, it’s not like it used to be — I think I’m overthinking everything!”
Me: “Well, what did your coach say?”
Player: “He said that I can’t run with the ball…”
Me: “Can’t as in, you’re not allowed to run with the ball, or can’t as in you’re not able to physically?”
Player: “I guess both?”
Versatility is Great — to a Point
Now, anyone who’s communicated with a teenager knows that playing Twenty Questions is exhausting, so let’s process the situation. At the time, the player was 16-years-old and hoped to continue playing at a competitive level. He didn’t play high school soccer because of the rules set forth by USSDA. A utility midfielder by nature, this young man was at serious risk of falling victim to common plight for many young players of being a jack of all trades, master of none. He was experiencing the ebb and flow of a culture of idleness and complacency and what I refer to as: a player’s unwillingness and/or inability to “own” a position.
When a player is less dominant and doesn’t have any definite specialization to a position they are often confined to role playing assignments, which are important but often relegate players to being “fillers” and logging junk minutes. In essence, players who aren’t dominant enough on a consistent basis become afterthoughts in uniforms. Additionally, coaches tend to operate under a sense of obligation to play these players out of fairness and duty (to whom, I don’t know). This happens mainly because coaches often try to spread playing time out as “evenly” as possible for the role players — often to the detriment of the team and the player because they’re equating minutes with quality time. Those two factors are not the same.
Translation: You don’t dominate the position to the point of garnering more quality playing time, respect, and a bigger role in the team’s main tactical deployment.
Clearer Translation: You aren’t consistently good enough to leave NO doubt in the minds of the coach and of your teammates that you are the go-to player for that position.
The Real Talk Translation: He’s too nice and in seeking the approval of his peers and current coaches, he’s not working hard enough, being tough and bold enough to assert himself and claim a better role in the team.
Don’t Make a Problem an Issue
As a coach, I choose to look beyond the problem. So often, we get caught up in figuring out why a player is where they are instead of accepting the “here and now” and looking for solutions. Not once would laughing at him or mocking him for needing work on a skill that many might consider basic (running with the ball with proficiency) have helped him. Furthermore, most people confuse running with the ball with kicking the ball and then running after it. Those are not the same.
Let’s back up, though. At some point along this player’s development trajectory from when I coached him at the U13/14 level to the U17 level, he believed he’d unlearned the ability to run with the ball.
So, what’s the player’s real problem? Simple, he was his own worst enemy. He allowed the subjective assessments of others dominate his thought processes, motivation, and self-belief (or lack thereof). I’m a fan of players being their own biggest critics because it allows room for self-monitoring and gives players a sense of control over the day-to-day and instills a sense of responsibility. What I am not a fan of is players shrinking in the shadow of criticism and letting opportunity slip their fingers because “someone said something”.
The conversation continued.
Player: “We don’t really work on this at practice because…”
Me: “Stop. This is not something you can just “work on at practice” — do you understand?”
Me: “Look, you’re unsure what this coach means about how you “can’t” run with the ball. For argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s not allowed physically and tactically. Why would that be?”
Player: “Because…because the two are related?”
Me: “Tell me how and why…”
Player: “If I can’t run with the ball physically that makes me a liability on the field, right?”
Creative Players are Resilient Players
For those playing along at home, we’ve unearthed a few problems:
This is all just as much about the mental side as it is the technical side
Most people don’t know what practice actually is…
Problem solving requires creativity and critical thinking
This player lost his sense of creativity and in an effort to help , I provided less-than-conventional methods (to some, at least) to [re]acquire the skill. My advice: to literally run with the ball. He was to run with the ball through the neighborhood, around the park, at the school track. If he walked his dog, a ball had best be on his foot. The goal was to make the task as natural as possible. I made it clear, the exercise has no expiration date. Train this skill until this weakness becomes a strength. Then train it some more.
First, running with the ball is a crucial part of the game and he needed hours of practice working on something that apparently wasn’t refined enough to apply to meaningful competition. He also needed to do this on his own time away from his coach. Time and self-motivation doing the unglamorous can go a long way for a player. So, what’s so creative about running with a ball. Nothing really, but I figured if I could get him running with a ball on a variety of surfaces day after day, the process would be less foreign and awkward. Getting him to augment his stride, cadence/turnover, and ability to run with the ball at pace with his head up was paramount. His current coach didn’t have time to babysit him, nor is it that coach’s responsibility to do so. This deficiency was the player’s, not the coach’s.
Practice is an Act
We can hem and haw about sports psychology, coaching philosophies, and soccer politics all we want, but the fact is, for most players, merely “going to practice” isn’t cutting it. This is precisely because practice has become a term paired with a setting. The minute we can view practice in terms of the verb other than the noun, this makes more sense.
If we’re honest and considerate of time constraints, practice is NOT the ideal place to “learn” things. Stay with me, it’s more of a place to try the things you’ve already learned (literally the act of practice). That is, practice is a place where you try the things you’ve learned. Concepts and skills may be introduced at practice, but it’s very rarely going to be the environment those concepts and skills are truly honed.
In fact, at the higher levels of youth soccer practice is actually the congregating of a team to rehearse scenarios to be applied to match play. Training, however, is the grunt work players need to be doing on their own withouts seeking the approval of the coach. There is a big difference between training and practice as detailed here.
Perhaps the biggest issue is problem solving. Young players seek answers without understanding processes. Their approach to the problem presented stagnates them. Oftentimes, rather than first brainstorming ways to improve the one thing they control (the physical), it’s common for players to panic and over-analyze what’s happening and need reassurance along the way. Much of this is a result of their integration of a youth sporting system that hinges and sells itself on things like: winning at all costs, favoritism, and a lack of creativity.
Kicking a ball against a wall for hours helps develop and hone a skill set; and so does running with a ball. Thing is, running with a ball around the park seems “odd” and “unnatural” for many players. Players have been led to believe that dribbling through cones at a training session during warm-ups is sufficient. This is largely due to the absence of and failure to foster creativity in youth soccer. On trips to Europe throughout my upbringing, I saw players dribbling up and down the streets on their way to play street soccer. In Central and South America, I saw much of the same.
My assertion is our young soccer players can learn much from their basketball-playing counterparts. Basketball players truly interested in improving the technique and confidence take a ball with them everywhere they go. They’re dribbling up and down the neighborhood sidewalk, practicing free throws at the park for hours, doing crossovers in-stride as they walk to play pickup ball. Repetition, habit-formation, skill acquisition, consistency — all of these are accomplished outside of formal, organized playing environments.
Creativity is coached out of players early-on in [North] American soccer. Players need to get out and find ways to win, find ways to dominate their positions within their immediate talent pool, make time to train away from the formal team setting, and make problem solving an active exercise. Don’t focus on the fact there is an obstacle in the way; instead, focus on how to make a weakness into a strength.
Remember: It never gets easier, you just get better.
When I was ten years old, the soccer we played was defined by short passing and individual competence. After all, most of what we played was on Californian pavement with defiant weeds poking through the cracks. We played nearly every day either informally or with an organized team and from what I remember both environments necessitated players be skilled the ball, tough in the tackle, quick in transition, and somewhat ruthless in victory and defeat — at ten years old.
It was around this age where I figured out that losing was simply unacceptable; not because of the actual result, but the feeling of losing was what we loathed. But we didn’t dwell on defeat or sulk too long — that was a sign of weakness. After the initial sting of defeat, life went on and a new obstacle taunted our youthful exuberance. Growing up with Spanish heritage on my mother’s side and Irish roots on my father’s among friends of Mexican, Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Portuguese, and Bolivian descent in the United States wasn’t the typical American upbringing in the sporting sense. Culturally, that kind of amazing diversity is wholly American. The melding of culture, language (more specifically, dialect), socio-economics, and sport instilled in us a fiery approach to life. I didn’t grow up poor, but if we had any spare money my parents made sure it went to my three sisters and me. Their sense of profund selflessness borne out a dutiful motivation to ensure times weren’t as tough on their kids. Most of my buddies were the sons of at least one migrant worker or of single mothers and fathers. Those with still-married parents wouldn’t have known as much as the economic state of the pre-Dot-com boom of Silicon Valley forced middle class families to work more hours as inflation wrapped its gnarled hands around the state, and in essence, likely caused many spouses to “live divorced”.
But the soccer we played was not the soccer Americans were (or are) supposed to play. We didn’t have orange slices and Capri Suns. There were no chants of “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” after games. Instead one of Paulito’s or Gio’s older brothers made sure to tell us, “You see those guys? They think you’re illegals. They’re gonnalaugh at you because some of your moms are maids in their houses.”
And they weren’t wrong.
Back then, in South San Jose, neighborhoods were divisive. Invisible battle lines were drawn well before any of us were born. It wasn’t odd. It still doesn’t seem odd but then again I realize my upbringing wasn’t the conventional ‘soccer upbringing’ that decades of suburbanization, sport-centric coddling, and ‘wholesome’ portrayals rife with a sort of Frankenstein-esque mutilation of the world’s game with rainbow-colored Mylar sutures, carved on plasticized smiles, and an “it’s how you play the game” attitude gelatinous ooze coursing through its body.
Growing up, every time I saw a movie with a shiny, almost fake soccer ball with black and white hexagons being kicked around a lush grass field while a token character with “COACH” embroidered on the hat complete with a whistle and clipboard — I cringed. Every movie placing a golden retriever as the Number 10 or a boy posing as a girl and subsequently dominating the field mocked the game we played.
By and by, as the years passed I learned to find the pockets of the real American game where ever I lived. In San Jose it was on the streets and drought-ridden fields. In Sunnyvale and Palo Alto it was at parks where as a boy I played with men who wanted nothing more than to win just so they could be winners at something before going back to working their labor jobs. At least victory on Sunday meant they’d be winners — if only for a week.
In Chicago’s western suburbs where my family moved in 1997, the game I grew up playing existed in indoor facilities with metal detectors at the entrances, at CLASA (Chicago Latin American Soccer Association) or Polish, Croatian, or Serbian league games — a rite of passage earned only after shamelessly showing up and proving I could hang or, showing them up in beer league tournament games and being “recruited” to guest play for them. The game I played was split between the elite youth clubs that were too expensive for both myself and my younger sister to attend and the underground warehouse sessions in Chicago I heard about through “a friend of a friend who knew a guy”. I willingly sought out these chances to play so my sister could be the one to play high-level (expensive) club ball knowing that the options for good girls soccer was (and still might be) limited. Hell, I enjoyed being a journeyman at 14 and 15 years old.
I think that’s when I fully realized something was “off” regarding the soccer I played and the soccer that was presented to us. My teammates and opponents in club soccer were equally-talented and ruthless in their pursuit of progress and opportunities and yet, the malaise of the American soccer narrative was one of passiveness. Sure, the professional game was and is still worlds away from the organic soccer-infused cultures the world calls normal. And yes, many of us who grew up playing the grittier form of the game felt orphaned as more plasticized and maligned versions of soccer were paraded out on television like some sort of sporting minstrel show where again, a golden retriever now takes on the role of a talismanic Number 9 and scores all the goals.
Then came Europe. Dallas Cup represented the chance to play against elite competition. It was also about watching the elite teams from Europe and South America play a quicker, smarter, harder version of the game than it was anything else. So, it came as no surprise when my team defeated two local powerhouses Solar and Dallas Texans with relative ease as most of my team was of a more ruthless breed. We had been amalgamated and deployed to destroy the confidence of the sons of ‘soccer moms’. And we did so willingly. What did come as a surprise was an invitation to travel to Europe with a Dallas-based team to train and play for an indefinite length of time. The only thing I feared when the coach approached my parents was their having to tell him and me that we simply could not afford it.
We couldn’t afford it. But my dad picked up a second job at a sporting goods store making his total work day upwards of 16 hours a day. My mother made sacrifices and worked overtime, too. In Europe, I met my “teammates” all of whom treated me with contempt. I didn’t mind, I was there to play. Over the next months I stayed and played in Holland while making trips with my local team to Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, England, and Denmark where I experienced the game unleashed. Not once did I see a symbolically sad soccer ball with black and white hexagons. I rarely saw lush fields as most of the soccer was in cages, on cinder fields, or courts with the grass being saved for weekend matches.
Sleeping in airports, taking mutiple ferries across the North Sea until I was seasick just to play in a few tournaments, learning how to actually condition a pair of kangaroo leather boots, setting multiple timers to keep from missing train stops, buying international calling cards in bulk, clutching cash, a few photos of my parents and Siberian Husky back home, and my passport, close at all times — all to experience world soccer was less foreign than it sounds. In fact, it was a slight return to the grittiness that accompanied the game I played as a child.
But eventually, all adventures come to an end and windows of opportunity slam shut. Through the years I excelled at the joke that was high school soccer and played collegiately as college soccer was the pinnacle for my generation. Hell, if you do the math it is plausible that scholarship athletes made more than rookies in Major League Soccer back then.
I still feel the same way about soccer now as I did way back when. The soccer presented to us is not the soccer we played. The narrative still favors those who speak to experiences of privilege that have become synonymous with youth soccer — flashy uniforms, colorful shoes, pizza parties, parents who know the politics of team selection and coach swaying, and kids being dropped off en masse in minivans. We are told the American player has arrived while ignoring the history of hundreds of journeymen who played and paved the way professionally before it was glamorous to attempt to earn a paycheck to kick a ball while being American. Sure, things may be getting better but that doesn’t mean they’re good enough for those who, oddly and fondly enough, share more of kindred upbringing with our basketball, football, and baseball players than we ever can with those play the same sport we did.
I am 10 years old and we have played the first half against a team of older boys from Alum Rock in the fiery competition of the Bay Area’s Umberto Abronzino Peninsula league of the early 1990’s. To my right is Michael, whose right eye is swelling shut; I’m picking the bits of dirt out of my reopened kneecap scabs, Ernie is arguing with his brother, and Danny is swigging water like a boxer spitting it out while locking eyes with their players, itching to hurt someone — and yes, we know he’s posturing, but they don’t.
We are up three goals to zero and we’ll score more and we’ll win the game, but it doesn’t matter because we have to win and they have to lose. You see the difference and the connection, right? Yeah, it sounds crazy and even at ten years old, I know it is, but for us, a ragtag collection of players baked in the Northern Californian sun — soccer is more than a game.
These are haunting words. Such a phrase is applicable to all facets of life, work, and sport. For young players, the advice they receive from coaches and parents is often only retained in snippets, if at all. People learn from experiences — both good and bad — and the real test and lessons usually come years down the road and those tests don’t have a “re-take” option.
The most startling realizations the truly dedicated players arrive at are generally much too late to apply “when it matters”. Coaches know this all too well as do parents trying to raise their children to be the best versions of themselves as possible. Advice is important, but not as important as an individual’s ability to apply that advice before the game passes them by.
The following is a simple list of advice points that at some time or another players don’t receive, they ignore, or they are too caught up in other things(away from the sport) to fully appreciate.
What’s at Stake?
Find your purpose in the game. Are you playing because it’s something mom and dad expect of you, or are you playing because you want to play? Or, better yet, what do you want to get out of your playing experiences and what will you do in the likely event things don’t work out the way you expected (or wanted) them to? Without finding a purpose for playing, you run the risk of being a rudderless ship going through the motions. That lump in your throat becomes fear and that weight on your shoulder becomes apathy. Define your purpose and revisit and change it when necessary.
Urgency is Currency. The window of time a serious player has to maximize their chances is ever-closing. Young players need to understand that it all goes by a lot quicker than they think — such is life. Be urgent and consistent about your development and supplemental work. One hour here and another hour there applied to your game (over watching TV or playing video games) will pay dividends. Urgency does not mean rushing the process; it means not procrastinating and relying on false hopes that success “will just happen”. Fitness, skill acquisition, getting match reps, goal-setting — all of these are urgent needs and they’re all linked and they require thousands of unsupervised, thankless, and unglamorous hours of supplemental work.
Assess your attitude. The more competitive the player, the more fiery the attitude. This never really changes. High-level training environments wire players to be their own coaches and consequently, their own worst enemies and biggest critics. You will have outbursts — that’s fine. But think about your attitude and then ask yourself, “Would I coach me? If so, how would I handle myself at my worst?”
Measure your aptitude. Great players are always aware of their progress in relation to their respective talent and competition pools. They understand that when they’ve flubbed the majority of their left-footed shots at training or in match play that they had better remedy that weakness rather than avoiding it entirely. Great players don’t miss workouts, log their activities, and they make soccer a lifestyle, not a chore. Furthermore, they don’t hide from challenges. When they’re coughing the ball up to the opposition due to a poor first touch, they spend as much time as it takes to hone that skill on their own until that weakness becomes a strength.
Invest in your game. It’s not a trade secret that if you want to go far in the game you’re going to have to spend some money to do so. This is a reality of [North] American soccer. However, you must learn to spend your money intelligently. Things that aren’t worth the money include but are not limited to: $300 synthetic boots, an official UEFA Champions League ball to kick around with your buddies once a month, every single version of a team’s kit year after year. What is worth it? Spend that $300 boot allowance on buying two or three pairs of leather boots at $100/each — they’ll last longer. Buy good equipment, but don’t spend foolishly. It’s OK to wait until next year to get this year’s kit.
Attention to detail is everything. Habits don’t take “good” and “bad” into account — they will form no matter what. It is ultimately up to the player to develop more good habits than bad ones. Coaches, of course, play a pivotal role here. Attention to detail is paramount to the a player’s development. For example, a player who breaks down the process of creating space for a shot or preparing their body position to receive the ball with a great first touch is paying attention to detail. On a more academic level, attention to detail is a skill that manifests in the form of listening to your coach, trainers, the material you read, and applying the little things correctly to make the big things happen. The Dutch method of player development is the model for attention to detail.
Be a river, not a pond. Your journey in the game is going to place plenty of obstacles in your path. You have a few choices: you can stop and sulk or you can navigate around or through those obstacles. The serious players and coaches are rivers — they never stop going forward, they circumvent obstacles, they stay in motion, and find a way to get to the next destination — even if it means creating a new path. Team Super Elite Academy Premier didn’t select you because of reason X, Y, Z and some politics on the side? Great. Now what do you want to do? Quit or find an alternative team or environment to keep you going forward? The not-so-serious players are ponds. They stagnate and accumulate junk in their lives and become dumping grounds for the others toss refuse into. They invite everyone to pollute their progress and eventually dry up and wither away. Understanding and living this metaphor takes skill and persistence. In all reality, good players, coaches, and parents must learn to push forward and not be hampered by the past or even the present. Let go of that bad season, that awful miss in front of goal, your high school coach who didn’t care. Furthermore, let go of the idea that you didn’t “get yours” — not many people do, you still have a stake in the game in some capacity. The game is not fair, and guess what, neither is life.
You don’t know what you don’t know. This is perfect advice for everyone. Some of my best coaches — ones who played the game at the highest levels in European football — once told the player pool I was in a few things that probably needed to be said many years beforehand. The first was (excuse the harsh language), “F*** what you think you know….”The second was a more visual lesson. We were asked to stand on a sideline as the coaches asked those of us who were “All-State”, “All-Conference”, “All-Region”, “All-Universe” (yes, they said that) to step forward. We all stepped forward as they kept naming “accolades” of youth soccer until we were nose-to-nose with the staff, many of whom played for the Senior National Team, played professionally in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, and around Europe and South America. Once we were in front of them they asked, “Who here has lost a contract because they missed a penalty shot?”, “Who here has had darts and AA batteries thrown at them during a game?”, “Who here has had bags of piss thrown at them getting off a bus to play an away game?” Not one of us 16-year old’s could step forward. The most experienced coach then said, “Now you know who you’re dealing with…Now you know to remember this phrase: You don’t know what you don’t know.“
As a young player, I was plagued by living in absolutes. What that means is in my mind, for many years, I had really good days or really dreadful days. But the reality is there will be more unnoticed days than good or bad ones. Those days are the real meat and potatoes of how you develop in the craft. Those days are the “consistency” required to make headway. It wasn’t until I was about 16-years old that I finally decided to apply the stuff I learned from my travels and experiences to my game. Things like understanding how to put things in perspective, how to simplify my routines, how to set attainable goals, how to listen to coaches while sifting through the rah-rah talk and retaining the good information, how to deal with criticism, etc.
As a coach, I learned really quickly that what was easy for me might not be as easy for current players because it wasn’t easy for me at one point; such is the skill of teaching (coaching). The best advice I received as a young coach was to become a blank slate or empty jar and let more experienced coaches contribute to your learning. In other words, you don’t know as much as you think you know.
Hopefully, a few of these lessons can benefit you in some way and hopefully, you can avoid hearing the phrase: If only I knew then what I know now — at least regarding these lessons.
When I see or hear this phrase my skin crawls. Why? Because these are the words of someone who “has it all figured out” regarding the American game. I’ve promised myself time and time again that I wouldn’t entertain this topic, but the argument has wormed its way onto my radar, again. Before we get going, this is all based on what I believe to be true.
A friend recently contacted me to ask my opinion on fitness in youth soccer. His grandson (aged (U-15/16) plays what is considered “academy” soccer and was tasked with being responsible for his fitness (on his own time) so the coach could focus more on technique-based and tactical instruction at training. The coach, a former high-level player himself, asked that players do the bulk of their fitness, which included running and strength training on their own time. I see nothing wrong with this as someone who coaches, works a full-time job, and whose time is a fleeting commodity, I can empathize. However, the conversation picked up steam when my friend informed me that parents were taking issue with this coach’s request.
Some parents felt it was the coach’s responsibility to ensure the players’ fitness levels were adequate. In [youth] soccer, it’s pretty difficult to accomplish all the tasks we’d like to in a given season, let alone with single training sessions. I realize the times have changed and parents see themselves as customers, and in their world — the customer is never wrong. To me, every player at the aforementioned age, skill and commitment level, has a responsibility to look out for their own fitness, diet, sleep/rest patterns, off field decision-making, observation and study of the game, and supplemental technical work — on their own time.
Quite frankly, the fitness needs of a higher-level U-15/16 player aren’t off-the-charts staggering and can be maintained and improved upon with a steady program of supplemental running and soccer. Yes, it takes effort and diligence. Yes, players will fail in this area and yes, those players deserve to be benched when their talent pool and/or opposition outworks them. Running 8-10Km five days a week with varying implementations isn’t difficult. The lazy will find excuses. The diligent will log miles.
The conversation was less about soccer and more about athletic application and output. Simple stuff, or so I thought. Later that night, someone cruelly tagged me in a Twitter thread with someone whose assertion was the “best athletes” do not play soccer and therefore, the U.S. will continue to stagnate and under-perform on the world’s stage. I thought about the fitness discussion. Then, I pondered why people gravitate to the ‘best athlete myth’ (yes, it’s a myth to me) regarding soccer.
Before we delve into that abyss of insanity I want you to ask yourself a simple question: What does the best athlete look like? Think about it. Form a mental picture of that supreme athletic specimen in your mind. Take a mental screenshot.
OK, brace yourself for this is about to get weird.
What if, for argument’s sake, our best athlete’s are the soccer players?
In this context, “best” would mean most well-rounded.
I implore you to pump the brakes if your heart rate is increasing and your brain is firing on all cylinders with counterarguments (see below); take a breath.
We could post pictures of the ‘best’ athletes in basketball, American football, baseball, track and field, ice hockey, etc. and they would no doubt be impressive — massive and toned physiques, their VO2 Max capacities of varying yet impressive output, their fast-twitch muscle fibers waiting to fire, their muscle striations highlighted by excellent airbrushing — and I can still confidently make the assertion that I feel the best athletes are the soccer players.
Let’s revisit the question: What makes this perceived ‘best athlete’, the one who doesn’t play soccer, a superior athlete to a high-level soccer player? Their 40-yard dash time, vertical jump capabilities? Is it their bench press, squat, and dead lift totals? What is it?
Look, watching a wide receiver running routes and shaking defenders at breakneck speeds is amazing. A basketball player’s ability to leap from the free throw line to dunk is astonishing. Watching a sprinter set the track ablaze is nothing short of captivating. And guess what — in a sport like soccer much of this does not translate as much people would lead us to believe it translates.
But let’s continue…what if these athletes chose soccer over these other sports when they were younger?
Great question! Ready for the answer? These would not look or function like the archetypal athlete (the one you saved the image of in your head) looks and functions like. (Yes, that one — with the bulging muscles capable of running through a brick wall.) Consider this: if a would-be wide receiver decided to play soccer early on — those routes he runs would look a lot different and would likely be less impressive, maybe even less explosive and dynamic.
If a basketball player standing six-feet, ten-inches tall decided to abandon a career in hoops and take up soccer, I have no doubt he would win most of the headers blasted his way — but I’m not quite sure how his size 19 feet would handle the footwork processes necessary to succeed in high level soccer, which is a game whose evolution puts more focus on speed, footwork, coordination and balance, and the ability to play more than one position and one more never-talked-element: Intelligence.
I’m not suggesting players with big feet aren’t capable of being great soccer players and aren’t intelligent. I am suggesting that the Eden Hazard’s, Leo Messi’s, and Philippe Coutinho‘s of the world would make mincemeat of the oafish super athletes America idealizes and fawns over to play soccer. (Before you say it, Peter Crouch is not the athletic specimen we aspire to base such arguments on.)
Speaking of specialized positions, we already produce fantastic goalkeepers — perhaps due to the multi-sport upbringing of American athletes, or maybe because that position is less about creativity and more about reacting — that debate is open, yet not as pertinent to me.
Modern soccer is a skill game. Power, fitness, balance, and strength are all necessities. This is a ‘Sweat Equity’ argument at its core, which again, doesn’t account for intelligence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving in an unscripted sport (one without timeouts and a playbook).
And, that brutish “super” athlete might have one or two of those attributes, but would it translate well to soccer? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that American soccer players excel in those purely athletic-based categories. Marvell Wynne is arguably one of the best pure athletes to play professional soccer. But he isn’t playing in the world’s top leagues. He’s not even in the current National Team setup. And that’s not to insult him, it’s to prove a simple point.
If soccer was purely about linear speed, the ability to smash through other bodies, and overpower the opposition in short, scripted incremental plays like American football and basketball — the original argument might hold more validity. The reality begs the question: how does an athlete like that thrive in a sport requiring a player to run at maximum velocity forwards, backwards, side-to-side — for 90 minutes?
Note: the Methods and Conclusion are more important than the formula — the actual case study is linked.
Methods: Nineteen male elite junior soccer players, age 18.1 +/- 0.8 yr, randomly assigned to the training group (N = 9) and the control group (N = 10) participated in the study. The specific aerobic training consisted of interval training, four times 4 min at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with a 3-min jog in between; twice per week for 8 wk. Players were monitored by video and heart rate monitors during two matches, one before and one after training.
Results: In the training group: a) maximal oxygen uptake ( O2max) increased from 58.1 +/- 4.5 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 64.3 +/- 3.9 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); b) lactate threshold improved from 47.8 +/- 5.3 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 55.4 +/- 4.1 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); c) running economy was also improved by 6.7% (P < 0.05); d) distance covered during a match increased by 20% in the training group (P < 0.01); e) number of sprints increased by 100% (P < 0.01); f) number of involvements with the ball increased by 24% (P < 0.05); g) the average work intensity during a soccer match, measured as percent of maximal heart rate, was enhanced from 82.7 +/- 3.4% to 85.6 +/- 3.1% (P < 0.05); and h) no changes were found in maximal vertical jumping height, strength, speed, kicking velocity, kicking precision, or quality of passes after the training period. The control group showed no changes in any of the tested parameters.
Conclusion: Enhanced aerobic endurance in soccer players improved soccer performance by increasing the distance covered, enhancing work intensity, and increasing the number of sprints and involvements with the ball during a match.
Soccer players are forced perform in sustained periods of oxygen debt as a given in the sport (recall ‘Sweat Equity’). Timeouts are a luxury that allow more recovery for the vaunted “best” athletes in American football and to a lesser degree, in basketball, which is more aerobic. I contend that many people who subscribe to “if the best American athletes played soccer” belief haven’t played the game at a high level — NCAA Division I or top NAIA programs being the bare minimum level here (in my opinion).
Admittedly, as a former Division I soccer player myself, those levels aren’t that high in the global context. But if these know-it-alls had played at least at the highest collegiate level they might know that the body control required in soccer is unlike many other sports. Collisions are not the objective and the absence of skill, intelligence, and creativity on and off the ball renders a player quite useless in high level, meaningful competition — these are also attributes that are coached out of players in this country all too often and all too early.
You’re probably still unconvinced at what I’ve presented, so I’ll play along with the “best athlete” argument.
Think about the time in years it takes for these supreme athletes to reach peak conditioning? Many are in their early-to-mid 20’s by the time they’re considered athletic specimens. Most get their first taste of the professional game when they’re 22-years old provided they attended a university, right? (Yes, I know Lebron James skipped college ball).
In soccer, the world’s best are playing in professional settings at 18-years of age (or before). Furthermore, think about the raw time in the gym, on the track, and in the cafeteria these athletes must spend to become the “best” athlete — that’s time they’re not spending on technique, tactical training, and skill work and is what the world’s game thrives on.
The total time for peak athletic conditioning to be reached alone immediately places the super athlete at a severe and unrecoverable disadvantage in categories like tactical competence, [professional] match experience, and technical ability to name a few.
In reality, this is less about physiques, fast twitch muscle fibers, 40-yard dash times, and bench press maxes than people think. What this argument papers over can be summed up in two words: open access. For example, I grew up in a questionable part of San Jose, California well before the dot-com boom. The crime rate was high in areas close to our house and I found myself playing street soccer with Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, Bolivian, Portuguese, and Guatemalan kids because that was the game we had access to.
But across the U.S., the game played in most of the impoverished cities and communities isn’t soccer. It’s baseball, basketball, and American football. And that’s beautiful. What’s not beautiful is the fact that the supposed leaders of American soccer, including the United States Soccer Federation, aren’t present in the inner cities or rural towns to the degree required to make a significant change.
You know who is? That’s right, American football, baseball, and basketball programs, top universities with dedicated scouting networks, organizations, and associations are scouring these areas unearthing talents, putting on clinics, and targeting the most promising players early and often. U.S. Soccer says it has a “Diversity Committee”, but it’s not reaching the kids who become “the best athletes” partly because soccer is largely an elitist sport.
This, combined with the fact most kids who do play don’t dream of playing in Major League Soccer when they grow up — even in suburban communities is a recipe for apathy and mediocrity. Instead, American soccer players dream of playing in Europe. The combination of a lack of real presence in all communities (that I’m sure would love access to good coaching, equipment, and environments to play) by those claiming to ‘grow the game’ paint a different picture of the state of American soccer’s niche culture.
If we disagree on everything else, let’s at least try to agree that there is no singular, authoritative definition of ‘the best athlete’.
Soccer is, in many ways, a sporting version of chess. It requires athleticism to a degree that would place many of the perceived ‘best’ athletes in cardiac arrest within minutes. Soccer places stress on the muscles that continue to make me, a lifelong soccer player, scoff at Major League Baseball players who pull up lame after running 90-feet rounding second base.
What people seem to misunderstand is soccer requires a player to be creative individually and cooperative collectively for lengths of time that differ greatly from the main “American sports”. There are no playbooks, no TV timeouts, or offensive and defensive coordinators on the sidelines dictating and thinking for the players.
Note: I’m not suggesting that soccer players could step on the field in the NFL, MLB, or on the court in the NBA. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that a soccer player wouldn’t tear ligaments in their arm trying to throw the ball with the velocity and control of a professional baseball player.
The argument matters because it’s based in ignorance. The haphazard and broad-brushing of the original assertion is typical of American sports culture. What is still lacking is a true soccer culture spread across the nation. The hotbeds and pockets of support for the sport in the U.S. are amazing and for them, I’ve said nothing they don’t already know. As long as soccer is seen as a ‘kids’ sport, or something akin to an activity every kid plays once in their life before moving on to the ‘real sports’, we’ll continue to hear a degree of ignorance laying claim to the solution for American soccer.
Even more to the point is the connection between sports like basketball, baseball, and American football to soccer abroad. In reality, we aren’t that far off from solving the real riddle here. The systemic and root problems are similar. For example, in a Brazilian favela, a player will dedicate their life to escape a harsh environment using futebol as a tool.
This isn’t dissimilar to what happens in the U.S. with athletes using the aforementioned sports as a way to better their circumstance. The United States hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of this aspect in soccer — it is, however, a socioeconomic and open access matter. In linear form: Less exorbitant pay-to-play + more affordable coaching education = more open access
TL;DR version: The issue is not one of pure athletic performance, but rather one centered on creating intelligent players (Soccer IQ) who can maximize the opportunities, infrastructure, sporting advantages available in the United States along with creating better coaching education. Anyone who argues differently doesn’t understand soccer in the appropriate global context and is broad-brushing the argument with revisionist tactics.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”
Think about what that means and ask yourself how many times you’ve been punched in the mouth and left to pick your teeth up off the pavement. Take that as literally or figuratively as you want — that’s the tone of this entry.
Serious versus Recreational. The difference is stark and both paths are wonderful for very different reasons. The problem is when we confuse the two — or allow the two to bleed together. In the United States, soccer is one of those things where people take the recreational approach and expect serious results. I’m not kidding. Casual attitudes pollute the well of serious development. The ground of serious development is soaked with tears, blood, and spit, and players will be baptized by all three trying to become a better version of themselves.
At the risk of sounding harsh, I’ll say this: the “average” player remains nothing more than someone participating in an activity involving 21 other average participants chasing a ball around on a field. Now, before you get offended (see “The Law of Averages” for my thoughts on “being offended”) let me say this: I have no problem with passive, recreational, or casual soccer. Hell, these days, sometimes I’d rather be around players who have fun rather than around those who arrive at the field like the game is some sort of chore and claim they’re “serious” about getting better.
OK, what classifies a serious player? It’s quite simple: A player who aspires to play the game to the best of their ability and is willing to persevere, sacrifice, suffer, and toil away in the pursuit of excellence and advancement.
Here’s the great part: What a serious player learns in soccer they can apply in life. Things like dedication, deep practice, focus, resiliency, competition — these are all byproducts of life. Babying now leads to weakness in the future.
I have a simple rule when players approach me looking for advice — train like a soccer player. That’s it. What you do on your own time is of little-to-no concern to me because I don’t keep players around or entertain conversations with those who aren’t serious about their craft. That’s not meant to be an insult, I’m just not a recreational coach, which is a very skilled, valuable, and difficult job in its own right.
Everyone wants to be a serious soccer player until the point they have to do what serious soccer players do on a daily basis, which includes but is not limited to the following:
Giving up things like friends, sleep, and time with significant others to apply themselves to the trade.
Shedding sensitivity, fear, timidness, and resistance to learning. These players get dropped like a bad habit as the stakes are raised in serious environments.
Studying the game. This means watching the teams locked in relegation or Champions League qualification battles, not just the glamorous ones.
Eating, sleeping, training, and playing like a serious player. You like soda and fast food? Well, so do all the other out of shape, casual jokes plodding around out there. Get serious or get lost. Want to play video games until 3 am? Great, you have just relinquished your excuse to “be tired” at training the next day.
Supplemental training. Get at least 10,000 touches a day on the ball. (Serious players over the age of 12).
Your ego, kill it. Listen to those who are trying to help you. Yes, this means your coach, teachers, parents, and teammates. Much of the advice will be mixed with other messages you don’t feel like listening to — learn to shift through the bad advice (ignore it) and retain the useful stuff. No, you aren’t good enough, yet.
Excuses: Get rid of them.
Battles: I see this all the time, players who refuse to listen or subscribe to information that will help them. In many facets of life, there is time for a player to “find their own way”. In serious soccer development, the hourglass has been flipped and time slips away regardless of whether you “feel like” listening.
Self-discovery and specialization are two concepts that get tossed around often. Here’s the no-bullshit way of looking at these things:
Self-discovery: I firmly believe players are responsible for their own game. A coach or parent can instill/introduce lessons, point out mistakes, lecture and pontificate until they’re blue in the face, but if the player isn’t receiving that message (the norm) it’s seldom a matter of if they’ll learn it. It’s a matter of when they learn it. The”if” comes into play when it’s too late — which is often the case.
Parents and coaches of young players (aged 7-11) — let them learn, make mistakes, absorb and enjoy the game. They’re “discovering” the game still. Should the player show promise and want to take a more serious route, heed this advice: around age of 12, in my opinion, things should start to change. By this age, a player on the more competitive, serious route likely has a good four-to-five years of playing and exposure to the game under their belt. This is when players start to separate from the pack. I encourage the shift from age-appropriate work to skill-appropriate work around this age. What’s that mean? If a kid is 10-years old but can play with and benefit from playing with older, more talented players — give it a whirl even at the expense of “losing more games” because the reps and experience they are gaining will lead to improvement (more wins for those addicted to results) in the future. Too often, players are “held back” because society dictates they “stay with their friends”, which is fine — for the recreational players.
Adolescents are an anomaly, so it only makes sense that adolescent players are a riddle box of complexity. No, they don’t want to tell you the truth, hear what you have to say, admit you are/were right and they are/were wrong. Adolescents rather not give a damn about anything but their social life, themselves, and their immediate survival needs (food, shelter, Instagram followers, etc), Resistance to learning and advice is normal, but so is teaching them new concepts. Much of this is merely biological — they’re still forming pathways and their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior) is still developing. No matter how many times you tell them to do something, they can’t see the logic in your words — or they’re programmed to be stubborn because it gets a rise out of you and they are “rebelling”.
Translation: Players are malleable. This is both good and bad. Players are also impulsive and trying to “change” their way of thinking isn’t going to happen easily. The parents and coaches who make the biggest strides are the ones who change their own approach — even if that means backing off for a bit. Keep in mind, waiting for a player to “get it” often results in their window closing. The game stops for no one.
The takeaway: Self-discovery is a never-ending process. Players must decide and discover what works and what doesn’t work. They must learn what is acceptable and unacceptable, if they’re coachable or uncoachable. Coaches often waste far too much time on these uncoachable players, trying to control them and force thoughts and lessons into a resistant brain. Don’t do that — move on. Let the player fail. Let them fall down, lose, get cut, sit the bench, and battle adversity. Competition is about separating the weak from the strong — the environment dictates this, not the coach or parent.
Specialization: In my opinion, this is a murky term. As a kid, I played a ton of sports and was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities and had a diverse group of friends. There is nothing wrong with variety and exposure to different skills, sports, challenges, and activities. But very early on, I made the decision to focus on soccer, which didn’t change my world, it just allocated my energy, time, and efforts towards soccer over the other sports.
If a player is on the serious route — that is, they give a shit if they win, lose, get cut, improve, or stagnate — specialization becomes mandatory. In the United States, there’s this bullshit idea that our best athletes should play soccer. In this bullshit world of fantasy conjured up by equally bullshit sportswriters posing as experts and multisport fans who view the mysteries of soccer as something they arrogantly can unravel — like a Lebron James would be a better player than a Lionel Messi — the only certainty is argument and ignorance. Don’t entertain that conversation. Focus on what is, not what someone who is a part-time observer of soccer “thinks”. In this idiotic world of American soccer mindsets, a Leo Messi can be “produced” by a mediocre league.
Here’s my take, how about getting our best soccer players to play soccer? That’s it. There are entirely too many charlatans who have subscribed to this watered down idea that over-scheduling, over-stimulating, and enabling players will produce talent on-par with what the world produces. There are entirely too many shills, hacks, and fan-driven “articles” out there spewing nonsense. Stop feeding the trolls. Focus more on what you know to be true, try learning a few things along the way for yourself, and focus on building instead of destroying.
Specialization is the choice of the player — or it should be. Guided-discovery is important (leading and encouraging a player in a direction for their holistic benefit). Once the decision to specialize takes place, the real work begins. At that point, the list above becomes important. Here, resistance to learning becomes regression in playing ability. Specialization works when the approach (the input) is filtered of the impurities (distractions, excuses, over-emotional decisions, etc). in order to yield a viable and worthy product (output). Few things are more frustrating than a player capable of doing more (or better) who opts to do less (or worse), but the game is best teacher. That player will either learn or they will join the ranks of the those who missed out.
True development requires more hours, touches/reps, sessions, and failures than most people can fathom. If getting 10,000 extra touches a day on the ball seems excessive for you that’s because it is — for you. Head to a favela, barrio, or just find an environment in any sport where players will claw, fight, and scrap their way to get out — ask them if getting extra work in is “too inconvenient”. A player who has nothing will fight for every opportunity. A player who has been given everything is often at risk of losing it all. It’s a matter of mindset.
Self-Discovery and Specialization are essential in soccer and in life. The world’s top players specialized and spent years on the path of self-discovery well before they became the world’s top players. The path to greatness is like the path up Mount Everest — it’s littered with the bodies of those who took the wrong turn, made a poor decision, gave up, or weren’t strong enough. Failure is inevitable, however, those repeated failures lead to success.
The path to greatness isn’t free, but it doesn’t cost money. On the path to greatness the currency is time and effort — time is scarce, but effort is something anyone can spend in abundance.