A Lesson in Losing and Accountability

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

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

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

Society in a nutshell:


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So, what’s the lesson in losing?

Watch this:

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

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

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

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

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

To that end, you are never done losing.

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

To evolve, you must learn to lose.

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

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

How many tomorrow’s have become yesterday’s?

How long are you willing to let that happen?

You don’t get those days back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the weak-minded and unmotivated crumble.

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on progress…then focus on perfection.

Fitness as a Lifestyle

Running abroad

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

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

sugar loaf west


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

So how does this relate to soccer?

Mental endurance is as important as physical endurance

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

great sugar loaf


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

Fitness should be a lifestyle, not a preseason task

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

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

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

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

footy cage

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

Stealing Time for Fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best way to get fit is by playing the game

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

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

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

Fitness is what works for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is holding American soccer back?

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

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

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

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

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US Soccer MLS

Read  |  The Fermi Paradox of American soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read  |  The cost of $100 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, perception is everything.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

The Art of Self-Sabotage

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those people are in it for different reasons.

These people are not part of your journey.

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

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

Rules to Play By

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

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

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

Chaos Theory

Circus Time

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

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

Welcome to American Soccer.

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

Chaos Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is More Than Trivia

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

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

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

Purposeful Coaching

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

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

Technique on Your Time, Tactics on Mine 

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

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

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

Find the Real Purpose of Everything and Anything

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

Believe me, this isn’t a deep question.

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

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

And that player is not wrong.

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

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

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

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

See the Value in Everything and Anything

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

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

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