Chaos Theory

Circus Time

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

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

Welcome to American Soccer.

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

Chaos Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is More Than Trivia

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

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

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

Purposeful Coaching

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

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

Technique on Your Time, Tactics on Mine 

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

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

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

Find the Real Purpose of Everything and Anything

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

Believe me, this isn’t a deep question.

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

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

And that player is not wrong.

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

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

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

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

See the Value in Everything and Anything

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

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

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

Haste Makes Waste

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a quick story:

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

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

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

“What?” I asked in disbelief.

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

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

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

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

Some people like to hear their own voices.

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

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

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

That’s when I heard him at it again.

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

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

We have too much of a good thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning back to where we started…

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

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

The answers are there and they are painfully simple.

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

Thank me later.

Exercise of the Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve admired this for years.

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

Now, how does this apply to soccer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The State of Play and Dismay

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

Coach Ability vs. Coach-ability

This post is a look at the college soccer experience and reflects the graft and grind required to persevere and learn a few things along the way — more life lessons than anything related to soccer. This recollection does not reflect anyone’s views but my own. I write about the college soccer experience as this is the level most youth players aim to reach. 

January, 2006 — sheets of sleet rained down on the first day back from winter break as myself and the other members of Men’s soccer team filed into the Shively Strength and Conditioning facility at the University of Kentucky, which like everywhere else, was locked in the dead of winter. Gone was the vibrancy of summer workouts, PDL competition, and preseason’s anxious excitement. The buzz of expectation had come and gone as many reflected back on the ‘what might have been’s’, ‘why didn’t you’s…’, and ‘if only’s’ as the university’s ancillary team of fitness coaches and physios readied us for the unglamorous task of off-season workouts.

Reporting back from a month away from campus (and structure), which was comprised of decompressing in the form of sleeping in, eating like an idiot, drinking with hometown buddies, and playing a few pick-up games (maybe) was always interesting. Most of us knew there would be Hell to pay in the form of fitness tests, flexibility assessments, and the re-introduction to a somewhat regular fitness regimen.

It took me exactly one collegiate year of playing Division I ball to ‘figure it out’ when it came to the enigma that is ‘the off-season’. At our level, we all knew that for serious players, there is no real off-season — just short breaks of supplementary play and fitness retention.

Gone were the seniors and guys that transferred out at semester’s end; what remained was the rather unmotivated nucleus of a team, a roster whittled down, that trained like madmen for a hacked-up Spring season where, in the eyes of the players, very little mattered in terms of things to ‘play for’. Once you understand the politics of college soccer at this level (in this case, Division I), you understand that new recruits and transfers on scholarship dollars would command playing time whether their actually ability and work rate suggested their asses should be on the track, in the weight room, or on the bench.

You also understood that recently available scholarship funds were briefly up for grabs in the forms of book money, a few credit hours paid for, and maybe some housing funds to be spread out among those who’d earned the paltry reward as most college players were ‘in need’.

I remember talking to a former club coach who astutely posed the question (which I will now pose for you): Do you know the difference between Coach ability and Coach-ability?

The following is what you need to know.

The sobering reality remains the same: it is up to the collegiate player to utilize the resources at their disposal in the form of strength and conditioning coaches, tutors, professors, counselors, and physios to keep themselves focused, in-shape, and healthy.

In fairness, coaches have to justify and validate their recruiting decisions and the currency of this transaction was always playing time. College soccer, at least how I experienced it, was just as much about a coach’s ability as it was a player’s coach-ability.

So, what does this really mean?

It’s simple; or at least it is now as I reflect on those times. A coach at this vaunted level of the game in the United States and Canada has results-based decisions to make. Coaches have a set number of scholarships to allocate and they have to extract every ounce of sweet, blood, and effort from their team as a 3-to-4 month sprint of a season approaches. In theory, it’s sometimes more politics than it is performance-based — and if you’ve played college ball, you understand what this means as you often find players amongst your ranks that are more track athlete, bookworm, equipment manager, than soccer player; and that’s OK.

For players, it’s about being coachable. Recall that roster I mentioned — it has soccer players and it has the others. The others, as it were, are actually more important than people think. They’re the ones who coach sought out or who can afford to attend (don’t sap the scholarship funds) the school and won’t complain so long as they’re part of the team.

Oftentimes, these players will run through a starter, outwork everyone, and have their own agenda because their playing career up to this point has been one built-on blue collar principles. If you’re reading this as a skilled high school player, be warned — this player is lurking out there, waiting to take your spot on the dress squad. Are you going to let that happen? Start thinking about and doing something about that now. If you’re mailing it in now, don’t bother playing collegiate ball — you’ll get destroyed again and again. And mom and dad won’t be able to complain to anyone.

Many of them you’ll consider ‘in the way’ or subpar, and in pure soccer terms, that might be true. However, these players are coachable. They will put their head where others put their boots because they want to play and don’t know how to express themselves other than through a flurry of energetic output — often to the detriment of anyone playing on their team during training. Coaches love these assets. They are pawns who respawn after getting tackled, running until they drop during a Beep Test, and hold onto every word the coaches and captain says. These fine individuals are the ones who hold onto hope because each training session, to them, is a World Cup Final. There’s beauty in that type of over-exuberance.

The college player, regardless of their ability, is always at risk raw end of the deal at some point in their college years. Seemingly minor injuries will derail a season in an instant. Heaven forbid you suffer a concussion — these days, say goodbye to the season. Grades, off-field conduct, compliance, family and social life — all of these are factors that somehow play a part.

Therein lies the challenge: the coach’s ability vs the coachability of a player.

Look, everyone is happy when they’re playing — and for some, the results don’t matter as much as their name and stats on the box score do. Such is the nature of adolescents being used as assets (student-athletes). The politics and nonsense of the youth game seeps into the college game, too. Coaches somehow put stock into what Timmy accomplished in the conference-that’s-barely-on-a-map, or what Steve accomplished in the provincial league-of-where-the-hell-is-this-England.

Translation: The coaches won’t see everything. They can’t, really. At least not in this system. Again, if you’ve played collegiately, you’ve seen the players from towns with a population (generously labeled) 600 that racked up 421 goals in four years; or a foreign player (they’ll get a full scholarship at the international tuition rate, believe me) that can’t so much as connect a pass to justify their scholarship money and the playing time they magically garner.

So, how does one manage? Well, let’s make a few things clear.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. Ego check. This is your best friend and worst enemy. Be humble, be confident, don’t be a jackass. Simple.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

 

 

The Art of Having a Bad Game

“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:

  1. Bad games are part of life.
  2. There are a million things a player cannot control that contribute to poor performance; players need to focus on what they can control.
  3. Improvements occur in chunks and don’t happen overnight.
  4. Progress hinges upon a player’s ability to: learn, listen, apply, take risks, persevere, analyze, and process.
  5. Bad games don’t determine playing “careers”, bad habits do.
  6. Bad games are not the same as bad results; bad games are performance-based.
  7. 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.