It Never Gets Easier, You Just Get Better

This article topic can be applied to all talent and age levels. However, the context of this article is not recreational soccer. The level of play described is USSDA or “academy” soccer. 

What You Need to Know:

  • Technical improvement and training need not be complicated and fancy — it should be simple, to the point, and consistent.
  • Mastering the simple will make the complex seem simpler.
  • Young players have the creativity coached out of them too early and too often.
  • Self-analysis is a skill many players avoid out of a fear of addressing their weaknesses.
  • Practice is an act, not a place that fosters the majority of technical and fitness-based improvement.
  • Finding creative solutions to technical problems is still lost to many youth players.
  • True player development requires creativity.

Lately, I’ve seen discussions and debates of all types regarding player development. Plenty of important topics are ruminating around soccer circles on a larger scale than ever before, which is great. This article is not about the merits of one belief system or style of play over another. This article is about identifying and exploring the ways players approach necessary areas for improvement and providing some contextual explanations that hopefully lead to unique solutions and more clarity.

A few years ago, a former player of mine reached out to me asking for advice — technical in nature. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief that this player’s problems weren’t along the lines of: “My new coach doesn’t like me” and “I never get to play the position I’m best at” — to me, those are much more complicated and personal issues that I likely cannot (and will not) solve for a player.

Player: “Coach, I need help running with the ball. Like, I can dribble fine, but I don’t think I’m able really run with the ball, you know? My coach has me playing as a right midfielder so I have lots of opportunities to run at players but I slow down for some reason and when I try to dribble, it’s not like it used to be — I think I’m overthinking everything!”

Me: “Well, what did your coach say?”

Player: “He said that I can’t run with the ball…”

Me:Can’t as in, you’re not allowed to run with the ball, or can’t as in you’re not able to physically?”

Player: “I guess both?”

Versatility is Great — to a Point

Now, anyone who’s communicated with a teenager knows that playing Twenty Questions is exhausting, so let’s process the situation. At the time, the player was 16-years-old and hoped to continue playing at a competitive level. He didn’t play high school soccer because of the rules set forth by USSDA. A utility midfielder by nature, this young man was at serious risk of falling victim to common plight for many young players of being a jack of all trades, master of none. He was experiencing the ebb and flow of a culture of idleness and complacency and what I refer to as: a player’s unwillingness and/or inability to “own” a position.

When a player is less dominant and doesn’t have any definite specialization to a position they are often confined to role playing assignments, which are important but often relegate players to being “fillers” and logging junk minutes. In essence, players who aren’t dominant enough on a consistent basis become afterthoughts in uniforms. Additionally, coaches tend to operate under a sense of obligation to play these players out of fairness and duty (to whom, I don’t know). This happens mainly because coaches often try to spread playing time out as “evenly” as possible for the role players — often to the detriment of the team and the player because they’re equating minutes with quality time. Those two factors are not the same.

Translation: You don’t dominate the position to the point of garnering more quality playing time, respect, and a bigger role in the team’s main tactical deployment.

Clearer Translation: You aren’t consistently good enough to leave NO doubt in the minds of the coach and of your teammates that you are the go-to player for that position.

The Real Talk Translation: He’s too nice and in seeking the approval of his peers and current coaches, he’s not working hard enough, being tough and bold enough to assert himself and claim a better role in the team.

Don’t Make a Problem an Issue

As a coach, I choose to look beyond the problem. So often, we get caught up in figuring out why a player is where they are instead of accepting the “here and now” and looking for solutions. Not once would laughing at him or mocking him for needing work on a skill that many might consider basic (running with the ball with proficiency) have helped him. Furthermore, most people confuse running with the ball with kicking the ball and then running after it. Those are not the same.

Let’s back up, though. At some point along this player’s development trajectory from when I coached him at the U13/14 level to the U17 level, he believed he’d unlearned the ability to run with the ball.

So, what’s the player’s real problem? Simple, he was his own worst enemy. He allowed the subjective assessments of others dominate his thought processes, motivation, and self-belief (or lack thereof). I’m a fan of players being their own biggest critics because it allows room for self-monitoring and gives players a sense of control over the day-to-day and instills a sense of responsibility. What I am not a fan of is players shrinking in the shadow of criticism and letting opportunity slip their fingers because “someone said something”.

The conversation continued.

Player: “We don’t really work on this at practice because…”

Me: “Stop. This is not something you can just “work on at practice” — do you understand?”

Player: “No…”

Me: “Look, you’re unsure what this coach means about how you “can’t” run with the ball. For argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s not allowed physically and tactically. Why would that be?”

Player: “Because…because the two are related?”

Me: “Tell me how and why…”

Player: “If I can’t run with the ball physically that makes me a liability on the field, right?”

Creative Players are Resilient Players

For those playing along at home, we’ve unearthed a few problems:

  1. This is all just as much about the mental side as it is the technical side
  2. Most people don’t know what practice actually is
  3. Problem solving requires creativity and critical thinking

This player lost his sense of creativity and in an effort to help , I provided less-than-conventional methods (to some, at least) to [re]acquire the skill. My advice: to literally run with the ball. He was to run with the ball through the neighborhood, around the park, at the school track. If he walked his dog, a ball had best be on his foot. The goal was to make the task as natural as possible. I made it clear, the exercise has no expiration date. Train this skill until this weakness becomes a strength. Then train it some more.

Why?

First, running with the ball is a crucial part of the game and he needed hours of practice working on something that apparently wasn’t refined enough to apply to meaningful competition. He also needed to do this on his own time away from his coach. Time and self-motivation doing the unglamorous can go a long way for a player. So, what’s so creative about running with a ball. Nothing really, but I figured if I could get him running with a ball on a variety of surfaces day after day, the process would be less foreign and awkward. Getting him to augment his stride, cadence/turnover, and ability to run with the ball at pace with his head up was paramount. His current coach didn’t have time to babysit him, nor is it that coach’s responsibility to do so. This deficiency was the player’s, not the coach’s.

Practice is an Act

We can hem and haw about sports psychology, coaching philosophies, and soccer politics all we want, but the fact is, for most players, merely “going to practice” isn’t cutting it. This is precisely because practice has become a term paired with a setting. The minute we can view practice in terms of the verb other than the noun, this makes more sense.

If we’re honest and considerate of time constraints, practice is NOT the ideal place to “learn” things. Stay with me, it’s more of a place to try the things you’ve already learned (literally the act of practice). That is, practice is a place where you try the things you’ve learned. Concepts and skills may be introduced at practice, but it’s very rarely going to be the environment those concepts and skills are truly honed.

In fact, at the higher levels of youth soccer practice is actually the congregating of a team to rehearse scenarios to be applied to match play. Training, however, is the grunt work players need to be doing on their own withouts seeking the approval of the coach. There is a big difference between training and practice as detailed here.

Perhaps the biggest issue is problem solving. Young players seek answers without understanding processes. Their approach to the problem presented stagnates them. Oftentimes, rather than first brainstorming ways to improve the one thing they control (the physical), it’s common for players to panic and over-analyze what’s happening and need reassurance along the way. Much of this is a result of their integration of a youth sporting system that hinges and sells itself on things like: winning at all costs, favoritism, and a lack of creativity.

Kicking a ball against a wall for hours helps develop and hone a skill set; and so does running with a ball. Thing is, running with a ball around the park seems “odd” and “unnatural” for many players. Players have been led to believe that dribbling through cones at a training session during warm-ups is sufficient. This is largely due to the absence of and failure to foster creativity in youth soccer. On trips to Europe throughout my upbringing, I saw players dribbling up and down the streets on their way to play street soccer. In Central and South America, I saw much of the same.

My assertion is our young soccer players can learn much from their basketball-playing counterparts. Basketball players truly interested in improving the technique and confidence take a ball with them everywhere they go. They’re dribbling up and down the neighborhood sidewalk, practicing free throws at the park for hours, doing crossovers in-stride as they walk to play pickup ball. Repetition, habit-formation, skill acquisition, consistency — all of these are accomplished outside of formal, organized playing environments.

The Takeaway

Creativity is coached out of players early-on in [North] American soccer. Players need to get out and find ways to win, find ways to dominate their positions within their immediate talent pool, make time to train away from the formal team setting, and make problem solving an active exercise. Don’t focus on the fact there is an obstacle in the way; instead, focus on how to make a weakness into a strength.

Remember: It never gets easier, you just get better. 

Direct and to the Point

When I was ten years old, the soccer we played was defined by short passing and individual competence. After all, most of what we played was on Californian pavement with defiant weeds poking through the cracks. We played nearly every day either informally or with an organized team and from what I remember both environments necessitated players be skilled the ball, tough in the tackle, quick in transition, and somewhat ruthless in victory and defeat — at ten years old. 

It was around this age where I figured out that losing was simply unacceptable; not because of the actual result, but the feeling of losing was what we loathed. But we didn’t dwell on defeat or sulk too long — that was a sign of weakness. After the initial sting of defeat, life went on and a new obstacle taunted our youthful exuberance. Growing up with Spanish heritage on my mother’s side and Irish roots on my father’s among friends of Mexican, Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Portuguese, and Bolivian descent in the United States wasn’t the typical American upbringing in the sporting sense. Culturally, that kind of amazing diversity is wholly American. The melding of culture, language (more specifically, dialect), socio-economics, and sport instilled in us a fiery approach to life. I didn’t grow up poor, but if we had any spare money my parents made sure it went to my three sisters and me. Their sense of profund selflessness borne out a dutiful motivation to ensure times weren’t as tough on their kids. Most of my buddies were the sons of at least one migrant worker or of single mothers and fathers. Those with still-married parents wouldn’t have known as much as the economic state of the pre-Dot-com boom of Silicon Valley forced middle class families to work more hours as inflation wrapped its gnarled hands around the state, and in essence, likely caused many spouses to “live divorced”. 

But the soccer we played was not the soccer Americans were (or are) supposed to play. We didn’t have orange slices and Capri Suns. There were no chants of “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” after games. Instead one of Paulito’s or Gio’s older brothers made sure to tell us, “You see those guys? They think you’re illegals. They’re gonna laugh at you because some of your moms are maids in their houses.” 

And they weren’t wrong. 

Back then, in South San Jose, neighborhoods were divisive. Invisible battle lines were drawn well before any of us were born. It wasn’t odd. It still doesn’t seem odd but then again I realize my upbringing wasn’t the conventional ‘soccer upbringing’ that decades of suburbanization, sport-centric coddling, and ‘wholesome’ portrayals rife with a sort of Frankenstein-esque mutilation of the world’s game with rainbow-colored Mylar sutures, carved on plasticized smiles, and an “it’s how you play the game” attitude gelatinous ooze coursing through its body. 

Growing up, every time I saw a movie with a shiny, almost fake soccer ball with black and white hexagons being kicked around a lush grass field while a token character with “COACH” embroidered on the hat complete with a whistle and clipboard — I cringed. Every movie placing a golden retriever as the Number 10 or a boy posing as a girl and subsequently dominating the field mocked the game we played

By and by, as the years passed I learned to find the pockets of the real American game where ever I lived. In San Jose it was on the streets and drought-ridden fields. In Sunnyvale and Palo Alto it was at parks where as a boy I played with men who wanted nothing more than to win just so they could be winners at something before going back to working their labor jobs. At least victory on Sunday meant they’d be winners — if only for a week. 

In Chicago’s western suburbs where my family moved in 1997, the game I grew up playing existed in indoor facilities with metal detectors at the entrances, at CLASA (Chicago Latin American Soccer Association) or Polish, Croatian, or Serbian  league games — a rite of passage earned only after shamelessly showing up and proving I could hang or, showing them up in beer league tournament games and being “recruited” to guest play for them. The game I played was split between the elite youth clubs that were too expensive for both myself and my younger sister to attend and the underground warehouse sessions in Chicago I heard about through “a friend of a friend who knew a guy”. I willingly sought out these chances to play so my sister could be the one to play high-level (expensive) club ball knowing that the options for good girls soccer was (and still might be) limited. Hell, I enjoyed being a journeyman at 14 and 15 years old. 

I think that’s when I fully realized something was “off” regarding the soccer I played and the soccer that was presented to us. My teammates and opponents in club soccer were equally-talented and ruthless in their pursuit of progress and opportunities and yet, the malaise of the American soccer narrative was one of passiveness. Sure, the professional game was and is still worlds away from the organic soccer-infused cultures the world calls normal. And yes, many of us who grew up playing the grittier form of the game felt orphaned as more plasticized and maligned versions of soccer were paraded out on television like some sort of sporting minstrel show where again, a golden retriever now takes on the role of a talismanic Number 9 and scores all the goals. 

Then came Europe. Dallas Cup represented the chance to play against elite competition. It was also about watching the elite teams from Europe and South America play a quicker, smarter, harder version of the game than it was anything else. So, it came as no surprise when my team defeated two local powerhouses Solar and Dallas Texans with relative ease as most of my team was of a more ruthless breed. We had been amalgamated and deployed to destroy the confidence of the sons of ‘soccer moms’. And we did so willingly. What did come as a surprise was an invitation to travel to Europe with a Dallas-based team to train and play for an indefinite length of time. The only thing I feared when the coach approached my parents was their having to tell him and me that we simply could not afford it. 

We couldn’t afford it. But my dad picked up a second job at a sporting goods store making his total work day upwards of 16 hours a day. My mother made sacrifices and worked overtime, too. In Europe, I met my “teammates” all of whom treated me with contempt. I didn’t mind, I was there to play. Over the next months I stayed and played in Holland while making trips with my local team to Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, England, and Denmark where I experienced the game unleashed. Not once did I see a symbolically sad soccer ball with black and white hexagons. I rarely saw lush fields as most of the soccer was in cages, on cinder fields, or courts with the grass being saved for weekend matches. 

Sleeping in airports, taking mutiple ferries across the North Sea until I was seasick just to play in a few tournaments, learning how to actually condition a pair of kangaroo leather boots, setting multiple timers to keep from missing train stops, buying international calling cards in bulk, clutching cash, a few photos of my parents and Siberian Husky back home, and my passport, close at all times — all to experience world soccer was less foreign than it sounds. In fact, it was a slight return to the grittiness that accompanied the game I played as a child. 

But eventually, all adventures come to an end and windows of opportunity slam shut. Through the years I excelled at the joke that was high school soccer and played collegiately as college soccer was the pinnacle for my generation. Hell, if you do the math it is plausible that scholarship athletes made more than rookies in Major League Soccer back then. 

I still feel the same way about soccer now as I did way back when. The soccer presented to us is not the soccer we played. The narrative still favors those who speak to experiences of privilege that have become synonymous with youth soccer — flashy uniforms, colorful shoes, pizza parties, parents who know the politics of team selection and coach swaying, and kids being dropped off en masse in minivans. We are told the American player has arrived while ignoring the history of hundreds of journeymen who played and paved the way professionally before it was glamorous to attempt to earn a paycheck to kick a ball while being American. Sure, things may be getting better but that doesn’t mean they’re good enough for those who, oddly and fondly enough, share more of kindred upbringing with our basketball, football, and baseball players than we ever can with those play the same sport we did. 

I am 10 years old and we have played the first half against a team of older boys from Alum Rock in the fiery competition of the Bay Area’s Umberto Abronzino Peninsula league of the early 1990’s. To my right is Michael, whose right eye is swelling shut; I’m picking the bits of dirt out of my reopened kneecap scabs, Ernie is arguing with his brother, and Danny is swigging water like a boxer spitting it out while locking eyes with their players, itching to hurt someone — and yes, we know he’s posturing, but they don’t.

We are up three goals to zero and we’ll score more and we’ll win the game, but it doesn’t matter because we have to win and they have to lose. You see the difference and the connection, right?  Yeah, it sounds crazy and even at ten years old, I know it is, but for us, a ragtag collection of players baked in the Northern Californian sun — soccer is more than a game.

What’s at Stake — Advice for Players (and Coaches)

“If only I knew then what I know now….”

These are haunting words. Such a phrase is applicable to all facets of life, work, and sport. For young players, the advice they receive from coaches and parents is often only retained in snippets, if at all. People learn from experiences — both good and bad — and the real test and lessons usually come years down the road and those tests don’t have a “re-take” option.

The most startling realizations the truly dedicated players arrive at are generally much too late to apply “when it matters”. Coaches know this all too well as do parents trying to raise their children to be the best versions of themselves as possible. Advice is important, but not as important as an individual’s ability to apply that advice before the game passes them by.

The following is a simple list of advice points that at some time or another players don’t receive, they ignore, or they are too caught up in other things(away from the sport) to fully appreciate.

What’s at Stake?

  1. Find your purpose in the game. Are you playing because it’s something mom and dad expect of you, or are you playing because you want to play? Or, better yet, what do you want to get out of your playing experiences and what will you do in the likely event things don’t work out the way you expected (or wanted) them to? Without finding a purpose for playing, you run the risk of being a rudderless ship going through the motions. That lump in your throat becomes fear and that weight on your shoulder becomes apathy. Define your purpose and revisit and change it when necessary.
  2. Urgency is Currency. The window of time a serious player has to maximize their chances is ever-closing. Young players need to understand that it all goes by a lot quicker than they think — such is life. Be urgent and consistent about your development and supplemental work. One hour here and another hour there applied to your game (over watching TV or playing video games) will pay dividends. Urgency does not mean rushing the process; it means not procrastinating and relying on false hopes that success “will just happen”. Fitness, skill acquisition, getting match reps, goal-setting — all of these are urgent needs and they’re all linked and they require thousands of unsupervised, thankless, and unglamorous hours of supplemental work.
  3. Assess your attitude. The more competitive the player, the more fiery the attitude. This never really changes. High-level training environments wire players to be their own coaches and consequently, their own worst enemies and biggest critics. You will have outbursts — that’s fine. But think about your attitude and then ask yourself, “Would I coach me? If so, how would I handle myself at my worst?”
  4. Measure your aptitude. Great players are always aware of their progress in relation to their respective talent and competition pools. They understand that when they’ve flubbed the majority of their left-footed shots at training or in match play that they had better remedy that weakness rather than avoiding it entirely. Great players don’t miss workouts, log their activities, and they make soccer a lifestyle, not a chore. Furthermore, they don’t hide from challenges. When they’re coughing the ball up to the opposition due to a poor first touch, they spend as much time as it takes to hone that skill on their own until that weakness becomes a strength.
  5. Invest in your game. It’s not a trade secret that if you want to go far in the game you’re going to have to spend some money to do so. This is a reality of [North] American soccer. However, you must learn to spend your money intelligently. Things that aren’t worth the money include but are not limited to: $300 synthetic boots, an official UEFA Champions League ball to kick around with your buddies once a month, every single version of a team’s kit year after year. What is worth it? Spend that $300 boot allowance on buying two or three pairs of leather boots at $100/each — they’ll last longer. Buy good equipment, but don’t spend foolishly. It’s OK to wait until next year to get this year’s kit.
  6. Attention to detail is everything. Habits don’t take “good” and “bad” into account — they will form no matter what. It is ultimately up to the player to develop more good habits than bad ones. Coaches, of course, play a pivotal role here. Attention to detail is paramount to the a player’s development. For example, a player who breaks down the process of creating space for a shot or preparing their body position to receive the ball with a great first touch is paying attention to detail. On a more academic level, attention to detail is a skill that manifests in the form of listening to your coach, trainers, the material you read, and applying the little things correctly to make the big things happen. The Dutch method of player development is the model for attention to detail.
  7. Be a river, not a pond. Your journey in the game is going to place plenty of obstacles in your path. You have a few choices: you can stop and sulk or you can navigate around or through those obstacles. The serious players and coaches are rivers — they never stop going forward, they circumvent obstacles, they stay in motion, and find a way to get to the next destination — even if it means creating a new path. Team Super Elite Academy Premier didn’t select you because of reason X, Y, Z and some politics on the side? Great. Now what do you want to do? Quit or find an alternative team or environment to keep you going forward? The not-so-serious players are ponds. They stagnate and accumulate junk in their lives and become dumping grounds for the others toss refuse into. They invite everyone to pollute their progress and eventually dry up and wither away. Understanding and living this metaphor takes skill and persistence. In all reality, good players, coaches, and parents must learn to push forward and not be hampered by the past or even the present. Let go of that bad season, that awful miss in front of goal, your high school coach who didn’t care. Furthermore, let go of the idea that you didn’t “get yours” — not many people do, you still have a stake in the game in some capacity. The game is not fair, and guess what, neither is life. 
  8. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is perfect advice for everyone. Some of my best coaches — ones who played the game at the highest levels in European football — once told the player pool I was in a few things that probably needed to be said many years beforehand. The first was (excuse the harsh language), “F*** what you think you know….”The second was a more visual lesson. We were asked to stand on a sideline as the coaches asked those of us who were “All-State”, “All-Conference”, “All-Region”, “All-Universe” (yes, they said that) to step forward. We all stepped forward as they kept naming “accolades” of youth soccer until we were nose-to-nose with the staff, many of whom played for the Senior National Team, played professionally in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, and around Europe and South America. Once we were in front of them they asked, “Who here has lost a contract because they missed a penalty shot?”, “Who here has had darts and AA batteries thrown at them during a game?”, “Who here has had bags of piss thrown at them getting off a bus to play an away game?” Not one of us 16-year old’s could step forward. The most experienced coach then said, “Now you know who you’re dealing with…Now you know to remember this phrase: You don’t know what you don’t know.

As a young player, I was plagued by living in absolutes. What that means is in my mind, for many years, I had really good days or really dreadful days. But the reality is there will be more unnoticed days than good or bad ones. Those days are the real meat and potatoes of how you develop in the craft. Those days are the “consistency” required to make headway. It wasn’t until I was about 16-years old that I finally decided to apply the stuff I learned from my travels and experiences to my game. Things like understanding how to put things in perspective, how to simplify my routines, how to set attainable goals, how to listen to coaches while sifting through the rah-rah talk and retaining the good information, how to deal with criticism, etc.

As a coach, I learned really quickly that what was easy for me might not be as easy for current players because it wasn’t easy for me at one point; such is the skill of teaching (coaching). The best advice I received as a young coach was to become a blank slate or empty jar and let more experienced coaches contribute to your learning. In other words, you don’t know as much as you think you know.

Hopefully, a few of these lessons can benefit you in some way and hopefully, you can avoid hearing the phrase: If only I knew then what I know now — at least regarding these lessons.

Athlete [Re]defined

Athlete [Re]defined

By: Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3

“If only our best athletes played soccer…”

When I see or hear this phrase my skin crawls. Why? Because these are the words of someone who “has it all figured out” regarding the American game. I’ve promised myself time and time again that I wouldn’t entertain this topic, but the argument has wormed its way onto my radar, again. Before we get going, this is all based on what I believe to be true.

A friend recently contacted me to ask my opinion on fitness in youth soccer. His grandson (aged (U-15/16) plays what is considered “academy” soccer and was tasked with being responsible for his fitness (on his own time) so the coach could focus more on technique-based and tactical instruction at training. The coach, a former high-level player himself, asked that players do the bulk of their fitness, which included running and strength training on their own time. I see nothing wrong with this as someone who coaches, works a full-time job, and whose time is a fleeting commodity, I can empathize. However, the conversation picked up steam when my friend informed me that parents were taking issue with this coach’s request.

Some parents felt it was the coach’s responsibility to ensure the players’ fitness levels were adequate. In [youth] soccer, it’s pretty difficult to accomplish all the tasks we’d like to in a given season, let alone with single training sessions. I realize the times have changed and parents see themselves as customers, and in their world — the customer is never wrong. To me, every player at the aforementioned age, skill and commitment level, has a responsibility to look out for their own fitness, diet, sleep/rest patterns, off field decision-making, observation and study of the game, and supplemental technical work — on their own time.

Quite frankly, the fitness needs of a higher-level U-15/16 player aren’t off-the-charts staggering and can be maintained and improved upon with a steady program of supplemental running and soccer. Yes, it takes effort and diligence. Yes, players will fail in this area and yes, those players deserve to be benched when their talent pool and/or opposition outworks them. Running 8-10Km five days a week with varying implementations isn’t difficult. The lazy will find excuses. The diligent will log miles.

The conversation was less about soccer and more about athletic application and output. Simple stuff, or so I thought. Later that night, someone cruelly tagged me in a Twitter thread with someone whose assertion was the “best athletes” do not play soccer and therefore, the U.S. will continue to stagnate and under-perform on the world’s stage. I thought about the fitness discussion. Then, I pondered why people gravitate to the ‘best athlete myth’ (yes, it’s a myth to me) regarding soccer.

Before we delve into that abyss of insanity I want you to ask yourself a simple question: What does the best athlete look like? Think about it. Form a mental picture of that supreme athletic specimen in your mind. Take a mental screenshot.

OK, brace yourself for this is about to get weird.

What if, for argument’s sake, our best athlete’s are the soccer players?

In this context, “best” would mean most well-rounded.

I implore you to pump the brakes if your heart rate is increasing and your brain is firing on all cylinders with counterarguments (see below); take a breath.

hate through you

We could post pictures of the ‘best’ athletes in basketball, American football, baseball, track and field, ice hockey, etc. and they would no doubt be impressive — massive and toned physiques, their VO2 Max capacities of varying yet impressive output, their fast-twitch muscle fibers waiting to fire, their muscle striations highlighted by excellent airbrushing — and I can still confidently make the assertion that I feel the best athletes are the soccer players.

Let’s revisit the question: What makes this perceived ‘best athlete’, the one who doesn’t play soccer, a superior athlete to a high-level soccer player? Their 40-yard dash time, vertical jump capabilities? Is it their bench press, squat, and dead lift totals? What is it?

Look, watching a wide receiver running routes and shaking defenders at breakneck speeds is amazing. A basketball player’s ability to leap from the free throw line to dunk is astonishing. Watching a sprinter set the track ablaze is nothing short of captivating. And guess what — in a sport like soccer much of this does not translate as much people would lead us to believe it translates.

But let’s continue…what if these athletes chose soccer over these other sports when they were younger?

Great question! Ready for the answer? These would not look or function like the archetypal athlete (the one you saved the image of in your head) looks and functions like. (Yes, that one — with the bulging muscles capable of running through a brick wall.) Consider this: if a would-be wide receiver decided to play soccer early on — those routes he runs would look a lot different and would likely be less impressive, maybe even less explosive and dynamic.

If a basketball player standing six-feet, ten-inches tall decided to abandon a career in hoops and take up soccer, I have no doubt he would win most of the headers blasted his way — but I’m not quite sure how his size 19 feet would handle the footwork processes necessary to succeed in high level soccer, which is a game whose evolution puts more focus on speed, footwork, coordination and balance, and the ability to play more than one position and one more never-talked-element: Intelligence.

I’m not suggesting players with big feet aren’t capable of being great soccer players and aren’t intelligent. I am suggesting that the Eden Hazard’s, Leo Messi’s, and Philippe Coutinho‘s of the world would make mincemeat of the oafish super athletes America idealizes and fawns over to play soccer. (Before you say it, Peter Crouch is not the athletic specimen we aspire to base such arguments on.)

Speaking of specialized positions, we already produce fantastic goalkeepers — perhaps due to the multi-sport upbringing of American athletes, or maybe because that position is less about creativity and more about reacting — that debate is open, yet not as pertinent to me.

photo credit, ESPNFC
photo credit, ESPNFC

Modern soccer is a skill game. Power, fitness, balance, and strength are all necessities. This is a ‘Sweat Equity’ argument at its core, which again, doesn’t account for intelligence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving in an unscripted sport (one without timeouts and a playbook).

And, that brutish “super” athlete might have one or two of those attributes, but would it translate well to soccer? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that American soccer players excel in those purely athletic-based categories. Marvell Wynne is arguably one of the best pure athletes to play professional soccer. But he isn’t playing in the world’s top leagues. He’s not even in the current National Team setup. And that’s not to insult him, it’s to prove a simple point.

His speed and power is nothing short of impressive with times like this: 100 Meters = 10.39 Seconds and projected times of 200 Meters = 21.87 Seconds 400 Meters = 48.10 Seconds. Believe me, for every Marvell Wynne we have, the world has a Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery, et al., and they’re likely faster with the ball over distance than most people think.

If soccer was purely about linear speed, the ability to smash through other bodies, and overpower the opposition in short, scripted incremental plays like American football and basketball — the original argument might hold more validity. The reality begs the question: how does an athlete like that thrive in a sport requiring a player to run at maximum velocity forwards, backwards, side-to-side — for 90 minutes?

Ready for some science-y stuff?

Note: the Methods and Conclusion are more important than the formula — the actual case study is linked.

Methods: Nineteen male elite junior soccer players, age 18.1 +/- 0.8 yr, randomly assigned to the training group (N = 9) and the control group (N = 10) participated in the study. The specific aerobic training consisted of interval training, four times 4 min at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with a 3-min jog in between; twice per week for 8 wk. Players were monitored by video and heart rate monitors during two matches, one before and one after training.

Results: In the training group: a) maximal oxygen uptake ( O2max) increased from 58.1 +/- 4.5 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 64.3 +/- 3.9 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); b) lactate threshold improved from 47.8 +/- 5.3 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 55.4 +/- 4.1 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); c) running economy was also improved by 6.7% (P < 0.05); d) distance covered during a match increased by 20% in the training group (P < 0.01); e) number of sprints increased by 100% (P < 0.01); f) number of involvements with the ball increased by 24% (P < 0.05); g) the average work intensity during a soccer match, measured as percent of maximal heart rate, was enhanced from 82.7 +/- 3.4% to 85.6 +/- 3.1% (P < 0.05); and h) no changes were found in maximal vertical jumping height, strength, speed, kicking velocity, kicking precision, or quality of passes after the training period. The control group showed no changes in any of the tested parameters.

Conclusion: Enhanced aerobic endurance in soccer players improved soccer performance by increasing the distance covered, enhancing work intensity, and increasing the number of sprints and involvements with the ball during a match.

Meaning what?

Soccer players are forced perform in sustained periods of oxygen debt as a given in the sport (recall ‘Sweat Equity’). Timeouts are a luxury that allow more recovery for the vaunted “best” athletes in American football and to a lesser degree, in basketball, which is more aerobic. I contend that many people who subscribe to “if the best American athletes played soccer” belief haven’t played the game at a high level — NCAA Division I or top NAIA programs being the bare minimum level here (in my opinion).

Admittedly, as a former Division I soccer player myself, those levels aren’t that high in the global context. But if these know-it-alls had played at least at the highest collegiate level they might know that the body control required in soccer is unlike many other sports. Collisions are not the objective and the absence of skill, intelligence, and creativity on and off the ball renders a player quite useless in high level, meaningful competition — these are also attributes that are coached out of players in this country all too often and all too early.

You’re probably still unconvinced at what I’ve presented, so I’ll play along with the “best athlete” argument.

Think about the time in years it takes for these supreme athletes to reach peak conditioning? Many are in their early-to-mid 20’s by the time they’re considered athletic specimens. Most get their first taste of the professional game when they’re 22-years old provided they attended a university, right? (Yes, I know Lebron James skipped college ball).

In soccer, the world’s best are playing in professional settings at 18-years of age (or before). Furthermore, think about the raw time in the gym, on the track, and in the cafeteria these athletes must spend to become the “best” athlete — that’s time they’re not spending on technique, tactical training, and skill work and is what the world’s game thrives on.

The total time for peak athletic conditioning to be reached alone immediately places the super athlete at a severe and unrecoverable disadvantage in categories like tactical competence, [professional] match experience, and technical ability to name a few.

 

In reality, this is less about physiques, fast twitch muscle fibers, 40-yard dash times, and bench press maxes than people think. What this argument papers over can be summed up in two words: open access. For example, I grew up in a questionable part of San Jose, California well before the dot-com boom. The crime rate was high in areas close to our house and I found myself playing street soccer with Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, Bolivian, Portuguese, and Guatemalan kids because that was the game we had access to.

But across the U.S., the game played in most of the impoverished cities and communities isn’t soccer. It’s baseball, basketball, and American football. And that’s beautiful. What’s not beautiful is the fact that the supposed leaders of American soccer, including the United States Soccer Federation, aren’t present in the inner cities or rural towns to the degree required to make a significant change.

You know who is? That’s right, American football, baseball, and basketball programs, top universities with dedicated scouting networks, organizations, and associations are scouring these areas unearthing talents, putting on clinics, and targeting the most promising players early and often. U.S. Soccer says it has a “Diversity Committee”, but it’s not reaching the kids who become “the best athletes” partly because soccer is largely an elitist sport.

This, combined with the fact most kids who do play don’t dream of playing in Major League Soccer when they grow up — even in suburban communities is a recipe for apathy and mediocrity. Instead, American soccer players dream of playing in Europe. The combination of a lack of real presence in all communities (that I’m sure would love access to good coaching, equipment, and environments to play) by those claiming to ‘grow the game’  paint a different picture of the state of American soccer’s niche culture.

If we disagree on everything else, let’s at least try to agree that there is no singular, authoritative definition of ‘the best athlete’.

Soccer is, in many ways, a sporting version of chess. It requires athleticism to a degree that would place many of the perceived ‘best’ athletes in cardiac arrest within minutes. Soccer places stress on the muscles that continue to make me, a lifelong soccer player, scoff at Major League Baseball players who pull up lame after running 90-feet rounding second base.

What people seem to misunderstand is soccer requires a player to be creative individually and cooperative collectively for lengths of time that differ greatly from the main “American sports”. There are no playbooks, no TV timeouts, or offensive and defensive coordinators on the sidelines dictating and thinking for the players.

Note: I’m not suggesting that soccer players could step on the field in the NFL, MLB, or on the court in the NBA. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that a soccer player wouldn’t tear ligaments in their arm trying to throw the ball with the velocity and control of a professional baseball player.

The argument matters because it’s based in ignorance. The haphazard and broad-brushing of the original assertion is typical of American sports culture. What is still lacking is a true soccer culture spread across the nation. The hotbeds and pockets of support for the sport in the U.S. are amazing and for them, I’ve said nothing they don’t already know. As long as soccer is seen as a ‘kids’ sport, or something akin to an activity every kid plays once in their life before moving on to the ‘real sports’, we’ll continue to hear a degree of ignorance laying claim to the solution for American soccer.

Even more to the point is the connection between sports like basketball, baseball, and American football to soccer abroad. In reality, we aren’t that far off from solving the real riddle here. The systemic and root problems are similar. For example, in a Brazilian favela, a player will dedicate their life to escape a harsh environment using futebol as a tool.

This isn’t dissimilar to what happens in the U.S. with athletes using the aforementioned sports as a way to better their circumstance. The United States hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of this aspect in soccer — it is, however, a socioeconomic and open access matter. In linear form: Less exorbitant pay-to-play + more affordable coaching education = more open access

The point is this piece is unlikely to sway the most ardent defender of the archaic and insane assertions that we need better athletes playing soccer.

We don’t need better athletes.

We need better soccer players.

photo credit, Buzzfeed.com
photo credit, Buzzfeed.com

TL;DR version: The issue is not one of pure athletic performance, but rather one centered on creating intelligent players (Soccer IQ) who can maximize the opportunities, infrastructure, sporting advantages available in the United States along with creating better coaching education. Anyone who argues differently doesn’t understand soccer in the appropriate global context and is broad-brushing the argument with revisionist tactics.

Thanks for reading.

Flip the Script 

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” 

-Mike Tyson

Think about what that means and ask yourself how many times you’ve been punched in the mouth and left to pick your teeth up off the pavement. Take that as literally or figuratively as you want — that’s the tone of this entry.

Serious versus Recreational. The difference is stark and both paths are wonderful for very different reasons. The problem is when we confuse the two — or allow the two to bleed together. In the United States, soccer is one of those things where people take the recreational approach and expect serious results. I’m not kidding. Casual attitudes pollute the well of serious development. The ground of serious development is soaked with tears, blood, and spit, and players will be baptized by all three trying to become a better version of themselves.

At the risk of sounding harsh, I’ll say this: the “average” player remains nothing more than someone participating in an activity involving 21 other average participants chasing a ball around on a field. Now, before you get offended (see “The Law of Averages” for my thoughts on “being offended”) let me say this: I have no problem with passive, recreational, or casual soccer. Hell, these days, sometimes I’d rather be around players who have fun rather than around those who arrive at the field like the game is some sort of chore and claim they’re “serious” about getting better.

OK, what classifies a serious player? It’s quite simple: A player who aspires to play the game to the best of their ability and is willing to persevere, sacrifice, suffer, and toil away in the pursuit of excellence and advancement.

Here’s the great part: What a serious player learns in soccer they can apply in life. Things like dedication, deep practice, focus, resiliency, competition — these are all byproducts of life. Babying now leads to weakness in the future.

I have a simple rule when players approach me looking for advice — train like a soccer player. That’s it. What you do on your own time is of little-to-no concern to me because I don’t keep players around or entertain conversations with those who aren’t serious about their craft. That’s not meant to be an insult, I’m just not a recreational coach, which is a very skilled, valuable, and difficult job in its own right.

Everyone wants to be a serious soccer player until the point they have to do what serious soccer players do on a daily basis, which includes but is not limited to the following:

  1. Giving up things like friends, sleep, and time with significant others to apply themselves to the trade.
  2. Shedding sensitivity, fear, timidness, and resistance to learning. These players get dropped like a bad habit as the stakes are raised in serious environments.
  3. Studying the game. This means watching the teams locked in relegation or Champions League qualification battles, not just the glamorous ones.
  4. Eating, sleeping, training, and playing like a serious player. You like soda and fast food? Well, so do all the other out of shape, casual jokes plodding around out there. Get serious or get lost. Want to play video games until 3 am? Great, you have just relinquished your excuse to “be tired” at training the next day.
  5. Supplemental training. Get at least 10,000 touches a day on the ball. (Serious players over the age of 12).
  6. Your ego, kill it. Listen to those who are trying to help you. Yes, this means your coach, teachers, parents, and teammates. Much of the advice will be mixed with other messages you don’t feel like listening to — learn to shift through the bad advice (ignore it) and retain the useful stuff. No, you aren’t good enough, yet.
  7. Excuses: Get rid of them.
  8. Battles: I see this all the time, players who refuse to listen or subscribe to information that will help them. In many facets of life, there is time for a player to “find their own way”. In serious soccer development, the hourglass has been flipped and time slips away regardless of whether you “feel like” listening.

Self-discovery and specialization are two concepts that get tossed around often. Here’s the no-bullshit way of looking at these things:

Self-discovery: I firmly believe players are responsible for their own game. A coach or parent can instill/introduce lessons, point out mistakes, lecture and pontificate until they’re blue in the face, but if the player isn’t receiving that message (the norm) it’s seldom a matter of if they’ll learn it. It’s a matter of when they learn it. The”if” comes into play when it’s too late — which is often the case.

Parents and coaches of young players (aged 7-11) — let them learn, make mistakes, absorb and enjoy the game. They’re “discovering” the game still. Should the player show promise and want to take a more serious route, heed this advice: around age of 12, in my opinion, things should start to change. By this age, a player on the more competitive, serious route likely has a good four-to-five years of playing and exposure to the game under their belt. This is when players start to separate from the pack. I encourage the shift from age-appropriate work to skill-appropriate work around this age. What’s that mean? If a kid is 10-years old but can play with and benefit from playing with older, more talented players — give it a whirl even at the expense of “losing more games” because the reps and experience they are gaining will lead to improvement (more wins for those addicted to results) in the future. Too often, players are “held back” because society dictates they “stay with their friends”, which is fine — for the recreational players.

Adolescents are an anomaly, so it only makes sense that adolescent players are a riddle box of complexity. No, they don’t want to tell you the truth, hear what you have to say, admit you are/were right and they are/were wrong. Adolescents rather not give a damn about anything but their social life, themselves, and their immediate survival needs (food, shelter, Instagram followers, etc), Resistance to learning and advice is normal, but so is teaching them new concepts. Much of this is merely biological — they’re still forming pathways and their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior) is still developing. No matter how many times you tell them to do something, they can’t see the logic in your words — or they’re programmed to be stubborn because it gets a rise out of you and they are “rebelling”.

Translation: Players are malleable. This is both good and bad. Players are also impulsive and trying to “change” their way of thinking isn’t going to happen easily. The parents and coaches who make the biggest strides are the ones who change their own approach — even if that means backing off for a bit. Keep in mind, waiting for a player to “get it” often results in their window closing. The game stops for no one.

The takeaway: Self-discovery is a never-ending process. Players must decide and discover what works and what doesn’t work. They must learn what is acceptable and unacceptable, if they’re coachable or uncoachable. Coaches often waste far too much time on these uncoachable players, trying to control them and force thoughts and lessons into a resistant brain. Don’t do that — move on. Let the player fail. Let them fall down, lose, get cut, sit the bench, and battle adversity. Competition is about separating the weak from the strong — the environment dictates this, not the coach or parent.

Specialization: In my opinion, this is a murky term. As a kid, I played a ton of sports and was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities and had a diverse group of friends. There is nothing wrong with variety and exposure to different skills, sports, challenges, and activities. But very early on, I made the decision to focus on soccer, which didn’t change my world, it just allocated my energy, time, and efforts towards soccer over the other sports.

If a player is on the serious route — that is, they give a shit if they win, lose, get cut, improve, or stagnate — specialization becomes mandatory. In the United States, there’s this bullshit idea that our best athletes should play soccer. In this bullshit world of fantasy conjured up by equally bullshit sportswriters posing as experts and multisport fans who view the mysteries of soccer as something they arrogantly can unravel — like a Lebron James would be a better player than a Lionel Messi — the only certainty is argument and ignorance. Don’t entertain that conversation. Focus on what is, not what someone who is a part-time observer of soccer “thinks”. In this idiotic world of American soccer mindsets, a Leo Messi can be “produced” by a mediocre league.

Here’s my take, how about getting our best soccer players to play soccer? That’s it. There are entirely too many charlatans who have subscribed to this watered down idea that over-scheduling, over-stimulating, and enabling players will produce talent on-par with what the world produces. There are entirely too many shills, hacks, and fan-driven “articles” out there spewing nonsense. Stop feeding the trolls. Focus more on what you know to be true, try learning a few things along the way for yourself, and focus on building instead of destroying.

Specialization is the choice of the player — or it should be. Guided-discovery is important (leading and encouraging a player in a direction for their holistic benefit). Once the decision to specialize takes place, the real work begins. At that point, the list above becomes important. Here, resistance to learning becomes regression in playing ability. Specialization works when the approach (the input) is filtered of the impurities (distractions, excuses, over-emotional decisions, etc). in order to yield a viable and worthy product (output). Few things are more frustrating than a player capable of doing more (or better) who opts to do less (or worse), but the game is best teacher. That player will either learn or they will join the ranks of the those who missed out.

True development requires more hours, touches/reps, sessions, and failures than most people can fathom. If getting 10,000 extra touches a day on the ball seems excessive for you that’s because it is — for you. Head to a favela, barrio, or just find an environment in any sport where players will claw, fight, and scrap their way to get out — ask them if getting extra work in is “too inconvenient”. A player who has nothing will fight for every opportunity. A player who has been given everything is often at risk of losing it all. It’s a matter of mindset.

Self-Discovery and Specialization are essential in soccer and in life. The world’s top players specialized and spent years on the path of self-discovery well before they became the world’s top players. The path to greatness is like the path up Mount Everest — it’s littered with the bodies of those who took the wrong turn, made a poor decision, gave up, or weren’t strong enough. Failure is inevitable, however, those repeated failures lead to success.

The path to greatness isn’t free, but it doesn’t cost money. On the path to greatness the currency is time and effort — time is scarce, but effort is something anyone can spend in abundance.