The Obsession with Average

The Obsession with Average

By: Jon Townsend


Having played the game since I was four and staying with it in some (or multiple) capacities ever since, I’m prepared to say the American player has an obsession with average. Part of this obsession with average is a systemic issue whereby society has granted people carte blanche to do the bare minimum and expect to yield greatness. This is akin to grabbing a cooking sheet, slathering it with lard, placing rotten ingredients on it (input) and expecting a gourmet meal fit for royalty (output) when the dinner bell rings.

So, what’s the other part responsible for this obsession with average? A lack of incentive and desperation in the game. And no, this isn’t a problem with America, it’s a problem with American soccer. For a sport to yield and produce elite talent it needs incentives far exceeding the dispersal of its talent vying for [partial] college scholarships or making insultingly low salaries in MLS, NASL, or USL-Pro. Looking at sports like basketball and American football and their primary talent pool sources, we can see the connections to soccer everywhere except in the United States.

Other than being a pay-to-play enterprise rife with clueless coaches, clueless journalists posing as soccer writers, and out-of-touch perceptions aimed to keep the game framed as a “foreign” sport or presenting it as some abstract sport played elsewhere, which is trendy (and mockery), American soccer has yet to fully make the game accessible to all people.

Desperation destroys complacency and eliminates average. Here, kids are rewarded for mere participation in an activity. They soak up praise for the simplest of activities provided they put their smartphones down, turn off their video games, and get their asses off the couch. At school, every single grade has somehow become a “negotiation” between helicopter parent and underpaid teacher. This means if you happen to be a teacher and a coach, you are in perpetual Hell.

What is the solution? Well, that depends on the player and on the situation. The United States, for a lot of people, is no easy place to grow up in and although there’s an absence of fútbol de barrio, there’s no shortage of players coming from the streets who live, play, and view [all] sports as if their lives depended on it. Soccer is the game of the People and yet in the “Land of Opportunity”, it has become an elitist sport run by highbrow visionaries on all levels.

Rather than discuss why promotion and relegation needs to happen, I’ll just discuss what promotion and relegation would do for the growth of the game at levels outside of MLS, which is interested in expansion–and that’s not the growth I’m alluding to (and relax, MLS peeps, I’m not attacking the league). Promotion and relegation turns a formerly closed soccer market into a open marketplace for the sport whereby player development and competition are rewarded via meritocracy, monetarily through player trades, allows coaches to be compensated and incentivized to produce better players, and opens the door for small businesses to provide incentives for teams gearing up to earn their way to the top.

The takeaway, in simple terms, is clubs will have a means and a path based on meritocracy to climb or fall within a pyramidal system that allows independent clubs to make business decisions for their own good. Just like the working place, performance ideally dictates outcome for better or worse. Teams that can’t produce and remain competitive should be relegated just like business that can’t produce or compete should improve or downsize to re-calibrate. People fear the mechanism of promotion and relegation because they see it as punishment. Under what entitled view should teams with poor ownership, direction, player production, and a litany of other negatives be afforded the right to remain safe from the drop? What that reinforces is bad soccer. What that reinforces is mediocrity.

When teams and players compete in league systems that reward performance, the current standard is smashed and the bar is raised. If the bar is raised at the bottom, the teams at the top of the pyramid must raise their own level of play because, now, there’s a target on their backs. Change demands the deconstruction of the status quo, which is scary to those in high (and therefore, safe) positions. The current system rewards and safeguards mediocrity. The sport will not die if teams traverse the levels in an open pyramid. If DC United was relegated last year, believe me, the sport would have continued to be played in America. In fact, the very thought of teams rising up in a country with unrivaled infrastructure resources would raise the the allure, popularity, and level of the game. Of course, these are issues met with default defensive reactions by those who can’t see it working (yet), or those who aim to safeguard the status quo.

Before the anti-pro/rel people drag my name through the mud (again), however, this is not a fantasy where I pretend to know the economic implications and business potential of such a drastic change. In my opinion, I’d venture to put stock in the game’s evolution with regional leagues (mitigating the “but our country is so big!” excuse) with promotion and relegation to help strengthen and shake the bedrock of independent clubs to better their product. Where that breaks out could be through any number of estuaries that open up. The top clubs from each region could form their own division to compete under NASL and USL-Pro thereby lessening the burden for travel for small teams by allowing competition to be region-based and localized. The top three teams of each region could form a tier that connects them to the established professional leagues (again, outside of MLS).

So, how does this entire thought-process circle back to an obsession with average? I recall a conversation I had with one of my best friends who grew up in England. Over the span of his years watching the game he’s witnessed disappointment after disappointment from the national team, his boyhood club (Tottenham Hotspur), and the scant number of British players who actually go abroad to play the game during their development and as seasoned professionals. He said, “The problem with British players is similar to the problem with American players. They aren’t going to leave their cozy little homes and play on some shit field in Eastern Europe.”

It wasn’t a revelation or epiphany to me, but it just made more sense when I heard someone else who grew up in a different country say it. The reality is American (and, according to my British buddy, English) players aren’t going to live on someone’s couch going from trial to trial in all corners of the world trying to eek a living out of the game en masse. Nor will most American players do what African, South American, Asian, and continental Europeans do with regularity, which is be persistent, tough, and determined enough to become successful because they sure as hell don’t want to go back home and live the same lives everyone else does. England has this problem and the United States does because everyone is content with being average and comfortable. You don’t see scores of English and American players going abroad and getting away from the systems that hold them back technically, tactically, and culturally. The result is two national teams that oscillate with similar FIFA rankings and won’t win a World Cup anytime soon while the countries with these types of players tend to breed tougher, more versatile and talented players.

However, I intend to hit on a few things that need to change immediately. Recall my abrasive post where I challenge the toughness and resolve of the American player. Just let every example of just how content players are to be average here marinate for a bit. How often do you see kids playing in parks and empty lots until the street lights flicker on? How often does a player find a way to train after formal practice? What are you, as coaches and parents, praising on the sidelines and after games? Hard shots? Big clearances to nobody? Mouthing off to a referee? Grandstanding displays of arrogance?

I ask because I haven’t seen those players willing to grind it out with not a penny to their name get the recognition they deserve. The kid from a poor family who has to walk, run, ride a bike, catch a city bus or train, just to get to practice. Instead, America lauds the suburban kid with more money on his feet in the form of clown-colored shoes than most families have in their checking account. We ensure the kids who show up to practice in lavish cars and SUVs with heated seats are taken care of, everyone else, well, thanks for playing.

Something is amiss with the soccer culture in the United States. It’s addicted to average.

Average is a disease. Mediocrity is another word for stagnation–and that’s what we need to get away from to actually use the wealth of untapped talent at our disposal.

Avoid the Snake Oil

For as long as I can remember, soccer in the United States has been littered with snake oil salesmen posing as experts, coaches, and resources. The first time I noticed the hokey ploys that reinforced soccer was somehow destined to remain perceived as a mainly a middle class suburban sport was at youth soccer tournaments. Growing up in Northern California and playing in ethnic leagues, this troubled me. When I moved to Chicago, it annoyed the hell out of me. Inevitably, people made their way over to the tents filled with overstock merchandise and tournament t-shirts.

Predictably, kids and parents flocked to these makeshift merchandise marts and proudly exited wearing some of the dumbest shirts and clutching the stupidest devices and gadgets I’d ever seen. The shirts had sayings that read, “Soccer Mom” or “7 Days without Soccer Makes One Weak” and other inane, cringe worthy phrases and adorned with the token image of a black and white hexagonal ball, even though I don’t think I’ve ever played with one that looked like that. Perhaps growing up with parents who worked incredibly hard and did the most with scant resources conditioned me to scoff at these charlatans.

In many ways, I’m fortunate to have been part of a generation that didn’t grow up with a cell phone. I didn’t receive my first cell phone until I graduated high school and it was purely used for phone calls and simple text messages (which, were charged “by the text” back then). As odd as it may sound, I’m fortunate to have grown up in a time when the world was still a mysterious and big place.

I’m fortunate because constant distractions didn’t flood my day and threaten to detract me from my goals. Sure, there were distractions, but nothing like what young players are faced with today. I recall having a conversation with one of the area’s top club coaches. I didn’t play for him and he knew me because he and my uncle attended the same college.

Every so often, I’d see him watching my games. He wore a pair of muddy work boots, had an unkempt beard, a pair of blue jeans, a tattered Chicago Sting t-shirt and a Carhartt jacket. I think he might have lived in his pickup truck. He was a man who didn’t subscribe to the flashy status quo. Occasionally, he’d invite me to train with his team comprised of players en route to some of the nation’s top universities and one slated to join the then Nike-sponsored program Project-40 (now Generation Adidas). I could have sworn he brought me to train with his team just to frustrate me, but in reality it was to help me see where the bar was set for the area’s top talent — and where I was. And boy, was there a gulf in age and ability.

I vividly remember the conversation.

“If you want to continue to develop you need to find a squad where you’ll be the worst player. I bring you in to train with my older guys because their speed of play and ability is just the bare minimum of where you need to be.”

I nodded and felt a bit uneasy because I knew this well before he told me. He continued.

“Each day those bastards battle. They hate losing. They might even hate each other. And I don’t care. The list of guys trying to be on their game and tournament roster is longer than you can imagine. You happen to be three years younger than most of those guys, so I don’t mind inviting you.”

I looked down at the ground, processing the message. He ended with one final message.

“You aren’t doing enough to improve. If you’re not giving up something to play this game,” he started.

“Like what?” I interjected.

“Like sleep. Going out with your friends. Watching TV. If it’s a distraction and you follow it, you’ll go nowhere. You have to become ruthless and force to be reckoned with. Those players don’t fear pissing you off. They won’t get disappointed if they let you down. There’s a reason. You’d better get a fire burning in your belly, son.”

After a fair amount of sessions getting the shit kicked out of me with this older team, a few things clicked:

1. There is no shortcut to improvement. There are ways to expedite your progress, but taking shortcuts is for fools. I learned early on to do the little things really well. That made the complex parts of the game seem easy.

2. In order to get you have to give. Or give something up. Although this coach didn’t tell me exactly how to do what he asked, I began to figure it out. That meant getting up at 5 am, sneaking out early to dribble a soccer ball through my neighborhood to a park where I’d work on my deficiencies for an hour or so before school. After training and dinner, I went back out on my own. It was my way of doing what I could with limited resources and access to the game everywhere else.

3. Unpopularity was a good thing. As much as social interactions are important there has to be a point when a player decides to make sacrifices to better their level of play. These sacrifices aren’t popular, they aren’t glamorous, and they aren’t rewarded until years down the road.

4. When you see things like this:

matt smith soccer

Take a moment to laugh and then take a moment to understand that improvement and real progress, happens away from the smartphone, the television, the computer, and the video games. There is no substitute for getting out there and working.

5. Intensity is a lost art. Parents and players assume intensity is bad. It’s not. Controlled and useful intensity should permeate all facets of a player’s preparatory work and match performance.

6. Whenever I returned to my age-level team, I was a man possessed and raised my own play so that my teammates had little choice but to do the same. I wasn’t popular at times. I demanded more from myself and my teammates and I learned to channel that intensity while turning it on and off. After training or games, it was done. However, during training or games, diesel fuel coursed through my veins. Over the years, most of my teammates had similar qualities as I progressed through the game, which is what happens. The farther along you get, the more everyone else matches one another’s intensity and qualities.

6. Excellence is not available in the App Store. The world is littered with pretenders. In the United States (and perhaps Canada), the soccer world is rife with righteous people trying to sell you something. A stupid video making guarantees titled with buzzwords like “elite” “premier” and “world class”. If they have to put those taglines on there, are they really what they claim to be?

Note: There are a lot of great coaches, teams, programs, and environments out there that are well worth the money and time. Your ability to discern the ones that aren’t worth a second look is imperative.

The takeaway is simple

Players: Complacency is easy. Laziness is easy. Mediocrity is a disease. If you aren’t dedicating hours of supplemental work to your game, it will show. Get away from your comfort zone and challenge yourself. If it’s windy, rainy, cold, whatever it is outside, it doesn’t matter. When you are not training somewhere someone else is. And when you face them, they will win. If you aren’t playing street soccer or on a team that pushes you, the game is passing you up. Find places to play and get out there. It doesn’t have to be formal or official.

Ask yourself, “Have I done enough to actually improve?”

Train and prepare with purpose.

Coaches: Build a network of both like-minded and different coaches. Learn from them and proffer your experience with others. Share your knowledge but remember that coaches are always in a state of learning. What worked for your team three years ago doesn’t mean as much to others as you think it does. Evolve or die off. Accountability falls on you as well as the players. Don’t go ask them to improve while you remain stagnate. Don’t talk about how you could coach anywhere but you’re gracing these kids with your grace and presence.

Parents: Again, keep your mouths shut. Sending passive-aggressive emails, gossip, and non-verbals solves very little. If there’s something that needs addressing, consider your part and your child’s part in the soccer dilemma before unleashing hell.

You see things at a 1:1 ratio. Your little superstar, to the coach, is seen at a 1:23 ratio. You can’t want it for your child. If you see playing time as the most important factor in your player’s experience, please figure out why they aren’t playing in the first place.

Are they really good enough? Should you, as a parent, be fighting their battles for them? What can they gain from your intervention? Are they dedicating enough hours to their game to make not playing them an impossibility? Additionally, it’s unlikely you know what position your child is best in. Think about your role in their development. Try being less of a cheerleader and more of a sponge because you’ve got a lot to learn as well.


In closing:

Starve the ego, feed the soul.

The Me In Team

When Johan Cruyff described the basis of Total Football, he really described team football in two sentences: “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.” With a history of talismanic and mercurial superstars, football is still a game that celebrates the individual whose brilliance is only made possible by the team. When Rinus Michels introduced the world to Total Football and Pep Guardiola made it trendy again, the ostensible fact that weathered the test of individualism is the variant philosophies both universally revered, bring success to both teams and individuals whose brilliance aligns with the team concept. If Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi fails to implement the philosophy of the team, they don’t have their medals, trophies, and titles.

My earliest introduction to football was playing pickup games in an abandoned lot with cracks in the concrete in San Jose. The only sign of anything resembling grass were these veins of defiant weeds poking through the concrete. Dust and cinder often covered the plot of land, creating a film of brownish red earth that stained our shoes and clothes. Games were frenetic and teams were hastily sorted by pitting those who spoke Spanish fluently against those who didn’t. It was here I first saw a tricky player bypass his teammates to execute a successful rainbow flick during a game. It was also here where I saw the defender take exception to such a display of showboating and clatter the showoff, mercilessly chopping him down on concrete before standing over the dazed player and kicking some Californian dust into his face.

The tricky players naturally placed themselves against those who refused to be toyed with in front of everyone. Beating someone with pace on the dribble or performing a deceptive move was not only acceptable, it was even encouraged. But therein lied an unspoken rule and a near-invisible line many unknowingly crossed. Showboating. Players attempting to humiliate others didn’t last long. Games could last for hours, or if the collective blood was boiled beyond a safe simmer games ended in minutes, usually with a punch-up or a ball being punted over the fence in anger. On rare occasions things ended on peaceful terms.

The street game wasn’t all dust-ups, but like many formative experiences, one entered soft as a wad of dough and exited carved of stone. Navigating the waters of the sport, players either evolve or devolve. The ball had to move fast and the mind had to move even faster. Away from this proving ground, I played in an organized team where the game was littered with enticements to play for you over the team. Parents barking orders of selfishness from the sidelines bled over the lines of the pitch and possessed teams to become eleven individuals. Those playing purely for themselves often found themselves playing by themselves. Those buying into a team’s philosophy generally had a place to play. But doesn’t football need differentiators?

I remember the first time I watched Ossie Ardiles roll the ball up his right leg and flick it forward over his head to a teammate during the match between the Allies and the Germans in the film Escape to Victory. I immediately found myself in the back yard repeatedly trying to emulate the feat, hoping to learn the trick so I could use it in a game. I never thought about using it to embarrass an opponent, it just was a skill I had to learn. At all levels the game screams out for those special talents to do what others simply can and will not do.

However, a societal problem exists that has seemingly conditioned the majority of players to believe they are that difference maker, that they are the star. Make no mistake, real talent is showcased as it rises to the top of a player pool. But today’s youth player is inundated with an inflated sense of entitlement that the game owes them something. I assure you, football doesn’t owe any of us a thing.

Is this shift generational? Modern football has become the stage for exhibitionists. At the youth level, team concepts often take the backseat to the individual flair. Anyone who grew up watching and admiring Total Football knew the team was the star. The sum was greater than the parts. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides have used the power of the team over the reliance of the individual; even with Messi’s prolific rate of goal scoring, the functionality is made possible by cohesiveness within the team philosophy. Football, like many activities, has reached a precipice where the millennial generation that, according to U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Millennial Generation Review, “are masters self-expression, with 75% creating a profile on a social networking site, 20% posting a video of themselves online… There is also a trend toward personal branding, which, on its surface, appears self-promoting.”

The ethos of team play has been replaced as the locus of control shifting away from the collective towards that of the individual. In Dan Rothwell’s book In the Company of Others, An Introduction to Communication, individualism and individualistic culture is defined as, “Oriented around the self, independent instead of identifying with a group mentality. They see each other as only loosely linked, and value personal goals above that of the group. Individualistic cultures tend to have a more diverse population, and are characterized with emphasis on personal achievements, and a rational assessment of both the beneficial and detrimental aspects of relationships with others.”

For all intents and purposes, today’s game is at risk of losing its edge. Individual defenders often overplay their own abilities, hoping to be seen as attacking assets whilst forgetting their defensive responsibilities and role within the team. The game’s lower levels are rife with young goalkeepers turning routine saves into “Kodak Moments” with exaggerated dives and unnecessary punches when simple play would suffice. The average academy showcase is littered with midfielders who repeatedly spurn opportunities to combine with other players, each assuming they are the libero. Strikers romp around, opting to bark orders while resisting doing any of the grunt work because what they see on television is the end product, not the sixty-yard, lung-searing run a professional forward makes to put his head where others put their boots attempting to score.

Much of this can be traced back to poor coaching, parenting and playing methodologies. Perhaps there’s an increase in players who played more football on the digital fields of video games than outside at the park. At youth games, it’s entirely evident amid the chaotic mob of parents shouting out nonsense framed as “encouragement” or “instruction” to individuals. Seldom does a parent encourage someone else’s son or daughter.

On the biggest stage, individualism is trumped by collectivism as evidenced at the World Cup. The world watched a solemn Lionel Messi ascend the stairs of the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro to collect the Golden Ball Award reserved for the World Cup’s best player. A happy but humble Manuel Neuer then walked up to collect the Golden Glove award. These two icons representing two of world football’s international powers seemed to understand one indisputable notion — these individual prizes meant nothing compared to the one shared by the team — the World Cup trophy. Messi, shackled with the stodgy responsibility to emulate Diego Maradona by bringing the World Cup back to the Albicelestes sulked back into the weary and disparaging Argentine side. Neuer, handing off the individual trophy with nonchalance, eagerly joined Die Mannschaft to hoist its fourth World Cup trophy — as a team.

Football’s entanglement with individual-centered recognition has undoubtedly highlighted the brilliance of the game’s greats. Football needs individuals that separate from the crowd, become superhuman for a fleeting moment, and to steal the spotlight. But has the influx of individual awards, titles, and honors such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or, Golden Glove, Golden Boot, Best Young Player Award, FIFA Ferenc Puskás Award, and even the Man of the Match accolade, placed the game at a precipice where individual performances, statistics and honours damage the team ethic to the point that recognition of all eleven players is impossible?


A player with the global appeal and skill of Neymar, for instance, embodies a new brand of Brazilian player, an archetype that balances the hope of football’s most successful country between his shoulder blades in such a way that Atlas, the primordial Titan tasked with holding up celestial spheres, might just empathize with. When an injured Neymar writhed on the pitch during Brazil’s quarter-final match against Colombia, Brazil, its fans, and its team abandoned the team ethos. Brazil lost against Germany during the Colombia match and their subsequent mourning of Neymar’s injury with shirts reading “Força Neymar” prior the semi-final against the Germans confirmed that a generation tilt had indeed occurred. The game was over before it started. The disconsolate Brazilians showed the team ethic was merely a phrase lacking the sinew to hold it together collectively, professionally, and nationally.  The Brazilian teams of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would have scoffed at the notion of allowing one player’s omission to dictate the team’s and collective nation’s fate.

During the 1962 World Cup when Pelé was injured against Czechoslovakia in the second match of the group stage, the emergence of Amarildo and contributions of Garrincha helped carry the Brazilians to their second World Cup title. As the star in the 1958 World Cup, Pelé’s absence called for solidarity, not a state of mourning. The great Dutch teams playing Total Football decimated teams through collective play. It is also through the function of the collective team that allowed players like Johan Cruyff, deployed as a centre-forward, to float freely and pop up in unconventional areas of the pitch to devastating effect against rigid opposition locked in formations that exposed their one-dimensional limitations.

Football is as much a business as it is a sport. Naturally, in any competitive sport, the best players stand out. But nowhere does a footballer’s image become inflated with corporate helium more than in a football advertisement. As the world has grown “smaller” in the footballing sense, the pendulum has shifted to the celebration of the individual “product”. Nike, Adidas, Puma, and a slew of other brands elevate the individual on our screens to sell merchandise or a pair of football boots. You’ve seen the ads, Cristiano Ronaldo running full clip down a blue screen-created pitch, dodging tackles from a faceless opposition, highlighting his skills to reinforce the individualistic culture of football. Or, take this past summer’s Nike commercial placing the likes of Rooney, Neymar, Ronaldo, David Luiz, and even Zlatan Ibrahimović against emotionless, stoic, and malevolent versions of each individual. The individual is celebrated and caricatured to the point of obvious mockery.

Juxtapose this with a 1996 Nike advert pitting yesterday’s stars like Eric Cantona, Paolo Maldini, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Rui Costa, Ronaldo and Ian Wright playing against a sinister squad of demonic creatures as a team. The action of the piece shows football’s greats working together, passing the ball, showing their individual brilliance and collective strength culminating in the iconic last frame with Eric Cantona’s famous, “Au Revoir” line before vanquishing the Devil with a venomous shot. Perhaps the early iterations of football adverts celebrated team ethics, like the famous commercial showing the Brazilian national team running through the airport passing the ball wildly. Individual brilliance enmeshed into the team’s purpose, not the other way around.

Football houses countless subcultures, and coaches understand that the individualistic culture can dominate the modern game. It’s entirely possible the individual has always been the catalyst in football, but it’s also evident that even the most talismanic figures of the global game require a supporting cast. Today’s young player differs very little from yesterdays in that he wants to be great. The difference, however, is today’s player is exposed to so many examples of “great” that the process is sacrificed for the end product.

I once asked Dutch street football legend, Edward van Gils, what makes a street footballer so creative and he said, “Skillful players are mostly street players because the play from an early age on the streets because they love it! Plus, most of these players don’t have money for Xboxes and Playstations, so basically street football is the only way to escape reality and be happy. These are kids that aren’t as easy to coach because they come from a totally different world that needs time, understanding, and good guidance.”

For every panna, rainbow flick, back heel and pirouette, the celebration of the individual lives in football. The game is about entertainment. Without entertainment, the game suffers. Supporters attend and tune-in to be entertained and players are obliged to satisfy this demand. The beautiful game is known as such because of the mercurial talents that radiate creativity and unrivalled brilliance. But, the beautiful game is beautiful because of the players who grease the gears of the machine play. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a player was, “Some people play the piano; others carry the piano. The same is true in soccer. When players don’t know their role and limitations, the game suffers. Know and own your role before you step across that white line, son.”

This article first appeared on on October 14, 2014 

Rule or Be Ruled

Watch this first. 

How much training is too much? Well, the whole question in itself is subjective as one person’s threshold might be the next person’s training zone. The term “over-training” is thrown around weight rooms like discarded bumper plates and it’s avoided in soccer circles because most people are too scared to push their limits.

The world is full of different types of athletes. Most athletes are average, some are tough, and fewer are elite. The smallest group are those who are elite and tough. Part of what halts young players in their development is true physical injury. I used to have a real mean bastard for a coach who’d ask players who went down in pain, “Are you hurt or are you injured?” Predictably, players would look at him perplexed before he sent them on their way out of his training sessions.

This post isn’t about the science behind soft tissue damage and overuse injuries. Most injuries for soccer players are the exacerbation of an ignored ailment or deficiency that’s been exposed through use. This is about the mentality to break the chains of doubt plaguing young players. Soccer is largely seen as a “soft sport” and those who’ve played or been around this game from somewhere other than their couch or armchair know this to be true. Most young players are mentally injured. Excuses become realities. Shortcuts become habits. False views of reality become truth. And the truth of the matter is soccer deserves its criticism. American players are as soft as baby shit.

For every suburban player there’s a parent with a duffle bag full of excuses that little Timmy can’t push himself. Coaches have to cave under the pressure of parent wussification because 1). Nobody wants to hear a soccer parent nag and moan like a rented mule and 2). There’s no time for coddling in true development environments.

One of my best friends is a competitive power lifter and his training regimen revolves around a few basic principles.

1). Real athletes dedicated to their craft are always carrying some type of injury, ailment, or discomfort

2). Competition exists before, during, and after training sessions

3). Toughness is less about maschimo displays of arrogant stupidity, mistreatment of others, showing off, and general trash talk. Toughness is learning how far and for how long you are willing to push your mind and body beyond what you previously thought you could.

4). There are no trophies for the mundane. Training is the entry fee to success and going through the motions is a waste of time.

When I first published my article about players getting upwards of 10,000 touches a day on a ball, people approached me with doubts, trepidation, and curiosity. The first person to call me was my power lifter friend who said, “Jon, I think you’re onto something that my sport depends upon. Repetition and the myth of over-training.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, he and I discussed the difference between dedicated power lifters and gym rats we’re all used to seeing in the weight room. I went to his gym where the voice of well-known power lifter, CT Fletcher barked motivational phrases laden with profanity on loop through the speakers as the industrial-strength fans droned in the background. These athletes sought self-improvement above all else. These athletes redefined intensity. Most had given up something to take up this type of training. Early mornings, time with their families, extra money went to training and competition expenses — their primal caveman was constantly beating their rib cage, begging to come out and destroy something. But, through all the intensity, there was a humility to these Goliath’s. On average, these athletes spent close to 10-15 hours a week in the gym smashing through training sessions without a coach or the promise of reward. Their own self-improvement is the ultimate reward.

So, what the hell does this have to do with soccer? Everything. It has everything to do with how players view their personal investment into the game. Most American players think dedicating between three-to-five hours a week plus a game at the weekend will take them somewhere exceptional. That will take you to the same place it takes everyone else doing the bare minimum. Nowhere. This is the ethos of the casual American player: do the bare minimum and expect optimal results. It’s easy to trace the genesis of such a faulty approach. American players who choose soccer are very rarely playing as if the game is the difference maker, the tool that will better their circumstance. The culture is casual for most players. It’s suburban and “safe”.

Juxtapose the fluffy environment with the way players train in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia and we begin to see why American players fall behind around age 12. The way I see it, we all have an ability to persevere. Your ability to endure pain and discomfort is like a muscle. It’s either conditioned to resist pain or it’s extremely weak. The only way to improve it is to log the minutes that turn to hours and build up the reps to make yourself stronger. Discomfort is NOT pain. It’s irritation and weakness. Players who can perform for sustained periods of time in this uncomfortable zone are better for it and learn to play tougher and maintain their performance longer than the average player.

Working on technique, fitness, or anything you can control for hours on end is not over-training. It is real training. Is 10,000 functional touches a day excessive? Yes. In fact, it’s designed for filter out the weak players. But the goal should not be 10,000 from the start. Hit 1,000 the first week. Up it to 2,000 touches the next week. Don’t stop. Don’t quit. Don’t be like everyone else.

The call to action is simple.

Players: Put the video games down, the excuses aside, figure out what it is you need to work on (don’t go out and train what you’re proficient at) and work hard on your own. The people who blow smoke up your ass have no idea what’s best for you. They are enablers; avoid these people. You aren’t good enough and without steadfast dedication, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll never be good enough. “Good enough” is for average people. Be better than those people.

Coaches: Give your players homework and hold them accountable. Failure to do this makes you a poor coach and a pretender. Don’t enable weakness. If a player has a crap first touch, that player shouldn’t see the field until they improve. It’s a simple game. Don’t complicate it. Don’t discuss playing time, tactics, excuses, or manipulations from and with parents. They aim to sway your attention to their child, not for the good of the team. It’s not personal, it’s soccer.

Parents: Shut up. Seriously, shut your mouths. Let the coach do their job. You do yours. Get your mind around every excuse and stop the kitchen table coaching session. If you knew better than the coach, it would translate in your child’s play. Your child is not special. They aren’t a prodigy. If they were, you’d understand what I’m talking about. When you badmouth a coach, guess who thinks that’s acceptable? That’s right, your self-entitled child. Take away the video games, smartphones, and quit taking their ego to the buffet line of bullshit and be real with your child. If they’re not improving, figure out why and help them. Don’t drill them to death. That’s up to them to do for themselves. If they believe it’s what you want, they’ve already lost.

The takeaway: Train harder, longer, and better. Don’t exist to appease the status quo. Most if not all of you will not be professional players. Just because that’s the reality doesn’t mean you have to shortchange yourself and everyone who’s invested in your journey as a player. And quit being so damn soft.

I recently spoke to a former player so full of delusions and cop-outs that I had a hard time listening to his excuses. “My coach isn’t nice,” and “My team keeps screwing up,” and similar types of verbal vomit polluted our conversation. I asked him, “So, what’s the problem?” He looked at me as though I didn’t “get it” and rolled his eyes.

This young man clearly needed a dose of reality. So I shared my own story. It’s not glamorous. I’m not superhuman. I just went through the meat grinder of life at an early age. Many have and many will in the future. At 17, I was stopped at traffic light. The light turned green and I entered the intersection. So did a semi-truck that blew through the red light.

The accident left me with a broken rib cage, broken neck, fractured skull, and a concussion. The doctors wanted to intentionally sever my spinal cord so I wouldn’t sever it myself by trying to move. Luckily, my parents opted for a second, less evasive opinion. Taking the better part of a year to learn to walk again and the intestinal fortitude to step on a field again took a lot. I missed my window as a talent. High level universities rescinded their scholarship offers and rightly so. I wasn’t supposed to walk again, let alone play the game competitively. But I still played Division I ball. I still got up for headers and learned to control my fear and accept the troubles life threw at me. I didn’t die. I still get to kick a ball. Life goes on.

Be the hero in your own movie. 

The game owes you nothing.

A Messi Comparison

A Messi Comparison
By: Jon Townsend

Major League Soccer’s official website recently put together a short mash-up video asking the question, “When will MLS produce its own Messi?” The video itself, more paid promotional collateral soaked in corporate initiative-driven opinion than honest exploration, reiterated the common reasons and myths regarding the perpetual absence of an American player of world class caliber. While the Development Academy system is a necessary step to advance the game stateside, it is but one route to the upper echelon of the American game, and it was instituted more than a decade after MLS kicked off in 1996. The good part is MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation have both finally succumbed to the fact that one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. The not-so-good part is the U.S. Soccer Development Academy “demosphere” shows how many states and areas do not have “academy” teams. For players in these areas with no Development Academy their choices are: move to area with an academy, stay the course and hope to be discovered, or fizzle out like so many promising young talents scattered across the nation like sticks in the wind have before.

But what made this question bold beyond belief, bold bordering arrogance, was the assumption that leagues produce players. Leagues do not produce players, clubs and coaches produce players. Long before a player takes the pitch at the professional level, bright boots and pressed kit and all, credit is owed where it’s rightly due. Much like teachers, youth coaches are in the business of being overworked, underpaid, and undermined. Subsequently, they are also in the business of planting seeds; they’ll never have the opportunity to reap the fruits of their labor.

Soccer is no different. The game we see on television is the latest iteration of a million steps a player took along their developmental journey. So, who really produces players? At a recent joint UEFA/FIFA conference assessing and reviewing the technical analysis of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Joachim Low discussed the role of the modern coach. “Because of his expertise and philosophy, a coach needs to communicate with the players. I’ve learnt that over the years. The players today want explanations and arguments, they understand when they are criticized and a coach needs to explain why. In that sense, psychological and communication skills are important for a coach.”

Low’s words echo what most already know. Players need justification. Parents need validation. How this information is disseminated is critical to its absorption. The World Cup-winning coach went on to say, “Youth coaches create world champions,” crediting the significant role of German football’s14-year rise to pinnacle of world football culminating in a World Cup victory, to youth coaches who bought into the overhaul and revamp of the German youth development model.

The German Football Association’s power is derived from the grassroots, youth, and provincial academy coaches cohesively reevaluating what’s important regarding the progression of Germany’s, not just the Bundesliga’s, football. To assume a single entity, closed league like MLS can produce a single “world class” player in a country with the resources, cultural hotbeds, infrastructure, and knowhow of the United States suggests that any and all progress to such elevated status of a Lionel Messi is misguided. Most, if not all of the best players in Major League Soccer were developed elsewhere with the exception of a DeAndre Yedlin, who’s on his way to Tottenham Hotspur. From the best collegiate products (which yielded some of the league’s best American players to date) to the exorbitantly-paid Designated Players and foreign imports, Major League Soccer has and will continue to benefit from the external development of its players.

Given the nefariousness of a term like “world class”, it’s entirely plausible that the subjective nature of such a term shrouds it in ambiguity. Lionel Messi was introduced to the game with local club Grandoli FC, a club managed by parents in a rough and tumble working-class neighborhood that provides training and league games for local children. From his neighborhood club, Messi progressed to the youth academy at Newell’s Old Boys. Without delving into what makes Messi a phenomenal player, it’s clear that even as an exceptional talent his route to greatness required him to leave home to be groomed and developed in Barcelona at La Masia. His brilliance was not developed by La Liga. It was developed by the Barca’s methodologies closely tied with those at Ajax. The multilayered and multilateral coaching practices and rigorous attention to detail regarding his performance capabilities occurred for years within a club system, not a league.

Regarding player retention, Major League Soccer continues to see its best young players go abroad to development academies and teams in Europe. But the original question, although painted with a broad brush is good as such an inquiry brings salient questions to the forefront. Are MLS Academies competitive enough against regional opposition? In terms of recent MLS academy performances against Liga MX academy sides at a U15 tournament, the results weren’t favorable for MLS, whose sides ended up with a 0-7-1 record. Notable results were Club Atlas thumping Toronto 10-1, Pachuca beating Houston 2-0, Chivas de Guadalajara beating Chicago Fire 3-2, and Morelia drawing 1-1 with FC Dallas. While it’s not entirely prudent to assess the holistic state of MLS Academies from these results, it does help answer the true root of the original question. “When will MLS produce its own Lionel Messi?”

The answer is whenever Major League Soccer and its misleading marketing machine decides it has produced its own Lionel Messi because the reality is that Lionel Messi will not resemble the Lionel Messi. What standard will MLS with the help of MLS Digital Properties and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, set for “its own Messi”? Will the “MLS Messi” be made to stay in the league for the duration of his career? Will he be allowed to have a say in what club, err, franchise he’s allowed to play for? Must this “MLS Messi” be to MLS what David Beckham was to adidas, Pepsi, and Italian underwear modeling initiatives? Will this “MLS Messi” be American? And ultimately, will this “MLS Messi” be anywhere near the standard quality required in the world’s top leagues if MLS is not one of those top leagues itself?

Framed this way, one can peel back the motivations of the original quandary. Does MLS ask such a question on behalf of the betterment of its brand? After all, in a closed league that controls each franchise rather than allowing club autonomy and governance, it’s clear business strategy and brand visibility trumps all else. With the league’s continued expansion how will true footballing growth, the product on the pitch, be measured? Attendance figures, disproportional salary metrics, an amalgamating league-wide logo rebrand, and a flurry of questions revolving around the ambiguous and ever-frustrating amorphous MLS Rules and Regulations standards have given rise to another question.

Has the U.S. Soccer Federation wedded the sport’s success to one league? It’s evident the success of national teams is partly dependent on the strength of its top flight league (unlike MLS, most of those leagues compete in a system whereby poor performance over the span of a season can result in relegation). The other dependency of a national side’s success is where and at what level its core players ply their trade. As the sport in the United States continues to increase in popularity, it’s also clear much of this popularity is derived largely from foreign players, national teams, clubs, and leagues. Whilst fans in the U.S. tend to watch MLS, many prefer to watch foreign leagues over MLS on the regular. American audiences still tune into European league coverage much more than they do MLS games. Future projections of increased television revenues and fund distribution and exposure for MLS are unlikely to pry fans away from top global leagues at the weekend. That conversion occurs when the level on the pitch in MLS trumps that in the world’s top leagues, which is unlikely to happen as long as the development of American players oscillates between “good enough” for MLS to “surplus to requirements” in European sides.

The best players in the world have mastered the basics. In the United States, generation after generation is applauded for trying the basics. The mentality of the American player isn’t yet at the level of resilience of players growing up abroad. The production of players starts with a simple observation: those who have to be forced off the pitch after training and those who can’t wait for the whistle to signal the end of training. In any sport, when players view their own success and progress as a means for survival, the result is players who enter the professional game equipped with a mentality that’s rare in the American soccer player.

A prime example of this mentally can be traced to Brek Shea’s interview published in Sports Illustrated earlier this month. Shea, an MLS product himself and an MLS MVP finalist in 2011 transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City in January of 2013. His list of complaints to soccer in England included the grey weather, the seriousness of the game, the fact that soccer is more “like a 9 to 5 job”, the camaraderie he fondly missed in MLS along with the weekly team barbeques to name a few “issues” a player in the national team set-up and an MLS product cited. When Shea frames life in MLS as more relaxed to that at a club like Stoke City, it speaks of the cultural differences and vast gulf in mentality between MLS and a club like Stoke City let alone a club like FC Barcelona. While Shea’s apathy for the challenges life as a professional player in England doesn’t represent all Americans playing abroad, it is a troubling mentality for a player who’s paid to kick a ball.

While the “what if the best athletes played soccer” fable is unlikely to die off (it really needs to), the United States is unique in the sense that its athletes have an abundance of estuaries that other countries simply don’t have regarding sporting options. Firstly, in the American sporting sense, there’s a difference between a pure athlete with raw physical tools and abilities and a proficient soccer player. The demands of soccer lean on skill-sets and attributes that aren’t transferable from most American sports.

The “best athlete” argument is stale, so the real question is lodged in is soccer losing these athletes to other sports? In all likelihood, yes, but the remaining talent pool is arguably the biggest youth participation sport in the country. According to the U.S. Youth Soccer Organization, as of 2012 the US Youth Soccer Annual Registration of Players was 3,023,633 with a near equal gender breakdown of boys to girls aged 5-19. A report published by the Wall Street Journal in January 2014 with source metrics from the SFIA/Physical Activity Council and Participation Topline Report found that approximately 6.2 million kids played organized soccer aged 6-18. League estimates for players aged 13-20 put estimations of player participation in the tens of thousands, so even with the vast inlets to other sports, the pool of soccer players is large enough to yield better players. Factor in the non-registered numbers and unreported figures and the number of participants in the sport swells dramatically. So, the issue isn’t a lack of participants, overabundance of sporting choices, or lack of genetic attributes regarding the prototypical U.S. soccer player, so what excuse remains?

One of the most popular reasons proffered by Major League Soccer officials, employees, and fans is the fact the league isn’t even 20-years old yet. Has Major League Soccer increased the exposure of the game in the United States? Yes. Is Major League Soccer the reason soccer is popular in the United States? No. The game has survived and even thrived in various stages and facets since late-19th century immigration influxes solidified the United States as cultural melting pot. The ebb and flow of the game’s popularity will continue to fluctuate regardless of any success at a World Cup or in MLS. The country simply has so many sporting outlets and the juggernaut of the NFL that out-competing advertising and television-friendly sports with stoppages and high scores is damn near impossible. That being said, the sustainability of Major League Soccer as a business entity is cohesive in both progression and ambiguity. However, soccer is no longer a sport that has to be “sold” to American fans and audiences. If anything, America is sold on its affinity for the world’s game played abroad over the domestic product.

The seemingly perpetual defeats to Liga MX sides in the CONCACAF Champions League give credence to the belief that MLS is far from producing a player remotely comparable to a Lionel Messi. With an Orwellian control and influence over mainstream American soccer media and elaborate marketing campaigns that boldly take credit and ownership for anything remotely successful in American soccer, MLS must also attribute and attach itself to the shortcomings of the national state of the game.

Instead of Major League Soccer asking when it will produce its own Lionel Messi, perhaps it is better served asking why it would even attempt such a feat before producing players the caliber of Lionel Messi’s supporting cast at FC Barcelona. The question is coyly guised as a marketing ploy to incite debate and it just might convince people Major League Soccer is capable of producing such a world class player. However, the fact remains that MLS has yet to produce a single world class player, let alone anything near a Lionel Messi. Successful leagues place as much value in development as they do marketing initiatives. Major League Soccer would be well-served to produce its own version of a James Milner before it dreams of producing its own Lionel Messi.

Training vs. Practice: A Measured Approach

The narrow footpath widens as I approach the now abandoned football pitch. At my foot is a scuffed football and in tow are my two nephews aged five and nine. My nephews have just returned from Ireland and brought with them a new love for football. The moment I show up to visit my parents in suburban Chicago where I spent my formative years, the boys remind me of my promise to take them out for a kick-about. The older of the two, Liam, looks across the plot of land and asks, “This is where you used to play?” I nod and think about how, in many ways, the game is the same as it’s always been; simple in theory and complex in execution.

The question threatens to put me at the mercy of nostalgia. In the fifteen years since I last played at this particular park, it’s clear much has changed. Where there was once a well-manicured pitch, lined and occupied by nomadic groups playing “Jumpers for Goalposts” is now a green expanse, more meadow than football pitch.

As we play, four neighborhood kids, probably 10 or 11-years old, show up and ask to join in the ruckus. I take up a spot on nearby bench to watch when a man with a stern expression on his face shows up. Within seconds of his arrival, he instantly starts coaching the new additions to the kick-about. “You gotta pass the ball, Brandon,” he shouts. I continue to watch in silence when I hear, “You can’t let him beat you to the ball! For Christ’s sake, we worked on this in practice!” After a few minutes of his extempore instruction, I introduce myself. We chat amid his constant interjections while the kids play. “I’m their coach. That tall one right over there, he’s my son. I tell him every practice, “don’t get beat on the dribble” and “run through the opponent”, and it pisses me off when they don’t listen.”

I refrain from judging this man as it’s clear we see the game differently. Where I see a pickup game, he sees a practice session, which raises a valid question, what’s the difference between football practice and training?

Practice vs. Training

Practice is the act of rehearsing a behavior over and over, or repeatedly engaging in an activity for the main purpose of improving or mastering that activity, hence the phrase “practice makes perfect”. Teams practice to prepare for actual games. Playing a new position, formation, or implementing a new tactical philosophy takes a great deal of practice. In essence, practice is a method of learning and of acquiring experience using specific skills rather than learning the specific skills themselves. Practice takes place in a controlled environment designed for rehearsing learned skills and disciplines.

If practice makes perfect, what does training make? Training should be regarded as the acquisition of specific knowledge, skills, and abilities resulting from coaching related to a particular discipline, in this case, football. Training’s main goal is lodged in the push for marked and measureable improvement of a player’s performance output. Performance output is the quantitative and often, exhaustive measure of a player’s ability to perform a specific task or a series of tasks. In other words, true training tests performance inputs such as: a player’s capability and capacity to learn combined with new concept retention derived from the demonstration of maximal levels of productivity and performance in task-based activities by a player. Technical work falls into the training category, while a player’s use of that technical ability is true practice.

To better illustrate functional training across athletic disciplines, frame a footballer’s training session in the context of competitive runner’s or weightlifter’s training session. In each discipline, the training session is like a metaphorical bucket of water the athlete has to carry around. When the training starts, a small hole is cut into the bucket and water, a player’s ability to train, starts pouring out. Players have a limited amount of time in a training session until their ability to train (the water) runs out. At the end of a functional training session a player should feel as though they’ve been physically and mentally pushed. The increased frequency and duration an athlete can train well when they’re depleted, the fitter, stronger, and better they become over time.


A misconception with functional training revolves around the idea of mastery. Less talented players have no idea what mastery is while good players dip a toe into the waters of mastery, but stop short of prolonged immersion training and fail to exit their comfort zone. Elite players make mastery their training objective and exist entirely out of their comfort zone. These exceptional players account for the smallest percentage of players and recognize that existing in their comfort zone is a recipe for plateauing. All skillsets in football require players to learn, retain, practice, and perfect the basics. There’s no way around this process. Depending on age and ability, learning the basics to the point of mastery is true progress.

Naturally, players will cut corners, fall behind, plateau, or quit attempting to progress without learning the basics. Good players survive on effort, better players thrive on ability. Surviving on effort will only take a player so far. Valuing effort over skill and technique can hamper a player’s progress. Such appraisals result in disproportional attitudes of proficiency. For example, what’s exceptional for Team A might be the “entry fee” for Team B. In short, Team B will have more success than Team A.

With all this talk of training, one mustn’t ignore the primary “X” factor or variable: talent. Players lacking coordination and balance, creativity, confidence, resilience, and who refuse to be challenged or are simply unable to challenge themselves, plateau and are simply passed up and left behind by the game. Regardless of their developmental stage, players can only cover up technical deficiencies for so long. Far too often, coaches use practice to institute training basics thus undermining total team progression. For example, a coach who decides to dedicate structured practice time to modify drills and accommodate an inadequate technical level in a drill is better off dedicating training time for such skill competencies.

Although contact time with players and teams is limited, coaches habitually opt to shoehorn too many different football competencies into one session. Consider an exercise focusing on “playing out of the back”. On the surface this is a simple drill. However, with players who don’t check their shoulder, can’t pivot on the ball, take a positive first touch, assess the play, and pass the ball proficiently, the practice is no longer about “playing out of the back”. Rather, it’s now a required training session to address technical problem areas and allow time for specific skill repetition. In addition to coaching feedback, the onus is on players to self-identify areas of their game they need to improve.

According to documentation from a seminar conducted by France’s World Cup-winning coach, Aimé Jacquet, (who also oversaw the progress of France’s golden generation) up until the age of 16, promising French players focus largely on individual technique. Each player under the FFF tutelage is required to form a relationship with the ball. Improvement in their touch, passing, shooting, and dribbling must occur before tactics are introduced – the central idea being players must be good with both feet and be able play with their head up at speed. Much criticism can be traced back English andAmerican ideals placing too much emphasis on physique and physical tools and not enough on technique.

According to Jacquet, players must spend two hours a day, five days a week on their skills. Without the frontloading of this training, players won’t play with the speed and creativity to excel. Taking observations from Alfred Galustian’s methodology, team success comes down to the abilities of individual players. When the parts of the machine are faulty, the machine doesn’t function as well. In academy settings across Europe the alignment with the belief in technique-based development at young ages indicates skill without speed is useless. By the time a player is 15-16-years-old, it’s the game that threatens to leave them behind.

Practice sessions at top professional academies stem from basic tasks carried out with speed, intensity, and require players to carry out movements under duress with higher rates of success (output). This can’t happen with technically deficient players. The complexity of a top-level drill is layered on mastery of the basics. Examining the French Football Federation’s approach to player development, the differences between training and practice are evident in Thierry Henry’s (pictured) development. Henry began training at Clairefontaine at 13, where the technical aspects of the game were emphasized over physical work. Repeated skill work in isolated sessions expedited his route to technical mastery. This process enabled Henry to learn and master skills away from match play before using them in matches.

Talking Points

Both practice and training sessions require a balanced ratio of instruction and activity performance. Self-analysis allows coaches to think of all the wasted moments in a practice or training session lost to the unnecessary. Players and coaches don’t get that time back. In any team practice there’s plenty of “down time”, a byproduct of verbose coaching, distracted players off to the side, and “drill killers” – players lacking the focus, technical ability, and performance competency to execute the tasks the drill requires. When players with inadequate technical ability are made to perform tasks outside of their skill set and repeatedly fail to play to the standards the drill demands, the issue is two-fold. Firstly, the drills must align with the ability of the collective, not the most skilled player, on the team, the outlier. It’s not uncommon for coaches to introduce drills well above the ability level of the players. Secondly, the player must improve on their time, not the team’s time.

In reviewing the youth academy structure at Real Madrid, the 7-9 age group follows an ethos built on a one ball per player philosophy ensuring young kids with short attention spans learn the importance of balance, get maximum ball touches with all surfaces with both feet, and coordination training in an age where individuality develops. At this age, players care about their individual place in relation to the larger group (the team). With regards to attention span, it’s defined as the “amount of concentrated time an individual spends on a task without becoming distracted”. This makes coach verbosity problematic. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information housed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the average attention span of adolescents (not seven to nine year olds) in 2014 was eight seconds. To put that in perspective, coaches lose the attention of their players within the first 15 seconds of verbal delivery. Throw in the chaos and action of playing and that finding oscillates between 8 and 12 seconds.

It’s evident that stagnation is cancerous to both practice and training sessions. Stagnation is the result of inaccurate coaching prompts and inadequate coaching, so unless there’s more value in players watching a drill, those not directly involved gain little from standing off to the side for prolonged periods of time. Bored players become disinterested players, which can curtail the session for everyone. Effective coaching methods require players to engage in “secondary involvement”. Players engaged in active recovery periods should be tasked with ball work as opposed to standing idly by while their peers continue to play. Quoting Manchester United’s Assistant Academy Director, Tony Whelan, “Seven to ten is the golden age of learning, so we work on their technique at a young age.” At Real Madrid, stagnation occurs when “games of interest” are shelved for overly-complicated drills and activities. In both academies, the philosophy is carried out with patience and consistency. Young players are not young adults and shouldn’t be made to play as such.

In observing top academy training sessions, it’s clear coach talking is held to a consistent minimum. When coaches calculate the amount of time they talk while during stoppages of play, much can be derived from practiced habit. There’s a valuable phrase, “Coaches can say a million a things by saying nothing at all”. Observation is much more effective than a constant stream of white noise play-by-play on behalf of the coach.

At Ajax, and Liverpool’s famed youth training facility in Kirkby, coaches allow players to work on their communication, maximizing on the ability to listen to inter-squad telling instead of hyper-correcting every nuance of the practice. Stateside, I watched two different academies practice on separate occasions and totaled 23 and 27 minutes of “down time” during each 90-minute session. My observation isn’t to devalue the role of coach instruction during practice, but that’s a significant amount of time that can’t be recovered. At top academies, direct instruction never leads to coaches performing the drill for the players, nor is it time for soapbox grandstand lectures. Additionally, indirect instruction is not “silent time” or guised as an opportunity for snide, sarcastic, and unproductive remarks to the team.


In direct observation of academy training sessions at PSV Eindhoven, Ajax, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Club Atlas, the biggest reason for stagnation in a practice or training session stemmed from three things. Set-piece training, lengthy direct instruction, and post-error hyper-corrective lectures, each of which are the biggest time thieves of a football training session. If set-pieces are part of the team’s tactical plan and integral to its success, players shouldn’t be introduced to “new” set-pieces during a training session. Instead, they should be provided details ahead of time in an absorbable format. Coaches who present, explain, and teach set-pieces in advance equip players with an opportunity to learn concepts before actual practice. A major takeaway from each academy was players are responsible for being well-versed on the session’s objectives; coaches are responsible for giving them the means to make this happen.

Every player has something to improve. A common practice in traditional settings is to simply hand a player a piece of paper with a workout, which means nothing if the players aren’t incentivized to follow through with the prescribed workout. At top academies, assessment comes in all forms. At Club Atlas, for example, it was made clear no coach can improve for the players. It was also evident the best players were usually those willing to address weaknesses and turn them into strengths with more frequency than their teammates and opponents.

With young players, ability and confidence are not mutually exclusive.  In an article by Henry Winter in 2005 based on Manchester United’s youth academy’s implementation of small-sided games, René Meulensteen, at the conclusion of training session, gathered the U9s together in a circle and said, “You all have the ability, but do you have the confidence to play in front of 10,000 people, 20,000, 30,000? Use all your time training. Don’t waste it. Learn. Train hard, work hard. Take responsibility.”


Recall the comparison of practice and training sessions with serious running and weightlifting regimens. Effective programs yielding the best performance output are similar to weekly training plans in distance running or Olympic weight lifting. The reality is athletes failing to follow a plan from start to finish seldom reach performance goals expeditiously, if at all. For instance, marathon runners who can’t follow a training plan, with all of its idiosyncrasies like tempo and distance runs, speed work, strength training, agility exercises, will find actual racing (competition) extremely difficult.

There’s a reason people refer to strength exercises as “strength training” not “strength practice”. This is because the specific training is geared towards an athlete’s ability to address their weaknesses en route to yielding maximum performance output. Athlete A can’t lift weights so Athlete B can reap the benefits just as footballers can’t put the extra time in training with any hope to improve their teammates. Coaches and players who institute plans and see them to completion understand the value of consistency regarding performance output. Progress and improvement are gained in chunks of time. For instance, let’s say the majority of fitness, skill-based, and strength programs last around six weeks. More often than not, players and coaches fail to see plans through from start to finish for various reasons. But, even if it’s a catastrophe, it’s still only six weeks out of a player’s life.

Fundamentally, football development isn’t rigid and progressive like development in other sports. With so many factors affecting progress and with more players subjected to thorough vetting processes, the development of measurable training histories has become more common. For example, if a player has been training for ten years, how many six-week periods do they have in their training history? The answer is approximately 86 individual training sessions over a ten year span. The reason viewing training this way holds significance is because traditional team practice sessions don’t focus on the individual, nor should they. Theoretically, a player needs to be on the right developmental path for around ten years (or 10,000 hours) before the game threatens to pass them by. Players who start playing in the six to eight-year old age range will ideally be prepared to play at whatever the appropriate “next” level is by the time they’re 16-18.

Of course, a player’s development is littered with unknowns. Team practices will not address the needs of individuals the way individual training will. Conversely, training is not a replacement for practice. The two are supplementary to one another. The players who lead their talent pools tend to be dominant because of flawless mechanics and consistency. Skill sports demand a high degree of repeatable delivery of a skill on a consistent basis. Regardless of the level of football, there is a stark difference between training and practice. In the words of legendary marathoner, Tom Fleming, “Somewhere in the world someone is training when you are not. When you race him, he will win.”