Effort over Outcome

We live in protectionist times. As young players (and people), we aren’t armed with the skill-set to process losing for many reasons. One, we associate losing with failure. Second, losing has consequences (coaches, pay attention) associated with it that extend into ‘punishment’ (extra running, lack of playing time, lengthly lectures, finger-pointing, ostracizing, etc.). Third, soccer in this country is judged heavily on wins and losses, and that’s a real problem.

Think about how many bad teams win games by hook or by crook and all of those errant passes, late challenges, that tactical chaos, lack of discipline, and downright odd passages of play that are instantly forgotten. Somewhere along the way, ‘win at all costs’ had such an effect on generations of players and coaches that the pendulum swung to the other side of the spectrum and opened the door for the ‘trophy generation’…where mediocrity was rewarded ad nauseam.

As a player, I couldn’t stomach losing. Growing up, wins and losses were the measure of quality or the absence of it. In the early competitive [structured] environments I played in there was little-to-no ‘analysis’ of the game’s nuances, intricacies, and details. When asked how the game was or how they played, players responded simplistically with ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Performance was assessed and judged based on wins and losses. The practice of calculating statistics, analyzing positive periods of play, and taking note of snapshots of play that indicated a contradictory story to the final score-line was still over a decade away.

In short, player and performance assessment were completely subjective.

This collective mindset did a few things to players:

  1. Hampered their ability to judge their own performances as outcome was what really mattered
  2. Rewarded effort, which proves to be toxic (leads to trophy generation mindsets and expectations)
  3. Let bad coaching, poor player performance off-the-hook depending on outcome
  4. Allowed players and coaches to throw one another under the bus as nuance and details were overlooked and outcome was the measuring stick of ‘success’
  5. Paved the way for a ‘Cop-out Culture’ to permeate and take root in soccer
  6. Framed outcome only in wins/losses, not in ‘how good a player/team becomes over X period of time

Over time, I began to loathe the phrase “good effort” when myself or a teammate made an error because effort didn’t cut it; at least not in the era and environment of youth soccer I grew up playing. Effort was some murky primer that was applied before final judgment was passed down by a tribunal of coaches, parents, and teammates acting as judge, jury, and executioner — every week.

Here’s another reason why I began to hate talk of effort: somewhere along the line “good effort” was replaced with the phrase “my bad”, which is a cop-out. Our soccer has a problem with a ‘Cop-out Culture’. Over time, and if you’ve coached, played, or watched enough soccer, you can expect to hear a cacophony of “my bad’s” resonate at every game or training session in this country.

Competitive players don’t want to hear their teammates excuse themselves with “my bad”, they want them to put out their fire. ‘My bad’ is as shallow as it is useless. “My bad” doesn’t regain possession or block a shot. “My bad” won’t win the ball back, make the recovery run, implore a player to do better the next time, or make amends through performance and effort. “My bad” is empty phrasing. “My bad” ensures one thing: that players will say it over and over while ignoring the root issues and absolving themselves of accountability.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I’ve said, “my bad” when I’ve made an error, and it felt like a cop-out. But this isn’t entirely about cop-outs. This is more about that first phrase, “good effort”.

Why is that?

For players in my generation (and those that came before it), the game was different. Coaches were expected to extract weakness from a player and cull it from the team. Braggadocio was common practice and the accepted modus operandi for competitive environments and it’s likely still the case. Machismo was another attribute that coaches needed to see from players. The problem is some players just aren’t wired that way. The real problem is coaches tended to look for and applaud the wrong qualities in players.

Truth be told, my best friend growing up was a really shy, introverted person and until a certain age, through various obstacles and periods of adversity, guess what kind of player he was? Yep, shy and introverted. He was also the most skilled, most effective, and most reliable player on the field. The problem was that a culture of coaching and social dynamics mistook shyness for softness and his contributions were diminished because he wasn’t a madman out there. Perhaps this issue still permeates youth soccer.

So, what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of things?

We have viewed effort the wrong way…as mere participation. In many clubs and environments, effort does equate to mere participation. Simply showing up and going through the motions is acceptable and there is nothing wrong with that in non-competitive (recreational) environments. But for the competitive environments, effort has to dovetail into application.

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.”
—Michelangelo

Truly driven players work extremely hard at their game. Day-in and day-out, they’re playing, training, and tweaking their game to the point of exhaustion to improve. The graft and grind is unappreciated and often unnoticed, especially when a bad coach takes the reins of a team. That grunt work of getting thousands of touches on the ball in a day, running when it’s easier to ignore fitness, working on that week foot, playing up a few age groups knowing it will be a punishing experience, studying the game…of it indicates that we have another issue here…entitlement.

When outcome is all that’s really valued, the aforementioned process gets diluted and undervalued (or maybe devalued). Michelangelo said it best, “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.”

For competitive players and teams, effort with application is a much more important and accurate measure of performance, at least in my opinion. In an age where showcases, friendlies, and lengthly league seasons fill up a player’s calendar, wins and losses become a separate measure. But what I’m really talking about here is positive habit-formation in all playing instances (training, pick-up, meaningful competition, supplemental technical work, etc.) because analyzing and applauding effort with application there contributes to positive performance outcomes in games.

Additionally, if players know that their whole basis of play and performance is judged on a score-line, they tend to stop playing the right way (the system of play/philosophy they’ve been introduced to) within their role and skill-set and start playing solely to win. Granted, there is a time and place for the latter and I encourage players and teams to augment their style during meaningful competition; however, let’s focus on choosing what to applaud or acknowledge.

When one truly applauds effort over outcome, young players can connect application with their performance. But let’s go beyond the surface level here and challenge ourselves to understand a conditional: If effort (with application) is the focus, it can also be viewed so one can see how that effort and application contribute to an outcome.

Moreover, it’s important to applaud effort with a view of framing the outcome as the reward.

However, there’s a catch. Rewarding effort can prove toxic (note that rewarding and applauding/acknowledging effort are very different) because the players going through the motions will continue to do so and the players who propel the team forward (those who pair effort with application) will notice and respond negatively.

Overall, results and outcomes are part of the process. Acknowledging true effort with application allows coaches and players to get a better view of their contribution and performance. There’s a difference between merely showing up and taking part (participation) and consciously doing the right things time after time, even at the risk of failure. In a win/loss-centric culture, soccer in this country has taught its players to avoid any instances that could result in losing, which itself is a valuable lesson and a leveling mechanism to keep ego in-check.

Look, every player has played a wonderful game only for their team to concede a soft goal or be on the wrong side of the score-line for no logical reason. That’s part of the torture and allure of the game. It’s easy to see why players have a tangible ‘fear’ of losing…they equate it with punishment and failure. By applauding true effort (making a recovery run, taking a player on when the time is right, looking to break lines with a pass, etc.) the focus is on actual play instead of solely the result.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s pretty simple. Focus on the process and the result will take care of itself. Take ownership in encouraging focus and grit because once the process, however unglamorous that may be, holds more stock, the outcomes become better.

After all, in the words of author Robert Collier, “Success is the sum of efforts repeated — day in and day out.”

Chaos Theory

Circus Time

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

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

Welcome to American Soccer.

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

Chaos Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is More Than Trivia

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

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

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

Purposeful Coaching

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

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

Technique on Your Time, Tactics on Mine 

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

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

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

Find the Real Purpose of Everything and Anything

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

Believe me, this isn’t a deep question.

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

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

And that player is not wrong.

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

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

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

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

See the Value in Everything and Anything

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

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

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

Exercise of the Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve admired this for years.

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

Now, how does this apply to soccer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Coach Ability vs. Coach-ability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following is what you need to know.

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

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

So, what does this really mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Nobody cares about what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s fair and what’s unfair. For players, it’s time to buck-up and figure it out — if that means “playing the coach’s game” — do it. If that means logging extra sessions after training on your own, hitting the track, weight room, study hall — do it.
  2. It’s not their fault the coach recruited them. Seriously, they did something others did not — get noticed and get recruited. All power to them. Too often, American players feel entitled because they were “the man” in high school or with their “academy”. Honestly, none of that means a thing after high school or outside the world of youth soccer. Don’t be that sappy “I was All-State in high school” clown.
  3. Coaches are focused on results, not feelings. This is universal. Coaches don’t care if you’re feeling down, that your girlfriend cheated on you, that Organic-Chemistry is a sadistic filtration class. They are focused on their jobs and getting results without making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
  4. Would you play you? Why? You’re that good, huh? Could it be your biggest problem is, in fact, you — your attitude, work rate (or lack thereof), your grades, your actual ability has stagnated (remember, college soccer is NOT the place for development), the fact that others are simply better than you at soccer, following directions, and are tougher?
  5. Ego check. This is your best friend and worst enemy. Be humble, be confident, don’t be a jackass. Simple.
  6. Play, don’t get played. It is up to you figure out how to get on the field, get more scholarship money, pass your classes (actually learn something), and make good decisions. The pizazz of being a student-athlete can get the best of you — don’t get played by distractions and emotions — this isn’t high school.
  7. Support staff — more important than you think. Athletic trainers, assistant coaches, tutors, Teaching Assistants, counselors, team doctors, equipment managers, grounds crews, concession stand operators — these people want to see you succeed. Listen to everyone. Be nice. Be grateful.
  8. Enjoy the struggle. It ends sooner than you think; enjoy it as much as possible. The game owes you nothing.

The takeaway is most players aspire to play at the collegiate level. In the global context, this level is far below what it could be — however, I’ve seen way too many people who’ve never played or couldn’t play at this level bash it to bits. This article isn’t for them. The college game, as imperfect as it may be, is not the enemy, nor is it as terrible as keyboard warriors claim it to be. What they’re seeing is a condensed system that champions the worst of American valuations of what it takes to be a functional and capable soccer player: ability to run, jump, hit, chase, tackle, etc, — all over technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, and discipline.

Here’s a trade secret: the pretty soccer where teams possess the ball is rare; here, teams pounce from the word ‘Go’ and take their chances as they present themselves. It’s not pretty; however, it’s what we have.

This article is but one of many that I intend to write to help players get a player’s perspective of the experience; if for no other reason other than it would have been awesome (and amusing) if someone had told me this stuff before I played college soccer, which by the way — was a great experience for me. I met some of my best friends, learned under some fantastic coaches, and the lessons gained as a student-athlete have helped me in every job I’ve held in the professional world.

 

 

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.

Whatever It Takes

“You want to play on a real team? A team of real players who need real competition?”

The questions were rapid fire. I tried not to think too hard as I wiped my brow after an indoor game at a place in Palatine, Illinois called Soccer City.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said. A man with a thick, salt and peppery beard stared back at me and nodded.

“The team’s full of lads like you. Lads who need a bit more competition. You can look the part against guys your age. Try doing that against men, you’ll see how far you’ve got to go.” He handed me a card with his phone number and an address on Chicago’s west side. “Training is Monday through Friday at 11 pm. Make as many sessions as you can. We ain’t got a schedule for games yet, but you’ll be in some cash tournaments in the city and around Milwaukee. This ain’t Mickey Mouse stuff, mate. This ain’t to be publicized to your “coach” out there,” he said as he looked across the field at my club coach. “This,” he said, “is off the record.”

Geordie was a simple man. He’d come to the United States after he married an American woman, and played a bit in the doldrums of American soccer after pissing away trials at Wolves, Fulham, and Notts County. He’d recently been divorced and presumably lived in his truck. He worked in the stockyards and loved the game. He hated the politics of the American soccer system. Geordie didn’t believe in coaching licenses. He didn’t want to play the favoritism game and certainly wanted nothing to do with club scene. He wanted to coach on his terms. The task was simple. Assemble a group of promising players aged 16 and up and enter cash tournaments. Any cash won was split among the team with Geordie taking a “coaching fee”. We didn’t care. Training was free. It was a chance for the players he’d seen to get better outside of the overly-structured and watered down American soccer system.

Our first training the ragtag group of players I called teammates looked at one another with disdain. We’d all been amalgamated and were crazy enough to show up to a warehouse to train at night in a tough part of town. The team was made up of Polish, Hispanic, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian players and me. I was the youngest player at 16. This was what underground development looked and smelled like.

“You lot want to do tricks? If you do then join the fucking circus.”

Geordie was rough around the edges, but he was a truly amazing coach. He believed in team play. Direct play differed from Route One under his tutelage. Pass the ball, move, share the work. When he didn’t feel we were circulating the ball quick enough or with enough authority, he would throw us a tennis ball and make us play with that. The passes became concentrated. Players actually showed for the ball. It pissed us off. In hindsight, I think he was just seeing how we would react.

I loved his sessions. One of my favorite places to train was a warehouse on the west side of Chicago. It had turf, steel goals, and sharp objects everywhere. We’d train from 11pm to 1 or 2 am. The older guys would go off to work, home, or to the bar. I’d catch a ride home with two players who were brothers and lived near me and worked in a furniture warehouse in Addison. I’d be in bed by 3 am up by 6 am for school. Geordie could play. His calves were the size of grapefruits and he had this ability to demonstrate what he wanted from us while coaching. I could never tell if he was right footed or left footed. I did know he loved using both — usually in the tackle. He oozed passion for the game and believed in tough and rough treatment when it was necessary. He’d motivate us when we needed motivating and nurture the younger ones when it was clear we’d had enough of getting the shit kicked out of us.

The field was amazing for us. Sure, it wasn’t Wembley but it might as well have been! Shoddy turf loosely laid down in an industrial warehouse. After training we had to roll the turf up and store it to the side. The industrial-sized fans buzzed and hummed while the lights overhead flickered and droned. Geordie was most likely certifiably insane. We played a few tournaments in Milwaukee and Chicago. We played in Chicago’s Metro League, against Polish, Croatian, Mexican, and Bosnian teams.

The truth is back then I would have done whatever it took to be a better player. As good as I thought I was, I realized that I was a late-bloomer in soccer. I still had the awkward lankiness of growing six inches over a four month span. My knees hurt from an overuse injury called Osgood-Schlatter’s disease (it’s not really a disease). I wasn’t exactly timid, but I wasn’t the raving psycho that Geordie wanted me to be. The whole experience, however, affected me profoundly. I trained with Geordie for around two years. Sometimes the group of players waned and changed, but I kept going to the sessions. I was learning what being a journeyman player was all about.

The nature of the warehouse pick-up games, the brutal combativeness of the environment, the late hours and early mornings turned me into a player carved of stone. Fitness was a non-factor as I was training double or even triple what players in my age group were. And the training was nothing they could fathom doing. But, I was a late-bloomer and for every accolade I earned with my club team, I discovered another “deficiency” against seasoned players at the warehouse. These were players who used to play professionally in Eastern Europe and Central America. My ride home was with two Guatemalan brothers who fled their country and won a lottery to enter the United States through a missionary program. The progress I made was exponentially greater than anything I would have been able to accomplish had I gone the “conventional” route. What I used to think about during games became instinctual. Tackling, ball distribution, shooting, communicating in different languages, working for my teammates was par for the course. I was becoming a player.

I found myself training in my basement, getting thousands of repetitions in before school. After my first training session, I came home and slept before jogging to a local park to meet Jose and Ricardo to go to the warehouse. My parents allowed this because they knew I loved the game and weren’t going to stop me from sneaking out to play anyway. None of us had any aspirations or dared think we could play professionally. The system wasn’t cut out for players the game had or, in my case, was going to leave behind. My parents didn’t have the money to hire someone to videotape my games let alone buy our own camcorder. My high school coach was clueless and routinely benched me when colleges came to see me. He didn’t get on with my father so he took it took on me. Geordie’s training sessions were the answer.

One of the last sessions I attended, Geordie said, “You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get something out of this game. At the end of the it all — and it goes quick — you’re left with fuck all. So, at the very least, enjoy it.”

On my way to training the next day a semi-truck blew a red light and smashed into my car. I was left with a broken neck, fractured skull, broken ribs, and massive concussion, and had to beg the surgeon I wasn’t going to sever my spinal cord by struggling to move after several Valium injections to prevent me from moving so much. I spent the better part of the next year in a back and neck brace — learning to walk, dreaming of playing, overcoming nightmares where I’d wake up a quadriplegic. The reality is I missed my window well before that accident. As it came to pass, I recovered and made the decision to play in college. Gone were the scholarship offers to my top choice schools, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to play again at the Division I level.

The first chance I had, I drove to see if Geordie was still at the warehouse training players. The warehouse had been converted to a Whole Foods. Where I used to play was now home to over-priced organic food. I inquired about Geordie for a few years but never did hear about where he went off to. Ricardo and Jose still talk to me. We still go out for beers when I go back home. And they still work in a warehouse stocking furniture on industrial-sized shelving units.

On the off chance I ever get into coaching again, I’m going to do it on my terms like Geordie did (just not as insanely). I would have done whatever it took to be the player I think I would be had it not been for that car accident. But, I wouldn’t trade my experiences training “underground” under the languid and unforgiving warehouse lights with a coach as mysterious as he was crazy for anything. I played with some of the best players in an environment that lives only in our memories.

Would you do whatever it takes to be the best version of yourself? Would you do whatever it takes to be the best player you could be?  If not, ask yourself why and remember: you only get one go-round at this game.

The Culture Wars of American Soccer

If you’ve played, coached, or watched soccer at any level in the United States and Canada then you’ve seen the worst pregame warm-up activity imaginable — the shooting line. The activity itself is a microcosm of the pedestrian misappropriation of the world’s game. Youth team coaches are guilty of allowing all of the players regardless of position to partake in a party of potshots. This “warm-up” is even used by high school, college and Major League Soccer coaches.

Such an activity is important for attacking players and goalkeepers before a game. Good teams and coaches designate a time and place for the attacking players and the goalkeepers to get their reps. They also organize position-specific activities for the other players, mini-stations, possession grids, rondos, and a plethora of other functional activities to get the team ready to perform. One difference, however, between a clued-in and a clueless team is identified by the amount of standing and static stretching taking place before competition. Most likely, you’ve seen that line grow longer and longer as players miss shot after shot and subsequently chase the ball across acres of parking lots and other fields.

The enemy is not the shooting line, but rather the coaches — charlatans embodying every bad coaching cliché that should have stayed in the 1990s-era soccer movies that made a mockery of the game — who use this as a primary function for warm-up or pregame activity.

This rudderless navigation of soccer isn’t limited to pregame shenanigans. In the United States, the odds are great that players arriving early to practice will take potshots at an empty goal with shots ending up everywhere but in the goal. Admittedly, I was raised in a culture where this insanity was all too common. Between the ages of 9-14, I learned early on that the activity was not only lodged “deep in the dumb”, but it was unrealistic. At no point were any of the players exhibiting the actual movements and skill that would even allow them to get such a shooting opportunity in a game, and yet, true to form, this activity is still done with regularity. Growing up, I often found myself opting to dribble the ball around on my own before games or at practice while my teammates took shot after shot at the goal until a coach showed up. I attribute my avoidance to the playing pick-up and street soccer.

You see, in the brand of pick-up and street soccer I grew up playing there were no giant goals, at least none with nets. If you shot the ball, there was no guarantee another group of players wouldn’t stab it with a pen or pocketknife, steal it themselves, or punt it onto Interstate 280. Games often turned into literal turf wars. Losing often extended beyond the scoreline, it meant losing respect and the opportunity to play there again. Growing up in an area of cultural tension soaked in racial and nationalistic rivalries was tough, but it emblazoned many of us with a steadfast desire to be better, tougher, and more savvy players. My neighborhood buddies were of Mexican, Bolivian, Nicaraguan, Portuguese, Kenyan, Vietnamese, Korean, and Bosnian descent. A few were refugees and brought with them their soccer talent and the savagery they were exposed to in their war-torn homelands. The tense culture of the time conditioned each of us to value the ball at all costs — taking pregame potshots was out of the question.

street-soccer

Away from the skirmishes on the dirt patch parks or the vacant basketball courts with chain-linked nets in the world of “organized” soccer I discovered how different the game was regarded. I wouldn’t even call the brand of organized soccer available to me remotely related to the stuff we played in the streets, courts, and parks. Positions were too rigid in the organized version of the game. Coaches were too “all knowing” but when they demonstrated how to do something, it was clear they never played the game let alone kicked a ball. I don’t fault them for their lack of tact or playing experience. Soccer in the late-1980s through the 1990s was filled with a systemic disconnect with the world in an effort to Americanize the game.

I recall playing in a game where I dribbled the ball across half field and my coach screamed, “You can’t cross to the other half! That’s for NOT your position! Get off the field!” That was the last time I played for that team. But, the root of issues such as rigid positioning, pregame potshots, and out-of-touch coaches was the shoehorning of a global, free-flowing game that demands players be as intelligent and a “different” type of athletic in the mold of the sports dominating American culture. Warm-up activities in basketball involve shooting lines. American sports tend to have overtly-stratified positions that players do NOT vacate.

Growing up in the cultural melting pot of northern California’s Bay Area and later, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, put the juxtaposition of soccer culture with American sporting culture at great odds. Deep down, I want to believe that American sporting culture includes soccer in a capacity extending beyond a “recreational activity” reserved for suburban kids of affluence and their accompanying “soccer moms” in minivans and Lexus SUVs. Watching a youth American football (gridiron) game, it’s evident that over-control, scripting plays, and parents and coaches donning the team’s apparel is an integral part of the culture. What is acceptable in those sports bleeds over to youth soccer and the result is a growing disconnect between the [North] American player and the global player.

Spending time abroad as a youth player afforded me a unique lens with which to view the game I love. When I arrived at training early, players passed the ball, got touches on the ball, performed variations of rondos, and jogged around with a ball — all uncoached and unprompted. Once a training session commenced, it was highly-organized but was free-flowing at the same time. We played mini-games instead of full-field scrimmages, shooting-specific drills where attacking players worked against defenders took precedence over static shooting lines, dedicated technical training was taught and performed for the sake of using the skills in a game, not for “oohs” and “ahhs” of helicopter parents.

As easy as it is to sing the praises of the game is played overseas and stating how far we have to go, the point is the culture today still have far too many remnants of the ignorant soccer culture I grew up combating. The main source of solace I find is most of the people getting into coaching and the overall soccer discussion played the game themselves. The importance of the experiential cannot be understated, nor can the importance of individuals willing to learn more about the craft of coaching.

Perhaps beyond any coaching point I could make, the onus lies on the American player. The American player does not play enough soccer. There is no shortage of praise for American players who “hit the weights”. The fact of the matter is the American player still needs to be prompted to get out and play on their own. If there is a pick-up or street soccer culture, I have not seen it and believe me, I’m looking for it.

One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. It’s time to build a soccer culture across urban and suburban lines. We can talk about new coaching curriculum all we want, but until there is a stronger and more willing playing populous to challenge and push those coaches to be better, the cycle will repeat itself as will the obsession with average.

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