Far Post Footy

The End Product is Only Part of the Story

I recently watched a professional ice hockey game and heard the commentator say, “He makes it look so easy.”

Over the course of the break in play, the commentary pair made parallels to other sports and athletes in such a way that seemed to overlook a reality we’ve all heard about, few of us have lived, and even fewer can fully appreciate or understand.

Watch enough professional soccer games and you’ll hear similar phrases: “They made it look so easy with that movement but where’s the end product?”

Here’s something we already know…it’s not easy.

It looks easy, but it’s not.

It’s something else.

And so, it got me thinking about a topic I discuss with players, parents, and clients all the time.

The behind the scenes efforts.

During a recent training session, I demonstrated a few technical movements and some agility and fitness work to make sure my expectations were observed and absorbed by the players. I also model this when necessary to reaffirm that I will never ask my players to do something I haven’t done myself, couldn’t do myself, and won’t do myself.

That’s just my style. Yours may be different. That’s OK. Back to the point.

A player struggling with the work scoffed and said, “That’s easy for you, you’re the coach.”

I was glad they said this because it was a teachable moment.

I told the player it’s easy for me because I’ve worked on those skills, movements, and abilities my entire life…when nobody was watching and when nobody cared.

I then told them it was largely in preparation to play but ALSO to coach THEM.

It hit home (thankfully). Their attitude shifted and it was one of those rare moments were the message was received by the person AND the player (it’s important to consider both when coaching).

Here’s a premise I take to players and clients so they can think about the process and journey on which we are embarking.

How much do you really know about someone if you’ve only seen them their best? Or perhaps, if you’ve only seen them in a performance?

People often look at someone on the surface and come to a series of resounding and assured conclusions.

This is risky and it’s dangerous.

For most people, it’s quite easy to look at the finished product standing there before them and make assumptions that hide valuable information and details that can be applied to their own journeys.

Looking at the personalities, habits, and traits of the greats in any sport is valuable.

What’s even more valuable, however, is examining athletes in disciplines and arenas in a variety of sports, contexts, environments, and even the time or era in which they honed their skill-set.

Much like Cristiano Ronaldo is lauded for his insane and obsessive physical and technical supplemental training habits, or Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s obsession with winning and competing in ALL facets of life aided their development and approach to honing their craft the fact of the matter is we must understand one very important principle:

“Championships aren’t won in the theater of the arena. They are won in the thousands of hours of training and the 5 AM runs in the rain when everyone else is sleeping. That’s where it’s won” -Greg Plitt

Truth be told, if you want to unlock the contributing reasons Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard — two footballers known for getting extra sessions in on the training pitch, in the gym, and with their coaches — it’s important to understand what we’re really looking at when we see them on the pitch on match-day.

We’re seeing the thousands of extra repetitions, hundreds of extra hours studying and working on their craft, and countless of hours spent in preparation for the performance.

The same is true in any discipline. Musicians rehearse for hours until their fingers bleed, backs ache, and bones hurt for an audience of none.

Writers who have more rejection emails and letters than anything published.

Runners who train in the dark, puke on the track, get torn up on the trail, and train years for a single race or event.

Weight lifters who are methodical in their diet, sleep, rest, and workout patterns while everyone just believes it’s steroids that make them strong

The artist who sells his work for cheap on the street corner or gives their work away for years before they ever get a place at an expo or is picked up on contract by an creative agency who will pay them to pursue their passion.

You get the idea.

Now let’s think about ways to connect this closer to home.

Think about the mother and/or father who coaches, volunteers, takes on more jobs, has side gigs to buy the right boots for their son or daughter, works longer hours at job they’d rather not give more of their time to so they can provide knowing they’ll get no praise or be shown no gratitude for enduring.

Hell, I know parents who want to help and contribute by setting out cones and reading books I recommend so they can feel more in-touch and in-tune with their child.

They do this so they can have some sense of self-worth.

I see it when perhaps their child or spouse does not.

This is honorable in my opinion.

The point is the end product is final stage of the pursuit, which is itself a journey laden with struggle, triumph, progress, change, pain, and sacrifice.

Doing the hard thing is often the right thing.


Technical Development Materials available on Amazon

Photo by Logan Fisher on Unsplash

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Lost in a Performance

For as long as I can remember, I’ve replayed scenarios and sequences of games gone awry in painful detail; to the point I have to wonder if what I am accessing and recalling is what actually happened — or is it merely a subjective rendition of the performance?

Personally, as I got older and the stakes in the game got higher, the practice of assessing performances extended to training sessions in addition to match play. The exploration of the minutia is a double-edge sword with a faulty hilt because one cannot hold onto such moments, nor can they wield them in actuality.

I’ve always taken note how the players that I coach reflect on their performance — if they do so at all. For most, it’s not really a reflection but more of a reaction — a momentary outburst in the moment. For others, it’s a practice of self-immolation whereby they douse themselves with vats of criticism before anyone else can.

This type of reflection is a deep practice and quite a personal one.

Instances in a game gone astray can be broken down to a series of highlights detailing individual mistakes or triumphs. What is quite perplexing, however, is the perception of  the performances often become a staple for players at a young age — especially if they are playing in competitive environments. Naturally, coaches play a role, too. Although, perhaps the biggest of these factors is the interaction between a player and their parent(s).

Of course, there is value in self-analyzing one’s individual performance as long as it presents opportunities to learn and to eventually improve.

But, this is seldom how it works.

Most people have heard the phrase paralysis by analysis, and it’s an important one to comprehend. Analysis framed in objectivity is a powerful tool. When that analysis is doused in the waters of subjectivity it often marinates in negativity and obsessive self-critique cycles. Additional input from coaches and parents who are not playing, developing, and learning the game often splatters confusion on the canvas of a player’s mind.

Such feedback loops can prove toxic and permanent in the long run.

Recently, I returned to the field of competition after taking time off from playing when my first son was born. Although I have been on countless training pitches putting in hundreds of hours in training settings — as a coach. But when I took the field again as a player I found myself caught in that same old feedback loop from my youth — just like the players I coach find themselves in now — replaying sequences and scenarios again and again.

So, I decided to explore this more. I found that the highlight reel of plays, both good and bad, droned on in my head during my commute. Instances flickered behind my eyelids when I’d lay down to sleep.

I thought to myself, is this really happening again? Me, a grown man, caught in the cyclical storm of performance contemplation.

Two games later, my performances began to improve as the pace of the game and chemistry with my teammates developed again. Oftentimes, the fail-point or performance fault-line was the result of a lack of synchronicity between teammates. I took note that these instances, if not kept in-check and managed properly extended into the land of hypothetical and extraneous situations, which did not help me gain any positive insight or any opportunity to extend my learning. I reminded myself that one should often worry most about that which they can directly control. Those elements that are out of our control tend to muddy the already murky waters ever more.

Personally, this whole episodic return to my playing days and all the feelings and reflections associated with those days led me to conduct an experiment of sorts. I wondered why I was so affected by performances on the field but not so much to other pursuits of mine such as running.

Fast-forward to a few days later, after a shorter race that I used as a simulation for an upcoming marathon. After the race, I walked around and took in the scenes, talked to other runners, recalled moments of triumph and struggle, and separated from the event with relative ease. Later, when I reviewed my mileage analytics and running metrics — all objective analysis — I found that the race performance was decent given the training I put in and my fitness levels and experience running road races. Overall, it was not great but not terrible. But something was different — I was completely at peace with the performance.

I hit my splits. I felt so-so. I handled the conditions the best I could on the day. I ran well and certainly accomplished my goal of getting time on the legs and miles under my belt in a race setting.

Suddenly, the lightbulb flashed on in my head.

The obvious takeaway is competition. On the field, it’s 90 minutes of antagonism between two teams where the result often hinges on the outcomes of the individual battles on the field. In running, for example, I am not competing with elites nor am I really making decisions and competing in ways that determine the outcome for anyone but myself.

Yes, it’s intense and physically demanding — but it’s not soccer.

The second epiphany is a bit more intriguing:

When I really think back, it turns out I was never analyzing my on-field performances. I was never really contemplating these flash-points of games long since consigned to memory.

I was being consumed by performance.

Somewhere during our development as competitive players, we face the barrage of questions from teammates, parents, coaches, and ourselves about what transpired on the field — often on the car ride home or at the kitchen table that same day. That barrage becomes an echo chamber that serves as a cacophony of assumptions and harsh judgments tethered to moments that are long gone — if they even happened as we remember or as they’ve been recounted to us.

There is value in considering a few elements.

Firstly, players ought to understand that it’s entirely possible and plausible that they could perform at very high levels and do everything well and still lose the game. That’s a big aspect.

The second element is understanding the variances affecting performance are many and some are out of a player’s control.

Assessing performance is valuable but we must not make ourselves into tragic heroes of our own mythology — chaining one’s self to the crag while an eagle tears out your liver each day is more of a hindrance than a help. Players often punish themselves before anyone can do it for them, which is telling of the true values of the current soccer ecosystem.

And yes, winning is important. Performance, however, is different from winning and losing. This is why it’s important for coaches and parents to applaud effort before outcome for young players. Performances will undoubtedly consume players — that’s because competitive players care about outcome and execution and winning games. Losing and having flaws and weaknesses exposed hurts, and the competitive part of a player’s DNA sees those as reflections of themselves.

Additionally, those negative outcomes tend to affect a player’s enjoyment level, too.

Players need to tread carefully as there are two dangerous avenues that I’ll highlight that get way too much traffic.

The first one is what I call the Atlas Effect. All too often, players volunteer themselves to be Atlas and put the weight of the world on their backs and shoulder the responsibility of everyone and everything that occurred. This is a bizarre practice but it’s tied to the concept of ownership and accountability. If not kept in check, the Atlas Effect becomes a default setting and is perceived as a grandstand or failure to extract the important elements from an individual performance.

Go to any youth game or training and you will often hear the repetitive echoes of “my bad” for any and every mistake regardless of degree and placement on the field. “My bad” is a conditioned response that’s borderline theatric, which has become part of the soccer player’s lexicon.

The second avenue is arguably more dangerous. That is the avenue of avoidance and apathy. Players who tune-out performances and don’t own their contributions or actions on the field perhaps out of fear or true apathy. This is a poisonous cycle that usually results in internal strife and external conflict.

Performance is a tricky element. There are team and individual performances to account for, so players and coaches must be careful in assessing and reflecting. Give performances time to breathe. Learn to let them go if they begin to consume your mind and action. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last performance” or something to that effect. Be careful with that one.

Think of performances as opportunities to learn. The moments are gone, so it’s best to extract the usable data and reflect on them objectively. After all, there’s an art to having a bad game as much as there’s skill in learning to move on.

 

Image credit: @anthonytori via unsplash.com

Shopkeepers and Footballers

 

The following is a list of ideas and phrases I developed, found, culled from speeches/articles/podcasts/life over a year ago. I never got around to publishing them or much of anything. Most of this is both life and sport related. It’s all relative to improvement and development. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be the end-all-be-all of any one particular school of thinking. It’s just a collection of thoughts — that’s it.

  1. Players and coaches both need to understand and live this phrase: “In order to have, you have to do. In order to do, you have to be.” In other words, to achieve any sense of trust, you have to perform trustworthy actions. In order to do that, you have to be inherently trustworthy. The big caveat and universal truth of this statement is you can and should replace the word “trust” with any actionable quality and adjective. Think: greatness, powerful, talented, dedicated, committed, disciplined, etc.
  2. External competition is a misnomer. Before you can compete externally, you must first learn to compete internally. That is, you must have a purpose — one that drives you to be better than previous versions of yourself. However, competition as an action is less of a battle than it is a leveling-up process. Competition is the introduction of adversity. When done correctly, this is a net positive.
  3. Everything within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  4. “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”  Not everything is about direct instruction and the dependency on it. Players are conditioned to only accept direct instruction, coaches are conditioned to only deliver it. Not everything is ready to be taught when we want to teach it…it takes time and it takes rounds of failure. When both parties are receptive and engaged — progress begins.
  5. The job of a player/coach is the same as a shopkeeper. It’s up to you to open the shop every day. One cannot be successful if they aren’t open for business and aren’t willing to partake in commerce — the exchange of time, ideas, and energy — on a daily basis. If the shop is closed, there is no commerce.
  6. Mentorships: Not every player, coach, or individual is worthy of mentorship. It is NOT a coach’s job to mentor someone if it becomes clear that whatever it is you’re trying to help them with isn’t a priority to them. If you can say, “This is just not important enough for you,” to their face and stand by that assertion, it’s time to cut them loose and move on. Without commitment and reciprocation and application, the pupil is not willing to learn. See point 4.
  7. How to deal with a great apple turning into a bad apple. Give advice, give guidance, but be wary of that one bad apple that threatens to spoil the bunch. Remove it before it’s too late. You’re doing both parties a great service with clear communication and blunt and honest messaging.
  8. On Groupthink: Too many people think they have an entourage but in reality the entourage has them. Influencers will take over. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially in team dynamics. Engage in critical thinking. Be creative. Be an independent and free thinker. Challenge your own ideas before you blindly accept them as infallible.
  9. Relationships MUST be built on trust and they MUST be voluntary. Teammates have to trust one another. Coaches have to trust their players and players must trust their coach and his/her intentions and philosophy. The one relationship that’s most overlooked, however, is the relationship with the self. This relationship is often the hardest to maintain, manage, and care for as it’s also the most important relationship we have.
  10. RESISTANCE: Introduce and overcome resistance — that’s what professionals do. Avoidance of things that challenge us is damaging to our development.
  11. “Seek first to understand then to be understood”: It’s easy to criticize that which we do not understand or accept on the surface. Conducting a self-inventory and analysis of not just what we don’t understand, but also why we don’t understand something is a valuable lesson in intentional thinking, patience, and maturity.
  12. It’s much easier to define what you’re against than it is to define what you’re for: see number 11.
  13. What you think is way less important than how you think: see number 11.
  14. Strategy without execution is ineffective. An average strategy with great execution is far more effective and greater than a great strategy with poor execution. Related: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit” — Henry Rollins. Experience is king.
  15. One person can change the world for the better so long as they don’t care who gets the credit. This saying is found in a number of different texts in a variety of different phrasings. The truth remains constant. Focus on progress and development more than focusing on getting credit. People will focus on the result over the method most of the time anyway.
  16. What gets measured gets managed. Get your reps in. Repeat. I’ve always subscribed to this methodology in most aspects of playing, training, studying, working, coaching and life in general. Obviously, quality over quantity is a factor but there is little wrong with repping out on the good things in life.
  17. Focus on progress, not perfection. This is simple. Adopt a “better than zero” mindset. Positive changes arrive incrementally. Work on moving the needle a little bit at a time. Whatever you do, just keep going.
  18. We must to become experts in becoming an expert. Work on the process…to find a solution, we need to learn how to work the problem. Study, apply, fail often, repeat. There is a lesson to be learned — you just have to look a bit harder.
  19. Use the extreme to reveal the subtle. Illustrate points and teachable moments with care and clarity. We are stubborn creatures. Oftentimes, it’s best to see the dramatic outcome of a poor decision or a series of poor decisions or behaviors to really reveal what’s causing them in the first place.
  20. There’s a difference between a person who’s “being there” and who’s “just there”. There’s a difference between being fit and being a good fit.
  21. The key is measuring character, resolve, ability, skill is NOT when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our worst.
  22. Treat people like a rubber band. If you constantly stretch it too much, it will snap. If you carefully stretch it to the brink while being mindful not to cause too much stress, it doesn’t snap. It becomes more pliable.
  23. Don’t look back. We aren’t going that way. Remember that it’s important to reflect and learn from the past, but we can’t go back nor should we try to…don’t dwell on the things that cannot and will not change. The sooner you realize it’s never going to be the same again the faster you can begin to make progress and ensure a better future.
  24. “It’s not what you say…it’s what they hear”. Choose your words, choose your tone, choose your delivery method.
  25. “Skill that is untested does not equate to actual skill.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Good Enough is the Death of Greatness

I’ve never understood the phrase “good enough”, especially when it comes to challenges related to the pursuit of excellence in any discipline. Admittedly, I get a lot of inspiration from personalities and methodologies from sources outside of the soccer world. Not long ago, I was driving to work and I heard the phrase “Good enough is the death of greatness” from notable strength and conditioning (and wrestling coach) Zach Even-Esh on a podcast with Jerred Moon.

Give it a listen. In fact, I recommend listening to experts and coaches in other modalities and sporting arenas to learn from because much of the lessons they have to offer are valuable and applicable. Strength and conditioning coaches and running experts are more methodical than people give them credit for, and to be legitimate resource in those communities requires one to document everything, have a proven track record performing the tasks themselves or with pupils, and all the methodologies are lodged deeply in the scientific and objective.

But back to the phrase “good enough”.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize these are my opinions. They are not suggestions for others.

As a player, if I was told, “Jon, that’s good enough…” I would be confused. Good enough is merely a phrase and an attitude that, to me, means the bare minimum level of performance, application, or acknowledgement has been reached and it’s OK to let off the gas pedal. Mediocrity is acceptable…that’s what it means.

As a coach, if I told my players, “That’s good enough…” that’s really me telling them we aren’t interested in pushing back against the ceiling. It would indicate that I am satisfied with less than their best.

Good enough is merely settling.

It is here we get into the murky territory of finding out when enough is sufficient.

Here’s something I’ve learned as an endurance runner with goals that extend beyond merely finishing the race and more importantly, as someone who understands what complacency can do to a person and a collective.

Good enough is a dangerous place. It’s a dangerous frame of mind. It’s a dangerous attitude to adopt and a crutch to carry the weight for a person.

Players don’t know how to struggle.

They just know they’re struggling.

There’s a massive difference between the two. For example, when I am running a race and training through a brutal workout, I have choices: quit before I start, cut it short when it gets tough, or push through. Other than the risk of injury, the first two choices fall under the “I’m good enough” or “this is good enough” category of bullshit cop-outs. If those were actually true, I wouldn’t be struggling with the notion of enduring and completing them.

The last one, however, is what I want players to embrace.

The successful players are seldom more talented than the others. It generally comes down to quality hours and a willingness to learn from the difficult periods. The best players are the ones who work the hardest for the longest periods of time. They are also the ones who are willing to exist in that space where shit just goes wrong, feels uncomfortable, and where they slog through situations that test them, longer than others.

Here’s a good lesson from the differences between two types of players.

Some players struggle and look for a way out as fast as possible. They are usually bailed out by coaches and parents who see this struggle and make excuses, feed them lines of enabling influence, and fight their battles for them. That player has regressed.

Other players struggle and they know they’re going through a rough patch. Instead of looking for a way out, they look for a way to stay in the struggle. They embrace the suck. It’s what MUST happen for any type of growth. This is where the mind sharpens, the body follows, and resiliency is honed and strengthened.

Think about it this way, if it’s a dip in form, a flaw in technique, a skill that needs to be honed — the easy thing to do is pack up and head home. And there are certainly times where recalibrating and coming back at another time is acceptable. However, too many players pull the eject cord too early and jettison themselves back into their safe spaces.

This is what I love about endurance running. You can’t fake your way through the miles. This is what great strength and conditioning athletes embrace about their craft — the weight doesn’t  move itself. It’s you versus gravity. As Henry Rollins once wrote, “the Iron never lies to you.”

Great footballers stay a bit longer or arrive earlier and work on that weak foot. They embrace the struggle because they understand the coaching adage that says, the end of your comfort zone is where growth occurs.

Fear is a great motivator and it’s a great asset. Fear is not the enemy. Fear is merely jet fuel. Some use it to self-immolate. Others use fear to propel them to new heights. The presence of fear is raw energy. How we use it is up to the individual. Don’t be controlled and conquered by fear. Use it to conquer and control whatever the situation is.

The last point to make here is about praise. Coaches praise players for mediocre action. They praise players for showing up on-time, for wearing the right training kit, for picking up after themselves. What kind of nonsense is that? Have standards gone away? Are they that low with modern coaches? Do you feel if you don’t dole out praise you’ll be fired and have to cater to the mountain of parent concerns and emails that need to end up in your Spam folder of your email anyways?

Look, encouragement is important and I’m not advocating we don’t encourage players. But be careful with giving praise. Make players EARN that praise. Applauding the mundane is hackery. Applauding effort that continually leads to mistakes, turnovers, fouls, and the disruption of a system of play and formation is bullshit, too.

Don’t do that. Applaud and praise them when they fail and make mistakes and then seek to correct it. I don’t believe in praising actions that are part of the job description. Again, that’s my opinion. I do believe in praising actions that display a willingness to grow even when the chances of failure are greatest. It’s up to you to delineate between bravery and stupidity — we aren’t asking our players to track players relentlessly until they drop or to act recklessly. But we do want our players to be critical thinkers and free to solve the problems presented to them.

If you take nothing else from this post, understand that raising the standard is up to you. What kind of example are you setting as a coach? What kind of standard are you NOT living up to as a player? These are critical questions but they are necessary.

Be careful with giving praise.

Good enough is the death of greatness.

Scanning as a Skill

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Imagine the following scenario:

The ball circulates haphazardly across the backline in a well-rehearsed movement. The opposition decides to press the team in possession and unleash two marauding forwards in a rush of overzealous ‘pressure’. The team with the ball begins to panic and its #6 (it could be any player, really) drops in to receive the ball.

“Pick your head up!”

The coach’s shout echoes across the field but it’s too late. As the scene plays out, another youth player gets caught in the snares of indecision. In commentary it’s often referred to as ‘caught between two minds’. A player receives the ball, puts their head down, struggles to decide what to do next, boots (love using that word as a verb) the ball away or is tackled and the other team almost scores.

Cue the token finger-pointing.

This scenario will likely play on-loop for not only the entire game, but possibly the entire season — or even for a player’s entire time playing soccer.

What happened?

It’s called many things: awareness, vision, checking your shoulders, or more colloquially, ‘taking a peak’ and ‘having a look’.

I call it scanning as a skill.

For the sake of not beating around the bush, I’ll be blunt: this country’s players don’t know how to do this (scan the field) effectively, if at all. This is partly due to the fact our players don’t train and play enough in situations where they feel comfortable under duress; and partly due to the reality that many of our players lack the technique, confidence, and competence to control the pace of the game before and when they receive the ball.

It’s frustrating to see a lack of poise and ability to simply lift their heads up to see what’s going on and this happens at all levels.

Perhaps it’s down to poor coaching or coaches who don’t teach, stress, or rehearse it. Many coaches I know don’t even consider scanning a skill. To them, it’s just something some players have and others do not, or don’t need (?).

As a coach, it’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of possession-based exercises in the hopes of developing players and ultimately, a team, that will translate the skills stressed in rondos or in small-sided games to meaningful competition.

Before we go any further, let’s pause and identify what’s missing.

As coaches, we can aim to develop players and teams all we want, but I contend that even before identifying ‘player development’ as a goal or target objective, we must develop something else first — the right culture. Developing a proper learning culture, in my opinion (yours may differ), should come before or at least go hand-in-hand with developing skills, principles, and methods for players and teams.

Any ingratiation based on a particular philosophy of play requires different phases that must be executed to reach an objective. Phases such as: introduction, [scaled] integration, rehearsal, more scaled integration followed by team-wide and player-centric implementation — all of which are geared towards achieving a proactive, positive, and ultimately, effective style of play take time and repetition; lots of it.

One issue I’ve observed is the fracture between perception and execution. For example, many coaches, at all levels, depend heavily on a development method such as rondos to introduce, teach, and reinforce principles like: possession, receiving the ball under duress, communication, quick thinking, reactive vs proactive movements, pressing in pairs, splitting those pairs with short, accurate passes, and a slew of other elements, which is why rondo-based training is such an attractive and effective exercise.

The problem, as I see it anyways, is the transfer of those aforementioned skills onto the field of play. All too often the expectation is hinged upon the same frenetic, high-energy, condensed series of plays present in rondo variations, but in bigger space with more on the line. This is fine to a point, but a massive element is missing: scanning on and off the ball.

For these purposes, scanning means an available player or a player in possession is looking for viable options to penetrate (on the dribble or with a pass) before the ball arrives to: trigger an attacking movement, release pressure from one side of the field to the other, retain possession, counterattack, or build an attack with numbers.

To do this off-the-ball, players must identify, create, and occupy space to receive the ball without losing it. Essentially, this is dependent on losing their marks and arriving in the right gaps to receive the ball effectively. While in possession, players must have the confidence, awareness, and composure to put their foot on the ball (if necessary) to see what options are available. it may seem counterintuitive, but slowing the play down is essential.

At the top levels, scanning is a skill and should be regarded as such well before players are expected to exhibit it during meaningful competition. Here’s where the fracture lies: rondos teach, exploit, and reward anticipation to great effect in unparalleled ways. They also teach composure and reward quick thinking and smooth technique. However, all too often what happens in games is a hurried version of possession-based play. Players arrive in the right spots, but the ball may or may not be there. Good teams will exploit this and press even more, forcing the frenetic pace of play to regain the ball as high up the field as possible if sense players aren’t able to see the game a step or two ahead of time.

To me, this is why scanning as a skill is a principle that must be focused on and taught. The expectation in the modern game is to keep the ball, exploit usable space, and regain possession high up the field (if possible). In a Four Four Two performance piece, Nottingham Forest defender Michael Mancienne sheds a bit of light on why scanning is a skill for a center-back:

“When I pick the ball up from the keeper, I’m always looking to pass the ball forward. But if there is nothing on, then you need to stay relaxed and not give the ball away.

You’re playing in a vital position, so if you slip up with the ball at your feet, the chances are the opposition are going to score.

Stay calm and dribble the ball out, or even be confident enough to look to the sides and maybe play a one-two with one of the full-backs.

Either way, you are creating space for team-mates by shifting the opposition into positions they don’t want to be in – they’ve got to come looking for the ball.

If there is an option in midfield, make that short pass. If not, then there’s no shame in hitting the ball long, provided it’s into the right areas.

If you’ve got a forward who is quick then you can put the ball in the channels for him to race on to, whereas if it’s a player who can hold the ball up, then try to dink a ball up to him so the team can build an attack from there.”

Scanning can be trained many ways the most obvious being playing out from the back in training to reinforce the habit-formation required to consider it a skill. Another area we see scanning done to perfection is in the center of the park. There is no shortage of good examples of scanning from players like Pirlo who make the game look so easy, but I can assure you it’s anything but easy.

Having the awareness to understand space (zones), know where opponents are and how fast they can close down that space, knowing where the passing lanes and avenues will open up, and embracing the reality that top players must receive AND retain the ball under pressure takes practice. Much of skill here is partitioned into different segments.

  1. Recognition (vision/awareness): knowing where/when to pop into space to receive the ball, create openings, take the appropriate angle and establish the right body position for the specific scenario
  2. Technical Efficiency: the ability to receive the ball, retain possession (shield, outplay in 1v1 duels) and play out of situations via passing or dribbling
  3. Composure/Confidence/Coaching: These three are coachable and require repetition, rehearsal, and guidance to ingrain these elements into a player’s psychology (to a point)
  4. Frequency: ability and willingness to get on the ball throughout the game (don’t hide/ball watch).
    4a. Risk-Reward: decision-making ability to continually scan for options and stay involved
  5. Follow-up play: extension of positional responsibilities to be an outlet in different sectors of the field (don’t watch their pass and remain stationary).

Overall, I could go on about the player’s roles here, but I’ll end with urging coaches to do some actual gap analysis of their teams and players. Note when, where, and how the breakdowns occur and identify how to train those scenarios to instill confidence, composure, and competence into a team. Possession soccer should mean more than merely passing the ball. To me, it means breaking  lines with vertical passes to players and spaces (occupied and unoccupied) to advance the play when opportunities permit. It means circulation and recirculation of the ball to isolate opposing players to create 4v2’s, 3v1’s, or 2v1’s in sectors of the field. It means outplaying the opponent in one-on-one duels.

Most importantly, however, scanning HAS to be regarded as a skill. This comes from the coach. The higher the level of play, the less time there is on the ball and subsequently, the less time there is to coach this principle. Our domestic game, at every level (Youth, Development Academy, College, Professionally), the deficiencies stemming from the lack of proximal, distal, and situational awareness are too prevalent.

The game has evolved beyond the purely athletic and too often the assumption that possession soccer is only an aesthetic form of the game takes precedence. Modern [competitive] soccer at all levels is more and more cerebral, tactical, and technical than it was in the past.

Decision-making is a skill. Scanning is a skill. Composure is a behavior that needs reinforcement. None of these can really improve until the people coaching the players begin to recognize what works and what does not from session-to-session and game-to-game. Gap analysis is a non-negotiable. If we can create a culture that values scanning as much as it values goals and moves while fostering a learning environment that rehearses these scenarios and doesn’t use playing time or marginalization as tools to ‘punish’ players when they lose the ball, we help the players enjoy the game by adding another element to their skill-set.

If coaches don’t consider something a skill, guess who else won’t…

photo credit: abigailkeenan.com 

 

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The Art of Self-Sabotage

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those people are in it for different reasons.

These people are not part of your journey.

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

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

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.

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.

Chasing the Leprechaun

Think about your first “wow” moment in the game. Many who love the game experienced that introductory moment of absolute magic while watching one of the world’s best players or teams, but I want to you reach farther back and hone in on that moment outside the professional game. Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a moment of pure magic away from what’s on television, but it’s possible.

My first “wow” moment that I recall was when I was six or seven years-old. My father and I watched a collegiate game between Santa Clara University and San Jose State at Buck Shaw Stadium. The “wow” moment occurred when a player on the touchline gathered the ball for Santa Clara and performed “a rainbow”

over the opposing winger and took off down the wing. I dropped my soda. I tugged my father’s arm and pointed to the vacant space in need of reassurance that he had seen it, too. The rest of the game was a blur. I replayed that move in my head over and over again.

After the game, we could not get home fast enough. I think practiced that move every day as a kid. I wanted to master it. I broke the move down into small steps. 

Plant my left foot here. Roll the ball up my left leg. Kick my left leg up towards my back. Where did the ball go? Dang it. Try again.

The first time I pulled the move off successfully I couldn’t believe it. It was a shame that the only witness was my red and white Siberian Husky, Apollo. It didn’t matter. I learned the move of all moves (at least in terms of what I’d seen at that point in my life). 

My father would regularly tell me to stop practicing the move and would direct me to a wall for some passing games and exercises, which I enjoyed too. But the move! I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Memories and experiences like that make soccer a bit more than a game for me. Every so often, I see it in young players today — that “wow” moment. The difference, however, is these days, the magic of the game manifests in odd ways. 

The game has provided me countless experiences (both good and bad) that have, oddly enough, taught me a thing or two. You see, my father was never one to applaud when I did anything fancy on the field. As I grew older and began excelling in the game, I got used to looking to the sidelines to see my father’s emotionless face after nutmegging an All-American defender or doing an elastico to make an opponent stumble over his own feet. I also got used to him clapping and shouting encouragement when I pinged a diagonal pass sixty yards on a rope to a player’s foot or chest.

I recall hearing the excitement in his voice when I fizzed a pass into a teammates feet and moved into space to collect the return pass. I really call to mind hearing him or my mother (she was just as influential) applaud a solid defensive play or a fifty-fifty tackle. You see, my parents got it all those years ago.

I’m a simple man and the more I play, study, coach, and watch the game, the simpler the game becomes. I also had an advantage over players today who see the game through a kaleidoscope lens of complexity, striving to be the next Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo — and who no doubt look the part, practice the tricks, strive to become the focal point. I had my father to keep me honest and who worked with me on the basics: the passing against the wall, the dribble patterns on the hot California concrete, the hours of running laps on the cinder track with a ball on my foot, the exercises in turning and cutting with the ball at every crack in the concrete or faded yellow parking line — these were things we did together.

None of this was mandatory. It was a choice and it was fun. Creativity comes in mysterious ways.

The majority of the “drills” were just games and tasks my father made up on the fly. I think he saw the danger of a player focusing solely on the ridiculous skills that seldom get used in a game to any great effect. 

Today, I see a culture of players, coaches, and parents who want to know where the leprechaun lives

What does that mean? Think about the people who aren’t successful, who never get better and ask yourself why they never get better?

The first reason is they often lack the desire, focus, and ability (it’s a package deal, kids) to “hone in” on the important things on their journey in the game. Most of the time, I’ve seen that ability is the one component players have in surplus, but they lack the desire and focus to maximize said ability. Other times, it’s the external influences that derail progress. Parents who want to know the answers instead of working to find the answers themselves. Players who want success they aren’t willing to work for. Coaches who want to win without teaching themselves and the players how to win.

The second reason is finding and existing in environments of healthy competition. Not just competition, but healthy competition. I have a friend who’s an aspiring comedian. After a few years “out in LA” he returned to Chicago to perform at a comedy club’s open mic night. He fell flat on his face. After the show, a seasoned comedian asked him why he (my friend) bombed on stage. My friend told the seasoned comedian, “I think I did fine up there. Just a bad audience.” The seasoned comedian then said something I will never forget and something my friend still has yet to fully figure out. He said, “You aren’t competing with yourself enough. You think you’re funny because you aren’t turning your faults, your poor delivery, your flawed pacing — into strengths. When you’re real with yourself, they’ll laugh at your jokes instead of laughing at you.”

Another aspect of the game that perplexes me is this notion that players are immune to constructive criticism. I won’t go into “What the [failed] coach at my Coaching Certificate class said…” or “In Pep Guardiola’s book they said…” because it doesn’t matter. 

When Pep Guardiola gets on a plane and coaches your team, let me know. When you understand the mindset necessary to exist and thrive in La Masia, we’ll talk. 

This is about the real world — off Twitter, out of the books, on the pitch. Criticism is a necessary tool. And there’s a profound difference between criticism and cutting down. Any coach can yell. Any parent can deflect blame. Any player can hide from their own shortcomings. Those are easy cop-outs (that’s why so many take those routes). Accepting and processing criticism is difficult. Listening to the message instead of the delivery takes time. But, those who are real with themselves know what they need to work on — the trick is finding out how best to work on those things.

A word I hate is “hype”. Hype is what people hang their hopes on. Hype is the concentrating on what others say instead of what you do. Hype is gawking at “Amazing 8 year old player — the next Cristiano Ronaldo” videos on YouTube where the kid does tricks, but oddly enough we can’t find actual playing footage of the player. Hype is fluff and fluff is for marshmallows and down comforters and pillows. Fluff keeps a player in mommy and daddy’s good graces and unearned compliments. Hype builds a player up just so the game can knock them down and beat the fluff out of them.

All of this is what I call “chasing the leprechaun”.

Everyone wants to find the leprechaun’s pot of gold, but oftentimes they aren’t willing to get their hands dirty and dig long and hard enough for it, or they’re digging in the wrong place. People focus more on the result than the actual process. 

Too many people subscribe to some entitled belief that “wanting it” is some type of currency in the world. Two phrases that need to be eliminated from your mind are “wanting it” and “making it”. Those phrases are poisonous and are emblazoned on signs on the road to perdition. Quite frankly, I’m sick of people telling others that a kid who chooses to play for a scholarship didn’t “make it”, but a kid who flames out of the professional game after a year, “made it”. Only you know if you “made it” and guess what, that definition changes with the seasons. I’m sick of hearing people try to define “the best” — that’s another phrase we should probably eliminate since it’s too saturated in subjectivity.

Healthy competition is not about winning and losing so much as it’s about learning what to do and how to do it. Winning should be perceived in more ways than just the scoreboard or league standings. 

It’s rare that I meet a player who understands the importance of winning their individual battle on the field. To me, that’s the habit-formation that will lead to better results. It’s rare to see a coach shut up for an entire game and just observe the game so the players can figure out what’s going right and wrong. It’s rare to see a parent tell their kid to put some dirt on that scrape and get back out there and try again.

Now, back to your “wow” moment away from the professional game. Hopefully, that moment was something beautiful at a park, on a dirt patch, or on a field somewhere far from the television cameras. Understand that there’s something amazing about the game off the screen — at any level.

Oh, and I have a confession to make — I never attempted to pull off a rainbow in a competitive game during my playing days. But I did everything else I practiced for hours on end. Oh yeah, I have a little secret to tell you about chasing those leprechauns: I know where their pot of gold is hidden. 

It’s in your “wow” moment.

Walls

August 13, 2004

An annoying rain threatened to derail my mood on the morning’s run as I made way through a tiny village in the east of Ireland called Roundwood (an Tóchar) in County Wicklow. My sister, Laura, was due to be married in the Irish countryside that day, which happened to be my birthday. Following a road known as R755 to another called R765 I found myself crossing the Vartry Reservoir and ended up somewhat lost in the meadows and narrow pathways as the sky continued to mist.

It was August and I missed a crucial part of my preseason for the upcoming college season and I knew there would be hell to pay once I got back Stateside as my position would be occupied. As I ran through the Irish countryside I saw an old man out for a walk with his dog. He was well into what looked to be his sixties or seventies and this man carried a rather large rock his arms. The dog approached me as did the man. Admittedly, I stopped for two reasons. The main reason I stopped was because I was lost.  But I was also curious as to why he was carrying this giant stone.

“Good morning, sir. Can you tell me how to get back to Togher Páirc in Roundwood?” The dog, a border collie, licked my hand and rammed his head into my legs as its tail wagged.

“It’s that way, just a few kilometers,” he said.

I looked at the rock and could tell he was struggling with its weight. “Can I carry that stone for you, sir?”

“Don’t be daft. I’m carrying it just up the road to the wall.”

“The wall?” I asked as he started walking again as I waited for clarification.

“Well, come on Finny.” The dog trotted off to catch up with his master as I looked up, squinting in the rain. “You too, son. Come along,” the man said. I jogged up to him and began walking as the dog resumed its attention-seeking routine of licking and nipping at my shoelaces.

“He’s used to herding sheep. He’ll keep you moving, the little bugger. My name’s Brian. Yours?”

“Jonathan.”

“American, are ya? Well, welcome to Éire — sorry about the weather.”

As we walked Brian adjusted the rock several times but never released his grip on the object pressed against his chest. I kept looking for this aforementioned wall, but saw nothing. As we made our way down the road we talked about the weather, as strangers are apt to do. We also talked about football, mainly his favorite team, Shelbourne Football Club. The wind picked up, turning the fields into an ocean of green with a rolling tide. I finally had to ask the question.

“So where’s the wall?” I asked as we continued walking. Brian kept walking until we reached a small clearing.

“Here,” he said. “The wall is here. I’m making the wall. Each day I bring a rock from the quarry or from my field and walk it here. It keeps me young. Keeps me fit and active. And you know, son, walls don’t build themselves. They’re just like anything else.”

“What do you mean?”

288233-old-style-stone-wall-detail-note-the-balancing-of-some-stones-providing-gaps-kinvara-ireland

“Think about football — you ain’t out here enjoying the country for no reason. You’re putting a bit a work in. I can will the wall to build itself and those stones will stay put. But each day, I add a rock. Soon, I’ll have a proper wall. And when it’s built I know I have kept to my task, you know, stayed the course. Consistency, son. That’s the difference between good and great in anything. Each little wall I built with Finny here is a little symbol that I’m out for more than a walk. I used to walk with my wife. Well, my wife’s gone now, so it’s just me and this dog here. My kids are grown and live around Dublin. So I see no reason to keep myself fit and sharpish.”

With that, he placed the rock next to a collection of carefully arranged rocks and looked off in the distance and took a deep breath. We sat down on the “wall” and talked about his favorite Irish players like Ronnie Whelan, Frank Stapleton, and Johnny Giles while he packed his briar pipe and puffed away. Off to the west, I saw St. Laurence O’Toole Church, which meant I was near where I needed to be. After finishing the pipe, he tapped it lightly on a stone and stood up. Brian shook my hand, thanked me for the company and began his walk back to where ever it was he called home with his furry companion.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

So, what’s this all have to do with soccer? For me, it has everything to do with an individual’s journey. A true footballer, someone who loves the game for what it is, not what it could or should be in their mind, understands that every single day presents them with the opportunity to improve. For example, aside from soccer, my other passion is running. Ever since that chance meeting with Brian, I have this little routine when I go running that keeps me consistent and disciplined. I start out my run with one task — find a small rock. Once I find it, I’ll run through the trails and country roads until I reach my turnaround point.

At that point is a pile of rocks. Each time, I add one more to the collection. Simple.

Progress doesn’t just happen. At the risk of sounding cliche, I firmly believe players and coaches over-complicate the game. There is nothing profound in how someone goes from good to great. In fact, I really believe when Brian said, “Consistency, son. That’s the difference between good and great in anything,” he was right.

I can’t count how many players who start a training program I create for them and lack the willpower, energy, motivation, or spine to finish it. In fact, I’ve grown rather skeptical of those who say they want to get better but never see anything to completion. Look, I never “made it” as a player and I am certainly not an authority on what works and what does not. Whether or not players listen to their “academy” coaches or dads over me doesn’t affect me. A former player of mine was discouraged by his academy coach to get supplemental work in because it would “take away from the serious game with the academy”. I’ve got no problem with that. I refuse to charge players for my coaching because I don’t believe in making it about money.

Most of the lessons I learned…I learned them too late. Most of the chances I had, I spurned or was too busy battling back from a broken neck to fully see through. Most of the bridges I burned or were burned for me are still in a heaping pile carnage in whatever river of chaos they once extended over. That’s life. That’s soccer. Nobody cares about your failures. Why should they when they have their own to wrestle with each day? And believe me, most people have to worry about things much more important than the game.

Recently, someone asked me why I still care and play the game. It’s a great question and for a long time, I couldn’t find an answer. The real reason is in life things get taken from you. Jobs, scholarships, people, freedoms and rights, opportunities, the list goes on and on. And as someone who at 17, was told his best shot at a “normal life” was being surgically turned into a quadriplegic, every Sunday league game, kick-about with my nephews, time spent kicking a ball against a wall alone feels like the final of some cup competition. The results don’t matter nearly as much as they used to; however, the time spent doing something I love means everything.