Far Post Footy

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


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.


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?”


“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?”


“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.

The Disconnect of the [North] American Game

[North] American soccer is an anomaly in the most peculiar ways. For a country that has yet to produce a single world class player, it sure expects to produce world class soccer. Why? Americans, especially those involved or invested in soccer, are guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process.

Translation: People actually think Major League Soccer will produce its own Lionel Messi.

Of course, I responded by pointing out how far off the United States is from producing players half as talented as Leo Messi on his worst day. Unsurprisingly, I caught a lot of flack for challenging that video released by Major League Soccer and disturbing the murky waters of U.S. Soccer. The mainstream soccer media protects bad players and coaches, hides major flaws in the system, and has the audacity to parade around as an ad hoc PR and marketing arm for MLS and U.S.S.F. with alarming regularity. Every now and then, a great article makes its way through the muck and the mire. The problem is, I am a product of U.S. Soccer as are many who question it.

But back to this being “guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process” line. Think about what that means. The pretenders of [North] American soccer want players with the creativity and vision of the world’s best players yet won’t acknowledge the gaps of the U.S. Soccer system. This same group defending the status quo has excuses at the ready when things go pear-shaped, but has a hard time raising the standard for player development.

If only this was a USSDA problem, the solution would be at the ready. This is a grassroots problem. On January 11, 2015 I tweeted: “The problem w/ US Soccer is it aims to enact change at the wrong end of playing spectrum. Fix grassroots game you’ll have better NT players.” After 47 Retweets and plenty of great conversation on the topic of player development I took the backseat and let people continue the dialogue.

The solutions to the issues mainly revolved around:

All of these are valid. However, I contend the issue goes further. Over-coaching and pseudo-coaching. There are entirely too many idiots at the helm of the American and Canadian game. Many live-tweeted from the NSCAA Convention and did one of two things. On the one hand, they shared valuable information and giving feedback to those who could not attend. On the other hand, many (not all and certainly not anyone I follow on Twitter) took a breakout session or a lecture from a coach at a prestigious club and coveted the result without respecting the process. On example I use is the rondo. American coaches are guilty of expecting players to do this when they can’t pass and receive the ball consistently.

The United States is not a nation of patient people (I can’t speak for my Canadian friends). It’s unfashionable and “un-American” to respect and study what other countries do with their football programs from the ground up. I admit that I believe in building from the ground up. I believe in building a strong foundation of independent clubs producing high-level players that are appropriately compensated should a player be identified and selected by a professional team. No league should control or speak for an entire federation. I don’t believe in stepping on the necks of the poor so only the wealthy and affluent can play. The players who can best serve the country are the players the country under-serves most. I don’t know what America and Canada are afraid of. The minute these two great nations want to be a great at soccer, they will be hard to stop.

Closer to home, I believe in players getting their asses off the couch and getting to a wall and learning how to pass, receive, and turn with the ball for hours and hours. So maybe, just maybe they can play at a higher level and tempo. I believe in black boots. I believe in a return to the basics and the mastering of the fundamentals. Where have the players gone who took pride in carrying the piano? How many players watch a game with a studious eye — observing the play off the ball, studying how others play their position, thinking steps ahead of what’s on the screen? Sorry, kids, but if you get all your tactical “analysis” from Twitter, FIFA video games, or your buzzword-drooling “elite” coach, you are being duped. Read every book you can find on the history, philosophies, and narratives of the game. Find a team that isn’t one of the giants of European football and decide to follow them for a year. Learn how a club really operates. Learn the difference between a true football academy and the academies here.

Since when does every kid on an Academy team “deserve” a full scholarship, a professional contract, or any shortcut in a game that owes us nothing? I don’t believe in the kitchen table coaching session when it aims to hurt others. I don’t believe the typical American player is tough enough to truly be great.

Many view an established game as real competition. Some of the best competition I had as a player was derived from hours playing informal cage soccer under the floodlights. The best competition I had was generally against myself. It was either me versus the player I used to be, or me versus the player I wanted to become. Embracing challenge is a survival skill. I love talking to players I’ve coached and am saddened when they tell me they quit the game or that “soccer is too hard”.

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Playing at a high level isn’t for everyone and requires a degree of sacrifice most are not willing to pay. I spoke to a former player who told me the only reason he quit playing was because “soccer was too hard”. I’m sure there are things going on that are valid reasons he quit, but he asked me to re-tell a story about a friend I had growing up.

The brief story about a guy I grew up playing soccer with named Danny Haywood. Danny and I went to the same elementary school in San Jose, California. Danny’s father was from Nigeria and his mother was from the U.S.. Danny lived on the other side of the tracks and came from a shattered home. I was luckier and more fortunate. Danny and I played on many teams together and both were really good for our age. We walked home from school until we came to a fork in the road. I’d walk north to a nicer neighborhood. Danny walked west, under a graffiti-soaked bridge to a rougher side of town. At school, Danny was made fun of for having an African father and a white mother. There was seldom a time where I didn’t see him crying, yelling, fighting, or playing soccer. Danny carried his books and soccer uniform in a plastic bag which, at times, he’d tie up and throw in a nearby stream to avoid being mugged. Later on, we’d retrieve the bag down stream where the garbage collected. 

Every week, my father would pick up Danny for soccer practice. One day, Danny didn’t come out when we pulled up. I went to the door. There was an eviction notice on it. He stopped coming to my school and had been reassigned to the “city” school. His father worked as a valet driver at a hotel and a dishwasher at a restaurant. His mother worked as a seamstress. They were good people with not a penny to their name. But after a few weeks of no-shows, Danny suddenly returned to practice. He refused to participate in a “shirts and skins” game because he had cigar burns, bruises, and welts on his body — the toll he paid for being a new kid in a bad neighborhood. He refused to tell us or the coach where he lived because he didn’t want anyone to come looking for him or to see the conditions he lived in. He sprinted to practice to avoid being approached by bullies and gangs. He played his ass off and continued to play soccer because it took him away from the hell he lived in. Danny was punched in the face and beaten with a belt by a farmer who caught him picking apples in his orchard. When the farmer asked Danny why he was stealing apples, Danny said it was because he was hungry. I gave him clothes and shoes to wear. My mother took him shopping for school supplies. Danny cried out of embarrassment. 

Christmas came and Danny asked for one thing. A soccer ball. We bought him a soccer ball and he played every day. He dreamed of playing for AC Milan because of George Weah. Danny’s life was hard. Sometimes young players don’t realize how hard life can really be. I sure didn’t when I was young. Danny once told me, “I never knew how hungry I was until I had to steal apples off trees.”

Take from the anecdote what you will. I believe the American and Canadian game is full of Danny’s who are too silenced, priced out, ignored, and under-served. I believe that somewhere in these great countries are players who haven’t had the creativity coached out of them, who would be happy to be role players, who don’t feel entitled to anything, and who will find a way to beat their circumstance to play the game they love.

Just don’t expect anyone up top to lend a helping hand.

Shattering the Broken Cycle

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Read up on what others have done.” To me, this means doing what the best footballing nations are doing at the grassroots level first, then addressing it at the National Team level. American soccer has this really nasty habit of believing itself infallible. Why does American soccer have to try and swim against the current? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it wants to remain sub-par to ensure those in control can maintain control and in positions of power and influence. The optimist in me thinks enough is enough, let’s figure this out at the bottom and work toward a common goal at the top. One does not build a house starting with the roof. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until we acknowledge and act to remedy the problems of our game. 

The base level of coaching is not good enough. Good coaching courses, curriculum, and leadership are entirely too rare, and for some, too expensive. At the minimum the entry level courses should be free. When the coaching education follows the business model of soccer here, there’s bound to be issues aplenty. It becomes a money grab and a money game. Those with the time, resources, and money to pay the fees get the education. I can see paying for good curriculum at the C-Level and above. We don’t have enough good coaches trained in the methods of today’s game. The relics of the past continue to mold the future, which is a problem. Addressing the coaching problems is a big piece of the puzzle to improving the quality of the game from the bottom-up.

There is also a culture of over-coaching. Players have turned into drones. They seek a coach’s approval in every task. There is no free play component in some communities. The game is free. Coaches in the United States must think soccer is gridiron whereby every play is drawn up in a playbook and every play is coordinated by others who are NOT playing the game. There is this latent need to “control” everything. Let the kids play. Let them make their mistakes and correct them on their own when possible. The average American player has a limited ability to think their way through the game. Creativity is coached out of so many youth players. This has to stop.

The next problem is the pseudo-coaching that is prevalent in the game. As stated in the wonderful blog entry by Innovate FC: “Pseudo-Coaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learning and any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is, that very little learning is taking place.”

The easy thing to do would be to look at the recent US U-20 CONCACAF Champion performances and come to the conclusion American soccer development is big trouble. Personally, it begins well below that level, where the grassroots game is chained to the radiator in the basement of the American sporting landscape. American youth soccer can be called many things, but elite is not one them. Nor can it be called functional. The system is full of fallacies and charlatans.

The crux of the problem is open access to the game. What the means is the demolition of the current American system. Right now, too many young players and families are priced out of the game in a pyramid that is not only closed, but also upside-down. In the United States, some of the best players with the most potential are systematically priced out the game before a competent coach can even begin to help them develop. This is true for boys and girls, men and women. The number of players that hang up the boots at 22 is alarming. There are simply not enough professional teams to create a healthy and robust professional culture.

There is no reward for youth coaches to develop talent other than what comes in the Win/Loss category. A cognizant youth coach knows that his or her best players will be hawked and funneled away for free. No compensation is paid to a club that churns out wave after wave of great players. On the global scene, the best coaches know when to “let go” and do their best to prepare the player for the next level. And, they usually receive a payment or support from that next level club (of course, there are no guarantees, but the point stands).

Whenever I go to Central America, South America, or Europe, I know I will see kids playing the game 24/7 on any piece of available land in un-coached settings. I know that most established club teams keep their neighborhood roots intact and players learn how to defend their turf, play within a strong community, and sooner or later, the best players leave to play at the “next level”. To some, that’s a better club with more access to the next progressive level, the professional academy. I also know that when I’m Stateside, I will see kids playing basketball 24/7, in their neighborhoods, defending their turf, in un-coached settings.

And I know that basketball’s version of what is under-serving youth soccer, The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is not without faults itself. They may even sound familiar as revealed by Kobe Bryant. His criticisms may sound frighteningly familiar to what one might say about the current state of American and Canadian soccer development.

In Europe, fundamentals and the pedagogy involved in teaching and championing the mastery of the requisite skill sets is directly related to how soccer is taught. In his criticism of AAU, Kobe Bryant said, “I just think European players are more skillful than American players. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. …It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

Concerning AAU and its something anyone involved in youth soccer could apply to the game. “AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible, AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap, and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

American soccer is full of regurgitation. The same coaches are cycled through the system. When one is fired from a Major League Soccer team, he is likely to be hired and appointed in the National Team Youth set-up. One of the most troubling facets of the national soccer scene is how good coaches are find themselves on the outside looking in. Hugo Perez is a coach I admire. He is committed to helping develop and bring great Latino players through the American system, which is essential to the progress of a nation with such a diverse population and strong Latino communities. I know that Tab Ramos and many others have put faith into bringing Latino players through, but this one example of backwards politics and odd decision-making.

Anyone who tells me that a USSDA is “free” is mistaken or doesn’t have a kid in a Development Academy. As far as I know, MLS DAs are free. And if the murmurings are true, non-MLS DAs are doing more to alleviate costs. Yes, the league fee is covered. But factor in the real costs: equipment, travel, food, the cost of missing school, the cost of parent missing work to get a player to a USSDA environment. The only thing “free” about this is a player is “free” not to participate. But I don’t aim to vilify the Development Academies. We must accept that the system is imperfect. The amount of travel each Development Academy does should increase as the players get older. Traveling thousands of miles across the country for a U12 game is costly on the players, the parents, and the club itself. The leadership from U.S.S.F., however, is where I begin to shift blame.

Every few years, U.S.S.F. keeps the wolves at bay by proffering a new plan rife with buzzwords and check-boxes that accomplish so much…on paper. When Project 2010 was proposed, I was 13 and I knew it was a bunch of fluff. The thing is, most of the radical changes aren’t radical at all. They are common sense. To start an academy at the U13/14, U15/16, and U17/18 levels is ridiculous. Anyone who has coached teenagers knows the challenges of getting players who lack the skills of teens in other countries. So, U.S.S.F. will institute a U12 level, which is still too late. The best academies in the world are working with children at the U8-11 levels meaning those players are well ahead of those emerging from US Soccer Development Academies.

Additionally, it’s impossible to play “catch-up” with other nations in terms of development. When an American player is learning how to really use their weak foot at age 14, players in academies overseas are learning how to implement the same system of play that the senior team at the club uses. At Ajax, players are not lied to. When a player is not good enough, the parents and player are included in the rigorous evaluation process so there are no surprises if/when that player is released. Here, players’ egos are inflated and pumped full of nonsense to retain that player’s (or their parents) services (and revenue stream).

The problem is not that these “Action Plans” are published, it’s that they are not properly audited with the due diligence that any good Action Plan should be. When U.S.S.F. fails a generation of players, the same people somehow keep their jobs. I made a comment recently that the people in charge of coaches’ education are the people we need to remove from positions of influence. The cycle of mediocrity continues for a few simple reasons. American soccer is full of charlatans. People whose interest in the sport is purely to make money. That’s fine, but they should not be in positions overseeing development, nor should they be in charge of making decisions about this realm of the game.

Identifying problems is the easy part and these are but a few. A remediation plan is required to ensure that the state of the American (and Canadian) game improves. Open access starts with community involvement and the blessing and support of the United States Soccer Federation. A national directive beyond the national team programs should be supported by U.S.S.F. to raise the bar for the grassroots levels. The logic here is pretty linear. If the lowest levels of a talent pool improve, the top levels will HAVE to improve lest they get passed up. By failing at the grassroots level, the American game continues to perform a masterclass in mediocrity on the international level on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. Creating a cultural shift away from the clueless while prying soccer from the clutches of the suits whose main interests are lodged in monopolistic control of the American professional soccer market is one step. Another way is to simply demand more from the American soccer media, which does more cheerleading than it does reporting.

Solutions I see as salient and realistic are things that I try to work with in local communities on a daily basis. Free kick-arounds for kids are important. Building soccer cages in communities that are safe and accessible is another step that U.S.S.F. could help with, but why leave it up to the Federation? Write to a local community leader and committee for funds and engage people who have the power and desire to help change the game in a positive way. For every unused piece of recreational real estate, there should be a land grab for soccer-centric facilities. One thing America and Canada have over most other countries is usable space and infrastructure. Other systemic changes include eliminating pay-to-play for all academies, eliminating “league standings” before the U14 level, and shifting the paradigm away from winning and placing emphasis on learning.

In the United States, there is an obsession with coveting the result without respecting the process. Everyone wants to look like a professional player, but nobody wants to train the youth players the way future professionals are trained. A great deal of self-analysis is required and it starts with the United States Soccer Federation. The people deserve better transparency. The players deserve better coaching. The coaches deserve better education. But, unless everyone demands these improvements, the American game is resigned to its current role of “hardworking underdogs” absent a true footballing identity.

I contend that the minute both U.S.S.F. and the Canadian Soccer Association decide to open the market up and lead the way, both nations will be major powers in the game.

It’s Not About the Shoes

“It’s 15 degrees outside and it’s snowing, you know that right?”

I nod and continue fishing through my closet for cold weather gear before telling my wife I’d be back in a few hours.

“Have fun!” she says with a sarcastic tone that suggests she’s convinced herself that her husband is insane — and I probably am. You see, I play in two leagues. One is outdoor, 8v8 and the other is indoor 5-a-side with no walls. Both teams are relatively competitive in their own ways, but the whole purpose is to just play. Both leagues play on Sunday. One in the morning and one on Sunday evenings, which makes Monday morning at the office full of reminders of how the opponents in these leagues might as well take to the field with meat tenderizers.

Once at the field my teammates look at one another with that “what the hell are we doing here?” look but that quickly fades as we play. I suppose as I get older I’ve learned to appreciate the simple act of playing and having something to look forward to in the mornings each weekend. Looking at the current state of youth soccer, I wonder if this generation of players regards the sport more as a chore than a passion. This feeling was reaffirmed this past Sunday night as I waited for my indoor game while I watched two of the “elite” teams (from the same club) in the area scrimmage. What should have taken one touch took three. The speed of play went from gelatinous crawl to breakneck kick-and-run chaos, or as we call it in America, “hustle”. The overall level of play was low enough to get stuck on the bottom of one’s shoes. Players dribbled instead of passing. One parent yelled, “Great creative play, Joe!” as a player, presumably his son, attempted to dribble out of the back only to lose the ball and shanghai his goalkeeper. Another player tried the most ridiculous and pointless moves I’ve ever seen off YouTube. After the scrimmage was mercifully killed, I heard a group of U-16/17 players talking as they exited the field.

“I need like, three more pairs of Nike Magistas…” said one player. The other glanced at his feet and said, “Yeah, those are sweet. I like the Nike Elastico Superfly for practice though.”

I scoffed to myself. In my hand was a basic pair of Copa Mundials. Nothing special unless you count the kangaroo leather uppers. I thought to myself, this is what these players value. In case you haven’t noticed soccer boots are ridiculously expensive and incredibly plastic these days. The Magistas retail for $275 and the Elasticos retail for a more “reasonable” $150. The boots I use cost $90. I concede that the color spectrum is better represented in their boots, plus, I’m sure in 2015 they are a precursor to the Nikes in Back to the Future 2.

I’d venture to say most players study this more than an actual training diagram these days.

boots three

To me, it seems that today’s player is more concerned with looking good than playing well. I recall playing in an ethnic league named after famed Italian immigrant, Umberto Abronzino in San Francisco’s South Bay when I was younger. The league itself was full of players and teams with limited resources and money. I remember opposing Hispanic teams never had sidelines full of screaming parents and when I asked a friend on one of those teams why, he told me most of the parents worked multiple shifts in factories in South San Francisco or were migrant farmers near Hollister and San Juan Bautista in San Benito County. Several years on, closer to my new home in Illinois, I played pickup games with Polish immigrant workers in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago’s “Polish Triangle” near St. John Cantius Catholic Church when I was in high school. After each session, the older guys would drink beer before putting on their steel-toe work boots and heading off to another shift in a factory. These were serious players, too.

However, this isn’t about the shoes.

Here’s what I know: if a player can’t do the simple things [near] perfectly, they won’t be successful no matter how much their footwear costs, how fashionable they think they are, or how many YouTube videos they watch of Neymar, Ronaldo, and Ibrahimovic doing insane tricks for Nike. Naturally, the simple things include passing and receiving. But that’s low-hanging fruit. Players with any sense about them who want to improve do the requisite things really well.

  • Listening to a coach and/or their peers
  • Being humble
  • Paying attention during a drill
  • Movement on the ball and off the ball (does the player stand and wait, or are they active and moving their feet)
  • Not being a “drill killer”
  • Anticipation on both sides of the play
  • Understanding when to pass, when to dribble, and when to shoot

At the top level, players are still assessed by how well they do the basics, which have to be perfected not just occasionally, but every time. Great players are seldom judged on their current abilities, but rather on their capacity to grow and learn. Professional scouts don’t care that a player can dominate in their current age group, they want to know if a player can dominate at the next level and how soon that can happen.

Here’s another thing that I know: true progress takes time and repetition. Every single great player I’ve had the honor to play with or against that was (or still is) able to earn a living playing professionally worked at their game every day. Every. Day. When they weren’t playing, they were watching, studying how others honed their craft, reading about the game, and taking care of their bodies and minds. And when it was time to really take a break, they developed the ability to make that call themselves.

But what of the rest of the playing population? You know, those who’ve already had their careers. As harsh as it sounds, the average American playing journey goes from “I can play anywhere because, well, it’s me!” to “I could have/would have/should have made it, but….<insert reason/excuse/injury/circumstance>” pretty damn quickly. Inevitably, most of us fall into category two, which is fine. That’s life and that’s the game. It owes us nothing. It pains me to say that by the age of 17 or 18, most really good American players are rapidly approaching their ceiling despite what mom and dad tells them they are “owed”. For some reason, Americans are still under the illusion that by the time a player is 21-24 they are still young in soccer terms (see first sentence). That is not young in the competitive landscape of world football (see paragraph two).

This is young. Is Martin Ødegaard a phenom? Yes. Will he be the next world star? Barring injury or a serious decline in his progress (unlikely as he’s headed to Real Madrid), he should continue to excel at the game. So what is the takeaway?


My uncle is a fly fisherman who lives in Eugene, Oregon. He doesn’t know anything about the game. But, he imparted on me some wisdom that is directly related to true soccer development. He told me that technique must be practiced to the point that it’s no longer practice, but part of the individual. To learn how to cast a fly rod, he took me to a park and placed a tennis ball at the end of a shoddy fly rod and reel and taught me to keep a cadence. The work was exhausting and frustrating. I kept dodging the incoming tennis ball because I had no technique. As weeks passed, I learned to do the little things well. As a result, I can keep the fly just above the water and catch fish instead of my line in a tree the reeds.

In soccer, I took this lesson and applied to developing my technique. Minutes must turn to hours spent trying to hone this aspect of a player’s game. Deliberate practice on one’s weakness is a tried and tested method to ensure it turns into a strength.

Half What You Practice

Another important lesson I learned from bow hunting is to practice twice what you need. In bow hunting this is simple. To best hit a target at 40 yards with consistency, I should probably learn to hit a target at 60-80 yards with consistency. That means strengthening up my technique, making tweaks to the training, and learning to focus. In soccer, this means training harder than the game. Don’t focus on what’s easy. When a coach asks that players go home and get 1,000 touches on the ball, get 10,000. Shooting at an empty goal before practice or taking potshots before a game makes you really good at shooting an open goal with no pressure. Why not work on the things that allow you to get in that position to take the shot?

In essence, when I write these entries or coach a group of players I make a few basic assumptions. I assume the players who want to get better are doing so on their own volition. I also assume that when they train on their own, they are working at their maximum level of effort and concentration. Another assumption I make is that players understand that they cannot and will not be great at anything without being dedicated, obsessed, and committed to working at their craft religiously.

The reality is I know assumptions are dangerous, but maintaining high standards is important.

Confidence Comes from Within

At the end of the day, no matter what gear a player uses or the circumstance they’re in, the players most likely to succeed are those who are consistent and persistent. The best players I’ve ever coached were the ones that were able to focus on tasks while still seeing the big picture. No amount of parental hope, helicopter treatment, and screaming will make it happen for a player. The game is played in between the white lines on the field. The kitchen table coaching sessions generally don’t help and they generally are more for the parent than the player. The best players have short term memories. Mistakes happen and they move on. They do not let negative thoughts sabotage their progress and deter their productivity. And when they do have doubts, they sure-up their mentality.

Great players have been through it all — that’s why they’re great.

The Importance of Sacrifice

After a recent men’s league game I overheard a young man (probably in the 14-16 age range) tell a buddy, “I can’t believe my parents are late to pick me up! Seriously, what the hell is wrong with just being on time?” The buddy, who was also waiting said, “Who cares? They’ll be here. Let’s go back and play until they get here!” The frustrated teen was already dedicated to his Facebook or Twitter timeline and ignored his buddy who shrugged his shoulders and meandered back onto the field to join a pick-up game. The whole episode got me thinking about a cultural shift that ought to be recognized and overcome.

The importance of sacrifice can’t be overlooked.

I can’t begin to calculate the hours I had to wait for a ride after school or practice. Part of growing up in the late-1980s and 1990s was not having a cell phone. Calling for a ride meant paying a collect call or digging around for spare change. Is waiting around fun? Nope. But like my parents then and countless parents now, most are late because they’ve made a sacrifice to allow their child to play a sport they enjoy, and the logistics of the carting young people around is difficult. My question is: do players actually match or exceed the sacrifice their coaches and parents are making on their behalf?

Good coaches invest their time, energy, effort, and knowledge to help someone else’s kid learn the game. Most are underpaid, under appreicated, and are still learning how best to help others. Parents, like coaches, often must endure the thankless task of keeping everyone happy — the boss at work, the kids at home, the random jackass who’d rather email or gossip behind one’s back than have a candid conversation. Parents often work jobs they hate to put gas in the tank, food on the table, and their players in a pair of $250 bright pink soccer boots (because a $90 pair of Copa Mundials won’t suffice?), and make a sacrifice every day for years.


In my years in the game there were events that didn’t seem like decisions with any bearing at the time, but ended up playing a major part in my journey. Hindsight really is 20/20 and looking at my own experiences has revealed a lot about the relationship between this powerful sport and the person it has molded me into over the years. One of my favorites lines I tell players embarking on their own journey that ask me for advice is “The game waits for no player. It takes from us more than it gives to us.” Most players look at me with bewilderment.

“What the hell does that even mean?”

To me, it means the game gives us very little. Players must learn to take chances and make decisions to improve — and very few of those chances are easy. Furthermore, very few of those chances are forgiving. I’ve seen many players completely fall flat on their face trying to start, improve, prolong, or merely continue their “careers” in the game. I’ve seen players hang up the boots at 22 years of age to become a cog in the corporate machine because of the bleak professional options available in the United States. I’ve seen others, myself included, play the “professional” indoor soccer circuit and play for unfunded men’s teams in high-level games where all that was on the line was a paltry cash prize to pay for pizzas, beer, maybe some of the hotel costs, and of course, pride. The games doesn’t care for a player’s pity story. It doesn’t wait for one to develop their left foot, or find form and confidence. Ultimately, the game bypasses all who play it as Father Time remains undefeated.

My other favorite line is “the game owes you nothing.”

But most of us know this. Growing up in America and playing soccer, for many of us, was a sporting juxtaposition. It was the game people ridiculed, mocked, denigrated, and ignored. It was the sport that all the baseball, basketball, gym teachers, and many an idiot thought they could coach with proficiency. For me, soccer turned me into a journeyman player before I was a teenager. The lack of resources, coaching outlets, playing environments, quality instruction, and a litany of other factors forced players who wanted to play to become journeymen. As a kid I played in the Hispanic league in south San Jose, California despite not exactly “fitting in”. I also played in a league sponsored by the archdiocese and was always finding random pickup games to play.

When my family moved to Chicago’s western suburbs as I entered high school, I found that the coaching was terrible for my high school team and finding a club team was hard. The good teams cost a lot money that my parents didn’t have at the ready. I found solace playing with a good suburban team, a Latino men’s team and a Croatian team — all at the same time. I just wanted to play and realized that I had to go find places to ply my trade on my own. It was hard. I got kicked up and down the field and had the fear beaten out of me. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice and scraped up enough money to send me to Europe a few times to play for extended tenures in the Netherlands and Germany. I don’t know how much overtime they each had to pull to make that happen, but I do know my dad slipped a note in my suitcase that said, “Earn This”.

What does this come down to? Sacrifice.

The following is a comparison of good (average) and great (exceptional) player qualities and decision-making scenarios that I feel today’s player should be armed with as they continue their journey in the game.

  1. The good player attends every practice with their team. The great player makes every practice. That is, the individual literally has the ability to raise the level of play, team dynamic, and quality for the collective.
  2. The good player watches high-level matches on the weekends. The great player watches the best teams, but also watches the less-glamorous sides to get a better sense how the game is played by players who aren’t flashy, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime players.
  3. The good player learns a few tricks and flicks. The great player masters and executes the fundamentals while understanding the difference between a complete player and an exhibitionist.
  4. The good player sleeps in on the weekends. The great player gets up before the sun rises and finds a way to train and get supplemental reps and conditioning in before starting their day.
  5. The good player expects the game to come to them. The great player demands as much from the game as the game demands from them.
  6. The good player has a team where all their soccer is played. The great player has a dedicated team, but finds ways to play in environments, on teams, and with players who make them better.
  7. The good player practices what they’re good at; the great player focuses on their weaknesses and turns them into strengths.
  8. The good player hopes they’ll get better. The great player demands more of themselves, the team, and their coach.
  9. The good player listens to their parents. The great player has the courage to realize that mom and dad don’t always know best and don’t let them fight their battles for them.
  10. The good player cares if their coach/parents saw that great play. The great player reproduces those great plays not for the recognition, but because it’s what the game requires.

The comparisons could go forever, but the point is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ aren’t just fine-tuning and minor tweaks. The differences extend deep into the DNA and psychology of what makes a player view themselves as a catalyst and difference maker. Without descending down the rabbit hole of ‘what-ifs’, one can trace the separation between good (average) and great (exceptional) based on a few criteria that hinge upon actions and decisions within a player’s control. Actions like opting to train instead of playing video games, optimizing one’s diet, engaging in deliberate practice (more on that in a bit), balancing humility with confidence, actively seeking and finding new and different environments to play in, and not settling for remaining in the “comfort zone” are all examples of things an individual can control.

Some aspects of the game are out of a player’s control. Bad coaches, clueless tactics, geographic/financial/societal/familial limitations, etc. are often filtration factors that affect an individual’s progression in and out of sport. The harsh reality goes back to my earlier point that the game owes you nothing and waits for no player. Revisiting my earlier point, growing up my parents both worked corporate jobs that were pretty far from home. Resources and money were limited. This meant I had to make some uncomfortable decisions as a young player. I knew my parents did the best they could to help me and give me the opportunities, which I am forever grateful, growing up. My older siblings were away at college so I rarely had a ride to training. This meant asking around for a ride, catching a bus/train, riding my bike, even running to soccer practice (if it was close) was not out of the realm of possibilities.

I recently read a weightlifting article titled Mental Strategies for Getting Results. In any activity, deliberate practice brings forth the battle between doing what you like to do, and doing what you need to do. To apply this to soccer, I contend that players in this country are conditioned to settle for average and celebrate doing just a little bit more than is asked of them. When I first wrote my article on a development method I used that required me to get 10,000 quality touches on the ball a day, people immediately doubted me — and perhaps for good reason. It’s excessive, it’s really, really hard, and it’s time consuming and mentally and physically draining. Oh, and it’s additional work that a player must find time to do. That requires sacrifice.

“Don’t you mean 1,000 touches a day, Jon?”

“No. Ten-thousand. In one day.”

Sacrific is part of the game in every country around the world. A player from an impoverished environment makes the sacrifice to separate from the talent pool. I can’t fault a player for not experiencing real-world problems like hunger, gang violence and recruitment, war, drug use, and a lack of resources, but I do believe that greatness requires an individual to make sacrifices. Don’t believe me, ask any player who comes from an at-risk community or who had to grow up far too soon what they’d give to make it as a player — whatever that means for that individual — the answers may or may not surprise you. And that might say more about you than it does that individual — for many don’t know what they don’t know.