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

Good Enough is the Death of Greatness

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

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

But back to the phrase “good enough”.

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

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

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

Good enough is merely settling.

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

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

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

Players don’t know how to struggle.

They just know they’re struggling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful with giving praise.

Good enough is the death of greatness.

Losing Ugly

Losing Ugly

By: Jon Townsend

I’ve sat there with you, watching each team’s wingers burn up and down the pitch, the center midfielders operate as true terriers in every sense of the word while the defenders maraud around chasing shadows and smashing each striker’s shins. We hoped we’d win but knew we could lose.

So many times we watched this maddening game and you sat there biting your fingernails and I stood in dank submission and reflection being pissed on by the rain chewing on my shirt collar — these are not moments of sophistication. The wave of anticipatory happiness can only be rivaled by the tsunami of sobering reality that comes from the mere possibility of losing.

This is losing ugly.

Each time I played, a bit of life bled off my brow and soaked into the cold mud of the pockmarked pitch underfoot because for me, the game was a bit like life. For years I trained and my sweat was evidence of effort. For years, I learned and every single time, it was the heartbreaking loss that hit hardest. The sport matters because the force that can most easily break concentration is the one players rarely see or predict — but they can feel it. That surge of worry in coursing through the veins and the cauldron of apprehension brewing in the gut.

I’ve felt those feelings, too.

For some, the passion is so strong that their side’s crest has long been burned over their hearts, searing itself into the flesh.

It’s a funny old game. The Devil’s gift of losing, God’s blessing of victory, and a heap of confusion that leads one to lose faith in both entities.

In winning we are somehow elitist, but in losing we are all the same: flattened, deflated, and cut down to size. At the start and end of each campaign, it’s the Hope that kills. Losing is the ultimate educator. Losing is the school teacher who will not relent until you’ve learned the damn lesson; losing is the ghost lurking in your basement that chases you up the stairs when you turn off the lights, and believe me, you’ll never sprint faster as when you’re trying to reach that door that takes you out of the darkness. I remember watching many of my best friends hang their boots up after a heartbreaking loss and they never recovered. Losing hurts enough to drive us mad. Perhaps they got out early enough to maintain some semblance of sanity.

I was only four years old when my father first laced up the boots for me; and I was only four years old when I learned what losing meant. It meant inadequacy and weakness. Losing meant the luck and happiness you chased around the pitch as a hare-brained child with a singular purpose could only be found in the back of your own net. The game is fickle in these ways; it reduces grown men to tears and makes young people feel old. Nothing, and I mean nothing, hurts more than losing.

Sixteen years on, there was that match I remember playing — a battle in the mud and the sleet, and the scouts were there with their clipboards. I wasn’t known for bagging many goals but that day I scored a worldly. Tie game, one all. It was the type of match where the ball stuck to my boots and my first touch was as deft as ever. It was a complete performance, or so I thought as the 89th minute ticked past, “How much time left, sir?” the captain asked the referee, who held up a single index finger. One minute. Sixty seconds. An eternity. Their goalkeeper collected and smashed the ball into the clouds before it descended out of the atmosphere like a hexagonal-paneled meteor. The center midfielder let the ball bounce — never let the ball bounce! Their striker collected the ball and the right back tackled him. The ball bounced and clattered off everyone’s shins until it fell to the captain.

“Back, back, give it to the goalkeeper!” was the order we heard from the sideline. As soon as the ball left his boot, their striker was in. I can’t recall who told our skipper to pass it back and it didn’t matter. This was the match slipping away like grains of sand escaping a clenched fist. I did what I had to and fouled their striker; it was only his third touch of the ball all game. In that moment I saw red, figuratively, and tackled him out of desperation and I saw red again, this time literally, as the referee sent me off.

He converted and rightly so — he was the hero. Three whistles sealed our fate and married us to defeat. The tears came for some, especially the skipper, whose face was covered with anguish and creased with mud. His tears parted the dirt on his cheeks. He’ll sort himself out, I thought. I was too angry at myself and the situation to cry. Some looked for the scouts in the stands but found only their empty seats. They had vanished. Game over. We had lost. Our goalkeeper shook his head, the other team celebrated in front of us, and all we could hear was the concussive echo of defeat.

The thing about losing is it gets worse with age. Losing is the soul’s rheumatism, but it’s also a reminder that you still care enough to cry, to swear, to go on a tirade, to go to the pub and cry into a pint. Losing is a reminder to hold your tongue and reflect. Losing reveals the million things we feel without us saying a single word. What does one gain in losing? In some respects, winning is the palpable embodiment of success. It matters but it doesn’t quite educate us like losing does. Losing galvanizes friendships and rivalries. Losing makes a person question their own sanity and we inevitably come to the conclusion we are just this side of crazy and to us, that’s acceptable. In this regard, losing reminds us we still draw breath in this crazy ride called life.

The smart ones don’t follow soccer with any vigor or rigor. They are immune from losing. The rest of us sit in the stands, alone on the couch, slumped over a bar stool, and each of us is filled the rigor mortis of defeat when our lads fall short. When they fall, we fall and when they win, surely, we are the victors of the day, too. Somehow, football cruelly bridges the continental gaps between supporters because it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if you were born in the same city as your team or you’ve never seen the sight of the stadium, heard the roar of the crowd in person, or smelled the freshly cut grass of the pitch — soccer has given you a family and it has sentenced you to a lifetime dealing with a handful of loathsome rivals. You don’t have to hate them — but you do. And the feeling is mutual. Sometimes, in a strange twist of fate and circumstance, you respect the enemy.

Losing makes liars out of us all. We assume we could do better, and sometimes, we’re right. People cry and die by their soccer allegiances and there are no words to make losing acceptable. But, I contend that losing is a gift. With every loss, I learn and reaffirm who I am and where I stand. Defeat reminds me why I love soccer. Defeat reminds me why I’ve spent some of the greatest parts of my life immersed in a game that has taken from me as much as it has given.

It reminds me why soccer is more than a game — it is life itself.