The End Product is Only Part of the Story

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

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

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

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

It looks easy, but it’s not.

It’s something else.

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

The behind the scenes efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is risky and it’s dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

This is honorable in my opinion.

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

Doing the hard thing is often the right thing.

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Photo by Logan Fisher on Unsplash

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

Training vs. Practice: A Measured Approach

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

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

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

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

Practice vs. Training

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Points

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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