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

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Rule or Be Ruled

Watch this first. 

How much training is too much? Well, the whole question in itself is subjective as one person’s threshold might be the next person’s training zone. The term “over-training” is thrown around weight rooms like discarded bumper plates and it’s avoided in soccer circles because most people are too scared to push their limits.

The world is full of different types of athletes. Most athletes are average, some are tough, and fewer are elite. The smallest group are those who are elite and tough. Part of what halts young players in their development is true physical injury. I used to have a real mean bastard for a coach who’d ask players who went down in pain, “Are you hurt or are you injured?” Predictably, players would look at him perplexed before he sent them on their way out of his training sessions.

This post isn’t about the science behind soft tissue damage and overuse injuries. Most injuries for soccer players are the exacerbation of an ignored ailment or deficiency that’s been exposed through use. This is about the mentality to break the chains of doubt plaguing young players. Soccer is largely seen as a “soft sport” and those who’ve played or been around this game from somewhere other than their couch or armchair know this to be true. Most young players are mentally injured. Excuses become realities. Shortcuts become habits. False views of reality become truth. And the truth of the matter is soccer deserves its criticism. American players are as soft as baby shit.

For every suburban player there’s a parent with a duffle bag full of excuses that little Timmy can’t push himself. Coaches have to cave under the pressure of parent wussification because 1). Nobody wants to hear a soccer parent nag and moan like a rented mule and 2). There’s no time for coddling in true development environments.

One of my best friends is a competitive power lifter and his training regimen revolves around a few basic principles.

1). Real athletes dedicated to their craft are always carrying some type of injury, ailment, or discomfort

2). Competition exists before, during, and after training sessions

3). Toughness is less about maschimo displays of arrogant stupidity, mistreatment of others, showing off, and general trash talk. Toughness is learning how far and for how long you are willing to push your mind and body beyond what you previously thought you could.

4). There are no trophies for the mundane. Training is the entry fee to success and going through the motions is a waste of time.

When I first published my article about players getting upwards of 10,000 touches a day on a ball, people approached me with doubts, trepidation, and curiosity. The first person to call me was my power lifter friend who said, “Jon, I think you’re onto something that my sport depends upon. Repetition and the myth of over-training.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, he and I discussed the difference between dedicated power lifters and gym rats we’re all used to seeing in the weight room. I went to his gym where the voice of well-known power lifter, CT Fletcher barked motivational phrases laden with profanity on loop through the speakers as the industrial-strength fans droned in the background. These athletes sought self-improvement above all else. These athletes redefined intensity. Most had given up something to take up this type of training. Early mornings, time with their families, extra money went to training and competition expenses — their primal caveman was constantly beating their rib cage, begging to come out and destroy something. But, through all the intensity, there was a humility to these Goliath’s. On average, these athletes spent close to 10-15 hours a week in the gym smashing through training sessions without a coach or the promise of reward. Their own self-improvement is the ultimate reward.

So, what the hell does this have to do with soccer? Everything. It has everything to do with how players view their personal investment into the game. Most American players think dedicating between three-to-five hours a week plus a game at the weekend will take them somewhere exceptional. That will take you to the same place it takes everyone else doing the bare minimum. Nowhere. This is the ethos of the casual American player: do the bare minimum and expect optimal results. It’s easy to trace the genesis of such a faulty approach. American players who choose soccer are very rarely playing as if the game is the difference maker, the tool that will better their circumstance. The culture is casual for most players. It’s suburban and “safe”.

Juxtapose the fluffy environment with the way players train in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia and we begin to see why American players fall behind around age 12. The way I see it, we all have an ability to persevere. Your ability to endure pain and discomfort is like a muscle. It’s either conditioned to resist pain or it’s extremely weak. The only way to improve it is to log the minutes that turn to hours and build up the reps to make yourself stronger. Discomfort is NOT pain. It’s irritation and weakness. Players who can perform for sustained periods of time in this uncomfortable zone are better for it and learn to play tougher and maintain their performance longer than the average player.

Working on technique, fitness, or anything you can control for hours on end is not over-training. It is real training. Is 10,000 functional touches a day excessive? Yes. In fact, it’s designed for filter out the weak players. But the goal should not be 10,000 from the start. Hit 1,000 the first week. Up it to 2,000 touches the next week. Don’t stop. Don’t quit. Don’t be like everyone else.

The call to action is simple.

Players: Put the video games down, the excuses aside, figure out what it is you need to work on (don’t go out and train what you’re proficient at) and work hard on your own. The people who blow smoke up your ass have no idea what’s best for you. They are enablers; avoid these people. You aren’t good enough and without steadfast dedication, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll never be good enough. “Good enough” is for average people. Be better than those people.

Coaches: Give your players homework and hold them accountable. Failure to do this makes you a poor coach and a pretender. Don’t enable weakness. If a player has a crap first touch, that player shouldn’t see the field until they improve. It’s a simple game. Don’t complicate it. Don’t discuss playing time, tactics, excuses, or manipulations from and with parents. They aim to sway your attention to their child, not for the good of the team. It’s not personal, it’s soccer.

Parents: Shut up. Seriously, shut your mouths. Let the coach do their job. You do yours. Get your mind around every excuse and stop the kitchen table coaching session. If you knew better than the coach, it would translate in your child’s play. Your child is not special. They aren’t a prodigy. If they were, you’d understand what I’m talking about. When you badmouth a coach, guess who thinks that’s acceptable? That’s right, your self-entitled child. Take away the video games, smartphones, and quit taking their ego to the buffet line of bullshit and be real with your child. If they’re not improving, figure out why and help them. Don’t drill them to death. That’s up to them to do for themselves. If they believe it’s what you want, they’ve already lost.

The takeaway: Train harder, longer, and better. Don’t exist to appease the status quo. Most if not all of you will not be professional players. Just because that’s the reality doesn’t mean you have to shortchange yourself and everyone who’s invested in your journey as a player. And quit being so damn soft.

I recently spoke to a former player so full of delusions and cop-outs that I had a hard time listening to his excuses. “My coach isn’t nice,” and “My team keeps screwing up,” and similar types of verbal vomit polluted our conversation. I asked him, “So, what’s the problem?” He looked at me as though I didn’t “get it” and rolled his eyes.

This young man clearly needed a dose of reality. So I shared my own story. It’s not glamorous. I’m not superhuman. I just went through the meat grinder of life at an early age. Many have and many will in the future. At 17, I was stopped at traffic light. The light turned green and I entered the intersection. So did a semi-truck that blew through the red light.

The accident left me with a broken rib cage, broken neck, fractured skull, and a concussion. The doctors wanted to intentionally sever my spinal cord so I wouldn’t sever it myself by trying to move. Luckily, my parents opted for a second, less evasive opinion. Taking the better part of a year to learn to walk again and the intestinal fortitude to step on a field again took a lot. I missed my window as a talent. High level universities rescinded their scholarship offers and rightly so. I wasn’t supposed to walk again, let alone play the game competitively. But I still played Division I ball. I still got up for headers and learned to control my fear and accept the troubles life threw at me. I didn’t die. I still get to kick a ball. Life goes on.

Be the hero in your own movie. 

The game owes you nothing.