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


Penalized by the Penalty Kick

Penalized by the Penalty Kick

By: Jonathan Townsend

The clocks ticks closer to the 89th minute as the crowd swells with anticipation. The match is close with one goal separating the two sides but as certain as the ball is round, everyone can feel something is about to give way to the ridiculous. The center midfielder takes the ball off his back line, pivots to the right to dodge the challenge of the opposing team’s tired striker, and looks up the field. The wingers are in advanced positions with their boots on the chalk as the target man checks to the ball and the other striker runs behind in the gap the big man created. The libero, slots the ball between two baited defenders now left for dead as the opposition’s centerback lines up the striker as he collects the ball in the penalty area. Contact is made, the striker goes down, arms go up and the collective gasp of everyone in attendance mixes with cheers and jeers. The referee looks at his linesman, who himself wears a mask of uncertainty.

The ref, certain contact was made and the ball was touched, is not sure if it was by the laws of the game. The attacking team swarms the ref like a horde possessed as the striker continues to roll around theatrically on the pitch turf. The defending team pleads their innocence as the referee points to the spot. Penalty kick awarded. The armchair cynics and media box pundits have the luxury of replay after replay — from every conceivable angle. We know the truth. He, the referee, is unsure. The penalty kick is converted. Such is the way hearts break and results are made.

With the pace of the game increasing faster each year, there are really two games occurring simultaneously. One is played in the middle of park, along the sidelines and in the corners. The other, however, is a different game altogether. That game is played in the penalty area. As with any advantage that would and could be gained in a Premier League campaign that is arguably as close as it’s ever been from top to bottom, the decision to award and deny a penalty is the most tumultuous. This decision puts referees in a limelight more aptly made from the refracted rays of the sun. It puts repeat offenders who have been legitimately fouled at odds with their shady pasts and it puts the league’s darlings in the position to con the referee and the game itself.

The solution is simple. Instant video replay. The league is armed with a plethora of cameras at every football ground capable of breaking down the frames per second of the match as accurately as possible in high definition. The axis cameras allow analysts and pundits see what the referee cannot. These decisions do not need to be made based on assumption. And yet they are. Football is notorious for embellishment, both in the actions players take and the embellishment of the “human element” of the sport. There is something oddly romantic about using a referee — a mere mortal who is not a professional by trade as he holds a day job — accountable for the heaviest and most controversial of decisions.

With the stakes so high in the professional game, there ought to be an instant review process made by a fifth official and a team of video analysts who are all experts at dissecting the play in an effort to produce the correct call on the field of play. The problem is football loves controversy and it loves the unpopular or popular call, not necessarily the correct call. To many dissenters, this process would be considered too time-consuming, too intrusive to the natural ebb and flow of the game (as though a player writhing around for minutes at a time only to pop back up and continue play is not intrusive), and too robotic to aid the game. But surely, we live in a gilded age rife with plentiful resource and a bounty of on-the-spot knowledge that can help maintain a sense of balanced fairness in football. In sports like ice hockey, every goal is reviewed and sometimes calls are correctly amended. The same should be considered in football’s most popular league.

Additionally, players found to be cheating should be penalized with sin-bins or retroactive punishments to help eradicate the dishonesty from the game. There is no harm in reviewing a penalty decision and the correct call could be change the course of not only a single match, but an entire league campaign — for what it’s worth.