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 unsplash.com

A Tale of Withstanding 

Note: The following account is a personal anecdote. It contains language, experiences, and lessons many will deem extreme. The purpose of this post is merely to share the experience. It contains no advice. If you are easily-offended then this entry is not for you.

I will never forget the day I really grew up in soccer. Having moved from the Bay Area in Northern California to Chicagoland changed many things. I had no friends, finding my way in a new place with a different identity was challenging, and for the first time since I was four years old, I found myself playing on a local team of players who approached soccer recreationally, not that there was anything wrong with that approach, it just wasn’t for me.

The first few weeks playing with them was rough. These were baseball and basketball players participating in soccer — not soccer players. Such is the reality of American youth sports and although I played ice hockey, tennis, and ran track, soccer was my passion. I was spoiled in California. I played year round outside in great competitive environments. Here, I had to find these environments.

Anyway, I’d been a competitive player for many years, but this baptism in blood, mud, sweat, and tears came at 13-years old. I remember the day my father pulled me out of training with the local team composed of players my age and proceeded to drive me a few towns over to another club. I was still in my training kit — muddy boots, matted hair, wretched-smelling training bib on — when he told me I needed to play with a better group. We had discussed finding a new team, and we’d both had enough of the bullshit approach with the current team. No coaching quality, no playing identity, players dipping out of practice early to play other sports yet demanding playing time come the weekend. I think my father saw me regress in both my ability and my enthusiasm with the latter being more of the concern.

We had a rule: play or participate in whatever activity or sport you want, but be committed and honest with the effort put forth. For those that don’t know, this message was from my father who himself was an elite triathlete and even more elite swimmer who narrowly missed out on the qualifying swimming trials for 1972 Olympic Games due to a car accident where he and his family were hit by a drunk driver at a stoplight. In any event, he had a unique approach to parenting and for a high-level and highly-knowledgeable former athlete of truly elite status, he didn’t waste time lecturing or yelling. But he also knew when his kids weren’t happy.

He’d obviously planned this extraction exercise for some time. I thought about what team I’d be going to and if I would get to know any of the players and who knows, make a friend or two. What I didn’t know was by ‘better’ he meant play with a group that was older, meaner, tougher, and then better. We showed up as these players — all of whom looked like men (because they were) filed out of their vehicles carrying only a pair of boots in their hands. The players my age brought patch-laden soccer bags and water bottles with their names in permanent ink written in their mother’s handwriting with them to training. These guys only carried their boots and car keys.

Blown away by the fact they could drive themselves, I wondered if they were coaches. Suddenly, a man whose calves were the size of cantaloupes walked up and shook my father’s hand. He wore six-stud Puma King boots with the laces undone and tucked up into his socks, which were rolled down to his ankles — he’d just finished playing with the previous group.

“This your son?” he asked while studying me.

“Yes.”

“Go warm-up, he said. “Grab that bag of balls and take it to the field.”

No introduction, no acknowledgement, no handshake. Just an air of indifference that shot out of his steel-blue eyes. Once at the field, each of the players walked over and ignored me as they grabbed a ball and started passing and dribbling. Some did keep-ups. Others just laced up and took to running.

Again, no introductions — the man with the giant calves walked over to me and said, “What the fuck are you doing just standing there? Get on a ball and start passing.”

In a state of moronic shyness, I jogged over to each group of players showing for the ball nonverbally. No passes came my way. So, I meandered to the next group — again, no passes came my way. Suddenly, I was planted face-first onto the turf. My ears ringing, my head buzzing, and my face stinging. One of the players had pinged a ball at me when I wasn’t looking and connected.

No apologies. Just laughs before they carried on warming-up. The training session was a series of intense 1v1, 2v2, 5v5+2 drills before small-sided games to four goals. I was put on various teams and got run over, pushed down, and embarrassed. My father watched from the sideline with a stoic look. He and the coach conversed. Eventually, I broke.

There’s a certain threshold of embarrassment a young player (and person) reaches before the mind goes blank and the body follows. I bit my lower lip, which was quivering as I felt the tears coming. I jogged up and down the pitch during the scrimmage trying to get involved when one of the players intentionally trod on my right toe. I felt the nail snap as my foot throbbed in synchronization with my heartbeat and blood leaked in my boot’s toe box.

It was at this moment when I felt what commentators call “a rush of blood” and what they describe as “losing his head”. I stole the ball from a teammate, dribbled through a few players and hit a shot with venom well off target. A teammate started to yell at me to which I said, “Fuck you! Get another ball in play!”

“What did you fucking say to me?” he replied.

“Fuck. You.” I said, standing my ground.

Suddenly passes came my way. Tackles flew in and I returned the favor. I went from asking for the ball to demanding the ball. I played a step ahead of what I was used to and learned that competing was less about surviving and more about performing a step ahead and ‘putting out your fires’ when you made a mistake. When training ended everyone shook hands. The older guys tussled my hair, told me good job, and to collect the balls — especially the one I shanked into the next county.

Just as I started to take my boots off to examine my shattered right foot, a guy named Reece whistled and said, “Keep those on. We’re not done.”

Reece was a giant of a striker. Built like a rugby fly-half with a crewcut, Reece was dominant. That day and every training session thereafter, he ask me stay after training and serve him crosses of all types for at least an hour. Some days, he drove me home. Others, my father just waited in the car until we finished — a sacrifice he made after a long day at the office. 

As a striker, Reece would attempt bicycle and overhead kicks, diving headers, side volleys, and the like from different angles, speeds, and service types. It was perfect. I improved serving the ball on-the-run and from stationary positions. He got to work on the extravagant. But it wasn’t a chinwag and fun-time. It was actual work. He laid into me when I miss-hit a cross. I let him know about it when he didn’t execute well on a good cross.

If we weren’t crossing we worked on shooting exercises. I’d play a ball in to his feet, chest, or blast it at his throat and he’d control it, turn and fire on goal. Other times, we’d pass back and forth before I’d play a ball in and immediately turn from provider to pursuer trying to tackle him. Like all good players, he switched the roles so I could get some reps, too. After the first week or so, others stayed after when Reece — the clear leader — set-up extra training exercises. I felt compelled to stay and others elected to as well. But most days my father and my coach talked while Reece and I got in a mini-session.

We worked on shielding, tackling, crossing, passing, rondos (if numbers permitted), everything — training was competitive and it was purely supplemental. I was lucky. Not all teams have players who take younger ones under their wing.

He was tough on me but for the right reasons. At first, I thought he would make me collect his errant shots and mindlessly tee him up for sitters. But after each set of services and shots he’d collect the balls with me and say things like, “If you serve a moving ball, you can whip it in easier. Try that for the next few,” or, “Gotta hit a few of these fucking overheads here because that’s what it takes.” 

After only a few team training sessions in the crucible I developed a different mindset. I couldn’t really out-muscle these guys, but I could play quicker, get better technically, and think proactively instead of reactively — I had no choice, really. Failure to elevate and own this aspect of my game would lead to marginalizing myself and decreasing chances to play. Eventually, I earned playing time on the wing and in the middle of the park — both presented unique challenges. I got to start some games, got yanked in others, and usually subbed on.

In an environment playing with older and better players vying for opportunities to play at the next level meant there was no time for sensitivity towards a 13-year old mucking it up or not competing. Most of the time I was reminded I was in the way.

The coach told me early-on, “Worry less about the other team and more about letting your own team down.”

On some level that stuck with me. At first, I wanted to improve because I needed to. Then I wanted to get better because I wanted to be accepted. But ultimately, I wanted to improve to contribute and help the team. Perhaps the point where this became most clear was during a game against a men’s team. I subbed on late in the game and got absolutely clattered. Three of the guys who’d given me the most shit during training stood up for me. These same players also pushed me on when I did something well.

Soccer, like all team games, is ruthlessly tribal at the higher levels. I think this is why I stuck with playing up several years — partly of out necessity and partly out of intrigue to see how I could evolve as a person and as a player.

This stuck with me and in these moments of madness at training or in games, I realized that the learning opportunities were plentiful. The worst game performances left me feeling inadequate. The best ones made me more eager to continue to improve. The older players managed their diet and fitness outside of formal training; so, I learned to do the same.

Reece wasn’t there to be my buddy. Sure, he was mentoring me but he was a pure savage. On my second visit to Europe to play — this time as a 13-year old on a U-18 team — Reece was lighting up goalkeepers in Holland, Germany, and England. In Nijmegen, he dislocated a goalkeeper’s shoulder on a shot he hit with such ferocity into the top corner that the keeper attempted to knuckle over the bar. In Cologne, he was my roommate and he did 100 burpees and 100 push-ups before breakfast every day.

But it was in Göteborg where Reece connected with a whipped-in service from our left winger with perfect timing to score the type of overhead kick he’d trained relentlessly to execute and master every day after training.

The best moment, however, was when Reece ran over to me, not the left winger who served the ball in, and celebrated — grabbing me in a headlock and yelling, “Hell yeah! We did it!

It was then and there I realized that Reece had used me and I used him to improve. Again, he wanted to be the best he could be. That required a certain degree of buy-in from me. The entry fee was extra hours after training and thousands of failed attempts. He knew I needed more work. I just assumed he needed a practice dummy.

What was interesting about Reece — and players like him — is they take ownership in the audacious. They aren’t doing heel-flicks and circus tricks because they look fancy. They are, however, taking hundreds of attempts at the audacious overhead kick or side volley because there’s a chance it could happen in a meaningful game. These players explore the limits of their ability and push themselves to level-up their skill-set because they could, not because they should.

Reece stayed over in Europe to try and play the game we loved. I know he made his way into the lower divisions in Germany and played some semi-professional games in England. It’s wild to think about how well he could have done today with increased exposure, access, visibility, and resources. But, that’s a fool’s game to play in hindsight.

Years later, I reflect daily on how the game has changed for better and for worse. There aren’t many players like Reece that I’ve seen. Nor is there a culture incentivizing players to embrace the challenges of the game on their own. I can’t believe how angry I was at times that I was thrust into the lion’s den. But I was also grateful because I improved so much faster than I ever would have in an unchallenging environment.

I am not saying the path I took was the best way nor would I recommend it as times and standards have changed and improved.  What I am saying is this path worked for me. I improved as a competitor, I matured as a person, and learned more than I ever thought I would — and that made the struggle worthwhile.

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.

Scanning as a Skill

Imagine the following scenario:

The ball circulates haphazardly across the backline in a well-rehearsed movement. The opposition decides to press the team in possession and unleash two marauding forwards in a rush of overzealous ‘pressure’. The team with the ball begins to panic and its #6 (it could be any player, really) drops in to receive the ball.

“Pick your head up!”

The coach’s shout echoes across the field but it’s too late. As the scene plays out, another youth player gets caught in the snares of indecision. In commentary it’s often referred to as ‘caught between two minds’. A player receives the ball, puts their head down, struggles to decide what to do next, boots (love using that word as a verb) the ball away or is tackled and the other team almost scores.

Cue the token finger-pointing.

This scenario will likely play on-loop for not only the entire game, but possibly the entire season — or even for a player’s entire time playing soccer.

What happened?

It’s called many things: awareness, vision, checking your shoulders, or more colloquially, ‘taking a peak’ and ‘having a look’.

I call it scanning as a skill.

For the sake of not beating around the bush, I’ll be blunt: this country’s players don’t know how to do this (scan the field) effectively, if at all. This is partly due to the fact our players don’t train and play enough in situations where they feel comfortable under duress; and partly due to the reality that many of our players lack the technique, confidence, and competence to control the pace of the game before and when they receive the ball.

It’s frustrating to see a lack of poise and ability to simply lift their heads up to see what’s going on and this happens at all levels.

Perhaps it’s down to poor coaching or coaches who don’t teach, stress, or rehearse it. Many coaches I know don’t even consider scanning a skill. To them, it’s just something some players have and others do not, or don’t need (?).

As a coach, it’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of possession-based exercises in the hopes of developing players and ultimately, a team, that will translate the skills stressed in rondos or in small-sided games to meaningful competition.

Before we go any further, let’s pause and identify what’s missing.

As coaches, we can aim to develop players and teams all we want, but I contend that even before identifying ‘player development’ as a goal or target objective, we must develop something else first — the right culture. Developing a proper learning culture, in my opinion (yours may differ), should come before or at least go hand-in-hand with developing skills, principles, and methods for players and teams.

Any ingratiation based on a particular philosophy of play requires different phases that must be executed to reach an objective. Phases such as: introduction, [scaled] integration, rehearsal, more scaled integration followed by team-wide and player-centric implementation — all of which are geared towards achieving a proactive, positive, and ultimately, effective style of play take time and repetition; lots of it.

One issue I’ve observed is the fracture between perception and execution. For example, many coaches, at all levels, depend heavily on a development method such as rondos to introduce, teach, and reinforce principles like: possession, receiving the ball under duress, communication, quick thinking, reactive vs proactive movements, pressing in pairs, splitting those pairs with short, accurate passes, and a slew of other elements, which is why rondo-based training is such an attractive and effective exercise.

The problem, as I see it anyways, is the transfer of those aforementioned skills onto the field of play. All too often the expectation is hinged upon the same frenetic, high-energy, condensed series of plays present in rondo variations, but in bigger space with more on the line. This is fine to a point, but a massive element is missing: scanning on and off the ball.

For these purposes, scanning means an available player or a player in possession is looking for viable options to penetrate (on the dribble or with a pass) before the ball arrives to: trigger an attacking movement, release pressure from one side of the field to the other, retain possession, counterattack, or build an attack with numbers.

To do this off-the-ball, players must identify, create, and occupy space to receive the ball without losing it. Essentially, this is dependent on losing their marks and arriving in the right gaps to receive the ball effectively. While in possession, players must have the confidence, awareness, and composure to put their foot on the ball (if necessary) to see what options are available. it may seem counterintuitive, but slowing the play down is essential.

At the top levels, scanning is a skill and should be regarded as such well before players are expected to exhibit it during meaningful competition. Here’s where the fracture lies: rondos teach, exploit, and reward anticipation to great effect in unparalleled ways. They also teach composure and reward quick thinking and smooth technique. However, all too often what happens in games is a hurried version of possession-based play. Players arrive in the right spots, but the ball may or may not be there. Good teams will exploit this and press even more, forcing the frenetic pace of play to regain the ball as high up the field as possible if sense players aren’t able to see the game a step or two ahead of time.

To me, this is why scanning as a skill is a principle that must be focused on and taught. The expectation in the modern game is to keep the ball, exploit usable space, and regain possession high up the field (if possible). In a Four Four Two performance piece, Nottingham Forest defender Michael Mancienne sheds a bit of light on why scanning is a skill for a center-back:

“When I pick the ball up from the keeper, I’m always looking to pass the ball forward. But if there is nothing on, then you need to stay relaxed and not give the ball away.

You’re playing in a vital position, so if you slip up with the ball at your feet, the chances are the opposition are going to score.

Stay calm and dribble the ball out, or even be confident enough to look to the sides and maybe play a one-two with one of the full-backs.

Either way, you are creating space for team-mates by shifting the opposition into positions they don’t want to be in – they’ve got to come looking for the ball.

If there is an option in midfield, make that short pass. If not, then there’s no shame in hitting the ball long, provided it’s into the right areas.

If you’ve got a forward who is quick then you can put the ball in the channels for him to race on to, whereas if it’s a player who can hold the ball up, then try to dink a ball up to him so the team can build an attack from there.”

Scanning can be trained many ways the most obvious being playing out from the back in training to reinforce the habit-formation required to consider it a skill. Another area we see scanning done to perfection is in the center of the park. There is no shortage of good examples of scanning from players like Pirlo who make the game look so easy, but I can assure you it’s anything but easy.

Having the awareness to understand space (zones), know where opponents are and how fast they can close down that space, knowing where the passing lanes and avenues will open up, and embracing the reality that top players must receive AND retain the ball under pressure takes practice. Much of skill here is partitioned into different segments.

  1. Recognition (vision/awareness): knowing where/when to pop into space to receive the ball, create openings, take the appropriate angle and establish the right body position for the specific scenario
  2. Technical Efficiency: the ability to receive the ball, retain possession (shield, outplay in 1v1 duels) and play out of situations via passing or dribbling
  3. Composure/Confidence/Coaching: These three are coachable and require repetition, rehearsal, and guidance to ingrain these elements into a player’s psychology (to a point)
  4. Frequency: ability and willingness to get on the ball throughout the game (don’t hide/ball watch).
    4a. Risk-Reward: decision-making ability to continually scan for options and stay involved
  5. Follow-up play: extension of positional responsibilities to be an outlet in different sectors of the field (don’t watch their pass and remain stationary).

Overall, I could go on about the player’s roles here, but I’ll end with urging coaches to do some actual gap analysis of their teams and players. Note when, where, and how the breakdowns occur and identify how to train those scenarios to instill confidence, composure, and competence into a team. Possession soccer should mean more than merely passing the ball. To me, it means breaking  lines with vertical passes to players and spaces (occupied and unoccupied) to advance the play when opportunities permit. It means circulation and recirculation of the ball to isolate opposing players to create 4v2’s, 3v1’s, or 2v1’s in sectors of the field. It means outplaying the opponent in one-on-one duels.

Most importantly, however, scanning HAS to be regarded as a skill. This comes from the coach. The higher the level of play, the less time there is on the ball and subsequently, the less time there is to coach this principle. Our domestic game, at every level (Youth, Development Academy, College, Professionally), the deficiencies stemming from the lack of proximal, distal, and situational awareness are too prevalent.

The game has evolved beyond the purely athletic and too often the assumption that possession soccer is only an aesthetic form of the game takes precedence. Modern [competitive] soccer at all levels is more and more cerebral, tactical, and technical than it was in the past.

Decision-making is a skill. Scanning is a skill. Composure is a behavior that needs reinforcement. None of these can really improve until the people coaching the players begin to recognize what works and what does not from session-to-session and game-to-game. Gap analysis is a non-negotiable. If we can create a culture that values scanning as much as it values goals and moves while fostering a learning environment that rehearses these scenarios and doesn’t use playing time or marginalization as tools to ‘punish’ players when they lose the ball, we help the players enjoy the game by adding another element to their skill-set.

If coaches don’t consider something a skill, guess who else won’t…

photo credit: abigailkeenan.com 

A Lesson in Losing and Accountability

Losing comes in many forms. On the simplest level, losing can be thought of not being victorious in meaningful competition. Going one step further, it can mean losing an actual opportunity or chance.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the ‘art’ of having a bad game because there’s a myriad of ways to process and grow from difficult situations. The reality is losing is inevitable and yet, people are reluctant to experience it. Serious players, coaches, professionals in any industry must deal with losing.

What I find troublesome is not losing itself, but the reactions of people who experience loss. Adversity and resiliency are important elements of life. However, after spending the bulk of my life immersed in American soccer circles another element has creeped in that’s more of an indictment of where society places itself: entitlement.

Society in a nutshell:

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You see, people assume others are looking out for your self-interests. In reality, people look out for their own self-interests.

The chances are great that you have dealt with losing on a personal and professional level. These things happen — the world is indiscriminate.

In terms of playing, good players have bad games; great players learn from those bad games. And bad players, well…they let losses and obstacles bulldoze them over and over again. They bury themselves and don’t understand the only way to improve is to grow up, which is painful.

All worthwhile progress requires sweat equity and a pain tax. If this were not true, everyone would snap their fingers and be where they wanted to be — undeservedly so.

Weakness and a lack of intestinal fortitude is pervasive these days and I look across the landscape of the American game and I see a generation of players that need to toughen up (not in the beat-your-chest-show-em-who’s-boss way, either), but I find they aren’t allowed to toughen up.

Why?

Too often, people shelter themselves or their players from adversity. They remove accountability from the equation and thrust blame on others. This is when things like playing time, roster spots, marked progress and improvement become talking points. Is the game littered with bad decision makers? Yes. Is the system seriously flawed? Hell yes it is.

Knowing that, why would you ANYONE leave their own progress up to chance? Why would an individual put total faith into the hands of a club, coach, or club coach whose main source of income is based-on customers (parents) paying the club fees. And let’s not get distracted — this isn’t about pay-to-play, which is not going anywhere.

This is about accountability. Look, believe it or not, players need to be in control of their own development on their own time more than they think. The players who go far are the ones who train, study, and apply themselves to their craft when it’s uncomfortable. Rain, snow, wind, mud — these elemental things do not concern the driven player.

So, what’s the lesson in losing?

Watch this:

People perceive time in funny ways. Some choose (wisely) to live in the present. Others resign themselves to reliving the past. Then there are those who live in the murky world called ‘the future’ — or as we more commonly call it: tomorrow.

The thing about people and more to the point, soccer players (and athletes in general), is it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking of themselves as the ‘finished product’. Such a misguided and warped perception of one’s level is dangerous for a multitude of reasons.

Some think they’ve arrived. Trust me, if you’re reading this, you haven’t arrived. Furthermore, and this might sting a bit — it’s very likely that you’ll never arrive because if you truly dedicate yourself to something…that Process is on-going. Another trap is placing self-worth in trinkets that define the trophy generation. People who do this have a hard time realize the game isn’t just about medals, awards, and superficial types of recognition.

Sure, those are important in the right context. Accountability is more about achievements over a span of time and the acquisition of skills that make navigating the game easier as a player improves.

It’s easy to be lulled into a cyclical mindset — more a pattern of habit and behavior — where a person believes they are done growing. Seriously driven players are never truly done learning, evolving, and yes, losing. Even long after you hang up the boots — when the game is done with you — you’ll still grow; maybe not as a player, but rather as a person.

To that end, you are never done losing.

You will lose when you think you’re winning. You will lose off the field. Losing is an opportunity for growth, self-evaluation, and for true learning. Losing is part of life. It’s also something that can trap people in the past and can shackle them when others make progress.

To evolve, you must learn to lose.

Good players are in a constant state of change and evolution. Objectively bad players tend to remain the same. They make the same mistakes, assume the same things, don the same poor attitudes, weak mentalities, poor character choices, and work in the same things that don’t improve them as competitive players.

Yes, I’m talking about the ones that hear but rarely listen. Perhaps the procrastinating player is a better example. The “I’ll do it tomorrow”-types have literally accumulated so many “I’ll do it tomorrow”-like empty promises to themselves they begin to stack them up.

How many tomorrow’s have become yesterday’s?

How long are you willing to let that happen?

You don’t get those days back.

One of the most important skills is surrounding yourself with people who want you to succeed. For players, this means finding the right coaches/trainers and teammates. For coaches, it means engaging and learning from people with more experience, quality immersive hours in study or on the field, and more robust networks than you have. It means recognizing there are people who want to see you fail and will do as much as possible to see that happen. As a player or coach, you simply can’t let negative life forces hold you back and hole you up.

We exist in times defined by a collective lack of accountability; where people blame others for all things negative. To a degree, that’s the natural exercise and default response; however, it cannot be the exercise or default course of action and train of thought when things go awry.

Being accountable is different for everyone. Some simply don’t have it within themselves to confront the ghost within and sort themselves out. Others are professional deflectors — blaming everything but the true reasons and causes for their perceived or actual lack of progress.

In cycles of non-progress, people will see your progress as their failure.

The reality is soccer is a simple game made complex by the people who play it. Or, in blunt terms, made complicated by one’s failure to do the little things well.

When things go haywire it’s often helpful to go back to basics. It’s often a matter of defining whatever it is where the breakdown occurs. Take training as an example. I’ve yet to meet someone who has defined what training means to them or rather to put an actual definition on something that is the bulk of their experience in the game (you have more training opportunities than actual games in your life).

Train (verb): To exercise according to a set schedule, with the dual objectives of becoming more proficient at that sport, and learning to hate the sport you are working so hard to become good at.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was to adopt a “better than zero” mindset. This is something you need to do on your own time, which adds another challenge.

Here’s an example: a striker is struggling with playing with their back to goal. Their first touch pops up to their throat and their shots are off-balance and well-wide of the mark. Is it an easy fix? For some, maybe; but for others it’s more of a puzzle.

The easy way out is to get frustrated ensuring the whole process falls apart.

This is where the weak-minded and unmotivated crumble.

They are unwilling to get hundreds of repetitions posting up and receiving the ball in various ways. They see a mountain where there is only a series of tiny molehills. They don’t want to work on the little things:

  • initiating contact with the defender,
  • movement to get open,
  • checking their shoulders to know if they can pivot and turn to face them up or have to outplay them to get a shot off,
  • focusing on proper technique when receiving the ball.

Repeating it again and again is an inconvenience. Really? I’d think losing again and again would be…

Put the pieces together, count your reps, and remember: what gets measured gets managed.

Invest and trust the process. Understand you will lose along the way.

Focus on progress…then focus on perfection.

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.