Far Post Footy

The Art of Having a Bad Game

“You can tell a lot about a person by the size of the things that bother them.”

Every player has that game. You know, where their first touch turns into a second then a third touch only to trickle out of bounds; or worse, to the opponent who wasn’t even pressuring the ball who’s now clear through on goal. These are the games that everyone fears as they bring out the worst in everyone from the players to the parents to the coaches. So, let’s get a few things out of the way:

  1. Bad games are part of life.
  2. There are a million things a player cannot control that contribute to poor performance; players need to focus on what they can control.
  3. Improvements occur in chunks and don’t happen overnight.
  4. Progress hinges upon a player’s ability to: learn, listen, apply, take risks, persevere, analyze, and process.
  5. Bad games don’t determine playing “careers”, bad habits do.
  6. Bad games are not the same as bad results; bad games are performance-based.
  7. Be realistic, honest, and take ownership and then move on.

Let’s tackle the first concept. Bad games are part of life. For starters, consider the importance of reflection, which in this context, is a non-negotiable. Those who can’t or won’t exercise the skill of self-reflection are resistant learners, stubborn, in denial, or all of the above. Reflection can be a difficult process but it doesn’t need to be, nor does it need to be lengthy because there are usually certain tendencies or habits that result in poor performance. Reflect on those behaviors, not the negative outcomes. For example, identify poor starting position, reading of the play, or willingness to initiate contact before entering the rabbit hole of what resulted from that occurrence (a goal was scored or a game was lost).

This leads to the second concept. Some players are surrounded by teammates that simply aren’t good enough. A fact of the game is not everyone is at the same talent level. As the game evolves and a player develops, the level of play exposes the thought process and speed of thought in players, or the lack thereof. It’s painful to watch a good player make the right runs over and over again only for a teammate to keep their head down and attempt the audacious. It’s borderline tragic watching a player try to carry-out ridiculous instructions from the sideline (yes, from both the coach and the parents).

Other times, the other team has their act together and negates any and all chances for a player or team to have a positive impact on the game. Anyone who’s watched the game recognizes just how quickly things unravel. It starts with individual breakdowns and those lead to team-wide mishaps and panic. Players make poor decisions, which in turn dictate team-wide outcomes. Time and time again, good players will tell themselves or allow themselves to be told they had a bad game, which may not be the case.

However, this point is not intended to deflect blame on the coach or one’s peers. It is important to take stock of one’s actions within the context of the team’s objective. For example, a midfielder should consider their impact offensively and defensively. This is where focusing on what is within direct control is the goal. Oftentimes, a player looks at the fact their team lost or the opposition scored and attributes that to their own poor performance. One the surface it’s natural to “own” that letdown; however, many times the breakdown is that of a teammate’s failure or an opponent’s talent. Coaches and players need to be careful in this arena of processing poor performance. Deflecting blame and absolving one’s self is not a solution — it’s actually quite a damaging behavior.

Losing presents us with opportunities to be critical of performance and to identify improvement points. These improvements must be controlled (manageable and realistic) and worked on as quickly as possible after a game. Decompression periods might be a necessity, but the sooner a player or team can get back out and work on the areas they fell short in during a bad game, the sooner they can improve and move on. This concept sounds like a no-brainer, but many players and coaches avoid their mistakes and weaknesses rather than focusing on them.

Maturity is an attribute everyone has to work at consistently. Maturity comes in a variety of forms and can always be honed. For a player or a coach to truly make progress, they need to exhibit growth in their maturity. Progress is dependent on an individual’s ability to learn from: their past mistakes, new skills, good examples (watching a better player operate in the same position). It’s also necessary to learn strategies to help keep them on the right path. These same individuals must also learn to listen. Listening is different than hearing. Most people get emotional when things go wrong and the first thing that goes out of the window (after technique) is their ability to listen. Listen to other people, especially those who have more extensive experiences and who are trying to help.

Application is paramount. Applying new principles and learned material is itself a skill. Without application, individuals spin their wheels and go in circles. Application requires a degree of controlled risk taking. Taking risks is important as it demonstrates boldness and the bravery to try something knowing that failure is a possibility. The next part is analyzing performance. When a player is asked how they played and they respond with one-word answers, they aren’t analyzing — they’re retorting. Self-analysis puts events into perspective. It’s also a great opportunity for an individual to be their own critic and get to the root of the problem. This whole exercise is the act of processing one’s performance.

Watching individuals, especially players, react to poor performance is quite revealing. Most youth players have unnecessary pressure as a constant in their lives. Oftentimes, that pressure is placed there by coaches and parents, but it can be of the player’s own doing as well. The level of dejection, sadness, anger, or apathy is often a learned behavior. For really young players, this is as much chemical as it is environmental. Beat a player down enough and these negative outcomes become their reality. For example, a player can literally learn to fear the response of their coaches, peers, and parents more than the result itself.

There is always another game to play — and another opportunity to improve. Bad games do not make bad playing “careers”; however, bad habits do. Bad habits are much more detrimental than any single game. Part of learning this lesson is realizing that performance mastery is more about consistency than anything else. Those who can churn out consistent positive performances have figured something out when others have stagnated and are mired in their own misery.

Bad games are not the same as bad results. A player or coach can have an abysmal game and their team can still win. This is dangerous. Try not to pair performance with results too far in this context. Yes, a good performance usually yields good results, but on the flip side, think of all the individuals who are bailed out by a result. This is why “winning ugly” is a thing in youth soccer. If performance is valued over arbitrary results early-on, learning becomes primary and scores become secondary. Of course, winning matters — it’s why we play the game, but remember to place learning on the same level as winning.

The last part of dealing with bad performances is realization. Realize that the game has come and gone. Understand your role in your performance and truly think about it at the micro and macro level. That means processing it as functionally as possible and then making the effort to move on; don’t dwell on the negative, but recognize your negative habits and work to eradicate them. Identify areas of improvement and be mature about them. The best players and coaches often take losing and poor performance personally. That doesn’t mean they punch holes in walls, kick puppies, or lash out at others. They process the event and work towards improvement instantly by separating emotion from reality.

Bad games are part of life. Don’t fear defeat, don’t run from your weaknesses, and don’t blame others for your shortcomings. Remove emotion from the event, don’t invite negativity, blame others, or whine. Figure out what you need to do to make immediate progress, even if it means listening to others, taking a step back, shutting your mouth, taking a breath, trying a new approach, whatever it is — get it done.

Advertisements

It Never Gets Easier, You Just Get Better

This article topic can be applied to all talent and age levels. However, the context of this article is not recreational soccer. The level of play described is USSDA or “academy” soccer. 

What You Need to Know:

  • Technical improvement and training need not be complicated and fancy — it should be simple, to the point, and consistent.
  • Mastering the simple will make the complex seem simpler.
  • Young players have the creativity coached out of them too early and too often.
  • Self-analysis is a skill many players avoid out of a fear of addressing their weaknesses.
  • Practice is an act, not a place that fosters the majority of technical and fitness-based improvement.
  • Finding creative solutions to technical problems is still lost to many youth players.
  • True player development requires creativity.

Lately, I’ve seen discussions and debates of all types regarding player development. Plenty of important topics are ruminating around soccer circles on a larger scale than ever before, which is great. This article is not about the merits of one belief system or style of play over another. This article is about identifying and exploring the ways players approach necessary areas for improvement and providing some contextual explanations that hopefully lead to unique solutions and more clarity.

A few years ago, a former player of mine reached out to me asking for advice — technical in nature. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief that this player’s problems weren’t along the lines of: “My new coach doesn’t like me” and “I never get to play the position I’m best at” — to me, those are much more complicated and personal issues that I likely cannot (and will not) solve for a player.

Player: “Coach, I need help running with the ball. Like, I can dribble fine, but I don’t think I’m able really run with the ball, you know? My coach has me playing as a right midfielder so I have lots of opportunities to run at players but I slow down for some reason and when I try to dribble, it’s not like it used to be — I think I’m overthinking everything!”

Me: “Well, what did your coach say?”

Player: “He said that I can’t run with the ball…”

Me:Can’t as in, you’re not allowed to run with the ball, or can’t as in you’re not able to physically?”

Player: “I guess both?”

Versatility is Great — to a Point

Now, anyone who’s communicated with a teenager knows that playing Twenty Questions is exhausting, so let’s process the situation. At the time, the player was 16-years-old and hoped to continue playing at a competitive level. He didn’t play high school soccer because of the rules set forth by USSDA. A utility midfielder by nature, this young man was at serious risk of falling victim to common plight for many young players of being a jack of all trades, master of none. He was experiencing the ebb and flow of a culture of idleness and complacency and what I refer to as: a player’s unwillingness and/or inability to “own” a position.

When a player is less dominant and doesn’t have any definite specialization to a position they are often confined to role playing assignments, which are important but often relegate players to being “fillers” and logging junk minutes. In essence, players who aren’t dominant enough on a consistent basis become afterthoughts in uniforms. Additionally, coaches tend to operate under a sense of obligation to play these players out of fairness and duty (to whom, I don’t know). This happens mainly because coaches often try to spread playing time out as “evenly” as possible for the role players — often to the detriment of the team and the player because they’re equating minutes with quality time. Those two factors are not the same.

Translation: You don’t dominate the position to the point of garnering more quality playing time, respect, and a bigger role in the team’s main tactical deployment.

Clearer Translation: You aren’t consistently good enough to leave NO doubt in the minds of the coach and of your teammates that you are the go-to player for that position.

The Real Talk Translation: He’s too nice and in seeking the approval of his peers and current coaches, he’s not working hard enough, being tough and bold enough to assert himself and claim a better role in the team.

Don’t Make a Problem an Issue

As a coach, I choose to look beyond the problem. So often, we get caught up in figuring out why a player is where they are instead of accepting the “here and now” and looking for solutions. Not once would laughing at him or mocking him for needing work on a skill that many might consider basic (running with the ball with proficiency) have helped him. Furthermore, most people confuse running with the ball with kicking the ball and then running after it. Those are not the same.

Let’s back up, though. At some point along this player’s development trajectory from when I coached him at the U13/14 level to the U17 level, he believed he’d unlearned the ability to run with the ball.

So, what’s the player’s real problem? Simple, he was his own worst enemy. He allowed the subjective assessments of others dominate his thought processes, motivation, and self-belief (or lack thereof). I’m a fan of players being their own biggest critics because it allows room for self-monitoring and gives players a sense of control over the day-to-day and instills a sense of responsibility. What I am not a fan of is players shrinking in the shadow of criticism and letting opportunity slip their fingers because “someone said something”.

The conversation continued.

Player: “We don’t really work on this at practice because…”

Me: “Stop. This is not something you can just “work on at practice” — do you understand?”

Player: “No…”

Me: “Look, you’re unsure what this coach means about how you “can’t” run with the ball. For argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s not allowed physically and tactically. Why would that be?”

Player: “Because…because the two are related?”

Me: “Tell me how and why…”

Player: “If I can’t run with the ball physically that makes me a liability on the field, right?”

Creative Players are Resilient Players

For those playing along at home, we’ve unearthed a few problems:

  1. This is all just as much about the mental side as it is the technical side
  2. Most people don’t know what practice actually is
  3. Problem solving requires creativity and critical thinking

This player lost his sense of creativity and in an effort to help , I provided less-than-conventional methods (to some, at least) to [re]acquire the skill. My advice: to literally run with the ball. He was to run with the ball through the neighborhood, around the park, at the school track. If he walked his dog, a ball had best be on his foot. The goal was to make the task as natural as possible. I made it clear, the exercise has no expiration date. Train this skill until this weakness becomes a strength. Then train it some more.

Why?

First, running with the ball is a crucial part of the game and he needed hours of practice working on something that apparently wasn’t refined enough to apply to meaningful competition. He also needed to do this on his own time away from his coach. Time and self-motivation doing the unglamorous can go a long way for a player. So, what’s so creative about running with a ball. Nothing really, but I figured if I could get him running with a ball on a variety of surfaces day after day, the process would be less foreign and awkward. Getting him to augment his stride, cadence/turnover, and ability to run with the ball at pace with his head up was paramount. His current coach didn’t have time to babysit him, nor is it that coach’s responsibility to do so. This deficiency was the player’s, not the coach’s.

Practice is an Act

We can hem and haw about sports psychology, coaching philosophies, and soccer politics all we want, but the fact is, for most players, merely “going to practice” isn’t cutting it. This is precisely because practice has become a term paired with a setting. The minute we can view practice in terms of the verb other than the noun, this makes more sense.

If we’re honest and considerate of time constraints, practice is NOT the ideal place to “learn” things. Stay with me, it’s more of a place to try the things you’ve already learned (literally the act of practice). That is, practice is a place where you try the things you’ve learned. Concepts and skills may be introduced at practice, but it’s very rarely going to be the environment those concepts and skills are truly honed.

In fact, at the higher levels of youth soccer practice is actually the congregating of a team to rehearse scenarios to be applied to match play. Training, however, is the grunt work players need to be doing on their own withouts seeking the approval of the coach. There is a big difference between training and practice as detailed here.

Perhaps the biggest issue is problem solving. Young players seek answers without understanding processes. Their approach to the problem presented stagnates them. Oftentimes, rather than first brainstorming ways to improve the one thing they control (the physical), it’s common for players to panic and over-analyze what’s happening and need reassurance along the way. Much of this is a result of their integration of a youth sporting system that hinges and sells itself on things like: winning at all costs, favoritism, and a lack of creativity.

Kicking a ball against a wall for hours helps develop and hone a skill set; and so does running with a ball. Thing is, running with a ball around the park seems “odd” and “unnatural” for many players. Players have been led to believe that dribbling through cones at a training session during warm-ups is sufficient. This is largely due to the absence of and failure to foster creativity in youth soccer. On trips to Europe throughout my upbringing, I saw players dribbling up and down the streets on their way to play street soccer. In Central and South America, I saw much of the same.

My assertion is our young soccer players can learn much from their basketball-playing counterparts. Basketball players truly interested in improving the technique and confidence take a ball with them everywhere they go. They’re dribbling up and down the neighborhood sidewalk, practicing free throws at the park for hours, doing crossovers in-stride as they walk to play pickup ball. Repetition, habit-formation, skill acquisition, consistency — all of these are accomplished outside of formal, organized playing environments.

The Takeaway

Creativity is coached out of players early-on in [North] American soccer. Players need to get out and find ways to win, find ways to dominate their positions within their immediate talent pool, make time to train away from the formal team setting, and make problem solving an active exercise. Don’t focus on the fact there is an obstacle in the way; instead, focus on how to make a weakness into a strength.

Remember: It never gets easier, you just get better. 

Direct and to the Point

When I was ten years old, the soccer we played was defined by short passing and individual competence. After all, most of what we played was on Californian pavement with defiant weeds poking through the cracks. We played nearly every day either informally or with an organized team and from what I remember both environments necessitated players be skilled the ball, tough in the tackle, quick in transition, and somewhat ruthless in victory and defeat — at ten years old. 

It was around this age where I figured out that losing was simply unacceptable; not because of the actual result, but the feeling of losing was what we loathed. But we didn’t dwell on defeat or sulk too long — that was a sign of weakness. After the initial sting of defeat, life went on and a new obstacle taunted our youthful exuberance. Growing up with Spanish heritage on my mother’s side and Irish roots on my father’s among friends of Mexican, Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Portuguese, and Bolivian descent in the United States wasn’t the typical American upbringing in the sporting sense. Culturally, that kind of amazing diversity is wholly American. The melding of culture, language (more specifically, dialect), socio-economics, and sport instilled in us a fiery approach to life. I didn’t grow up poor, but if we had any spare money my parents made sure it went to my three sisters and me. Their sense of profund selflessness borne out a dutiful motivation to ensure times weren’t as tough on their kids. Most of my buddies were the sons of at least one migrant worker or of single mothers and fathers. Those with still-married parents wouldn’t have known as much as the economic state of the pre-Dot-com boom of Silicon Valley forced middle class families to work more hours as inflation wrapped its gnarled hands around the state, and in essence, likely caused many spouses to “live divorced”. 

But the soccer we played was not the soccer Americans were (or are) supposed to play. We didn’t have orange slices and Capri Suns. There were no chants of “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” after games. Instead one of Paulito’s or Gio’s older brothers made sure to tell us, “You see those guys? They think you’re illegals. They’re gonna laugh at you because some of your moms are maids in their houses.” 

And they weren’t wrong. 

Back then, in South San Jose, neighborhoods were divisive. Invisible battle lines were drawn well before any of us were born. It wasn’t odd. It still doesn’t seem odd but then again I realize my upbringing wasn’t the conventional ‘soccer upbringing’ that decades of suburbanization, sport-centric coddling, and ‘wholesome’ portrayals rife with a sort of Frankenstein-esque mutilation of the world’s game with rainbow-colored Mylar sutures, carved on plasticized smiles, and an “it’s how you play the game” attitude gelatinous ooze coursing through its body. 

Growing up, every time I saw a movie with a shiny, almost fake soccer ball with black and white hexagons being kicked around a lush grass field while a token character with “COACH” embroidered on the hat complete with a whistle and clipboard — I cringed. Every movie placing a golden retriever as the Number 10 or a boy posing as a girl and subsequently dominating the field mocked the game we played

By and by, as the years passed I learned to find the pockets of the real American game where ever I lived. In San Jose it was on the streets and drought-ridden fields. In Sunnyvale and Palo Alto it was at parks where as a boy I played with men who wanted nothing more than to win just so they could be winners at something before going back to working their labor jobs. At least victory on Sunday meant they’d be winners — if only for a week. 

In Chicago’s western suburbs where my family moved in 1997, the game I grew up playing existed in indoor facilities with metal detectors at the entrances, at CLASA (Chicago Latin American Soccer Association) or Polish, Croatian, or Serbian  league games — a rite of passage earned only after shamelessly showing up and proving I could hang or, showing them up in beer league tournament games and being “recruited” to guest play for them. The game I played was split between the elite youth clubs that were too expensive for both myself and my younger sister to attend and the underground warehouse sessions in Chicago I heard about through “a friend of a friend who knew a guy”. I willingly sought out these chances to play so my sister could be the one to play high-level (expensive) club ball knowing that the options for good girls soccer was (and still might be) limited. Hell, I enjoyed being a journeyman at 14 and 15 years old. 

I think that’s when I fully realized something was “off” regarding the soccer I played and the soccer that was presented to us. My teammates and opponents in club soccer were equally-talented and ruthless in their pursuit of progress and opportunities and yet, the malaise of the American soccer narrative was one of passiveness. Sure, the professional game was and is still worlds away from the organic soccer-infused cultures the world calls normal. And yes, many of us who grew up playing the grittier form of the game felt orphaned as more plasticized and maligned versions of soccer were paraded out on television like some sort of sporting minstrel show where again, a golden retriever now takes on the role of a talismanic Number 9 and scores all the goals. 

Then came Europe. Dallas Cup represented the chance to play against elite competition. It was also about watching the elite teams from Europe and South America play a quicker, smarter, harder version of the game than it was anything else. So, it came as no surprise when my team defeated two local powerhouses Solar and Dallas Texans with relative ease as most of my team was of a more ruthless breed. We had been amalgamated and deployed to destroy the confidence of the sons of ‘soccer moms’. And we did so willingly. What did come as a surprise was an invitation to travel to Europe with a Dallas-based team to train and play for an indefinite length of time. The only thing I feared when the coach approached my parents was their having to tell him and me that we simply could not afford it. 

We couldn’t afford it. But my dad picked up a second job at a sporting goods store making his total work day upwards of 16 hours a day. My mother made sacrifices and worked overtime, too. In Europe, I met my “teammates” all of whom treated me with contempt. I didn’t mind, I was there to play. Over the next months I stayed and played in Holland while making trips with my local team to Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, England, and Denmark where I experienced the game unleashed. Not once did I see a symbolically sad soccer ball with black and white hexagons. I rarely saw lush fields as most of the soccer was in cages, on cinder fields, or courts with the grass being saved for weekend matches. 

Sleeping in airports, taking mutiple ferries across the North Sea until I was seasick just to play in a few tournaments, learning how to actually condition a pair of kangaroo leather boots, setting multiple timers to keep from missing train stops, buying international calling cards in bulk, clutching cash, a few photos of my parents and Siberian Husky back home, and my passport, close at all times — all to experience world soccer was less foreign than it sounds. In fact, it was a slight return to the grittiness that accompanied the game I played as a child. 

But eventually, all adventures come to an end and windows of opportunity slam shut. Through the years I excelled at the joke that was high school soccer and played collegiately as college soccer was the pinnacle for my generation. Hell, if you do the math it is plausible that scholarship athletes made more than rookies in Major League Soccer back then. 

I still feel the same way about soccer now as I did way back when. The soccer presented to us is not the soccer we played. The narrative still favors those who speak to experiences of privilege that have become synonymous with youth soccer — flashy uniforms, colorful shoes, pizza parties, parents who know the politics of team selection and coach swaying, and kids being dropped off en masse in minivans. We are told the American player has arrived while ignoring the history of hundreds of journeymen who played and paved the way professionally before it was glamorous to attempt to earn a paycheck to kick a ball while being American. Sure, things may be getting better but that doesn’t mean they’re good enough for those who, oddly and fondly enough, share more of kindred upbringing with our basketball, football, and baseball players than we ever can with those play the same sport we did. 

I am 10 years old and we have played the first half against a team of older boys from Alum Rock in the fiery competition of the Bay Area’s Umberto Abronzino Peninsula league of the early 1990’s. To my right is Michael, whose right eye is swelling shut; I’m picking the bits of dirt out of my reopened kneecap scabs, Ernie is arguing with his brother, and Danny is swigging water like a boxer spitting it out while locking eyes with their players, itching to hurt someone — and yes, we know he’s posturing, but they don’t.

We are up three goals to zero and we’ll score more and we’ll win the game, but it doesn’t matter because we have to win and they have to lose. You see the difference and the connection, right?  Yeah, it sounds crazy and even at ten years old, I know it is, but for us, a ragtag collection of players baked in the Northern Californian sun — soccer is more than a game.

Flip the Script 

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” 

-Mike Tyson

Think about what that means and ask yourself how many times you’ve been punched in the mouth and left to pick your teeth up off the pavement. Take that as literally or figuratively as you want — that’s the tone of this entry.

Serious versus Recreational. The difference is stark and both paths are wonderful for very different reasons. The problem is when we confuse the two — or allow the two to bleed together. In the United States, soccer is one of those things where people take the recreational approach and expect serious results. I’m not kidding. Casual attitudes pollute the well of serious development. The ground of serious development is soaked with tears, blood, and spit, and players will be baptized by all three trying to become a better version of themselves.

At the risk of sounding harsh, I’ll say this: the “average” player remains nothing more than someone participating in an activity involving 21 other average participants chasing a ball around on a field. Now, before you get offended (see “The Law of Averages” for my thoughts on “being offended”) let me say this: I have no problem with passive, recreational, or casual soccer. Hell, these days, sometimes I’d rather be around players who have fun rather than around those who arrive at the field like the game is some sort of chore and claim they’re “serious” about getting better.

OK, what classifies a serious player? It’s quite simple: A player who aspires to play the game to the best of their ability and is willing to persevere, sacrifice, suffer, and toil away in the pursuit of excellence and advancement.

Here’s the great part: What a serious player learns in soccer they can apply in life. Things like dedication, deep practice, focus, resiliency, competition — these are all byproducts of life. Babying now leads to weakness in the future.

I have a simple rule when players approach me looking for advice — train like a soccer player. That’s it. What you do on your own time is of little-to-no concern to me because I don’t keep players around or entertain conversations with those who aren’t serious about their craft. That’s not meant to be an insult, I’m just not a recreational coach, which is a very skilled, valuable, and difficult job in its own right.

Everyone wants to be a serious soccer player until the point they have to do what serious soccer players do on a daily basis, which includes but is not limited to the following:

  1. Giving up things like friends, sleep, and time with significant others to apply themselves to the trade.
  2. Shedding sensitivity, fear, timidness, and resistance to learning. These players get dropped like a bad habit as the stakes are raised in serious environments.
  3. Studying the game. This means watching the teams locked in relegation or Champions League qualification battles, not just the glamorous ones.
  4. Eating, sleeping, training, and playing like a serious player. You like soda and fast food? Well, so do all the other out of shape, casual jokes plodding around out there. Get serious or get lost. Want to play video games until 3 am? Great, you have just relinquished your excuse to “be tired” at training the next day.
  5. Supplemental training. Get at least 10,000 touches a day on the ball. (Serious players over the age of 12).
  6. Your ego, kill it. Listen to those who are trying to help you. Yes, this means your coach, teachers, parents, and teammates. Much of the advice will be mixed with other messages you don’t feel like listening to — learn to shift through the bad advice (ignore it) and retain the useful stuff. No, you aren’t good enough, yet.
  7. Excuses: Get rid of them.
  8. Battles: I see this all the time, players who refuse to listen or subscribe to information that will help them. In many facets of life, there is time for a player to “find their own way”. In serious soccer development, the hourglass has been flipped and time slips away regardless of whether you “feel like” listening.

Self-discovery and specialization are two concepts that get tossed around often. Here’s the no-bullshit way of looking at these things:

Self-discovery: I firmly believe players are responsible for their own game. A coach or parent can instill/introduce lessons, point out mistakes, lecture and pontificate until they’re blue in the face, but if the player isn’t receiving that message (the norm) it’s seldom a matter of if they’ll learn it. It’s a matter of when they learn it. The”if” comes into play when it’s too late — which is often the case.

Parents and coaches of young players (aged 7-11) — let them learn, make mistakes, absorb and enjoy the game. They’re “discovering” the game still. Should the player show promise and want to take a more serious route, heed this advice: around age of 12, in my opinion, things should start to change. By this age, a player on the more competitive, serious route likely has a good four-to-five years of playing and exposure to the game under their belt. This is when players start to separate from the pack. I encourage the shift from age-appropriate work to skill-appropriate work around this age. What’s that mean? If a kid is 10-years old but can play with and benefit from playing with older, more talented players — give it a whirl even at the expense of “losing more games” because the reps and experience they are gaining will lead to improvement (more wins for those addicted to results) in the future. Too often, players are “held back” because society dictates they “stay with their friends”, which is fine — for the recreational players.

Adolescents are an anomaly, so it only makes sense that adolescent players are a riddle box of complexity. No, they don’t want to tell you the truth, hear what you have to say, admit you are/were right and they are/were wrong. Adolescents rather not give a damn about anything but their social life, themselves, and their immediate survival needs (food, shelter, Instagram followers, etc), Resistance to learning and advice is normal, but so is teaching them new concepts. Much of this is merely biological — they’re still forming pathways and their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior) is still developing. No matter how many times you tell them to do something, they can’t see the logic in your words — or they’re programmed to be stubborn because it gets a rise out of you and they are “rebelling”.

Translation: Players are malleable. This is both good and bad. Players are also impulsive and trying to “change” their way of thinking isn’t going to happen easily. The parents and coaches who make the biggest strides are the ones who change their own approach — even if that means backing off for a bit. Keep in mind, waiting for a player to “get it” often results in their window closing. The game stops for no one.

The takeaway: Self-discovery is a never-ending process. Players must decide and discover what works and what doesn’t work. They must learn what is acceptable and unacceptable, if they’re coachable or uncoachable. Coaches often waste far too much time on these uncoachable players, trying to control them and force thoughts and lessons into a resistant brain. Don’t do that — move on. Let the player fail. Let them fall down, lose, get cut, sit the bench, and battle adversity. Competition is about separating the weak from the strong — the environment dictates this, not the coach or parent.

Specialization: In my opinion, this is a murky term. As a kid, I played a ton of sports and was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities and had a diverse group of friends. There is nothing wrong with variety and exposure to different skills, sports, challenges, and activities. But very early on, I made the decision to focus on soccer, which didn’t change my world, it just allocated my energy, time, and efforts towards soccer over the other sports.

If a player is on the serious route — that is, they give a shit if they win, lose, get cut, improve, or stagnate — specialization becomes mandatory. In the United States, there’s this bullshit idea that our best athletes should play soccer. In this bullshit world of fantasy conjured up by equally bullshit sportswriters posing as experts and multisport fans who view the mysteries of soccer as something they arrogantly can unravel — like a Lebron James would be a better player than a Lionel Messi — the only certainty is argument and ignorance. Don’t entertain that conversation. Focus on what is, not what someone who is a part-time observer of soccer “thinks”. In this idiotic world of American soccer mindsets, a Leo Messi can be “produced” by a mediocre league.

Here’s my take, how about getting our best soccer players to play soccer? That’s it. There are entirely too many charlatans who have subscribed to this watered down idea that over-scheduling, over-stimulating, and enabling players will produce talent on-par with what the world produces. There are entirely too many shills, hacks, and fan-driven “articles” out there spewing nonsense. Stop feeding the trolls. Focus more on what you know to be true, try learning a few things along the way for yourself, and focus on building instead of destroying.

Specialization is the choice of the player — or it should be. Guided-discovery is important (leading and encouraging a player in a direction for their holistic benefit). Once the decision to specialize takes place, the real work begins. At that point, the list above becomes important. Here, resistance to learning becomes regression in playing ability. Specialization works when the approach (the input) is filtered of the impurities (distractions, excuses, over-emotional decisions, etc). in order to yield a viable and worthy product (output). Few things are more frustrating than a player capable of doing more (or better) who opts to do less (or worse), but the game is best teacher. That player will either learn or they will join the ranks of the those who missed out.

True development requires more hours, touches/reps, sessions, and failures than most people can fathom. If getting 10,000 extra touches a day on the ball seems excessive for you that’s because it is — for you. Head to a favela, barrio, or just find an environment in any sport where players will claw, fight, and scrap their way to get out — ask them if getting extra work in is “too inconvenient”. A player who has nothing will fight for every opportunity. A player who has been given everything is often at risk of losing it all. It’s a matter of mindset.

Self-Discovery and Specialization are essential in soccer and in life. The world’s top players specialized and spent years on the path of self-discovery well before they became the world’s top players. The path to greatness is like the path up Mount Everest — it’s littered with the bodies of those who took the wrong turn, made a poor decision, gave up, or weren’t strong enough. Failure is inevitable, however, those repeated failures lead to success.

The path to greatness isn’t free, but it doesn’t cost money. On the path to greatness the currency is time and effort — time is scarce, but effort is something anyone can spend in abundance.

Chasing the Leprechaun

Think about your first “wow” moment in the game. Many who love the game experienced that introductory moment of absolute magic while watching one of the world’s best players or teams, but I want to you reach farther back and hone in on that moment outside the professional game. Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a moment of pure magic away from what’s on television, but it’s possible.

My first “wow” moment that I recall was when I was six or seven years-old. My father and I watched a collegiate game between Santa Clara University and San Jose State at Buck Shaw Stadium. The “wow” moment occurred when a player on the touchline gathered the ball for Santa Clara and performed “a rainbow”

over the opposing winger and took off down the wing. I dropped my soda. I tugged my father’s arm and pointed to the vacant space in need of reassurance that he had seen it, too. The rest of the game was a blur. I replayed that move in my head over and over again.

After the game, we could not get home fast enough. I think practiced that move every day as a kid. I wanted to master it. I broke the move down into small steps. 

Plant my left foot here. Roll the ball up my left leg. Kick my left leg up towards my back. Where did the ball go? Dang it. Try again.

The first time I pulled the move off successfully I couldn’t believe it. It was a shame that the only witness was my red and white Siberian Husky, Apollo. It didn’t matter. I learned the move of all moves (at least in terms of what I’d seen at that point in my life). 

My father would regularly tell me to stop practicing the move and would direct me to a wall for some passing games and exercises, which I enjoyed too. But the move! I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Memories and experiences like that make soccer a bit more than a game for me. Every so often, I see it in young players today — that “wow” moment. The difference, however, is these days, the magic of the game manifests in odd ways. 

The game has provided me countless experiences (both good and bad) that have, oddly enough, taught me a thing or two. You see, my father was never one to applaud when I did anything fancy on the field. As I grew older and began excelling in the game, I got used to looking to the sidelines to see my father’s emotionless face after nutmegging an All-American defender or doing an elastico to make an opponent stumble over his own feet. I also got used to him clapping and shouting encouragement when I pinged a diagonal pass sixty yards on a rope to a player’s foot or chest.

I recall hearing the excitement in his voice when I fizzed a pass into a teammates feet and moved into space to collect the return pass. I really call to mind hearing him or my mother (she was just as influential) applaud a solid defensive play or a fifty-fifty tackle. You see, my parents got it all those years ago.

I’m a simple man and the more I play, study, coach, and watch the game, the simpler the game becomes. I also had an advantage over players today who see the game through a kaleidoscope lens of complexity, striving to be the next Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo — and who no doubt look the part, practice the tricks, strive to become the focal point. I had my father to keep me honest and who worked with me on the basics: the passing against the wall, the dribble patterns on the hot California concrete, the hours of running laps on the cinder track with a ball on my foot, the exercises in turning and cutting with the ball at every crack in the concrete or faded yellow parking line — these were things we did together.

None of this was mandatory. It was a choice and it was fun. Creativity comes in mysterious ways.

The majority of the “drills” were just games and tasks my father made up on the fly. I think he saw the danger of a player focusing solely on the ridiculous skills that seldom get used in a game to any great effect. 

Today, I see a culture of players, coaches, and parents who want to know where the leprechaun lives

What does that mean? Think about the people who aren’t successful, who never get better and ask yourself why they never get better?

The first reason is they often lack the desire, focus, and ability (it’s a package deal, kids) to “hone in” on the important things on their journey in the game. Most of the time, I’ve seen that ability is the one component players have in surplus, but they lack the desire and focus to maximize said ability. Other times, it’s the external influences that derail progress. Parents who want to know the answers instead of working to find the answers themselves. Players who want success they aren’t willing to work for. Coaches who want to win without teaching themselves and the players how to win.

The second reason is finding and existing in environments of healthy competition. Not just competition, but healthy competition. I have a friend who’s an aspiring comedian. After a few years “out in LA” he returned to Chicago to perform at a comedy club’s open mic night. He fell flat on his face. After the show, a seasoned comedian asked him why he (my friend) bombed on stage. My friend told the seasoned comedian, “I think I did fine up there. Just a bad audience.” The seasoned comedian then said something I will never forget and something my friend still has yet to fully figure out. He said, “You aren’t competing with yourself enough. You think you’re funny because you aren’t turning your faults, your poor delivery, your flawed pacing — into strengths. When you’re real with yourself, they’ll laugh at your jokes instead of laughing at you.”

Another aspect of the game that perplexes me is this notion that players are immune to constructive criticism. I won’t go into “What the [failed] coach at my Coaching Certificate class said…” or “In Pep Guardiola’s book they said…” because it doesn’t matter. 

When Pep Guardiola gets on a plane and coaches your team, let me know. When you understand the mindset necessary to exist and thrive in La Masia, we’ll talk. 

This is about the real world — off Twitter, out of the books, on the pitch. Criticism is a necessary tool. And there’s a profound difference between criticism and cutting down. Any coach can yell. Any parent can deflect blame. Any player can hide from their own shortcomings. Those are easy cop-outs (that’s why so many take those routes). Accepting and processing criticism is difficult. Listening to the message instead of the delivery takes time. But, those who are real with themselves know what they need to work on — the trick is finding out how best to work on those things.

A word I hate is “hype”. Hype is what people hang their hopes on. Hype is the concentrating on what others say instead of what you do. Hype is gawking at “Amazing 8 year old player — the next Cristiano Ronaldo” videos on YouTube where the kid does tricks, but oddly enough we can’t find actual playing footage of the player. Hype is fluff and fluff is for marshmallows and down comforters and pillows. Fluff keeps a player in mommy and daddy’s good graces and unearned compliments. Hype builds a player up just so the game can knock them down and beat the fluff out of them.

All of this is what I call “chasing the leprechaun”.

Everyone wants to find the leprechaun’s pot of gold, but oftentimes they aren’t willing to get their hands dirty and dig long and hard enough for it, or they’re digging in the wrong place. People focus more on the result than the actual process. 

Too many people subscribe to some entitled belief that “wanting it” is some type of currency in the world. Two phrases that need to be eliminated from your mind are “wanting it” and “making it”. Those phrases are poisonous and are emblazoned on signs on the road to perdition. Quite frankly, I’m sick of people telling others that a kid who chooses to play for a scholarship didn’t “make it”, but a kid who flames out of the professional game after a year, “made it”. Only you know if you “made it” and guess what, that definition changes with the seasons. I’m sick of hearing people try to define “the best” — that’s another phrase we should probably eliminate since it’s too saturated in subjectivity.

Healthy competition is not about winning and losing so much as it’s about learning what to do and how to do it. Winning should be perceived in more ways than just the scoreboard or league standings. 

It’s rare that I meet a player who understands the importance of winning their individual battle on the field. To me, that’s the habit-formation that will lead to better results. It’s rare to see a coach shut up for an entire game and just observe the game so the players can figure out what’s going right and wrong. It’s rare to see a parent tell their kid to put some dirt on that scrape and get back out there and try again.

Now, back to your “wow” moment away from the professional game. Hopefully, that moment was something beautiful at a park, on a dirt patch, or on a field somewhere far from the television cameras. Understand that there’s something amazing about the game off the screen — at any level.

Oh, and I have a confession to make — I never attempted to pull off a rainbow in a competitive game during my playing days. But I did everything else I practiced for hours on end. Oh yeah, I have a little secret to tell you about chasing those leprechauns: I know where their pot of gold is hidden. 

It’s in your “wow” moment.

Whatever It Takes

“You want to play on a real team? A team of real players who need real competition?”

The questions were rapid fire. I tried not to think too hard as I wiped my brow after an indoor game at a place in Palatine, Illinois called Soccer City.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said. A man with a thick, salt and peppery beard stared back at me and nodded.

“The team’s full of lads like you. Lads who need a bit more competition. You can look the part against guys your age. Try doing that against men, you’ll see how far you’ve got to go.” He handed me a card with his phone number and an address on Chicago’s west side. “Training is Monday through Friday at 11 pm. Make as many sessions as you can. We ain’t got a schedule for games yet, but you’ll be in some cash tournaments in the city and around Milwaukee. This ain’t Mickey Mouse stuff, mate. This ain’t to be publicized to your “coach” out there,” he said as he looked across the field at my club coach. “This,” he said, “is off the record.”

Geordie was a simple man. He’d come to the United States after he married an American woman, and played a bit in the doldrums of American soccer after pissing away trials at Wolves, Fulham, and Notts County. He’d recently been divorced and presumably lived in his truck. He worked in the stockyards and loved the game. He hated the politics of the American soccer system. Geordie didn’t believe in coaching licenses. He didn’t want to play the favoritism game and certainly wanted nothing to do with club scene. He wanted to coach on his terms. The task was simple. Assemble a group of promising players aged 16 and up and enter cash tournaments. Any cash won was split among the team with Geordie taking a “coaching fee”. We didn’t care. Training was free. It was a chance for the players he’d seen to get better outside of the overly-structured and watered down American soccer system.

Our first training the ragtag group of players I called teammates looked at one another with disdain. We’d all been amalgamated and were crazy enough to show up to a warehouse to train at night in a tough part of town. The team was made up of Polish, Hispanic, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian players and me. I was the youngest player at 16. This was what underground development looked and smelled like.

“You lot want to do tricks? If you do then join the fucking circus.”

Geordie was rough around the edges, but he was a truly amazing coach. He believed in team play. Direct play differed from Route One under his tutelage. Pass the ball, move, share the work. When he didn’t feel we were circulating the ball quick enough or with enough authority, he would throw us a tennis ball and make us play with that. The passes became concentrated. Players actually showed for the ball. It pissed us off. In hindsight, I think he was just seeing how we would react.

I loved his sessions. One of my favorite places to train was a warehouse on the west side of Chicago. It had turf, steel goals, and sharp objects everywhere. We’d train from 11pm to 1 or 2 am. The older guys would go off to work, home, or to the bar. I’d catch a ride home with two players who were brothers and lived near me and worked in a furniture warehouse in Addison. I’d be in bed by 3 am up by 6 am for school. Geordie could play. His calves were the size of grapefruits and he had this ability to demonstrate what he wanted from us while coaching. I could never tell if he was right footed or left footed. I did know he loved using both — usually in the tackle. He oozed passion for the game and believed in tough and rough treatment when it was necessary. He’d motivate us when we needed motivating and nurture the younger ones when it was clear we’d had enough of getting the shit kicked out of us.

The field was amazing for us. Sure, it wasn’t Wembley but it might as well have been! Shoddy turf loosely laid down in an industrial warehouse. After training we had to roll the turf up and store it to the side. The industrial-sized fans buzzed and hummed while the lights overhead flickered and droned. Geordie was most likely certifiably insane. We played a few tournaments in Milwaukee and Chicago. We played in Chicago’s Metro League, against Polish, Croatian, Mexican, and Bosnian teams.

The truth is back then I would have done whatever it took to be a better player. As good as I thought I was, I realized that I was a late-bloomer in soccer. I still had the awkward lankiness of growing six inches over a four month span. My knees hurt from an overuse injury called Osgood-Schlatter’s disease (it’s not really a disease). I wasn’t exactly timid, but I wasn’t the raving psycho that Geordie wanted me to be. The whole experience, however, affected me profoundly. I trained with Geordie for around two years. Sometimes the group of players waned and changed, but I kept going to the sessions. I was learning what being a journeyman player was all about.

The nature of the warehouse pick-up games, the brutal combativeness of the environment, the late hours and early mornings turned me into a player carved of stone. Fitness was a non-factor as I was training double or even triple what players in my age group were. And the training was nothing they could fathom doing. But, I was a late-bloomer and for every accolade I earned with my club team, I discovered another “deficiency” against seasoned players at the warehouse. These were players who used to play professionally in Eastern Europe and Central America. My ride home was with two Guatemalan brothers who fled their country and won a lottery to enter the United States through a missionary program. The progress I made was exponentially greater than anything I would have been able to accomplish had I gone the “conventional” route. What I used to think about during games became instinctual. Tackling, ball distribution, shooting, communicating in different languages, working for my teammates was par for the course. I was becoming a player.

I found myself training in my basement, getting thousands of repetitions in before school. After my first training session, I came home and slept before jogging to a local park to meet Jose and Ricardo to go to the warehouse. My parents allowed this because they knew I loved the game and weren’t going to stop me from sneaking out to play anyway. None of us had any aspirations or dared think we could play professionally. The system wasn’t cut out for players the game had or, in my case, was going to leave behind. My parents didn’t have the money to hire someone to videotape my games let alone buy our own camcorder. My high school coach was clueless and routinely benched me when colleges came to see me. He didn’t get on with my father so he took it took on me. Geordie’s training sessions were the answer.

One of the last sessions I attended, Geordie said, “You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get something out of this game. At the end of the it all — and it goes quick — you’re left with fuck all. So, at the very least, enjoy it.”

On my way to training the next day a semi-truck blew a red light and smashed into my car. I was left with a broken neck, fractured skull, broken ribs, and massive concussion, and had to beg the surgeon I wasn’t going to sever my spinal cord by struggling to move after several Valium injections to prevent me from moving so much. I spent the better part of the next year in a back and neck brace — learning to walk, dreaming of playing, overcoming nightmares where I’d wake up a quadriplegic. The reality is I missed my window well before that accident. As it came to pass, I recovered and made the decision to play in college. Gone were the scholarship offers to my top choice schools, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to play again at the Division I level.

The first chance I had, I drove to see if Geordie was still at the warehouse training players. The warehouse had been converted to a Whole Foods. Where I used to play was now home to over-priced organic food. I inquired about Geordie for a few years but never did hear about where he went off to. Ricardo and Jose still talk to me. We still go out for beers when I go back home. And they still work in a warehouse stocking furniture on industrial-sized shelving units.

On the off chance I ever get into coaching again, I’m going to do it on my terms like Geordie did (just not as insanely). I would have done whatever it took to be the player I think I would be had it not been for that car accident. But, I wouldn’t trade my experiences training “underground” under the languid and unforgiving warehouse lights with a coach as mysterious as he was crazy for anything. I played with some of the best players in an environment that lives only in our memories.

Would you do whatever it takes to be the best version of yourself? Would you do whatever it takes to be the best player you could be?  If not, ask yourself why and remember: you only get one go-round at this game.

The Culture Wars of American Soccer

If you’ve played, coached, or watched soccer at any level in the United States and Canada then you’ve seen the worst pregame warm-up activity imaginable — the shooting line. The activity itself is a microcosm of the pedestrian misappropriation of the world’s game. Youth team coaches are guilty of allowing all of the players regardless of position to partake in a party of potshots. This “warm-up” is even used by high school, college and Major League Soccer coaches.

Such an activity is important for attacking players and goalkeepers before a game. Good teams and coaches designate a time and place for the attacking players and the goalkeepers to get their reps. They also organize position-specific activities for the other players, mini-stations, possession grids, rondos, and a plethora of other functional activities to get the team ready to perform. One difference, however, between a clued-in and a clueless team is identified by the amount of standing and static stretching taking place before competition. Most likely, you’ve seen that line grow longer and longer as players miss shot after shot and subsequently chase the ball across acres of parking lots and other fields.

The enemy is not the shooting line, but rather the coaches — charlatans embodying every bad coaching cliché that should have stayed in the 1990s-era soccer movies that made a mockery of the game — who use this as a primary function for warm-up or pregame activity.

This rudderless navigation of soccer isn’t limited to pregame shenanigans. In the United States, the odds are great that players arriving early to practice will take potshots at an empty goal with shots ending up everywhere but in the goal. Admittedly, I was raised in a culture where this insanity was all too common. Between the ages of 9-14, I learned early on that the activity was not only lodged “deep in the dumb”, but it was unrealistic. At no point were any of the players exhibiting the actual movements and skill that would even allow them to get such a shooting opportunity in a game, and yet, true to form, this activity is still done with regularity. Growing up, I often found myself opting to dribble the ball around on my own before games or at practice while my teammates took shot after shot at the goal until a coach showed up. I attribute my avoidance to the playing pick-up and street soccer.

You see, in the brand of pick-up and street soccer I grew up playing there were no giant goals, at least none with nets. If you shot the ball, there was no guarantee another group of players wouldn’t stab it with a pen or pocketknife, steal it themselves, or punt it onto Interstate 280. Games often turned into literal turf wars. Losing often extended beyond the scoreline, it meant losing respect and the opportunity to play there again. Growing up in an area of cultural tension soaked in racial and nationalistic rivalries was tough, but it emblazoned many of us with a steadfast desire to be better, tougher, and more savvy players. My neighborhood buddies were of Mexican, Bolivian, Nicaraguan, Portuguese, Kenyan, Vietnamese, Korean, and Bosnian descent. A few were refugees and brought with them their soccer talent and the savagery they were exposed to in their war-torn homelands. The tense culture of the time conditioned each of us to value the ball at all costs — taking pregame potshots was out of the question.

street-soccer

Away from the skirmishes on the dirt patch parks or the vacant basketball courts with chain-linked nets in the world of “organized” soccer I discovered how different the game was regarded. I wouldn’t even call the brand of organized soccer available to me remotely related to the stuff we played in the streets, courts, and parks. Positions were too rigid in the organized version of the game. Coaches were too “all knowing” but when they demonstrated how to do something, it was clear they never played the game let alone kicked a ball. I don’t fault them for their lack of tact or playing experience. Soccer in the late-1980s through the 1990s was filled with a systemic disconnect with the world in an effort to Americanize the game.

I recall playing in a game where I dribbled the ball across half field and my coach screamed, “You can’t cross to the other half! That’s for NOT your position! Get off the field!” That was the last time I played for that team. But, the root of issues such as rigid positioning, pregame potshots, and out-of-touch coaches was the shoehorning of a global, free-flowing game that demands players be as intelligent and a “different” type of athletic in the mold of the sports dominating American culture. Warm-up activities in basketball involve shooting lines. American sports tend to have overtly-stratified positions that players do NOT vacate.

Growing up in the cultural melting pot of northern California’s Bay Area and later, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, put the juxtaposition of soccer culture with American sporting culture at great odds. Deep down, I want to believe that American sporting culture includes soccer in a capacity extending beyond a “recreational activity” reserved for suburban kids of affluence and their accompanying “soccer moms” in minivans and Lexus SUVs. Watching a youth American football (gridiron) game, it’s evident that over-control, scripting plays, and parents and coaches donning the team’s apparel is an integral part of the culture. What is acceptable in those sports bleeds over to youth soccer and the result is a growing disconnect between the [North] American player and the global player.

Spending time abroad as a youth player afforded me a unique lens with which to view the game I love. When I arrived at training early, players passed the ball, got touches on the ball, performed variations of rondos, and jogged around with a ball — all uncoached and unprompted. Once a training session commenced, it was highly-organized but was free-flowing at the same time. We played mini-games instead of full-field scrimmages, shooting-specific drills where attacking players worked against defenders took precedence over static shooting lines, dedicated technical training was taught and performed for the sake of using the skills in a game, not for “oohs” and “ahhs” of helicopter parents.

As easy as it is to sing the praises of the game is played overseas and stating how far we have to go, the point is the culture today still have far too many remnants of the ignorant soccer culture I grew up combating. The main source of solace I find is most of the people getting into coaching and the overall soccer discussion played the game themselves. The importance of the experiential cannot be understated, nor can the importance of individuals willing to learn more about the craft of coaching.

Perhaps beyond any coaching point I could make, the onus lies on the American player. The American player does not play enough soccer. There is no shortage of praise for American players who “hit the weights”. The fact of the matter is the American player still needs to be prompted to get out and play on their own. If there is a pick-up or street soccer culture, I have not seen it and believe me, I’m looking for it.

One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. It’s time to build a soccer culture across urban and suburban lines. We can talk about new coaching curriculum all we want, but until there is a stronger and more willing playing populous to challenge and push those coaches to be better, the cycle will repeat itself as will the obsession with average.

picture_6-scaled1000

The Disconnect of the [North] American Game

[North] American soccer is an anomaly in the most peculiar ways. For a country that has yet to produce a single world class player, it sure expects to produce world class soccer. Why? Americans, especially those involved or invested in soccer, are guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process.

Translation: People actually think Major League Soccer will produce its own Lionel Messi.

Of course, I responded by pointing out how far off the United States is from producing players half as talented as Leo Messi on his worst day. Unsurprisingly, I caught a lot of flack for challenging that video released by Major League Soccer and disturbing the murky waters of U.S. Soccer. The mainstream soccer media protects bad players and coaches, hides major flaws in the system, and has the audacity to parade around as an ad hoc PR and marketing arm for MLS and U.S.S.F. with alarming regularity. Every now and then, a great article makes its way through the muck and the mire. The problem is, I am a product of U.S. Soccer as are many who question it.

But back to this being “guilty of coveting the result without respecting the process” line. Think about what that means. The pretenders of [North] American soccer want players with the creativity and vision of the world’s best players yet won’t acknowledge the gaps of the U.S. Soccer system. This same group defending the status quo has excuses at the ready when things go pear-shaped, but has a hard time raising the standard for player development.

If only this was a USSDA problem, the solution would be at the ready. This is a grassroots problem. On January 11, 2015 I tweeted: “The problem w/ US Soccer is it aims to enact change at the wrong end of playing spectrum. Fix grassroots game you’ll have better NT players.” After 47 Retweets and plenty of great conversation on the topic of player development I took the backseat and let people continue the dialogue.

The solutions to the issues mainly revolved around:

All of these are valid. However, I contend the issue goes further. Over-coaching and pseudo-coaching. There are entirely too many idiots at the helm of the American and Canadian game. Many live-tweeted from the NSCAA Convention and did one of two things. On the one hand, they shared valuable information and giving feedback to those who could not attend. On the other hand, many (not all and certainly not anyone I follow on Twitter) took a breakout session or a lecture from a coach at a prestigious club and coveted the result without respecting the process. On example I use is the rondo. American coaches are guilty of expecting players to do this when they can’t pass and receive the ball consistently.

The United States is not a nation of patient people (I can’t speak for my Canadian friends). It’s unfashionable and “un-American” to respect and study what other countries do with their football programs from the ground up. I admit that I believe in building from the ground up. I believe in building a strong foundation of independent clubs producing high-level players that are appropriately compensated should a player be identified and selected by a professional team. No league should control or speak for an entire federation. I don’t believe in stepping on the necks of the poor so only the wealthy and affluent can play. The players who can best serve the country are the players the country under-serves most. I don’t know what America and Canada are afraid of. The minute these two great nations want to be a great at soccer, they will be hard to stop.

Closer to home, I believe in players getting their asses off the couch and getting to a wall and learning how to pass, receive, and turn with the ball for hours and hours. So maybe, just maybe they can play at a higher level and tempo. I believe in black boots. I believe in a return to the basics and the mastering of the fundamentals. Where have the players gone who took pride in carrying the piano? How many players watch a game with a studious eye — observing the play off the ball, studying how others play their position, thinking steps ahead of what’s on the screen? Sorry, kids, but if you get all your tactical “analysis” from Twitter, FIFA video games, or your buzzword-drooling “elite” coach, you are being duped. Read every book you can find on the history, philosophies, and narratives of the game. Find a team that isn’t one of the giants of European football and decide to follow them for a year. Learn how a club really operates. Learn the difference between a true football academy and the academies here.

Since when does every kid on an Academy team “deserve” a full scholarship, a professional contract, or any shortcut in a game that owes us nothing? I don’t believe in the kitchen table coaching session when it aims to hurt others. I don’t believe the typical American player is tough enough to truly be great.

Many view an established game as real competition. Some of the best competition I had as a player was derived from hours playing informal cage soccer under the floodlights. The best competition I had was generally against myself. It was either me versus the player I used to be, or me versus the player I wanted to become. Embracing challenge is a survival skill. I love talking to players I’ve coached and am saddened when they tell me they quit the game or that “soccer is too hard”.

FullSizeRender (2)

Playing at a high level isn’t for everyone and requires a degree of sacrifice most are not willing to pay. I spoke to a former player who told me the only reason he quit playing was because “soccer was too hard”. I’m sure there are things going on that are valid reasons he quit, but he asked me to re-tell a story about a friend I had growing up.

The brief story about a guy I grew up playing soccer with named Danny Haywood. Danny and I went to the same elementary school in San Jose, California. Danny’s father was from Nigeria and his mother was from the U.S.. Danny lived on the other side of the tracks and came from a shattered home. I was luckier and more fortunate. Danny and I played on many teams together and both were really good for our age. We walked home from school until we came to a fork in the road. I’d walk north to a nicer neighborhood. Danny walked west, under a graffiti-soaked bridge to a rougher side of town. At school, Danny was made fun of for having an African father and a white mother. There was seldom a time where I didn’t see him crying, yelling, fighting, or playing soccer. Danny carried his books and soccer uniform in a plastic bag which, at times, he’d tie up and throw in a nearby stream to avoid being mugged. Later on, we’d retrieve the bag down stream where the garbage collected. 

Every week, my father would pick up Danny for soccer practice. One day, Danny didn’t come out when we pulled up. I went to the door. There was an eviction notice on it. He stopped coming to my school and had been reassigned to the “city” school. His father worked as a valet driver at a hotel and a dishwasher at a restaurant. His mother worked as a seamstress. They were good people with not a penny to their name. But after a few weeks of no-shows, Danny suddenly returned to practice. He refused to participate in a “shirts and skins” game because he had cigar burns, bruises, and welts on his body — the toll he paid for being a new kid in a bad neighborhood. He refused to tell us or the coach where he lived because he didn’t want anyone to come looking for him or to see the conditions he lived in. He sprinted to practice to avoid being approached by bullies and gangs. He played his ass off and continued to play soccer because it took him away from the hell he lived in. Danny was punched in the face and beaten with a belt by a farmer who caught him picking apples in his orchard. When the farmer asked Danny why he was stealing apples, Danny said it was because he was hungry. I gave him clothes and shoes to wear. My mother took him shopping for school supplies. Danny cried out of embarrassment. 

Christmas came and Danny asked for one thing. A soccer ball. We bought him a soccer ball and he played every day. He dreamed of playing for AC Milan because of George Weah. Danny’s life was hard. Sometimes young players don’t realize how hard life can really be. I sure didn’t when I was young. Danny once told me, “I never knew how hungry I was until I had to steal apples off trees.”

Take from the anecdote what you will. I believe the American and Canadian game is full of Danny’s who are too silenced, priced out, ignored, and under-served. I believe that somewhere in these great countries are players who haven’t had the creativity coached out of them, who would be happy to be role players, who don’t feel entitled to anything, and who will find a way to beat their circumstance to play the game they love.

Just don’t expect anyone up top to lend a helping hand.

Shattering the Broken Cycle

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Read up on what others have done.” To me, this means doing what the best footballing nations are doing at the grassroots level first, then addressing it at the National Team level. American soccer has this really nasty habit of believing itself infallible. Why does American soccer have to try and swim against the current? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it wants to remain sub-par to ensure those in control can maintain control and in positions of power and influence. The optimist in me thinks enough is enough, let’s figure this out at the bottom and work toward a common goal at the top. One does not build a house starting with the roof. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until we acknowledge and act to remedy the problems of our game. 

The base level of coaching is not good enough. Good coaching courses, curriculum, and leadership are entirely too rare, and for some, too expensive. At the minimum the entry level courses should be free. When the coaching education follows the business model of soccer here, there’s bound to be issues aplenty. It becomes a money grab and a money game. Those with the time, resources, and money to pay the fees get the education. I can see paying for good curriculum at the C-Level and above. We don’t have enough good coaches trained in the methods of today’s game. The relics of the past continue to mold the future, which is a problem. Addressing the coaching problems is a big piece of the puzzle to improving the quality of the game from the bottom-up.

There is also a culture of over-coaching. Players have turned into drones. They seek a coach’s approval in every task. There is no free play component in some communities. The game is free. Coaches in the United States must think soccer is gridiron whereby every play is drawn up in a playbook and every play is coordinated by others who are NOT playing the game. There is this latent need to “control” everything. Let the kids play. Let them make their mistakes and correct them on their own when possible. The average American player has a limited ability to think their way through the game. Creativity is coached out of so many youth players. This has to stop.

The next problem is the pseudo-coaching that is prevalent in the game. As stated in the wonderful blog entry by Innovate FC: “Pseudo-Coaching looks like good coaching. Players feel like they are learning and any observer might think that they are watching a great session. The only problem is, that very little learning is taking place.”

The easy thing to do would be to look at the recent US U-20 CONCACAF Champion performances and come to the conclusion American soccer development is big trouble. Personally, it begins well below that level, where the grassroots game is chained to the radiator in the basement of the American sporting landscape. American youth soccer can be called many things, but elite is not one them. Nor can it be called functional. The system is full of fallacies and charlatans.

The crux of the problem is open access to the game. What the means is the demolition of the current American system. Right now, too many young players and families are priced out of the game in a pyramid that is not only closed, but also upside-down. In the United States, some of the best players with the most potential are systematically priced out the game before a competent coach can even begin to help them develop. This is true for boys and girls, men and women. The number of players that hang up the boots at 22 is alarming. There are simply not enough professional teams to create a healthy and robust professional culture.

There is no reward for youth coaches to develop talent other than what comes in the Win/Loss category. A cognizant youth coach knows that his or her best players will be hawked and funneled away for free. No compensation is paid to a club that churns out wave after wave of great players. On the global scene, the best coaches know when to “let go” and do their best to prepare the player for the next level. And, they usually receive a payment or support from that next level club (of course, there are no guarantees, but the point stands).

Whenever I go to Central America, South America, or Europe, I know I will see kids playing the game 24/7 on any piece of available land in un-coached settings. I know that most established club teams keep their neighborhood roots intact and players learn how to defend their turf, play within a strong community, and sooner or later, the best players leave to play at the “next level”. To some, that’s a better club with more access to the next progressive level, the professional academy. I also know that when I’m Stateside, I will see kids playing basketball 24/7, in their neighborhoods, defending their turf, in un-coached settings.

And I know that basketball’s version of what is under-serving youth soccer, The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is not without faults itself. They may even sound familiar as revealed by Kobe Bryant. His criticisms may sound frighteningly familiar to what one might say about the current state of American and Canadian soccer development.

In Europe, fundamentals and the pedagogy involved in teaching and championing the mastery of the requisite skill sets is directly related to how soccer is taught. In his criticism of AAU, Kobe Bryant said, “I just think European players are more skillful than American players. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. …It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

Concerning AAU and its something anyone involved in youth soccer could apply to the game. “AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible, AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap, and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

American soccer is full of regurgitation. The same coaches are cycled through the system. When one is fired from a Major League Soccer team, he is likely to be hired and appointed in the National Team Youth set-up. One of the most troubling facets of the national soccer scene is how good coaches are find themselves on the outside looking in. Hugo Perez is a coach I admire. He is committed to helping develop and bring great Latino players through the American system, which is essential to the progress of a nation with such a diverse population and strong Latino communities. I know that Tab Ramos and many others have put faith into bringing Latino players through, but this one example of backwards politics and odd decision-making.

Anyone who tells me that a USSDA is “free” is mistaken or doesn’t have a kid in a Development Academy. As far as I know, MLS DAs are free. And if the murmurings are true, non-MLS DAs are doing more to alleviate costs. Yes, the league fee is covered. But factor in the real costs: equipment, travel, food, the cost of missing school, the cost of parent missing work to get a player to a USSDA environment. The only thing “free” about this is a player is “free” not to participate. But I don’t aim to vilify the Development Academies. We must accept that the system is imperfect. The amount of travel each Development Academy does should increase as the players get older. Traveling thousands of miles across the country for a U12 game is costly on the players, the parents, and the club itself. The leadership from U.S.S.F., however, is where I begin to shift blame.

Every few years, U.S.S.F. keeps the wolves at bay by proffering a new plan rife with buzzwords and check-boxes that accomplish so much…on paper. When Project 2010 was proposed, I was 13 and I knew it was a bunch of fluff. The thing is, most of the radical changes aren’t radical at all. They are common sense. To start an academy at the U13/14, U15/16, and U17/18 levels is ridiculous. Anyone who has coached teenagers knows the challenges of getting players who lack the skills of teens in other countries. So, U.S.S.F. will institute a U12 level, which is still too late. The best academies in the world are working with children at the U8-11 levels meaning those players are well ahead of those emerging from US Soccer Development Academies.

Additionally, it’s impossible to play “catch-up” with other nations in terms of development. When an American player is learning how to really use their weak foot at age 14, players in academies overseas are learning how to implement the same system of play that the senior team at the club uses. At Ajax, players are not lied to. When a player is not good enough, the parents and player are included in the rigorous evaluation process so there are no surprises if/when that player is released. Here, players’ egos are inflated and pumped full of nonsense to retain that player’s (or their parents) services (and revenue stream).

The problem is not that these “Action Plans” are published, it’s that they are not properly audited with the due diligence that any good Action Plan should be. When U.S.S.F. fails a generation of players, the same people somehow keep their jobs. I made a comment recently that the people in charge of coaches’ education are the people we need to remove from positions of influence. The cycle of mediocrity continues for a few simple reasons. American soccer is full of charlatans. People whose interest in the sport is purely to make money. That’s fine, but they should not be in positions overseeing development, nor should they be in charge of making decisions about this realm of the game.

Identifying problems is the easy part and these are but a few. A remediation plan is required to ensure that the state of the American (and Canadian) game improves. Open access starts with community involvement and the blessing and support of the United States Soccer Federation. A national directive beyond the national team programs should be supported by U.S.S.F. to raise the bar for the grassroots levels. The logic here is pretty linear. If the lowest levels of a talent pool improve, the top levels will HAVE to improve lest they get passed up. By failing at the grassroots level, the American game continues to perform a masterclass in mediocrity on the international level on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. Creating a cultural shift away from the clueless while prying soccer from the clutches of the suits whose main interests are lodged in monopolistic control of the American professional soccer market is one step. Another way is to simply demand more from the American soccer media, which does more cheerleading than it does reporting.

Solutions I see as salient and realistic are things that I try to work with in local communities on a daily basis. Free kick-arounds for kids are important. Building soccer cages in communities that are safe and accessible is another step that U.S.S.F. could help with, but why leave it up to the Federation? Write to a local community leader and committee for funds and engage people who have the power and desire to help change the game in a positive way. For every unused piece of recreational real estate, there should be a land grab for soccer-centric facilities. One thing America and Canada have over most other countries is usable space and infrastructure. Other systemic changes include eliminating pay-to-play for all academies, eliminating “league standings” before the U14 level, and shifting the paradigm away from winning and placing emphasis on learning.

In the United States, there is an obsession with coveting the result without respecting the process. Everyone wants to look like a professional player, but nobody wants to train the youth players the way future professionals are trained. A great deal of self-analysis is required and it starts with the United States Soccer Federation. The people deserve better transparency. The players deserve better coaching. The coaches deserve better education. But, unless everyone demands these improvements, the American game is resigned to its current role of “hardworking underdogs” absent a true footballing identity.

I contend that the minute both U.S.S.F. and the Canadian Soccer Association decide to open the market up and lead the way, both nations will be major powers in the game.

The Importance of Sacrifice

After a recent men’s league game I overheard a young man (probably in the 14-16 age range) tell a buddy, “I can’t believe my parents are late to pick me up! Seriously, what the hell is wrong with just being on time?” The buddy, who was also waiting said, “Who cares? They’ll be here. Let’s go back and play until they get here!” The frustrated teen was already dedicated to his Facebook or Twitter timeline and ignored his buddy who shrugged his shoulders and meandered back onto the field to join a pick-up game. The whole episode got me thinking about a cultural shift that ought to be recognized and overcome.

The importance of sacrifice can’t be overlooked.

I can’t begin to calculate the hours I had to wait for a ride after school or practice. Part of growing up in the late-1980s and 1990s was not having a cell phone. Calling for a ride meant paying a collect call or digging around for spare change. Is waiting around fun? Nope. But like my parents then and countless parents now, most are late because they’ve made a sacrifice to allow their child to play a sport they enjoy, and the logistics of the carting young people around is difficult. My question is: do players actually match or exceed the sacrifice their coaches and parents are making on their behalf?

Good coaches invest their time, energy, effort, and knowledge to help someone else’s kid learn the game. Most are underpaid, under appreicated, and are still learning how best to help others. Parents, like coaches, often must endure the thankless task of keeping everyone happy — the boss at work, the kids at home, the random jackass who’d rather email or gossip behind one’s back than have a candid conversation. Parents often work jobs they hate to put gas in the tank, food on the table, and their players in a pair of $250 bright pink soccer boots (because a $90 pair of Copa Mundials won’t suffice?), and make a sacrifice every day for years.

boots

In my years in the game there were events that didn’t seem like decisions with any bearing at the time, but ended up playing a major part in my journey. Hindsight really is 20/20 and looking at my own experiences has revealed a lot about the relationship between this powerful sport and the person it has molded me into over the years. One of my favorites lines I tell players embarking on their own journey that ask me for advice is “The game waits for no player. It takes from us more than it gives to us.” Most players look at me with bewilderment.

“What the hell does that even mean?”

To me, it means the game gives us very little. Players must learn to take chances and make decisions to improve — and very few of those chances are easy. Furthermore, very few of those chances are forgiving. I’ve seen many players completely fall flat on their face trying to start, improve, prolong, or merely continue their “careers” in the game. I’ve seen players hang up the boots at 22 years of age to become a cog in the corporate machine because of the bleak professional options available in the United States. I’ve seen others, myself included, play the “professional” indoor soccer circuit and play for unfunded men’s teams in high-level games where all that was on the line was a paltry cash prize to pay for pizzas, beer, maybe some of the hotel costs, and of course, pride. The games doesn’t care for a player’s pity story. It doesn’t wait for one to develop their left foot, or find form and confidence. Ultimately, the game bypasses all who play it as Father Time remains undefeated.

My other favorite line is “the game owes you nothing.”

But most of us know this. Growing up in America and playing soccer, for many of us, was a sporting juxtaposition. It was the game people ridiculed, mocked, denigrated, and ignored. It was the sport that all the baseball, basketball, gym teachers, and many an idiot thought they could coach with proficiency. For me, soccer turned me into a journeyman player before I was a teenager. The lack of resources, coaching outlets, playing environments, quality instruction, and a litany of other factors forced players who wanted to play to become journeymen. As a kid I played in the Hispanic league in south San Jose, California despite not exactly “fitting in”. I also played in a league sponsored by the archdiocese and was always finding random pickup games to play.

When my family moved to Chicago’s western suburbs as I entered high school, I found that the coaching was terrible for my high school team and finding a club team was hard. The good teams cost a lot money that my parents didn’t have at the ready. I found solace playing with a good suburban team, a Latino men’s team and a Croatian team — all at the same time. I just wanted to play and realized that I had to go find places to ply my trade on my own. It was hard. I got kicked up and down the field and had the fear beaten out of me. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice and scraped up enough money to send me to Europe a few times to play for extended tenures in the Netherlands and Germany. I don’t know how much overtime they each had to pull to make that happen, but I do know my dad slipped a note in my suitcase that said, “Earn This”.

What does this come down to? Sacrifice.

The following is a comparison of good (average) and great (exceptional) player qualities and decision-making scenarios that I feel today’s player should be armed with as they continue their journey in the game.

  1. The good player attends every practice with their team. The great player makes every practice. That is, the individual literally has the ability to raise the level of play, team dynamic, and quality for the collective.
  2. The good player watches high-level matches on the weekends. The great player watches the best teams, but also watches the less-glamorous sides to get a better sense how the game is played by players who aren’t flashy, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime players.
  3. The good player learns a few tricks and flicks. The great player masters and executes the fundamentals while understanding the difference between a complete player and an exhibitionist.
  4. The good player sleeps in on the weekends. The great player gets up before the sun rises and finds a way to train and get supplemental reps and conditioning in before starting their day.
  5. The good player expects the game to come to them. The great player demands as much from the game as the game demands from them.
  6. The good player has a team where all their soccer is played. The great player has a dedicated team, but finds ways to play in environments, on teams, and with players who make them better.
  7. The good player practices what they’re good at; the great player focuses on their weaknesses and turns them into strengths.
  8. The good player hopes they’ll get better. The great player demands more of themselves, the team, and their coach.
  9. The good player listens to their parents. The great player has the courage to realize that mom and dad don’t always know best and don’t let them fight their battles for them.
  10. The good player cares if their coach/parents saw that great play. The great player reproduces those great plays not for the recognition, but because it’s what the game requires.

The comparisons could go forever, but the point is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ aren’t just fine-tuning and minor tweaks. The differences extend deep into the DNA and psychology of what makes a player view themselves as a catalyst and difference maker. Without descending down the rabbit hole of ‘what-ifs’, one can trace the separation between good (average) and great (exceptional) based on a few criteria that hinge upon actions and decisions within a player’s control. Actions like opting to train instead of playing video games, optimizing one’s diet, engaging in deliberate practice (more on that in a bit), balancing humility with confidence, actively seeking and finding new and different environments to play in, and not settling for remaining in the “comfort zone” are all examples of things an individual can control.

Some aspects of the game are out of a player’s control. Bad coaches, clueless tactics, geographic/financial/societal/familial limitations, etc. are often filtration factors that affect an individual’s progression in and out of sport. The harsh reality goes back to my earlier point that the game owes you nothing and waits for no player. Revisiting my earlier point, growing up my parents both worked corporate jobs that were pretty far from home. Resources and money were limited. This meant I had to make some uncomfortable decisions as a young player. I knew my parents did the best they could to help me and give me the opportunities, which I am forever grateful, growing up. My older siblings were away at college so I rarely had a ride to training. This meant asking around for a ride, catching a bus/train, riding my bike, even running to soccer practice (if it was close) was not out of the realm of possibilities.

I recently read a weightlifting article titled Mental Strategies for Getting Results. In any activity, deliberate practice brings forth the battle between doing what you like to do, and doing what you need to do. To apply this to soccer, I contend that players in this country are conditioned to settle for average and celebrate doing just a little bit more than is asked of them. When I first wrote my article on a development method I used that required me to get 10,000 quality touches on the ball a day, people immediately doubted me — and perhaps for good reason. It’s excessive, it’s really, really hard, and it’s time consuming and mentally and physically draining. Oh, and it’s additional work that a player must find time to do. That requires sacrifice.

“Don’t you mean 1,000 touches a day, Jon?”

“No. Ten-thousand. In one day.”

Sacrific is part of the game in every country around the world. A player from an impoverished environment makes the sacrifice to separate from the talent pool. I can’t fault a player for not experiencing real-world problems like hunger, gang violence and recruitment, war, drug use, and a lack of resources, but I do believe that greatness requires an individual to make sacrifices. Don’t believe me, ask any player who comes from an at-risk community or who had to grow up far too soon what they’d give to make it as a player — whatever that means for that individual — the answers may or may not surprise you. And that might say more about you than it does that individual — for many don’t know what they don’t know.