Far Post Footy

Shopkeepers and Footballers

 

The following is a list of ideas and phrases I developed, found, culled from speeches/articles/podcasts/life over a year ago. I never got around to publishing them or much of anything. Most of this is both life and sport related. It’s all relative to improvement and development. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be the end-all-be-all of any one particular school of thinking. It’s just a collection of thoughts — that’s it.

  1. Players and coaches both need to understand and live this phrase: “In order to have, you have to do. In order to do, you have to be.” In other words, to achieve any sense of trust, you have to perform trustworthy actions. In order to do that, you have to be inherently trustworthy. The big caveat and universal truth of this statement is you can and should replace the word “trust” with any actionable quality and adjective. Think: greatness, powerful, talented, dedicated, committed, disciplined, etc.
  2. External competition is a misnomer. Before you can compete externally, you must first learn to compete internally. That is, you must have a purpose — one that drives you to be better than previous versions of yourself. However, competition as an action is less of a battle than it is a leveling-up process. Competition is the introduction of adversity. When done correctly, this is a net positive.
  3. Everything within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  4. “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”  Not everything is about direct instruction and the dependency on it. Players are conditioned to only accept direct instruction, coaches are conditioned to only deliver it. Not everything is ready to be taught when we want to teach it…it takes time and it takes rounds of failure. When both parties are receptive and engaged — progress begins.
  5. The job of a player/coach is the same as a shopkeeper. It’s up to you to open the shop every day. One cannot be successful if they aren’t open for business and aren’t willing to partake in commerce — the exchange of time, ideas, and energy — on a daily basis. If the shop is closed, there is no commerce.
  6. Mentorships: Not every player, coach, or individual is worthy of mentorship. It is NOT a coach’s job to mentor someone if it becomes clear that whatever it is you’re trying to help them with isn’t a priority to them. If you can say, “This is just not important enough for you,” to their face and stand by that assertion, it’s time to cut them loose and move on. Without commitment and reciprocation and application, the pupil is not willing to learn. See point 4.
  7. How to deal with a great apple turning into a bad apple. Give advice, give guidance, but be wary of that one bad apple that threatens to spoil the bunch. Remove it before it’s too late. You’re doing both parties a great service with clear communication and blunt and honest messaging.
  8. On Groupthink: Too many people think they have an entourage but in reality the entourage has them. Influencers will take over. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially in team dynamics. Engage in critical thinking. Be creative. Be an independent and free thinker. Challenge your own ideas before you blindly accept them as infallible.
  9. Relationships MUST be built on trust and they MUST be voluntary. Teammates have to trust one another. Coaches have to trust their players and players must trust their coach and his/her intentions and philosophy. The one relationship that’s most overlooked, however, is the relationship with the self. This relationship is often the hardest to maintain, manage, and care for as it’s also the most important relationship we have.
  10. RESISTANCE: Introduce and overcome resistance — that’s what professionals do. Avoidance of things that challenge us is damaging to our development.
  11. “Seek first to understand then to be understood”: It’s easy to criticize that which we do not understand or accept on the surface. Conducting a self-inventory and analysis of not just what we don’t understand, but also why we don’t understand something is a valuable lesson in intentional thinking, patience, and maturity.
  12. It’s much easier to define what you’re against than it is to define what you’re for: see number 11.
  13. What you think is way less important than how you think: see number 11.
  14. Strategy without execution is ineffective. An average strategy with great execution is far more effective and greater than a great strategy with poor execution. Related: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit” — Henry Rollins. Experience is king.
  15. One person can change the world for the better so long as they don’t care who gets the credit. This saying is found in a number of different texts in a variety of different phrasings. The truth remains constant. Focus on progress and development more than focusing on getting credit. People will focus on the result over the method most of the time anyway.
  16. What gets measured gets managed. Get your reps in. Repeat. I’ve always subscribed to this methodology in most aspects of playing, training, studying, working, coaching and life in general. Obviously, quality over quantity is a factor but there is little wrong with repping out on the good things in life.
  17. Focus on progress, not perfection. This is simple. Adopt a “better than zero” mindset. Positive changes arrive incrementally. Work on moving the needle a little bit at a time. Whatever you do, just keep going.
  18. We must to become experts in becoming an expert. Work on the process…to find a solution, we need to learn how to work the problem. Study, apply, fail often, repeat. There is a lesson to be learned — you just have to look a bit harder.
  19. Use the extreme to reveal the subtle. Illustrate points and teachable moments with care and clarity. We are stubborn creatures. Oftentimes, it’s best to see the dramatic outcome of a poor decision or a series of poor decisions or behaviors to really reveal what’s causing them in the first place.
  20. There’s a difference between a person who’s “being there” and who’s “just there”. There’s a difference between being fit and being a good fit.
  21. The key is measuring character, resolve, ability, skill is NOT when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our worst.
  22. Treat people like a rubber band. If you constantly stretch it too much, it will snap. If you carefully stretch it to the brink while being mindful not to cause too much stress, it doesn’t snap. It becomes more pliable.
  23. Don’t look back. We aren’t going that way. Remember that it’s important to reflect and learn from the past, but we can’t go back nor should we try to…don’t dwell on the things that cannot and will not change. The sooner you realize it’s never going to be the same again the faster you can begin to make progress and ensure a better future.
  24. “It’s not what you say…it’s what they hear”. Choose your words, choose your tone, choose your delivery method.
  25. “Skill that is untested does not equate to actual skill.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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Good Enough is the Death of Greatness

I’ve never understood the phrase “good enough”, especially when it comes to challenges related to the pursuit of excellence in any discipline. Admittedly, I get a lot of inspiration from personalities and methodologies from sources outside of the soccer world. Not long ago, I was driving to work and I heard the phrase “Good enough is the death of greatness” from notable strength and conditioning (and wrestling coach) Zach Even-Esh on a podcast with Jerred Moon.

Give it a listen. In fact, I recommend listening to experts and coaches in other modalities and sporting arenas to learn from because much of the lessons they have to offer are valuable and applicable. Strength and conditioning coaches and running experts are more methodical than people give them credit for, and to be legitimate resource in those communities requires one to document everything, have a proven track record performing the tasks themselves or with pupils, and all the methodologies are lodged deeply in the scientific and objective.

But back to the phrase “good enough”.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize these are my opinions. They are not suggestions for others.

As a player, if I was told, “Jon, that’s good enough…” I would be confused. Good enough is merely a phrase and an attitude that, to me, means the bare minimum level of performance, application, or acknowledgement has been reached and it’s OK to let off the gas pedal. Mediocrity is acceptable…that’s what it means.

As a coach, if I told my players, “That’s good enough…” that’s really me telling them we aren’t interested in pushing back against the ceiling. It would indicate that I am satisfied with less than their best.

Good enough is merely settling.

It is here we get into the murky territory of finding out when enough is sufficient.

Here’s something I’ve learned as an endurance runner with goals that extend beyond merely finishing the race and more importantly, as someone who understands what complacency can do to a person and a collective.

Good enough is a dangerous place. It’s a dangerous frame of mind. It’s a dangerous attitude to adopt and a crutch to carry the weight for a person.

Players don’t know how to struggle.

They just know they’re struggling.

There’s a massive difference between the two. For example, when I am running a race and training through a brutal workout, I have choices: quit before I start, cut it short when it gets tough, or push through. Other than the risk of injury, the first two choices fall under the “I’m good enough” or “this is good enough” category of bullshit cop-outs. If those were actually true, I wouldn’t be struggling with the notion of enduring and completing them.

The last one, however, is what I want players to embrace.

The successful players are seldom more talented than the others. It generally comes down to quality hours and a willingness to learn from the difficult periods. The best players are the ones who work the hardest for the longest periods of time. They are also the ones who are willing to exist in that space where shit just goes wrong, feels uncomfortable, and where they slog through situations that test them, longer than others.

Here’s a good lesson from the differences between two types of players.

Some players struggle and look for a way out as fast as possible. They are usually bailed out by coaches and parents who see this struggle and make excuses, feed them lines of enabling influence, and fight their battles for them. That player has regressed.

Other players struggle and they know they’re going through a rough patch. Instead of looking for a way out, they look for a way to stay in the struggle. They embrace the suck. It’s what MUST happen for any type of growth. This is where the mind sharpens, the body follows, and resiliency is honed and strengthened.

Think about it this way, if it’s a dip in form, a flaw in technique, a skill that needs to be honed — the easy thing to do is pack up and head home. And there are certainly times where recalibrating and coming back at another time is acceptable. However, too many players pull the eject cord too early and jettison themselves back into their safe spaces.

This is what I love about endurance running. You can’t fake your way through the miles. This is what great strength and conditioning athletes embrace about their craft — the weight doesn’t  move itself. It’s you versus gravity. As Henry Rollins once wrote, “the Iron never lies to you.”

Great footballers stay a bit longer or arrive earlier and work on that weak foot. They embrace the struggle because they understand the coaching adage that says, the end of your comfort zone is where growth occurs.

Fear is a great motivator and it’s a great asset. Fear is not the enemy. Fear is merely jet fuel. Some use it to self-immolate. Others use fear to propel them to new heights. The presence of fear is raw energy. How we use it is up to the individual. Don’t be controlled and conquered by fear. Use it to conquer and control whatever the situation is.

The last point to make here is about praise. Coaches praise players for mediocre action. They praise players for showing up on-time, for wearing the right training kit, for picking up after themselves. What kind of nonsense is that? Have standards gone away? Are they that low with modern coaches? Do you feel if you don’t dole out praise you’ll be fired and have to cater to the mountain of parent concerns and emails that need to end up in your Spam folder of your email anyways?

Look, encouragement is important and I’m not advocating we don’t encourage players. But be careful with giving praise. Make players EARN that praise. Applauding the mundane is hackery. Applauding effort that continually leads to mistakes, turnovers, fouls, and the disruption of a system of play and formation is bullshit, too.

Don’t do that. Applaud and praise them when they fail and make mistakes and then seek to correct it. I don’t believe in praising actions that are part of the job description. Again, that’s my opinion. I do believe in praising actions that display a willingness to grow even when the chances of failure are greatest. It’s up to you to delineate between bravery and stupidity — we aren’t asking our players to track players relentlessly until they drop or to act recklessly. But we do want our players to be critical thinkers and free to solve the problems presented to them.

If you take nothing else from this post, understand that raising the standard is up to you. What kind of example are you setting as a coach? What kind of standard are you NOT living up to as a player? These are critical questions but they are necessary.

Be careful with giving praise.

Good enough is the death of greatness.

Scanning as a Skill

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Imagine the following scenario:

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

“Pick your head up!”

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

Cue the token finger-pointing.

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

What happened?

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

I call it scanning as a skill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit: abigailkeenan.com 

 

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A Lesson in Losing and Accountability

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

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

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

Society in a nutshell:

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

So, what’s the lesson in losing?

Watch this:

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

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

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

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

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

To that end, you are never done losing.

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

To evolve, you must learn to lose.

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

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

How many tomorrow’s have become yesterday’s?

How long are you willing to let that happen?

You don’t get those days back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the weak-minded and unmotivated crumble.

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on progress…then focus on perfection.

Exercise of the Discipline

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Discipline — it’s like a muscle. At least, that’s how I want you to think about it from here on out. Discipline is both a skill and a methodology. Those who subscribe to the notion(s) of self-discipline tend to fine-tune their processes en route to reaching their goals. Let me take the discussion away from soccer to help illustrate the point.

My parents live next door to a professional pianist from South Korea named Young Park. Young is the mother of two teenagers and works as piano instructor, is a full-time faculty member at a music institute; and for the past 17 years that I’ve known her, Young has operated with a sense of constant dedication to the practice (and profession) of playing the piano.

Every day at 5 a.m., Young gently and methodically plays simple scales. This happens every morning without fail. She did this when her kids were babies; she did this before taking the hour drive to attend classes to get her doctorate degree in Music and Piano Performance; she did this before seeing her husband off to work each day. I could hear the muffled notes from my room and I noticed how the patterns were actually progressions. She didn’t start by playing classic and complicated piano pieces. The basics were the foundation.

Think about what it takes to adhere to such a lifestyle. She’s not complicating the task, nor is she arrogantly trying to play the most complex concertos. Every morning, she gently plays Adagio — slow, an indication of being “at ease”. Very rarely do her morning practice sessions remotely resemble anything considered Allegro — played at a fast, lively tempo. She operates mainly in Adante — a moderate tempo sometimes oscillating between successive scales and chord progressions.

Everything is simple and everything builds upon itself. By the time her morning session was coming to an end she would piece together amazing progressions that could convince any passerby that she just started playing at that complex moment.

I’ve admired this for years.

The trick is not that she plays at 5 a.m., but that’s part of it. The key here is Young starts her day by tapping into the very skill set she has built her life around as the remainder of the day will be split between being a mother, teaching students, working, and taking time away from her music. She masters the simple to increase her proficiency at the complex. By the time she’s performing with an orchestra, in front of a panel of professors assessing her, or instructing students — she’s put in thousands of keystrokes, chord strikes, and hundreds of chord progressions. Every. Day.

Now, how does this apply to soccer?

First off, I want to make myself clear when I say: this applies just about everything in life.

It’s like a muscle. Nobody wants to work hard; they do, however, want the result.

There’s only one way to get there — persistence training. Persistence training comes in a variety of forms, but let’s just consider every time an individual plays as training (yes, we can include games if you’d like). There’s a discipline aspect to training…a player has to decipher WHY they are training. Is it about vanity (to be ‘the best’)? Perhaps they train as an act of appeasement (‘My parents and coach will get mad if I don’t practice’ or ‘My parents told me to practice’). Are they training for the ‘love of the game’ or out of a sense of duty to themselves? I want you to note the difference between appeasement and training out of a genuine love for the game.

On the more application level it means being coachable and engaged in your own process. Listening during training is part of being disciplined. Respecting your coach and parents is being disciplined. When others talk back to their coach, teammates, or parents, do you?

It means keeping track of your grades, arriving on-time, showing up to play instead of just showing up because ‘you have to’, and it means you stop taking things (soccer is one of them) for granted.

Here’s the problem with young players, their coaches, and their parents: They have one eye on the future and no focus on the present.

Worry not, this is also a larger problem regarding the sport in this country, but let’s keep this at a controllable level.

The exercise of the discipline is about forming habits and patterns that extract the negative and hone the positive activities that help you. It means working through the tough times even when things get murky and challenges arise more frequently. Think of the way a bodybuilder, power lifter, marathoner, or sprinter trains their body. They are methodical. Their diet, their supplementation, sleep/rest patterns, water intake, caloric limits, aerobic and anaerobic thresholds measured. Set after set, day after day, workout after workout all with the attention to detail and focus on the NOW instead of the future.

For any player, regardless of skill level, this means getting touches on the ball; this means studying the game at the molecular level (watching and re-watching games for reasons other than the result); this means playing pick-up games, playing alone if that’s what it takes; this means focusing on mastering the basics before trying the complex (believe me, the complex isn’t so complex once you master the basics); this means creating time to train in the rain, heat, snow, under the street lights down the street — just play.

Discipline comes in many forms and it’s may not seem that easy to structure your life around being disciplined regarding a sport, so here’s a well-known piece of advice. If you’re able to apply consistency, honesty, discipline, objectivity, resilience, and persistence to a game like soccer — think of the type of student, employee, coach, parent, or whatever role you eventually occupy — you can be.

For young players hoping to play beyond high school, think about that statement.

If you’re dedicated to your craft on the field, the chances are you’ll be able to apply a lot of this to your studies and pursuits off it.

In closing, I implore you to think of discipline as a muscle — if you don’t work at it, that muscle (discipline) WILL atrophy.

 

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Coach Ability vs. Coach-ability

This post is a look at the college soccer experience and reflects the graft and grind required to persevere and learn a few things along the way — more life lessons than anything related to soccer. This recollection does not reflect anyone’s views but my own. I write about the college soccer experience as this is the level most youth players aim to reach. 

January, 2006 — sheets of sleet rained down on the first day back from winter break as myself and the other members of Men’s soccer team filed into the Shively Strength and Conditioning facility at the University of Kentucky, which like everywhere else, was locked in the dead of winter. Gone was the vibrancy of summer workouts, PDL competition, and preseason’s anxious excitement. The buzz of expectation had come and gone as many reflected back on the ‘what might have been’s’, ‘why didn’t you’s…’, and ‘if only’s’ as the university’s ancillary team of fitness coaches and physios readied us for the unglamorous task of off-season workouts.

Reporting back from a month away from campus (and structure), which was comprised of decompressing in the form of sleeping in, eating like an idiot, drinking with hometown buddies, and playing a few pick-up games (maybe) was always interesting. Most of us knew there would be Hell to pay in the form of fitness tests, flexibility assessments, and the re-introduction to a somewhat regular fitness regimen.

It took me exactly one collegiate year of playing Division I ball to ‘figure it out’ when it came to the enigma that is ‘the off-season’. At our level, we all knew that for serious players, there is no real off-season — just short breaks of supplementary play and fitness retention.

Gone were the seniors and guys that transferred out at semester’s end; what remained was the rather unmotivated nucleus of a team, a roster whittled down, that trained like madmen for a hacked-up Spring season where, in the eyes of the players, very little mattered in terms of things to ‘play for’. Once you understand the politics of college soccer at this level (in this case, Division I), you understand that new recruits and transfers on scholarship dollars would command playing time whether their actually ability and work rate suggested their asses should be on the track, in the weight room, or on the bench.

You also understood that recently available scholarship funds were briefly up for grabs in the forms of book money, a few credit hours paid for, and maybe some housing funds to be spread out among those who’d earned the paltry reward as most college players were ‘in need’.

I remember talking to a former club coach who astutely posed the question (which I will now pose for you): Do you know the difference between Coach ability and Coach-ability?

The following is what you need to know.

The sobering reality remains the same: it is up to the collegiate player to utilize the resources at their disposal in the form of strength and conditioning coaches, tutors, professors, counselors, and physios to keep themselves focused, in-shape, and healthy.

In fairness, coaches have to justify and validate their recruiting decisions and the currency of this transaction was always playing time. College soccer, at least how I experienced it, was just as much about a coach’s ability as it was a player’s coach-ability.

So, what does this really mean?

It’s simple; or at least it is now as I reflect on those times. A coach at this vaunted level of the game in the United States and Canada has results-based decisions to make. Coaches have a set number of scholarships to allocate and they have to extract every ounce of sweet, blood, and effort from their team as a 3-to-4 month sprint of a season approaches. In theory, it’s sometimes more politics than it is performance-based — and if you’ve played college ball, you understand what this means as you often find players amongst your ranks that are more track athlete, bookworm, equipment manager, than soccer player; and that’s OK.

For players, it’s about being coachable. Recall that roster I mentioned — it has soccer players and it has the others. The others, as it were, are actually more important than people think. They’re the ones who coach sought out or who can afford to attend (don’t sap the scholarship funds) the school and won’t complain so long as they’re part of the team.

Oftentimes, these players will run through a starter, outwork everyone, and have their own agenda because their playing career up to this point has been one built-on blue collar principles. If you’re reading this as a skilled high school player, be warned — this player is lurking out there, waiting to take your spot on the dress squad. Are you going to let that happen? Start thinking about and doing something about that now. If you’re mailing it in now, don’t bother playing collegiate ball — you’ll get destroyed again and again. And mom and dad won’t be able to complain to anyone.

Many of them you’ll consider ‘in the way’ or subpar, and in pure soccer terms, that might be true. However, these players are coachable. They will put their head where others put their boots because they want to play and don’t know how to express themselves other than through a flurry of energetic output — often to the detriment of anyone playing on their team during training. Coaches love these assets. They are pawns who respawn after getting tackled, running until they drop during a Beep Test, and hold onto every word the coaches and captain says. These fine individuals are the ones who hold onto hope because each training session, to them, is a World Cup Final. There’s beauty in that type of over-exuberance.

The college player, regardless of their ability, is always at risk raw end of the deal at some point in their college years. Seemingly minor injuries will derail a season in an instant. Heaven forbid you suffer a concussion — these days, say goodbye to the season. Grades, off-field conduct, compliance, family and social life — all of these are factors that somehow play a part.

Therein lies the challenge: the coach’s ability vs the coachability of a player.

Look, everyone is happy when they’re playing — and for some, the results don’t matter as much as their name and stats on the box score do. Such is the nature of adolescents being used as assets (student-athletes). The politics and nonsense of the youth game seeps into the college game, too. Coaches somehow put stock into what Timmy accomplished in the conference-that’s-barely-on-a-map, or what Steve accomplished in the provincial league-of-where-the-hell-is-this-England.

Translation: The coaches won’t see everything. They can’t, really. At least not in this system. Again, if you’ve played collegiately, you’ve seen the players from towns with a population (generously labeled) 600 that racked up 421 goals in four years; or a foreign player (they’ll get a full scholarship at the international tuition rate, believe me) that can’t so much as connect a pass to justify their scholarship money and the playing time they magically garner.

So, how does one manage? Well, let’s make a few things clear.

  1. Nobody cares about what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s fair and what’s unfair. For players, it’s time to buck-up and figure it out — if that means “playing the coach’s game” — do it. If that means logging extra sessions after training on your own, hitting the track, weight room, study hall — do it.
  2. It’s not their fault the coach recruited them. Seriously, they did something others did not — get noticed and get recruited. All power to them. Too often, American players feel entitled because they were “the man” in high school or with their “academy”. Honestly, none of that means a thing after high school or outside the world of youth soccer. Don’t be that sappy “I was All-State in high school” clown.
  3. Coaches are focused on results, not feelings. This is universal. Coaches don’t care if you’re feeling down, that your girlfriend cheated on you, that Organic-Chemistry is a sadistic filtration class. They are focused on their jobs and getting results without making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
  4. Would you play you? Why? You’re that good, huh? Could it be your biggest problem is, in fact, you — your attitude, work rate (or lack thereof), your grades, your actual ability has stagnated (remember, college soccer is NOT the place for development), the fact that others are simply better than you at soccer, following directions, and are tougher?
  5. Ego check. This is your best friend and worst enemy. Be humble, be confident, don’t be a jackass. Simple.
  6. Play, don’t get played. It is up to you figure out how to get on the field, get more scholarship money, pass your classes (actually learn something), and make good decisions. The pizazz of being a student-athlete can get the best of you — don’t get played by distractions and emotions — this isn’t high school.
  7. Support staff — more important than you think. Athletic trainers, assistant coaches, tutors, Teaching Assistants, counselors, team doctors, equipment managers, grounds crews, concession stand operators — these people want to see you succeed. Listen to everyone. Be nice. Be grateful.
  8. Enjoy the struggle. It ends sooner than you think; enjoy it as much as possible. The game owes you nothing.

The takeaway is most players aspire to play at the collegiate level. In the global context, this level is far below what it could be — however, I’ve seen way too many people who’ve never played or couldn’t play at this level bash it to bits. This article isn’t for them. The college game, as imperfect as it may be, is not the enemy, nor is it as terrible as keyboard warriors claim it to be. What they’re seeing is a condensed system that champions the worst of American valuations of what it takes to be a functional and capable soccer player: ability to run, jump, hit, chase, tackle, etc, — all over technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, and discipline.

Here’s a trade secret: the pretty soccer where teams possess the ball is rare; here, teams pounce from the word ‘Go’ and take their chances as they present themselves. It’s not pretty; however, it’s what we have.

This article is but one of many that I intend to write to help players get a player’s perspective of the experience; if for no other reason other than it would have been awesome (and amusing) if someone had told me this stuff before I played college soccer, which by the way — was a great experience for me. I met some of my best friends, learned under some fantastic coaches, and the lessons gained as a student-athlete have helped me in every job I’ve held in the professional world.

 

 

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.

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.

Athlete [Re]defined

Athlete [Re]defined

By: Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3

“If only our best athletes played soccer…”

When I see or hear this phrase my skin crawls. Why? Because these are the words of someone who “has it all figured out” regarding the American game. I’ve promised myself time and time again that I wouldn’t entertain this topic, but the argument has wormed its way onto my radar, again. Before we get going, this is all based on what I believe to be true.

A friend recently contacted me to ask my opinion on fitness in youth soccer. His grandson (aged (U-15/16) plays what is considered “academy” soccer and was tasked with being responsible for his fitness (on his own time) so the coach could focus more on technique-based and tactical instruction at training. The coach, a former high-level player himself, asked that players do the bulk of their fitness, which included running and strength training on their own time. I see nothing wrong with this as someone who coaches, works a full-time job, and whose time is a fleeting commodity, I can empathize. However, the conversation picked up steam when my friend informed me that parents were taking issue with this coach’s request.

Some parents felt it was the coach’s responsibility to ensure the players’ fitness levels were adequate. In [youth] soccer, it’s pretty difficult to accomplish all the tasks we’d like to in a given season, let alone with single training sessions. I realize the times have changed and parents see themselves as customers, and in their world — the customer is never wrong. To me, every player at the aforementioned age, skill and commitment level, has a responsibility to look out for their own fitness, diet, sleep/rest patterns, off field decision-making, observation and study of the game, and supplemental technical work — on their own time.

Quite frankly, the fitness needs of a higher-level U-15/16 player aren’t off-the-charts staggering and can be maintained and improved upon with a steady program of supplemental running and soccer. Yes, it takes effort and diligence. Yes, players will fail in this area and yes, those players deserve to be benched when their talent pool and/or opposition outworks them. Running 8-10Km five days a week with varying implementations isn’t difficult. The lazy will find excuses. The diligent will log miles.

The conversation was less about soccer and more about athletic application and output. Simple stuff, or so I thought. Later that night, someone cruelly tagged me in a Twitter thread with someone whose assertion was the “best athletes” do not play soccer and therefore, the U.S. will continue to stagnate and under-perform on the world’s stage. I thought about the fitness discussion. Then, I pondered why people gravitate to the ‘best athlete myth’ (yes, it’s a myth to me) regarding soccer.

Before we delve into that abyss of insanity I want you to ask yourself a simple question: What does the best athlete look like? Think about it. Form a mental picture of that supreme athletic specimen in your mind. Take a mental screenshot.

OK, brace yourself for this is about to get weird.

What if, for argument’s sake, our best athlete’s are the soccer players?

In this context, “best” would mean most well-rounded.

I implore you to pump the brakes if your heart rate is increasing and your brain is firing on all cylinders with counterarguments (see below); take a breath.

hate through you

We could post pictures of the ‘best’ athletes in basketball, American football, baseball, track and field, ice hockey, etc. and they would no doubt be impressive — massive and toned physiques, their VO2 Max capacities of varying yet impressive output, their fast-twitch muscle fibers waiting to fire, their muscle striations highlighted by excellent airbrushing — and I can still confidently make the assertion that I feel the best athletes are the soccer players.

Let’s revisit the question: What makes this perceived ‘best athlete’, the one who doesn’t play soccer, a superior athlete to a high-level soccer player? Their 40-yard dash time, vertical jump capabilities? Is it their bench press, squat, and dead lift totals? What is it?

Look, watching a wide receiver running routes and shaking defenders at breakneck speeds is amazing. A basketball player’s ability to leap from the free throw line to dunk is astonishing. Watching a sprinter set the track ablaze is nothing short of captivating. And guess what — in a sport like soccer much of this does not translate as much people would lead us to believe it translates.

But let’s continue…what if these athletes chose soccer over these other sports when they were younger?

Great question! Ready for the answer? These would not look or function like the archetypal athlete (the one you saved the image of in your head) looks and functions like. (Yes, that one — with the bulging muscles capable of running through a brick wall.) Consider this: if a would-be wide receiver decided to play soccer early on — those routes he runs would look a lot different and would likely be less impressive, maybe even less explosive and dynamic.

If a basketball player standing six-feet, ten-inches tall decided to abandon a career in hoops and take up soccer, I have no doubt he would win most of the headers blasted his way — but I’m not quite sure how his size 19 feet would handle the footwork processes necessary to succeed in high level soccer, which is a game whose evolution puts more focus on speed, footwork, coordination and balance, and the ability to play more than one position and one more never-talked-element: Intelligence.

I’m not suggesting players with big feet aren’t capable of being great soccer players and aren’t intelligent. I am suggesting that the Eden Hazard’s, Leo Messi’s, and Philippe Coutinho‘s of the world would make mincemeat of the oafish super athletes America idealizes and fawns over to play soccer. (Before you say it, Peter Crouch is not the athletic specimen we aspire to base such arguments on.)

Speaking of specialized positions, we already produce fantastic goalkeepers — perhaps due to the multi-sport upbringing of American athletes, or maybe because that position is less about creativity and more about reacting — that debate is open, yet not as pertinent to me.

photo credit, ESPNFC
photo credit, ESPNFC

Modern soccer is a skill game. Power, fitness, balance, and strength are all necessities. This is a ‘Sweat Equity’ argument at its core, which again, doesn’t account for intelligence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving in an unscripted sport (one without timeouts and a playbook).

And, that brutish “super” athlete might have one or two of those attributes, but would it translate well to soccer? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that American soccer players excel in those purely athletic-based categories. Marvell Wynne is arguably one of the best pure athletes to play professional soccer. But he isn’t playing in the world’s top leagues. He’s not even in the current National Team setup. And that’s not to insult him, it’s to prove a simple point.

His speed and power is nothing short of impressive with times like this: 100 Meters = 10.39 Seconds and projected times of 200 Meters = 21.87 Seconds 400 Meters = 48.10 Seconds. Believe me, for every Marvell Wynne we have, the world has a Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery, et al., and they’re likely faster with the ball over distance than most people think.

If soccer was purely about linear speed, the ability to smash through other bodies, and overpower the opposition in short, scripted incremental plays like American football and basketball — the original argument might hold more validity. The reality begs the question: how does an athlete like that thrive in a sport requiring a player to run at maximum velocity forwards, backwards, side-to-side — for 90 minutes?

Ready for some science-y stuff?

Note: the Methods and Conclusion are more important than the formula — the actual case study is linked.

Methods: Nineteen male elite junior soccer players, age 18.1 +/- 0.8 yr, randomly assigned to the training group (N = 9) and the control group (N = 10) participated in the study. The specific aerobic training consisted of interval training, four times 4 min at 90-95% of maximal heart rate, with a 3-min jog in between; twice per week for 8 wk. Players were monitored by video and heart rate monitors during two matches, one before and one after training.

Results: In the training group: a) maximal oxygen uptake ( O2max) increased from 58.1 +/- 4.5 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 64.3 +/- 3.9 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); b) lactate threshold improved from 47.8 +/- 5.3 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 to 55.4 +/- 4.1 mL[middle dot]kg-1[middle dot]min-1 (P < 0.01); c) running economy was also improved by 6.7% (P < 0.05); d) distance covered during a match increased by 20% in the training group (P < 0.01); e) number of sprints increased by 100% (P < 0.01); f) number of involvements with the ball increased by 24% (P < 0.05); g) the average work intensity during a soccer match, measured as percent of maximal heart rate, was enhanced from 82.7 +/- 3.4% to 85.6 +/- 3.1% (P < 0.05); and h) no changes were found in maximal vertical jumping height, strength, speed, kicking velocity, kicking precision, or quality of passes after the training period. The control group showed no changes in any of the tested parameters.

Conclusion: Enhanced aerobic endurance in soccer players improved soccer performance by increasing the distance covered, enhancing work intensity, and increasing the number of sprints and involvements with the ball during a match.

Meaning what?

Soccer players are forced perform in sustained periods of oxygen debt as a given in the sport (recall ‘Sweat Equity’). Timeouts are a luxury that allow more recovery for the vaunted “best” athletes in American football and to a lesser degree, in basketball, which is more aerobic. I contend that many people who subscribe to “if the best American athletes played soccer” belief haven’t played the game at a high level — NCAA Division I or top NAIA programs being the bare minimum level here (in my opinion).

Admittedly, as a former Division I soccer player myself, those levels aren’t that high in the global context. But if these know-it-alls had played at least at the highest collegiate level they might know that the body control required in soccer is unlike many other sports. Collisions are not the objective and the absence of skill, intelligence, and creativity on and off the ball renders a player quite useless in high level, meaningful competition — these are also attributes that are coached out of players in this country all too often and all too early.

You’re probably still unconvinced at what I’ve presented, so I’ll play along with the “best athlete” argument.

Think about the time in years it takes for these supreme athletes to reach peak conditioning? Many are in their early-to-mid 20’s by the time they’re considered athletic specimens. Most get their first taste of the professional game when they’re 22-years old provided they attended a university, right? (Yes, I know Lebron James skipped college ball).

In soccer, the world’s best are playing in professional settings at 18-years of age (or before). Furthermore, think about the raw time in the gym, on the track, and in the cafeteria these athletes must spend to become the “best” athlete — that’s time they’re not spending on technique, tactical training, and skill work and is what the world’s game thrives on.

The total time for peak athletic conditioning to be reached alone immediately places the super athlete at a severe and unrecoverable disadvantage in categories like tactical competence, [professional] match experience, and technical ability to name a few.

 

In reality, this is less about physiques, fast twitch muscle fibers, 40-yard dash times, and bench press maxes than people think. What this argument papers over can be summed up in two words: open access. For example, I grew up in a questionable part of San Jose, California well before the dot-com boom. The crime rate was high in areas close to our house and I found myself playing street soccer with Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, Bolivian, Portuguese, and Guatemalan kids because that was the game we had access to.

But across the U.S., the game played in most of the impoverished cities and communities isn’t soccer. It’s baseball, basketball, and American football. And that’s beautiful. What’s not beautiful is the fact that the supposed leaders of American soccer, including the United States Soccer Federation, aren’t present in the inner cities or rural towns to the degree required to make a significant change.

You know who is? That’s right, American football, baseball, and basketball programs, top universities with dedicated scouting networks, organizations, and associations are scouring these areas unearthing talents, putting on clinics, and targeting the most promising players early and often. U.S. Soccer says it has a “Diversity Committee”, but it’s not reaching the kids who become “the best athletes” partly because soccer is largely an elitist sport.

This, combined with the fact most kids who do play don’t dream of playing in Major League Soccer when they grow up — even in suburban communities is a recipe for apathy and mediocrity. Instead, American soccer players dream of playing in Europe. The combination of a lack of real presence in all communities (that I’m sure would love access to good coaching, equipment, and environments to play) by those claiming to ‘grow the game’  paint a different picture of the state of American soccer’s niche culture.

If we disagree on everything else, let’s at least try to agree that there is no singular, authoritative definition of ‘the best athlete’.

Soccer is, in many ways, a sporting version of chess. It requires athleticism to a degree that would place many of the perceived ‘best’ athletes in cardiac arrest within minutes. Soccer places stress on the muscles that continue to make me, a lifelong soccer player, scoff at Major League Baseball players who pull up lame after running 90-feet rounding second base.

What people seem to misunderstand is soccer requires a player to be creative individually and cooperative collectively for lengths of time that differ greatly from the main “American sports”. There are no playbooks, no TV timeouts, or offensive and defensive coordinators on the sidelines dictating and thinking for the players.

Note: I’m not suggesting that soccer players could step on the field in the NFL, MLB, or on the court in the NBA. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that a soccer player wouldn’t tear ligaments in their arm trying to throw the ball with the velocity and control of a professional baseball player.

The argument matters because it’s based in ignorance. The haphazard and broad-brushing of the original assertion is typical of American sports culture. What is still lacking is a true soccer culture spread across the nation. The hotbeds and pockets of support for the sport in the U.S. are amazing and for them, I’ve said nothing they don’t already know. As long as soccer is seen as a ‘kids’ sport, or something akin to an activity every kid plays once in their life before moving on to the ‘real sports’, we’ll continue to hear a degree of ignorance laying claim to the solution for American soccer.

Even more to the point is the connection between sports like basketball, baseball, and American football to soccer abroad. In reality, we aren’t that far off from solving the real riddle here. The systemic and root problems are similar. For example, in a Brazilian favela, a player will dedicate their life to escape a harsh environment using futebol as a tool.

This isn’t dissimilar to what happens in the U.S. with athletes using the aforementioned sports as a way to better their circumstance. The United States hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of this aspect in soccer — it is, however, a socioeconomic and open access matter. In linear form: Less exorbitant pay-to-play + more affordable coaching education = more open access

The point is this piece is unlikely to sway the most ardent defender of the archaic and insane assertions that we need better athletes playing soccer.

We don’t need better athletes.

We need better soccer players.

photo credit, Buzzfeed.com
photo credit, Buzzfeed.com

TL;DR version: The issue is not one of pure athletic performance, but rather one centered on creating intelligent players (Soccer IQ) who can maximize the opportunities, infrastructure, sporting advantages available in the United States along with creating better coaching education. Anyone who argues differently doesn’t understand soccer in the appropriate global context and is broad-brushing the argument with revisionist tactics.

Thanks for reading.