Blogpost, SoccerLifeBalance

5 Things Professional Soccer Coaches Can Learn from a Foreign Language Teacher

A foreign language can be exactly that to many people “foreign”.  Despite that fact, there are lessons to be learned and applied from the study of language that reach into the sports world extremely easily.  At the highest level, the margin for error is so slim that all possible advantages must be explored.

Darren Ferguson, manager Peterborough United.
  1.  Language is an agreement – This is crucial.  Right now you (the reader) and I are working under the English agreement.  We must agree in order for messages to travel freely and easily.  This is simple when we’re talking about identifying a table or a ball.  However this idea goes much deeper.  It involves vocabulary, tone, context and audience.  As a coach, when you address the team, it leaves your lips as one message but gets received eleven or more different ways.  This recognition by itself can be powerful but knowing your receivers can allow you to improve your messages.  Your business is results.  Anyone can bark orders.  Not everyone can craft a message. So learn to give the message in a way that will be received.
  1. You’re doing it to yourself – It doesn’t exist in every language but in several, there is a construction called a reflexive verb.  This is when the person doing the action is also receiving the action.  Think of washing your hair, brushing your teeth or shaving.  In Spanish there is a verb “ponerse”.  It means “to put on”.  Although it can be used for clothing, it also gets used for emotions.  You put anger onto yourself or sadness or excitement.  Even though your language may not represent it that way, it is exactly what happens.  You and your players are making yourselves feel a certain way.  Feelings don’t infect us.  We create them.  Do your players put excitement on by themselves at training or matches?  Or do they need your help? As the person who will eventually be held accountable for the results of the team, it is important to consider what emotions are continually being put onto everyone involved. Can you direct that more effectively?
  1. Permanent/Consistent or Temporary – Much like the last concept, language frames the way that we look at the world.  In Spanish, there are two words for the word “to be”: Ser and Estar.  Ser is used for things that are permanent or consistent.  Estar is used for things that are temporary.  In English it is possible for someone to say “I am depressed.”  Since there is only one word for “to be”, this could be a temporary thing or a long term.  The signal to other people and the mind can be difficult to decipher.  This overlaps with the concept above about agreement.  “John is horrible” and “John is having a horrible day” have very different meanings to both the sender and receiver.  In your team’s culture, what ideas or concepts do you want to be permanent/consistent?  What is meant to be temporary?  Listen to your players’ language patterns when they talk about themselves and others.  Are there patterns that are undermining success? Are you the one who put them there or did you allow them to stay?
  1. Slow Process vs. Fast Process – Languages are broken into four different modalities:  reading, writing, listening and speaking.  Reading and writing are slow processes that allow the person to take their time as they are doing it.  Listening and speaking are done in real time.  Therefore each can be more valuable at different times or may be used in tandem.  Consider the importance of the message that you want to send.  Is saying it enough?  Remember, you already know the message that you want them to receive.  So be sure to give them the opportunity to get it with the amount of depth that you intend for it.  Should you write it down for them to see it?  Should they write it down in their own words?  In their own language? Your players are going to be performing in a high stress environment. Make sure that the messages that matter stick.
  2. Question Words Require Extra – Who? What? ¿Dónde? Quand? Jak? And WHY?  Although there may be times when all you want is the simple yes or no, your players are complex creatures who have lives beyond the game.  Probing beyond the surface level may be the key to unlocking a level of focus and commitment that you never knew existed from an individual.  Yes men are easy to find and easy to replace.  Although all question words elicit extra information, they are not all created equal.  WHY is the eventual question that you want to find an answer for.  If you know a player’s WHY and are able to link it to the team’s goals, you’ll have a brother in arms rather than a mercenary.  One of my favorite illustrations of the concept of WHY comes from the movie Cinderella Man (2:00 minutes in).  He says what he’s fighting for but it puts his WHY on full display.           

In the world of professional soccer, everyone’s job is to prepare to the best of their ability in order to achieve a result on game day. Coaches are using words as their main tool to get the most from their players. Despite that fact, language patterns and word choice rarely get considered. The best version of you as a coach requires that you and your players understand one another. Be sure that your message is not being lost in translation.

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Building Confidence: Exchange FEAR for MIRE

Recently I was asked by a young player to give some thoughts on building confidence on the field. Although the request was made with a very specific goal in mind, building confidence is possible for anyone. The component pieces are the same regardless of the specific pursuit.

The first step is to focus on skill acquisition. Competence leads to confidence. This should be an obvious step but it is overlooked by many. People generally do not want to take the time to become good at something. They want to believe in themselves before they have any reasons to support that belief. Take the time to develop the necessary skills. Do the work when no one is watching.

As the physical skills are building, it is also important to build a mental framework. The opposite of confidence is fear. Fear as an acronym is False Evidence that Appears Real. The reason why most people are not confident is that they have the pictures of all of the ways that it could go wrong in their heads. Combating these images takes deliberate practice. In order to get to the point where you can admire your own abilities, you must have Mental Images Rehearsed Everyday. It is important to see what you want in your mind’s eye before it happens. Before things happen in the external world, they have to happen in your internal world.

Finally there is a component of faith to any endeavor. A belief that things are going to work out. With this faith there is a certain amount of emotional equilibrium that one must possess. The ability to see setbacks and obstacles as part of the process is crucial. Ultimately humans lead with belief and the willingness to leap out into the void at some point is necessary.

The most confident people did not develop that ability in a day. Nor is it a super power that is kept from us mere mortals. It is simply a process like so many others. Follow the steps to get similar results. Unfortunately it is easier to succumb to fear than to take action. However even the most difficult things can become a habit if they are practiced enough.

So go out there today and face your fears. Build your skills and become confident based on your new abilities. Nothing is so big that it can’t be broken down into bite sized pieces. Be careful because if you picture it, you just might do it!

Go forth with confidence!

Pete

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Major League Soccer as “Fragile” Frankie Merman

FrankiemermanIn “The Junk Mail” episode of Seinfeld, we are introduced to Frankie Merman.  He is Jerry’s childhood friend who has many quirks including digging holes to sit in when he is upset.  Despite his eccentricities, George is slightly jealous of Frankie because Frankie and Jerry attended camp together.  George ruefully refers to Frankie as the “Summer Me”.  He even goes so far as to lie to Jerry about an imaginary summer friend of his own.  All of this ridiculousness is par for the course in the world of Seinfeld.  As far fetched as it all may be, it got me thinking about the soccer world in which American fans live.

PremNext weekend marks the end of the Premier League.  For those who religiously follow teams from England on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is hole to be filled.  Recognizing this fact, it might just be time to embrace Major League Soccer as your “Summer League”.  I can hear the protests now, “MLS sucks!”  “There’s no promotion or relegation!”  “It’s a retirement league!”  I’m well aware of this and all of the other vitriol that comes out whenever someone suggests that our domestic league should be watched by our domestic fans.  I understand the thought process.  My son and I just took a trip to England to see two matches.  The allure of European soccer is not lost on me.  The only question is do we want it to be this way?  Do we truly want to be thousands of miles away from the best soccer in the world?  Americans account for the largest number of ticket buyers at the World Cup, other than the host nation.  Which means that we travel to far off lands at great expense to see the best in the world compete.  In 2026 when the World Cup is here, will Americans not attend the games because they are here?  That would be a ludicrous thought!  We want the best games with the best players to be in our backyards.  BUT we’re impatient, entitled and shortsighted.  Let’s take a look at each.

Ricky Davis 79We’re impatient.  Major League Soccer is barely 20 years old.  Even the re-branded version of the English first division is older by around 4 years.  Comparing MLS to any of the historic first divisions from Europe is at best an apples to oranges comparison.  At worst, it ignores all common sense.  Teams and leagues are made up by players and their endeavors are supported by fans.  European fans have supported their clubs for generations.  MLS clubs have not existed for a generation yet.  Love for a team or club is not built overnight.  It is a slow process and we’re in the thick of both the development of love for clubs and a talent pool.  If the desire is that MLS should just buy the best talent in the world, do some research on the Cosmos.

LeaguesWe’re entitled.  Other than MLS, the other major sports leagues based in the US are arguably the best in the world.  NFL, no competition.  MLB, takes whatever talent is produced in other leagues.  NBA, second tier talent from the US go to play in the other leagues.  NHL, brings in talent from all over the world.  Is it really that disheartening to have one league of the top five major sport that is not YET the best?  Especially when you consider that with the exception of hockey, the others are “American” sports.

We’re shortsighted.  In the 1990’s my knowledge of English soccer was actually pretty limited.  At the time, the Italian Serie A was arguably the best league in the world.  The ingredients that contribute to the rise or fall of the fortunes of a particular league are multiple.  One of the most important parts to a successful league is fan interest.  If there are not enough fans, there is not enough money to buy enough talent and the product on the field suffers.  The shortsighted thought that, “MLS sucks now.  I’ll pay attention when it’s better.”  is a recipe for disaster.  The league cannot reach a status of world renown without the backing of American soccer fans.  If you want the best players in the world, playing in your backyard for your local team, then you need to pay for it now, not then.  We never get there if we don’t put down the deposits (both financial and emotional) right now.

So yes!  Major League Soccer might be Fragile Frankie Merman.  It may have all kinds of eccentricities that may not fit your model of a perfect replacement.  BUT if you spend your summer pining for the return of George and don’t pay attention.  Frankie will continue to disappoint and your summers will always be George-less.

It will never be “The Summer of George”

Pete