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.

Blogpost, SoccerLifeBalance

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes of Soccer: The opportunity of COVID-19 to fix American youth soccer

When music stores still existed on a large scale, I was mainly listening to punk rock. As I would shuffle through the CDs in the punk section looking for something by Millencolin, I would invariably see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It was a strange enough name to catch the eye but I never really looked into them because Youtube and other sampling tools weren’t available. In preparation for this article, I decided to look more closely at their history and catalogue. I just liked the name to hammer home an idea but it turned out to be more perfect than I thought. Me First… is made up of members from different rock bands and they perform punk cover versions of popular songs like “Mandy” by Barry Manilow or “Hello” by Lionel Richie. They take other people’s winners and dress them up a little differently. There’s nothing really wrong with what the Gimme Gimmes are doing because the original songwriters get a portion of the revenue produced. Now that you’re up to speed on Me First… let’s see what was can do about youth soccer.

The system of youth soccer in America is in need of an overhaul. The dissolution of the DA may end up being a positive in the long run but from top to bottom there’s a lot more wrong. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are not pretending to be anything more than what they are a cover band. However their name seems to be a perfect way to describe the overall ethos of youth soccer at the moment. Leagues, clubs, trainers, tournaments, etc. are all part of a system that seems to be less about soccer and more about money. This is a game that could be almost free for kids to play but here it is big business. Why? Because the system is so disjointed that it allows people to take advantage and there is no real incentive to act in the interest of the greater good. So my hope is that the hiatus that we are on will shed some light on those issues. Allow me to explain.

In most countries there is a soccer pyramid that makes some form of sense. Teams that are higher up the pyramid get there by a type of meritocracy. The same is true about players. A player must climb the pyramid as well. Perhaps they are fortunate to get discovered early in their career. In the professional ranks, teams can either develop their own talent through their academy system or buy talent from elsewhere. If a player is bought, then their youth club gets some form of financial compensation called development payment. This money allows the smaller clubs to continue to develop players. Sometimes the financial gain is worth letting go of a good player. It helps the club’s finances and the player usually moves on to a higher level.

In the American system, there is no incentive for clubs to let go of their players. Development payments are not recognized yet by the USSF. Therefore clubs are less likely to help talented players move on. A quality player or team of players raise the perceived clout of the club and can bring in more money. Since the US does not embrace development payments, all of the money is brought in from the families of the players. So every player is also a customer and losing customers is not a good strategy for staying in business. Although this is a major problem, it is not the only one. Due to the lack of overarching structure the United States soccer “pyramid” has many organizational flaws. The lack of a concrete system allows perception to dominate common practice. NCAA, NAIA, ECNL, NPL, AYSO, US Club, ODP, and so many other acronyms are part of a landscape of muddied waters. Each acronym with their own vested interest that may or may not serve the betterment of their players or soccer in general.

Although the system is dysfunctional and needs an overhaul, a pandemic might be the perfect cure for what ails soccer in the US. More than anything, it is giving people time to reflect.

  1. Path to the Pros – USSF has already taken this opportunity to dissolve the DA. Although it may take some time for MLS to get its replacement right, in the end, any club in the “Development Academy” league should have some direct path to the professional game. This change can separate the cream of the crop from the pretenders who pay a lot for the prestige of being in the DA.
  2. Going Solo – The pandemic has forced all training sessions to be shut down. So since players can’t see their high priced trainers, they’re practicing on their own. It probably shouldn’t be this big of a revelation but American kids and parents are recognizing that skills practice in isolation can help. The flip side of this coin could also be a revelation. A kid who is not practicing during this huge opportunity to get ahead of competition, probably doesn’t love the sport enough to justify a huge financial investment.
  3. Dollars and Sense – With the economic impact of the pandemic on the average family’s income, most people are going to have to consider their expenditures heavily. So high priced soccer clubs are going to have to take a backseat to things like food, health care, electricity, etc. With the loss of DA status and the financial crunch that so many will be feeling, clubs will either prove their value or struggle to survive. If you’ve ever read my work before, I’m a huge proponent of the local club for the vast majority of players.
  4. Come Together – We can’t right now but eventually when we can, the game is going to need fans. Support your local MLS, USL or NPSL team. The common refrain that I get when I talk to people about supporting professional soccer in America is “I can’t watch MLS, it sucks!” This stance only helps the ego of the person who is willing to believe it. MLS is NOT the Premier League or La Liga or the Bundesliga or the Serie A. Roger that! However, do you really desire to have the best leagues in the world be an ocean away? Or would you rather have the best soccer in the world being played right in your backyard? If the answer is that you love the long distance relationship, then great. If you want the best to be within your reach, then you have to pay attention NOW! Investors are going to put money into soccer, only if they see that the product is selling. So Euro snobbery is only going to perpetuate the status quo.

So now I circle back to the beginning, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I’ve seen a lot of things throughout this pandemic and the attacks of 9/11 and other tragedies to know that people in this country are not all about themselves. Not everyone has got their hands out looking to take from others. However when things are “normal”, we’re so damn busy and distracted that we don’t think much about the collective. How we all fit into the bigger picture. Soccer is a we sport! My hope is that this pandemic will teach us the lesson that WE are all in the together: soccer, life, the world.

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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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You’re Never Going to Know

DivingI’ve not watch a NFL game for about four years.  I used to love it but now I can’t stomach to sit through a play or two.  The exorbitant contracts don’t bother me.  Although the blind eye to domestic (or just regular) violence off the field do bother me, that’s not it either.  It’s the fact that the people inside the sport no longer want to play the game.  They want to play the system.  Rather than going for the ball, they go for the call.  Games are more about referees than players.  The game has become a sad shell of what it was.  I’ve got the same complaint about my preferred sport of soccer but it has not reach the point of boycott YET!  There are millions of dollars (or whatever currency) on the line, I get it.  The problem is that the we’re all being robbed, not just the fans.

The reason why sports are such an ingrained part of our world is that they are a metaphor for what it is like to be alive.  Whether it’s football, soccer, badminton or any other athletic endeavor; it is a meeting of body, mind and spirit that is a test on what we are capable of.  When you look at sport in this light, it is easy to see that every time that someone tries to dupe the referee and succeeds, we lose.  The fans, the players, the coaches and sport itself loses because we are no longer testing what we are capable of, we are finding out what we can get away with.  I’m not picking on professional athletes because unfortunately it has become a cultural norm.  The reason why I point them out specifically is that they are in the spotlight and have the ability to move the culture.  They train for most of their lives to become the best of the best on their field but then become snake oil salesmen when it truly counts.  And none of us will ever know!

We’ll never know what they could have done.  Had they just played through the foul, the contact or the almost contact of their opponent.  It puts the result of the day on the line for sure and I know that everyone loves a winner but at what cost?  If gaming the system is the most common way to win, then we need to consider very heavily what it is that we’ve lost.  More than likely it is the willingness to put it all on our own shoulders.  Until we do that, we’ll never know what we were capable of and that is the point.

So I beg of you, as you go out into your own life today, don’t take the dive.  Don’t look for the loophole or the shortcut.  Even though you’re not a professional athlete, we all have the opportunity to find the greatness within ourselves.  The key to that is that you must demand a higher standard of conduct.  Because if you don’t give it your all, you’re just never going to know!

Don’t give up!

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

SoccerLifeBalance

If The USMNT Doesn’t Win The WC By/In 2026, It’s My Fault!

There are some things that are just NOT done in polite American society!  You don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant.  You don’t talk politics with your in-laws.  You don’t talk about money in mixed company.  And if you’re an American soccer fan, you don’t agree with Alexi Lalas!  I am about to break that last social norm.  Alexi gave a description of the apples to oranges comparison of US Soccer’s failings to the successes of Croatia and Iceland.  I totally agree.  The component pieces of the soccer landscapes and national culture in each country are so completely disparate that comparison is a fool’s errand that is at best click bate and at worst sophisticated soccer tail chasing.  So let’s take the American soccer “watermelon*” and inspect it on its own merit to see where we’re going.

First of all, let’s take the population discussion completely off the table because it is irrelevant on many levels.  Only 2 countries in the top 20 by population have won a World Cup (Brazil and Germany).  Of that same top 20, nine nations have never qualified for a World Cup.  If more people was the answer, China and India would be in the final every four years.  The fact that the US is larger than another country does not indicate that it should be more likely to win (or perform well) at the World Cup.  So it is much more complicated than that.

The story of the nations that have won at least one or even multiple World Cups comes down to a convergence of many factors but probably the most crucial is a soccer (football) culture.  The nations that have been able to win or compete well at World Cups all have a culture that supports and/or increases their success on the field.  Culture, in very general terms, can be characterized by the statement “People like us, do things like this.”  So in those high performing soccer nations, people do several things that perpetuate the high level of play or induce improvement.  Generally speaking this is not a top down process.  Culture is a product of many little decisions made by thousands or millions of individuals, not a handful of powerful individuals making decisions.  So if World Cup success is in the future for the United States, it will follow the adoption of a soccer culture, not create one.

So even though the size of Iceland does not matter, the fact that so many Icelandic people do the Viking clap does.  It sends a message to every single player on the team and child who is adopting the game.  The message is “This matters to us!”  That message changes the daily actions of people.  Given the choice between extra ball work or not, players in those environments recognize that something important is at stake.

With that understanding well established, I will go back to the title.  If the USMNT doesn’t win the World Cup in/by 2026, it’s my fault!  This statement may seem crazy to some but if you’ve been paying attention it becomes plainly obvious.  Culture is created by individual decisions made by the masses.  It’s on ME!  And YOU!  And everyone else attached to this game in the US.  No longer can we hope that copying Barcelona drills or hiring English trainers or attending foreign friendlies on their summer tours is enough.  Every one of us that considers ourselves a part of soccer in the US needs to up their game.  What does that mean?

pulisicIt means action by the many.  In some ways this endeavor is truly in line with American culture (of the past at least).  It is almost inherently American to identify a challenge and conquer it.  For most of our country’s history, that was almost common place.  We (the people) took on monumental tasks as a collective.  Unfortunately we seem to be at a point in history where we expect other people to do it for us.  We can outsource it or it’s the government, corporation or system’s fault that things aren’t going right.  The problem lies with someone else or it’s just too hard and I can’t be bothered.  FUCK THAT!!!  We need to step up for the next eight years!  Not in some grandiose, out of reach way but in simple ways that can have a cumulative effect.  The main thing that will be required is a long term view.  So here are some of my suggestions based on a variety of perspectives.  It’s by no means a complete list but it’s a start.  Add your own thoughts in the comments.

  • Watch MLS games – More eyes = more dollars = better players = better league = better US player pool.  If you watch the EPL or la Liga but don’t watch MLS, you need to start.  I know that MLS is not as good as the top leagues at the moment.  However if we don’t pay attention now, it won’t have the monetary resources to get better.
  • Focus on players getting better  – If you’re a parent, coach, or associated with youth soccer in any other way; put progress of the player over the result on the day.  This is so extremely difficult for people to embrace because the desire for status is so hardwired into our minds.  One of the reasons that we continue to struggle on the international stage is that we are enamored with being the biggest fish in the small pond.
  • Be active – There are all kinds of ways that the US soccer culture could improve but it needs people to do.  Passivity is only going to perpetuate mediocrity.  Let your voice be heard, your actions be seen and your passion be felt.  You matter in this endeavor.

As you finish up reading this article, I hope that you have a small inkling of the feeling that I have.  It’s only a matter of time before the US wins a World Cup.  Soccer is no longer the game for everyone else but US.  The momentum of the sport in this country is well on its way but now it needs our help to reach escape velocity.  To overcome the inertia of ambivalence and low expectations, WE all must do our small part to reach the highest of heights.  But there are no guarantees.  WE must bet on the fact that together it will be enough.  And if it’s not!  IT’S MY FAULT!

Pete

 

*I’ve chosen a watermelon because it is my favorite fruit.  It’s also large but lacks overpowering flavor and its seeds are possibly potent but they are often discarded or made to disappear before they can materialize.