Our beliefs tend to color or almost define our worlds. The thoughts that we hold most dear are the filters through which we cyphon our experiences and produce meaning. Recognizing this would make one think that people would be deliberate in the creation of their beliefs. Unfortunately this is rarely true. People’s beliefs are often a mismatch of heritage and circumstances. This haphazard approach is bound to lead to disaster more often than not. I’m not here to offer a complete belief system but rather one small sample: Soccer Karma!
I’m a huge believer in soccer karma. It is a term that I may have coined (or stolen, not sure!). The concept is simple. On the soccer field, if you give a good ball, you’re going to get a good ball. Meaning that if you give a quality pass to a teammate, they’re going to give you a quality one back. This is of course, not completely accurate. It’s completely possible that you give a good ball and get a crap one back! This is true. However the belief matters more than the reality. If I believe that my intent is going to have positive returns, I’m more likely to put effort in that direction. That effort will eventually influence those around me, especially if we all believe the same thing. This belief acts a ratchet that brings positive returns.
For years now, I’ve been professing the positives of this belief system. While I know that it has paid dividends for my players and teams on the field, my hope has always been that the metaphors of our sport are not lost on those who play it. The moment that we step off of the field, we are being released out into a larger venue with bigger stakes and uncertain scoring. Regardless of that, the belief system can be applied with equal effectiveness. If enough of us believe in it, then we truly can make life “a beautiful game”.
In this episode, Peter Loge and I have a wide-ranging conversation on soccer’s many uses as a metaphor. Peter is the author of “Soccer Thinking for Management Success.” Throughout the book, he discusses several different ways that soccer overlaps with management concepts. Check out his work at www.soccerthinking.com
Donna Fishter is a Leadership Coach and Team Architect who works with athletes and coaches in order to make their teams better. In this conversation we cover some of the ingredients of good leadership, red flags and remedies for poor team chemistry as well as an assortment of other topics. You can find Big D at www.donnafishter.com
Brian White was the first draft pick taken by the New York Red Bulls in the 2018 MLS Draft. In this conversation we talk about some of the things that set him apart as an athlete and the transition to life as a professional athlete.
This episode I got the chance to talk to Brad Nein, Coach and Blogger who works with kids and coaches in order to make a better experience of soccer. We discuss his beginnings, his dissertation and many other topics. To find out more about Brad and what he does, go to www.educatedcoaches.com or www.sweetfeetsoccer.org.
It was many years ago but I’ve still not encountered a better example. I was the field marshal at a youth tournament in Pennsylvania. The players were under twelve years old and engaged in a very back and forth game. One team was extremely adept at the offside trap. Late in the game, there was a corner kick. The cross was cleared out of the penalty box and the defense pushed up. The ball fell to the foot of a offensive player about 30 yards from goal. He shot. The ball rocketed toward the goal and hit the post. The rebound fell to a forward who was slow getting back onside and he scored. The referee instantly called offside and awarded a free kick to the defense. The coach of the team that had the goal disallowed went ballistic. He screamed about how “ridiculous” the call was and asked about the referees sight, etc. As the field marshal I felt that it was my job to diffuse the situation in order to avoid it interfering with the game. I said, “Coach, if you’d like, I can explain to you why that was the right call.” He responded, “I know it was the right call! I’m just blowing off some steam.”
In most cases, soccer is not a life or death situation. It’s a passion, diversion, recreation, fun or even a teacher. The game has the possibility to do so many things because it garners the emotions of the people around it. There is nothing inherently wrong with emotion. We need them to live and color our lives. However emotion without any sense of reason is problematic. The word was chosen very deliberately. REASON! The reason why we’re there in the first place gets lost when we cannot control our emotions. Referees become demons. Opponents become enemies and sense of our self-interest overrides the judgment that we use elsewhere. This is not so much of a problem when it is a single person. However it seems to have become a societal norm.
The steam that so many people are letting off is clouding our vision. The ability to see what is right in front of our faces. Children. Children who are looking at us for how to act. Not just on a soccer field on Saturdays or Sundays but in their daily lives. When something doesn’t go their way, they’re supposed to have an emotion freak out session because that’s what you do. You don’t take a breath and refocus on the task at hand. You don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t recognize that human error is part of life and needs to be coped with. Those things aren’t done because they’re hard. They require effort, judgement and self-control. These skills are difficult to develop, especially when you’re a child, watching the adults act like children.
So don’t breathe in the steam, just breathe! Recognize that the children on the field have spent hours this week trying to improve their skills in order to perform for you. Put your focus on that. Double, triple or quadruple your focus on the fact that these are kids, trying to do something that is difficult. AND DIFFICULT THINGS ARE THE ONLY ONES WORTH PURSUING! So don’t produce steam, produce esteem for what everyone on that field is trying to do.
The 90s had many memorable events and people. Kurt Cobain, the OJ Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton were all extremely noteworthy. Both for their own unique reasons and the media circus that followed them. It was not just that something happened but that it was perpetuated daily for probably longer than needed. One of the most ridiculous stories of the decade was the ice skating scandal involving rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. For those too young to remember, the major event was an attack on Kerrigan’s knee orchestrated at least partially by Harding’s ex-husband. There was a movie released last year called “I, Tonya” that chronicles the entire episode.
Reality had to happen first in this case because even Hollywood could not have come up with a story as far fetched as this. It’s easy to look back at a time that was truly “last century” and chuckle. It’s no surprise that from such a chaotic decade sprang reality television. A weekly public reminder that even though your life might have problems, you can feel good about yourself in comparison to “those people”.
Seeing the problem is always so much easier when it belongs to someone else. Each of us has within ourselves the solutions to the problems of our friends and family members. However we all struggle with our own issues that seem so difficult. Time and distance both seem to have a clarifying effect on the problems of the world.
I’m sure that if the issue of youth soccer politics were someone else’s, each of us would have a plausible solution. Since it’s now and it’s close to us, the issues of last decade persist with even higher price tags. Children are pawns and commodities in a game that has nothing to do with soccer but rather egos and territoriality. This coming fall, an unknown number of player who want to play soccer will not have a team. Not due to a lack of resources. Not due an insurmountable distance to travel. The deciding factor will be a focus on “our club” rather than the kids. These players end up being acceptable casualties to a soccer culture that is focused on prizes that are apparent and available now.
In so many ways we are now reaping the rewards of our fast food culture. Rampant obesity, depression, anxiety and others are all symptoms of the NOW culture that we’ve begun to accept as normal. Even though many people recognize that the ultimate prizes come from long term commitment to small improvements made over years or decades, it is so much easier to sell the cash grab of today. Risking that small and almost insignificant prize of the short term seems to be almost unbearable.
So I implore you. Yep! I’m talking directly to you because as I said last week, if the USMNT doesn’t win a World Cup by/in 2026, It’s my fault! So I need some help. If you have anything to do with youth soccer in this country. Take the long term view. See how more kids playing is better for them and better for “US”. Understand that letting your best player move on to a more appropriate team may hurt your record slightly but it could also be the opportunity that makes that player’s life better, both on and off the field. Realize that your small pond is not actually a pond. It’s part of a more expansive body. Trying to keep it separate is an exercise in futility and may cause its destruction when the wrong current comes along. BE the first person to do the right thing. It’s often difficult because there is a culture of short sightedness. People are so used to being hurt that they are either on attack or defense, rarely in a mode to assess. And more than ever that’s what needs to happen.
I’m sure if this was someone else’s problem, we’d have it all figured out but it’s not. It’s ours and it’s close to our hearts. So we get blinded by the shiny thing that’s right in front of us but I swear the bigger jewels are down the road. The hardest part is foregoing the prize of now because it feels like everything.
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?
It 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!
*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.