Although the 1980’s were memorable for many reasons, the crazy hair is probably one of the most prevalent. Big hair was all the rage at the time. Many of the 80’s rock bands invested a lot of time and money on their hair. Image was almost more important than the music. I’ve even heard interviews with bands who tried to gain information on the hair products of more successful bands in order to copy their formula. It’s a silly image isn’t it? Grown men hanging their hopes of musical success on the type of hairspray that they use. There is a disconnect that should have been obvious to all involved but sometimes people are too close to the situation to see their own ridiculousness.
A similar phenomena is rampant in the soccer world and a good hard look in the mirror is more than overdue. Each and every week, millions of kids and adults practice their skills of passing, dribbling, heading and shooting. Coaches spend hours trying to help these players improve their skills and coalesce the group’s talents into tactics. Meticulous care is given to all facets of the game including set plays on both the offensive and defensive side. After hours of preparation, game day finally arrives. The first whistle blows and that training seems to take a backseat. It’s overshadowed by telling the one person not displaying any soccer skill about how badly he or she is doing. The referee takes center stage in a contest that should be focused on the soccer skills of the players. Much like the hairspray obsessed rock bands, the coaches, players and fans have taken something that should be incidental and made it THE big deal.
Having been a high school and youth coach for years, I’ve seen the lower level of refereeing on display. While frustrating at times, the arbiter of the game should not overshadow all of the preparation that has been done. Here are some suggestions that I have to put refereeing in its proper context.
Audit yourself – If more than 25% of the things that you say are directed at the referee, then you’re focused on the wrong thing. Your players need guidance, your teammates need information, your children need encouragement. The referee does not need more reminding that you have disagreed with all of his calls.
Walk a mile – Not literally but figuratively. Get certified and start refereeing some low level games. Or referee a scrimmage between two teams that you’re not associated with. Either way the experience will change how you view the job.
Try a new strategy – Rather than berating the next referee that you encounter, try something new. If you’re a player, in a calm voice during a stoppage, ask him or her to watch for something that has been happening regularly. “Sir, could you keep an eye out for #15 fouling after the play. Thanks!” If you’re a coach, ask the referee to remember a particular foul or incident for discussion later. If you’re a fan, concentrate on the play of your team. This is what your team has worked for, see their play. Otherwise it’s like going to an opera but spending all of your time focused on the conductor’s outfit. He’s supposed to be invisible.
Recognize the long term – Donuts in small quantities are not by themselves dangerous. If they are a small part of an otherwise balanced diet, the occasional treat is not harmful. However constant abuse can be destructive. The same is true for our refereeing situation. The constant abuse of referees has led to a shortage that eventually could cripple the game. That position has to be held by a human. Who would sign up for the pervasive abuse that referees receive?
So as you prepare for this weekend’s contest, make a decision to focus on the game rather than the official. After over 35 years of playing and coaching there are exactly two things that I’m sure of: 1. All referees make mistakes. 2. They don’t get better or change their calls because you tell them that they suck. For the love of the game, let’s all try to do better out there. The hair bands can look back and be amused. Let’s not all look back and be ashamed.
It’s a bit older now but still a good message from the English FA.
Talent is coveted, scouted, poached and revered in this country. It often comes with an extremely high price tag. That price is monetary in the professional ranks. However at the lower levels, the price of talent is far too often the possibility of teamwork. At times this comes from jealousy of teammates. Unfortunately it is more frequently a result of trading team ethos for star power. It may get results but are they the right ones and for how long?
I’ve often told my teams that “I’d bench Pele if his play didn’t make us a better team.” Now I’ve never had the pleasure of coaching the Brazilian star (nor would he need me) but that statement has usually followed the benching of a talented player for putting him/herself above the team. The unfortunate thought that is going through several people’s heads at the moment is that “a great player always makes a team better.” How I wish that were true but I know that it is not.
Talent does not exist in a vacuum. It comes attached to a person who has a narrative inside of his/her head about what their talent means. For some it makes them a large gear in the machine of the team. While others tell themselves a story that the team is “nothing” without them. In my preferred sport of soccer, I’ve never seen this to be true but I know it has been thought.
The key to a coach extinguishing this narrative is to swallow the hard pills at the right times. Recognizing when a talented player has forgotten they are part of a whole and have them sit to consider that point. Knowing when a player has “outgrown” a team and let their talent go. These are the types of decisions that are good for the long term of the team and the player but difficult in the moment.
The stories that we tell ourselves are important. They frame the world into a model that makes sense out of our personal experience of the world. There are billions of stories going on around the world. My personal belief is that the accuracy of the story is not as important as the helpfulness of the story. I started off by saying that I’d bench Pele… I’m never going to be put in that position but it frames a belief system in a way that leaves no doubt to my conviction. So as you go into your day, what’s your story? Is the world out to get you? Are your best days behind you? Are you the world’s best student? Is this your breakout year? It’s only a story and you can keep it if you want to but put it to my test, does it help?
Many sports teams are in the middle of their preseason sessions at the moment. I’m sure that many players are working hard. It is almost a prerequisite for any level of success in the sports world. The reason that I hedge is that there is a higher level of effort that is more in line with the actual effort. That level of effort is called labor.
Work is a scientific or mathematical equation: force x distance = work. It also has particular connotations in our culture. Common words that are associated with work are: hard, job, difficult, employment and pain. While these may be common, I don’t know that I would describe them as positive. Although we recognize the value of hard work. Many people would look to avoid it.
The reason that I would change to labor is not because work and labor are synonyms. It is actually in labor’s secondary meaning that all of the magic happens. Although many people may make work and labor the same inside of their heads. Labor is the process of giving birth. In particular the final part before delivery. Taken as a whole, the process leading up to and including labor is no picnic. Talk to almost any mother and there will be stories of morning sickness, discomfort and pain leading to a crescendo of “ultimate pain”. At this point, work is sounding pretty good! The difference between the two is that at the end of labor, there’s a miracle to behold. Almost any mother will tell you that it is the worst pain but all is forgotten in the end.
So as you start any endeavor, go in with the idea that you are going to labor toward your goal. The pain and discomfort are part of the process toward the eventual miracle that you are looking for. In the end, the pain will be forgotten and you’ll be able to rejoice in the two things that you’ve created: your goal and the new version of you!
The discussion of the GOAT is always tough because it brings apples against oranges and people’s personal perspective weighs heavily on their arguments. The comparison of Messi vs Ronaldo could be a more objective conversation but adding Pele into the mix makes things much more difficult. Considering different eras and playing landscapes muddies the waters to the point where the argument says more about what the fan values rather than what the player meant in their own time. With all of those points well established from the outset, I am not at all bashful about nominating my mom as the Youth Soccer Fan GOAT! This is not a son’s love for his mother taken to the extreme. In fact, I thought my mother was one of the worst fans at the time but given years to evaluate and compare, she truly was the best.
She didn’t know the game! Some people might view this as a negative but it was a huge positive. Her best things to say from the sideline were “Kick the ball!” and “Go!” She didn’t know enough about the game to yell at the referee or opposing parents. I’m not sure that she even really took them into account. She was supremely focused on our (my brother and my) team. Despite being our parent, she cheered “Kick the ball!” for anyone on our team. Her support never wavered, even in the season where we lost every single game.
She told everyone except the coaches! I’m being serious. Everyone knew about my brother and I. Toll booth operators, people working at Wendy’s, cute girls at tournaments and many more complete strangers heard about how her sons played for the “Taygers”. We played for the “Tigers” but she always seemed to have this special pronunciation when talking about it. She sang our praises up and down the east coast even out of season. However this overwhelming promotion of her kids never reached the coaches. It was before the internet was pervasive but it didn’t happen by phone, letter or fax either. She knew better.
She always clapped at the end! Now this is not an individual thing. It was a team effort. I was lucky enough to play together with a lot of the same guys through my youth and into high school. That collective group of parents would always clap for my teammates and I upon leaving the field. The result didn’t matter. I’d like to believe that they were clapping our effort because I think we always gave that, even in the lean years.
At the time I probably took all of this for granted but now as a coach and a parent, I don’t. My view may be skewed and my mother is not actually the GOAT but she definitely was great for my time. My time as a player was better because of her. She reflected only her love for me as her son. The result of every single game was the same whether we won or lost, my mom was still my biggest fan. I think that’s something that we’re missing today. I’ve heard the words “My mom/dad is going to be so ___________.” far too often from players. Parents need to be the North Star to a child, not a feather in the wind. Even if a parent is trying to raise an elite athlete, their love should not be on the line every match. There are more than enough people around to show a child how to play the game. Parents are the first ones that can show the child how much they matter regardless of the game.
One of my bucket list items is completely out of my control. I want to see the US Men’s National Team win a World Cup before I die. While I believe this is completely achievable, it will take some doing. There are many moving parts to this endeavor both on a national and an individual level. Although I am sure that USSF policies will influence the speed at which this goal is achieved, the greater shift will need to be a cultural one. Those types of shifts happen in small groups first, then extend outward. Since the children of today are going to be the major influencers of future culture, my plea is “Don’t think that Messi is special!”
This may come as a slap in the face to the thousands of kids who have Messi on the back of their replica jersey. That’s not my intention at all. My hope is for the young players out there to not give themselves an easy way out. Messi is arguably the best player in the world over the past few years. This is not due to genetic engineering, magic or divine intervention. He is a man who has chosen over and over again to hone his craft. Every day of his life has been spent toward achieving the lofty heights that he has. Despite all of his accomplishments, I don’t want our young players to think he is special. Because that let’s them off the hook!
Each one of us has greatness living within us. It lies dormant until we wake it up and press it out into the open. Not every young person who likes soccer will be willing to do the work to become a great player like Messi. However it’s important not to cut it off as a possibility due to a belief that he was in some way predestined to do any of this. He’s a human who chose to be great. Don’t put him on a pedestal to be worshiped. Put him on a staircase to be climbed and leave steps above him.
Greatness is bestowed upon no one, it’s earned everyday with consistent action.
It’s official! The paperwork just came in from the state and my son’s name is officially Lionel Messi! I fully anticipate that his goal total will skyrocket in the coming seasons. If you’ve not screamed “You’re an idiot!” yet, you’ve at least thought it. I felt stupid just typing it! A name is not particularly an indicator of quality, it’s a way to differentiate one person from millions of other similar people. This truth is so easy to realize when talking about a person’s talent. Then why do so many people trap themselves into the soccer club name game? Like soccer, the answer is simple but at the same time complex. Perception helps us form our reality.
In college, I worked at a beer and wine store. On the beer side of the store, I got very few questions. Occasionally someone would ask about a new micro-brew but generally people knew what they were looking for. The Coors guy would rarely change things up and would walk in grab a case, pay and walk out. On the wine side of the store, there were much more questions and a posturing of perception. If a wine was highlighted in the “Wine Spectator” magazine, we were likely to sell out of it especially if it was priced under $30. Most of the people looking for the popular wine. Even if they had never tasted it and often it wasn’t even their favorite varietal. They had been sold on a perception not their own reality. Being seen as a person who knew about wine was much more important than getting what they wanted in a wine.
At the moment in the soccer world, we’re going through a similar perception economy. Names are just a part of the equation that includes trainers, sponsors, equipment, etc. The name is just the asset with no inherent value other than perception. It’s a longstanding joke with a coach friend of mine that we are going to start a club with all of the standard soccer club cliches of quality. My most recent version is “Select Elite Academy Soccer International Club Kickers” or S.E.A.S.I.C.K. for short. I’m sure that the players of SEASICK would be bursting with pride in the fact that they were playing for an “elite academy”, though they might be neither. Since they tried out, that would make it “select”. Although they might be confused by the “international” tag but I’m sure we’d find an English or Dutch trainer to squelch that thought. Finally I’m sure that they would have preferred to be an FC but let’s face it, you can’t fight the draw of a good acronym! Again I’m being ridiculous but not inaccurate.
The youth soccer world is based heavily on perception but with more real consequences than my wine example. This is not a mistake of serving chardonnay with steak (which is actually fine if that’s what you like). It’s a mistake of hanging children’s self-worth on a false status. It may not be prudent to invest a child’s one non-renewable resource (time) into a pursuit of athletic “excellence” rather than personal development. Does an “elite” soccer player translate this time and financial commitment into love from his/her parents? Do they have the tight bonds of friendship on their elite team that they have with kids from their school? Are the elite coaches also elite role models of how to be a good person? If these questions were all asked and well considered before the tryout, then stay the course. However my fear is that many people have blinders on with a very narrow view of the course that they are putting their children on. By age 25, most people’s playing careers are over but their lives are not yet close to half done. Will memories of warm-up jackets embroidered with half true adjectives be enough to sustain them through their adult life? Or are the actions, relationships and mentors of the individual the true creators of great memories?
Eventually the packaging fades away and the true substance of what’s been sold shines through. Go in with an idea of what you really want and see past the packaging. The world is filled with people who will sell you something for their own benefit rather than yours. Not everyone is elite but anyone can receive the gifts that the game has to offer without a price tag.
It’s one of my favorite lines from a song by one of my favorite bands “Your actions speak so loud, I can’t hear a word your saying!” The song is called “I want to conquer the world” and it juxtaposes the idealism and the reality of people. It’s a punk rock song and due to soccer’s historical underground following in the US, I usually equate the two on a few levels. At the moment, the youth soccer world is caught in an almost Jekyll and Hyde scenario. Many of the positives of the sport that is loved by millions are regularly mangled and deranged in the pursuit of momentary glory. In each paragraph, I will start with the ideal and follow it with the real.
Soccer is fun! – That’s absolutely right. The game is or can be fun. It is played worldwide in streets and fields by kids who truly love to express themselves with a ball. More than ever though in the United States, we are heaping pressure on younger and younger players to perform. Not for the joy of the game but for the reward of the result. The players being indoctrinated into a system where they’re sent a very direct message, “perform well or else!” The consequences are being benched or being cut. As young as 8 years old, players are treated like performing fleas. The actions send a clear message that fun is at best secondary and probably tertiary behind results and development.
Sportsmanship is important! – Of course, treating other people with respect is an important lesson to learn in sports. Unless it’s the referee that’s missed five hand balls already! He or she deserves to be told exactly how horrible they are. It is hilarious to think that kids practice for hours each week but a comment about their actual skills from the sidelines is rare. A majority of comments are directed at the one person who no one is there to see perform. Our children are learning a dangerous lesson about their place in society. Do your best and if anything doesn’t go your way, blame the authority because they are supposed to be perfect. Those people in charge are not human and deserve to be treated horribly. Could this be why we have a referee shortage?
We support you! – Youth soccer is a multi million (probably billion) dollar business because parents care enough to give their kids the very best! The best trainers, the best camps and the best tournaments are all purchased for a premium price. That financial investment shows exactly how much parents care for their kids. Or perhaps the lack of their personal time investment says something else as practice becomes a convenient babysitter. I can hear the justification now, “But the trainer is better than me coaching.” That might be true but can you line fields, be a club board member or practice with your child. If a child truly loves to play, then they would probably enjoy playing with their parent from time to time. Relegating your involvement in your child’s athletics to spectator is a low level of involvement. Children need their parents. Outsourcing may be a sign of the times but there are some jobs that are too important to be left to hired hands.
Perhaps it is time to reign in the beast and start walking the talk. The ideas are all out there in the world. Generally speaking people know the answers but lack the fortitude to follow through. Whether it is a “keeping up with the Joneses mentality” or a lack emotional control in the moment. People need to realize that the macro is made up of the micro. The small decisions, that we make about how relating to our children through sport, will inform the larger decisions that they make about their lives. Are we setting our kids up to be the best versions of themselves? Or are the mixed messages going to create a noticeable disconnect between the sent and received? “It is what it is” may be a popular statement but it’s not a plan. Let’s make it what it should be.
I was in 8th grade and my school soccer team was playing against North Warren. They were the only team that had beaten us all season. It was late in the game and the score was still tied. Someone passed me the ball as I was wide open in front of the unprotected goal. I shot the ball and it sailed over the goal. It almost defied physics! I was so close to the goal that missing seems as though it was harder to do than scoring. The memory of that shot is almost 30 years old and it still bugs me a little bit. All of these years later though, I’ve come to realize that I had to miss that shot. In all of our lives, there are things that we really have to f%#@ up.
No one wants to fail. The disappointment, the shaken confidence and the negative memory are all reason enough to avoid failure. People are always trying to give themselves the best chance for success in any endeavor. Aiming for success is always crucial but always achieving it is both impractical and probably detrimental to future successes.
The path to where you are is probably filled with potholes, detours and the occasional breakdown. Even though we think that we want a smooth and clear path to our destination, most of the fire that we have in our belly comes from past failures. Learning how to live through and overcome failure are key ingredients to a growth mindset. Although we live in a physical world, the beginning of almost everything in our lives starts in our mental world. That is the space where failure can be taken, molded and turned into a stepping stone for future success. I’m sure that you want whatever you’re working on right now to be a great success and I hope that it is. However what if you need to F%#@ this up to succeed later. Part of the equation is that you really want to succeed but recognize in the long term f%#@ ups are part of the equation too.
It was a big deal! I remember it very plainly. My parents, brothers and I would all sit down with popcorn and watch “The Wizard of Oz”. It was an annual occasion. The movie is definitely a classic but I think that the ritual and nostalgia factor make it a little more important for me. Despite being released in 1939, the story stands the test of time. A young girl has a magical adventure that ends up being a dream but she learns that her search to distant lands led her back to the home and people that really mattered in the first place. Most of the things that she desired or feared ended up being fake or easily defeated.
As the spring soccer season continues, I am inundated with emails about tryouts, camps and recruiting services. It is not a new thing that is unexpected. However following many discussions that I’ve had with members of my own club, I’m left wondering if the modern American soccer culture isn’t a lot like Dorothy. Are we searching for something that is hollow and the truest prize is in our own backyard?
It is tryout season and clubs throughout my area will be selecting the best talent they can find. Then they will pair that talent up with a paid trainer in order to improve upon that talent. (Full disclosure I am a paid trainer) Games will be won and lost over the course of the year. Then the cycle will repeat. The teams and players will progress down the yellow brick road toward what exactly? The best of the best will be professionals. The second tier will play in college. The rest will either fizzle out along the way or play in a recreational type setting for as long as they enjoy it (love men’s and women’s leagues!). So is it really that a majority of us are hoping that our kids get to that promised land of professional or college that we’ve created this monster system? Or is it that we’ve forgotten where we are and where we’re going? My fear is that in a few more years many people are going to find the little man behind the curtain and be shocked.
Soccer is an inherently simple game that has so much to offer to the people who play and watch it. The positives that it offers to young players are generally intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Physical fitness, self-confidence and camaraderie just to name a few. None of these positives require talent, tryouts or trainers, OH MY! In fact all three may inhibit the expansion of these intrinsic positives because they are all short term. Talent is relative and momentary. Tryouts make players commodities first and people second. Trainers are generally interested in the short-term improvement of skills in a very selective area. It is not that these things are without their place. However they should not be the silver bullets that are used to propel our young players forward. If the vast majority of youth soccer players are not going to end up in the top two tiers of involvement, then should we (the adults) be building the yellow brick road? Or finding our way back to Kansas?
My beliefs is that the solution is on the horizon if enough people are willing to look for it. It all comes down to focus. If the focus is put and maintained on the idea of making our kids great people first, then we all win regardless of the outcomes on Saturdays/Sundays. Do we have to pay for that service? Most likely not. It takes involvement and time from the adults who truly care about the kids. My father coached my teams for year and his soccer knowledge, at the time, came from books. The game has progressed since then but so has the knowledge of the parents and accessibility to information. Since the focus is not on game results, tryouts might go away or be held every two or three years. That way the team gets to be “a team”. Finally what will happen to the talent of our players? Won’t their soccer skills drop if we no longer employ these improvement strategies. For the long term, does it matter? Off the field, my soccer skills have saved a few glass bottles from breaking. Other than that, the non-soccer skills have been far more important. Learning how to lead, fitness, problem solving and self-improvement are all practical skills that were honed on the field. In the short term, there are other ways to improve one’s soccer skills without expensive trainers. It’s called practice! Kids are extremely adept at using YouTube to figure out many things. Perhaps watch that video with the child and go into the backyard to practice.
In ten years will we not know our extremely talented former soccer players? Or will we have a self-reliant young person that we can relate to who was OK at the kicking game? There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.