Qualities of Champions

This past year I spent more time watching soccer games than I have in the past. Don’t get me wrong I also coached a lot more and continued reading about the game too, but I dedicated more time to being a student of the game than before. Whether it was watching NPL teams in Northern California or re-watching games from World Cup ’98 or going to the NCAA Division III Men’s National Semifinals and Championship in Virginia, I used more of my free time to invest in myself as a coach. Furthermore, I have now take the time to put my thoughts on paper. This allows me to hash out my ideas and thoughts in an effort to articulate them clearly and effectively.

imgres

My current goal is to become a collegiate head coach and with this in mind the NCAA Division III National Semifinals and Finals proved to be the most beneficial. Attending these three games did not necessarily open my eyes to any new tactics or ideas; however, it did reaffirm thoughts and theories I had. In this multi-part post, I will detail my thoughts, opinions, and theories on the characteristics and qualities of champions.

I encourage anyone reading to provide their thoughts or perspectives on these characteristics as well. As a coach and an academic, I believe dialogue is imperative for growth and education.

 Identity and Culture

Having a team or program identity is the single most important pillar of being a champion. A team must have clear and defined goals, expectations, as well as an established culture for it to achieve any level of success. This is evident at every level of the game and as the level increases it only becomes more imperative.

Each season is full of trials and tribulations as well as ebbs and flows. Injuries happen. Players are suspended for matches. Players get sick. Family emergencies arise. In each year I have been a coach at least one of these happened. While they cannot always be predicted they can definitely be expected. For a team to overcome these obstacles, individuals and the team must know who they are.

imgres

I coached at a school in Southern California and during my time there the program had a very clear identity, of not only its style of play, but team culture in a written document. This document did not detail tactical specifics so much as it elaborated on the expectations and responsibilities of individuals along with that of the team.

This identity must be evident on the pitch and more importantly outside of the pitch especially relating to behavior.

Are players expected to get spend time training outside of practice? How does seniority play a role in the team? Are player’s concerned with their eating habits? What is the commitment level to the team and to academics? Is one more or less important than the other?

With teams only practicing for two hours per day, six days a week, what are they doing with the other 93% of their time? It is important for all players and coaches to be on the same page regarding ‘down time.’

 Defining Roles

If establishing a program identity is step 1, then defining roles is most definitely step 2 in being a champion. Roles are important on any team. Each individual must know their responsibilities if the team is to find success.

images

Without any defined roles, teammates begin to start interfering with each other, thus causing overreach or under performance by others and offsetting the equilibrium. Balance in the roles is vital. There needs to be a goal scorer, a playmaker, and a ball winner, to name a few positions. Egil Olsen, or more commonly known as Drillo, the former Norwegian National Team coach behind one of the most-forgotten World Cup upsets of all time (along with some outstanding officiating from American Esfandiar Baharmast) and responsible for Norway peaking at 2nd in the FIFA rankings in the late 1990s believes each team should be composed of players who are excellent at one skill (e.g. excellent headers, excellent dribblers, excellent passers) rather than average at all skills.

But with only eleven positions on the pitch, what are the roles of the other fifteen players’ role? This is much more difficult for the manager to discern. In this case players must be responsible for supporting teammates, being prepared during training, and being willing to help the team in any way possible.

If no one knows who needs to bring water, then the whole team goes thirsty.

As a result of the defined roles, everyone must appreciate the roles of others. Acknowledging the effort, energy, and commitment of players in different roles creates a positive environment and demonstrates a value for all team members.

Buying In

Lastly, with identity, culture, and roles defined, the last step is to have everyone buy in. Players unwilling to buy in and commit to the team are working against the team.

images-1

This past year as I watched the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Semifinals and Julie Foudy commented during the USC-Georgetown game that the USC Head Coach Keidane McAlpine didn’t feel his soon-to-be National Champion side to be the most talented or best he’s ever had, rather that everyone had bought into what the coaching staff aimed to do. As a result USC are the 2017 NCAA Women’s Division I National Champions.

What is buying in though? What does it look like? The first word that comes to mind is commitment; however, one could argue commitment is showing up every day and being present. After all 80 percent of life is showing up right? The difference between showing up and buying in is the enthusiasm, embracement, and a positive emotion for the role. There is a difference between enthusiasm and embrace than complacency. Roles for players change constantly depending on the situation at hand. Players must be willing to accept new roles in an effort to succeed; however, if players become complacent with their roles competition suffers, motivation becomes non-existent, and the team flounders.

As one of my colleagues pointed out a few years ago, tactically, whether it is the correct or incorrect decision, if everyone commits to the decision, the team will find success. An example of this would be the direction to force the opponent while defending. When part of the team chooses to force them inward and another part chooses to force them outward,

Finally, buying in involves team building and understanding of motivational psychology. A coach must be able to foster an environment where this is the norm. The Zen Master, Phil Jackson, perfected this. Jackson focused on understanding his players in an effort to reach them in a way demonstrating he cared but also ways that would benefit the team. Soccer is a team sport with 11 players on the pitch. With the size of the pitch and the number of players involved players need to be able to buy into within a structure that maximizes the team’s strengths.

Any team in which all players have bought into the culture, identity, and their roles will be very difficult to beat.

Advertisements

Soccer, Success, and Skim Milk

What Is Success and How Do We Define It?

The other day I posed a question on Twitter: “As a soccer coach in the US how do we measure the success or development of our players? Is than an answer?” I want to nix the development part of the question for right now. But I definitely want to explore the measurement of success for our youth soccer players in the US.

As I see it there is no right or wrong answer or even a better or worse answer. In the world of ESPN and an over-present media, this question is nothing more than a grandiose hypothetical question very similar to: “Who is the greatest Olympian of all time?” (Most will say Michael Phelps because of number of medals. I personally believe Emil Zatopek is the greatest. His gold medals in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and marathon-the first he ever attempted mind you- is an unmatched and arguably cannot be equaled ever.) The purpose of my inquiry is simply for us as players, coaches, clubs, and programs to evaluate our priorities and articulate them honestly.

emil_zatopek

I’m going to state right now that answers will and should vary depending on the age level, division, program, as well as objectives as a coach, club, and program.

In the US our society, as a whole, values results: wins-losses, championships, goals, shutouts, points, as well as any sort of statistic you can imagine.  For me personally, I am not in complete agreement with the value placed on these. Allow me to elaborate: the U-14 Girls US Youth Soccer National Champions are nothing more than the best U-14 girls team in the country that year. I would even be so bold as to further it to say that team is the best U-14 girls team with the most available and expendable resources. Who would know if another U-14 girls team who was better but could raise the necessary funds for travel? My point being there is a myriad of variables those go into certain contests, which make it almost impossible to objectively, measure or calculate the best. Based on these few statements I would recommend you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. He touches on several factors such as luck that contribute to success.

url

For me I don’t necessarily value the aforementioned units of measurement. They show a multitude of aspects of a team, program, club, coach, etc., but above all those units are marketable. They are easily transcribed into a way allocate more or less value. When I was younger I had to choice between playing for two different clubs. Both clubs were successful in their own right. One club had won multiple national championships, graduated dozens, if not hundreds, of Division I athlete, and several US National Team members as well as professional players. The other was a bit smaller with two teams per age group with a few Division I athletes, US National Team members, national champions, and professional players. Needless to say the two clubs were bitter rivals with players hopping between the two every year. (I played for both clubs, but not back-to-back.) The second club would develop players for a number of years and then those players would jump ship to the first club once they believed they were selected to join the ‘Elite’ team, then go on to win these championships. Which club is more successful: the one developing players or the one using taking those developed players and combining with other players to win?

For me it is more magnanimous to develop players and watch them have prolonged success even if that is at a different club. I see the investment into the players as much more rewarding than conglomerating several very good players, getting them to work together, and keeping them at the same level. Granted each is not easy to do; however, I value the coaches who sought to bring the joy of the game to these players even if they were unable to put them on a national stage. It is this joy and gratification that we all are apart of this game. I pity those who seek personal wealth from their involvement in the game.

(I must make the quick point: As much as, on the youth level, I am not so concerned with winning, winning does provide certain liberties for clubs; however, those liberties are often unrestrained and can lead to corruption, political machines, and backroom agreements which have tainted our youth system. It has turned several individuals in your Uncle Tony who eats success for breakfast with skim milk.)

To state it bluntly the truest form of success from the game is not found on the pitch. It is found in the hearts and conscious of the individuals we have coached. Success can be as simple as getting seven 9 year-old children to work together. I believe it is imperative for our players learn the virtues of patience, kindness, diligence, humility, and respect. What have you accomplished if you win a championship, but all the teammates dislike each other? The only thing done has been the acquisition of a cheap metal trophy or a wooden plaque. There is no place for these virtues and characteristics on resumes or CVs.

How To Create Success

A few months ago I stumbled upon an application question for a local advertising agency: ‘How do you create success?’ I’ve spent many months thinking about this question. The key word in this question is create. To create anything whether it is a team, business, family, one must have the necessary parts. How would someone build a business without any money or initial investments? They can’t. It’s impossible.

images

The answer lies in a quote from the 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. He famously said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” To state it simply it is taking the available components (personnel) and organizing them into a fashion that accentuates their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. This, for me, is a fundamental pillar of coaching. It is working within the system to create the best possible scenario for growth, development, as well as the coach’s definition of success. For me it’s getting a group of individuals to buy in and work for a common goal. Whether that goal is reached or not is irrelevant, but so much has been accomplished in have two-dozen individuals buy in.

Process, Pedagogy, Player Development

It’s All A Process

I was recently speaking with a colleague of mine, and the discussion turned toward player development. We began to talk about soccer coaching books—you know the ones with all the diagrams and drills in them. In this he said something I’ve always known as well as agreed with, but seemingly lost sight of the past few weeks. His comments were these drills, exercises; diagrams mean nothing if the coach does not address something as simple as trapping, controlling, the ball and playing the ball with different parts of the foot.  Now it seems as if this would be a no brainer when coaching; however, coaches sometimes take this coaching point for granted. As coaches, we’ll coach a certain age group with the assumption players are experienced with using the various parts of the foot (in-step, out-step, toe, heel, sole, etc.) as well as are relatively comfortable using both feet. What I’ve found, scratch that, what I’ve known and seen, even more as a coach than as a player, is the failure to master these fundamental skills and progress toward more complicated, dynamic exercises. The thesis of this post is not to argue for a back-to-basics approach to the game. It’s quite different actually. The function of this post is explore the fact that learning the game, as is much with life, is a PROCESS- a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. The end being the development of a complete, dynamic, functional player, to the maximum of his or her potential.

A Deconstruction of the game into various visual and conceptual models

A Deconstruction of the game into various visual and conceptual models

In recent months as I’ve ventured more and more online into various sources, people, books, articles, etc. So many coaches are looking for drills, exercises, diagrams in an effort to achieve the ideal style of play. Furthermore, I’ve heard some coaches training methodologies to be as simple as replicating what he/she sees on television. From my interpretations their logic goes along the lines of this: “Barcelona plays a possession-style game. There are triangles all over the field with equal spacing between everyone. They continuously play one-and two-touch, and slight movements off the ball into space which maintains and perpetuates their momentum.” Many coaches believe all it takes to play this style is to simply imitate exactly what they see on the tube. I give a big kudos to Barca and coaches aiming to play this way. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, what these coaches fail to comprehend is that this style of play is the product of DECADES of training! The coaches at La Masia do not simply refer to their libraries and pull out a handful of drills for that day or week’s training sessions. Quite the contrary. There are certain fundamental skills, concepts, brain development that must occur as a prerequisite to the players’ progression. The game, especially in respects to player development, is extremely complicated and rooted in science-anatomy, physiology, psychology, brain circuitry, aerobic and anaerobic capacities, nutrition etc. This tandems with the 10,000-hour theory. To become a professional or master at something one must put in 10,000 hours of work into the skill. However, many of those hours go into mastering the prerequisite skills in an effort to build upon and champion the full skill. Therefore, the individual is not only competent in the full skill, but all its subsets.

A Model of Player Development (Just pulled from the web. I don't consider this ideal.)

A Model of Player Development (Just pulled from the web. I don’t consider this ideal.)

What coaches in the US are looking for is a way to elevate their players to the top as quickly as possible. This past Autumn on one of our many long, long bus rides I read Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine. Although not football related specifically, this book covers almost a decade of Demetrius Walker, the Sports Illustrateddubbed “Next LeBron James” at 14 years old, and his journey through the grassroots basketball machine. The the book touches on several flaws in the system, consumerism, deficient coaching education, exploitation, and accentuation on winning, to name a few, but the most obvious shortcoming of the system is the failure for the system to consistently develop complete, well-rounded players who are fundamentally sound. The coach, Joe Keller, got involved in the grassroots basketball scene originally to coach; however, after losing future NBA center Tyson Chandler to another famed grassroots coach, Keller sought to fully immerse himself in the system to make a living. Keller accomplished this albeit at the expense of several young boys. He purposely sought to scout and assemble a conglomerate of Southern California talent who had yet to be identified in an effort form an all-star team with a paramount concentration on winning. Keller put winning as well as profiting above the emotional well being of the players along with their development. He did not seek to identify talent in an effort to develop them rather to gain personal fame. Several of his players were able to earn college scholarships, but many never met societal, community, familial, or even personal expectations. This is not to say the youth soccer in the States is exactly the same or that all AAU basketball clubs adhere to the same relaxed standards or even that youth coaches are involved in the sport to make enormous profits as well as a reputation. It is to say the system or machines, as the book is so rightfully titled, goal is to assemble the best talent available for the sole purpose of winning.

Cover to Play Their Hearts Out

Cover to Play Their Hearts Out

In order to establish long-term success of our youth system we must prioritize the process of developing players. As coaches we must be patient with our players in order to see the growth they make. If the players aren’t progressing we must be able to objectively evaluate our coaching methodologies and discover where we are incomplete. If our players cannot grasp certain tactical concepts it is most likely due some inadequacies such as: 1) Failure to train the prerequisite concepts 2) Failure to communicate effectively 3) Failure to train sufficiently 4) Unattainable expectations. Think of soccer as learning basic arithmetic in primary school. If the teacher came into class spending 20 minutes teaching long division without the students knowing fundamental addition, subtraction, and multiplication concepts then both parties can get incredibly frustrated in the fact that no one is gaining anything from the situation. The students become frustrated because they don’t understand. The teacher is frustrated because the students aren’t learning; moreover, the teacher gets a reputation for being a poor teacher and the relationship between the teacher and student crumbles. In all actuality it is the system and process that has failed both students and teacher. The same goes for soccer. A coach cannot hope to teach a player if there are significant shortcomings in a player’s game. (I want to make a quick statement: There is no such thing as the perfect player nor should there be an expectation that players at such young ages be complete, rather they should be comfortable and up-to-speed with the abilities along with concepts needed to progress. A failure to demonstrate these abilities typically means a player is a slow developer or lacks certain skills to reach meet certain expectations.)

Solutions

Entrance to Clairefontaine, the French Football Federation headquarters

Entrance to Clairefontaine, the French Football Federation headquarters

Any grievance without a proposed solution is nothing more than a complaint and solves nothing. My colleague’s solution, as is something I agree with, is a return to a high standard of education; fluency in multiple languages, apprenticeships for coaches, and a commitment to studying the game. Imagine if coaches just weren’t just trained in tactics or sports psychology, but physical education, anatomy, physiology, and a plethora of other nuances neglect by the American system. As I quoted from Project 2010 in one of my early posts, a majority of coaches are volunteers or parents of a player and only stay with the game until their child stops playing. Granted there are a number of professional coaches at clubs, but for the most part coaches are part-time and lack a strong educational background in the game. Educated coaches along with a commitment to player development rather than winning would be a significant step for the United States. (Please note that I only consider the US Developmental Academy clubs and teams to be a step for the country. This is not a step forward or a step backward, more of a side step, which I believe is only a different approach yielding the same results. Coaches still lack significant education as well as the system is flawed and insufficient to develop players to their full potential.)

Mourinho: Man or Myth?

A few months ago I came across an article titled, “Tactical Periodization: Mourinho’s Best-Kept Secret”? By Juan Luis Delgado-Bordonau and Albert Mendez-Villanueva. In this piece the authors go into detail articulating Mourinho’s system as well as how he is able to achieve such success. The key word and concept in the article, as has been in the past few years in the football community, is tactical periodization.

Mourinho celebrating after his Inter side reached the 2010 Champions League with a 3-2 aggregate over Barcelona

Mourinho celebrating after his Inter side reached the 2010 Champions League with a 3-2 aggregate over Barcelona

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, “the main methodological and pedagogical principle behind Tactical Periodization is that the soccer game has to be “trained/learned” respecting its logical structure. For the Tactical Periodization, the “logical structure” of the game revolves around the four moments of the game-Defensive Organization; Transition from Defend to Attack; Offensive Organization; Transition from Attack to Defend.” The authors continue, “Every game action, regardless of the four moments of the game in which it might happen, involves a decision (tactical dimension), an action or motor skill (technical dimension) that required a particular movement (physiological dimension) and is directed by volitional and emotional states (psychological dimension).”

Phases of the game

I’m not going to go into great detail concerning the intricacies of the article. I’ll let your read it in its entirety yourself; however, I want to use this time to draw attention to one specific quote regarding a tactical principles in Mourinho’s system: “The systematic repetition of the tactical principles of play should enable the players to transform the match-play patterns that the coach wants into habits. Creating habits is possible only when the brain has experienced the same or similar situations and has “recorded” them.”

Essentially this means the coach aims to train the players in such a way that their actions on the pitch have been systematized and patterned in an effort to make the game more predictable. Furthermore, it is the development of a system of play known as pattern play or choreography or “tactics,” as I’ve heard them called over the past few months. Now for those of you who have read my earlier posts you know my two biggest objectives when training players are cognitive development as well as technical skills. I want my players to observe, analyze, and then execute on behalf of that player’s judgment. If there is one thing this methodology initiates, it is creativity, spontaneity, improvisation, unpredictability.

This system, pattern play/choreography, completely abolishes any ounce of creativity or inspired play in the game. To provide an analogy, pattern play is to football as Nickelback is to music. It’s ugly, unattractive, grotesque, and a pain to experience, yet it/they is successful. Because the players have been indoctrinated into this system they are only able refer to the pattern. They are not able to react as they see fit because they have been trained so much to react the same way over and over again!

Untitled

I’ll provide a quick story. When I was in high school I played for an old school European-born coach. This six-foot four-inch intimidator absolutely hated individuality, so much so players were only allowed to wear all black cleats. He had a handful of drills we would perform on a weekly basis. When he would run out of these drills we would run. I digress, this coach was, and still is, notorious for excessive shouting in an effort to dictate his team’s style of play. He would bark out orders of where he wanted to ball to go: “Tom play Jim, TURN!, Greg is open!, COME MY WAY!” This shouting was incessant game after game, season after season, and year after year. Needless to say practice was miserable, playing was miserable, and my entire experience was miserable not only due to the yell, but the inability to develop thinking players and a relatively attractive style of play.

This is not my attempt to equate Mourinho to my high school soccer coach. It’s far from it. My perspective is: Pattern play, although efficient and effective to a certain extent and up to a certain level, is boring, uninspired, manufactured, ugly, painful, and any other adjective you can think of to describe awful. As appealing as it may seem to the untrained eye, this methodology is nothing more than paint by numbers.

After reading this article I forwarded it to my mentor to hear his thoughts on the matter. Given his background, which I have touched on in an earlier post, I believe he articulates himself quite well in addition to addressing the flaws in Mourinho’s system.

I’m familiar with the concepts contained in the article. This methodology is highly questionable for the following reasons – football training cannot be turned into predictable patterns broken down into coherent units, training internalizes general principles, and training builds a storehouse of learned stable reactions to game situations as part of the complex process of decision making. But there are no recorded identical game situations in the recorded history of the game. Internalization of tactical components involves complicated brain circuitry, neurological pathways, functioning of central and peripheral nervous system. The emphasis on tactical training is a traditional tool employed by coaches who lack the understanding of the technical components of the game. The entire edifice of the tactical periodization will be useless if the skill department is deficient. You cannot train mediocre players into a team with tactical savvy. There is no such thing as tactical periodization; the only periodization with any validity is the physiological one. Now in Mourinho’a case this is done by a team of qualified professionals. Believe me, there is no mystique about the Portuguese, he invented nothing compared to the likes of Lobanovsky, Michels, or Sacchi.

I’m sure after reading his response many of you have never even considered some of the topics he touches on (brain circuitry, functioning of central and peripheral nervous systems, etc.) This is a level of the game that the US, on any level, is nowhere near close to reaching. Many have and continue to question the importance of this level of analysis and that is fine. Coaches can certainly win with pattern play as well as being unacquainted with this knowledge; however, I ask, “Is your goal to win or to play attractive football while developing dynamic players?” As a youth coach I conform to the latter, but many in the States align with the former.

Before I conclude this post, I want to draw attention to Mourinho’s situation. He is the manager of a professional club with an infinite amount of resources at his disposal. The Portuguese has numerous assistants to take his players through warm-ups, technical sessions, individual sessions, and so forth. His primary responsibility is to manage the tactical side of the game. His job becomes a lot easier when he only has to manage the tactical side of the game. This isn’t to say Mourinho has an easy job at all. He’s a proven winner time and time again. However, until he revolutionizes the game he is nothing more than “Another One.”

Why I Love The Game

 

For so long I’ve pondered this question: “Why do I love football?” What is the different about this game that warrants so much of my passion in comparison to American football, basketball, baseball, etc. I’ve thought for the past week about this question and if I were to answer it completely I could easily write a dissertation. Unfortunately they don’t give out Ph.D.’s in loving the game.

In this game I enjoy the loyalty, the passion, fervor of fans, competition, and so much more. This game has a tradition like none other. The game is passed down from generation to generation. It could be argued some players were genetically bred to play.  Watching these players perform is one of the most satisfying spectacles one can experience.

There’s the fact the game, as a whole, has remained relatively unchanged for its entire existence. Of course over these centuries, other than of course minor rule changes, the basic principals have remained the same. Eleven players on the pitch trying to put an inflated ball into an 8 yards by 8 foot net guarded by a keeper.  When you actually look at the rulebook there are only 17! In basketball there are around 100 rules and over 300 in the NFL rulebook. Granted the NFL rulebook covers even the minutest of details, which leads to such a high count, but that must be one thick rulebook! In soccer there is 3 officials with the number increasing to 4 at the professional level. I would count the goal linesmen; however, they’re not officially recognized at all levels or competition of the game.

Then there’s the knowing the game requires just the bare minimum of equipment: a spherical object. You can play the game with nothing more than a ball of socks! This is one of the reasons the game is so universally loved. Despite these brief reasons they do not cut to the core of my love.

DSCF9238

I can remember talking with one of my best friends in his driveway when we were no more than 12 or 13 years old. He was my neighbor. We went to the same primary school, played on the same youth team, and played basketball together. One afternoon the question was posed to us: “What do you like more soccer or basketball?” Growing up in North Carolina I can testify very few things beat college basketball and March Madness. Due to its availability and ubiquity I always find myself at the gym playing pickup games whenever I’m home. If this were the case for soccer I would do the same, alas it’s not the culture in my town or the country, I digress.

There are essentially two reasons I love football more than basketball. The first is the physical difficulty of it. In basketball it is incredibly much easier to develop muscle memory. Just take a look at Tyler Hansborough’s jump shot. It is the most manufactured shot in the book. Give Psycho T the opportunity to set up to shoot and he’ll bury the shot more times than not, especially with in 10 feet of the basket. Other than a keeper taking punts or goal kicks and a person throwing the ball in, there are very few things you can train the body to do exactly the same every time.  Moreover, foot-eye coordination is much more difficult to master than hand-eye coordination. Humans were not made to dribble a ball at their feet. It’s unnatural yet the world’s best are make it look so easy.

The second, and final, reason for my love of the game didn’t exactly come to me until I had ventured into coaching. As a coach, you are forced to look at the game from a perspective no one else has. A perspective that analyses training, capabilities of your team, the weather, field conditions, capabilities as well as styles of play of the opposing teams, the referees, the game atmosphere and so many more. When you get down to it, soccer is more complicated than chess. In chess there is only one factor you must consider- the opponent. Soccer on the other hand, you must be able to adjust to so many more variables. Coaches have to worry about your 11 players on the pitch which, keep in mind, have 11 brains of their own, but you have to consider the opposing coach, his 11 players with their own brains, and the official. There are also an infinite number of scenarios with equally infinite outcomes based on one decision. The game is incredibly complex and the exciting thing is that game is always evolving and we’re always learning more and more!

ateamsstrate

de Haan’s World Cup Final algorithm.

Willem de Haan has a piece titled, Lost In Translation which articulates in a much more cogent manner the complexities of the game. (The piece is about halfway down the page.)He mentions the neuroscience behind the game along with the algorithms used in the Final. It takes years and years to master, coach, and train a team to perform at such high level. Until you really sit down and examine the intricacies of the game, you cannot appreciate the vastness and elaboration of the game.

 

 

Project 2010: Are We Closer or Further Away From The Moon Part 2

This the second part of my look at Project 2010. In the first piece, I quoted the sentiments from authors Carlos Queiroz and Dan Gaspar and gave my thoughts on their points. This post will follow the same format, but will cover the last three topics: Coaching, High School/College Soccer, The National Team Programs, and Professional Soccer in the US.

us-mens-national-soccer-team-mobile-wallpaper

Coaching

You can look at a player in 10 seconds and assess their physical and technical ability. The question is can he play, what is his awareness and anticipation and can he make things happen? Most coaches select based on physical and technical criteria.

This thought makes complete sense. Most coaches look for the obvious in players such as size, speed, technical ability. However, very few are able to have the insight into how the player sees the game, how he/she understands the game or what that player’s role is. Football is a very cerebral game, much more than chess. In chess, the player must only react to one player. In football one player must react to 10 other teammates, 11 opposing players, and the referee. It doesn’t take much to pick out the biggest, fastest, strongest players on the pitch, but it take several hours to watch a player. A coach must scout a player over the course of a week. European clubs give players month long trials for evaluation. How can a coach make a valid, comprehensive assessment after only a few moments?

There are about 20 coaches in the US, the other pretend to be coaches. Patterns of play do not work. Players must be able to respond to the opponents. It is not military training. Some of our coaches paint by numbers.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard coaches use: pattern play, choreography and other terms to describe their tactics, style of play, etc. From a marketing perspective to the untrained eye, this is very attractive. It’s simulates possession and playing. The fact of the matter is THIS ISN’T COACHING!! Queiroz articulates it perfectly: paint by numbers. The fact of the matter is patterns can be broken. These players aren’t being taught or inspired to create. They’re being indoctrinated to produce static, predictable, unentertaining, uninspired product. What happens when someone throws a kink the pattern? What if the team you’re up against holds a wildcard you aren’t prepared for? The game is all about improvisation and adjustments. When shit hits the fan what will you be doing without your precious pattern? Can you solve the problem in front of you without your pattern? That’s a testament to a true player.

Coaches are hired and fired based on results.

This is entirely true. In our society, we value results. We want instant satisfaction with immediate results. Players, artists, aren’t created overnight. It shouldn’t be about margins of score, but types and qualities of players produced, and quality of product. Coaching is about progress over a season; the long term goals of developing life long students and players.

 url-1

Coaches are very inexperienced at the lower levels. Most parents start coaching when their kids play and stop coaching when their kids stop playing.

This is entirely true. Similarly to our players, we need to develop life-long coaches, not ones who will volunteer whenever a mother or father doesn’t want to. Once the child is done playing whether that is U10 or NCAA DI coaches must be around for the long haul.

We cannot just be book coaches.

With the countless coaching books available to coaches today, a large percentage of them being useless, we must teach application. Just because I can tell you how to tie your shoes doesn’t mean I can actually do it.  Coaches must learn from experience and must be able to adjust without the need of a blue print.

High School/College Soccer

College is part of the American culture; it is foolish to go against the mainstream.

Despite all its shortcomings college soccer provides its players an opportunity to play AND receive an education at the same time. We must be able to work with and amend this system to better fit a European model in an effort to produce actual footballers rather than athletes who play football.

In high school and college, players get four years older but not four years better.

Such a simple concept, but something we don’t recognize. Imagine how much we didn’t/don’t improve our players after the course of 4 years. I can testify that I didn’t get better over my years of high school soccer. Imagine if every player actually developed 4 years worth over their high school and college careers. US Soccer would be entirely different.

In the USA, going to college is a win-win situation. Graduate and earn 80K, go to professional soccer you earn 24K.

In no way am I going to argue against going to school and earning an education, nor will I ever argue against doing things you love for only money, but if student-athletes are training full time for academics and sport then there must be a comparable wages. (There is a myriad of reasons pro soccer players in the US don’t get paid more, but this point was just a food for thought.)

images

The pay offered by the US Soccer Federation is not worth the risk of leaving a college coaching job.

As a college coach I cannot agree with this any more. One reason I became a college coach was because the stability in the job. This is not to say there isn’t competition in the college coaching market, but working for a stable institution, which can provide housing and food if need be, is a lot more enticing than coaching for peanuts on the weekends.

College has had a positive impact but now they are blocking the process. College coaches agree that college does not prepare players for the pro level. College coaches will accept Project 40, if you give them a one year notice before you take their players. If players are pulled away from their soccer program, without notice and knowledge that this is best for the players and US Soccer, the college coaches will oppose it.

College soccer does hinder player development; moreover, it’s all about reloading. Consistently bringing in good players will consistently give you good results.

The Nation Teams Program

The regional staff coaches from across the nation complain about the fact that the players selected at the regional level are all midfield-type players, I simply smirk. Having been exposed to the regional selection in the past, I know that the problems they see it, is their own! No effort is made to identify different player types. Regional coaches simply look for what they perceive as the best all around players, regardless of positional specific qualities. Olympic Development Program (ODP) is but an oxymoron!

Keep in mind these words are from Queiroz, but there does seem to be a disconnect between State and Regional ODP coaches and National Team coaches. For the top of the pyramid to stand strong the base must be stable.

MapsRegionalODP

Claudio Reyna, Imad Baba and Nelson Vargas were not selected by the ODP system.

Reyna is one of the best US players to ever represent the National Team. If the system has passed over such a talent who is to say that haven’t passed over several thousands just like him? Keep in mind the point of ODP isn’t to develop players rather to find the best players available for that age group. There’s a huge difference.

Valderrama is a total genius. We need to know how to recognize great talent at a young age. What did he look like when he was 12 years old and how could we recognize another Valderrama? You need lieutenants to recognize talent. We need to design a formula to identify players. We must force kids to watch soccer videos. We should toss out the ODP program and go into the slums. We should hire Pele to identify players.

This point covers several different topics. The Valderrama mentioned is none other than Carlos Valderrama the famed Colombian. I agree there needs to be a way to better identify players. Think about all the qualities players you grew up playing with against or the ones you coached who you thought were quality, but never received any kind of recognition. Why was this? Were they not exposed to the scouts or what? For every player we identify there are dozens more we have missed. Forcing kids to watch soccer videos references back to soccer culture in the US and how unsupportive we are. There is a mention of going into the slums to identify players. This doesn’t work for a week reasons: 1) kids in US slums aren’t playing soccer. It’s basketball and football. 2) Soccer is a suburban white middle class sport. In regards to having Pele identifying players, I don’t believe that is the best choice. How many times has a Brazilian been dubbed the next Pele and failed to live up to expectations? I believe Pele could point out characteristics and qualities; however, there is so much more that goes into recognizing a special player, his/her genes, psyche, home life, etc. It’s not black and white.

ODP system is only a tryout system. ODP is not the answer and it’s a corrupt system.

Again, I completely agree! How many youth coaches coach the ODP of their club team? There’s a definitely a strong correlation. When I was growing up the ODP team from my age group had 6 or 8 players from one club team! What’s the purpose of a tryout if the coach already knows who will be on the team? How can coaches properly scout players over a three 2 hour session especially when hundreds of kids show up to tryouts? How is it possible for an injured player to make cut after cut without even playing?

url

Not everyone tries out for ODP, so it is difficult to see all the players. So players are forced to select between  ODP and clubs. Club coaches say play for me because I will give you more exposure. They are reluctant to send their players to ODP.

Queiroz touches paying to tryout for ODP as a deterrent for players trying out. Unless the player lives in the city or town the tryout is in he/she will have to drive to the location. What happens if he/she can’t afford to drive or catch a ride? Club coaches typically have better relationships with their players than ODP coaches. If the coach and player have built up a trust then they player will listen to what the coach says.

Final Thoughts

Queiroz and Gaspar bring up hundred of good points. I only touched on a few, but in the actual report there are 20 pages of these sentiments! Keep in mind this came out 15 years ago and that much has changed since 1998. In no way is everything I’ve touched on or the authors discussed is absolute truth. I do agree with most of what was said, but not everything. There is no right answer or correct way to solve the US shortcomings. However, I do believe if we were to implement a good portion of these ideas the culture, coaches, youth system, and national teams would be in a completely different state right now.

I believe it’s important to note that after Germany failed to make it out of the group stage of Euro 2000 the country revamped it’s entire system and now it’s producing some of the best talent in the world! The German system and Project 2010 have many similarities. The U19 Bundesliga is just one of many.

You can read Project 2010 in its entirety here. I highly recommend you checking it out and reading it for yourself. Despite it’s length, it’s an easy, informative, and interesting read all the way around!

Project 2010: Are We Closer to the Moon or Further Away

6a00e54eea3d1c88340133f60f5bdc970b-pi

In 1998 former Manchester United assistant coach and current Iranian national team coach, Carlos Queiroz and former University of Hartford head coach Dan Gaspar published “We Can Fly: Project 2010” which analyzed on the US Youth Soccer System. Furthermore, the report provided a roadmap outlining steps the US must take in order to win the World Cup in 2010.

I recently finished reading the report and found it both thought-provoking and inspiring. The only memories I have of the ’98 World Cup are being at soccer camp and calling the French’s victory, my father buying a replica US jersey (which he still wears today), and the infamous sight of McBride’s header fumbling through two Iranian defenders as it crossed the line for the only US goal of the tournament. While I was still young at the time, it didn’t take much for me to realize losing to Iran and finishing dead last was not something to be proud of.

To provide a brief synopsis,  the authors call for professionally trained coaches and scouts to find the best youth talent in the country who would gather at regional schools of excellence in an effort to foster as well as develop these players. Additionally, it called for the establishment of an under-19 national league. This league would be similar, if not the same as the U-19 Bundesliga, which was coincidentally created after Germany’s failure to qualify for Euro 2000. Needless to say I agree with much, if not all, of the report; however, my goal is not to dissect the report rather point out key ideas and statements which I found interesting.

(This is the first part of a multi-part post.)

SOCCER CULTURE IN THE USA

soccer-stupid

This is not about one game or one lineup. It’s about the fact too many American players, too many American coaches and too many American fans don’t get it. This is a tough, highly professional game they play at the World Cup. It isn’t about recreation or hard work of trying to do your best. It’s a life or death professional sports business. That’s a far cry from American Soccer.

I have definitely questioned the professionalism at the youth and professional level. I’ve found that it’s more of who you know not what you know.

Midwest player are technical and hard. West coast players are technical and soft. Mid-south is being and strong, and in the North East they are technical and hard. Players are a reflection of their region.

Queiroz and Gaspar touch on the varied styles of play in the states and how there isn’t a national identity.

In basketball, everyone wants to be Jordan, in football everyone want to be Montana. In soccer who do the kids want to be? Kids need to play everyday.

I believe with the increased media influence on society players are more informed than in ’98; however, the important thing to take away from this point is that kids aren’t playing enough!

Nigerians play in the street. Latin Americans play in the streets. Also, those who have had fathers who played will play. In the United States of America we have no street soccer and fathers who did not play.

Many of the greats played in the street. It is where they experimented with the ball and honed their skills. This point also touches on the fact that the game in the US is a white middle class sport rather than the people’s sport.

Americans don’t think the game. They’re preprogrammed. Kids don’t know how to solve problems. The game is not always predictable. Sometimes the coach can’ solve the problems for the players. Players must know how to resolve problems.

One of my convictions of a  coach. If a player can’t reason then they are doomed. The best coaches do all their training during the week and let the players play during the matches. There is no coaching during the game.

ORGANIZATION OF THE SPORT

Soccer is politically driven by self interest.

Backroom deals and power are the root of all evil in the American game fueled by the pay-to-play system.

It will take imagination and vision. It will take patience and it will take commitment, not to mention money and leadership.

Money must come from the clubs and government, not the parents of players. Moreover, it will take years, possibly decades to improve the system as a whole. If we show poorly in the World Cup or other tournaments it’s not the end of the world. Progress and change take time.

Three key areas: 1) Coaching education 2) Player Development 3) Soccer Development

Coaches get involved with the game because their kid plays. When the kid’s career ends, so does the coach’s. Learning is for a lifetime.

The Nike and Adidas situation will bite us.

There is an allegiance to these two companies. The “buy local” movement should be a focus for the youth game. Doing so creates a relationship with the community rather than name brands.

7169278_orig

We should only have two components: Professional and Amateur. Now we have Youth, Amateur, and Professional.

The college game does not develop talent! A 3 month schedule with 2 weeks of preseason leaves players with 9 months of doing nothing. In no other country is there college athletics. We must shift the focus to professional development instead of college education.

By the age of 16, our best players should leave home. WE must have an academic and soccer experience. We must have them in a residency program that simulates a professional experience and tour.

To become the best you must train everyday with the best. There is another point about building four soccer school similar to the ARCO training center. This will build a bigger pool for the national team.

We need to control their lives from the ages of 15 to 18. We need to have the support of the American society or we have nothing.

As the players’ brain develops academically it also needs to develop athletically. We cannot expect to produce world class talent by only training 2 or 3 times per week.

Hopefully this post provided some perspective. There will be a second part to this posting providing more thoughts from Project 2010.