A New Chapter

A New Chapter


“I do not fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks a single time. I fear the man who has practiced a single kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

This quote has meaning on several levels. Functionally, it’s a practical statement of fact. But it also speaks to the fundamental philosophy of martial arts and, frankly, a particular philosophy of life: success and self-actualizing through the pursuit of mastery, for its own sake, and, if needed, for an external purpose.

It has been a few weeks since I documented how and why we as a family decided to no longer have our 12yo daughter participate in organized soccer, despite her clearly being a talented and committed player. If you have you have not read my accounting of the events, take the time to read my last entry on this blog (“First, Do No Harm”).

Shortly after making that heart-wrenching decision, we discussed with her the possible activities she might consider. The idea of martial arts came up immediately, and ultimately we enrolled her in a Tae Kwon Do program at a local martial arts academy (note the proper use of the term academy).

From the very first class, I was stunned not only by the difference in both the nature of the activities and their instruction from what I had been used to, but also the vibe in the room. I literally couldn’t stop smiling.

The entire premise of basic martial arts is so fundamentally different from the more overbearing aspects of competitive youth sports in general, and competitive youth soccer in the US specifically.

Where to begin??

Like pretty much every other youth soccer player, my daughter had been immediately thrown into competition at age 7, literally a week after her first practice. What was her preparation? A couple of poorly run practices. What was her reward? Getting (having???) to put those newly developed “skills” (HAHA!) on display for opposing sets of parents to shout at and maniacally judge.

Roll forward 5 years in my daughter’s soccer experience and the level of training increased (largely when I got involved) but when she entered the “real” soccer system the level of competition and judgment and angst skyrocketed. The training and preparation, however, did not.

Compare that to her experiences in her very first Tae Kwon Do class, where the behavioral foundation and expectations were laid out before a single “skill” was even introduced. What specifically did I observe?

  • Students being required to bow and acknowledge all the adults in the room as they entered, with a “hello sir” or “hello ma’am”
  • Those same parents quietly but enthusiastically observing the lesson
  • Students showing appreciation for themselves, others and their instructor
  • Total command by the instructors, but in a positive, engaging and interactive manner
  • Complete rapt attention by the students to their instructor
  • The standard expectations of martial arts: discipline, focus, mastery and self-actualization

Was there a sense of “competitiveness”? Yes!! But the difference was this was competitiveness was largely “within” individuals to rise above their former selves, both in skill aquisition but also behaviorally. Competitiveness between students was present but it was in a positive, “bar-setting” manner, something for younger or less advanced students to aspire to. Kids of different ages and abilities were all learning EXACTLY the same things, at the same time. The only difference was how far along the path each student happened to be and how quickly they progressed. The higher-level belts did not belong exclusively to the older students; indeed, there were 8 year-olds that were fairly advanced while my own daughter learned the same basics all while adorned in her beginner’s white belt.

The “level” each student reflected visually by way of their belt color was more or less precisely where they deserved to be, based on their mastery of the material and the tenets of the discipline. You were observed in class over time and invited to various “belt tests” to move forward. You couldn’t buy your way into a Black Belt (the martial arts equivalent of the soccer “A-team”) or threaten to leave if you were not given that status. And you couldn’t go straight to Black Belt simply because you were slightly better than the majority of kids in your group. Imagine coming in as a rank beginner but immediately being given a Black Belt, not because you had mastered anything but because you were a bit better than others your age in the same TKD school. And yet, if a youth soccer player in America receives the ball across their body correctly 2/100 times, and all others can’t do it at all, they’re put on the A-team in their soccer “Academy” (lol) and play in the Elite league. Not so in martial arts—everyone follows the same path, and must progress through the same material and belt tests to advance. And the term Academy actually means something.

Furthermore, there was no expectation or demand that any student ever needed to compete in their discipline, and certainly not before they were ready. If and when a student had, in the opinion of ALL the instructors, advanced to the point where further growth might come from sparring and competing, that student would be INVITED to participate, and if they felt it was something they wanted to do, they could accept. Alternatively, they could decline and focus on continuing their mastery of the skills, with the chance to be invited again in the future when they might feel more ready.

We are obsessed in this country with artificially partitioning groups of players (“A/B/C teams”, “Elite/Premier/Select programs”) through unrealistic and inaccurate methods, and then throwing them into mindless competition without anything close to basic skill sets, with the competition levels based on those same artificial and poorly constructed metrics. And the problem seems to be worse in soccer as the vast majority of parents have no concept of the required skill sets in the sport, and most coaches are looking to use kids to keep the parents happy in the way of wins and trophies. There is no attempt made at mastery, only premature division and exploitation.

The entire nature of martial arts is quite literally in complete opposition to this. In youth soccer, parents are paying for games, abhorrently-defined “success” and the status that goes with it. In martial arts, parents seem to recognize that they are paying for instruction, and mastery, and betterment. And when a large part of that betterment comes in the form of respect and maturity, it’s not even a contest between the two.

So for us, the sounds of parents screaming like imbeciles has been replaced by the glorious cacophony of children shouting while learning their forms and growing as individuals.

And it’s wonderfully refreshing.





First, Do No Harm

First, Do No Harm


Today is a tough day.

My daughter, at just 12 years old, a young and promising goalkeeper, has ended her participation in soccer. She had grown weary, and frankly, after seeing both her and her older sister’s experiences in the game in this country, so had I.

So what happened? Let’s go back to the beginning.

When she began playing at age 7, following in her sister’s footsteps, she began as nearly everyone in the “system” does: at the rec level. Because in this country, even amusingly unorganized soccer must be organized.

Hoping to provide her team with a richer experience, I began helping to coach her team, in a method informed by my 40-year love for, and perceptions of, the global game, the real game. With no real credentials, I taught the girls to think, play with and for each other, and enjoy a deeper process of learning to master the ball and the game. Simple but important concepts, learned deeply, that empowered the girls to enjoy themselves. And it was wonderful.

We didn’t just talk about mastering the ball individually and possessing it collectively, we actually did it. We learned how to play out from the back. I didn’t just throw the girls out there and expect them to figure out how to build out simply from the basic rondos and possession games we did in other contexts. I trained it, as is necessary. We played well, and so differently from everyone else. And we won too. A lot. Even though it had never been a focus. And so we had to move up to keep the girls challenged, not because we were suddenly chasing glory, but because things had become too easy and we needed and wanted the growth that would come at the next level. Our competency and play dictated our level, as it should be.

We had our issues in the beginning at that next level, but soon new and more sophisticated concepts clicked again and we began to take another leap forward. Our girls were becoming soccer thinkers, and had the skills to execute what they saw in their mind’s eye. And they noticed the difference in how we played. And they enjoyed it. And we won again. A lot. And so we moved up to the club level as a team, coming in under the umbrella of a loosely constructed local club that allowed me to continue our work.

The dream was taking shape.

In our first season at the club level, our strong foundation surprisingly allowed us to slide right into that environment and continue our growth without faltering. And we won again. Immediately. A lot. But mostly the girls enjoyed playing and continuing to learn, and I enjoyed teaching them and watching them continue to take ownership of the game. By the end of that first club season, we still had never punted in a game. Ever. Everything started from the back. They never knew anything else. They were surely intimidated at times, but they pushed through and never wavered. It was a constant process, but by U10 it was in our DNA. We possessed the ball as a team, allowed for individual creativity, and stitched it all together. Confidence, competence, enthusiasm. The girls had it all. We weren’t “great” but relative to how our competition played and what they were learning we kinda were. We were completely unique. It’s like we had fallen from the sky.

And then, probably predictably, we came to a point where the demands of continuing on that path started to cause friction among our parents, some of whom understandably found it harder to divide their attention between their children’s various activities. And so I made the decision to step away, and shortly thereafter took my daughter and placed her on a traditional club team.

And now, nearly 3 years after entering the “system”, we have decided we have had enough of it.

“Dad, I haven’t really enjoyed playing since you coached me and our team.”

Chew on that for a bit.

A guy with no credentials, and zero standing in the “system”, produced a team of players that, relative to their surroundings, was an enigma. I was a nobody. I still am. And they were a bunch of neighborhood girls who had simply opened the park district catalog one Fall and signed up for rec soccer.

And yet, two-and-a-half years later, everything I had hoped to help these girls and my daughter experience had basically happened. But they were, like me, a one-off. I gave them a different perspective, one they enjoyed, one they excelled at. And one that STILL won.

What we did shouldn’t have been possible if you consider the barriers and the egos inside organized youth soccer in this country, but we did it. It shouldn’t have been NEEDED, but I needed to do it, for me and the girls.

So our family decision to leave the game isn’t about my daughter thinking soccer needed to be all about mindless, no-consequence “fun”. That experience was certainly available to her, but that wasn’t what we were doing. No, this was about the realization that the game became “serious” in all the wrong ways when my daughter entered the system. We would have been happy to compete at whatever level her “true” soccer ability and commitment dictated at a particular point in time, but instead we got some overblown, self-deluded and self-important youth system forced upon us, which without a single hint of self-awareness decided the level based not necessarily on who was good or potentially good but who simply was the most exploitable. “Talent Selection” trumped talent creation.

What she moved into wasn’t what she expected, or enjoyed. She and I had no particular goals in the game except to take the right things seriously, develop competencies, play it to a different and deeper standard, and to enjoy doing so. The “results” of that experience could wait until the foundation was laid. But that is quite literally impossible in this country, mostly because the system is controlled by people who only care about those results and who don’t measure them properly anyway. Won a game? Awesome! Moved up a level? Wait til the guys at work hear about this!!  No awareness, game understanding and a poor first touch after 5 years of elite soccer? What’s that and who cares.

Where is the pathway for someone who wants to play well, and play hard, but thinks the system is insane? Where is the opportunity for someone who is willing to wait and let their level of true competency decide how serious one is about the game, rather than being forced into early judgement on the wrong things, put into high-level (lol) competition and then judged even harder? Why are we in such a hurry to decide which of our ill-prepared young players is ready for “elite” play? It’s because of the almost complete ignorance of the American soccer parent. They are only capable of judging value based on what level their child plays at, and whether they win there. And they have gotten everything they asked for.

Some argue that the system should be opened up to the less fortunate, those who have been excluded for financial (and often bias) reasons. I don’t disagree. But the system itself, as it exists, is a sham even for the people inside it. And as one who has experienced it from the inside, with children that I wanted to see living and loving the game in a different way and to a different standard, I find it to be deficient in almost every way.

The general path in this country is precisely what we as a family experienced. Players start in the rec system, and are immediately behind the game from a global standpoint in terms of enjoyment AND competency (hint: there’s a connection). They don’t experience the years of formative self-play that kids from other nations do, and their early instruction is largely from both uninformed volunteer coaches and their own equally unaware parents. Then those stunted rec players enter the meat grinder of the club system and the real problems begin. (Note: I would call these parents “harmlessly unaware”, except that their lack of knowledge and eventual behavior within the sport ends up being quite sinister.)

Once in the system, the players retain their stunted understanding of the game, because the “licensed professional” coaches–even the ones that are competent and decent and have some global perspective– almost always have only one task:  placate the parents’ ridiculous demands and expectations, and do it well enough to keep the checks rolling in. Parents are surprisingly happy to pay extortionate amounts of money for the buzzword-laden “Elite Premier FC” experience and its attendant status, in particular the bragging rights to things other ignorant parents misguidedly value as well. But make no mistake: that is what they believe they are paying for, and if they don’t get it they will leave. Good training will not keep them around, as they don’t watch training and wouldn’t know the difference anyway. They have no concern about the inherent quality of the experience as a whole.  So the cycle continues, all without the players or the coaches ever consistently getting, or even needing to get, better at what they do. The seriousness of results and status ratchets up far beyond  the quality of play or instruction. The “level” of competition you can claim your child plays at (often ridiculously self-defined: see ECNL) supersedes the learning it should rightfully take to get there. Trophies “any which way” beats competency and richness and winning in a deeper way. And the longer you’re in the system, the farther down the rabbit hole you go.

In the particular case of ECNL, the eventual clubs and coaches quite literally came together, decided for themselves what “Elite” meant (note: not necessarily any more accurately than the prior ridiculous definition of Elite), and lopped off the clubs who met their definition, creating a Super-league that ramped up the absurdity and expenditure to obscene levels. Did the level of training go up to match? Of course not. Did it go up at all? Who’s to know, as it’s the same bunch of coaches as before. In short: the parents got up-sold. And they loved it!

Imagine a typical U12 girl, who often hasn’t even been taught a majority of the basics of the game, scrutinized to see if they were “ECNL material.” What does that even mean? What if you aren’t deemed to be good enough, not because of your own inadequacies, but precisely because you have gotten bad training since you started in the sport? Now what? Presumably it would mean that you are resigned to a lower level in your club, with a level of coaching to match (which might reasonably be true if higher-level coaching actually existed in more than a few places). So the very system that doesn’t provide the basics in the first place then proceeds to step back at some point in the process and pretend to fairly evaluate and judge the “quality” of a group of players they inadequately prepared, all while not acknowledging or even realizing how they are complicit. Utter madness. Players are judged on an artificial, insular, sliding scale of relativities. The “best” are simply better than the rest, but they often aren’t actually very good, as their base level can be preposterously low relative to where they could be. And yet, self-improvement issues aside, it’s not their fault.

And what if you ARE determined to have “ECNL quality”? What does THAT mean? Here’s what it means: you’re really screwed. You’re suddenly dragged around the country and sucked dry, often spending potentially $6k-8k for a 10 month program of hit-or-miss quality (no matter what the term “elite” implies), because it’s still populated with the same kind of coaching from the same pool of coaches from the same system. And it’s all tolerated–no, demanded or even created– because you blindly believe you will one day recoup your money in the form of a scholarship, while your child plays college soccer that is itself subpar because it’s the endpoint of the very same system.

But of course you still won’t know it’s shit. You won’t suddenly have an epiphany about what good soccer coaching and playing looks like, especially as YOU (not your kid) have secured your Holy Grail, which precludes you ever looking inward to do the math, or to be truthful with yourself about how and why you did any of it in the first place.

And so, it wasn’t until I started paying $1800 a year at her first “real” club, and then $2500 at the next, for this “licensed professional” coaching, that my own child decided she didn’t like the sport any more.

But of course, it wasn’t the sport that she no longer enjoyed. It was how the sport is presented and conducted in this country. We’re an aberration in the world.

So in the end, this self-important system provided nowhere near the richness of experience nor general competency, relative to what I, some local nobody, had endeavored to bring my child, and she doesn’t want to participate any more.

And it’s fucking ridiculous.

The conceit is that very often, the truly excellent (different?) players (in a global context) that you occasionally find at this level got there in spite of the system, not because of it. They were the players that had a passion that made them work on their game outside of team practices. Maybe they had a parent who “got” the game on that global level and showed them everything the system didn’t. They were the outliers that developed an ability and a confidence to not sweat how bad the system was around them. This is what I have tried to provide to both of my daughters. I have succeeded to some degree with my older one, but that seems more and more by the grace of God than me. The second I couldn’t save.

Because so many horrifically incomplete players reach the highest levels in this country, there is almost no motivation to go beyond what the system provides, and even though anyone here can see true high level sophisticated soccer on their TV every weekend coming from overseas, they’d be forgiven for questioning why they would work hard enough to play that way, when it’s not required to reach OUR highest levels, and may actually put you at a disadvantage. They would also, however, be forgiven for NOT even knowing that there is a question to be asked, because the US system is so far removed from what they watch that it seems like a different sport and the question never even occurs to them. Both thoughts literally point to exactly the same conclusion: players not experiencing the game the way it could and, I argue, should be, and certainly not to the level of their financial investment in it.

I tried to be the buffer for my dear sweet younger daughter, to give her insights and skills I knew she would never get from the system. I tried to “system-proof” her, especially as a goalkeeper who would surely succumb to mistakes made by players in front of her through no fault of their own. I wanted to create within her the ability and confidence to push on through it and not be fazed by it, but I still couldn’t get her to overcome it to the degree she could enjoy playing in it. I own my part of whatever stress I surely contributed to her experience in an attempt to push her to rise above. But regardless, we were both fighting the system.

And now she doesn’t want to be part of it any longer. She has the ability to play at an increasingly higher level, but to what end? To participate in a massively deficient system even if her team was “successful” by that system’s horribly self-defined standards? And all while we blindly hand our money over, with nothing but the slim hopes of partial recovery years from now? Sorry, no.

And when asked if she wanted to continue at a lower level, and just play for enjoyment and growth, she said “I don’t think so, anymore.” The spirit is gone, and because the coaching at the less intensive and demanding levels still isn’t focused on the right things, there is truly no place for her, or us. There is no FCB Escola near us. There are no truly progressive clubs near us who have carved out their own existence that delivers on what we are looking for. There is no great soccer education for its own sake, to be parlayed into whatever level you might want to play at.

Whether pay-to-play ever goes away, one fact remains: most parents believe they are paying for performance (as they and the system define it), not preparation. They believe they are paying for high level competition and wins and trophies and bragging rights and fuck all. They are paying for results, not process.

Where do people like my daughter and I fit in? The ones who would gladly pay for quality instruction, for a full and holistic approach to the game that if done the right way will keep kids loving the game, and will still win, and still allow for the most serious of them to reach the highest level of competition and performance when it’s time to make that a focus? Why can’t they just teach soccer well, and properly??!

Add in to all of this a striking amount of utterly abominable behavior on the part of coaches, both on the sideline during games and interpersonally, including sexual and psychological abuse, and you wonder how you could have been convinced to place your child into this environment.

And so I’m done hoping and looking for better. My daughter may decide after a period of time that she misses the game, would be ok simply playing it again, somewhere, anywhere. And I would support her, and hopefully do a better job of not trying to fix the game’s problems in this country through her.

Because I owe her that much.

And because I love her.


The Career Maker, The Career Killer

I’ve been involved as a coach, trainer and parent in this game for a good few years now, and my perspective has changed on quite a number of things.

I’ve gone from darn-near a “let them all dribble all they want” guy to a “identify the dribblers and nurture them, but teach all the rest how to play soccer” guy.

I have also moved away from teaching in “phases”: for example, I no longer believe that we need to focus strictly on technical aspects of the game until, say, age 12 before we introduce appropriate tactical concepts. I believe both things go hand in hand, and can be taught at the same time, much earlier than many “progressive” American and English coaches suggest (for proof, simply take a quick look at FC Barcelona’s La Masia).

But perhaps the thing that has changed the most for me is how much I now value one thing above all others, higher than technical quality, tactical knowledge or physical ability.

That thing is mentality.

I see plenty of ways in which players fail to reach potential. These days I see an increasing number of players with above average technical ability and tricks galore, but no tactical awareness. I see physical beasts with no technical skill or awareness who perform at a certain level but never improve. I see tactical and technical players that are physically unable to impose themselves on a game.

And yet, the biggest single determinant of success in soccer, and most likely in every other sport, isn’t any of those things.

It is mentality.

Without it, even a physically gifted, technically advanced and tactically astute player cannot and will not succeed.

What is mentality? It is the sum total of a player’s psychological makeup and thought processes. Mentality begins inside the mind of the player, but the effects show up on the outside. Mentality leads to action, or inaction.

What kinds of things can we ask about a particular player’s mentality?

-Are they honest with themselves about who and what they are as a player? Do they delude themselves into thinking they are better than they are out of ego preservation and fear? What do they fear? Failure, or hard work? Or success and responsibility???

-On the other side, are they so inherently negative that they can’t even imagine success, and therefore don’t work toward it?

-Does the player mentally commit to working at their limit in practice? Do they mentally commit to working on their own? Are they compelled to get better, and show that to their teammates and coach every single day? Are they willing to constantly put themselves “out there”, or do they hide?

-Do they cling to the old self, or strive for the new, better one, even if it means making mistakes in public? Do they challenge themselves to get better, knowing that doing so will raise the bar and the expectations and responsibilities that go with it?

-Does the player let go of any self-doubt and anxiety, and decide to make a statement every time they go out on the field with their engagement and work ethic, performance be damned?

-Do they have a “fixed mindset” of self-preservation, unwilling to make themselves uncomfortable and incapable of separating effort and process from result such that a new challenge intimidates them into inaction and a return to their comfort zone?

-Or are they of a “growth mindset”, where they cannot stand being the same player today that they were yesterday, where they are comfortable being uncomfortable and seek out new ways of wading into those waters?

The amazing thing about mentality is that it serves whatever purpose you decide it will serve: it will either help you or hurt you. The longer we maintain a particular mentality, the longer it becomes part of who we are, as opposed to how we think.

If we have a positive mentality, whether “naturally” or through effort, that’s a great thing. If, however, we have a negative mentality, we tend to feel like “this is just who I am, and I can’t be fixed.”

The reality is that we don’t need to be “fixed”, but our mentality does. We need to actively change our mentality because it has become associated with “who we are”. And we must actively change “how we think” until the desired changes take root.

Some truths about mentality:

-If you are not realistic with who you are and where you are in your development, you cannot, by definition, know how much you need to improve and you cannot reach your potential.

-If you cannot take external criticism of your performance without considering it an indictment of you as a person, you cannot reach your potential.

-If you cannot take external criticism of your mentality (and by extension your physical process), and use that as an excuse to not work, as opposed to a clarion call for you to get your act together, you cannot reach your potential.

-If you are realistic with who and where you are, and have accepted external criticism as well, but fear the damage to the ego that the eventual struggle might produce, you cannot reach your potential.

-If you think that because you have succeeded because you work harder than you used to, even if it’s far short of what you’re capable of, you cannot reach your potential.

-If you cannot focus on the process of getting better without being overly distracted by the results (good or bad), you cannot reach your potential.

The short answer is that EVERYONE needs to improve. And EVERYONE needs to be working, in some form or fashion, to improve ALL THE TIME.

What having the proper mentality allows you to do is maximize the application and impact of the other abilities you have, and provide you the drive to constantly and consistently improve on those abilities.

Here are some things to consider, especially if you struggle with mentality:

Focus on the process(es), not the result. That includes the thought process and the physical acts that stem from it (work ethic, going harder in practice, putting yourself out there to be evaluated, etc). Intellectualize the process, and use emotion only in a positive way, never negative. Even anger can be positive, if it’s channeled into increased focus on the process.

Measure yourself against your (best imagined) self, but remain focused on the process. If you have a model player to emulate, use them to guide your process and your work, not your results, but trust that the results will come.

-Don’t quit before you’re finished, just because you’re seeing some results. This shortsighted approach will keep the new thought processes (and their attendant practices) from becoming engrained enough to become the “new you.” In the same way that we are cautioned not to stop taking an antibiotic just because we start to feel better, never stop working at making a wholesale commitment to improving your mentality.

It never gets easier.

But YOU control it. You always have and you always will.

Your parents don’t control it, your coach doesn’t control it, your trainer doesn’t control it, your teammates don’t control it, your opponents don’t control it.

The minute you realize this is all in your hands is the minute things start to change.

But it is ONLY the start.

And it starts now.


The College Recruiting Process – Part 2

Since I posted my original blog on this topic, much has happened that impacts our search.

Bean made HS Varsity as a Freshman, and her team made the IL State 3A final, against all expectations. It was a tremendous experience and helped her grow. Following that up, she also made IL State ODP first team.

Now, both HS soccer and ODP have their positives and negatives as we all know. HS added some things to Bean’s mentality and toolkit that she needed, but the quality of her team and opponents was a big part of it and I readily acknowledge that it is often the exception rather than the rule. I would certainly not tell someone definitively to play HS or exclusively focus on club. You’ll have to weigh that for yourselves.

On the issue of ODP, however, I will say that the only reason we tried for the first time ever this year is to have it on her resume’, and for that (and that alone) it was worth it. I found the experience to be almost completely without value in terms of the training (shallow and unsophisticated), and for something that literally has “Development” in its name, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Right on through to the Regional ODP competition, the focus was on highlighting the new “tricky/creative” type players, and the always adored “athletes”, so that the IL team could excel. Which it did, winning Region II.

Our lasting memory, though, will be the coach screaming to Bean in the third group game to mark the keeper on a corner kick, forgetting that she was sitting on the bench next to him, having been pulled out and never re-entering after only 15 minutes of playing time straddling half-time . So in the end, they used her, we used them, and we’ll go our separate ways.

As I write this we’ve just completed our first full summer of college ID camps, attending 5. Many things happened as expected, but there were some surprises (good and bad) along the way.

First, a couple general thoughts.

The experience of the ID camps confirmed their importance in the recruiting process. Along with higher-level club tournaments and USYS club regional competitions (both of which we are fortunate enough to participate in), they are perhaps the best way to get seen by a school you want to consider playing at. Showing yourself at these camps can spur interest, or they can be used to solidify interest that began in other ways.

As mentioned in the first blog, you must be proactive, however, both in finding that club that plays at a “high level”, either results-wise, or style-wise, preferably both (which again, we searched for and finally found) and in reaching out to the schools you might want to play at and let them know about you and your playing schedule.

The short version of the Summer of Soccer 2015 is that it has been quite successful. Beginning in June, Bean participated in USYS Club Region II regionals and according to reports played the best soccer of her life. Indeed, she had two low/mid-major D1 schools (one in Chicago, one in Milwaukee), both of which were on her list, reach out through her coach after the competition to start a dialogue. She was able to squeeze in an ID camp at one of them on short notice a few weeks later and performed well.

Just the very thought that there are potentially schools out there that might have interest—without us absolutely having to pound the drum—is perhaps the most encouraging news we could have wished for.

On the down side, her #1 choice, a perennial D2 powerhouse in Michigan, a school that really does try to play possession soccer and who we thought would be more accepting of a player of Bean’s physical stature, continued with their “she’s really good, but very small” characterization,. Further, after approaching the head coach and introducing myself he jokingly make a crack about me (“Mr. Video Editor himself”). Sorry, coach, but when people continue to obsess about size, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do but try play up someone’s other qualities. Put yourself in our position.

A visit to a large D1 school in Cincinnati produced a similarly mixed bag. The coach did a phenomenal job laying out what the college search process, and the eventual student/athlete experience will, can and should be. I was quite encouraged by the time this coach took to explain the details and connect with the players and parents. It was odd, however, when I asked my “red flag” question about how often the team played out from the back. I try to see how they play for myself (first), or ask the coach, as I find this cuts through a lot of the bullshit that coaches like to spout about how committed they are to possessing the ball and playing a thinking version of soccer. This question actually seemed to rankle the coach a bit, and there was quite a bit of “we try……depends on opponents….I’m here to win….” in his attempt to answer. Not exactly the best signs for a small, clever center mid. But that’s why I ask the question.

So as we head into the end of summer, and MRL and the showcase tournaments start back up, we are getting more aware of what Bean needs to work on, and where she might have a chance to play.

But perhaps the biggest thing is that it appears she WILL have a chance to play at the next level, and her mentality to get there is growing by the day.

The Case for Structure as the Foundation for Creativity

There’s a debate that rages almost daily among Twitter football coaches. It’s a healthy and necessary one.

Structure or creativity?

As with many such discussions on Twitter it becomes fairly polarizing, however, so what I’d like to do is make the case for compromise, and posit that without structure, the promise of creativity can never be fully realized.

For purposes of discussion, I’d like to use music as my means of exploration.

When I was young, my father often used to turn on the gigantic hi-fi stereo in our living room, and play one, and usually several, of the hundreds of jazz records he had collected over the years.
The following night, he may have popped in his favorite Santana tape, or perhaps pulled up his favorite classical station on the radio.

Music was a big part of our household, and I was exposed to all types: classical, jazz, latin jazz, rock, bluegrass, standards, and many more.

When I was old enough, I was asked to choose an instrument to study. I chose violin. Looking back, it was an odd choice.

As I studied, practiced and performed, I became fairly proficient. But I also found myself unfulfilled.
The classical music I was studying, while challenging, engaging and even
emotionally stirring, lacked something for me, personally.

I missed the personal connection that the performers of jazz had with their music. The freedom of expression wasn’t fully there. Indeed, I was often reprimanded for “noodling” on my violin during breaks in orchestra practice. I longed for some way to express on my instrument what I had heard in other musical genres.
Looking back, it would have been wonderful to veer off into the jazz-fusion electric violin of Jean-Luc Ponty, or the straight jazz violin of Stephane Grappelli, or the bluegrass fiddle of Mark O’Connor, but I never quite figured out how, and eventually I gave up the violin. I soon picked up my father’s classical guitar, shortly after hearing blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time. I still play to this day.

Stevie, and blues in general, was a perfect bridge between structure and creativity. And it was within my abilities to jump in at this level because having listened so intently to different styles of music for so many years, I developed a very good ear. I’m able to pick up and learn songs I like fairly readily. I can even solo to some degree, though like Ferris Bueller, I’ve never taken a single lesson.

Why and how can that be? It’s not terribly remarkable. Many people have “picked up the guitar”, even without a prior background in music, and taught themselves to play. Many do so in the genre of rock music, which in its most popular form is often quite basic. Nevertheless, to some degree or another, they learn.

The key is that music, for all its creative possibilities, is essentially founded in patterns and structure.
The number of notes is finite. From those finite markers come different “scales” and “keys” and “modes” and “chords” that everyone will eventually learn if they stick with it long enough.

And that’s just the notes!! Factor in concepts like beat, time, tempo, phrasing, verse, chorus, bridge, intro, outro, vamp, pocket, lead, harmony, tone, overtone, raised, diminished, playing “inside”, playing “outside”, octave, modulation, etc…and suddenly you see that structure and commonality is not only good, it’s necessary, and it must start early!

It is the process of learning those concepts, and recognizing them, that allows the connecting of ideas within those concepts to take place in new and creative ways. And, frankly, it is the only way in which musicians can play with each other with any sense of unity, no matter the musical genre.

What struck me about jazz was the unbelievable melding of structure and creativity, of prepared material and improvisation. Many jazz musicians have at least some background in classical music, and often can play other instruments (typically the piano), which allows them to become steeped in the basics of musical structure and progression.

When a musician begins to focus on jazz, there is a new language, new structures and progressions, but the “idea” that those things exist has already been established, which makes learning the new ones that much easier. The deviations between styles and genres now become something that can be manipulated and exploited, toyed with, to create musical interest. If you don’t understand the structure and conventions, how can you intelligently deviate from them??

Competent musicians have been given structure since they began on their instruments, whether that be at age 4 or age 40. It’s valuable and necessary to them. And excellent musicians probably have even a greater need and appreciation for structure.

Indeed, that structure is what turns potential chaos into art.

Below is a video of the Robert Glasper Trio. Robert is an esteemed jazz keyboardist, but crosses over several genres seamlessly. How? Structure.

Beginning at around the 8:00 mark, Robert and his bandmates decide they are going to improvise a tune from scratch, on the spot.

Now, ask yourself: could these musicians “create” something like this spontaneously, if they didn’t have a common language and were all trying to do their own thing? What if each played in a different key? What if their instruments weren’t tuned?

And what might it say about how we expect our kids to be instructed in football? Structure and foundation isn’t just letting the kids all do their own thing, it’s teaching them how to play with each other. And sadly, these days I see far too many kids being allowed to make noise instead of music.

Judge Not the Coach on What They Do Or Say, Rather Judge Them on How Their Players Play

We all know that to truly judge someone, we should look beyond their words, and evaluate their actions. For a coach, however, as with any teacher, it goes a step further, since their results can be seen in the people they are instructing.

When you as a parent and/or a fan of the game are financially invested in it, you constantly need to evaluate whether you are getting value for money. And for all the money that’s thrown around the game of soccer in this country, including the obscene amounts at the youth level (some $5B by a recent measure), two things are obvious.

Talk is still cheap, and the proof will always be in the product.

I’ve followed this game long enough now to have heard and seen just about everything. I’ll even admit that my stance has changed fairly dramatically on certain issues.

I’ve seen US Soccer, to their credit and in their own way, try to adapt to the modern game by improving the development and ID process, slowly changing focus from the pure athlete, to now some hybridized “dynamic, athletic skill-centric” player, something I probably would have welcomed a couple years ago.

Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that as a parent you’re paying the same exorbitant fees for essentially less instruction, and more “let them be creative” pseudo-coaching. I’ve seen it first-hand.

So when a coach says that they’re following the US Soccer guidelines and are “all about development”, shouldn’t their players actually be developing? Shouldn’t you be able to tell for yourself, based on how they play?

After several years of this new-found focus on “development”, why is it that so many players I see are not much better than when they started, even at the very skills they have been so focused on? Why, for all the touches they’ve built up, is their “first” one so poor, both technically and tactically?

Could it simply be that they’ve had a coach who didn’t properly deliver on those concepts? Sure, there’s certainly no shortage of poor coaches.

But what I’ve seen appears to be much more a dictatorial adherence to the “skills, skills and more skills” phenomenon. They are coaching exactly the way they think they should, or have been told to. They believe that endless ball mastery, often with a focus on dribbling, will turn everyone into technical whizzes, which will make for both more incisive players AND better possession soccer when those skills are harnessed into a collective. In short—they believe it will lead to better development.

It’s a result of the notion that Ronaldo’s and Messi’s et al can be created, that somehow every team can or should have 11 such players, and that the only way to develop them is to let them take as many touches as they need, as often as they want, while only gently guiding them. In reality, if everyone is trying to do this, most players are taking far more touches than they should, and it becomes an ingrained habit that is every bit as bad as launching a ball to nowhere as soon as it arrives at their foot. Again, it’s something I’m seeing far too often, and while the individual on the ball might be getting touches, the others in that moment surely are not. Nor are they usually doing much “supportive movement”. They’re usually standing around, watching the show.

The cause is pretty obvious. It’s an overreaction to the very real problem of kids not getting enough touches on the ball, on their own. But it’s morphed into the coaching school of “let the kids use their skills to get into trouble, and to get out.”

And sadly, for all our hoping and wishing and touchy-feely empowerment, using valuable practice time to largely let players figure out on their own how to develop their game is neither productive nor valuable, either to the player or my wallet.

However, before you overreact to this position, and exclaim that I’m in favor of over-coaching, non-stop correction, and taking the fun out, simmer down a moment.

Dribbling is great. Mistakes are great. In fact, they’re wonderful! But are the players making mistakes trying to play soccer, or trying to dribble through the entire other team like they’ve done for the past 4 years?? There’s a big difference.

I’ve seen this shift in developmental approach at the youth level for sure, and to some extent the college level. I can’t say I’ve yet seen it at the MLS level because the transformation is not that far along, and most of the time I frankly can’t describe what the hell I’m seeing in that league.

I suppose what troubles me the most about this shift is the idea that an increasing number of people seem to have: namely that technical ability, awareness and decision-making can’t be worked on simultaneously, all from a young age, but rather that everything must be in “stages”. Maybe an elite academy with exceptional coaches can take this approach in a nuanced fashion, but sadly, I’ve not found much evidence that we have what it takes to make it work here. Instead, I see compartmentalized, fractured, stunted, incomplete, robotic, and limited players without the capacity to “fill in the blanks” and connect ideas. There’s no thread that connects anything they do, no common concept of the game that connects them to their teammates.

Now, I do consider dribbling to be a “basic” and important skill, and certainly all things being equal, dribbling generally produces more touches per minute than anything else, but only for the player with the ball. And in a game there is only one ball. If your practices are so geared to one player, one ball, what happens when they have to share one, and they’ve not been shown how it works, and how it allows everyone to get touches?

That’s precisely why I also consider passing, awareness, and decision-making to be basic and important skills. In the overall scheme of things, I value the last two of those to be far more important and empowering. Why must we wait until a player is in their teen years to teach them how to play the game?? Somehow we expect more touches to automatically be more educational. That may be true if the coach is savvy enough, but again, that level of sophistication is lacking in this country.

Should American soccer at U13 look like a clueless dribble-show and trick-fest? Because in some ways, that’s where we’re headed, while we wait for the “appropriate” moment to introduce broader concepts.

The lack of appropriate field awareness and decision making turns the “plenty of touches” approach into just another form of non-soccer, and I would judge a coach of such a team as not being about development at all, no matter what he says or what his practices are designed to produce.

At the highest levels of US Soccer, people increasingly talk about “possession” and “creativity”. USWNT coach Jill Ellis says her squad will possess the ball better and be more creative, but there’s very little evidence of that. Indeed, her short-lived predecessor Tom Sermanni was the first coach to seemingly undertake that process, and we see where that got him.

Jurgen Klinsmann, for all his (valuable) shaking of the establishment, wants to play creative, possession-based soccer as well, but seems to have no concept of how to get there. He does, apparently, believe that we need a “different kind of fitness” to do it. That may be the case, but what about the actual creative possession part?

So after all this discussion, here’s the reality: a coach can say and do all they want, but how does their team play?

Are the players efficient and effective with their touches? Do they move the ball? Is there good spacing and ideas, relative to their age? Are players making smart 1v1 choices, rather than poor 1v4 ones? Are they preserving the ball when necessary, and pushing ahead when they can? Does it resemble….you know….soccer? Because all these concepts can happen a long earlier than most believe.

And in the end, just like the ball itself, the players don’t lie.

What Price Hubris??

There’s arrogance. There’s hubris.

And then there’s the average American soccer coach.

I’ve been following world soccer since 1974. I was a fan of the original NASL in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I followed the Chicago Fire in MLS after they were founded in 1998.

And I’ve been connected to the youth soccer scene in this country since my older daughter started playing roughly 7 years ago.

What I’ve seen, and still see, in the way of coaching behavior and attitude at all levels in this country, astounds me.

Indeed, it’s perhaps the biggest reason I’ve tried to get into the profession myself (pretty unsuccessfully, which might be telling in its own right.)

The issue is this: for all their self-congratulatory back-slapping, there are far too many American coaches who have absolutely no actual bona fide’s in this sport. At the youth level they crow about the tournaments they’ve won, at the HS and college level they show off the “All-Americans” they’ve “produced”, and in the pro ranks they celebrate their parity-fueled “championships”.

And it’s all bullshit.

Do foreign clubs love winning youth tourneys? Of course, but it isn’t the purpose for their existence.
You know what an esteemed Dutch academy coach once said about an “All-American” who was being talked up: “All-American?? You know what All-American is? All-American is fucking clown shoes.”
And don’t get me started on the closed-shop mentality of MLS where coaches with no experience whatsoever are handed jobs simply because they were former “gritty MLS standouts.”

So after following all manner of soccer in this country for decades, and observing how my own children’s coaches have acted over the years, I find it impossible not to contrast that with my experiences in the international game.

To wit, I had the pleasure of working side-by-side with coaches from the Barcelona Escola the past two summers in their camps in Chicago. What stood out was their humility, even knowing the level of expertise they had. They were 100% committed to education of the player and person, in the richest way possible. The experience for me was as enjoyable as it was eye-opening.

These were coaches who work for less money than the average American youth coach, but who in all likelihood know far more about the game and how to teach it.

And yet, on the first morning of a 2-day coaching clinic given by the Escola staff prior to the 2013 camp, I watched 3 prominent youth coaches from my home town enter the room late, act like 7th graders, and leave at the first break, never to return.

Apparently there was nothing that youth coaches from perhaps the finest club in the world could teach them about soccer.

Further, I watched a video this morning of an MLS Academy coach running his young charges through a technical passing drill, one that likely any coach around the world has done before. In this setting, however, it was an utter abomination on both the players’ part as well as the coach’s. After commenting about the lack of quality, I inquired into the coach’s background and was informed off the record that as suspected, he was an arrogant, dismissive sort who cared very little about his players. Unfortunately, his attitude showed up in spades in performance of those same players.

Even at the highest levels of coaching in the US, this attitude persists.

A well-known women’s D1 college coach recently mocked Jurgen Klinsmann as a “Eurosnob”, then several weeks later announced he would no longer support Man United because the club was changing from Nike to Adidas kit.

But this is a man who’s judgment I’m supposed to trust and send my daughter to play for.

Bruce Arena, former USMNT head and current LA Galaxy coach recently said, in response to Jurgen Klinsmann’s recent comments about maximizing the development of American players: “I don’t think (European clubs) necessarily anything more about soccer. No one in Europe knows anything more about soccer than we do. The drills we use are the same ones they use.” Maybe Bruce should watch the video of the MLS Academy coach above and rethink his statement.

Soccer is a world game. THE world game. It happens on a world stage, and is there for all to see and judge.
So where are the world class American field players? Where is the American club vying for international recognition on the field, as opposed to the PR arena?

Why are young American players leaving in droves to join European academies, but seasoned American veterans are returning home?

Could young American players be leaving because they are tired of shooting for the “dream” in their own country that at best might pay them $100k a year? And even the ones who stay here hedge their bets by pursuing their college degree first?

Maybe they are tired of arrogant youth oaches who don’t really develop them on a par with the players they see in foreign leagues every Saturday and Sunday on satellite TV. Could it be that they’re tired of the politics and mis-identification of talent in this country, of having their talent and progress subjugated in favor of a team’s “star” players? Perhaps they’re tired of being pigeonholed in a certain superficial role or position by a coach intent on winning some meaningless trophy or league, rather than learning the depth of the real game to an international standard.

Why do long-time pro’s flame out abroad, or get tired of the grind, and return to the US? Could it be that they were ill-prepared for the game on the world stage? Might it be that their coaches coddled and used them for their own purposes, but failed to give them the technical, tactical and psychological preparation to compete with players that have given their all in a crucible of professional development since they were 6 years old?

The hubris and lack of self-awareness in American coaching is an epidemic. Talent is being wasted on a daily basis that if harnessed and trained properly could produce a men’s World Cup trophy within one generation. I truly believe that. And on the women’s side, no matter how much the establishment says they recognize the world is catching up, the steps that need to be taken are not happening.

So until the coaches that act like they know it all, and who use that position to lord over players and parents, come to their senses or are forced out, we will continue to fall short of our goals, but more importantly, our players will continue to suffer.