Tag Archives: soccer

Youth Soccer’s Jekyll & Hyde Dilemma

JekyllHydeIt’s one of my favorite lines from a song by one of my favorite bands “Your actions speak so loud, I can’t hear a word your saying!”  The song is called “I want to conquer the world” and it juxtaposes the idealism and the reality of people.  It’s a punk rock song and due to soccer’s historical underground following in the US, I usually equate the two on a few levels.  At the moment, the youth soccer world is caught in an almost Jekyll and Hyde scenario.  Many of the positives of the sport that is loved by millions are regularly mangled and deranged in the pursuit of momentary glory.  In each paragraph, I will start with the ideal and follow it with the real.

Soccer is fun!  – That’s absolutely right.  The game is or can be fun.  It is played worldwide in streets and fields by kids who truly love to express themselves with a ball.  More than ever though in the United States, we are heaping pressure on younger and younger players to perform.  Not for the joy of the game but for the reward of the result.  The players being indoctrinated into a system where they’re sent a very direct message, “perform well or else!”  The consequences are being benched or being cut.  As young as 8 years old, players are treated like performing fleas.  The actions send a clear message that fun is at best secondary and probably tertiary behind results and development.

Sportsmanship is important! – Of course, treating other people with respect is an important lesson to learn in sports.  Unless it’s the referee that’s missed five hand balls already!  He or she deserves to be told exactly how horrible they are.  It is hilarious to think that kids practice for hours each week but a comment about their actual skills from the sidelines is rare.  A majority of comments are directed at the one person who no one is there to see perform.  Our children are learning a dangerous lesson about their place in society.  Do your best and if anything doesn’t go your way, blame the authority because they are supposed to be perfect.  Those people in charge are not human and deserve to be treated horribly.  Could this be why we have a referee shortage?

We support you! – Youth soccer is a multi million (probably billion) dollar business because parents care enough to give their kids the very best!  The best trainers, the best camps and the best tournaments are all purchased for a premium price.  That financial investment shows exactly how much parents care for their kids.  Or perhaps the lack of their personal time investment says something else as practice becomes a convenient babysitter.  I can hear the justification now, “But the trainer is better than me coaching.”  That might be true but can you line fields, be a club board member or practice with your child.  If a child truly loves to play, then they would probably enjoy playing with their parent from time to time.  Relegating your involvement in your child’s athletics to spectator is a low level of involvement.  Children need their parents.  Outsourcing may be a sign of the times but there are some jobs that are too important to be left to hired hands.

Perhaps it is time to reign in the beast and start walking the talk.  The ideas are all out there in the world.  Generally speaking people know the answers but lack the fortitude to follow through.  Whether it is a “keeping up with the Joneses mentality” or a lack emotional control in the moment.  People need to realize that the macro is made up of the micro.  The small decisions, that we make about how relating to our children through sport, will inform the larger decisions that they make about their lives.  Are we setting our kids up to be the best versions of themselves?  Or are the mixed messages going to create a noticeable disconnect between the sent and received?  “It is what it is” may be a popular statement but it’s not a plan.  Let’s make it what it should be.

Pete

 

 

I Had To F%#$ This Up!

HHS Soccer
Not exactly the right year but the shorts tell the story!

I was in 8th grade and my school soccer team was playing against North Warren.  They were the only team that had beaten us all season.  It was late in the game and the score was still tied.  Someone passed me the ball as I was wide open in front of the unprotected goal.  I shot the ball and it sailed over the goal.  It almost defied physics!  I was so close to the goal that missing seems as though it was harder to do than scoring.  The memory of that shot is almost 30 years old and it still bugs me a little bit.  All of these years later though, I’ve come to realize that I had to miss that shot.  In all of our lives, there are things that we really have to f%#@ up.

No one wants to fail.  The disappointment, the shaken confidence and the negative memory are all reason enough to avoid failure.  People are always trying to give themselves the best chance for success in any endeavor.  Aiming for success is always crucial but always achieving it is both impractical and probably detrimental to future successes.

The path to where you are is probably filled with potholes, detours and the occasional breakdown.  Even though we think that we want a smooth and clear path to our destination, most of the fire that we have in our belly comes from past failures.  Learning how to live through and overcome failure are key ingredients to a growth mindset.  Although we live in a physical world, the beginning of almost everything in our lives starts in our mental world.  That is the space where failure can be taken, molded and turned into a stepping stone for future success.  I’m sure that you want whatever you’re working on right now to be a great success and I hope that it is.  However what if you need to F%#@ this up to succeed later.  Part of the equation is that you really want to succeed but recognize in the long term f%#@ ups are part of the equation too.

Give it your all today!

Pete

Talent and Tryouts and Trainers! OH MY!

wizard of ozIt was a big deal!  I remember it very plainly.  My parents, brothers and I would all sit down with popcorn and watch “The Wizard of Oz”.  It was an annual occasion.  The movie is definitely a classic but I think that the ritual and nostalgia factor make it a little more important for me.  Despite being released in 1939, the story stands the test of time.  A young girl has a magical adventure that ends up being a dream but she learns that her search to distant lands led her back to the home and people that really mattered in the first place.  Most of the things that she desired or feared ended up being fake or easily defeated.

As the spring soccer season continues, I am inundated with emails about tryouts, camps and recruiting services.  It is not a new thing that is unexpected.  However following many discussions that I’ve had with members of my own club, I’m left wondering if the modern American soccer culture isn’t a lot like Dorothy.  Are we searching for something that is hollow and the truest prize is in our own backyard?

It is tryout season and clubs throughout my area will be selecting the best talent they can find.  Then they will pair that talent up with a paid trainer in order to improve upon that talent.  (Full disclosure I am a paid trainer)  Games will be won and lost over the course of the year.  Then the cycle will repeat.  The teams and players will progress down the yellow brick road toward what exactly?  The best of the best will be professionals.  The second tier will play in college.  The rest will either fizzle out along the way or play in a recreational type setting for as long as they enjoy it (love men’s and women’s leagues!).  So is it really that a majority of us are hoping that our kids get to that promised land of professional or college that we’ve created this monster system?  Or is it that we’ve forgotten where we are and where we’re going?  My fear is that in a few more years many people are going to find the little man behind the curtain and be shocked.

CoachingSoccer is an inherently simple game that has so much to offer to the people who play and watch it.  The positives that it offers to young players are generally intrinsic rather than extrinsic.  Physical fitness, self-confidence and camaraderie just to name a few.  None of these positives require talent, tryouts or trainers, OH MY!  In fact all three may inhibit the expansion of these intrinsic positives because they are all short term.  Talent is relative and momentary.  Tryouts make players commodities first and people second.  Trainers are generally interested in the short-term improvement of skills in a very selective area.   It is not that these things are without their place.  However they should not be the silver bullets that are used to propel our young players forward.  If the vast majority of youth soccer players are not going to end up in the top two tiers of involvement, then should we (the adults) be building the yellow brick road?  Or finding our way back to Kansas?

My beliefs is that the solution is on the horizon if enough people are willing to look for it.  It all comes down to focus.  If the focus is put and maintained on the idea of making our kids great people first, then we all win regardless of the outcomes on Saturdays/Sundays.  Do we have to pay for that service?  Most likely not.  It takes involvement and time from the adults who truly care about the kids.  My father coached my teams for year and his soccer knowledge, at the time, came from books.  The game has progressed since then but so has the knowledge of the parents and accessibility to information.  Since the focus is not on game results, tryouts might go away or be held every two or three years.  That way the team gets to be “a team”.  Finally what will happen to the talent of our players?  Won’t their soccer skills drop if we no longer employ these improvement strategies.  For the long term, does it matter?  Off the field, my soccer skills have saved a few glass bottles from breaking.  Other than that, the non-soccer skills have been far more important.  Learning how to lead, fitness, problem solving and self-improvement are all practical skills that were honed on the field.  In the short term, there are other ways to improve one’s soccer skills without expensive trainers.  It’s called practice!  Kids are extremely adept at using YouTube to figure out many things.  Perhaps watch that video with the child and go into the backyard to practice.

In ten years will we not know our extremely talented former soccer players?  Or will we have a self-reliant young person that we can relate to who was OK at the kicking game?  There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.

See you on the field!

Pete

The Championship Photo

ChampionshipPhotoIn this country and around the world Champions are lauded for their accomplishments.  Usually the scene of victory is filled with a trophy to be kissed, confetti falling, champagne popping and players/fans rejoicing.  The reason that this scene is so easy to recreate in one’s mind is that it is pervasive throughout sport.  Depending on the particular sport, one could be even more specific about the scene.  Regardless of which championship is one there is an invisible specter that is ever-present but has seemingly been forgotten by many who are watching.  The fruits of the labor are on full display but the labor often gets overlooked.  In a world where instant gratification is becoming more of the norm will we be seduced by the empty triumph of getting the small reward now or choose the labor that creates real results?  The answer is that both will happen.

There will be many people who get swept up in the power of the “Now Economy”.  They will take the short term rewards and overlook some of the long term consequences.  It is not a surprising phenomena that people take the easier path.  On a biochemical level, our reward system is easily seduced by the immediate regardless of its hollowness.  It takes time and training to override this system.

The greatest of all time were able to train themselves to be long term greedy.  Rather than giving in to the temptation of the moment, they put in the work now in order to reap the benefits later.  Often that was months or even years later.  The prize at the end may have been what drove them but the process of attaining greatness is won daily.

Each of us has the power within to choose.  There probably won’t be a championship trophy at the end for most of us.  Our accomplishments won’t be on ESPN.  It will almost all happen on the inside.  The triumph will be over self and circumstance with only a few fans (friends and family) there to celebrate.  Will you be able to hold your head high based on what you have done?  Or will you be looking down at the path of shortcuts that you took to run yourself in circles?  You have the power to choose and you’re choosing right now.  Choose wisely!

Pete

 

An American Soccer Manifesto (Part 1)

lukesoccerSoccer in the United States is gaining undeniable momentum in American culture.  While the progress of the sport in this country has been slow, its impact is becoming more widespread.  Through the various parts of this “Manifesto”, I will plead a case for the reasons for the proliferation of the sport and the impacts on the country at large.  Physical, social, psychological and philosophical outcomes can be reaped through the more widespread acceptance of soccer as a national force.  It may be a difficult argument to the general public because as Tom Weir of USA Today wrote in 1993, “Hating soccer is more American that apple pie.”  While this sentiment may be changing, a deep dive into the facets of a transition is in order.

History

The history of the kicking game has been chronicled at length by others.  Therefore my historical narrative will not be about the development of the game in the country but rather a juxtaposition of our historically American sports’ positive impacts on the country at large.

Despite baseball being considered the “National Pass Time”, American football has largely been the dominant sport of the past century.  This is due in large part to the sport developing during the emergence of the US as a world power while also sharing the American ethos of progress.  Football (American Football)* served the country well in the 20th century as it ingrained ideals that were instrumental during the manufacturing age.  The ideals of teamwork, coordination and positional hierarchy ran deep within the factory system and football.  Plans and decisions were centralized to management and passed down for execution by the line.  Statistics are used to track progress, performance and predict the emergence of talent.  The school, industrial and sports models of the 20th century complimented each other in structure and values.  Therefore football, baseball and basketball became dominating forces in the sports landscape of the United States.  Their appeal was compounded because of the community component and inherent aspiration of the team.  Professional sports teams created a sense of belonging to cities or regions.  High schools fed players and students into colleges.  Colleges fed players into professional leagues and students into jobs.  The systems worked almost seamlessly for a long time.

Identity Crisis (My independent film about soccer’s place in the US)

Times Change

Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.  While nostalgia may feel good and there may be good reason to long for times past, the present is the only place where we truly exist.  The past cannot be recreated.  While this may seem sad due to things that are perceived as “lost”, there are many gains that have come from that passage of time.  So where are we now?

factoryAs we progress even further into a new century and millennium, several of the rigid systems of the past are crumbling under the pressure of technology and the democratization of information.  The old systems are being replaced for the very same reasons that they thrived a century ago.  Cheap/efficient labor, mechanization, standardization and a consumer culture brought forth prosperity to the US.  Now, cheap labor is found elsewhere or replaced entirely by machines.  Standardizing of products has made many of them generic where cost and convenience become the most sought features rather than quality and craftsmanship.  The model of consumerism has left many bankrupt financially, depressed emotionally and weighed down physically.  The mantra “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” is the calling card of those primed for a fall to irrelevance or extinction.

The new economy of the United States is a connection economy that no longer depends on exclusively on commodity production but rather the unification of resources with opportunity.  Entrepreneurship is not a buzzword of the silicon valley.  It is an integral component of the new American economy that requires a more nimble approach to business.  Bigger is not particularly better.  Growth is not particularly the marker of success as people are often creating lifestyle businesses to balance work and life.

entreprenThe traditional American sports do not fit as effectively into this new economic paradigm.  The industrial model of tracking productivity in order to become more efficient in the name of progress does not hold.  The measure of a good worker in the new economy is not a mindless cog that produces more than the other cogs.  It requires a mixture of technical ability mixed with the emotional intelligence to make decisions based on varying factors.  In the traditional American sports, these decisions were made solely by the coach, quarterback or point guard.  Most other players were doing their assigned job as a part of an orchestrated unit.  Divergence from the rules of the system was not desirable.  The new economy needs more decision makers rather than rule followers.

This new system is more in line with the processes of soccer.  Eleven people working toward a common goal with principles in mind rather than plays.  Each individual must analyze what they see in front of them and decide what to do next.  Although there are statistics available in soccer, they do not particularly indicate good or poor performance.  The intricacies of the game are human.  There is a balance between pushing toward a goal while not overextending to the point of being exposed defensively.  While there is a coach with a certain amount of control, the players and their decisions are the key components to the performance of the team.

The individual has greater power to impact the world than ever before in history.  Our games, systems and education should be centered around the improvement of the decision making faculty while maintaining an empathetic compass.  Realizing how our individual decisions impact the rest of our team, community and world is a skill that needs to be developed in the generations to come.  Although soccer is implicitly a sport, there are components to its play that can have a greater societal impact.  This is not at the exclusion of the other sports but in addition to them.  The 20th century American ethos has a place in the amalgamation of our future as a nation.  It is through our diversity that much of our strength comes.

*From here on, I will refer to American Football as Football and International Football as soccer.  I’m sure this will upset someone somewhere but it is not my intention to please everyone but be as clear to as many people as possible.

Soccer Is Not a Zero Sum Game

lukesoccerThe youth sports culture (especially soccer) is in need of change.  The needed change is not one of rules or procedures but culture.  The norms and beliefs surrounding youth sports are largely influenced by the adults that administer the delivery of the sport.  This article is not a complete plan on how to fix all of the problems.  It is the beginning of a conversation to be had on an individual, team, club and national level.  Are we giving our children the experience that they deserve?

A Zero Sum Game: Look at the Goal Differential table for any league from the Premier League all the way down to a U8 Flight 9, the table always adds up to zero.  By this mathematical analysis of soccer, there is balance that delineates some teams as “winners” and some “losers”.  By taking this viewpoint, a team that ends up at the bottom of the table receives less from the game than the one at the top.  While this may hold true in accolades and trophies, it completely discounts the majority of reasons why young people and adults play soccer in droves every year.  Winning is not the point!  If it were, then the key to being a successful team or club would be to join the weakest league possible.  

In Search of Something More: The game is not the result.  The game is a process that is intended to bring out more of what makes us human to begin with.  Many clubs are fully committed to the Zero Sum Game.  Putting all effort into getting better at winning.  Replacing players each year with better players, investing in trainers who look to win but not develop and charging a premium price for a sport that is mostly for recreation.  The problem with aiming to be at the top of the Zero Sum Pyramid is that the cups that are received there are largely empty.  The reason why sports and specifically soccer are so popular is that they can mirror and enhance the human condition.  Unfortunately many have fooled themselves into chasing some elusive prize while sacrificing most of the value that they aimed to get from the sport.  Although this process of empty cup chasing may be pervasive, it does not need to be.  We can go after more.

Breaking It Down:  Electrical signals and chemical reactions are all that we are looking for.  This is taking the human experience down to the smallest pieces but it will bring clarity to what we are doing.  The four major chemicals that cause good feelings or “happiness”.  

The “Selfish” chemicals can be produced without anyone else.

Endorphins – Their major purpose is to mask physical pain and are regularly released during physical exercise.  Soccer and most other physical exercises are a great source of endorphins.  Although endorphins are a great start, their production is only dependent upon the individual.  Go for a jog and the same endorphins get produced.  It’s a start but soccer is merely one endorphin producer.

Dopamine – This is the achievement chemical.  It is a reward system for moving closer to goals.  It is not particularly linked to physical activity but can be attributed to physical goals.  This can be a useful tool for progress but can be an extremely addictive chemical.  Dopamine “hits” can be caused by things such as completing a task or achieving a goal.  Unfortunately they can also be caused by getting a text or email message regardless of its importance.  In our modern culture, no one needs to go out of their way to develop a dopamine addiction.  It is everywhere.

The “Selfish” Chemicals can be dangerous if they are not kept in balance.  The “Community” chemicals are aimed at the survival of humans in a group setting.

Serotonin – This is the leadership chemical.  It produces feelings of pride and status.  Serotonin in the veins increases confidence of the person.  Pride and status were extremely important in a hierarchical society.  Desire to be acknowledged by the community helps to reinforce the actions that are in the best interest of the group.  This chemical helped to strengthen tribes because it biochemically rewarded the individual for putting forth effort in the interest of the common good.  The problem in the modern world is that status can be bought and manufactured.   It is however an essential ingredient to effective group living that humans have serotonin releases based on real pride.

Oxytocin – This is the chemical of love, trust and friendship.  There are many ways to get oxytocin.  Physical contact is one of the key releasers of oxytocin.  Acts of generosity also release oxytocin into the system and encourage more acts in kind.  Oxytocin inhibits addiction and boosts your immune system.  It is a gradual chemical that builds up over time due to the inherent relationship dynamic.  It is the chemical that is released during childbirth that makes mothers feel an overwhelming sense of bond with their newborn.  Although our society is interconnected like never before, the separation between us seems to be widening.

Good for the caveman but not the modern man.

Cortisol – It is the chemical of stress and anxiety.  This is the chemical of fight or flight.  It prepares the body for dangers that are threatening.  Although the release of cortisol into the system can be extremely useful in the short term, its long term use is devastating.  The side effects of cortisol release are paranoia about possible threats and inhibition of the immune system.  

Club Culture

Our present club culture is aimed at systematically creating better soccer machines through the help of the “Selfish” chemicals and Cortisol.  The system is ingrained throughout almost the entire country.  Teams are formed by annual or seasonal tryouts.  Clubs use names like “Elite”, “Select” and “Premier” in order to advertise status.  While competition is an integral part of soccer, the club culture is unbalanced in its approach toward the development of our young players (who are more importantly people).  In essence we’re trading our human equity to rent falsified prestige.

The present club model will create better soccer players over time.  The competitive cauldron that we have cast most of our players into will incrementally produce better soccer in the US.  While that may be an objective for the USSF and other agencies invested in player improvement, is better soccer without regard for other consequences truly the aim?  

From a biochemical standpoint, our present club model is relying principally on Endorphins, Dopamine and Cortisol in order to move soccer forward.  While this method will be effective in getting players to perform, it is not a fertile field in which to grow confidence, connection, empathy and trust.  When viewed from a national level through a soccer lens, these attributes are not particularly the recipe for success.  However the majority of our youth who are playing soccer today will not be part of a National Team or a Professional Academy.  They will play club soccer through the years of their youth and at some point their playing career will end.  Even the longest professional careers only last into the early forties.  So the competitive cauldron ends for everyone with the message, “you’re no longer good enough”.  Whether early or late the player becomes what we all are on some level, a member of a community.  Since they will live a majority of their life interacting with other people and not a ball, it is the interpersonal skills and self-realization that should take precedence in a majority of our clubs.  Rather than treating the vast majority of our youth as if they are heading to a storied career of individual glory, focus on the team dynamic and each player’s contribution to that collective.

Suggestions for change

  1. Recognize the level – Teams and clubs can be broken up many ways but in terms of competition: Elite, Competitive Recreation and Recreation.  The competitive cauldron has its place but should not be everyplace.  If a team or a club is truly “elite”, then they are competing at state or regional level or have a proven gateway to professional ranks.  Most teams/clubs are “Competitive Recreation”.  Recognizing this fact is a great opportunity for parents, players and coaches to embrace the best of what both worlds have to offer.  The moniker of “Recreation” almost has a negative connotation in most sport circles today but it is something that needs to be embraced again.  Playing for the joy of the game is not a bad thing.  
  2. Act appropriately within the level –  Elite clubs need to be pushing their players and re-evaluating their talent levels regularly.  The level of expectation is higher because the ultimate desired destination is also higher.  Most Elite clubs do not have a problem setting this higher expectation.  The issue is usually that a club is trying to keep Elite expectations without being Elite.  At Competitive Recreation clubs there can be high expectations but the long term growth of the person should supersede the short term desire for “success”.  Simple changes like holding tryouts every second or third year would allow players, coaches and parents a period of team building.  This long term view allows players and all others involved to develop both on and off the field.  Professional trainers are still an option to develop players soccer skills.  However as we head into a third or fourth generation of soccer players in this country, the knowledgeable parents will begin to make this less of the norm.  The Recreation level should continue to be fun with friends.  
  3. Remember what’s at stake – Often the famous line from Bill Shankly used by people to discuss the sport’s importance. “Some people think football [soccer] is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”   In terms of game results, I would disagree wholeheartedly with Mr. Shankly.  Game results are a moment in time that may be remembered or forgotten.  However in terms of societal impact, he is absolutely right.  This game has the ability to give and take life both literally and figuratively.  The passion for the sport has unfortunately taken life in several tragedies.  It has also given life by stopping violent conflicts in different parts of the world and giving a pathway to many poor children who would otherwise succumb to their impoverished beginnings.  In the US, the game is rarely a matter of life or death.  It can be a catalyst toward a better life.  Using the game as a vehicle toward better living involves a conscious recognition of short and long term impact of the game on the young person.  Pushing all of our youth into a “one size fits all” system of sport kills most of the inherent positives of participation.

The conversation does not end here.  The difficult thing is not recognizing a problem.  People see problems every day but generally wait for someone else to do something about it.  The answer is usually much closer to home.  Each individual needs to contribute to see the cultural shift that is needed in the beautiful game here in the land of the free and home of the brave.  There is a reason why “We The People” are the first three words of Constitution.  Change is brought by regular people, doing the right things consistently.

 

Empty Trophies (the loss in winning)

LukeSoccerAs the spring season grows closer, fields are being lined, nets are being hung and young players are practicing their skills.  These are all normal steps in the preparation for a season of practices, games and championships.  Each of us has our own role to play in this system: player, spectator, coach or referee.  That role heavily influences our perspective on the process and the game itself.  The game of soccer is always the same, two teams, two goals, a specific number of players and specific period of time.  It is a finite game with a result that is measurable.

The sporting culture is based principally on the finite game.  We are enamored with the result and the perceived spoils that come with it.  Players, coaches and spectators focus on the result of the finite game, often as if that was the only thing that mattered.  The unfortunate thing in youth sports is that the hyper-focus on the finite game has made us forget about the ultimately more important infinite game.

Infinite games are not played to win or lose.  They are played in order to keep playing.  “Playing catch” is not a competitive endeavor.  You don’t throw the ball to make the other person miss.  The enjoyment comes from process and the intrinsic benefits that come with it: progress, togetherness, etc.  Life is another infinite game that we play.  The goal of life is not to get to death.  The experience of living is the benefit that playing the game provides.

The value of the finite game is in its contribution to the infinite game of life.  The players, coaches and spectators who only see the finite game will eventually find the game to be empty.  It is only when those infinite game benefits come out of the finite game that it is truly valuable.  Trophies, ribbons and plaques are worth only as much as the memories of those who were touched by the process.

If the goal is only to win on that day, then the victory is a loss.  It is only when the component pieces of the win are ingrained into a person’s soul that victory is truly accomplished.  Teamwork, focus, progress, sacrifice and a slew of other infinite game lessons are the reason that we play.  Trophies are hollow wood, metal and plastic if the spirit that earned them does not live on in the hearts and minds of those who earned them.

The true value of today’s game shows up in the coming years.

Finite vs. Infinite Games

This is intended for all of my soccer friends out there but there are lessons that can be taken that have non-sport application.

LukeSoccerAs the spring season grows closer, fields are being lined, nets are being hung and young players are practicing their skills.  These are all normal steps in the preparation for a season of practices, games and championships.  Each of us has our own role to play in this system: player, spectator, coach or referee.  That role heavily influences our perspective on the process and the game itself.  The game of soccer is always the same, two teams, two goals, a specific number of players and specific period of time.  It is a finite game with a result that is measurable.

The sporting culture is based principally on the finite game.  We are enamored with the result and the perceived spoils that come with it.  Players, coaches and spectators focus on the result of the finite game, often as if that was the only thing that mattered.  The unfortunate thing in youth sports is that the hyper-focus on the finite game has made us forget about the ultimately more important infinite game.

Infinite games are not played to win or lose.  They are played in order to keep playing.  “Playing catch” is not a competitive endeavor.  You don’t throw the ball to make the other person miss.  The enjoyment comes from process and the intrinsic benefits that come with it: progress, togetherness, etc.  Life is another infinite game that we play.  The goal of life is not to get to death.  The experience of living is the benefit that playing the game provides.

The value of the finite game is in its contribution to the infinite game of life.  The players, coaches and spectators who only see the finite game will eventually find the game to be empty.  It is only when those infinite game benefits come out of the finite game that it is truly valuable.  Trophies, ribbons and plaques are worth only as much as the memories of those who were touched by the process.

If the goal is only to win on that day, then the victory is a loss.  It is only when the component pieces of the win are ingrained into a person’s soul that victory is truly accomplished.  Teamwork, focus, progress, sacrifice and a slew of other infinite game lessons are the reason that we play.  Trophies are hollow wood, metal and plastic if the spirit that earned them does not live on in the hearts and mind of those who earned them.

The true value of today’s game shows up in the coming years.

When Heroes Endure

Ricky Davis 79Time brings everything into perspective.  It is only with time that we can look back and see the moments that have shaped us.  Deciphering which moments will be truly important as they happen can be almost impossible.  It is amazing to think that a chance meeting from my childhood started me down a path that I follow to this day.  Even more surprising is that another encounter with that same person gave me more inspiration in my present day life.

Ricky Davis was a member of the New York Cosmos in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  He was a young American player on a team of international superstars.  It was during this time that he was invited to attend a block party by a fan, Tony Gonsalvez.  I was a seven year old kid at the party who knew nothing about soccer.  However when Ricky started kicking the ball around with a group of kids, I was happy to jump in.  That is my first memory of kicking a soccer ball, it changed my life and I’ve never forgotten it.

At the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s annual Convention, I got the chance to sit down with Rick and talk about some of his experiences and beliefs about soccer both then and now.

Q: Did you view yourself as a trailblazer or pioneer for soccer in America while playing for the Cosmos?

We didn’t look at ourselves as trailblazers or pioneers.  We felt extremely fortunate to play with an awesome team and for an awesome organization.  Reflecting back now it’s easier to see how things have developed but at the time, we just felt fortunate.  It’s awesome to look back and say “I played a part in that” but at the time it was hard not to think how lucky we were to be playing for that team.

Q: What do you think about your legacy?  How does it feel to have players like myself say that you were the reason we started playing?

It feels great!  It’s part of the evolution of the game in this country.  I came into the situation with possibly a naive perspective because I believed that professional athletes were the closest thing there was to perfect human beings.  They didn’t drink or smoke.  Doing things to help keep themselves fit were all part of a value system that I brought with me when I came to the team.  In many ways I learned that wasn’t the case but did that mean that I needed to change?  I feel that I’ve got this debt to the game.  I was fortunate to have all of these experiences and memories and now I’m just trying to pay it back.  Much of what I did was to invest in the game and the community because I wanted people to love the game that I loved.  

Q: What were some of your attributes and life experiences that allowed you to be successful at that time?

It started because I had a good family.  My parents were actively involved.  Much of my values came from my parents.  My dad used to joke that everybody should work a solid half day (12 hours).  When there was extra stuff to be done, the clinics, public appearances and other things were part of that twelve hours.  Whether I needed to work on my own or do those other things, I needed to give 100%.  I was raised with a strong work ethic.  Also had great influencers within the team, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, I couldn’t be them but I could learn from them.  My belief was that I could learn from anybody.  After the games, I would go into the parking lot and talked to fans.  They would give suggestions and there were gems there for me to take.  If nothing else, I heard things that were important to them.  These were things that I took from my parents and tried to pass onto my own kids.  It’s not what you want to get out of it, it’s what you put into it and you’ll get back.

Q: What do you believe is special about this game?

It’s a game for everybody.  Almost anyone can get involved unlike many of the traditional American sports.  The reality is that a kid can be a part of something regardless of their size or ability and they’re equally part of the team.  You can be small like Messi or Maradona.  You can be big like Ibrahimovic.  Soccer is truly the game of the people.

Q: Where are we going as a soccer nation? 

As a nation we’re going in a great direction.  When I see soccer touching our little part of Kansas, it makes me believe that soccer is taking strides forward.  Soccer is becoming part of America’s fiber.  Was the NASL a bad thing?  No, it was a part of our evolution.  I see a national team that is way more competitive than my generation was.  The public is much more accepting of the sport.  The Cosmos was unique.  Even though many of our players were in the twilight of their careers, we were able to play with almost any team in the world.  Set the Cosmos aside though.  If you look at the teams now, they are drawing good sized crowds. Soccer specific stadiums are huge.  The people investing in soccer in this country, it obvious that it’s a long term commitment to the sport.  

Q: What is your involvement in Futpong?

The idea is not new.  We played similar games with the Cosmos.  If you thought the games on the field were intense, you should have seen these games.  The games used to be very improvised but we’ve now standardized it with a small net and a small ball.  Futpong is designed to develop their touch and fine motor skills.  Our hope is that this will help develop the touch and control.  We want it to be fun and stimulating.

Rick Davis 2016It was a great treat for me to be able to sit down with Rick.  The nostalgia factor would have been enough for me  in this interview but our discussion made me respect the man behind the memory even more.  His commitment to family, hard-work and openness to learning from anyone were all examples of why my respect for him has grown.  Anyone who has read my material long enough knows that I don’t truly believe in heroes because we should strive to be our own hero.  However I do believe in role models.  Even though I didn’t know it as a 7 year old, I chose a very good role model and learned a few things from him as a 40 year old.  The game does not make us who we are but rather draws out that which is already inside of us.  I’m glad that the game brought Rick and I together twice.

Thanks Rick!

Pete

Soccer for the 21st Century

The 20th Century of the United States was largely dominated by an industrial economy.  The US rode the wave of the industrial revolution into prominence on the world stage.  Factories flourished thanks to interchangeable parts and largely interchangeable people.  Most workers in the 20th Century were able to earn a substantial living by doing simple repetitive tasks under the orders of their bosses.

In this system, it is no wonder that the sport of the century was Football.  In so many ways, football was representative of the American way.  It was progressive.  Moving forward was success and moving backward was failure.  It mirrored our historical land acquisition with its own “land acquisition”.  The decisions were made by a few bosses and executed by largely  interchangeable people.  The sport was the perfect corollary for the industrial age and both served the country well in their time.

Now that the industrial age has passed and we have moved into what many are calling the “Connection Economy”.  The people who create value in the market place are not interchangeable cogs in a vast machinery.  Cogs can be replaced, automated or outsourced to other countries.  True value in the modern economy is created by an individual whose contributions are irreplaceable and unique.

This change begs for a different representation in sport.  The football model of “run the play” holds little value when the rules of the game change so quickly.  Soccer’s flexibility and subjectivity require that players deal with complex problems and must make individual decisions for the betterment of the collective.  Since each player is a decision maker, principles rather than directives are the dictating forces.  No one person is in control.  Therefore players must learn to control themselves and direct themselves in an uncertain environment.

The beautiful game will become “America’s Game”.  It is just a matter of time.