“Never take a medication that has more side effects than you have symptoms.”

 I remember seeing a B.C. comic in which Johnny Hart gives this advice through one of his prehistoric sages:  “Never take a medication that has more side effects than you have symptoms.” 

     This advice has merit in the football world, as well. Especially given the ever-growing list of new tactics, philosophies and the imitating of successful coaches and programs when the inner-workings that make them tick are not even known.  Having been involved at basically all levels of this game; conversations, blogs, magazine articles and even television color commentating has become about annoying as the endless stream of TV commercials encouraging you to ask your doctor about this or that new drug.  

     The death of the innovative and creative aspect of football has been an unplanned evolution driven by technology advances, while any resurrection solutions will require planning and consensus, which may be impossible. So, what do we do now? 

As a Football Culture, Are We Becoming Obese?

     Too many of today’s footballers have come down with a type of metabolic syndrome, a combination of under-training and our youth developmental system problems. These players are easily identified as they typically have a smaller football IQ and a poorer performance on the pitch compared to other properly developed players. 

     Every decision we make as coaches has certain risks, or what I’ll refer to in this blog as: side effects, which must be weighed against the benefits of the choices we make.  Playing with three in the back, for example, may cause problems defensively out wide, but these effects are almost negligible when looked at in relation to playing with three strikers.  Anson Dorrance, the Head Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of North Carolina, once said that playing with three strikers would allow a team the opportunity to draw a game they would otherwise lose and to win a game they would otherwise draw. Therefore the benefits of playing three front-runners for the likely-hood of finishing with a draw instead of a loss…or a win instead of a draw usually outweigh the risks of playing three in the back for most coaches.

     No sport is held closer to the heart than the game of football. Participants are part of a special sports community that generates a unique and slightly protected air of ownership in each one of us. It’s their sport, our sport… “My” sport. Any perceived criticism generates more emotionally driven protective instincts and negative reactions than it should, or it would, in other sports. While there are many other “niche” sports, such as Field HockeyLacrosse and Rugby, none share the perceived higher profile of National Collegiate Athletic Conference(NCAADivision I status given to football (soccer) with its championship weekend of 50,000 people appropriately called the “College Cup.” That creates the mythology that drives parents to spend any amount of money to keep their kids in the game. Egos grow in direct proportion to money collected and things get out of balance quickly.  

     There was a study recently conducted by researchers from the New York University School of Medicine, on the effects that different variables have on the success of athletes. They evaluated 49 teenagers who had at least three of five variables from the following list: trained with a Professionally Licensed coach in their sport; trained under organization and professionalism; trained other physical attributes besides technical with an appropriately qualified coach (this would include speed, agility, quickness, strength, nutrition, proprioception, etc…); trained mentally by an appropriate Sport Psychology Professional; and trained in a highly competitive environment (there were numerous sub-variables for each of these).

     Compared to athletes without these variables, players performed worse on the training pitch, in competition and psychological evaluation.  The results of their matches also trended lower in the players without the measured variables.

     Sometimes the risk of making a making a hard decision as a coach outweighs the benefit.  Just recently in 2011, at my last collegiate coaching position, I found myself withdrawing from what I would normally do as a coach, because I was concerned about keeping my job.  I later realized I was “obese” as a Coach and I had let outside influences continue to feed me until I was bursting from my own belt-line. It is only now that I write about my experiences with this football obesity, as I see other coaches falling into similar football nutritional traps.

If it’s Going to Happen, We Have to do Ourselves; but, we don’t seem to REALLY understand this

     As one of the many non-revenue sports in the NCAANational Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) in the United States, soccer is largely left to police itself and that is not easy. Football and basketball have the full attention of top school administrators, athletic directors, wealthy alumni, major networks, donors, advertising agencies and sponsors. Millions and billions are at stake and it’s big, big business. Its full stadiums every week, across the country, instead of once a year in a selected south/southeast coast venue. Soccer has a different power structure and the bottom line to me is that I feel like the players and fans are getting the short straw, never-the-less, what I consistently see is us; as a football culture, opening-up the closed fist holding the straws and hand-picking the shortest one of the bunch ourselves.

     It’s approaching an entire year that I have been in Australia and even though I still have a lot to learn, more people to meet, etc… I have been able to observe and interact with the big-wigs of the game, as well as those down in the trenches. I, as well as most people in Australia, would have no issue admitting that the United States is probably further along in the overall structure of the game from top to bottom.  Simple comparisons of professional leagues, the collegiate game and recent International success of both genders backs that assumption.  However, that’s where it stops.  Australia is doing things correctly and while they might be behind the curve a bit now, they are on the way up and nothing displays that more than the recent pair of Women’s matches between the National Teams of the United States and Australia

     Regardless of the score line, all one has to do is look at the average ages of each side.  The average age of the squad the United Statesdressed for those matches was 29 years old.  Seven teenagers were dressed for the Aussies trip to IndianapolisIndiana (where they beatHaiti 4-0); Los AngelesCalifornia and DenverColorado; while the US’s youngest player, Sydney Leroux is 22 years old. Ironically, Lerouxhappens to be the same age (22) as the average age of the Matildas. So, you can see why when I scan the children of the Australian Youth Development System with a smile on my face, that a central part of my brain involved in memory formation, is taking notes from another Football Federation that may be smaller in history but whose future just might be brighter.  Unfortunately, I often find my smile turning to a halfway frown, as I wonder why we have allowed the state of the game in the America to be spinning like a hamster in a wheel.

     Most of the time, the risk-benefit balance of decisions we make as coaches or administrators are not clearly tilted one way or the other.  For example, one can peruse the new hiring and firing of soccer coaches at the collegiate-level; a disturbing, yet cyclic trend that never ceases to stop and easily notice the pattern of athletic administrators legitimately evaluating whether or not a candidate is the right fit for the program or just a drug that will help to lower the Athletic Director’s blood pressure during football and basketball season.

     According to the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA) approximately 90% of the participants in soccer in the US are under the age of 22, which means they don’t know what the heck I’m talking about when I reference the past. Ancient history to players under twenty-two is 6 years ago. They only know the game the way it is and are resistant to change. Meanwhile the only person who can really pull soccer out of the Flintstone car kicking its legs in the mud is the general football fan, and he could care less until we him a reason to. These are significant barriers to real change.

     What should matter to us is not made up of overlapping runs, locking the ankle or SAQ’s, but the structure of the developmental system, it’s future and what signals it conducts from one person to another.  We can survive indefinitely within our little click of football fanatics, but we will never achieve great things in this game if we don’t do it ourselves – because it’s evident that no one is going to do it for us.

The Whole World Knows Our Structure is Flawed, So Why Don’t We?

     Conclusions are difficult because the structure is flawed.  America is one of the most populous nations in the World and a nation where there are arguably more youth playing soccer than any other sport.  The US has a total population of 311, 591, 917 people, making it the third most populous country in the world behind only China and India. A recent FIFA survey called the “Big Count,” determined that the United States has more registered soccer players than any other nation in the world.  The survey found the US had 3.9 million youth players (2.34 million boys and 1.56 million girls), trailed by Brazil (2.1 million) and Germany (1.3 million).

     While these numbers should bring excitement and hopeful ambition for the future of the game, they are quickly sedated when we add in the fact that according to, Yanks Abroad, only 96 American-born football players are plying their trade overseas. In addition, the number of American-born players listed on a Premier or Division I club's roster is a measly 37.   So, why does one of the most populated nations in the world, with the most registered youth soccer players of any country only produce enough talent to barely fill one club’s roster?

     Let’s reach some common ground for this discussion. I think you would agree that the target goal here is success and growth of the game…not to make it better for any of us coaches, but for the players and especially the youth. So the questions are sometimes bigger than this game and are more in the arena of “…why are we not doing what we all know should be done?” The questions of, “…what can we do better?” …and… “…what are we doing wrong?” ...and… “…why is it not working?”...are all questions that many know the answers to, but very few are willing to own up to; thus, making the questions trivial, mundane and…just plain stupid!  If changes are to be made, there is one direction we need to go in. The rest of the world knows it and deep down inside, we do, as well; yet, we CHOOSE to ignore it like an annoying classmate who spits when he talks.

     These problems have been known longer than many think and are not anything new to the pendulum heads behind the football clock.  However, it’s quite obvious that a pendulum swings from side-to-side, yet what is not so obvious is why it swings and how does it’s swinging keep the clock accurate? If we were to speed up the swinging of the pendulum would time go faster?  What if we stopped it from swinging?...would time stop, as well?  These are the questions we should be asking.  The rest of the world has already taken their finger-tip and sped up the pendulum, as well as grabbed it with the hand and stopped it…and…they already know the results.  Why don’t we?

Why Was There Such an Issue with Hiring Klinsmann in the First Place?

     Uncontrolled ignorance is associated with a lot of the coaching dilemmas I come across.  Sometimes coaches just don’t know.  This means, (prepare yourself for this next statement) those who do know must let those who don’t know, know what those who do know know, and those that do know must also let those that don’t know know that they don’t know. Even members of Mensa get intellectual vertigo from dilemmas like this.  The basic principle here is that there are too many secrets within the structure of the game that not enough people are privy to.

     The cry of our football culture MUST be: “LET US HAVE THE INFORMATION WE NEED, SO WE CAN DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE!”

     So, let’s forget the questions and fallible answers and just dive right into the concepts I believe to be true and critical foundation points to move forward successfully.

1.) Football (soccer) will always be a niche sport

     Let’s face it, in America soccer will always be considered a ‘niche’ sport and will never have the fortitude or following that baseball, basketball and even American football does. Yes, we have made great strides and there is no doubt that we will continue to do so, but we just need to accept the facts as they are and move on. Soccer does not and will never get as much main stream respect and enthusiasm from advertising agencies, media buyers, sponsors, TV programmers and the general sports fan. (I have friends that have spent their lives trying to sell this sport to networks and sponsors, so I know this is true. Not much has changed since they started 30 years ago. Some success stories like Major League Soccer and its eventual expansion to cities like Portland and Toronto, but look at the struggles for second-tier professional leagues like the A-League or the D3 Developmental League. Significant support does not exist and this is a problem as well as a test that must be passed to move on. Better second-tier and below ratings will tell us if the changes we make work.)


2.) Football is a free flowing transition game

 

     This was the intent, but it is not the reality. Football needs to live by the inherent definitions of a free flowing transition game, which is built on player decisions. The “transition” element is one of the most exciting moments and easiest to translate to new fans. Transition and players making decisions, must be a key elements of every match. We have bred natural “transition” out of the game with specialty players and intense sideline coaching during a contest. It still exists, but it’s rarer and more confusing than ever.

3.) Showcasing athletic skill is essential to all popular sports – AND – a requirement for Football

     We have replaced the skill needed to carry a ball on our foot and make sharp accurate passes on the run with simply running by people because the ball is hit long and over our heads. Fans get amazed and entertained by skill and athleticism, not just brainless brute speed.


4.) Modern Football was not designed to have the ball travel so high in the air

 

     It was designed to be controlled with possession by ‘cradling’ it in conjunction with athletic skills, not constantly hit with a laces wrapped instep.  We have all heard and probably even told the ‘story’ (urban legend?!?!?!) about Pele’ juggling a grapefruit when he was a kid and my parents taught me when I was a kid that shoelaces were designed to keep your shoes on and tight around your foot. They never said anything about shoelaces used to send a football, or anything else for that matter, flying. I always got in serious trouble when I kicked over a lamp or kicked a hole in the wall.

     The rules of the game reflect this and the balance of the game depends on it. We have all seen players and teams just “boot” the ball down the field, hoping someone on their team is fast enough to get to it. More often than not, the opponent brings the ball right back down the field and they have to do it all over again. That’s not good for many reasons.

5.) Nothing requires less courage or athletic skill than running by somebody to chase down a ball

     Football was not designed to have people kick balls wildly and run by other players. Tell me, is there any ‘popular’ sport that allows it? Our own rules don’t condone it, but for all the wrong reasons, we do.

6.) The way we settle draws is broken

     There is nothing good about having to settle a tied game with penalties where the goalkeepers are hung out to dry, unless they get lucky. This is the same-thing as if basketball began to settle ties with free-throws or football settling them with extra points or even baseball settling them with a home-run derby. Get the players back on the field and break the dead-lock the old fashioned way. 

7.) The way we bring on substitutes was designed to keep the game moving

     They were also intended to be fairly invisible. The idea was to help the center official or officiating crew ensure the rules are followed, while allowing teams to switch in “fresh” players and to keep the game moving. We have totally abused this rule and our modern “every dead-ball” subbing stops the game and erases the excitement, as well as the unknown commodity that is the final minutes of a close match.

 8.) Substituting a player is not an athletic event

     Fans do not want to watch it while the game is in progress. We sub about 20-25% of the game (count the minutes spent subbing in a youth game sometime!) and try to induce the stoppage of play as a weapon. There are coaches (even at the higher levels, like college) who have designed tactics around subbing--a quick restart while substitutes get on the field, striking a ball right at a new player whom has just come on trying to throw them off! Put that concept in any other game and you start to chuckle.
 
9.) The sidelines are a confusing mess

     Nobody can keep 100% track of what goes on off either touch-line unless you’re playing at Old Trafford and then even then there are times when it can be difficult, and there is nothing good about that. The coaches boxes; the team personnel confined to the boxes and the area the players use to warm-up before they are subbed into the game; are all many times congested, chaotic and confusing for those of us in the know. So, what chance do fans have of understanding what goes on off the field and then being able to appreciate it? Not only does it not allow for the appreciation it deserves, but too many times the activities off the pitch and along the touch and end lines become a distraction for anyone watching the match.  If I had a nickle for every time I stepped away from watching a match because of what was happening right off the pitch, then I would be able to buy this blog hosting site, instead of just using it (not really, but you get my point...). All these things associated with the sidelines are screaming, “Hey, you’ve got a problem with your game folks!” All we have to do is listen.
 
10.) All success sports are “simple” at their core

     Any good game with main stream acceptance is thoroughly enjoyed and loved by both players and fans, and that’s where football needs to get to. Games with mass appeal like American football, basketball and baseball are at their core “simple” games to figure out, which makes them appealing to the masses. Fans can get into the detailed strategies, but they don’t have to, in order to enjoy the game. Way too often we allow the details of soccer to take over the game and cover the beautiful parts. Over the last 30 years, we have made a relatively simple game, very complicated.

     This topic is timely because the number of youth soccer players in the U.S. is climbing at an alarming rate.  In many communities, one out of every ten children is already involved in the game. This means that up to ten percent of our children may be putting their athletic future in our hands. Unfortunately, resulting from what they are being fed now, that is not necessarily a good thing. 

11.) It Really is OUR Fault!

     Sometimes the risk-benefit balance is more straightforward.  The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), as well as the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), have both stated that the benefit of children taking part in an active sport can reduce the risk of a many health problems and is worth the risk of failure. However, our culture is so derived on wins and losses that if a person’s overall risk of losing is elevated than they more-than-likely err on the side away from losing. Children pick-up on these subconscious choices that we adults make every day and then we wonder why our children are obese and spend more time in front of a television playing video-games than outside playing a sport. Let’s stop wondering and start doing!

     I believe we have tried to fix many of these things by throwing fuel on the fire with more rules rather than address the real problem and ending up with fewer rules. Over thirty years, the added rules have made the game more confusing and ugly. External people (general sports fans) can’t understand it and don’t want to even try. Transition can’t be legislated. It has to be, and always was, natural, pre-1980. Do not add rules, but rather take them out by removing the reasons they were added.

     Football-related developmental problems have what famed Sport Psychologist, Bill Beswick; (one of the most in-demand Sports Psychology Professionals in the game and also a successful author) calls “a dampening effect on player’s performance,” which in turn has an impact on player’s potential and preparation for the next-level.

     The risks and benefits of most football related decisions, like playing time or position, must be weighed individually in light of each player’s overall game.

Baseball, Basketball, Football…and…soccer, oh my!

     I believe that most all of the issues start with the coaches. The written football rules we still use understand this, but the intent of the rules has been breached through selfish creativity and lawsuits. It should require more skill to handle a ball under pressure and how the player handles the ball under this pressure should matter more than how fast a player runs, how far they can kick and how high they can jump. One player should not be more feared than another. Equalize the game and most of the mess goes away.

     The solution is simple and obvious.  Players need quality technique-focused training consistently.  The more skilled the players are has already been shown in other sports to help with the progression of the game in the fan’s eyes.  Can you imagine how much more entertaining the NBA would be if they spent an hour throwing long-passes back-n-forth down the court and just dunking every time? Wouldn’t the NFL be such a more enjoyable fan experience if every play was started with a punt? I think baseball, America’s pastime, would be even more of a spectacle to watch if the pitcher threw all balls in from right behind second base. For some odd reason, our so-called football experts believe that the same is true for the game of soccer.

WE CAN’T Do It on Our Own, We MUST to Work Together

     To whatever extent possible, coaches should become experts regarding their position in the game or their specialty area and always weigh the benefits against the risks of any decision.  This is true whether a coach is temporary, part-time or full-time and is regardless of level.

     If we don’t widen our thinking, making the right decisions won’t matter because we’ll end up with pure box soccer.

     A coaches’ career many times consists of sedentary time and poor choices.  Even outside of training hours, many coaches activity involves sitting in front of a computer, television screen or a handheld mobile device. 

     Unlike pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are required to be upfront about a drug’s effects, both good and bad.  The fine print of coaching often provides important details about whether or not a certain decision is a good idea.

     I really think that once the game is monopolized by technique we would not need to make such critical decisions either, because the rules are in-place for it. For decades there were natural reasons to go to the goal in transition whenever possible and that’s the way it should be…like basketball and hockey.

     Fitness-dense, technically-poor training-sessions with very little, if any, structure too often form the staples of the typical youth player’s development.  These coaching choices may negatively affect the learning process and counteract efforts by other coaches to improve athletic achievement.

     Some coaches may improve overall match results, but the fine print reveals serious side effects that may not be worth the risk if the coach does not change the real issue; how they Develop Players.

     We have a Sports Psychologist here that works with the Women specifically, but has experience with both genders in the sport of Cricket and also has experience with Australian Rules Football. His name is Cantonio Doncivit, and when I sat down and spoke with him about this very subject something he said stuck out to me. He stated, “It is imperative that we take technical training and athletic ability seriously in players.  In this country, we’re taking away some athletic ability in order to emphasize more technique in an effort to improve overall performance.  That’s one reason why we’re seeing so much promise in the youth that are coming up through the ranks.

     Learning from your mistakes does not have to be complicated.  In the past, it took coaches hours to prepare the proper training-session  Now the Internet provides an amazing amount of easily accessed information regarding philosophy, methodology, ideology, pedagogy, tactics, psychology, technique, etc….  One of my favorite sites is NSCAA.com.  It provides non-proprietary information collected by trusted sources from within the football community.

     In the future, player identification and evaluation, may involve years of observing players as opposed to a couple of 90 minutes sessions in an effort to catch signs of strength and areas of improvement before players reach an age where their game plateaus. 

     It is also important to check for Digressed Player Development when you are identifying more than one player at a time or if you are evaluating for a team.  Again, the ID and evaluation process should be one that encompasses many playing situations over a lengthy span of time and not just a few sessions on a few days. Not all players respond the same to proper training and actually digress in their development.  Players whom look talented at a younger age, may not be as such when they turn older if they play for an under qualified or ineffective coach.

     To prevent the improper identification of players as they progress through the years, they should be evaluated consistently over time from the point they are originally identified. We need to avoid the surgical identification that we get from the at least 60 minutes of seeing them on the ball under most current “try-out” processes.

     Thinking about your decisions and their side effects will no doubt lead to many questions.  Your peers can help you sift through this information and weigh the benefits and risks of making certain decisions.  Learning more about your craft takes time; but remember that your career is an investment.  Just like any investment, you must ensure the benefits outweigh the risk.

     Permanent mediocrity in this game is preventable, and like most things preventable, a little investment today in what is needed and doing what needs to be done will go a long way toward preventing costly problems in the future.  It may even make the difference in our nation’s future results.

     Maybe an apple a day should be thought of as preparation for the World Cup.