The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

Today’s been kind of exciting. To summarize, Izzy scored a goal this morning and then sucked down a dozen steamed clams at dinner. So she’s just like me. Except for the part about scoring a goal.

Okay, it wasn’t Izzy’s first goal – she scored one while I was driving to Daytona a couple weeks back, but this is the first time that I got to see her score so that’s milestone territory as far as I’m concerned. And to be fair, she needed to score that fourth-quarter goal because my head was about to pop off from the first three quarters of what can only be described as a soccer tragedy.

I won’t coach youth soccer, mainly because I’m on the road too much. But even if schedule conflicts weren’t an issue, I still wouldn’t. Like a long list of other college coaches, I won’t coach youth soccer because of an acute aversion to parents who think that they were genetically blessed with more soccer knowledge than it took me 36 years to accumulate from playing, coaching and watching the game. Yeah, yeah – I know that most parents are great/wonderful/fantastic and they make the soccer world spin round. I completely agree. Thank God for them! But it only takes one whacko to ruin your week and I’ve been doing this for way too long to have someone who has never kicked a ball to tell me that our 8-year olds need to spend more time working on goal kicks/throw-ins/penalties. Oh don’t act like that doesn’t happen. So when it comes to Saturdays at the rec fields, I cast my lot as a soccer parent and not a soccer coach.

When it became clear that Izzy was going to join a soccer team, I thought about the type of soccer parent I would be. I figured I would just be the laid back guy, sippin’ coffee in my collapsible chair and not caring a thing about the result. I really don’t care how many games we win, I told myself. As long as Izzy has enough fun to want to come back the next time. That’s the parent I wanted to be. And to be fair, I still don’t care about the number of games we win – which is remarkably convenient since that number might not breach two. So it’s not so much that we’re losing; but it’s the COLOSSAL fashion by which we’re losing that has me slightly bent.

So today I sat in my collapsible chair, sippin’ my coffee, biting a hole in my lip and stewing in a pot of spring discontent as I watched the opponent run over us like a John Deere through a field of dandelions. The kid who missed practice was absolutely killin’ us, which was driving me mental on principle. Maybe if you came to practice you would know not to throw the ball across the face of our own goal. We have another kid who, every single time the ball rolls within leg’s reach of her, she reflexively toes it whichever way she’s facing. She never attempts to take a touch to control it. NEVER. It’s like watching whack-a-mole. She treats the ball like it’s a mouse attacking her feet and she simply repels it as quickly as possible. If the ball gets near her, it’s a one-touch toe banger. She has no concept of direction. Her navigational instincts are nonexistent. If she’s facing the sideline and the ball rolls between her and the sideline, she’s gonna toe it over the sideline. If she’s facing the endline, she’s toeing over the endline. If she’s facing our own goal, she’s toeing the ball at our own goal. For the life of me I can’t see how this kid gets any enjoyment out of the game whatsoever. She could have the same experience stepping on bugs.

But I could have tolerated all that if not for my own daughter whose enigmatic performance might best be entitled The Flight of the Hummingbird. Izzy was constantly near the ball. Near it. The problem was her lack of effort to actually engage it, as if the ball was surrounded by an invisible force field. A kid on the other team would get the ball and start to dribble and Izzy would run beside her, just hovering like a hummingbird at its feeder, never actually making any effort to you know, take the ball. She was basically a shadow. Or a really oversized Tinkerbell. And that’s the problem with having a genuinely sweet kid. She’ll fight like mad when she’s wrestling me on the living room floor, but when she’s on the soccer field against other girls? Yeah. Notsomuch. She just wanted to float around the field in her shiny uniform and do her best not to bother anyone. Meanwhile I’m sitting there asking myself why we’re even out here. Little did I know…

I didn’t think it was possible, but Beth managed to exacerbate my migraine when, as our team was setting up to take a goal kick, she aimed her camera at the field and then shouted to get Izzy’s attention. Here’s the thing about Izzy - she LOVES being in front of a camera like no three other people I’ve ever met. So of course she turned around, saw the camera, then smiled big and bright in the middle of the field so Mommy could take her picture. Just freaking fabulous.

Izzy is just like Beth and Beth is one of those truly sweet people who aren’t from New Jersey. When it comes to competition, she can take it or leave it. Maybe that makes her more evolved than me and if that’s the case, then great; I can live with being the knuckle-walker. But for Pete’s sake, you don’t ask your kid to pose during the middle of a game so you can take her picture! I mean even at the U-8 level there are still some modicums of competitive etiquette that absolutely must be observed. This whole thing had become one giant fiasco. I couldn’t sit idly by any more. I had to act.

So after the third quarter I pulled Izzy aside and told her that she needed to start actually trying to take the ball away from the players on the other team instead of chaperoning them to our goal. I didn’t yell. Didn’t raise my voice. Just explained my point as calmly as could be.

When you give an eight-year old advice, it’s pretty much a coin flip whether or not the point will hit its mark. But to my delighted surprise, Izzy played the fourth quarter with a degree of determination that could actually be termed as aggression. In the first 30 seconds she knocked a kid off the ball at midfield and dribbled in all by herself to score on an empty net (In 4v4 there are no goalkeepers). That goal sparked a huge fourth quarter rally where I think we scored six to their two, but I really have no idea. I couldn’t tell you the final score but I’m guessing we probably lost something like 9-8. But like I said, I really don’t care about the result. I was ambivalent to the score but I was ecstatic about Izzy’s fourth quarter revelation, so as soon as the game ended and she went through the handshake line, I called her back over to the sideline. I needed to give her some positive reinforcement. I wanted the revelation to stick.

“Izzy, that was awesome,” I said. “You did so much better!”

This was a HUGE moment! My kid was discovering the miracle of physical aggression! She was on the fast track to being an impact player on this team. She was actually becoming a competitor!

You know what she said?

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“Can I go get my snack now?”

Hmmpf.

Women.

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Funny Game

Funny Game

Funny game, soccer.

That’s a pretty common expression in coaching circles and in short it means that things are not always as they appear, particularly if you’re only looking at the scoreboard. Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Barcelona might lead one to believe that Chelsea was the better team on Wednesday. But a video of that match would be all the evidence a jury would ever need to convict our sport of deceptive practices. Despite overwhelming the hosts in every conceivable aspect of performance (except one), Barca left London as the runner-up. The Catalans were once again clinical in their ability to keep the ball in the opponent’s half of the field. Barcelona spent so much of the game camped in Chelsea’s defensive third you would think they had pair rent to be there. At times there were so many players stuffed into the Chelsea 18 it looked like a clown car. Statistically, the numbers are staggering. Barca had 72% of the possession. The Spaniards completed 782 passes compared to 194 for Chelsea. The shot total was 24-5 in Barcelona’s favor and realistically, Chelsea only had one serious chance to score. And sometimes, like Wednesday, once is enough.

Let’s goof around a bit and apply those statistics to some other sports. Can you imagine an NFL team having 72% in time of possession (43 minutes – almost 3 full quarters) – and losing? Or a baseball team outhitting its opponent 24-5 – and losing? Yes, funny game, soccer.

Some people would say that Chelsea didn’t deserve the result. And they would be wrong. Because the thing about soccer more than any other sport is that on any given day, the better team loses. But I will go to my grave saying that the team that deserves to win almost always does (I say “almost” to allow for the odd piece of reckless officiating that occasionally tips a result.). It doesn’t matter how well you possess the ball, and let’s face it, no one has ever done that as well as Barcelona; soccer games are decided inside the penalty-areas. Finishing matters. Goalkeeping matters. And on the day, Chelsea got the better of both.

Speaking of Barcelona, today Izzy had a soccer game. Okay, maybe that’s not the best segue. Anyway, it was actually more of a mauling than a game. It sorta looked like Snow White versus a velociraptor. Izzy’s team is a group of girls just learning the game. The opponent’s been together for three years. They were far superior in technical ability and athleticism and they came to that field with a job to do. I mean they were just focused and intense and without mercy or remorse. When Izzy’s team tapped off the ball from center (something we did quite a bit of), those girls were literally in three-point stances ready to charge the ball. Their jerseys were maroon so they called themselves “the brick wall.” Once, when one of Izzy’s teammates got control of the ball, I heard one of them scream, “GET HER!” like she was making off with the crown jewels. I was genuinely scared for the kid. I was like Oh God here they come!!!

You know what it looked like? Seriously? Do you remember the very first game in The Bad News Bears where the bears go up against the Yankees? The Yankees score 26 first-inning runs and the Bears coach forfeits without his team ever recording an out. That’s exactly what it looked like. It was 4-0 in the first two-minutes. I lost count but by the end of the first quarter it was 8 or 9. It was an annihilation.

But you gotta love kids. Two minutes after it was over Izzy and her teammates had moved onto other things, namely the post-game snack. She hasn’t mentioned a word about it since.

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Funny kid, Izzy.

To Play or Not to Play

To Play or Not to Play
A few months back an old high school friend emailed me with a dilemma. US Soccer announced that its Development Academy was moving to a ten-month schedule and that players on these teams wouldn’t be allowed to participate on their high school teams. I am told that my friend’s son is a very good (but not great) player. He might earn a college soccer scholarship, but he’ll never play for the national team. He’s not sure if playing academy soccer is worth missing out on the high school experience. My friend asked for my opinion, and here’s my response.

Ahhhhh yes... to play or not play high school soccer? The million dollar question with no right answer. I've had a couple dozen parents ask me this one over the years and my simple answer was always, if she wants to play, then let her play.

I've never bought into the idea that high school soccer stymies development for the simple reason that it is one more soccer environment. People used to say (and I'm sure some still do) that indoor soccer was bad for development and as far as I'm concerned, that was a load of crap. Indoor soccer is phenomenal for technical development because it limits the impact of physical tools such as speed and size and slide tackling. It constantly makes players solve problems on the ball in tight spaces, and the only way to do that is with technique.

Here's my view of high school soccer as it applies to advanced players: yes, the level of play is going to be lower, but I think there is a value to that if you approach it properly. The best way I can translate it is to explain my approach to training the college kids in the spring. Keep in mind that I am speaking only for myself and not every college coach will agree with me. In the fall, we focus on building the team. It's as much about tactics as it is about technical development. We can't afford mistakes in the fall so we're always searching for perfection and that limits the opportunities for players to experiment and develop technically.

But in the spring, it's all about technical development. In the spring we want our players to experiment; we want them to make mistakes - thousands of them - because that's the only way a player expands her technical skill set. It's trial and error for a long, long time until eventually the player develops a mastery of a new technique to the point where she is willing to use it in a match. In the spring we want our players putting more tools in their toolbox. That won't happen if they don't feel the freedom to make mistakes. And that's a freedom they don't enjoy during the fall when results actually matter. I hope this is making sense.

So for an advanced player, I see high school soccer as a great chance to experiment and gain confidence with new techniques. The stuff a player may be afraid to attempt against high level players... against players who aren't so developed, he will have a great lab for experimentation. (Think of a Yankees pitcher going down to 'A' ball to work on his slider).

This belief that immersing players in the highest possible level at all times is not exactly bulletproof. Just look at Freddie Adu who was thrown into the MLS at age 14. Ask US Soccer how that one worked out. I think dialing down the competitive arena every now and then is actually better in the long run.

Anyway, that is my philosophical soccer argument. Here is my personal one:

I loved playing high school soccer and it was a big part of my life and it helped me make a lot of great friends like yourself and Nello and Weasel and Murph and on and on. I really can't imagine what would fill that hole if I went back in time and lived life without soccer at Hun. You know, I barely remember the games, but I remember how great it felt going out to the field with you guys and how much I loved getting ready for preseason and how much I loved the stupid stuff we did on van rides. It was also pretty cool because it provided a small degree of celebrity and gave me an identity in an environment where I really didn't otherwise belong. Plus, I was proud to represent my school and I had an amazing time doing it.

The problem with US Soccer (the federation) is that everything they put in place is designed to win World Cups. Your boy's social development is not a consideration. It's all about identifying the 30 or so players (out of a few million) who have a chance of comprising the best national team a few years down the road. Honestly, I think it's way out of line for clubs to keep kids from playing for their schools and I'd love to see someone get a lawyer and take the issue to court. But that's just me.

The problem is, if your kid has to make a choice, I really can't tell him what choice to make.

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Could make a good article for publication. Plus, I'd just be interested at learning the sides of it I'm not even considering.

Cheers pal.

Dan

Now… this is the part that I left out.

Do you know why our country of 311 million hasn’t put together a legitimate contender to win a World Cup? Because soccer’s not our thing. I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but soccer is just not our culture. Sure, it’s a hobby to many and a passion to some, but it’s not the measuring stick of our national worth. It’s not the genesis of celebrity. Soccer players aren’t stars in this country. They might be stars to soccer people, but unless you follow MLS, those guys are pretty unrecognizable. They are the athletes that can actually fly coach because it won’t cause a disruption. In the rest of the world, soccer is not just the passion of soccer people; it’s the passion of the nation. And it consumes them!

The typical US soccer experience is to train twice a week with your club and then play a game or two on the weekends. In between those events you have Facebook and Twitter and American Idol and PlayStation and baseball and basketball and wiffle ball and more internet and on and on and on. And to be fair, I don’t think that sampling from a larger menu is such a horrible existence. Variety is good. But it’s not how you win World Cups.

We dabble in soccer. The rest of the world specializes in it. Where we dip our toes, they are submerged. They play it. They watch it. And they emulate those who play it when they are done watching it. Even the people who aren’t any good at it still follow it. And not just every four years.

We drag our kids to club practice. In other countries the soccer club is the social center. The kids ride their bikes there and they train four times a week (notice a problem already?) and play games on the weekend. On the nights they don’t train, they may pedal to the club just to hang out, maybe even watch the senior team train. They all aspire to one day play for their club’s flagship team – the one where the players get paid. And many dream of playing on the much bigger stages of the EPL or Serie A or LaLiga. Soccer is legitimately a passion. You think your kid has a true passion for soccer? Here’s a great way to find out. Next week, aside from the time he spends with his team, clock how many hours he spends with the soccer ball. Yes, your son may LOVE playing soccer. But does he love it enough to train on his own? Because let me tell you, if he does, he’s in the vast minority. And I guarantee you that his clone in England, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Argentina and Uzbekistan certainly will be training outside of training. Why? Because it is more fun than anything else he can imagine. It’s actually more fun than Facebook! The culture of his country has taught him that.

Have you ever driven through England – outside of the big city centers? Everywhere there is a patch of grass you’ll see kids playing pick-up soccer. They’ll throw down some shirts to make goals and then they’ll play. I can’t even tell you the last time I saw American kids playing soccer without a coach there to set out cones. It’s as if without coaches there is no soccer.

Americans are great at playing pick-up basketball! Anywhere there’s a court you’ll see at least a few guys out there. But basketball courts lend themselves to pick-up games. For starters, if you shoot and miss, you don’t have to chase the ball sixty yards. If you’re playing soccer by yourself, even if you shoot and score, you still have to chase the ball and dig it out of the net. Do you know fast that gets old? And really, isn’t shooting so much more fun if you have a goalkeeper with you? But they’re just not that easy to come by. Basketball is so much easier. You shoot… and as if by magic… the ball comes back to you. One person with one ball is enough to play and enjoy yourself for long periods of time.

A few years ago Steve showed me an article from some soccer publication (can’t remember which) where a coach was pondering the nagging question of why America trails the world in soccer. He said something to the affect that all three-year olds looks the same the first time they kick a soccer ball, whether the kid is American, Brazilian, German or Chinese. And that’s probably true. A short time later I took an international trip and observed a soccer club that was training a bunch of different age groups in its indoor facility, including its U-6 team. Now I don’t know what it looks like for three-year olds, but I can tell you that it looks a helluva lot different by the time they turn five. These toddlers were light-years ahead of any five-year old I’ve seen in our country.

In the U.S., we have to entertain our players or they quickly lose interest and their effort declines proportionally. But these kids… their approach to the monotony of technical repetitions was dwarfed by a passion for achieving perfection. I watched this team go through a “follow your pass” exercise around the outside of a 20x20 yard grid for 20 minutes (I timed it). The exercise never varied except to occasionally change the direction of the passing from clockwise to counter-clockwise. This is the definition of soccer monotony and these kids absolutely attacked it! Their passes were technically pure. They could all receive a ball and actually prep it. And most shocking of all… after each pass, without encouragement or commands, without pleading from the coach, the player who passed the ball burst into an all-out sprint. Every. Single. Time. For 20 minutes! Izzy’s on a soccer team now and she gets bored after five minutes of “Protect Your Pet.” And let me tell you something, Protect Your Pet is a whole lot more entertaining than Follow Your Pass. It’s a little bit of a nonstarter though because no one on Izzy’s team can actually pass a ball anyway. I don’t think any one of them could move a ball twenty yards without kicking it at least four times.

Later that night I watched this team break into an intra-squad scrimmage of 5v5 + Ks and I saw the most incredible thing… they PASSED THE BALL! On purpose! To their teammates! Sometimes they even passed backwards! I saw one player DUMMY the ball into the path of his teammate and it was absolutely the right choice. The kid was FIVE!!!

If this doesn’t sound extraordinary to you on almost an interplanetary level, then you’ve obviously never had the pleasure of working with five, six, seven and eight-year old American players who follow the ball around the field in one amorphous blob, who don’t even realize when the ball has gone out of bounds, who only pass if… NO, who NEVER pass, and who would never even consider the concept of dummying the ball.

But these kids... they played 5v5 and they had shape. Good shape. Good TEAM shape. It was youth soccer that actually looked like soccer. They could actually trap a ball – with their feet. Not once did I see the flying double shin trap – a fixture in American soccer even at the high school level. I watched the goalkeeper catch and then quickly bowl the ball to his teammate. And he did this without first backpedaling to the center of his goal-line, another signature move of the young American goalkeeper.

When the keeper got the ball, his teammates quickly spread out to stretch the field. This is an interesting contrast to the American style which dictates that when a six-year old goalkeeper picks up the ball, four of his teammates try prying the ball from his arms, tell him he stinks, and then ask if they can be the goalie.

This experience scared me. These kids were so far ahead of our kids that it’s actually impossible to convey. I was in total disbelief. It was like seeing a UFO. And this was not Brazil where an argument might be made that kids are actually born with a soccer-friendly gene. These were not Germans who I could imagine marching in columns into a facility of soccer excellence. This wasn’t England, Italy, Holland or Spain. This was… wait for it… Iceland! Yes! Iceland for Pete’s sake! And nothing against Iceland because it is a beautiful country full of wonderful people, but let’s face it, the population is 317,000 and half the year is spent in darkness. Atlanta has bigger suburbs! But if you took any American team of five, six, seven or eight-year olds and put them against these Vikings, the score would be laughable. Everything would be laughable. At that age the two nations are playing a different sport. So you see, the fork in the road of our soccer cultures begins before high school… before middle school… and quite possibly before the first grade.

If the U.S. is to catch the rest of the world, it will surely be from a combination of our sheer numbers and some sheer good fortune. Every time I travel internationally I am reminded that our hobby is their heartbeat. Will locking kids out of high school soccer change that?

Honestly, I just don’t know.

The Big Sigh

The Big Sigh
My best friend, Scott Arnold, recently told me that I was the second-most nostalgic person he knew, next to his brother. Okay, so I was obviously disturbed about the runner-up finish, but I decided that there was no shame in a silver medal for this particular event.

On Saturday morning I left Athens and headed 400 miles south to Daytona Beach to clear out the last few possessions collecting dust in the garage of a house I hadn’t slept in since 2007. I had to figure out what I wanted to keep, what I could fit into my car, and what I’d have to leave behind. By Sunday night I was all packed up and all that was left was to close my eyes and go to sleep in my old bedroom… One. Last. Time.

On Monday morning I was signing the papers that officially closed the sale of the first house I ever owned, and with it, a chapter of my life. The original Casa Blank was under new ownership.

Okay, the house was no palace. It was more or less a glorified surf shack, a block and a half from the sands of Daytona Beach. But it was sturdy and spacious and all mine. It had hardwood floors and a two-car garage which at various stages doubled as a weight room, darts room and yes, a driving range. Ahhhh, the things you can get away with when you’re single.

The back porch looked out into a tropical backyard with palm, orange, avocado, grapefruit and banana trees. In the six years I lived there, the orange trees never produced a single orange and I did everything but sing to them. On the day I left in 2007, the first orange finally appeared, and it was still way too small and green to even consider eating. Now those trees produce more oranges than an Indian River fruit stand. Naturally. So I helped myself to just one of them, trying to right a cosmic injustice. It was delicious. Of course it was.

Besides the palm trees, the banana trees were my favorites. Not because of the fruit; the squirrels always pilfered the bananas before they were edible. I loved the banana trees for purely aesthetic reasons. With those big long leafs drooping around, they just look so dang tropical. Stepping outside made me feel like a regular Jim Hawkins. So the banana trees and birds-of-paradise and aloe plants were scattered abundantly around the yard in my attempt to recreate Little Havana. Every time I stepped out of my house I wanted to be reminded that I was living at the beach. Of course a cool evening breeze and the sound of the ocean helped out with that.

One of my favorite hobbies was to wake up, make a cup of coffee, go out into the backyard and pick a grapefruit, then sit on the porch enjoying my breakfast with a little Jimmy Buffett playing softly in the background. I couldn’t control what the rest of the day had in store, but I could sure as heck guarantee that it would start in peace. So I spent most mornings on the back porch, most nights on the front, in a hideous wooden rocker known as the thinking chair.

The thinking chair’s frame is so thick and heavy, you would think it was carved for a Viking king. The original cushion had some atrocious orange, white and brown floral pattern that has since been recovered at least twice. But despite its appearance, the thinking chair is the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat in. And legions of friends/neighbors/visitors would tell you the same. The cushions on that thing had to be nine-inches deep. It was like sitting in a cloud. This past weekend, at least seven different people asked if I was taking it with me. Regretfully, I was not.

That chair and that porch hold a lot of memories. My great friend and former roommate Scott Sappington (co-creator of the garage driving range) proposed to his girlfriend there. They are happily married with two kids and living in the Midwest. I sat in that chair through three hurricanes in 2004 – Charley, Frances and Jeanne – tucked against the wall and enjoying a stogie as the rains poured down and the world blew by. During the extended power outage from Charley, my house became a meeting point for the locals who had refused to evacuate. I met more of my neighbors in those few days than in all the other years combined.

It was so strange walking through that house, as empty and quiet as the day I moved in – just a big, hollow space waiting for someone to make something of it. It was sad to think about all the work that had been put into it, and all the people that had passed through. I took a lot of pride in making that place my own. I can tell you the story behind every screw, every fixture, every coat of paint. I can tell you about my first epic battle to change out a toilet; or when the garage fridge died with freezer full of (previously) frozen bait; or the time a legitimate world-class athlete helped to strip the wallpaper from the kitchen wall. That will always be my first house. It will forever be the place where I spent my thirties. But it’s someone else’s now, and despite my best efforts to prolong it, another chapter of my life has officially closed. Ya know... I really hope they keep that chair.

Second place?

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I don’t reckon.