Give luck a chance

In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley adeptly captures an idea that I’ve struggled to articulate well:

“Serendipity plays a big part in innovation, which is why liberal economies, with their free-roving experimental opportunities, do so well. They give luck a chance.”

Later, he described how nuclear energy has not advanced nearly as far as other areas, like electronics, because not many folks want to give luck a chance with nuclear since because of the risk.

In a world where improving requires trial-and-error, failure, learning and luck, nuclear energy remains in a state close to where it started because it does not have the luxury of errors and failure.

I’ve witnessed this same limitation in many organizations. Managers of mature companies, for example, too often think their job is to keep the company healthy by using their skill to beat the odds, rather than to play the odds. So, they squelch trial-and-error in the company in favor of their grand plans. They don’t give luck a chance. The thought of admitting that the future of the company depends on a bit of serendipity seems like madness to them.

Sometimes they are lucky to beat the odds, but more often the house wins and they leave the business less healthy than where they started.

Those in charge of US Soccer also do not give luck a chance, while soccer federations in other countries do. I believe that’s the the #1 or #2 reason why U.S. men’s soccer has trouble cracking the top 10 and has to generally rely heavily on dual citizens, that as a product of their dual citizenship spent good chunks of their lives in those soccer environments that do give luck a chance.

A huge eye opener in my early days in soccer was how dual citizens seemed well over-represented at the top of our player pool. That was the first hint something was up and I believe Ridley’s view helps explain why.

How to avoid being primed

When I get stuck at a red light, I grumble to my passengers, ‘I always hit red lights!”

From then on, they will notice when I hit red lights and won’t notice when I make through on green.

By stating that I hit red lights, I primed my passengers to look for evidence to support it. When they see it, they experience confirmation bias and agree. When I make it through, they don’t notice as much or might write it off as being lucky that time.

The trick to priming is to focus you on things that tend to happen naturally with some frequency, so you will notice when they happen.

Most folks get stuck at red lights sometimes. The question shouldn’t be, do I get stuck at red lights? Though, that is the question I primed my passengers to answer.

The question should be, do I get stuck at red lights more than anybody else?

Pro/rel FAQ

I often see discussions about pro/rel in soccer fizzle on the following questions, without good answers, I thought I would try to provide some good answers.

Who would invest in a team that could be relegated?

To me, that’s like asking, who would invest in a restaurant since there’s a chance it won’t work? It turns out, quite a few folks.

But, we don’t have to draw an analogy to restaurants to imagine what might happen. A lot of countries around the world already have ‘open pyramids’ with pro/rel, so we can just look to them to get an idea. They have no shortage of investors and a number of Americans have invested in clubs in clubs in those countries, as well.

So, if you wonder who would invest in teams that have a chance of being relegates, just ask folks like Stan Kroenke, Stu Holden and Ryan Reynolds why they did?

How do we protect the investments of the owners of the current MLS teams?

By making the case that they may have tons more upside than the current path.

Here’s my case against the current path:

Fans in stadiums are great, but the real $ in sports is in TV and MLS shows no sign of being able to draw much more of TV audience than figure skating or the Little League World Series.

I think there’s good reason for that. It’s mediocre soccer, by design (i.e. outwardly rigged via roster controls to even up competition across teams to make for closer games, prevent powerhouse teams and to keep the players from gaining too much power over their salary).

While MLS is fun for locals to sit in stands to get some game ambiance and drink a beer, it’s not all that interesting to watch on TV when you can just as easily watch the best players in the world in European leagues playing in games that have consequence.

MLS hopes fans will become more interested, so their league can be like the NFL, MLB and NBA and pull in 10-20x more revenue from TV than they do from the stands. But, given the previous paragraph, I think that’s a long shot. I think it works for the NFL, MLB and NBA because they do not have competition elsewhere with the top players.

Do you think NFL would be nearly as popular if there was an EFL (European Football League) that made NFL talent look like Division 2 college players?

Here’s my case for how pro/rel might be a better path:

Under pro/rel, I think there’s a shot for MLS teams to become worth 5-10x what they are currently, for 2nd division teams to become worth what top MLS squads are worth and 3rd division teams to become worth what bottom MLS teams are worth.

So, even if your team is relegated, it will be worth about as much as it is today.


I’ve already established that I think the key to value is increasing TV $s and that having the best players is the way.

But, it’s not just about getting top players and spreading them out across your league. I also think you need the best teams, built around the best players, so the top players can thrive and play the best soccer. That’s hard to do when you have a central office handcuffing your roster choices.

If you don’t understand what I mean, just consider how often you scratch your head when top players play for their country teams and don’t appear walk on water like they do with their club. What you are missing is that the club team has been fine tuned with talent to help those top players spread their wings.

Doing pro/rel right isn’t just about punishing bottom teams. It’s also about giving clubs control over their rosters and letting owners who want to dig into their pockets pay for top players do so.

But, won’t that just lead to powerhouses?

Sure. And it works in Europe! For every critic of powerhouse teams, I bet there are 3 or 4 fans walking around somewhere in the world wearing a Manchester United or Barcelona jersey.

I would say that it not only works, it is KEY to unlocking those TV $s. Few people beyond the locals will ever care about whether mediocre team A or B wins the MLS cup. That’s just not an interesting enough story line.

They do care if powerhouse team A and powerhouse team B, with 20 years each of powerhouse-ness behind them, are duking it out. That increases the appeal of the story line by orders of magnitudes. Even the critics of powerhouse teams will tune in. Even the power house haters will tune in, hoping to see the powerhouse get knocked off.

But, won’t that just lead to an arms race to buy the best players money can buy and put a lot of marginal teams out of business?

Maybe. But, if they are marginal, they were probably going out of business soon anyway. And, that opens the door for other investors to come in and give it a go.

But teams would go bust if they are relegated!

Maybe, maybe not. It happens in pro/rel leagues, but I believe that the value of 2nd tier teams in an open pyramid will be much higher than 2nd tier teams in a closed-league (see above), not only in club value, but in interest they receive with ticket sales and TV viewing.

It becomes that much more interesting when the best teams can earn their way to the next level with their play, than to watch teams forever stuck in a meaningless 2nd division.

Why soccer sucks in the US

Brian Costin does a great in this interview describing how monopolies hurt and competition helps in soccer.

I especially liked the following:

…the top 50 metro areas are significantly underserved as well. Greater Manchester in England has roughly the same sized population as Chicago, Illinois, 2.8 million. Manchester has seven professional soccer clubs in just the top 4 tiers of sport (Tier One: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tier 2: Wigan Athletic, Tier 3: Bolton Wanderers, Rochdale, Tier 4: Oldham Athletic and Salford City). All of these teams have aspirations to make it to the top tier of the sport, and five of the seven have played at the top level at some point in their history. Two of these clubs are super clubs regularly competing in major continental competitions. 

On the other hand is Chicago, with one professional soccer club which happens to be the worst non-expansion team in MLS over the last decade despite having the country’s third largest economic market all to themselves. If the United States had an open soccer system like the rest of the world I would not be surprised to see a half dozen professional soccer clubs or more competing in different levels of the pyramid in Chicago within a few decades, not to mention many more clubs in the full metropolitan area which totals 9.5 million people. Selfishly, as a Chicago resident, I’d like to think one of these teams would have a little bit more ambition than the Chicago Fire. Competition tends to do that.

People steeped in American sports tradition don’t understand this.

Salman Khan and Soccer

I like this quote on education from Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy:

The traditional model [of education] penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery [e.g. time to move onto next subject even if you only mastered 90% of the last one].

We encourage you to experiment.  We encourage you to fail.  But we do expect mastery.

I think this applies to how we’ve structured youth soccer in the U.S., too.

Being overly focused on results at young ages penalizes experimentation and failure. So, we get kids who have won lots of games, but never acquired the competencies to play 11v11.

Soccer then graduates these kids to 11v11 based on their age, rather than their mastery of things needed to be competent in 11v11.

This results in a lot of kids making it to the 11v11 game lacking the basic mastery needed for the game.

Many never catch up or even realize they are behind.

In 11v11, they do not get enough time on the ball to make progress. I’ve seen kids who had been making good progress move to 11v11 and stagnate.

The few hundred touches they get on the ball in team training each week and the 50 they get in their weekly game is about 1% of what they need to get better.

What’s worse, they are placed into brackets of similarly incompetent players, so it’s never obvious that they lack these competencies.

What are these basics?

Receiving, shielding, dribbling and passing the ball with 60-70% or more effectiveness (i.e. keep the ball with your team at least 60% of the time it comes to you). I see too many kids in 11v11 who are 20% or less effective on these and everybody seems okay with this.

Stopping an attacker from making progress to your goal with the ball. This should be in the 80s or 90s, but too often I see players less than 50% on this and that seems acceptable.

I’d also expect players to have some basic communication down pat before playing 11v11, like calling for a pass (drop, square, through) and help teammates make decisions (time/on turn, carry, leave).

When I see players playing 11v11 incapable of these things, I think of Khan’s quote. Somewhere along the way we have said mastery is not an expectation. That needs to change.

Good handout for new soccer parents

One of the best things I read on the internet recently is Chris Kessell’s first handout to new parents in his soccer club.

It’s well written and efficient. I’ve tried to write about a lot of these concepts so they might be understandable to folks new to soccer and I know how tough it is. Chris did a great job.

Just a couple nits…

I agree with one commenter to his post about word-smithing, “Encourage your young player to make mistakes.”

I might suggest adding, “…and learn from them.”

In my experience, when I’ve ‘encouraged mistakes’, I’d see repeated mistakes without learning. When I asked why I keep seeing the same mistake, they’d respond, “You said mistakes are okay.” Adding the expectation about learning helps with that.

My other nit is that #9 should be #1. It seems like common sense, but it’s not in the soccer world.

What would I do different as a youth soccer coach now?

If I were to “coach” youth soccer with what I know today vs. what I knew when I was coaching, I would do things differently.

Rather than participating in organized leagues and tournaments, I would spend my time finding and organizing all-ages pickup games around town for the kids to participate in with kids from soccer cultures.

I think 2 hours a week of that would do 10x more good than the model of club training, games and tournaments within skill bands that is typical of youth soccer.

My “10x” estimate comes from playing against teams with kids from soccer cultures. Usually the score was, or could have been (if they didn’t let up), 10-1. Those kids were coaching and communicating with themselves on the the field.

The kids on those teams weren’t superstars. They were just competent in soccer’s skill and tactical basics by age 8 to 10 like American kids tend to be competent in baseball’s or basketball’s basics by the same age, for the same reasons — they have games and activities in their home lives that spur the development of those basics while having fun, so when they come to the team environment they have the basics to build on.

That doesn’t mean that they all become elite players. It means the same as when when 8U baseball teams play against kids with beginner skills equivalent to a 5U tee ball team, it will be a blowout. The 8U may look like superstars, but they aren’t. The just have more of the basics.

I remember watching tee ball games and thinking they should be scored by the number of outs a team can make at first base, because that is a rarer occurrence than scoring runs. The kids did not have the ability to consistently field the ball, decide where to throw, throw and make the catch at first base in the time it took the runner to get there. A typical game may have 2-3 outs at first and 25+ runs.

But, by age 8 or 10, most kids have played enough ‘catch’ with parents and friends in their yard, have to have improved their consistency on fielding, throwing and catching to 80 or 90% or better, and getting the out at first happens most of the time when it should.

The key problem with soccer in the U.S. is that most kids never get much in the way of something equivalent to ‘playing catch in the backyard.’ So, you wind up with older players that aren’t much better than where they were when they started, which I wrote about here.

What’s the difference between competitive and rec soccer

As I was learning soccer, I had a tough time telling the difference between rec and competitive. But, I finally learned.

For competitive players, organized soccer is a small part of their soccer world. They’ve learned 5-30% of what they know about soccer in organized soccer. The rest comes from home, friends and their own interest.

For rec players, organized soccer makes up 80-100% of their soccer world.

Soccer clubs package and sell rec soccer as competitive soccer to parents, so a lot of kids are playing rec soccer, but think they are playing competitive.

Parents can’t tell the difference. Same uniforms, backpacks, cleats, officials, soccer fields, coaches, trophies and costs. The coaches have the same licenses and probably played college or semi-pro, somewhere, even if you never heard of the college or team.

What is different is what is played on the field.

In rec ball, most of the game is 50/50s, turnovers and incomplete passes.

This results from lacking the basic skills of trapping, dribbling and passing the ball because rec players only have a fraction of the cumulative repetition they need to build the muscle memory and foot-eye coordination to be competent since they rarely practice on their own.

In competitive, most of the game is the team working together to keep the ball with high pass completion and building on basic passing patterns and working into more complex patterns to try to get a shot.

This results from players being competent with trapping, dribbling and passing the ball because they have enough cumulative reps in their lifetime to have built the muscle memory and coordination.

There is much more to soccer than these three skills, but you need these to get there and rec players never can get there because they can’t do these three things.

Imagine baseball if the players can’t catch or throw. Imagine basketball if the players can’t catch, dribble or pass. It would look like much of ‘competitive’ (expensive rec) soccer in the U.S.

Rec players are the players I wrote about in the previous post. They fell in love with playing, but never fell in love with the ball. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if all they want to do is show up and play, save yourself time and money and keep them playing in the local rec league.

The good news is, from my perspective, the effort to become a competitive player isn’t immense. It’s amazing what some practice can do.

The bad news is that rec players won’t do it.

Bang for your improvement buck: Love for the ball vs. love of playing

One problem with the way organized soccer works in the U.S. is that it gets kids to fall in love with playing soccer without falling in love with the ball.

The problem is that they love to play it, but they don’t love to practice it or have too many thoughts about getting better.

What’s not to love about playing? We make quite the production of it. Nice uniforms, nice fields, nice soccer complexes, officials and lots of folks cheering on the kids.

Even sideline toxicity sends the message that the kids are doing something important if adults get that worked up about it.

Why get better? They get to play either way, and occasionally, even if just by luck, they get to be the hero.

I agree with Tom Byer. Kids don’t quit soccer because of all the BS ‘the research’ points to. They quit when the kids who love the ball are kicking their teeth in and they realize they are years behind them and it would take years and effort that they aren’t willing to put in to catch up.

In other words, for all those years they loved to ‘play’ soccer, they never actually learned some of soccer’s ball basics.

Equal play time in youth sports, Part II

From Twitter (I’m Seth):

I wrote more about my experience here.

We overestimate how much development happens during games. We think it’s 80% of development when it really should be about 5%.

That overestimation makes us believe play time is more important then it really is, which is why coaches tweet about equal play time and parents might lose their marbles about it every now and then.

Organized games should be viewed like math tests. Tests aren’t the place to learn math skills. The learning happens while preparing for tests. The test is where you show what you learned.

If you did not prepare for the test, you might learn a few things while taking it, but just a tiny fraction had you prepared.

I think we would be much better off if we view organized games like that.