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.

Why do kids quit sports?

When I discuss this topic with folks, I’m often referred to ‘research’ that pins blame on things like toxic sidelines, pressure to win and bad coaching.

I’m treated as a heretic to suggest that quitting sports is natural and our goal shouldn’t necessarily be to reduce the attrition rate.

While I’ve seen my fair share of toxicity (and probably contributed to some), I am skeptical that improving on those will reduce attrition, though I am all for improving on those.

I addressed that topic a few years ago here.

I believe kids quit sports because they’re just not that into it and have interests they are more into.

I’ll add that I am skeptical of the validity of research. In the business world, I’ve too often seen similar market research that tries to identify reasons customers switch brands. I’ve watched too many managers lose their jobs building initiatives around those findings to find out fixing those reasons didn’t move the needle on customer behavior.

When a former player identifies reasons like toxic sidelines for quitting the sport, the obvious follow-up question is, “If toxic sidelines were eliminated, would you keep playing?”

Most say no, which means that wasn’t the real reason.

Who is responsible for developing a soccer player?

One problem with the participation culture of soccer in the US is that too many parents and players hand the keys of development over to clubs and coaches.

Clubs and coaches don’t do much to dissuade that idea, because it’s a selling point.

Contrast that with clubs in soccer countries, where the player owns their own development and they see the club as a place to showcase their ability, compete to get better and maybe get some helpful guidance from coaches along the way.

How differently do players in these two environments behave? Exactly how Kephern Fuller described on a 3Four3 podcast that I wrote about here.

Fuller has experience in American and European soccer clubs and here’s how I summarized the astute observations he shared in that podcast:

He said a key difference is the players knowing where they’re going. American kids don’t have a good sense of this. They are content to say they’re the best on the team and their team has had some success, but they don’t have a sense beyond that of what good soccer looks like or what kind of player they are working to become.

He said, European kids have a much clearer picture of what they want to become. This shows up in the effort they put in on and off the field and how seriously they take and compete within a drills during training.

That’s because European kids own their development, while American kids let development be something that happens to them.

It’s okay for kids to quit soccer

A few weeks into one season, the parent comes to me and says, “Sorry, we’re done.”


“You told him to practice for 10-15 minutes a day with the ball. For 3 weeks, I asked if he practiced like coach asked. Every time the answer was no. 10-15 minutes a day isn’t too much to ask. If he’s not going to follow through on his end, not even once, that tells me he doesn’t want to play”


Most parents won’t make that call.

Pro/rel is the cause, not the effect

Saw on Twitter:

This is like saying that before we allow competitors to McDonald’s, we must have viable competitors to McDonald’s in every inch of the U.S.

In other words, nonsense. Ed has cause and effect backwards, putting the cart before the horse.

The infrastructure Ed desires results from a system that incentivizes it, not from hoping it happens while preventing the incentives that results in it.

The best way to get competition to McDonald’s is to allow it to happen by opening the system to let competitors emerge. Some of those have resulted in large chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, Chili’s and Red Robin, and a plethora of local joints.

A must-listen to podcast for soccer parents and players

Gary Kleiben and John Pranjic nail it in their latest 3Four3 soccer podcast on the 5 components of player development.

I wish I would have had this 10 years ago when my child started soccer and I started coaching.

They identify these 5 components:

  1. The household/parent/family influence.
  2. The playing on your own influence.
  3. The pickup game influence.
  4. The structured club training influence.
  5. The personal training influence.

I just wanted to transcribe a few awesome nuggets from this podcast for posterity.

Pranjic says that parents without soccer backgrounds “are easily impressed by coaches with all kinds of cones, flags and sticks for kids to dribble around and jump over — that looks very professional. When you see kids out there all in unison doing all these step overs, dribbling through the cones it looks like there’s work being done. But, as a group of 15 or 20 kids, as a team, that’s not what they should be focusing on for those 1 to 1.5 hour sessions. I don’t know if that’s been talked about enough.”

It’s not talked about enough. I spent years as a coach in this conflict and many coaches know this is a huge selling point for parents.

He continues, “What should a parent be expecting from this structured training environment?”

Kleiban responds, “You can look at it as development curves. Everybody’s going to develop and get better with more and more touches on the ball. That’s obvious.”

I’d say that’s not obvious to many folks with and without soccer backgrounds. That’s why they fall for the trap Pranjic described and think of the club as nearly 100% of a kid’s soccer identity.

“What might not be obvious is an appreciation for who you are up against. If you’re doing all these technical drills in the club environment and not learning the team game, compare that to somebody who is learning the team game almost exclusively within the team environment, and then doing the technical work on their own. You’ve already lost. You’re falling further and further behind the curve.

You want that situation inverted.You want in that team environment having your player learning the team game, with a sprinkle of individual skills, and outside the team environment, learning the individual skills stuff, on your own, with personal training, with your family and friends.

And then you’re set up to properly compete and move up the competitive levels.”

In my experience, most parents and kids without soccer background and about half with soccer backgrounds, expect the club environment to develop all the skills and team aspects.

Kleiban then describes in more detail the aspects of team play: “Tactics are about how are you going to play as a team and an individual player being able to understand how they fit into the team collective and what their decision-making is supposed to be.

When we talk about a style of play, each individual on the team has a specific role and what that means is that there is a set of correct and incorrect decisions for a particular position, and that player via communication with the coach needs to understand what is a correct decision for this style of play for that position and what is an incorrect decision, depending on the context of the situation that the player finds themselves in. So, if you’re right back and we are on the attack with the ball on the left side of the field, what should his or her position be like and why.”

I’ve seen coaches tell players that they need to work on their decision-making, but then do not give them examples of correct and incorrect decisions and why those are correct or incorrect. That, to me, is as useful as a coach yelling, “Play harder!”

Pranjic: “I hope what people take away from this is that soccer is not random. If your team is focusing most of its time on technical aspects, then in the game you’re watching is random soccer.”

Here’s the main reason I stopped coaching — the players would not do the work on their own. We’d train on team play, but they could not execute because their technical skills were so low and they did not care to improve it on their own. Then, we’d train on technical skills, but then they couldn’t consistently make good decisions and they’d play random. And it became apparent to me that if the kids wouldn’t do their part on their own, then the parents were just hiring a babysitter.

Regarding the topic of speed of play. “In the U.S. that phrase is interpreted to how fast the players and ball move, but what it really means is how quickly decisions are being made and how far in advance.”

One example from my coaching days was that kids would receive the pass, get it under control and then look up and start thinking about what’s next and anything and everything was an option. By the time they made a decision, they were losing the ball.

The team framework should move them to the place that they already know their 5-6 correct options before they receive the ball, in context of their position and the situation, and use the time they have to evaluate and execute the best one, while adding some deception to throw the other team off a bit.

Regarding playing on your own vs. “opposed playing”: Kleiben: “Let’s say you’re a 13 year old and going to the wall or the racquetball court and spending time with the ball, it’s almost a meditative practice where it’s you and your own mind. And it’s you developing your own mental fortitude in a different sort of way and saying hey, I’m going to improve X, Y or Z in my game without anybody else around.

If you want to improve your left foot, what better way than to be by yourself and doing a thousand different touches against a wall or more than a thousand and then grinding away and seeing every repetition as a success or failure as to how you wanted to stroke it, I think it’s just crucially important that you can’t get in a pickup, team or personal training environment.”

Are you a gatekeeper or competition enabler?

If I were hiring a business manager, I would ask candidates to explain whether they view their role more as a gatekeeper for the organization or an enabler of competition?

Gatekeepers decide what the organization does and doesn’t do. They view themselves as the judge of the competition and their ideas usually win, at least in terms of what the organization does, not necessarily in the marketplace.

Competition enablers are open to let good ideas come from anywhere. They create systems that try more ideas and let the best ideas earn their way in our out.

They understand that customers are the best judge of this competition.

Leaders of highly innovative companies like Google, Amazon and even McDonald’s have tended to be competition enablers.

Mature businesses that struggle to stay relevant, tend to have gatekeepers in charge.

Think of Blockbuster as Netflix offered to partner with them. Blockbuster leaders could have easily said, you know this doesn’t seem like something customers would want, but let’s try it and see, because we could be wrong.

Instead, they acted as gatekeeper and said no, customers don’t want to wait for their movie to arrive in the mail. They want to be able to come in on Friday night and pick one out.

By the time they realized they were wrong enough, it was too late.

A common comeback to that is, but that Netflix deal was probably one of dozens of decisions Blockbuster faced and the rest didn’t work out. How would they be able to predict that this one would?

That’s the beauty of being a competition enabler. You don’t have to say no and worry about picking right or wrong.

You just have to ask, how can we try this so we can find out? Can we do it in a small test?

It’s a lot like picking stocks. You can do a lot of analysis and invest all your money in 2-3 stocks and hope for the best. But most folks learn that strategy banks more on luck than skill, because no amount of analysis can turn up information that simply isn’t known, yet.

A better strategy is to spread the bets out more, knowing you can always be wrong.

And, for every example that you can give of someone who did well picking 2-3 stocks, I can give you 10 more who did not.

I’ve worked for several mature businesses that struggle to stay relevant. The Board never realizes the root cause is that they keep hiring gatekeepers instead of competition enablers.

Another thought on the 1-in-10 chance of success

On Naked & Afraid, participants who take a lot of pride in their experience at fishing or hunting think they can beat the 1-in-10 odds of getting food. They might believe their experience and know-how improves their odds to the 1-in-3, for example.

In the business world, managers think they can similarly improve their chances of succeeding with their smarts and/or experience.

Neither are good at assessing odds.

Both are correct that their know-how does increase their odds, but it improves it to 1-in-10.

Someone without the same know-how might have even lower odds of succeeding, maybe 1-in-20 or worse.

How to succeed in a 1-in-10 world

In this post, I explained why I prefer business managers with a ‘1-in-10 innovation mindset’ over those with a linear innovation mindset.

Having the right innovation mindset is just the first step. Managers must also have strategies that translate that mindset into actions that result in growth. Asking about such strategies is fair game in an interview.

Another concept Adams introduces in his book, How To Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, is to favor systems over goals for everything in life like diet, exercise, investing and innovation.

For example, a good retirement investing system is to automatically invest 15% of your income. That beats a goal of, “I want to save $1 million for retirement.”

That can be applied to everything. Feel like you are stuck in a rut with the restaurants that you frequent? Make a system where you try one new restaurant per month. In a few short months, you are likely to discover new places to add to your rotation.

Innovation strategies in 1-in-10 world

The Bain & Co article I linked to in the original post, Navigating the Route to Innovation, offers some clues. Companies with more avenues for innovation grow more.

Ironically, the title of that article brings to mind the linear innovation mindset, as managers with that mindset tend to think of themselves as Clark Griswold plotting his family’s route to Wally World, in the movie Vacation.

But, the content implies a 1-in-10 mindset. In the following chart, from the article, it shows the percentage of experienced and new innovators that use various forms of innovation, with the experienced innovators having superior growth.

It’s clear that experienced innovators use more avenues to innovation and are much more active in incubators, ecosystem partnerships, grassroots innovation, venture capital, joint venture and accelerators than new innovators.

When interviewing business managers, I’d be looking for them to demonstrate their 1-in-10 mindset and that means building systems that increase their trial base of innovation and rely less on them for their ‘strategic visions’.

One way is to have multiple avenues for innovation, like the companies in Bain & Co’s article.

But, there are many more.

A long time ago, 3M famously gave their employees the freedom to pursue side projects and their hunches on company time, that resulted in successful products like Post-It notes. That’s grassroots and that’s a system.

Harvesting natural experiments is another way. I’m struck by how many people don’t notice the giant laboratory of variation that are naturally built into their businesses. Too often, they try to stamp out that variation, even when it doesn’t make sense, just because.

Often hidden in this variation are silver mines on ways to improve the business. They may not be gold mines that produce exponential growth for the firm, but can be filled with actions that make steady improvemenst that evolve the company in relevant directions.

I worked in HQ of one national chain where I rolled out a few of these ‘silver mines’. I mined them from the variation in field. When I visited the field, I often heard I was different than others from HQ. “They come out and tell us what to do. You ask questions.’

Others from HQ mistakenly believed that HQ’s plans were right (even the unproven sound-good edicts from executives) and felt the need to drive those plans into the field operations for consistency.

I often visited areas that were particularly good or bad at something. I visited to see if I could discover why and I often did. That system gave me a steady stream of ideas for tweaks I could make to systems and training within my control and even some things outside of my control. A couple resulted in successful national marketing programs, for example, even though I wasn’t a marketing person.

It also made me a valuable resource to folks in the field as they discovered that when they called me to solve a problem, I often had good ideas that I had harvested from others and had put under the microscope to see if there was something to them.

It worked. And, it was pretty simple. The biggest barrier to this approach are the many mindsets that work against it.

As I found over the years, people can reject productive ideas for a number of reasons. I’ll explore those in a future post.

To recap, if I were to hire business managers, I prefer folks with a 1-in-10 innovation mindset and those with good thoughts on how to build systems to find successful actions given those long odds.

Scott Adams should speak with Thomas Sowell

On his recent Periscope, Scott Adams offers basic strategies for success in life:

  1. Get a useful education
  2. Stay out of trouble
  3. Stay away from drugs
  4. Don’t become a parent too soon
  5. Build your talent stack
  6. Be useful to others
  7. Favor systems over goals
  8. Understand basic risk management

He hypothesized if we could categorize the population by people who follow these strategies and those who do not, and ignore the standard demographic categories like race and gender, that we’d likely see the difference.

In his book, Black Redneck White Liberals, Thomas Sowell (among other places) makes the same claim. I wrote about that back in 2013. I highly recommend the book. It changed the way I see the world.