U.S. Soccer’s fragile system for finding talent vs. the world’s anti-fragile system

In his book, Antifragile, part of his five book Incerto series, Nassim Taleb describes systems that are fragile and the opposite of fragile, which, for lack of a better term, he coined, “anti-fragile.”

A good example he gives to illustrate his point is that of a flame.

A candle flame is fragile. It can easily be extinguished by a breeze.

A wildfire is the opposite, or anti-fragile. A breeze makes it stronger.

The same stressors that can put out the fragile flame, can invigorate the anti-fragile wildfire.

A fragile system doesn’t like randomness, variability and shocks. These things make anti-fragile systems stronger.

The under performing U.S. soccer system under performs because it is a fragile system.

It’s fragile because folks who run U.S. Soccer think that creating talent is a linear process that they can manage, like a project, and it looks something like:

Rec soccer –> Club soccer –> Development Academy –> College/MLS/USL –> National Teams

That seems to work good on the women’s side, often the counterpoint to criticism about U.S. Soccer. But, looks can be deceiving.

The success of women’s side can be traced to Title IX, which made soccer more popular among females in the U.S. than in other countries. This create a more anti-fragile system for women’s talent in the U.S. than in other countries. Those countries are trying to catch up doing on their women’s side what we do on our men’s side (see linear process above).

So, U.S. Soccer’s linear process is not responsible for the success of the women’s side.

It’s also true that top talent on the men’s side aren’t necessarily products of U.S. Soccer’s system.

Pulisic and Sargent are two good examples. Both played in clubs in the U.S., but dig into their stories and other things pop out, like the fact that both have high-level soccer-playing parents, who likely introduced them to developing key skills early (probably not intentionally, for fun). Pulisic spent a year early on in England that took his interest in the game to a new level. And, both are extremely self-motivated and hard working.

I think it’s pretty darned incredible that a couple of kids that spent hours playing with the ball in their backyard have gone so far. Imagine if they had also played lots of pickup against really good talent everyday, too, like most of the players they go against in their respective leagues.

Most folks think the purpose of the soccer system is to develop talent. It’s not. It’s to discover it.

Talent is an extremely random variable. There’s no sure-fire recipe for developing it.

Even the world’s top and best funded development academies rely more on finding talent than they do on developing it. This is reflected in the high percentage of players that exit those programs below the top-level.

They try to find the world’s best players and make them a little better, but even most of those attempts fail.

Messi, for example, was already good when he came to Barcelona. In fact, he had to be eye-opening good for them to agree to pay for his growth hormone treatments. He was also already good when he joined his local club in Argentina as a boy. The club didn’t make him good. It just discovered him.

When you dig into the U.S. Soccer system structure, it’s easy to see how talented individuals may never make it onto the radar screen.

The current gatekeepers may be looking for the wrong players. In the U.S. we favor athleticism and treat ball skill as secondary, yet ball skill is pretty clearly what beats us on the world stage against top-tier countries.

Or, it may be too difficult for players to jump through the hoops to get on a development team to get recognized. Maybe it’s too far away from home, too expensive to move or they don’t even know about it.

Or, their families may not want to pay the for their kids to be on a club team, especially when they see the players in the club as inferior. Their kids get better competition in their backyard for free, why pay for lesser competition? I’ve seen this happen.

I also recall manager of a Mexican restaurant told me he had tried out and made the Chicago Fire in the early days of the MLS, but decided to stick with restaurants because it paid more and he couldn’t afford to take the lower wages of pro soccer.

After that, I remember thinking that many of the Americans I see playing in the MLS are people whose families could afford for them to play in club soccer and afford for their kid to pass on higher wages of other jobs to play pro soccer.

It made me wonder how many better players are out there and not in the MLS and USL simply because they can’t afford to be.

Those are just a few places people fall through the cracks.

Since talent is such a random variable, the best way to discover it is by casting as wide of a net as possible.

What that means is getting as many people as possible involved in trying to find that talent.

FIFA has created an anti-fragile system for doing just that, which includes promotion/relegation in a country’s soccer leagues and incentives for clubs to find talent.

These incentives have worked amazingly well around the world to get talent in the system and get them recognized by getting them to as high of a level as possible.

It’s like trying to find a $10 million diamond buried in your big field. How long will it take you to find that diamond on your own? Long-time, if ever. How long if you tell people you will offer a reward of $200,000? Faster.

It’s possible for you to find it on your own. You may get lucky.

But, if you incentivize others correctly, you don’t have to hope to get lucky.

Currently, U.S. Soccer wants to find those diamonds on its own and cut everyone else out of the deal. It hasn’t worked out well.

That’s because the U.S.’s fragile system that doesn’t handle the randomness of talent discovery well is up against the world’s anti-fragile system that thrives on randomness.

U.S. Soccer is penny-wise and pound foolish. They don’t want to adopt the world’s anti-fragile system, because they want to save that $200,000 for their preferred partners, MLS owners, not realizing how many $10 million diamonds they may be missing.

Putting the cart before the horse: a ‘signal or cause’ saying

Have you ever heard someone say, “I need to buy a treadmill so I can get in shape.”

After a few months, these treadmills go unused and collect dust.

“But, I know people who stay fit and they have treadmills.”

Those people stay in shape because they have made exercise a priority. The treadmill is a signal of their priority, not the cause of it.

If you want to get in shape, you first have to make exercise a priority. That can be done without a treadmill.

Buying the treadmill first is putting the cart before the horse.

The consistently fit buy the treadmill as a supplement to their exercise routine — not as the centerpiece of it. It’s used on rainy or busy days to keep their priority.

I saw a tweet recently calling for building 600,000 futsal courts in the U.S. to give kids more places to play pickup soccer.

I agree that lack of pickup soccer is a key problem with soccer in the U.S., but building the courts before soccer is being widely played, informally, is putting the cart before horse.

The tweeter sees futsal courts in soccer-playing countries and thinks that’s the key to getting more kids playing.

Those futsal courts are a signal of a soccer-playing culture, not the cause of it.

My town has two street hockey courts that haven’t seen action since the 90s when that fad faded away. Simply having the courts doesn’t motivate anyone to play street hockey.

They sit there unused like the treadmill collecting dust.

More futsal courts will come when parks and rec directors see kids all over their town playing soccer in driveways, backyards and parks.

In fact, two areas in my metro area have futsal courts where a lot of pickup soccer is played. Those areas are rich in soccer-playing cultures from soccer-playing countries.

Signals vs Causes: Bacteria

This NY Times article reviews studies that suggest that the makeup of bacteria in your gut may cause you to lose or gain weight (via Instapundit).

Perhaps as likely, the makeup of bacteria in your gut responds to what you eat, how much you eat and your activity levels.

We have high tolerance for disatrous gambles

In his column this week, Walter Williams discusses a Ron Paul/Wolf Blitzer debate moment and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman’s reaction to it.

He [Krugman] was referring to a GOP presidential debate in which Rep. Ron Paul was asked what should be done if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Paul correctly, but politically incorrectly, replied, “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed his question further, asking whether “society should just let him die.” The crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of “Yeah!”, which led Krugman to conclude that “American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions.”

This is a good example of why I don’t care to watch election debates.  This topic deserves more in depth exploration, but the debate format only allows for sound bite responses.

I agree with Williams and Ron Paul.  But, I doubt those answers will do much for people who disagree with us. I’m not sure if my responses will either, but here are some other things to consider.

First, I’d like Wolf to clarify what he means by “society.”  Members of society are free to do what they like for this hypothetical 30-year-old.  Who’s stopping them?  Why do they need to be forced through government?

Medical practitioners could donate their time for his benefit.  Individuals can choose to donate their money to cover his costs.  People can form organizations that raise funds to help folks like him.

But, I think what Wolf really means by “society” is “government”.

It’s a pet peeve of mine when folks use “society” in place of “government”.  The underlying assumption is that there are only two options — either the 30-year-old buys insurance or the government comes to the rescue.  When you say “society” and really mean “government”, just say “government.”

Second, I’d ask why the 30-year-old decided to not buy insurance?  This is rarely discussed, but the answer is important.

Certainly, we could just say the 30-year-old made a bad gamble, but that doesn’t give the root cause.  It’s not only a bad gamble, it’s a disastrous gamble. Why he would make such a disastrous gamble?   Running red lights is a disastrous gamble also and very few people intentionally make this gamble.  Why not?

What if he made his health insurance gamble because he knew government would back him up?  That’s called a moral hazard and we find ourselves in a bad position when what is believed to be compassionate government policy actually causes more people to make disastrous gambles.  That also drives up the cost of insurance, medical care and government for everyone, as they are left paying for those disastrous gambles (which is exactly one of the key underlying problems driving medical costs in the U.S.).

Third, I’d ask for more information about this 30-year-old.  What’s his income?  What kind of car does he drive?  What phone plan does he have?  Where does he live?  How much did his TV cost?  Which TV service does he have?  How much would a catastrophic insurance policy cost him?  Enter your zip code on this website to find out.  In my zip code, a $5,000 deductible policy for a 30-year-old single male with Blue Cross Blue Shield is quoted at $53 per month.

I wonder, if “society” would have less compassion for him if it found out that he could afford the $50 / month insurance insurance policy, but chose not to buy it so he could have the best data plan for his smartphone.

Apparently, “society” didn’t think much of this woman’s efforts to raise money for her cancer treatments with yard sales, since the local government shut her down.  But, it appears that individuals in society have privately and voluntarily taken it upon themselves to help her out.  Good for them.

Third, I might ask why “society” should value the 30-year-old’s life more than he valued it himself, as demonstrated by his own unwillingness to insure himself?

I can’t imagine “society” having much sympathy for a driver who died in a car accident because he recklessly chose to run red lights.

This is just another example of where we let poor logic lead us to make bad decisions.

Poor logic: That guy made a disastrous gamble, let’s help him.

Better logic:  Let’s encourage that guy to not make disastrous gambles and let’s, through our private actions, help the truly needy.

So, I can well imagine someone like Blitzer saying, “so what do we do when we have a 30-year-old male dying who didn’t buy insurance?”

First, “we” do like the people did for the lady having yard sales.  We take private actions to help him, because we are good people.

Then, if he recovers, we take him by the ear and let him know that he should be ashamed of himself for making such poor choices that others had to come to his aid and take away resources for the truly needy.

We let him know that he will be expected to make responsible choices, because next time there are no guarantees of help.  He played us for fools once.

Maybe he goes on a speaking tour or gets interviewed by the local news and sends the message to other able-bodied and able-minded folks to not take disastrous gambles because it’s selfish and not worth it.

And, maybe one day he will come across someone who took a disastrous gamble and lost and will do the same for her that others did for him.

Maybe, in the process, he picks up some dignity and reinforces it others.

Give it back? Part 2

Thanks for the comments on the post, Give it back? I think you all made great points.

I think dave’s comment will make sense to my friend (I’ll call him Sam):

what if instead of spending it, the person decides to save and/or reinvest the million? a million dollars worth of capital could probably create more than a couple jobs.

Sam is employed by folks who make good money.  He might not have his job if the owners gave most of it back.  I think it’s helpful to tie a discussion back to someone’s personal situation.  I can’t wait to see what Sam thinks of this.

Mari’s point is also excellent.  A million dollars may be more than enough in one year, but what if that isn’t consistent income from year-to-year?  Shouldn’t we be allowed to save it for the future?

thebigdog asks, give it back to whom?  Another great point. Who would judge to make sure the recipients are worthy?

Mari and thebigdog both get to a key problem with Sam’s statement, it’s arbitrary. As Mari points out, the million-dollars-per-year is an arbitrary judgment, and thebigdog points out that whomever is deemed as valid beneficiaries would be an arbitrary judgment.

If Sam’s arbitrary judgment were to be imposed on others, that opens the door for others imposing their arbitrary judgments on him and we all lose our property rights and freedom in the process.

I’m holding off responding to Sam until I hear back from him.  I’d like to see what he has to say about your points.

Thanks again!

Nice Video on Wealth Creation

Bill Whittle asks for 10 minutes of your time in the following video to explain how conservatives view wealth and where it comes from:

I like the central premise that liberals tend to view wealth as a fixed pie to be split among people, while conservatives tend to view it as something that derives from win-win trades.

To illustrate, I liked the graphics he showed of LA in the 1800’s and today.  Bill asks how it LA changed so much if wealth was a fixed amount?

My favorite part of the video starts at 4:16 where Whittle does an excellent job of explaining how he created a little bit of value as an office temp making $7.50 per hour for an insurance company by cross-checking a list of customers with a list of checks sent.

I made that insurance company just a little bit wealthier.  By confirming those check mailings, I was reducing loss of customers due to frustration and error.  I was reducing the amount of time that higher level, more valuable employees would need to spend undoing the damage caused by unsent checks and all the rest.

A cross-checked and confirmed list was more valuable than one that wasn’t.

To me, this example is easier to identify with than the examples often given by econ professors, and given by Whittle later in the video about trade between primitive tribes.

I know few people who can adequately explain the value they produce in their job for their employers or the value they find in the stuff they purchase on a daily basis.

I also enjoyed the final few seconds of the video.  “I would be much more impressed with your moral outrage…”  Great line.

What value do you produce for your employer or your customers?  Why are you worth more than what they pay you?

Random Thoughts

It strikes me as odd that people who believe government spending on infrastructure is good because it stimulates the economy (e.g. creates jobs for workers and encourages more efficient travel and shipping of goods with more road capacity) often are the same people who want to tax the same economic activity they sought to stimulate because they perceive that activity to have negative externalities like pollution and global warming.

It also strikes me as odd that the people who support socializing medicine because they believe everyone has a right to free medical treatment, seem to be the first people to assert that since they now help shoulder the burden for our medical costs they have a right to tell the rest of us how to live in order to minimize those costs.

In both cases, I can assure you that such people haven’t given much consideration that they may be wrong or that their thinking is somewhat paradoxical.