“Just one thing”

In a scene in the movie, Central Intelligence, Kevin Hart’s character is reconnecting with a high school classmate, “Fat Robby,” played by Dwayne Johnson.

Hart asks how he got in such great shape. Robby responds:

I didn’t do much really. All right.

I just did one thing.

I worked out 6 hours a day, every day, for the last 20 years. Anybody could do it, right?

That reminded of something I see in the telling of a lot of success, and failure, stories.

People try to boil it down to just one thing.

But, the real story is more like what Johnson says after that. It really wasn’t just one thing.

Hart’s face is the typical response you get when you try to explain it’s really more than just one thing.

Walmart’s success is a good example.

The first thing people think about Walmart is low prices.

Many people think that’s the ‘just one thing’ for Walmart.

They missed that Walmart invested heavily in its supply chain management, long before other retailers. They did this to help save costs and keep prices low, but it also had an unexpected benefit. It meant that stores were stocked and shoppers more often found what they wanted.

Even the second generation Walmart management lost sight of this, and other, important value dimensions as they focused on the ‘just one thing’ of low price in the 90s and 00s.

They kept costs low by doing things like servicing shelves less and cutting cashier labor to the bone.

This led to messy, disorganized stores and long lines at the checkout.

Walmart may have what you want on the shelf, but they made it less appealing and less convenient to get it.

For a lot of customers, cleaner, more organized stores with shorter checkout lines became more appealing, even if the prices weren’t rock bottom.

Losing customers to competition made Walmart management realize they had neglected the importance of these other value dimensions. So, they put more effort into keeping stores clean and organized and making it easier to check out.

Business improved.

It’s good to remember that success and failures usually come down to more than just one thing.

Many times those other contributors are not obvious.


“Rethinking Economics”

I enjoyed this EconTalk podcast with guest Maeve Cohen, about rethinking economics.

I also think there is much room to improve economics education.

Maybe there could a little less emphasis on how to calculate GDP and more discussion on the implications of a ‘incentives matter,’ for example.

Improve the bottom to improve the top

In his book, Soccer Starts at Home, Tom Byer challenges conventional wisdom/intuition about sports development.

His biggest challenge is to the belief that soccer skills are too advanced for young children to work on. Conventional wisdom holds that these skills come later, after age 8.

Tom thinks (and has shown with his own kids and pointing out kids from soccer cultures) they can and do start to develop as early as the child can walk, with the right activities.

I’ve seen soccer folks agree with Byer on that point, but disagree with him on another key point he makes:

To improve the top level of talent we have to improve the bottom level.

They believe the U.S. has plenty of top talent, so they think the key to moving forward is a matter of devoting more resources to that top tier to make them even better.

It’s easy to make this mistake. The top-talent seems to be there. They are really good.

But, still something seems to be missing in that top talent compared to talent from richer soccer playing cultures.

What’s missing? Tom Byer gives us the answer to that one, too. This is from his book:

“The best way to make the ‘elite’ player better is by raising the level of the lower-level players. They in turn will push the elite players to become better. Imagine you have a team of 20 8-year-old players. Three of the 20 are very skillful and the other 17 are not. Those three good players know they will most likely play every minute of every game and in their preferred position, even if they goof off or miss practice. So there is often a complacency with the best players who invariably are not pushed into making themselves better. But imagine if all 20 of those players have a similar technical ability. The competition then becomes much more fierce; they will fight to retain their position on the team and work harder to become better players.”

I’ve written about this before here, about an agent who places American players into European clubs. He says a key difference he sees between U.S. and European youth soccer players is the sense of where they are headed.

He said the American youth are happy to be best on their current team and there isn’t a competitive atmosphere to inspire improvement. The comes through as relative laziness in practice and games.

The European youth are working toward making their club’s first team someday and there’s a much more spirited competitive atmosphere to demonstrate they are heading that way. They’re competing for spots against other players who are just as good as they are, which motivates them to work harder on their own, in practice and games.

I’ll vouch for what he sees on the American side of things. I’ve seen it first hand and from interactions with other coaches, it’s common.

So, what does this mean?

Take Byer’s advice. We currently introduce kids to soccer through organized activities and expect clubs to teach them the skills they need to succeed.

He thinks that’s backwards. The kids should have those skills first, before joining organized soccer.

I think this is more like how we know other sports work. Kids typically know how to throw, catch and hit before joining a competitive baseball team.

“What is (or isn’t) authentic soccer culture?”

On Twitter, Alexi Lalas asked what is (or isn’t) authentic soccer culture?


Here are a few things I can think of…


  • A high portion of the knowledge and skill of the game is handed down to younger generations informally through family and friends in unorganized, backyard, street and park play.
  • Kids play a bunch of soccer and offshoot (e.g. monkey-in-the middle) without adult direction from the time they start to walk.
  • Street cred is earned with ball mastery.
  • By age 8-10, kids have picked up the sport’s base skills and tactics through the above without really knowing it. The game just seems natural to them and they can’t remember a time when they didn’t have these skills or knowledge.
  • Clubs provide playing opportunities from age 5 to 50 or 60.
  • Supporter groups in small to medium clubs, are people who play in the club at some age. They might play in the club’s U8 league or on the adult over 40 league.
  • Young kids in the club are coached by the teenagers on the first and second teams. These kids want to watch their coaches play on the weekend and work toward being like them.
  • Support and interest in the pro sport would be similar to what we have in football, basketball and baseball — in ticket sales and TV contracts.
  • 1st division teams are independent clubs that earned their way in, and stay in, with their results on the field.


  • Most of the game knowledge and skills are taught formally in organized play by pro or  licensed coaches (and it is believed that’s the only way to do it) or by parent volunteers who have zero guidance.
  • Ball mastery isn’t on the radar as something to strive for (or is believed it just happens with age and coordination).
  • Kids do not follow or discover the sport outside of organized play.
  • Young players don’t try to emulate anyone. They are fine with being the ‘best on their team’ at something (defense, midfield, goalie) and have no real sense of what they should be working toward.
  • The 1st division teams buy their way in and collude with the other teams, via the league, on the belief that close games against mediocre teams (what they call competitive) attract more eyeballs than allowing each team to fight it out.

In his podcast, he points out that authentic soccer culture is the violence and intensity simmering in soccer-crazed countries.

I think that’s just a signal of it. It’s not it.

If you put the elements of authentic culture above into perspective, one outcome may be more violence since folks are even more connected to their clubs than they currently are.

But, beneath that, lies a deep and widespread love for the game that we simply don’t have, yet.


What You Should Do (via Marginal Revolution).

The first link on his list is to Y Combinator’s Request for Startups.

#9 on its list is Education. It reads:

Human brain power is vastly underutilized on this planet because most people lack access to a good education. Strong education systems lead to greater social mobility, better workers, better citizens, and more and better startups. A small increase in the learning output of education systems across the globe would have an enormous impact on human productivity and economic growth.

We are interested in new school models that can develop critical thinking, creativity, citizenship, and job skills at massive scale. We’re looking for ideas that combine technology and person-to-person interactions to deliver highly individualized educational experiences.

We also know that 90% of the human brain develops before age 5 and achievement gaps open up well before kindergarten. We’re interested in ventures that dramatically improve outcomes for children from birth to age five, that reduce inequality, and that have the potential to enhance the future quality of life for those children and their families. Scalable solutions in these areas should now be doable thanks to advances in brain science and technologies such as smart home devices, wearables, and mobile.

Maybe. I like simple things. But, that seems too simple.

Those gaps that open before age five, may just be the first signals of  families that value education differently, rather than some deprivation of resources.

Consider soccer. Some parents/families are into it. Some aren’t.

By age 5, there will be noticeable soccer-playing gaps between the kids from families who are into it and those who are not.

The scalable solution there is soccer culture. Nothing else will live up to that on a sustainable basis.

Likewise, to improve educational outcomes, the scalable solution is a culture that values education.

Oh yeah, and competition. The education system needs more of it.

A good Thanksgiving podcast & book

I highly recommend listening to this week’s EconTalk podcast with guest A.J. Jacobs.

He and host, Russ Roberts, discuss Jacobs’ new book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

The book is about Jacobs’ experiences in attempting to thank all the folks who make his morning cup of coffee possible.

He starts at his favorite coffee shop and works back to thank the folks who deliver the coffee to the store, roast it, keep the store pest free, grow the coffee and even the folks that create the safe drinking water that makes up over 98% of his morning joe, to name a few.

The book is another take on the economic classic essay, I, Pencil, which explores the amazing coordination among large numbers of people who make something as mundane as pencils.

At the end of the podcast, Jacobs recommends being as creative as possible this Thanksgiving when considering what you are grateful for.

I, for one, am thankful for the price system, which enables the coordination among billions of folks and encourages them to make things that improve my life, like pencils and coffee.

Another good bit of advice that Roberts and Jacobs discuss is looking for the good. Russ recalled a bumper sticker, “Wag more. Bark less.”

Jacobs said he finds he has an inner Larry David and inner Mr. Rogers. Larry David looks for things to be annoyed about it. Mr. Rogers looks for things to be happy about and grateful for. He tries to encourage the inner Mr. Rogers more and good things happen.

Make it fun

When I’ve juggled a soccer ball around beginning soccer players they ask, “What’s the secret?”

My standard answer is, “Lots of practice.”

The look on their face says it all, That doesn’t sound like fun, I guess I won’t be learning to juggle. And, they don’t try.

I wonder if it would better to say, “Make it fun.”

I’ll give that a try and see.

There are lots of ways to make it fun.

The biggest hurdle is getting to 20 juggles consistently. Once you get there, progress speeds up.

It took me about a year of relatively consistent practice to get there. It took my son about 5 months of more consistent practice to make it.

Here are a few ways to help make it fun.

These are just thought starters. Be creative and help your kids come up with their ways.

  1. How many juggles in a row: right vs left.
  2. How many total juggles can you get in a minute? Left only, right only, alternating. Dropping is okay.
  3. How long does it take to get to 100 juggles (dropping okay)? Left, right, alternating.

Also, if you don’t think juggling helps, here I make my case for how it helps make your whole game better.