Month: December 2012

Five-a-side, Carlo Rossi Blush and a Slice of Life


I spend a lot of time contemplating the futility of life, and until 7:14 pm, today was much the same.  I was fairly productive at work, but offended my co-workers with the remnants of the flu and a hacking cough.  I worked out and seemed destined for an uneventful evening of watching the NBA on TNT and finishing a biography on Messi.  Then I received a text message from Coach Richie inviting me to play some “friendly indoor.”

I got to Northside Indoor Soccer with Holland shortly before 8 pm, and found a loose pick game underway.  Over the next twenty minutes people poured in and the rules of the evening were set.  Five players per team, games were six minutes long or two goals scored, winner stays, loser sits, and if it’s tied at siz minutes both teams sit.

I was fortuitously placed on a tremendous team that featured two players wearing Real Madrid shirts, a guy wearing a Barca shirt who bore a vague resemblance to Iniesta and a fourth player wearing a yellow uniform of a foreign club and black high top Chuck Taylor’s.

We immediately won five games on the trot, and full of energy and positive movement, I passably portrayed a real player.  We lost and things got interesting.  As I sat in the bleachers, I was offered a glass of Carlo Rossi Blush and came to the realization that I was the only player on any team that did not speak Spanish.

We dropped our next several games as the thin veil of my incompetence faded.  I was clearly off the pace of play and bleeding confidence at an alarming rate.  My team maintained a brave face as they scrambled through the puzzle of “how the hell are we supposed to win with this guy?”  I didn’t give up on myself.  Maybe it was the Carlo Rossi, perhaps the two cases of Corona that brought the pace of the game back to me, but I found a way to serve my team… a goalie.

I made a few decent saves, distributed the ball quickly and by staying in goal allowed the the rest of my team to play flowing football unburdened by the gringo with a poor first touch.  We took off again winning most of our games the rest of the way.  At the end of the night, we shook hands, embraced each other in mutual respect for the time well spent in common cause and added another memory to the side of the ledger that stands against the futility of life.

Player Leadership: A Guide to Avoiding the Emotional Hijacker

The first text in the book “The Miracle of St. Anthony” is a story from former Florida State coach Pat Kennedy.

“We were in Vegas at the AAU event last summer, recruiting some kids on a South Dakota team.  They come in, all white kids, beautiful uniforms, four coaches, parents in tow, running all kinds of offenses and defenses.  So, I told my assistants, ‘Now, watch this.  See this team here?  Eight black kids from Jersey City.  Shitty uniforms, no parents, not even a coach.  Just a chaperone somewhere there.’

“So, I tell my assistants, ‘Watch these Jersey City kids kick the shit out of that team.’

“They’re like, ‘Why? What’s special about them?’

“I told them, ‘They will not say a word to the refs.  They will not say a word to the other kids.  They’ll get on each other’s backs for not taking a charge, not closing out, not stopping penetration.’

“So the game starts, and they were huddling at the free-throw line, one or two kids were yelling about not closing on penetration.  They’re coaching themselves.

“My assistants finally said to me, “Holy shit, these kids play like they’re possessed, like they’re freaking animals.  Who are they?’

“I said, ‘Well, they’re Bob Hurley’s kids.'”

Bob Hurley is the legendary coach of St. Anthony’s, and the lesson in this story beyond the praise of Hurley, is that he succeeded in cultivating positive leadership in his players.  Through his leadership, he ingrained in his players a collective standard of excellence that they accepted as their own, and for which they held each other accountable.  This is genuine leadership.

It has been my observation that many coaches talk of leadership and bemoan a lack of leaders among their team without creating conditions for leadership to grow.  The coach must set the initial standard, and be consistent in recognizing and rewarding it.  Once this momentum is established, the coach should incorporate into the standard input from the players.  If they suggest it themselves, the players are immediately invested in it’s adherence and success.  This is conditional on the experience and growth of the group.  When Coach K took control of the USMNT, he set out a “gold standard” of rules that came directly from his players.  Obviously, taking this approach unfiltered with a freshman or jv high school team is not advisible.

The other peril is falling for a fake leader or appointing a leader.  Some players will come to you with a large personality that may in and of itself dominate your team dynamic.  Being vocal or forceful in nature is not leadership, and you are at risk of having your team emotionally hijacked by this type of leader.  Whether you allow a domineering personality to dominate your team, or caste a leadership role on someone unsuited for it, you will suffer the consequence of losing credibility with your team.

The leader must be an exemplification of your standards and an extension of your beliefs.  This is an organic process.  Hurley’s players did not come to St. Anthony huddling at the free throw line to berate each other for poor close outs.  They were first berated by him, until they saw the significance of his teachings and the effect they had on the outcome of the game.  They chose to accept these standards and hold each other accountable.  In doing so, leaders were trained to lead and those that couldn’t follow aren’t playing at St. Anthony’s anymore.

Rotten at the Core of Real Madrid

We are too deep into this season and the results too poor in all competitions to escape the conclusion that there is something rotten at the core of Real Madrid.  Last season’s La Liga title secured in spirit more than fact with a late season away win at Barca was to transfer the epicenter of footballing power to Madrid.  The offseason saw few changes beyond the additions of Modric and Essien, which suggested the core of this group to be physically and mentally strong.  It has not been so.

Real Madrid are 16 points behind Barca in La Liga, unconvincing in Champion’s League play and face Manchester United in the first round of knock-out play and must over turn a result to stay alive in the Copa Del Rey.  The have played very little football at a level approaching master class and more distressingly have shown little or no ability to grind out results.

The tools and talent are plainly evident, but a team’s core is not and that is where the problem lies.  It is that sense of togetherness directed to a common purpose and bound by a well of trust.  Trust in each other as players for the work put in and competitive gamesmanship.  Trust in the staff that no stone is left unturned to motivate amd prepare the team for the rigors of it’s journey.  In this the sum becomes greater than the parts even where the parts are great themselves.

From this precarious point, Real Madrid can explode itself with a new coach and new players in this transfer window or they can look in the mirror finding the individual fault within themselves, and then into each other’s eyes seeking the trust to reverse their fortunes.  It is theirs to do and a shame if they don’t.

Here is a great post from my friend Kenny Kallina. It is worth a read for any aspiring player or parent of a player as they navigate the recruiting world.

Lasting Impressions

“You tell me the day I’m not the most organized, enthusiastic guy on the floor.  If I’m not that guy then that will be the day we end practice early.  The next day I’ll quit.”  – Rick Majerus

I came upon this quote the other day.  Today I took my old secretary, Becky Ventura, to lunch.  While we were eating, I ran into the father of a player I coached at least six years ago for two soccer seasons.  He was an aggressive, but not particularly skilled player and I put him in goal.  He took to the position, and now starts for his high school jv team as a freshman with designs on playing in college.

His father said that he and his son still talk about playing for me.  I was the “gold standard” for coaching and they haven’t matched the experience yet.  As the arrogantone this was all very pleasing, but what I was most proud of was when he explained that while I yelled and got upset a lot, it came from a positive place.  I wanted the players to do better and believed they could.

I have always loved sports and found it natural to put everything I have into coaching a practice or a game.  There is an honesty to coaching this way that over time earns a respect and appreciation from the players you serve that is gratifying beyond measure at the  unlikliest of times and places.

Finding Your Place

In the summer of 2003, Matt Hixenbaugh and I took our Trinity Prep Saints team to the Lake Howell team camp.  We were coming off of a 19-9 season, but our best player was in the process of transferring to a bigger school and with a few absences, excused or not, we only had four players available for our first game.  We made a few calls, but couldn’t find anyone available to play until one of our players, Thad Seymour, ran into a friend named Brandon Pittman.   Brandon was a student at Seminole, but wasn’t a part of their basketball program.  He played five games with our guys that weekend and transferred to Trinity.

Brandon was a spare part at Seminole, but for us offered unselfish athleticism and comic relief.  We would go 24-5 losing a difficult game to the eventual state champion in regional play, and Brandon was our sixth man and an integral part of everything we achieved as a team.  It was a great move for him individually and for us as a team.

Tonight, I watched a former player Ray Shaw play against Winter Springs.  Ray was on my JV team last season and struggled to find regular minutes.  In all likelihood, he would not be playing basketball if he had stayed at Winter Springs.  He is varsity starter for ICS, and played well tonight.  He has demonstrably grown as a player, is important to their team and having fun.

Their are a select few playera that have a level of talent that makes a difference in gamea wherever they play and whoever they play against.  These players have invested themselves deeply in the game and are a joy for anyone who loves the game to watch.  Most players are different.   They love the game just the same, work at it, but require something more to achieve success… be in the right place which is really a team where they are valued and in that environment inspired to be the best player they can be.

My Thoughts on the Human Condition in the Wake of Senseless Tragedy

I went to a UCF basketball game the other night with my friend Coach Cowher.  We shared a suite with a large family.  At halftime, I left the suite to say hello to a friend.  As I went for the door, a cute toddler chased me.  I picked her up and passed her back to her mother.  The episode lasted a few seconds, but I was impressed by the little girl’s boundless sense of curiosity and my own cynicism.  She was so cute, so open and untrampled by life experience.  I felt a sense of concern for her when life would not be so nice and forgiving.  How would she handle it?  Surely her smile would fade and dark, desperate thoughts would consume her inner peace and invade her private time.  Of course, I hope this won’t happen, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

This afternoon, I left the gym to the news that 26 people including 20 children were killed in their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut just ten miles from Danbury where I grew up.  Anger, outrage, profanity, calls for retribution, anti-2nd Amendment rants and prayer have filled my timeline all day.  All are valid and authentic emotions, but they are all too familiar and common.  Part of digesting this tragedy is made by immediate comparison to Columbine and other monumental tragedies. 

We call the killer a coward and evil to drive a wedge as deep and far as possible from ourselves and this failed person.  Problem is we can’t escape him or others of his ilk,  they are us as much us as our heroes.  The crucible of society forges each of us. 

Mentally ill, disillusioned, disconnected and disenfranchised people are pushed through our inefficient schools and released into a society that has no place or purpose for them.  They are far more readily apparent than we might think.  We will learn in the coming weeks a multitude of information or signs about this perpetrator that if viewed in context would have pointed to what occurred today in general, if not in particular.  There may well be some prior involvement with the legal system and with certainty an all too easy access to weapons.  Their will indoubtedly be a connection to the school.  These acts are not random or spontaneous.  They slow burn in shallowness and are set off by an emotional trigger.

We know this because it has happened before and we know despite the vows and admonishments of this day it will happen again.  It is tragic, but at this point a known peril of our existence.  We are too vast, too conflicted with self-interest, political pride and religous-based competitive morality to enact and implement a change profound enough to shield us from the darker selves.

I text Coach Cowher a few hours ago unable to process, accept or make any peace with what’s transpired.  I am hurt for those who have been affected most, concerned by the knowledge we can’t eliminate the how, why and what of today’s events and fearful that it will happen again closer still to me.

To those who lost their lives today, rest in peace as that is certainly not how we as your survivors will live.