The Meaning of Success
In 1937, Pablo Picasso unveiled his most famous painting, Guernica, at the World's Fair in Paris. It is probably the most famous painting of the 20th century, and easily the most recognizable of that period. It has been described as "[T]he most successful artwork about war ever created." But here's the thing. Someone looking at this painting for the very first time and without any knowledge of why Picasso created it, would have no idea it was about war or what happened to the Spanish town called Guernica. In his 1965 biography of Pablo Picasso, author John Berger described the painting as follows: “There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day, the year, the century or the part of Spain where it happened. There are no enemies to accuse. There is no heroism.”
The painting was a work of political protest over the Spanish town of Guernica that was leveled by Hitler's German air force in a brutal aerial bombardment. About a third of the town's population, over 1,600 people, were killed. A British reporter by the name of George Steer wrote the following when he filed his report the day after the attack: “At 2am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.”
None of this is obvious or intuitive to a new viewer of the painting. For the new viewer, its just a colossal painting of a horse, a bull, a giant lightbulb and some people screaming. The painting does not transparently convey that it is about an attack on a Spanish town or even about war. To get more meaning and understanding about the painting and why it was created, it is vital to gain more context. According to Berger, "If a painting is to be successful, its essential that the artist and his public agree on its meaning."
To this day, people ascribe all sorts of meaning to elements of Guernica. Is the bull a symbol of Spain? Is the horse a symbol of death? All sorts of assumptions have been made about the symbolism Picasso may have intended. But the artist would have none of it, and at times was exasperated by all the speculation and erroneous meanings given to his painting:
"...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are....These are animals, massacred animals. That's all as far as I'm concerned...My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the picture I am painting — which I shall call Guernica — I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death.".
And there you have it! Intention delivered by the artist himself. The meaning of the painting is a reaction to the horrors of war. That is what Picasso intended to express. Now that we know Picasso's intention for the painting and its meaning, we can all appreciate the work for what it is and judge for ourselves how well the art reflects and lives up to its creator's intended meaning.
Intentions And Agreement About Meaning.
How a soccer team plays is also very much about a shared understanding and agreement about meaning and expression. The meaning of a soccer game is much more than the final score. Its about the way a team plays. The final score alone is a crude way of judging a youth team's performance. The numbers tell us nothing about the aesthetics of their performance or the coach's objectives and ambitions for his or her players. Was the performance beautiful and/or fun to watch? Could you see the coach's intention in the player's actions? How did it make you feel? The final score alone cannot answer such questions.
Think back to the Barcelona team of 2008-2011. It was a side that played a beautiful, mesmerizing style of possession soccer. Except for sports historians and statisticians, most of us cannot remember the scores. We only remember how they played and that their famous manager, Pep Guardiola, wanted that team to play a certain way, with lots of possession of the ball, high passing rates and intelligent movements. That team and that coach will be long-remembered for the meaning of their play and they way they expressed themselves on the field. Their play was intentional, purposeful and entertaining. If you went to the Camp Nou during those years to watch Barcelona play, you knew the kind of match you'd see, you knew what to expect from the players and the coach. There was agreement on all sides about the meaning of the performance and the coach's intentions.
In February 2018, Guardiola, now the coach at Manchester City, faced the press after his team's shock defeat to Wigan in the FA Cup. His team had played much of the game down a player due to a red card, then conceded a late goal. At the pinnacle of the professional game, results matter to the fans, the players and club owners. The pressure to win is intense. Professional club coaches are sacked regularly for not winning. In those circumstances, it is a remarkable exhibition of integrity and character for a professional club coach to face such pressure and remind everyone that while professional football is a results-driven business, for the true fan the intentions of the manager and the players are perhaps more important. Watch below!
As youth soccer coaches, what exactly are our intentions? What kind of meaning do we want our training sessions and matches to have? What is our style, philosophy and game model? What kind of players do we want to develop? Are we willing to play a weekend game that will match our intentions rather than simply chase a result? Without a shared understanding between coaches, players and spectating parents, the performance on the field is left open to interpretation and rank speculation, much like Guernica has been. Have you communicated your intentions to your players and parents so there is a shared understanding about what you are trying to teach and what you want the players to achieve? Do they know the kind of football performance you and the players want to present on the weekends. If you have not thought about this and are focused only on the final score or league standings, then you have no business coaching youth players at any level higher than a neighborhood kick-around!
"From intention springs the deed, from the deed springs the habits. From the habits grow the character, from character develops destiny.”
Intention drives meaning. Meaning guides performance. A thoughtful coach knows how he or she wants their team to play. Ideally, the coach is part of a club with a defined identity that drives how their players train and play. With deep intention, the coach spends vast amounts of time preparing each training session and training individual players so that each of them has the fundamental technical skills and tactical understanding necessary to play the way the coach and the club wants them to play. Through reinforcement and repetition, necessary tactical and technical habits (automatisms) are developed. This can take years! There are no shortcuts. These habits foster a consistency of effort that can be seen and appreciated. Sometimes the effort produces victories, sometimes it does not. Yet, its the consistent effort that gives deep meaning to the players' performance, explaining what it is the coach and players are trying to achieve. If you, as a parent or spectator, know what the coach is trying to achieve, then you truly are able to judge whether any given performance is faithful to the coach's intention. It will never be perfect at this level, but can you see the players are trying to bring the coach's intentions to life? That is the proper metric for measuring success for youth soccer players. That is the lens through which we should view each game.
Earlier this fall, I was coaching an Eagleclaw team of 2006 boys in a weekend game. Our players were coached, as all Eagleclaw players are, to play our way, the Eagleclaw Way. And they did. We teach them to play a very Spanish-inspired style called "Positional Play." Playing out of the back; smart synchronized movements by the center backs and the outside backs and the central organizing midfielder (#6); steady triangulating passes in the consolidating second third of the pitch to shift defenses; creative freedom in the final third; the organizing midfielder acting as the heartbeat of the team, regulating the tempo of our play. Our players' talent was obvious. We were technically stronger and more disciplined. The rates of possession were definitely in our favor. But our opponents were determined, aggressive, fast and strong. They scored first, then we scored. The opponents scored again. Down 1-2, our boys maintained their composure, stayed true to my intentions and achieved the equalizer just seconds before the final whistle. There was relief, but also a palpable sense of disappointment that our team did not win. We were the better team! How is it we did not win? One of the opponents' goals was the result of an honest mistake by our players, completely forgivable given their age. The other was a beautiful, powerful, cracking shot our keeper could not defend. I was worried that none of that would matter to the disappointed parents. Weeks before I had explained to the parents my intentions and objectives for the players and the team, but I honestly did not know if it had resonated with them.
As I walked across the field to the spectators' sideline, one of the parents approached me and said, "Nice job coach! We can see exactly what you are teaching the boys. It's great to see these boys learning and trying to play this way. Keep up the good work!"
This was a remarkable moment and one I will not ever forget. They understand what we are trying to do! They understand we are trying to teach them to play a certain way! Yes, our boys came away with only a draw, but they were extremely successful - in every sense of the word. They were true to our (my) intention to play the Eagleclaw Way. They worked hard, made mistakes, but learned from them. I knew the players had succeeded precisely because they honored my intentions for the team and as a result their performance had meaning. But here, a parent was openly expressing the same opinion! We have shared understanding and agreement about meaning!
The boys on this particular team are truly remarkable. They are too young still to understand the tremendous developmental progress they have made or why they are heads and shoulders beyond their peers in technical ability and game intelligence. They have been loyally training with us for years, developing strong technical skills and the ability to play positionally smart and spatially aware football. We've taught them advanced tactical skills at an age when the powers that be in U.S. Soccer say they are too young for such things. These players understand that at this level, its not winning and losing, its winning and learning, which is a stunning bit of development all by itself.
Throughout the Eagleclaw project, we've made it a top priority not only to train our players to be artists and to put on artful performances, but also to educate their parents about the kind of players we are trying to develop and the kind of football we strive to present on the weekend. It takes a lot of consistent effort to to communicate to parents your goals and objectives for the players and the team and persuade them to look beyond the score or the league standings. You see, success depends upon context, perspective and a shared understanding. Rather than judge our players by wins, losses or standings in the league table, Eagleclaw families judge the success of our teams by their fidelity to the Club's objectives. Did they try to play the "Eagleclaw Way"?
Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. - Pablo Picasso
We have long argued that success in American youth soccer must be redefined. Team development has dominated youth soccer at the youngest ages for too long and is supported by an entrenched youth club structure and administrative bureaucracy whose survival depends on perpetuating team development over player development. In this environment, the development of world-class talent is left to chance. If it happens, its either an accident or largely the product of a players' developmental experiences in Europe or elsewhere outside the U.S. The traditional American youth soccer club is a colossal failure. It can no longer be an acceptable model for this country and its youth players.
Eagleclaw has a defined project and a concrete plan. We believe in it. Our players believe in it. Our families believe in it. Our intention is to develop players with the skills and intelligence for the modern game, who thrive in a Spanish-inspired possession-based style of play and who may one day be world-class players on the international stage or at whatever level they choose to play the game. The results so far are unmistakable and undeniable. We've developed players with technical abilities and game intelligence far beyond their peers. Sadly, this can also be proven by the handful of players who have left Eagleclaw to join the larger team-development farms known as "premier" clubs. Their skills degrade as they enter an environment that is not focused on developing individual players, but rather on team development at too young an age. Some make their way back to us, hoping to return to the education-centric environment that served them so well in the past. Those who stay at the so-called "premier" clubs, rapidly lose their confidence as they are demoted from A-teams, to B-teams, C-teams or worse. Unfortunately, they, more than most, understand the remarkable work we are doing. Sometimes, you don't know what you have until its gone!
We don't know if or when Eagleclaw will produce a world-class player, but we believe that day will come. We know it. We are confident. We have some remarkable players right now who may only be 5 to 7 years away from that kind of recognition. Still, we all have lots of work to do in order to make that a reality. In the meantime, we have talented, passionate players who are committed to playing the Eagleclaw Way and we are committed to them. We'll get there. And, as Picasso counseled, we are acting vigorously.
For radical innovation to succeed, the moment has to be moving towards the innovator. But the innovator must still reach out and seize the moment. - Ian Leslie
The amazing thing is that the kind of plan we are pursuing, the Eagleclaw Project, can be replicated. It should be replicated. Some clubs in our area are already implementing changes based on the Eagleclaw model. More change is needed. This is the moment, and the momentum is moving toward the innovative youth soccer club willing to prioritize teaching and developing players rather than trying them out at young ages and selecting some and discarding others. The future of youth soccer in America belongs to player development, not team development. The future belongs to soccer coaches who are teachers, not choosers. We need developers of talent, not selectors of talent. The future belongs to clubs that are willing to work with the players they have. The future belongs to clubs that are brave enough to adopt an identifiable, unified philosophy and game model, make it the spine of their club, from top to bottom, educate their coaches and insist all of them train and play that way.
Yes, this is radical innovation, but we are already doing it. We are not asking you to be a pioneer, but rather a leader. We are asking you to question the meaning of success and redefine it for the benefit of your players and families. What is the meaning of success at your club? Making the "A" team? Not getting cut? Winning the league, State Cup or a tournament? If you asked your families in a meeting or survey how they would define success for their player and for the club what would they say? I think most clubs would be embarrassed by the answers. You can change all of that. You can and you should. Seize this moment! Don't get left behind. The radical overhaul of your youth soccer club should be at the top of the agenda at your next Board meeting. If it isn't, then your club is the problem, precisely because it lacks meaning.