Team. Together Everyone Achieves Mediocrity. That's not what we we've been brought up to believe! We were taught that team means Together Everyone Achieves More. We are inundated with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that "the team" is the ideal paradigm and context for collaboration and achievement in any context, and even more so in team sports where we must work together to achieve the victorious result.
The urgent importance of "the team" is everywhere in American society. We see it in sports, of course, but also in our workplaces where brainstorming sessions and project teams occur in new open plan work spaces and the "hive mind" is all the rage. It is pounded into us that the team is where great ideas are born and brought to life.
The team paradigm, however, flies in the face of other views regarding the sources of genius and creativity. French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix is quoted as saying "The source of genius is imagination alone, the refinement of the senses that sees what others do not see, or sees them differently." Delacroix's words reflect a commonly held belief that creative genius is a deeply individualistic thing.
This is controversial stuff! There are lots of opinions on this subject. Earlier this year, physicist Ágnes Mócsy published an article aimed at toppling the myth of the lone genius, or at least deemphasizing the "lone" part. Its a good read.
It seems to me we all have an innate sense that individual geniuses are with us. We know that they are real and recognizable, that they are visionary individuals who really see things differently than most of us and they do much to move humanity forward. Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Picasso, are names that come to mind when thinking about these kinds of intellectual talents. I've been somewhat fixated on "top lists" lately, so I can't resist telling you about this list from 2007 of the Top 100 living geniuses. I'm sure you've heard of many, if not all of them.
But like Ágnes Mócsy, many also claim the lone genius is a myth. In his 2008 book entitled "Group Genius", author Keith Sawyer seeks to destroy what he feels is the myth of the lone genius, while arguing that group collaboration is the real source of genius. He points to brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventors of the first airplane, as an example of group genius.
I am absolutely fascinated by the topic of creative genius. Fiery imaginations, soaring ambitions, driving willpower, all of these are traits I admire deeply. I believe that creative genius is the product of an individual mind. The individual may be more or less informed by collaboration with others, but monumental ideas need a spark from a single mind. In other words, some geniuses more than others stand on the shoulders of other individuals and ideas Regardless of the information they collect and how they collect it, the creative genius sees the world differently than most of us and astounds us with their novel insights.
In one of the more outstanding TED talks on the web, author Susan Cain argues that many introverts are creative geniuses and rails against the pressure on individuals to collaborate in groups:
"It’s never a good idea to organize society in a way that depletes the energy of half the population. We discovered this with women decades ago, and now it’s time to realize it with introverts. This also leads to a lot of wrongheaded notions that affect introverts and extroverts alike. Here’s just one example: Most schools and workplaces now organize workers and students into groups, believing that creativity and productivity comes from a gregarious place. This is nonsense, of course. From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude..."
Personally, I think the recent emphasis on "group genius" is overplayed. Rarely, if ever, does a group of individuals with average levels of creativity produce the "killer idea" or the "next big thing." When people come together to collaborate, there is invariably at least one individual with higher levels of creativity and leadership. These individuals provide the spark that ignites ideas. Others in the group will provide insights and refinements, but the individual creative genius leads the way. When individual genius is excluded, marginalized or, even worse, made to conform with the average thinker, the results are likely to be mediocre
So yes, I do believe that quite often TEAM=Together Everyone Achieves Mediocrity. I believe it takes one or more creative geniuses to animate a team to see new possibilities, reach new heights and inspire others to perform.
So, what does this have to do with youth soccer? A lot, actually! You see, I believe that youth soccer in the United States is dominated by a culture that overemphasizes team and winning as a team and suppresses individual genius. From an early age, youth soccer clubs and their coaches conspicuously conspire to discourage individual genius. Winning games is the key for these clubs and coaches, and that means more less individualized training, more collective play less acceptance of risk taking. This is hurting youth soccer and the development of technically gifted, genius players.
The best managers and coaches recognize individual genius and know how to harness it in order to lift their team's performance, Ironically, harnessing soccer genius usually means giving it freedom.
Gerardo Martino, former head coach of Barcelona and the Argentine National Team, knew he was working with individual genius in the person of Leo Messi. About Messi he said: "He can play on the right, left, as a No.9, behind the striker, or even as a No.4! He is able to make the difference anywhere on the pitch. Sometimes, it is logical that by analyzing a player one thinks it is better to play him in one place or another, but then, if he is good, you can be more flexible. The reality is that his effectiveness is down to him rather than where he is put on the pitch by the coach."
When it comes to youth soccer, I believe the ideal is to provide a high volume of individual technical skill training and at the same time teach kids to play a possession style. Teach them to keep the ball and work collaboratively with each other. Then give them some freedom as well; ideally a lot of freedom. Encourage their playground instincts to keep the ball themselves, beat opponents off the dribble and create scoring opportunities for themselves as well as their teammates. Don't suffocate the inner soccer genius inside the players. Create opportunities for them to assess risk and learn how to take calculated risks. Aggressively moving into a 1v1 is one thing, taking on 3 defenders is quite another. Through trial and error, as well as thoughtful coaching, young players will learn the difference.
Now, this does not mean coaches should let players run wild. Nor does it mean coaches should abandon the possession style of play and stop teaching kids how and when to pass the ball. Of course not. A possession oriented team needs players who know when to dribble and when to pass. It's all about coaching players to be decision-makers. Its about less direction, yelling and micro-management by the coach on the sideline. Its about developing intelligent players who read the game and act decisively after assessing the situation and the odds. Discourage individual decision-making and you'll be well on your way to creating a team of mediocre players.
"If fear is too strong, the genius is suppressed." - Robert Kiyosaki
Think about it another way. As youth coaches, what are we afraid of? That one of our players will lose the ball. What's so bad about that? Now we have a chance to see how quick they are to win it back. And if our player's gamble paid off and we kept the ball, then the player has learned something as well. Are we afraid of losing the game? There will be another one next weekend. At this level, the players should want to win much more than the coach. What, then, are we afraid of?
Last Spring, while coaching an Eagleclaw team of 9 year old boys, I began to notice one of the players on the opposing team. He was much smaller than the rest of his teammates, but light on his feet with a good first touch on the ball, particularly for his age. His coach was playing him on the right in something of an outside midfielder role. I was instantly impressed by his touch on receiving the ball, his efficient control of the ball and the accuracy of his passes to team mates. He had some deft, simple technical skill as well, mainly good feints and cuts. His passes also demonstrated more vision than his teammates. Pass after pass he made, each showing terrific vision and foresight for his age. It seemed to me that he knew where precisely he wanted his teammates to be, and I watched him become visibly frustrated after passing the ball into space only to see his teammate stop their forward run or move in a different and unfavorable direction.
All match long I could hear the opposing coach yelling at his boys to pass the ball here and there and to this player or that player. "Get the ball off your foot!", "Pass the ball!", "Stop dribbling so much!", "Get rid of it!" This is what I heard constantly from that coach, loudly and a bit angrily too. The coach was practically directing the players' every move. The players seemed robotic and afraid to disappoint. Even their parents on the sidelines aped the coach's directions, telling players to pass if it seemed they had the ball at their feet too long.
My team was doing rather well , but the score was 2-2 early on and remained that way for most of the match. As the match approached the end, I remember thinking that if the other team was to unlock our defense it would only be through the passing of their small outside midfielder. If one of his teammates acted uncharacteristically and got on the end of one of those slipped-through passes, we'd be in trouble. Almost simultaneously with this thought, the ball reached the little midfielder and our left back mistimed his challenge and was beaten with a quick inside cut. I could see that we were exposed. The player had the ball at his feet with acres of space in front of him and only our center back, who was running to his left to provide support, was in position to react to the threat. This left a gaping hole in the center of our defense. I suppose another attacker could have made a run into that space if they were already in position, but no one was there and the space was closing quickly.
Instantly, the player made the decision to dribble forward and take on our center back. I could see it clearly. He had made up his mind. His body language showed conviction in his idea. There was no hesitation. At the same time, I heard the opposing coach screaming at the top of his lungs not to dribble the ball forward. "Wait!" "Wait for support!". The player did his thing anyway. He neatly sidestepped our center back and now saw only the goal in front of him and our right back racing to intercept. "Don't dribble! Pass the ball! Find a teammate!", yelled the coach. Our left back overshot his challenge and was beaten as well. No one but the keeper to beat now. Then, rather than taking a quick shot on goal from distance, the player dribbled closer, cut inside, took a few small dribbles parallel to the goal and quite obviously tried to curl a shot past the keeper. It was quite a shot! The ball did bend but went over our keeper's head, bounced off the cross bar, then fell at the feet of one of our defenders who cleared it safely out of bounds. The whistle blew right then and the game was over.
The boys walked back to their respective team benches. Then, I heard it. "What were you thinking? You can't take them all on by yourself!" "We're a team! We work together! You should have waited for your teammates! We could have had a better shot if you had waited for you teammates. If you can't play as a team then you won't play for this team."
I saw it differently. I saw a player who had sized up our defense and his teammates all game long. It seemed to me he knew he could make a difference if the opportunity arose. He had more skill and quality than any of his teammates, and it was clear to me he wanted to score and win. In a single moment of opportunity, he acted audaciously and inventively. After beating two defenders, he passed on the quick shot and decided to try a skillful shot to beat our keeper. All of this was massively impressive to me. After reading the situation, the player took a risk, a calculated risk in my view. And instead of being encouraged to do more of the same, he was threatened with a benching.
"For me, the solution is never to sacrifice talent by diminishing it, but always to enable it to flourish because this is always the best for the team. So, the balance must be not lowering the talent to fit the team, but rather raising the team to fit the talent." - Carlo Ancelotti
After the game, I thought about those events on the drive home. Then it hit me. That little player was the spark, trying over and over again to ignite his teammates' creativity and genius. His coach kept trying to snuff out that spark. Why were his teammates never anticipating his creative passes moving into the proper space to receive them? That kind of instinct, that kind of thinking, that kind of decision-making had been driven out of them by a loud coach micro-managing their every thought and action. The coach's fear was making each of them mediocre.
I don't know what's become of that young player, but I admire and respect him. Perhaps he was a budding soccer genius. Maybe not. I don't know. For his sake, though, I hope he left that team and that coach. Left to his own devices, that coach will contribute to the chronic mediocrity of players coming up through the traditional American youth club culture and structure. We need to encourage and promote imagination and invention. We need to trust young soccer players with the ball. Encourage them to take risks and make mistakes. We need to welcome the potential of individual genius, try to recognize and encourage it and not suppress it. Who knows, they might grow up to be like this guy.