Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Do Over!

Hi, my name is Justin. I score goals. does anyone care?

As we humans age, if we pay attention and try really really hard to keep an open mind, we begin to understand that most of what we see in the world is not perceived as it truly exists, but instead as we want it to be.

When we are children we see things as they truly are. This is one of the reasons that children scream and yell when they don't get what they want.

"That's the worst Christmas present ever! I wanted a blue truck, not a stupid pair of socks."

As adults, the experiences of our youth create unique and subtle changes in our brain chemistry which affect perception. We don't want to feel disappointed and angry when mom gives us, at the age of 49, yet another pair of socks for Christmas. We tear the wrapping off, what is clearly long wool winter footwear, with abandon and exclaim "Cool, I needed a few more pairs! Thanks, mom."

In other words, we lie to ourselves. And...we believe the lie. (We wanted a gift certificate to Tommy's Pizza. Yummy!)

Experience has created that unique lens through which we see the snugly warm socks. I just did it right there. Now the socks are "snugly" warm. As we softly caress what will be the fiftieth pair of high-speed-machine-woven wool socks in our "snugly" warm sock drawer, part of us yearns for those flippin itchy monsters. Of course, we give mom a warm kiss on the cheek.

That kiss on the cheek is one of the good results which springs from our perception warping life experiences. There are many less favorable outcomes.

Picture soccer coaches and their interactions with players. Over the years I've noticed coaches at all levels of soccer trying to force players into styles of play or positions which don't fit the particular player. As a coach, I have been guilty of this very thing. The subconscious foundation for trying to fit square pegs into round holes and trapezoidal worlds into hexagonal universes is our experience warped lens of perception.

The finest coaches in the world today have embraced the fact that perception is not always reality. These coaches, and they are very few, come to the realization that the results which spring from the perception, decisions and skill of the PLAYER are the ONLY truly significant, trainable and coachable aspects within the game of soccer.

The player must be capable of effectively perceiving as many positive expected value options as possible, fluidly, throughout the game.

The player must decide, based on effectively perceiving positive expected value options, what action is going to have the greatest positive value in any given situation.

The player must be capable of performing whatever task/skill they choose, based on perception; and they must be capable of  fluidly adapting when their given choice no longer has a positive expected value.

Giving the ball away is virtually always a negative outcome. Understanding that player 'x' can effectively complete a 10 yard pass with 95% efficiency, but only completes a 20 yard pass with 50% efficiency is clearly important to where player 'x' plays on the field and how player 'x' and his teammates interact.

Because soccer is a team game played by 22 unique individuals on a 120 yard by 80 yard field, the perceptions, decisions, and actions of each player are of exponential importance.

In other words, working with players to become better at perceiving the true nature of each moment of the game, helping the player become adept at choosing the best option, and providing ample time for players to improve their skill set and physical capacity to perform said skills and tasks is the ultimate focus of any high quality coach.  

The coach who finds it difficult to abandon that "warped lens" gives off obvious and not so obvious signals as to their perception of the game, as opposed to being able to look at the game through the eyes of each player and helping that player, without the prejudice of individual perception, grasp the ever changing positives and negatives floating within the game. Take Robert Warzycha for example.

Mr. Warzycha was a quality player who brought to coaching a wealth of knowledge and experience. In some ways, though, coach Warzycha seemed to find it difficult to hide his personal perceptions.  

From early in his first year with The Crew, I noticed Warzycha's players trying to express how hard they were working in oddly demonstrative ways. Eddie Gaven, who seems almost genetically predisposed to spot runs into space that other players never do, began to find even more weak-side overlapping jaunts and defensive double-team opportunities. Forwards were running themselves ragged, as if they knew that if they didn't, they would be pulled from the game and possibly spend the next month on the bench.

A small but not insignificant part of Robert Warzycha's perception of his players and the game seemed to be one of, if you don't look like your working hard, well, then you must not be working hard. Coach Warzycha's players, seen through my own "snugly" warm wool sock clouded lens, quickly picked up on their coaches perception and began overdoing it.

I would venture a guess that Warzycha's past experiences, maybe with youth coaches or when playing for the Polish national team, ingrained in him the idea that he had to "look" like he was working hard. It wasn't enough to "actually" be fit, attentive, skillful and industrious. Robert Warzycha, the player, and Robert Warzycha, the coach, needed to feel and see the stress and strain that high level soccer entails.

And that brings us to, Justin Meram. Justin Meram has spent the last three years trying to be a left mid. If you have watched him out wide, working eighteen to eighteen, you've seen a player out of place. When Robert Warzycha watched Justin Meram up top, the coach perceived Meram to be lacking in work ethic. In short, Warzycha's perception was that Justin Meram, the forward, simply didn't "look" like he was putting in the effort.

It's a shame if that is the reason Justin Meram only garnered a handful of first team opportunities in an advanced role, while playing for coach Warzycha. It's a shame; because, Justin Meram has been a scorer, a rather prolific scorer, everywhere he's played...except Columbus.

The Meram I've watched over the years has struggled with the larger spaces in midfield. He has certainly improved as a wide player, but his instincts and physical traits are much better suited to the crowded area around the other teams goal. Meram is a better passer when having to play under pressure and instinctively. He is, the few times I've seen him in a crowded eighteen with the ball, a very efficient finisher.

The unfortunately sad aspect of Meram's past three years of mostly wide midfield play is the erosion of some of that finishing ability. Meram is not built to run up and down the sideline, and then be able to wheel on a dime and deftly place a ball "snugly," like a warm pair of wool socks, into the back side netting. He is not heavy by any measure; but, he is also not short and machine like, nor lithe and Eddie Gaven like. When Justin Meram makes the run from eighteen to eighteen his body is clearly using gobs of energy. His taller, more muscular, build steals just enough oxygen during the longer runs that there is not enough left to allow Meram to do what he is so good at...finishing.

Maybe The Crew's new technical director will give Justin Meram a do over. If he does, maybe Gregg Berhalter will discover that The Crew already have the elusive second striker the team needs hiding out at left mid. Given time to re-acclimate, I believe Justin Meram could once again be the player who used to score in almost two thirds of the games in which he played.

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