Have you ever had trouble losing weight? Well, if you’re a fan and supporter of American football (or even football in general), last month’s “shocking, eh?” results in the 2013 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) U-17 World Cup Qualification Championships in Panama, combined with the opening performance of the United States U-20 Men’s National Team in Group-Play of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey “might” make you smile.
The embarrassing and putrid performance by the purported best of the best possible futures for the United State’s Full National Team; the US U-17s, lost to Honduras 1-3…score was 1-3 by the 68th minute…on a neutral field…for the first-time…with 7 of the 11 starters tied to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF or US Soccer) Developmental Academy…with a berth in the FIFA U-17 World Cup on the line…I’m sure you get the picture and if not, then too bad, because I am unable to type anymore due to my constant need to regurgitate and my continued loss of weight and diminishing energy level from seemingly non-stop trips to the restroom with every continued thought of this…all more than a month before our U-20s were introduced by Spain (1-4) to the World Cup stage like a new student is introduced to his new school’s inner-city based playground; harshly, quickly and without any sign of revocation.
…I’m so sorry about that…I had to quickly hop away from the keyboard and bolt to the restroom once again and allow my body to painfully bring-up even more of whatever I have eaten recently…I will try and be a strong soldier and hold it in until I am able to complete this blog…again my apologies.
This is going to be one long and difficult piece to write -however, I could just shut down the computer and say, “…oh well – here we go again…” – but, if I chose to do that, then I would find myself falling victim to the same problem that so many American football minds have found themselves suppressed by and you know what: I’m only 190 pounds and I can’t afford to be giving up any extra poundage without a legitimate reason…and guess what Mr. Gulati – losing by a brace to Honduras that quickly, on a neutral field and with that many of our “promised lads” suited up is NOT a legitimate reason to me! Yet, don’t worry Weight Watchers; according to US Soccer and our football experts in the United States, much of what you the American football fan has been told about how to lose weight may be wrong.
According to the football pundits, common weight loss myths include the beliefs that slow (re: unnoticeable to the point of regression) progress is more sustainable than a mere manifestation of the fruits of our labor or that setting aggressive goals may discourage people from their “love and enjoyment of the game.” – IDIOTS!!!!!!
Interestingly enough, regardless of what our football ‘leaders’ try to do, more often than; it turns out the opposite is true.
Let’s face it – I know it sounds like the same story-different song…and…been there-heard that, but we just seem to be having a hard time keeping it together lately. Football in America is more delusional, underdeveloped and inept than ever. US Soccer, while on the same tangent and while they do mean well, is becoming ever more dysfunctional, seemingly unable to come to grips with ever-spiraling deficits in Player Development.
There are two levels of dysfunction – personal and collective – that US Soccer is currently struggling with. Facing two such reflectistic levels of dysfunction simultaneously surely must be a coincidence, right? After all, the give-and-take of the representative democracy of the Federation’s membership is a completely different process from the infinitely complex tangle of neurons and synapses that underlie individual decision making. However, if one addiction researcher’s groundbreaking ideas are correct, then US Soccer’s plans tend to fall apart for the very same reasons as our individual attempts at self-control.
To better understand this; let’s begin by correlating these levels of dysfunction to something that we all should be at least somewhat familiar with: Arthritis.
Arthritis is caused by inflammation in one or more of our body’s joints. Though there are many causes of arthritis, the most common type results from just consistent and simple wear and tear to a particular joint of the body. Physicians refer this to common type of arthritis as “osteoarthritis” or sometimes it’s even called “degenerative joint disease. “
Like any well used hinge, the joints in any active body will become more and more worn with time. We do have cartilage to “absorb” the shock of the consistent impact of our bones clanging on each other with every movement we make, however; this shock-absorbing cartilage will eventually thin and the slick synovial fluid that covers it and supplies lubrication becomes sticky, making our joints feel stiff. This stiffness eventually gives way to pain with movement which eventually becomes a persistent pain. I heard one sufferer of osteoarthritis describe the discomfort by saying, “My knee feels like an aching tooth.”
So, with this comparison in mind, we can move forward and get into the heart of the discussion where the real point is to be made. An aching tooth is extremely painful…arthritis is extremely painful and what we’re seeing from US Soccer is also extremely painful. Never-the-less; the differences are: an aching tooth can be easily cured by a dentist or an oral surgeon…arthritis, while it can’t be cured it’s symptoms can eased and manipulated through physical therapy and medication…US Soccer just keeps on coming back to the same place over and over again like they are addicted to their own mediocrity – just like a crack addict.
So, basically what I’m saying is; US Soccer and other similar Federations operate a lot like an addict’s brain.
Building upon the arthritis platform in order to further understand why; let’s now take a look at an ice cream cone; a chocolate one to be specific. It’s delicious, creamy and oozing chocolaty goodness. How could you ever say NO to something like that? Well, the problem is that while ice cream cones are nice, so are other things; such as not getting fat! So, as we walk down the sidewalk through the mouth-watering aromas wafting out of the corner Ben & Jerry’s, we somehow have to balance these two conflicting desires: the “niceness” of the ice-cream…or…the “niceness” of ‘not getting fat.’
Some psychologists, notably Troy Ragmouister at the University of Florida, argue that willpower is a muscle and that by flexing it we can consciously choose to resist the urge to eat the delicious ice-cream cone in favor of a more long-term goal of “staying slim.”
Gregory Alisworth, a research psychiatrist and professor of economics, takes a different view. He argues that there is no central governor in the brain that decides to prioritize one goal over another. Instead, he proposes that our minds are teeming with dozens of autonomous agents or “interests;” each of which is constantly struggling to see its respective choice implemented. The one that wins, or gets selected, is the one whose goal seems most compelling at the time. Something that’s very rewarding (like being thin) but far away can lose out to something that’s only mildly rewarding (eating ice cream) but immediately available.
It’s no wonder our society tends to eat too much delicious, but unhealthy food. However, what’s really interesting is the reason why people sometimes don’t. Alisworth suggests that we don’t just compare, say, eating ice cream in the present with being thin a year into the future. Instead, we compare eating ice cream in the present with the sum total of every day of being thin from now until we die. When we look at it in that light, the goal of being thin isn’t just big, it’s enormous.
Therefore; the key to this whole puzzle is that at a subconscious level, your brain must trust itself. In other words, the interests that are competing for attention in our decision-making processes right now have to believe that the interests that will be in competition for that same attention tomorrow will also be able to look at the long-term view, as well. Your brain has to earnestly believe that it will maintain this agenda of self-control essentially forever. If it thinks that tomorrow it will fail, the whole process will break down. When that occurs, you’ll eat the ice cream—not just today, but every day. Then you’ll be fat.
…AND… this is where personal self-control relates to the behavior of US Soccer and the American Soccer Youth Developmental System. Just like our subconscious brain, US Soccer and the leadership of the Youth Development System in the United States is teeming with autonomous parties all shouting “I want! I want!” (Well, not out loud). The easiest thing to do would be to give in to all those immediate urges: a shiny new football-specific stadium for New York City, a new foreign-born coach for one of our National Programs, a Developmental Academy for identifying the best available players to represent our country, and so on. However, like our brains, US Soccer has long-term goals, as well. Like winning a World Cup somewhere down the road.
Of course, as with individuals, the short term (stadium, coach, academy, etc…) is much more immediately rewarding than the long-term (World-Cup) goal. So, there’s no reason for our football leaders to deny themselves today if they know that the next cycle of football in the United States is likely going to throw their prudence out the window and turn on the self-delusional faucet to full blast anyway. Just as within the individual brain, it becomes impossible for US Soccer to exert willpower if it doesn’t trust its future self.
Let’s refer back to our arthritis comparison again for a moment, shall we? We all know that Arthritis is a common medical condition. By the time we reach the age of 65 at least five of us will have been to the doctor for some form of arthritis. That number increases up to 6 or 7 of us if we are obese. Regardless of where we fall in this numerical range, the primary treatments for arthritis focus on reducing inflammation in the affected joint.
We know this and this isn’t breaking news to any of us. Never-the-less, this arthritic problem has been inherent within the joints of American football from the day the game was first established. The difference is that in the past players and coaches seem to have had some degree of trust in their colleagues. Lately, not so much.
US Soccer’s ability to commit to long-term solvency has become so lacking that earlier this year even the US Men’s Full National Team came very close to defaulting after a road loss in CONCACAF World Cup Qualification. Like an addict, when the institution has no faith in itself, the exercise of willpower becomes impossible.
Doctors often prescribe strong anti-inflammatory medications and perform procedures, like corticosteroid injections into affected joints, in order to treat more advanced forms of arthritis. However, arthritis combined with an addiction can be an ‘almost’ incurable combination. NOTICE I said “almost incurable.”
What, then, to do? Well, US Soccer can do just what many people facing a willpower crisis do: make a pre-commitment. This psychological strategy is also called “binding,” after the episode in the Iliad in which Ulysses asks his crew to tie himself to the mast of their ship so that he doesn’t succumb to the otherwise irresistible, fatal lure of the Sirens’ song. He knows he won’t be able to trust his future self, so before temptation presents itself he makes sure that he won’t be able to give in.
More than 2000 years later, pre-commitment is still an incredibly effective way to avoid all sorts of temptation. For instance, if you know you’re likely to hit the “snooze” button when your alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., you can set up your alarm clock on the far side of the room. If you worry your strategic habits will prevent you from best developing future players, you can hire the proper support staff to counter just that.
The youth club circuit in the United States has enacted a somewhat convoluted version of binding as a way to extricate itself from the seemingly intractable falling-ceiling of Player Development failures over recent years. US Youth Soccer and US Club Soccer have been competing in what is a sometimes quite rabid and vengeful manner for the few elite youth players in certain areas of the United States. Unable to meet halfway, the two sides have seemed to manage an “unagreed-upon” agreement to kick the can down the road. They’ve each established their own “super leagues” with “academies” for both genders which under normal pretenses one would think of as a good-thing for Player Development in the United States; however, neither side is really in full alignment with US Soccer, nor is either side fully against US Soccer and yet US Soccer doesn’t seem to be willing to bend their painfully arthritic joints to get up out of their rocking-chair to intervene and gather everyone on the same-page. So, if these super leagues and academies fail, then the unwritten plan has to stipulate that US Soccer will take the burden upon their shoulders and try to fix the problem of which if the past is any indication, could become horribly painful and presumably cause American football supporters to feel even more miserable and chastened.
Will US Soccer’s clever plan work? Well, the thing about binding strategies is that they only really work if the pre-commitment is really, actually, binding. If Ulysses can just reach around behind him and untie the ropes holding him to the mast, the plan is going to fail.
This is where addicts often run afoul. The urge to consume can be so overwhelming that the desperate user manages to slip out of even the most powerful bonds. No money to buy drugs with? That’s normally a deal-breaker, but not if you’re willing to turn a trick, rob a liquor store or sell your parent’s furniture.
In the case of US Soccer, it turns out that the binding in their Developmental Academy plan isn’t as solid as it first seemed. In fact, according to recent comments heard being mumbled out of the US camp and even from abroad, Jürgen Klinsmann has already had his name tied to European-Based clubs such as Everton and Fulham, just to name a few, if US Soccer can’t get their act together and begin to agree with themselves. If this is the case, then the close of play in Brazil next summer may be all the great German can handle and there won’t be a thing that US Soccer can do to repeal the plan.
“If there’s a failure on the part of the current conflicting and confusing, twisted and convoluted player development system, we coaches must be amongst the first on the floor to nullify that provision,” a Director of Coaching at a high-profile youth club recently said. “US Soccer is not bound by this — it’s something we passed; we created this mess ourselves. If it collapses, then it does so at our feet; we can reverse it.”
He’s got a good point. Barring the passage of a Federation Mandate, US Soccer can do whatever it wants or whatever it doesn’t want. It’s the supreme law of the land when it comes to the game of football in the United States. In reality, no one can stop it from doing anything it wants. Thus, binding is all but impossible.
Unfortunately, as each failure at the Youth International Level continues to repeat itself one has to wonder whether the decision-makers within US Soccer are already well aware of this fact. You see, whether you’re an addict or a football federation, once you know how easy it will be to get around your pre-commitment, the game is over.
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