Saturday, May 5, 2018

Least Cool Mentor

You may be surprised to learn that I’m not really big on getting recognition. Don’t get me wrong—I don't mind being “in charge,” but I could really care less about getting credit. When I’m on my game, my work itself is my reward. If this makes any sense, I want to be recognized for not caring about being recognized. But in the last month or so, I've been ceremoniously presented with two certificates that have meant more to me than the everyday thank you’s that we give and get.

To explain the first recognition, I have to back up four years in time. I am meeting a group of 15 freshmen on the first day of their high school orientation. I will be their Mentor for the next four years and this is my first crack at setting them up for success. What do I want to tell them? What golden nugget of wisdom shall I proffer? I decide to keep it simple and as real as possible. I tell them that if I could change anything about how I did high school, I would be more kind and I would care less about being cool. Sounds easy, but it’s not, especially not in the world of teenagers. So I challenge the group to join me in a pledge to be the least cool cluster in the whole school.

After that, we didn’t talk much about that pledge over the next four years. Some of us were more successful than others in the work. At times we remembered to prioritize the real over the fake. At other times we forgot, tried to be cool but weren’t, and so we ended up honoring the pledge by accident.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Senior Dinner, kicking of a sentimental goodbye season that will culminate in graduation day in early June. Each Senior Cluster toasted, roasted and recognized their respective Mentor—I believe I was described as “not so bad, as long as you follow some of his very specific instructions.” I did appreciate their words, but the highlight was the special recognition that they bestowed upon me.

I plan to write more about these overgrown chicken nuggets in the next few weeks. But in the meantime, this gives you an idea of what I’m so proud of.

And now, back to the present. This was a rare weekend with no soccer games to coach. It was an opportunity to continue the outreach campaign that’s in full swing. We’ve been heavy on the grind, connecting with Bay Area high school students to let them know about the 2020 Conference, and how it could help them transform the situation. I spent today at EOYDC, connecting with young people at the Passion Discovery Career Fair, hosted by the Bay Area Tuskegee Alumni Club. Like my Mentees at school, the 2020 Conference is something that I’ll be writing more about soon. All I really want to say right now is thank you to the Tuskegee family,past and present, and thank you to the young people who continue to show up and show us what’s next.

Pura Vida,

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Seeds Have Been Planted

Last week was special. It wasn't always easy, but it was special! We are all fortunate to have each other, and to be able to take a week to just honor the present, past, and future of our families. There's nothing quite like a family reunion.

Last week was beautiful, but in some ways, it was set against a backdrop of something very ugly. As we gathered for our final meals of the week on the Vineyard, violence was unfolding just a few states away. Violence fueled by the same hate that our families have endured and conquered, generation after generation.

I found it hard to concentrate on our goodbyes—I have always been a a bit restless. As my mind drifted towards the events in Charlottesville, I never saw them as unrelated to, or disconnected from our family reunion. After all, we gathered last week to celebrate and commemorate the very thing that White supremacists hate and fear the most—beautiful, successful, fearless Black people. I am not afraid or hopeless because I know how I am fighting—education is my weapon of choice, and I am going upstream to try to help young people understand, dismantle and build.

I spent the week before our family reunion reflecting on the 2020 Conference and my experiences in that community of educators and high school students from across the Bay Area and beyond. It was powerful and beautiful, and it is something that our communities need more of. I already asked many of you for support in making this conference happen and more than a few of you have.

Now I am asking again. Maybe you meant to donate but haven't yet. Maybe you donated $10 and would like to up the ante. Maybe you figure that I will keep asking until you finally donate. These are all valid reasons to throw down, and I hope that you pick at least one reason. The seeds have been planted, please help us make the 2020 Conference sustainable!

Pura Vida,


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Swinging For The Fences

I spent Tuesday, November 8th 2016 at Brookfield Village Elementary School in Oakland. I’m a teacher, but I don’t actually work at that school. Instead of showing up to my normal job that day, I took a personal day and spent it working the polls. Now, before you flip out, let me be clear—I said “polls” not “pole.” Despite some significant student loans, it has not yet come to that.

This past election, like many before, I served as a Precinct Board Member for the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. My first time doing this was in 2002. After experiencing the shenanigans of 2000, I decided that I wanted a front row seat to the show and an opportunity to help ensure that no machines, miscounts, hanging chads or ethically-challenged Secretary of State would ever again decide a presidential election in this country. Since then I have served several times in Oakland as a Clerk, then a Judge, and now as an Inspector.

That Tuesday was a different experience for everyone who lived it—for me, it was one of the most stressful days of my life. In fact, it was so stressful that I had no time or mental capacity to worry about what the outcome of the election would be—I had my hands full trying to coordinate two separate polling locations “conveniently” located inside the same school auditorium in Deep East Oakland

My day started around 5:30 am and wouldn’t end until close to midnight. Some time in the early evening I got a one sentence text message from my girlfriend (now fiancé!). It read, “I hate the world.” I was too busy to text back, and legally, I wasn’t supposed to indulge in a conversation about how the election was turning. But her text was enough for me to guess. Amazingly, my reality that day was so hectic that I just had to keep it moving, so the news had little immediate effect on me.

It wasn’t until I got home late that night that the rest of my life started. Allison and I talked for a little bit—nothing coherent, nothing insightful… mostly just pain, sadness and anger. Soon I found myself standing in the bathroom with a simple question ringing in my head—“What are you going to do about it?” I pondered the question as I looked in the mirror, feeling a little fire in my belly. I thought about the election and all the elections before it that I’ve lived through, and as I did so that little fire grew hotter and hotter until I realized that my fists were clenched hard enough to cut fingernail marks in to my palms. 

I recognized that fire—it was the fire that fueled and sustained me through the years under the George W. Bush administration. In many ways, the 2016 election felt to me like watching the Twin Towers crumble to the ground again eight years later. When the so-called “War on Terror” began, it changed the world drastically—I responded by making drastic changes in my life. I left the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and doubled down on my path as a Hip Hop artist, activist and entrepreneur. Looking back, anything less drastic would have been downright uncivilized, and there is not a bone in my body that has ever regretted that choice.

Eventually that chapter of my life did come to a close, opening the way to new adventures. If you are curious, you can spend the next ??? hours reading the previous 106 entries on this blog—or not. Maybe I was free to pursue a different path, focusing on coaching and youth development… maybe I got complacent when Obama was elected. Either way, the fire in my belly on the night of November 8th was one that I hadn’t quite felt in many years, at least in the same way.

Instead of trying to relax, I let the fire spread from my core to my finger tips, from my gut to the follicles in my skin. It felt natural… it felt like power. I clenched my fists even tighter, daring the skin of my palms to flinch first and give way to a drop of blood. It didn’t. Clench, unclench. Breathe in, breathe out. Sometimes we need to be angry. It’s much better than being paralyzed or stuck. I made my decision, stepped out of the bathroom and announced to Allison that I would be running for President of the United States in 2020. 

The next day I sat in an emergency/optional faculty meeting, listening as a dozen or so of my colleagues tried to process it all. I told them what my plan was—if they thought I was crazy at least they had the decency to hold their tongue. I think most of them believed and still believe that I may be crazy in a good way, but certainly not delusional. The best part about Wednesday, November 9th—in fact, the only good part for me—was catching devastated students in the hallways and telling them that I would be running for President. If nothing else, I made a whole bunch of teenagers smile and giggle on a day when there wasn’t much to smile about. At best, I think I gave them some hope, whether or not they would ever vote for me. You see, one thing I’ve learned from being a high school teacher is that no matter how much independence they claim to want, sometimes they just need to be assured that the adults in the room are on it. What could shake young America’s sense of security and confidence in us more than anything in the world? Electing Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America. They are right to lose faith in us, unless of course we do something to earn their confidence back.

In the weeks after the election I reached out to my people to let them know about my decision. I called my immediately family members. I sent texts to most of the people in my phone. I updated my social media pages to make it official. More than anything, I did this as a way to hold myself to the drastic decision I made on the evening of November 8th. Here’s the amazing part—virtually everyone I told was fully supportive, not even in an oh-that’s-so-cute patronizing way. I was hearing things like, “let me know what I can do to help—I will be there…” or “that’s what the f*** I’m talking ‘bout!” My favorite answer of all was, “finally, it’s about time!” While this was all good for my ego, it was even better for my soul—it brings me inner peace to know that so many people that know me so well believe in me, and see me, and know what I’m really all about.

So, yes, I’m about to ask you for money, but we will get to that in a second. I haven’t written an entry in this blog in over a year, so pardon me if this one is on the longer side.

I had a good time letting everyone know that I was running for President, but I always knew I had some tough questions to answer for myself. I knew that I had zero intention of running a conventional campaign—for example, raising millions of dollars and spending it on media buys and other things that actually reinforce the systems that most urgently need dismantling. Perhaps I will just stand for office instead of running. Ultimately, I cannot justify abandoning my work in youth development to spend the next three and half years hobnobbing, backslapping, and speechifying.That’s just not gonna work for me. Moreover, one of the prime reasons for my candidacy would be to reach the un-reached, the un-moved, the overlooked. I have little desire to go head-to-head with entrenched billionaire centrist Democrats and Republicans in a battle to when over the so-called decent hard working salt-of-the-earth middle of the country. I know my constituency—they are the same kids that smiled in the hallway when I told them what my plan was.

I decided that phase one of my “campaign” would focus almost exclusively on high school students, and that it wouldn’t even be a campaign at all. Instead of focusing on running for office, I would double—no, quadruple down on my work with young people. Capacity building. Youth Empowerment. CIVIC EDUCATION!!! Instead of building up a war chest, I would be train up an army of activated young folks, ready to thrown down in 2020, and in some cases before. In truth, I would be OK with it if they chose not to vote for me—just vote! Hopefully, my candidacy can give them a reason to show up. This is not about voter registration—this is about voter motivation.

So what now? Now I am swinging for the fences. Last year–before the election—I joined the board of a young non-profit organization called Youth Education for Success. After a six-month process of crafting our mission statement, we are poised to “enrich the creative capacity of youth for real world excellence.” Our next project is the 2020 Conference, a week-long youth empowerment experience for high school students that will take place in Oakland this summer. The theme of the conference is “tools to build the world you want to live in.” 

This is my baby, but it’s a lot bigger than me. I am pulling out all the stops to make this a success, swinging for the fences to produce a game-changing experience for the students that participate, and for their communities. Our vision is to begin building a cohort of capable young folks that will return to their high schools and go off to colleges and early careers with the same fire in their bellies that I felt on the evening of November 8th. What they do with that fire is ultimately up to them. Our job as adults is to do our part to make sure they are prepared and up for the challenges ahead.

Which bring us back to the money. I believe that the 2020 Conference will be the most diverse group of high school students ever assembled in Oakland for this type of experience. This means I am committed to making the conference accessible to all Bay Area high school students, no matter how much money their families have. Our scholarship fund for the conference depends entirely on donations from individuals, and guess who is doing all the fundraising. There are no big grants this time, no corporate sponsors, and no government funding. Just me and you and those dead presidents that I am asking you to part with.

If you are with me on this, please CLICK HERE or on the button below to make a donation in support of the 2020 Conference. It is tax-deductible, it is important, and it will be well-spent on helping young people fix the mess we’ve made. My goal is to raise $10,000 during the month of June. Your support is your love, and both are appreciated!

Pura Vida,


CLICK HERE to visit the Official 2020 Conference Website

Thursday, February 18, 2016

#28Stories Project

Let's be honest—by now, we should all be experts on the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, we may even know a thing our two about Malcolm X. But don't you ever feel like every year when Black History Month rolls around we hear the same three or four stories?

The #28Stories Project challenges the idea that Black History Month can be properly celebrated in a few lesson plans about the Underground Railroad, the Selma March, and the assassination of Dr. King. #28Stories is a vehicle for shattering that ever-so-small container where our stories can be safely taught.

My last post on this blog was a little over a year ago. Coincidentally, that was right around the time that we launched the #28Stories Project. Now we are in year two, and it is really starting to pop off. If you are curious... if you care... if you want to get schooled, please take a few minutes to visit the new website. I'd love to hear back from you about what you learn and how you feel about what you learn. So, check it out, get schooled, then come back and leave me a comment on this post.

Pura Vida,


Sunday, February 1, 2015

I'm So Proud

I am so proud. I do like myself*, but that’s not the kind of pride that I’m talking about right now. The idea for this post first popped into my head over a month ago, while I was attending the annual NAIS People of Color Conference (POCC) #PoCC2014. That conference was one of the most powerful experiences of my professional life. But it would take a whole separate post to go deep on what it was like to spend a few days in Indianapolis thousands of other people of color that spend their lives as educators and students in the world of independent schools. For now, I will just say that the experience was a game-changer, one that broke my heart and gave me inspiration to go forward, all at the same time. 

A power circle of men of color at our 
Northern California POCIS breakout session

Black Greek Educators at a POCC workshop called 
"My Sisters'/Brothers' Keeper: A Roundtable Discussion on the Role of

One of the highlights of the conference—and the original spark for this post—was the opportunity to sit in on a presentation given by my elementary school, St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland. When I say, “I am so proud,” I mean that I’m so proud to be associated with this school. In fact, I am proud to be associated will all four schools where I’ve gotten (most of) my education. 

Reconnecting with a classmate from St. Paul's at PoCC.

I attended St. Paul’s from kindergarten through 8th grade, then graduated from San Francisco University High School (UHS), where I now work as an Instructor of Community Engagement and 9th Grade Mentor. I had a productive but complicated few years as a full- and part-time college student that included about half of the of schools in the country**, then I settled in and graduated from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 2006. In 2013 I went back to school and earned a Masters degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Each one of these schools is very different form the next, and none of them are perfect. Yet, none are fatally flawed, and each one has done, and is doing serious work that makes me proud to call myself an alumnus. That is what this post is really about.

Instead of trying to explain exactly what it is about my elementary school that makes me proud, it probably makes more sense for you to read this short post, written by the Head of School upon returning from POCCWhen I accepted a teaching position at my high school alma mater, I did so feeling that in some ways it had a lot of work to do to catch up to my elementary school. Many of the strengths articulated in the post above are the very things that I want to see nurtured at my high school. Sitting in presentation by St. Paul’s presentation at POCC, I was reminded of that difference between the two schools. Ironically, that difference did not feel like a disconnect—instead, it felt more like an opportunity, or a responsibility. Ironically, twenty years ago I was supposed to attend POCC in Albuquerque, NM, as part of a delegation from St. Paul’s school. Unfortunately, my trip was cancelled due to my grandfather’s unexpected death. There I was, two decades later, trying to make the connections, and spread the secret sauce that makes St. Paul’s a special school.

Reconnecting with a classmates from St. Paul's (and their babies) over the Holidays

The POCC experience was heavy for everyone, including the teacher and students from our delegation. Re-entering the “normal” world of our school, that can look and feel so different than the conference did, was equally heavy. Each one of us experienced that transition in a different way, but I returned to campus with a fire in a belly that has been burning ever since. The conference raised the stakes for me, helping me appreciate the fact that there is an opportunity to make systemic change while working in the independent school world, even when my school has fewer than 400 hundred students.

The energy from POCC gave us the drive and perspective to pull off a project that for me, was unlike anything I had experienced at UHS before, either as a student or teacher. The 2014 MLK Day Symposium, titled “Lifting Our Voices,” was an all-day, all-community experience, that tapped into the spirit of Dr. King in a way that so many surface level commemorations fail to authentically do (#UHSMLKDay). The backbone of the symposium was a menu of 22 different workshops, co-facilitated by teacher/student teams, based on their backgrounds and interests. I chose to lead a workshop on “Protest Songs” with the help of one of our music teachers and a student that I’ve known since before he was born. Here is the description of that workshop that appeared in the program:

"People have probably been singing longer than they have been protesting. and the two have gone hand in hand in this land since before the founding of our country. In this workshop, we will learn two or three songs that helped unite and energize the people during the Civil Rights movement. No experience or singing talent required or expected—just a willingness to make your voice heard."

I saw this workshop as an opportunity to spread some of that secret sauce that I referred to before. Many of the songs that I taught during the workshop were songs that I learned as a student at St. Paul’s. Songs like “Oh, Freedom,” “Ella’s Song,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I felt that connection even more just two nights later as I sat in the balcony of the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland. For the opening act of the 13th Annual “In the Name of Love” MLK Tribute"***, Melanie Demore lead the Oakland Community Children’s Choir in song. Years ago, Ms. Demore was the choir director at St. Paul’sshe was one of teachers that taught me the power of the protest song. 

Melanie Demore leads the Oakland Community Children's Choir
at the 13th Annual "In The Name of Love" MLK Tribute

The energy from our MLK Day Symposium is still alive on campus. I’ve heard from other that I am not the only that felt like this was a first at the school, even if we don’t all agree  on what it was exactly that made the day so special. A month ago, if you had asked me what I was most proud of about being associated with UHS, I would have said, “No contest... those two NCS Soccer Championship banners hanging up in the gym.” Now, it’s a three-way tie.

As I write this, I’m hoping that a three-way tie will keep growing into a long, long list. Tomorrow, we launch another project that could make the list. This year, in recognition of Black History Month, we are curating an on-campus exhibit called “28 Stories,”**** which will highlight untold and under-told stories of African-American history in San Francisco (#28StoriesSF). The idea is that, while we appreciate the legacy of MLK, Malcom X, Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, we also want to recognize the influence of African-Americans right here in our own community.***** Each day this month, we will feature a different story. We’re picking the stories based requests/suggestions submitted by students and teachers from our school, as well as from some of the many organizations that we partner with through our Community Engagement program. I spent yesterday evening pulling together the display for the Story #1, which will kick off the month. Which brings me back to the title of this post.

Everyone always associates the tradition of on-campus protests with UC Berkeley. I understand—the modern Free Speech Movement was born on that campus. But it irks me that so few people recognize how hard students on the SF State campus have been throwing down since the 60’s. For this reason, and others, I chose to kick of the “28 Stories” project with a story that is particularly relevant to education. So, I present to you, 

“#1: Ethnic Studies and the 1968 Student Strike at SF State.”

Posters like this one will be displayed throughout our high school's
campus throughout Black History Month as part of the
#28Stories project

If you feel like you want to know a little bit more about this story, please check out this short 26-minute documentary by Jonathan Craig, titled Activist StateI could not think of better way to keep it relevant, for our students and for the adults on our high school campus. Like we say, “All we want is our stories to be told.” It’s only too perfect that at this very moment, my friends on the other side of the country are fighting the same fight for Ethnic Studies at HGSE. You might ask why I am proud to be associated with a school that does not already offer a strong Ethnic Studies program. My answer is that sometimes it’s not about the institution, it’s about the people inside of it. When I talked about Harvard, I’m not talking about the building, I’m talking about people like Cesar, who have been fighting (successfully) to get Ethnic Studies organized offered as an Independent Study option for students this spring. I’m also talking about people like Moriska, Veronica, and Jackie, who are working hard to organize this year’s 13th Alumni of Color Conference at HGSE. My experience at last year’s conference was deep and inspiring, just like the People of Color Conference was last December. I’m looking forward to heading back east at the end of February for my first AOCC as an actual alumnus. I am so proud that UHS has stepped up to support my participation in this conference. 

A Coding workshop at the recent Vanguard Alliance Conference.
The theme was "Letting Off STEAM:
Using Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math
to Empower the Next Generation of 
African American Male Leaders and Problem Solvers

A Coding workshop at the recent Vanguard Alliance Conference

The big little reasons why we were there

More than anything, I’m feeling the power of a strong current that runs through all of these experiences as a learner and teacher. Just last weekend I was back at St. Paul’s for the Vanguard Alliance Conference, where I helped "lead" a coding workshop for young African-American boys. No, I do not know how to code, but I know how to learn. One of the co-founders of that conference used to work at UHS. Just two days ago, another one of my colleagues at school was reminding me how important it is for us to put all of our work in the context of the educators who have walked the hallways before us. On Monday, I will proudly share the story of my college with my current students and colleagues. And later that month, I will visit my grad school, not just as an alumnus, but also as representative of my current school and alma mater. I don't believe that these are all random coincidences. Instead, I believe that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

Pura Vida,


* Miss Ayana first taught me the "I Like Myself" rhyme when I was in pre-school, but that's a story for another post.

** I studied at Georgetown University, UC Berkeley Extension, and Diablo Valley College before transferring to SF State as a Junior to major in Urban Studies.

*** I was tempted to feature Living Jazz in the post as an organization that I am so proud to associate myself with, but the list started getting too long, so I decided to kept it focused on my schools.

**** Please follow and use the hashtags #28Stories and #28StoriesSF throughout the month to get in on the learning. 

***** Yes, I am all Oakland, all day, cradle to the grave. But, since my school is in San Francisco, so I can roll with the city for the month. Feel free to start

Monday, December 1, 2014

Coaching the Soccer I.Q.

The following is an article that appears in the latest issue of Soccer Journal, the official publication of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (November / December 2014, Vol. 59, No. 7: pp. 60-62). I wrote the article while in Brazil during World Cup 2014. It is based on a working paper that I began while taking an Education Neuroscience class at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Our primary job as coaches is to make players better. Sure, some of us get paid to win games, but most of the coaches reading this article don’t have the luxury of dipping into the transfer market twice a year to go shopping. Instead, we’re in the business of player development, whether we coach youth teams or competitive college sides. Good coaches pride themselves on their ability to teach the technical, tactical, physical, and psychosocial sides of the game, yet we’re often frustrated by the challenge of helping players become “smarter.” This article provides some insights about how we can use educational neuroscience—more specifically, a phenomenon known as “perceptual learning”—to help improve the “soccer I.Q.” of our players.

The best players are often labeled as having a higher “soccer I.Q.,” being more creative, or being able to "read the game." But what does that mean, and how do we help players develop those abilities? While we know how to teach core technical skills to a player, we struggle to find effective ways to help these young performers develop the soccer intelligence that can set them apart. Too often, these qualities are characterized as innate or un-teachable. Based on my experience and research, I believe that this is a cop out! In fact, we’re learning more everyday about how perceptual learning can help us tackle the challenge of coaching the soccer I.Q.

In neuroscience, perception—or the perceptual process—refers to our ability to filter and interpret the mountains of information that our environment throws at us every second. This information—in the form of light and sound, for example—is critical to our survival, but it’s only useful if we can focus on what is most important and ignore the rest. In this sense, soccer is truly the game of life. In the game situation, a soccer player must deal with constantly changing conditions and constraints, while processing and filtering information from countless sources in order to choose from among a limitless set of options. The player that chooses the best option—the player with the high soccer I.Q.—relies on stronger perceptual-cognitive skills to do so. 

You probably won’t find the term “perceptual-cognitive skills” in any coaching manuals. However, these skills have a place within the existing framework for how we currently develop players. Traditionally, we focus on four areas of coaching: technical, tactical, physical, and psychosocial training. I propose that perceptual-cognitive skills, or the ability to read the game, be added to that list. Good perceptual-cognitive skills, when combined with knowledge of the game, enable effective tactical decision-making. In turn, when this decision-making is coupled with good technique, physical ability and mindset, the result is a great play!

Sports science researchers have identified four types of perceptual-cognitive skills that are associated  with higher performance in soccer. These skills are: (1) more effective and efficient visual search strategies, (2) the ability to use postural cues to pick up advance information, (3) pattern recognition, and (4) predicting likely outcomes based on situational probabilities. Professor A. Mark Williams of Brunel University (UK) and Liverpool John Moores University (UK) is one of several researchers at the forefront of this area, having applied some of these concepts in his work with the Football Association (FA), the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Football Association of Wales.


Higher performing players utilize more effective visual search strategies. These players have a better sense of where and when to look in order to collect valuable, actionable information. When a goal is scored due to poor marking, the at-fault defender is sometimes guilty of “ball-watching.” This is a prime example of an ineffective visual search strategy. While focusing on the attacking player with the ball, the defender fails to perceive other critical information—for example, the other attacker moving into a dangerous scoring position. Efficient visual search strategies allow players to constantly and rapidly gather information from multiple sources, enabling them to make better tactical decisions.

Researchers, including Andre Roca of St. Mary’s University Twickenham London, have found that the visual search strategies of players differ based on the given situation. For example, in situations involving multiple players, higher performers take lots of short looks, or fixations, especially in peripheral areas. This helps them pick up and detect movement of multiple players spread across large spaces. In contrast, during 1 v 1 situations, good defenders focus in on the hip and foot areas of their opponents, while less skilled players stare at the ball.

They also found that a player’s distance from the ball determines the type of visual search strategy that is most effective. When the ball is further away, high performers use multiple, short-term fixations to gather information. This is similar to how drivers are taught to constantly scan the road up ahead while driving on a highway. In contrast, when in closer proximity to the ball, higher performers employ fewer fixations that last for longer periods. 

One coach that has been putting these ideas to work is Leigh Sembaluk, whom I first met when we attended an NSCAA coaching course together in 2009. While working in the Vancouver Whitecaps academy, Leigh began to focus on the development of a particular perceptual-cognitive skill in his players. He found that the vast majority of players—even at the elite level—do not perform enough over-the-shoulder looks in order to gain information about what is going on behind them. Over the course of two minutes of natural play, he found that players, on average, checked over their shoulders only 2 to 3 times. Interestingly, female players tended to check more often. Essentially, Leigh explained, this means that most players have an inaccurate, or incomplete picture of the game... most of the time!

Since then, Leigh has been utilizing technology to develop this perceptual-cognitive skill in his players. Using a set of programable lights, Leigh constructs a training environment that pushes players to constantly check over their shoulders, and react to the information provided by the light signals. One practical application of this skill is to help players gather information before deciding which way to turn after receiving the ball. After Leigh’s intervention, players tended to check over their shoulder more than twice as often.  In other words, they developed more effective visual search strategies, which allowed them to make smarter decisions.

The ability to read postural cues is easy to understand—high performers know how to read the body language of other players. Long before Shakira, good coaches have been teaching young players that “the hips don’t lie.” So, when defending an attacking player who has the ball, it is no surprise that high performers focus their visual search on this area because it is a good predictor of the attacking player’s next move. Reading postural cues is also a particularly valuable skill for goalkeepers during penalty shots, free kicks, and in open play. For example, when a right-footed player opens his or her right hip—even slightly—before striking the ball with the right foot, it often signals that the shot is heading to that player’s right.
High performers also demonstrate a stronger ability to recognize and recall patterns in context. “In context” means that this ability is dependent on the situation being soccer-relevant. For example, when shown an image of players distributed throughout a field in a plausible or logical arrangement, high performers can later recall more information about the locations of more players than their low-performing peers. However, if players are arranged randomly, in a manner that would not likely occur in a game situation, the high performer shows no greater recall ability when tested later. These findings parallel results from earlier research examining perceptual-cognitive skills in expert chess players.

This advanced pattern-recognition ability is closely tied with a higher ability to predict situational outcomes. Higher performers are quicker to identify patterns in the game, and are more likely to accurately anticipate what will happen next. For example, if a player can anticipate the movements other players, he or she can make a pass before a teammate is even open, beat an opponent to a spot on the field, or get into position to provide defensive cover.

These perceptual-cognitive skills are rooted in the neuroscience phenomenon known as “chunking.” This ability allows the perceiver to amalgamate bits of information into larger blocks, allowing for quicker processing. We are all expert “chunkers,” as long as we are operating within our area of expertise. For example, when we look at someone, we do not see a nose, mouth, eyes and ears—we see a face, and we recognize that person! The difference is that, through the development of context-specific perceptual expertise, high performing players are able to chunk information in the soccer environment, allowing them to read the game faster than others.


The good news is that coaches actually can help young players develop valuable perceptual-cognitive skills. The obvious question is, “How do we do that?” Work done by Prof. Phil Kellman (UCLA) and his colleagues on perceptual learning in mathematics provides a helpful framework for tackling this challenge. They found that interventions known as perceptual learning modules (PLM), had a significant positive impact on students’ performance in algebra. The PLM approach emphasizes the importance of exposing learners to concepts through varied representations, as opposed to repetitive explanations. Instead of explicitly drilling content knowledge or skills, the PLM challenges the learner to access or retrieve relevant information to solve a given problem. Exposure to these PLMs, even in small doses, was correlated with higher performance when compared to subjects that had either no intervention, or one that utilized a more explicit skill-development approach.

These results suggest that the key to perceptual-cognitive skill development may be repeated and varied exposure to scenarios that challenge young players to make decisions and to evaluate outcomes. Training exercises should give players a chance to experience and react to the patterns that occur most frequently in game scenarios. In practice, this means minimizing the time that players spend waiting in line or performing individual tasks without context. When coupled with effective feedback, this approach could help young players develop more effective perceptual-cognitive skills.

What about coaching in the game? Well, one of the keys to developing perceptual-cognitive skills is trial and error—even during the game. Coaches—particularly youth coaches— must understand that every game is an opportunity for players to develop. Coaches should take advantage of the game environment and treat it as more than just a performance, or a test of the material that was covered during practice. Players must have repeated experience with decision-making based on what they perceive. It follows, therefore, that coaches should refrain from making these decisions for players during the game. The goal is not to develop players that are experts at following instructions—we want to develop players that become experts at reading the game for themselves. In an amusing, but true take on this idea, Prof. Williams suggests that “the saying ‘children should be seen but not heard’ should occasionally be extended to coaches." So, when an attacking player receives the ball in a good position to score, the coach must resist the urge to yell “shoot!” That player, through repeated exposure and practice, will develop the perceptual-cognitive skills to recognize when the time is right to shoot, pass, or dribble.

Of course, there is an appropriate time for a coach to speak during the game. Conversations before the match are an important time to prepare players cognitively. Discussing some of the patterns that players will likely see is a good way to support their perceptual-cognitive development. This type of scaffolding may help players recognize the patterns more quickly. Again, helping players recognize the context in which events and decision-making occur is critical. White boards, cones, and other markers are popular tools that allow coaches to visually recreate scenarios, so that players can understand how to act or react appropriately to specific patterns in the game. The same strategy can be used during halftime and immediately after games to help players reflect on the situations that they have experienced. Coaches can facilitate this process by highlighting examples of effective decision-making, and by providing better alternatives for scenarios where players were not effective.

Coaches can also benefit from a deeper understanding of how effective feedback works. Research by John Hattie and Helen Timperley of Auckland University in New Zealand provides an excellent framework for this discussion. First, the timing of feedback is critical. Unlike in training sessions, the in-game environment is not a time for task acquisition, it is an opportunity for players to develop perceptual-cognitive task fluency. Therefore, coaches should not necessarily provide immediate corrective feedback after a player makes a poor decision—in fact, Hattie and Timperley argue that this type of feedback may “detract from the learning of automaticity and the associated strategies of learning." By limiting the amount of immediate feedback we give our players, we can push them to really think through the scenario, and to develop a deeper understanding of what is going on. In other words, sometimes it is better to wait for halftime.

Finally, coaches should provide feedback in a way that encourages the self-regulation of players. The easiest way to do that is to offer feedback in the form of questions. For example, after a player gets caught out of position, a coach might call out, “Where should you have been?” This allows the player to access, or retrieve what they already know before they take another shot at solving the problem. Even if the player does not respond, the pondering of the question supports the development of his or her perceptual-cognitive skills. What if the player does not actually know the correct answer to the coach's question? Well, as Hattie and Timperley point out, feedback is most effective “when it addresses faulty interpretations, not a total lack of understanding." When a player does not actually know what they should be doing, it must be addressed in the training sessions using effective PLM strategies. Of course, a coach may choose to provide the answer during the game as a short-term solution.

Before wrapping things up, I want to emphasize that the perceptual learning approach is not the solution to every coach’s problems. Perceptual-cognitive development should be incorporated into training in a manner that supports, not supplants the development of critical technical skills. Well-designed perceptual learning modules can support the development of technical task fluency while exposing players to scenarios that help them build perceptual-cognitive skills. So, don’t throw out everything you’ve been doing and start getting all perceptual on your players—it won’t work, and they won’t like it. Instead, keep these ideas in mind, and try them out when the time is right.


Throughout the process, I’ve depended on prior research, work, and feedback from many, including Prof. A. Mark Williams (Brunel University), Prof. L. Todd Rose (HGSE), Judy Muir, Peter Hayton, Leigh Sembaluk, and Michael Strawn. The original paper, including all research citations can be downloaded from my Linkedin page. Photos of me in the library taken by Bart Devon at Drivellian Photography.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

American Unexceptionalism

I haven’t always been patriotic. In fact, I’m not sure I am to this day. It’s not that I don’t like my country, it’s just that the idea of the nation-state has never really resonated with me. Maybe it’s the Aquinnah Wampanoag in me that makes me feel like we belong to the land, and not the other way around. Maybe it's that I don't actually think Americans* or America is special. Or maybe it’s that I tend to associate patriotism with politics and war. For whatever reason, I've never quite bled the red, white and blue.

I can’t remember anyone around me being overtly patriotic when I was growing up. I never went to a school where we had to say the pledge of allegiance—an idea that I always found kinda spooky, honestly. I didn’t have a lot of military veterans in my family. And to top it all off, I’m black. Let’s just be blunt—my people have some damn good reasons to have mixed feelings about what it means to be an “American.”

I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of the ugly truths about my country pretty early on in my education. My school never made us dress up like Pilgrims and Indians and hold hands. I can’t remember not knowing that the history of the United States of America wudn’t purty. So, when we were growing up, we didn’t hate America—we just didn’t really bask in the glory of being American... and honestly, the 4th of July was just an excuse to eat chicken and blow shit up.

So, how did a conflicted Black American become such a rabidly fanatic supporter of the U.S. national soccer team? Well, the soccer part is easy to understand if you’ve been following this blog at all. But why do I love my team so much? After all, there are plenty of U.S. citizens and residents that root against us, for various reasons. Some have family or cultural ties to other countries—we call them “Xicanos.” Others just think we’re bad, and would rather support a country with a better chance of winning—we call those front-runners.

The truth is, my love for our team is not a result of my patriotism—it is one of the few sources of it. The first time I ever stood up with a straight face and repped hard for the USA was in 2010 at the World Cup in South Africa. Like many Black Americans who head back to the motherland, I was curious to find out just how African I would feel once I arrived. The answer was... not much. And before you get all Garvey on me, I should point out that the Africans in Africa did not think I was African either, so sit down and relax yourself. I felt the solidarity of blackness, the power of the diaspora, but I was a Black American in Africa. I can remember the feeling when the final whistle blew in our defeat against Ghana. The entire stadium erupted in cheers, except for the section behind me, which happened to have some pretty important Americans in it. At that moment I look up just to see a U.S. flag float down from the upper deck of the stadium, almost in slow motion. That flag landed on the ground in the aisle just behind my section. I shit you not: I looked at Bill Clinton, and he looked at me as if to ask, "Are you gonna let that happen?" I walked over, grabbed the flag, folded it up and tucked it away. He nodded at me and smiled. I still have that flag, the only Stars and Stripes that I own.

The beautiful thing about international soccer is that you don’t pick your team. South Africans cry for Bafana Bafana, Mexicans for El Tri, Nigerians for the Super Eagles, and Cameroonians for the Indomitable Lions (insert cheap shot about win bonuses). The sad truth is that most governments are corrupt and shady, to some degree or another. Chileans don’t think of Pinochet when Alexis Sánchez puts the ball in the back of the net, any more than Germans think of Hitler when Miroslav Klose is celebrating his record-tying fifteenth World Cup goal with an almost front flip.

It’s only natural that many Americans—and many non-Americans—have mixed feelings about any success that the U.S. national team may have. Many feel like the U.S. is already number one at so many things that it’s refreshing to see us get our asses handed to us in the world’s most popular sport. There’s even a contingent within the soccer-loving U.S. population that secretly, or openly wants us to fail. Unlike in the rest of the world, soccer in the U.S. has an ugly elitist streak. The United States is the only place that I know of in the world where the “best” players are expected to fork over thousands of dollars a year in training, tournament and traveling fees. Some of these same kids grow up to be the soccer snobs that actually enjoy the fact that they know more about soccer than their “regular” baseball-loving, hot dog-eating American peers. I think the inevitably growing popularity of soccer in America is a threat to their specialness, and they know that once the U.S wins the World Cup—which we will one day—it will all be over for them. They'll become just another unexceptional American—one of millions that love the Beautiful Game. Personally, I love being just another, average football fanatic, that happens to have been born on U.S. soil. 

But here’s the thing. The tide has already turned. This World Cup, the U.S.A. was drawn into one of, if not the infamous Group of Death. Many did not expect us to advance. ESPN’s Bracket Predictor shows that only 39% of participants chose the U.S. to move onto to the next round—and that’s coming from a user population that is disproportionately biased in the favor of the U.S.. But I’m writing this post from Recife, Brazil on the eve of the USA vs Germany game, and things are looking pretty good. As I fell asleep last night listening to several English-based soccer podcasts, I braced myself for the dismissive lack of respect that I’ve become accustomed to hearing from many foreign commentators. The funny thing was, those blokes across the pond were cheering for us! And more importantly, none of them was really shocked that we are sitting pretty with 4 points and an advantage against Portugal and Ghana in goal differential and goals scored. Americans playing soccer is no longer a novelty. It hasn’t been for a long time.

I’m just glad that I’ve been on this bandwagon since 1986, when my pre-school friend’s mom called my mom to ask if I wanted to sign up to join the Oakland Soccer Club. Since then, the game has brought me so much happiness—the gift that keeps giving. I just came back from playing in our weekly pickup game around the corner, and now I’m sitting across from my homie-brother-bff, whom I really first met playing JV soccer together in high school. That's what the game means to me, and our national team is the representation of that love made real.

One of the best stories of this World Cup so far has been the dominance of the Americans—and by that I mean all of the Americans: North, Central and South. Just like I felt that Black solidarity in South Africa, I know feel an American solidarity with all the countries of the "New World." We have a lot more in common than just being somewhat randomly named after an Italian explorer who discovered absolutely nothing. In this World Cup, the United States is one of many non-European teams with a point to prove—that is American unexceptionalism. We aren't special. We aren't a novelty. We aren't number one. We are just another team that will be judged by what we do on the field. Our team has come a long way—and thankfully, our Supporters Club has too. There was no chance that I was going to associate myself with an ultras section calling themselves "Sam's Army," but the American Outlaws hold it down pretty strong. 

Tomorrow I will probably lose my voice before the game even starts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll be cheering for my team, because it’s my team, and I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN.

Pura Vida,

*People from the United States call themselves “American” and sometimes that ticks a lot of Latin Americans off. After all, they are Americans too, no? That’s why they invented the word Estadounidense. But the word Unitedstatesian does not exist in English, and with all do respect to Canada, “North American” doesn’t work for me either. So, for lack of a better word, in this article I use the word “American” to refer to people from the United States.