Free Your Mind, Win the World Cup?

Andrew Helms   April 16, 2014

In a recent appearance at this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, the self-congratulatory Davos of skinny-suited professionals, soccer journalist Roger Bennett asked the effervescent head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, Jürgen Klinsmann, if he considered himself to be in the “interruption business.” Klinsmann, aping the language of a McKinsey consulting seminar, enthusiastically replied, “Wherever your job is, you can’t do it same way you did it the last couple of years because eventually you’re not getting anywhere. In order to get to the next level, you’ve got to mix things up and change it.”

Under Klinsmann’s leadership, change has come to the U.S. Men’s National Team with the program increasingly mirroring its consultant-coach. As journalist Brian Straus reported in The Sporting News last year, “From yoga, meetings with a full-time nutritionist and field trips to historic sites to media training [and] motivational speakers,” the German change agent has brought the amenities of a new age office onto the soccer field. While American coaches have traditionally spoken in aspirational aphorisms like Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights (“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”), Klinsmann’s tenure is evidence of the slow creep of business language into sports and sports education.

Soccer balls

Set them free. / Photo by Ari Bronstein

In many ways, Klinsmann’s coaching philosophy resembles the ideology of Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford and the author of the 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. On her website, Dweck writes that she’s always been “deeply moved by outstanding achievement and saddened by wasted potential.” To overcome the unbearable sorrow of squandered human capital, Dweck studied “successful” people and determined that mindset trumps factors like class, race, genetics, gender, or IQ in determining one’s capacity for success. For Dweck, all humans can be placed into one of two categories: those with fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets. People with growth mindsets tend to succeed; people with fixed mindsets tend to fail.

Dweck’s dreamy TED-talk world has become a staple of corporate training seminars, and visitors to her website can test their mindsets with a sixteen-question quiz. For $6,000, schools can purchase a complete Mindset course with ready-made lesson plans, activities, and assessments.

Klinsmann has sought to inculcate his players with a “growth mindset,” using his team talks to empower players rather than communicate explicit tactical directions. While soccer coaches traditionally articulate a cohesive system of play, Klinsmann has been known to sound more like a Google project manager explaining the 20 percent rule (the notion that employees should be free to tinker on their own projects on Google’s dime).

A disgruntled American player told Straus for his article that Klinsmann’s pre-game team instructions would often be as succinct as “express yourself.” Ever the motivator-in-chief, Klinsmann elaborated at SXSW that soccer players, unlike other American sports like football or baseball must be given the agency to “make the calls” because it’s an “intuitive and improvised game . . . . As a coach you become like a guide, you have to give them the responsibility to get the job done.”

This aversion to tactical instruction previously led to Klinsmann’s dismissal as head coach at Bayern Munich in Germany. As Bayern Munich player Philipp Lahm recounted in his autobiography, “The experiment with Klinsmann was a failure. We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff . . . . It was up to the players to come together before a match and discuss how we were going to play.”

While Klinsmann is right to think that the best players in the world innovate on the pitch, a growth mindset won’t turn an average American player into Lionel Messi overnight. Even if a player, as Klinsmann suggested at SXSW, trains harder and is the “first to come to training and the least to leave,” most skill acquisition occurs during adolescence. That’s why European teams are so good. Most of their players have spent their formative years in soccer academies, drilling daily on soccer’s skill-based fundamentals while American teams over-emphasize youth tournaments and ensure that every player gets a medal to go with those post-game orange slices.

In the soccer quarterly Howler, Matthew Doyle argued that for the past twenty years American soccer tactics can be summarized simply: “try hard, run fast.” For all Klinsmann’s talk of taking American soccer to “another level,” emerging from the “Group of Death” in Brazil will require the U.S. team to play with the tactical discipline and tenacity that define the homespun beauty of American soccer.

The problem with Klinsmann is that he stubbornly remains fixated on adjusting attitudes instead of addressing the structural impediments that stifle American player development. In February, Klinsmann went to the media again to criticize the mindsets of his American players: “They have the qualities, but do they have the belief?” With each of these outbursts, one begins to wonder if Klinsmann’s first choice central midfielder would be The Little Engine that Could, “I think I can”-ing himself all the way to Rio de Janeiro.

The U.S. Men’s National Team will begin training for the World Cup at Stanford University next month. If their coach can somehow arm his players with a system of play capable of shutting down Cristiano Ronaldo instead of spending his time extolling the virtues of positive thinking, then Jürgen Klinsmann himself just might have a growth mindset after all.

Andrew Helms is a writer in Cambridge and works at Five O'Clock Films. Find him on Twitter @andrew_helms.

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