Tag: Sports

Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story

Jay DeMerit grew up in Green Bay, about two hours north of me.  He was a high school star at Bay Port and went to University of Illinois Chicago to play soccer.

After he graduated, MLS didn’t want him, so he left the US with $1800 in his pocket and moved to England, joining a 9th division team, basically a sunday beer league.

After a year, with no money left, he got a trial with a 7th division team.  Watford’s manager, then in the 2nd division, was in attendance to scout two other players, but really liked DeMerit and gave him a 2 week trial.

After the two week trial, he signed a one year deal and played for Watford all season.   He scored the winning goal at Wembly that promoted Watford to the premiership, earning him legendary status with Watford’s fans.

He was a starter in the Premiership, playing with Watford for 6 seasons, scoring 9 goals as a central defender.  He made the US National Team in 2007 and led the US to a 2-0 win against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup.  He was named to the World Cup 2010 roster and started all four matches in South Africa.  Now there’s a movie about him coming out in November.

DeMerit’s story in unreal.  It shows that determination plus talent equals success.  He wanted something so bad that he was willing to go broke for it, move to another continent and devote his time to it to make sure it was a success.

Be like Jay DeMerit.  If you have a dream, go for it, work hard and give it your very best effort. Don’t make excuses.  He could have easily said “im from a tiny town in the US, Major League Soccer doesn’t want me, im running out of money” but he didn’t.   He didn’t whine, he just was determined to get better each day and found success beyond his wildest dreams.

Give it your best effort.  If it doesnt work, its better to have lived and tried than to have given up without a fight.

DeMerit’s goal to take Watford to the Premiership

What I’ve Learned In 12 Years of Reffing Soccer

I’ve been reffing soccer since I was 12. I grew up playing soccer and wanted some extra spending money as a kid, so it was a natural fit. Over the past 12 years, I’ve learned a ton about myself and human nature in general.  I think some of the lessons I learned growing up as a referee led me be independent and to start my own business.  I even used some of my reffing money to finance my first business.  As I’ve been involved in entrepreneurship, I’ve found that reffing has taught me a ton about business, psychology and life in general.  Here’s a few:

1. The loudest people usually know the least

The people who yell/complain the most, usually know the least.  The people who are mostly silent or pick their spots to speak up usually know their stuff.  Parents, coaches, players.  People complaining about small issues usually don’t know anything and it’s best to ignore them. They just want attention.

2. You have to work hard and earn people’s respect

If you walk around slowly or don’t move outside of the center circle, people will think you’re lazy and will take every opportunity to criticize you if you’re not giving full effort. People are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re working hard, even if you make a mistake.

3. Bullies like to pick on people they don’t think will fight back

I’ve seen coaches and fans brutally abuse 12-14 year old female referees because they know that the kid isn’t going to respond.  Which brings me to my next lesson:

4. Stand up for yourself and others

I threw out a 40 year old coach in my first game when I was 12.  He cussed me out even though I got the foul correct because he believed that the other 9 year old had tried to injure his player.  If you see someone bullying someone else, say something.  Even if you don’t get them to stop, the other person will appreciate it.

5. People live vicariously through others and it’s not a good thing

The worst parents to deal with are those who are living through their kids.  They are horrible to referees, but even worse to their kids.  Thankfully, my Dad never pulled some of the crap I see every season.

6. If you show people respect, they will likely respect you back.  If people won’t respect you back, don’t listen to them and move on.

If you start a relationship by respecting the other person, they’ll likely respect you back.  People deserve your respect from the start.  They don’t have to “earn your respect.”  But if you treat someone with respect and they don’t give it back, don’t listen and move on.  They’re not worth your time.

7. Be aware of politics

Believe it or not, there’s a ton of politics in the referee world, all the way up to the world cup.  Make sure you know the politics of any industry you’re in.  If you don’t like playing the politics game, it’s ok.  Just do what you enjoy.  Try not to bring politics into your own organizations and life, though.

8. Prepare and research for what you are about to do

The best referees that I know research the teams, history, players and coaches they are about to ref.  They know who plays club together, top goal scorers, enforcers.  It makes the job much easier.  Same with just about all aspects of life.

9. Take Responsibility

Show up on time, dress in a uniform and take responsibility for your calls.  You cant hide from players/coaches/fans when you’re the only one with the whistle.  Own up to your mistakes and people will respect you.  If you screw up, tell people you screwed up.  They will respect you for it in the end.

10. Be consistent. Be fair. Don’t call ticky tack, crazy calls that nobody understands.

Just like in life, be consistent and fair.  Don’t try to show people how smart you are.  Be fair and don’t be a dick.

11. Don’t be afraid to do what’s right, even if it’s hard.

It’s hard to disallow a goal in the 89th minute for a handball that only you saw.  Or an offside call that is really close.  You have to do what’s right, no matter what.  Even if it’s painful short term.  You have to live with yourself and you’ll feel better if you do the right thing, even if it’s hard.

Bonus time.  Here’s 10 things I’ve seen on the soccer field in the last 12 years:

1.  My first game.  Coach calls 12 year old me a “fucking idiot.”  I kick him out.  In my third game, I kick another coach out for saying similar things and he sits menacingly on his car trunk watching from the parking lot.

2. High School Game – Red player slide tackles blue player from behind.  I call the foul and give a red card to the red player.  Blue player’s teammate jumps up and jumps on red player’s back, grabs his hair and smashes his face into the ground repeatedly.

3. 14 year old kid tells 19 year old me “I’m going to find out where you live and kill you.”  I give him a red card, laugh and say “what are you going to do, do a bike by?”  Parents tell me I shouldn’t have given him a red card because he has “emotional issues.”

4. Coach is a state cup game attempts to punch 18 year old me in the face after I throw him out for swearing at me repeatedly.  He says “If you’re man enough to throw me out, you’re going to have to be man enough to make me” and has to be restrained by field marshals.

5. Parent is unhappy that his son has been red carded for saying that 21 year old me is “a fucking terrible idiot.”  Parent goes Bobby Knight and throws a chair onto the field, in my direction.  He’s ejected too.

6. U10 game.  Goal keeper makes a great save with his stomach and gets the wind knocked out of him.  Father gets really mad and announces to the parents sideline that he’s going to make “his little pussy” get back in the game.  I tossed him and he got a 3 game suspension.

7. Parent of 16 year old female select player screams at her daughter the entire game.  His kid is the best player on the team, but he thinks she can do better.  It gets so bad that the girl breaks down crying and screams at him that she wants to quit.  She had scored 2 goals and her team was winning.

8. Parents follow me to my car and attempt to not allow me to leave.  I’m 17 and it’s a u15 game.  They were mad that I called the game because of lightning while their team was losing.

9. U13 game.  Manager comes over to me to pay me before the game.  He looks me in the eye and says really slowly “This is a really important game, make sure you call it fair” as he’s handing me my pay envelope.  I didn’t think anything of it.  After the game, there’s an extra $40 in the envelope.  Bribing the ref in a u13 game?  Seriously?

10. Very clean high school girls game.  60 minutes in, a red player comes in screaming and makes a horrible slide tackle on a blue player.  I give her a red card and ask one of the other girls what that was all about.  They tell me that blue player had stolen red player’s boyfriend earlier that summer.

I probably have another 50 stories I could share, but I’ll leave those for another post.

On a serious note, 90% of referees quit in their first year.  The pay is great, but most people can’t take the abuse from parents and coaches.  There’s no other job where adults think it’s ok to scream and swear at 12-18 year olds and drive them to tears.  I would love to go to some accountant, attorney, construction worker, sales exec’s office and scream at him whenever I think he’s made a mistake, just so they can see what it’s like.  I’ve actually told that to parents as I’ve ejected them.  It doesn’t usually make an impression.

December Books

I read three interesting books in December.  All three of these books actually made me think, which doesn’t always happen.  The first two books were an amazing contrast and I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed them as much if I had not read them back to back.  Here’s my thoughts on my December books, Infidel, Three Cups of Tea and Soccernomics.

InfidelAyaan Hirsi Ali.  Infidel is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.  It is about Ali’s path from Somalia to the United States, with time spent living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Germany and the Netherlands in between.  Without giving away too much of the book, Ali was born into the Somali clan system and was raised as a devout, conservative Muslim.  She faced incredible hardship during her life including living multiple war zones, abusive parents, female circumcision, forced marriage, an internal struggle with her religious beliefs, death threats and so much more.  Her story is so incredible that if it were written for Hollywood, you would think it was fake.

A little background.  When the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was butchered by an Islamic extremist in broad daylight in the Netherlands, the terrorist stabbed a 5 page note to Van Gogh’s chest.  The note was addressed to Ali and included a fatwa, or holy order, calling on Muslims to kill her.  The books tells Ali’s life story that lead to this horrific conclusion.

While reading the book, I found myself questioning how anyone could believe in cultural relativism, especially if they read Ali’s story.  I see cultural relativism as a continuum.  On one end is the people who say “our values are right, other values are wrong.” The other end is people who say “all cultures are equal, we must respect their practices, as their values are as good as ours.” I’ve gone back and forth along the cultural relativism continuum for a long time now, but after reading Ali’s book, I am falling much farther toward the first end of the spectrum.  I think that my reading of cultural relativism is now something like this: I can understand why people have the values that they do in different countries, but I believe that there are universal human rights and truths that everyone should adhere to.  For example, I can understand how someone born in the rural, tribal hinterlands of Somalia could believe that female circumcision is the right thing to do, but I don’t believe it’s wrong to try to stop the practice.

I’m probably not doing a good job of explaining myself here, but I believe that Infidel is one of the most interesting books of the 21st century and potentially one of the most important.  I highly recommend Infidel.

Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  After reading Infidel, I dove right into Three Cups of Tea.  I had never heard this story, but after reading the book, came away inspired.  Three Cups of Tea is about Greg Mortenson’s quest to build schools and improve the quality of life for children, especially girls, in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1993, Mortenson, an American, failed at summiting K2, arguably the world’s most difficult mountain to climb.  Mortenson got lost climbing back down to civilization and wandered into Korphe, a tiny mountain village in Northern Pakistan.  He was sick, tired and lost, yet the impoverished Muslim villagers nursed him back to health and gave him amazing hospitality.  After living with the villagers for about seven weeks, Mortenson was able to go back home ot the United States.  But before he left, he agreed to return and build the villagers a school to educate their kids, especially their girls.

Fast forward to 2009, Mortenson has built over 130 schools and countless clean water projects, women’s centers and self improvement facilities in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.  His schools have educated over 55,000 children in an area where America is not all that well liked.  Mortenson has succeeded in helping these children by sheer personal grit, determination and amazing perseverance.  He has spent years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, braving some of the most dangerous places in the world, in order to help children get an education.  He believes that books, not bombs, will make the world a safer place in the future.

Mortenson is now one of my personal heroes because he has done so much good, without any official mandate.  Mortenson is a charity entrepreneur.  He has gone into an area that had a huge need and filled it as best as he could.  I truly believe that Mortenson deserves a Nobel Peace Prize and believe he will get one within my lifetime.  If you want to be inspired and read about one of the most amazing people on this Earth, read Three Cups of Tea.  I can’t recommend a book any more highly.

SPOILERS: After reading Infidel and Three Cups of Tea back to back, I really wanted to hear what Ali and Mortenson would think about each other.  By the end of Infidel, Ali believes that Islam needs to have a reformation because many of the core tenants of Islam advocate violence, oppression of women and a “backward” outlook toward the word.  She does not seem to believe that there are moderate Muslims, only religious Muslims and secularized Muslims.  The does not seem to believe in the concept of the “silent majority.” These ideas are completely understandable if you lived in her shoes and lived the life that she did.  They may even be completely correct, but I am not so sure.

Mortenson’s story seems to prove otherwise and provides signs of hope.  Although he is kidnapped by the Taliban and threatened by some religious Mullahs, the vast majority of people he meets are devout Muslims that are good people.  They are clearly not secular and are very religious, but do not have any problem with an infidel like Mortenson.  In fact, many of them are willing to put their life on the line to protect him.  Additionally, these rural Pakistani and Afghani Muslims are willing to educate their girls and the girls are willing to learn.  Mortenson’s example of how education can help people break free of poverty is incredibly powerful and I think Ali would agree that what he is doing is amazingly important.  I would love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them would ever have a candid conversation.

Soccernomics – Simon Kuper and & Stefan Szymanski.  Soccernomics is nowhere near as heavy as the previous two books, but is still very interesting.  Kuper is the author of Soccer Against the World, another book I read this summer, and is back at it again.  Soccernomics is the Moneyball of soccer.  The authors try to bring statistical analysis to the pitch, just like Michael Lewis did in Moneyball.  The authors tackle why England always seems to fail at major tournaments, which countries overachieve and underachieve and who will be successful in the future.

My favorite part of the book is the section about Olympic Lyon, currently one of the most successful clubs in Europe.  Just like Moneyball, the authors show why Lyon can be such a good club with limited resources.  Lyon goes against conventional wisdom and is incredibly active in the transfer market.  They have a stable front office and only buy players who are between 20 and 22 and are among the top 2-3 players in their country or are Brazilian.  Once the players sign with Lyon, the club spares no expense to help the players adjust to living in Lyon and French culture.  I found it amazing that other clubs, even the richest in the world (Chelsea, Man U, Real Madrid etc) don’t do this.  They simply sign the player and hope he is able to adjust.  Third, Lyon sell players as soon as they show any sign of deterioration and never try to sign center forwards, as they are the most over valued players in the transfer market.  If you liked Moneyball or like European soccer, Soccernomics is the book for you.

Note: If you are interested in donating to Greg Mortenson’s charity to build schools in Central Asia, check out the Three Cups of Tea website.

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How NFL Coaches are like Midlevel Workers in Corporate America

Bill Belichick is widely thought of as the smartest coach in the NFL.  He has been hugely successful, coaching the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl four times in his 9 years of coaching, winning three.  Like many successful people, Belichick rubs many NFL fans the wrong way, leading many to revel in his failures.  Part of the schadenfreude can be explained by his somewhat abrasive personality and win at all costs mentality.  He was caught up in the NFL cheating scandal a few years ago where he was accused of ordering Patriots employees to tape opponents practices before important games.

It was no wonder that Belichick was universally slammed by pretty much everyone after his decision to go for it from his own 30 yard line in the 4th quarter last night’s Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.  Here’s the situation.  The Patriots were winning by six points with a little over two minutes to go.  The Patriots faced 3rd and 2 from their own 28.  A first down in this situation wins the game.  The Colts defense stopped the Patriots on 3rd down, forcing a 4th and 2.  Instead of punting, Belichick ordered his offense back out onto the field to go for it.  They didn’t get it and Peyton Manning drove the Colts 28 yards for the game winning touchdown.

It’s obvious that the Patriots should have punted and forced the Colts to go 70 yards to try to win the game, right?  To steal a line from Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.  Belichick is way ahead of the curve.  According to research by David Romer at UC-Berkely, NFL teams punt way too often.

The Patriots convert first down from 2 yards out 76% of the time (ESPN’s stat from Sportscenter).  This stat means that by going for it, the Patriots had a 76% chance of winning the game.  Belichick only had to think that his defense would give up a touchdown to Peyton Manning and the Colts offense at a lower rate for it to be a good decision.  Manning had already driven the Colts to three 75+ yard touchdown drives in under two minutes in the game.  Belichick made the decision to go for it and this time it did not pay off, which brings me to why I love watching him coach a game.

Coaches in all sports, but especially football, almost always play it safe and go with conventional wisdom.  I’ve written about the lack of innovation in football before, mostly relating to play calling.  Last season I came up with a hypothesis:

I think it is because coaches fear being fired for not just doing poorly, but doing poorly a different way.  If coaches go with the conventional wisdom and fail, they will not be criticized as harshly as if they experiment and find new ways to fail.  If they succeed, like Mike Martz’s high-flying pass offense for the Rams called “The Greatest Show on Turf,” they are given some credit, but when the same coach experiences a minimal decline, he is criticized more harshly than a conventional coach.  For example, when Martz decided to pass in a late game situation, just like he had during other times in the game and failed, he was roundly criticized.  If he had run and failed, the players would have been criticized for not executing.   There is no upside for innovation here.

Today, I found out that this hypothesis has a name, via the Freakonomics blog:

If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing. This introduces what economists call a “principal-agent problem.” Even though going for it increases his team’s chance of winning, a coach who cares about his reputation will want to do the wrong thing. He will punt, just because he doesn’t want to be the goat. (I’ve seen the same thing in my research on penalty kicks in soccer; it looks like kicking it right down the middle is the best strategy, but it is so embarrassing when it fails that players don’t do it often enough.) What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.

It takes a leader to be willing to go against the grain, even when he knows that he will be excoriated by his peers.  He could have taken the easy way out.  If he did, today’s headlines would most likely read “Patriots defense no match for Peyton Manning and the Colts.”  Instead, we have “Colts make Pats pay for Bill’s unusually dumb decision.”

I think that this problem helps explain why big companies are slow to innovate.  They face the same problem.  Mid-level employees face the same problem as NFL coaches.  If they simply keep their heads down and do what 99% of the other workers would do, they will get credit if they succeed, but face much less criticism if they fail.  Most corporate cultures punish failing in a new way much more than failing the same old way.  If a mid-level employees actually do something innovative and it works, many times they are given less credit than they deserve.

I think this problem helps explain why startups are able to innovate much faster than big companies.  If big companies want to innovate faster, they need to empower their employees to go against the grain and make tough decision.  They need to actually mean it.  Companies need to view a failure for what it is, a failure, rather than get caught up in how the person failed.  This is not to say that someone who decides to pull the corporate equivalent of going for it on 4th and 20 from their own 5 yard line shouldn’t be criticized.  As long as the decision has a reasonable chance of success, they should be applauded for their innovation, rather than criticized for thinking outside the box.

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