Requiem for a Dream – How Barcelona’s Prodigal Son Became Their Most Damaging Signing in a Generation


I’ve never re-blogged anything from another WordPress blog before but this is really excellent.

Originally posted on Neymarketing:

Cesc Fabregas

To all intents and purposes, the time of Cesc Fabregas at Barcelona is now up. While nothing has yet been signed, nor even officially agreed, he is expected to move to Chelsea in the very near future. And, if that falls through, it is no secret that the club are willing to ship him off to any club that can give them in excess of 30 million euros and agree terms with the player.

This is Cesc Fabregas, a Catalan born and bred. A product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, signed by their greatest-ever coach in an act the sheer inevitability of which had seen it expected for half a decade. A world class midfielder and Spanish international, with La Liga, the Copa del Rey and both the World Cup and two European Championships on his CV. It would seem fair that people are asking just why the club would…

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The Final: Keys to winning

I generally grimace at media pre-game sound bites that try to sum up what has to happen for a team to win. The format forces an over-simplification.

Results in games are about being relatively better than your opponent. Hegemony rather than empirical measurements are what are relevant.

So, since the Germans are favourites, here’s what I think Argentina must do to win.

First, here’s the lineups:

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Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. Arguments to the contrary are simply the result of a lack of objectivity. Courtois may become the best keeper at some point. Ochoa and Navas had great World Cups but Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world right now.

Romero has to be at least his equal when called upon today and Argentina have to ensure the game does not become a battle between the goalkeepers. Germany are aware though that Romero saved two penalties against Holland and won’t want the game ending with spot kicks.

For the game to not fall on Romero’s shoulders it has to fall on Mascherano’s. His performance against Holland was truly one of the best by a defender in a World Cup that I can remember. He looks like he is absolutely possessed and playing holding mid is a more natural fit for him than centre back where Barcelona play him for the most part. For Argentina to win, it’s important that Messi and Higuain are on their best form but it is absolutely crucial that Mascherano plays just as well against Germany as he did against Holland.

Demichelis is a liability. His impression of a turnstile versus Holland was spot on. Mascherano bailed him out with Superman-like saves at least twice. He must be able to deal with German strikers (Muller and Klose) without needing an abundance of assistance as Mascherano will have his hands full with German midfielders.

Lavezzi, for me, has been really disappointing. He has to provide penetration and service from wide positions. Ozil has had a similar role for Germany and while he maybe hasn’t been the fulcrum of the German attack that most thought he would be he has still been effective and contributed regularly, primarily as a provider of defence splitting passes. Lazezzi has to be more influential than Ozil for Argentina to win.

Messi is the best player in the world and your best players have to be your best players in games like this. He has scored and he has provided. He sometimes though gets pushed further back into midfield for a starting attacking position than is optimal. The key for me is Zabalata bombing up from right back to pull markers back and away from Messi to give him the space to receive balls and start attacks a bit higher up the field.

Messi will get a chance or two and will provide Higuain (and others) with chances. The German’s conversation rate in their 7-1 win over Brazil was off the charts. Argentina will not match that but they have to convert goals from chances at a very high rate because the Germans will control possession and tempo for large parts of this game. Getting Germany off the scoreboard seems unlikely so Messi will likely have to mastermind more than one goal today.

Despite being the best player in the world and having a tremendous supporting cast in Higuain, Lavezzi and hopefully Aguerro (and maybe even DiMaria) it may be too big an ask when you consider they are up against Neuer, Hummels and Lahm in the back four. Each of them should easily make the FIFA XI at the end of the tournament. If Luiz is worth 50 000 000 euros then Hummels is worth the entire budget of this World Cup. Howedes and Boateng (as a centreback) are clearly the players that Argentina must look to focus on when they attack.

I think all these areas that Argentina need to eclipse the Germans in will prove too much. I’ve enjoyed watching the Germans play (live against Portugal and Ghana and on TV for the rest) and I think they will prove be deserving champions. That said, Messi is the best player of this generation with a solid claim to being the best ever. That claim is made legitimate if he plays out of his skull today and engineers a victory against the odds so that Argentina win their third World Cup in a game played in the heart of their most bitter rivals.

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World Cup: Germany’s first goal vs Brazil

It was likely the most shocking result of the modern game. 7-1. Germany over Brazil in a World Cup semi-final in Brazil. Master handicapper Nate Silver pegged the result as being 1 in 4000. That seems almost conservative.

The first goal fascinated me. Set pieces are one of the few aspects of the game that can be analyzed in a similar manner to episodic sports like baseball, football and volleyball. These sports have many, repeated actions from very similar setups whereas soccer’s fluidity precludes the easy comparisons that analysts can look for in more static, predictable sports.

Set pieces though give soccer that element of being able to set up specific patterns in attack and in defence. This corner is a great example of Germany doing their homework on how Brazil defended corners and manipulating that setup to essentially pick David Luiz so that Thomas Muller had acres of space in the back half of the penalty box.

I’ve done a (humorous) annotated video on YouTube that highlights the issues. Essentially, Brazil only mark the near space zonally (with Maicon and Fred), leaving Marcelo on the line at the far post. The rest mark man to man (curiously leaving Ozil unmarked at the top of the box though).

Here’s the video:

Howedes starts it off cycling in towards Luiz, where Klose has already fronted on to him obstructing Luiz’s path to Muller who has followed in behind to Howedes to the middle of the goal. Luiz has to fight his way through traffic but the timing of the runs ensures the ball reaches Muller before Luiz can do anything. He looks ridiculous as he flails his way towards Muller, knowing all the while that he is not going to get there.

Muller is left with a relatively simple tap in as Ozil has deliberately stayed at the top of the box so as not to drag any defenders into the space intended for Muller.

It’s a fantastic bit of coaching by Low and his assistants. The amount of space left by Brazil is ridiculous and it’s why any time that doesn’t get the mix of zonal and man to man marking on a corner is doomed to get burned by smart teams that create traffic and/or picks to free up a player who can sit in the space created by jamming everyone else in a part of the box where the ball is not going to be delivered.

I’ve made it (hopefully) humorous but the point is serious. Goals get scored off set pieces. It’s an area that coaches can have a disproportionate influence on compared to open play. Get your marking right or you will get exposed.

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Spain’s World Cup squad: deduce and reduce

Spain has released a provisional squad of 30 for the World Cup that will be reduced to 23 by Vincente Del Bosque on May 25. While some countries are chucking in make weights to get up to 23 and entering the competition thread-bare in some positions, that is as far from the case as you can get with Spain. Rife with talent everywhere on the pitch, Spain’s next best 11 after starters are picked would likely push for a spot in the semi-finals.

For Del Bosque the biggest decision is whether to view this as time to transition away from Barcelona stalwarts like Xavi, Busquets and Pedro to other players who have proven their quality the past season or two or go with the experienced, cool heads that have now won two Euros and the 2010 World Cup. Let’s have a look at the choices he faces getting down to 23 and then some possible starting 11’s.

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Ashley Chen

The one with her and her mom. Both in the hospital getting treatment. That’s the one that got me. A picture of a mother near death in the same ward as her daughter. Both receiving treatment for cancer that would in the end take both their lives within three months of each other.

That stops you exhaling for a few seconds and brings the weight of what the Chen family had to endure into very, very clear focus.

I have two stories I’d like to relate about Ashley. Which is two more than the priest who oversaw her ‘Celebration of Life’ related. Rather than relating the kind of person Ashley was, we got a long, impersonal sermon with scant mention of Ashley. We got how cancer had touched his life personally. As one of the many teenage girls there said to me afterwards, “Even I know that when you’re helping people grieve the last thing you do is start talking about your own sad experiences.”

So here are two things I would like to share about Ashley.

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Brazil 2014 – Lots of flights and even more tickets

About 18 months ago I wrote this. While going to the World Cup in Brazil was indeed something I was determined to do, writing that piece was one of those things you do to force the issue. Publicly saying you’re going to do something tends to add more resolve to the effort and drives you forward through doubts and obstacles.

Regardless of whether it was a catalyst that made it happen or not, I’m going. There will be three of us going. Myself, Colin Elmes and Markus F who both Colin and I played with at UBC and Westside FC. What’s really cemented it is the incredible luck we’ve had in getting tickets so far

For me, researching a trip like this is a pleasure. I want it to go right given it’s really a trip of a lifetime for me so I threw myself into the ticketing procedure as well as flight and accommodation details. It’s been pretty cool and we’ve been very lucky in regards to tickets so far.

There’s four aspects to the trip: getting tickets for games, flights to Brazil, accommodation once you’re there and internal travel between host cities. At this point, it’s two down and two to go.

As would be expected the biggest concern around going to a World Cup is your ability to get tickets. There had been an opportunity to get FIFA Hospitality packages about a year ago on a first come, first serve basis. You could get first crack at tickets if you were prepared to plop down a minimum $1900 for three first round games. At the time, when we really thought we’d be having to procure tickets in the secondary market (scalpers) in Brazil, it was tempting to plop the big bucks down in advance knowing at least we had legit tickets in hand and that they would be Category 1 tickets that gave us access to a FIFA Hospitality bar inside the stadium and a separate entrance. Problem was you had to order a minimum of four tickets for each game you wanted and our numbers didn’t match up well with that. We passed on the chance to put tickets for all three of  Spain’s first round games in our pockets for just under $2000. Most of those packages eventually sold out including the one that topped out at something like $1.2 million for private suites for up to around 30 people for all the games that you’d go to if money were no object.

When we passed on the Hospitality packages it was time to focus on the distribution system for the great unwashed. There are five parts to this system. The first two have now finished and, obviously, preceded the actual draw. If you were willing to select games that simply gave you  a fixture date and location along with “B1 v B3″ (#1 seed in what will be Group B vs the team drawn from Pot 3 into Group B) you could enter the lottery phase that began in August and ended in October. Each person could request up to four tickets for each of up to seven games and for each one you had to list who would be getting any other tickets on your order and include their passport number. This is FIFA’s attempt to limit the secondary market and reduce scalping. Does it work? Apparently not from what I’ve read online. While your tickets arrive with your name and passport number on them, there’s never been anyone checking ID at the gates (can you imagine the lineups?) so there’s rampant buying, selling and exchanging of tickets from accounts by people who have been to previous World Cups where this has been in place.

The other consideration was that you could not have multiple requests for the same game. If I put in for a game with Colin and Markus on the application and Colin did the same with my name and Markus on the request, it would be thrown out.

So we plotted a strategy that tried to tread the line between seeing top seeded teams and avoiding the highest demand games. Obviously the highest demand games were in the knockout stages but even the first round games in Rio and Sao Paolo were listed as high demand on the ticketing portion of the FIFA website.

With the ability to request tickets to 21 games we focused primarily of first round games in Fortaleza, Rio and Sao Paolo along with the semis and the final. We hoped we’d get 1 or 2 games but knew that even if we got nothing there was still the ‘first come, first serve’ portion of this phase that would follow on about a week after they’d notified all the lottery winners. After that the entire process would roll out again once the draw had been made and now people could ask for tickets knowing who was actually going to be playing. The last phase is essentially a garage sale slated for April for anything that was left.

As the date for notifying lottery winners drew near FIFA put out an email announcing the draw was being delayed for about a week. So a few days later, still in advance of when the draw was supposed to start I was surprised to get a call from VISA saying there’d been some unusual activity of my account and they needed me to verify some transactions.

The first one was “$2100 FIFA, Zurich, Switzerland”. I actually started laughing and interrupted the guy to say, “That one’s good. Let that one through!” It had actually just been an authorization so I had to wait another week while the rest of the lottery was conducted (an audited affair held in Manchester). Turns out I got filled on the first day for four first round games. All Category 1 tickets ($175 each). Colin and Markus called their banks and told them to let anything from FIFA be processed as stories started coming out about banks declining authorization requests thinking it was a scam. It looked like we were only (!) going to get those four games until the last day when Markus got filled for one game in Belo Horizonte. We were grinning for days, boring anyone who’d listen about how we’d ended up with tickets for five games; three in Fortaleza, one in Salvador and one in Belo Horizonte.

FIFA then put everyone on notice that a small number of tickets from this allotment were still available and the first come, first serve (FCFS) portion of the phase would start at 9am Brasilia time on November 11. That’s 3am PST. Again, we plotted and with very little info as to how a global FCFS would look, came up with an approach and targeted games that made sense for what we wanted and what we already had.

3am came and we checked in with each other by text. Well, two of us did. Colin was noticeably quiet I recall. Upon logging in to your FIFA account at 3am you were greeted with a screen that said you were in a “virtual queue” and an alarm would go off to notify you if you had been accepted into the ticketing area. I half thought this was FIFA covering up the fact that their servers had crashed under the demand. I was looking at a full day of coaching at a Remembrance Day tournament followed by a club Board meeting in the evening so I was really only prepared to wait 15-20 minutes. Five minutes later though my computer made a funny ‘alert’ noise and I was in. “I’m in!” I texted. “Windup” was the disbelieving reply. It was akin to waiting outside a store in the middle of the night and being let in not knowing if there’s anything on the shelves and if what there is on the shelves is any use to you. A quick scroll through the menu though and it was apparent there was lots of worthwhile games left. What they didn’t tell you was that as soon as you selected any game and put it in your ‘shopping cart’, a countdown started that gave you ten minutes to complete the transaction. Now I was on a clock and had to move. I grabbed two games and went to check out fearing that if I went for my seventh and last game I’d time out and may get kicked out the store. I thought I’d picked a 2nd round game and a quarter final, both in Brasilia. I’m actually all but positive that’s what I had as they were clearly labelled. It was only days later I realized that I’d been billed for the second round game but only a Brasilia first round game. No sign of the quarter final. I’ve no idea if I completely misread the screen or if it was coded wrong and billed me for the first round game while displaying a quarter final. Their site was clearly under massive strain. My first attempt to pay did not go through (several others reported this among other problems) but in the end I got those two games and it very surprisingly let me stay in the store rather that booting me out and letting someone else in. I grabbed another first round game in Salvador with a top seed playing. I’d hit my max and was done. Markus never did get in and Colin finally did at 6am and grabbed all that was left that made sense: one more first round game.

So that’s left us sitting on tickets for nine games. Stunned. And still more rounds of ticket purchasing to come. We have requests in for the remaining phases as Colin and Markus still have six spots left on their FIFA dance card.

The exciting part was then watching the draw. Colin and I watched it in a soccer friendly coffee shop in Richmond. Amidst seniors moaning about none of the TV’s showing any curling we waited to see which games we had tickets for. When Spain was drawn into Group B, I pretty much didn’t care what other games we got. We have a game for the Group B #1 seed so I knew I was going to get to see the team I most wanted to see. When it came down to that game being either against Holland or Australia we did hold our breath though. When Holland was announced we burst out laughing and yelling. That game was the last one I grabbed in the middle of the night in the FCFS. None of this made sense to the curling fans nursing coffees waiting for whatever it was we were watching to be over.

In the end we got some doozies and some blah games:

13-Jun Salvador Spain Holland
14-Jun Fortaleza Uruguay Costa Rica
16-Jun Salvador Germany Portugal
17-Jun Belo Horizonte Belgium Algeria
21-Jun Fortaleza Germany Ghana
24-Jun Fortaleza Ivory Coast Greece
25-Jun Salvador Iran Bosnia
26-Jun Brasilia Ghana Portugal
30-Jun Brasilia 1E 2F

Hard to complain. We’re going to dump the Uruguay v Costa Rica, Belgium v Algeria and Iran v Bosnia games because it just makes it way more logistically do-able. That leaves us with two games in Salvador (Spain v Holland and Germany v Portugal) then two in Fortaleza (Germany v Ghana and Ivory Coast v Greece) and then two in Brasilia (Portugal v Ghana and a second round game featuring the 2nd place team in the Argentina/Nigeria/Bosnia/Iran group v 1st in the Swiss/France/Ecuador/Honduras group). We won’t be at all disappointed to see the Argies stumble in the round robin and place second.

The next task was flights. Fortunately the three of us all have enough RBC Avion points to cover the cost. It was just about getting in and out on the dates we needed. I really can’t say enough about how helpful the booking agents at Avion were. I spent two 30+ minute calls with them and in the end got into Sao Paolo the day it call kicks off with Brazil v Croatia (we’ll go to to the stadium and see how much tickets are going for) and directly out from Brasilia right after our second round game. All within Avion’s pricing allowances for flights to South America and with minimal taxes. Still, it’ll be three flights to get there and three more to get back. Plus three flights between cities in Brazil.

Now we deal with Brazil directly…internal flights and accommodation. The early quotes on accommodations ranged from suspiciously low to laughable. A hotel (granted it was 5*) in Brasilia wanting $4000/night for a basic room that only slept two and another $4000/night to sleep the third. Several on that wanted $800-$1000 night for small, dated one bedroom apartments. Fortunately there are more reasonable folks out there willing to settle for simply massive markups as opposed to incredulous ones. We hope to finalize bookings in a week or so once our three internal flights are booked.

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We’re just getting over the numbness from the luck of the number of tickets we picked up and then the quality of the matches. Still lots to plan but so far, so very, very good. And only 128 days to go.

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Tiering + Fluidity = Retention and Development

Twitter can be a fantastic forum for conversation around a topic, the immediate exchange of ideas and the presentation of media for others to consider. I use it heavily and have benefitted from it considerably in terms of being introduced to people and their ideas around youth soccer development.

The downside is the ‘silicon tower’ effect that is long on, often vaguely supported, theory and short on practicality and overall reality. Take the idea of “talent selection vs talent identification” raised in an article by John O’Sullivan who runs a site called Changing the Game Project.

It became a source of Twitter interest last night amongst several of us who wring our hands over the state of youth soccer here in Vancouver.

Boiled down the article chastens, rightly, the win at all costs approach in teams sports before high school and warns of the perils of selecting players based on current abilities rather than potential future abilities. O’Sullivan advocates for non-tiered playing environments that keep a larger pool of players engaged for longer periods of time and not over-training.

First thing to note is that O’Sullivan is American and coming at this from an American youth sport point of view which is a somewhat, though not entirely, different perspective from those of us in Canada. What is true is that the club structure in the States is generally delineated into elite clubs and recreational clubs with elite clubs being much smaller and much more expensive while recreational clubs generally have lower costs but fewer resources in terms of professional coach or technical director support.

In Canada, generally, soccer clubs offer all, or most levels of play available within each age group. The number of levels of play averages around eight on the boys side and six on the girls side in Vancouver.

My reading of the article gleaned these assumptions being put forward by Mr. O’Sullivan:


  • Win at all costs youth culture is the status quo
  • Kids quit or move to a different club if they don’t make the top level
  • Kids all aspire to the highest level of play
  • Kids are content playing with players who are either far better or far worse at an activity than they are
  • Kids will develop just as well in a non-tiered environment up until U14 than they will in a tiered environment
  • Talent identification is an art

The article interests me primarily from the angle of tiering vs non-tiering and how that affects development and player retention.

First off, the environment here is becoming more progressive, perhaps not in a linear fashion and perhaps not across all clubs and coaches but its moving away from early ‘success’ and towards valuing coaches who have evolved past this and are committed to longer term development. We also see this in leagues not keeping standings or having Cup competitions before U13. We’re moving in the right direction and sometimes need to remind ourselves of that.

Looking at player retention, the statistic stating 70% of kids stop playing organized sport by age 13 is shocking. It’s also un-supported by citation in the article and I’d imagine getting that number like that measured across all sports in an entire country would be a massive research project. I’m not denying it’s true but I’ve yet to see a reference to the research that supports it.

My experience is that if a club provides multiple levels of play and can offer a level that is suited to a players current technical and tactical level of play that also fits with their commitment level, you will likely retain that player. If you just tell them they didn’t make the one team you can offer and cut them loose to go find another club, yes, you are more likely to see that player quit the sport due to a lack of support and a lack of ability for them to continue playing in their community. I find having up to eight levels of play at our disposal when we form teams to be a highly beneficial tool.

If kids were all as focused on playing at the highest level it would make sense that participation in lower levels of play would be minimal but a casual look at league tables indicates that there are many, many kids content to play at levels that represent the bottom third of what is available in their age group. Kids don’t quit because they didn’t make a particular team. Kids quit because adults don’t facilitate their continued play on terms that make sense for them.

Perhaps most contentious for me is O’Sullivan’s assertion that kids should not be tiered before high school age and there should simply be larger pools of players playing together. This is where theory seems to like the sound of its own voice too much and conveniently ignores practicality, logistics and reality. It should be noted that O’Sullivan does not say put players of a similar ability together for training and games and allow quick and easy movement between these groups to ensure players are always suitably challenged. Beyond that, there’s no detail on how to organize these teams, if there’s leagues that make sense to put them in and the difficulties of coaching to a wide range of ability and motivation.

I have worked with youth soccer players in Vancouver since 1997 and professionally since 2000. I have a very clear idea of the range in ability at each age group and at what point that range starts becomes too wide and begins to warp how the game should look. The assumption that O’Sullivan’s model is an enjoyable experience for kids and that it doesn’t hinder their development is entirely wrong in my experience.

This expectation we have that we should just let kids play without guidance from knowledgeable coaches and that somehow they will learn from their mistakes is wishful thinking. Just because we can pull quotes from a handful of exceptional people who managed to do this, or at least believe they managed to do this, does not prove that its a sustainable model for the majority. The reality is that the model for elite development is defined by top European and South American clubs and they provide excellent coaching in a highly structured environment for the best players they can find. Yes, there is a definitely an element of talent identification involved and often patience in waiting for some players to physically develop but there is not a wide gulf in ability in their training groups and the amount they train is higher not lower than the average player who likely trains twice per week.

The situations you see in a U11-13 bronze game are monumentally different than those you see in a U11-13 gold. Everything from time on the ball, quality of first touch, defensive shape, attacking shape, everything is massively different. So how does it make sense to expect that U11 bronze player to enjoy and thrive in an environment with U11 gold players? Why would we expect them to be able to combine with gold level players at this stage in their development? Why would we expect that they feel they are contributing to their team and develop a love for the game when they are clearly in over their heads and increasingly marginalized by stronger, naturally competitive teammates who don’t involve them in play? Conversely, how does it benefit the stronger player who is being told to work co-operatively on the field and move the ball around the field to teammates when it breaks down as soon as the ball goes to certain teammates who haven’t developed the necessary technical skills yet? How many times will they continue to look up and pass to a teammate when they know it will, 9 times out of ten, lead to a dispossession? This is definitely a source of frustration for kids at both the higher end of the spectrum and the lower end and it does nothing to help either develop.

And I’m afraid it’s far from convincing to use, as O’Sullivan does, a non-contact, individual sport like tennis to support an argument about contact team sports like soccer. But even if we do use tennis as a discussion point, would it work to have a ten year old who’s been playing tennis since she was five and receiving excellent, professional coaching from that age, rally and play against another girl who just picked up a racket six months ago and is still learning the basics even if it’s also with the same excellent coaching? One gets bored, one gets embarrassed at being put in that environment by adults who must surely know it does neither an ounce of good in terms of their development as players nor their engagement in sport in general.

We have to stop pretending that tiered environments are wrong and elitist and accept that the solution for all players begins with an environment that feels safe and nurturing in terms of parent support, adequate coaching and being able to play with and against peers of a similar ability. That means creating multiple playing environment to meet those needs rather than jamming them all into one environment.

What would make our current system better is to build in more fluidity between levels so that players aren’t locked in for a year before they can move. I’ve been an advocate for this for some time. And once that tool is made available, over use it early on to normalize it so that young players aren’t overly-excited or overly-nervous about being moved up a level or overly-stigmatize by moving down a level.

Do this and the whole idea of talent selection vs talent identification moves away from being a systemic issue rooted in a ‘desire to win at all costs’ to ensuring sufficient resources are put into coach education so that correct decisions about talent identification are actually being made. This then helps us move them up and down through levels of play as they acquire skill and knowledge of the game.  This benefits both their enjoyment of the game and their development.

To finish, I’ll open another can of worms. As alluded to above, moving from ‘talent selection’ to ‘talent identification’ is not as simple as just changing gears. O’Sullivan says talent identification is an art form. Another way to say it is that it’s a very, very difficult art to guess what an 11 year old will look like as a player when they are 14. The degree of acumen needed is not just a function of coach education but a long track record working with players at these ages and levels. We already have a dearth of coaches truly capable of working with young players to develop them effectively. I’d suggest the number of coaches capable of accurate ‘talent identification’ is even less.

Posted in Coaching, Uncategorized | Tagged | 12 Comments