During the opening ceremony of the Altinordu FK Youth Academy facility which was named after me, my dear and old friend Dr. Acar Baltas – a psychologist – made a small speech. In his speech, he made a statement that really impressed me: “The comfort zone hinders maximum performance” This was a concept I thought off but never verbalized or articulated on. After his speech, I told him that my next article in Soccer America will pivot around this concept and here it is.
Let us see how we can manifest this concept in the local and global soccer landscapes:
First is an example from our local soccer world:
Oct. 10, 2017 is a date no USMNT fan would forget. That was the day the USA lost 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago playing an away game. That game eliminated the USA from the 2018 World Cup. It ended in fifth place in the Hexagonal. The game was played in Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva and was attended by only 1,500 local fans. After and before the game, the U.S. authorities complained about the conditions of the field.
In order to qualify for any non-youth Men's World Cup -- which is the true litmus test of success -- you have to qualify out of the Hexagonal. To achieve qualification, you have to make a maximum number of points in the away games. Although this fact might be less important with the 48-team format of the new World Cups, still the USMNT has to maximize its points in the away games.
The away games in the Concacaf region for the USMNT are very challenging. In the away games of the Hexagonal for the 2018 World Cup, the USA lost two games and tied three. Thus they culminated only three points out of a possible of 15 points. Prior to the Hexagonal during the group stage, the USA played three away games winning one, tying one and losing one. The only win came against Saint Vincent & Grenadines. In the away games, the climate is different, the stadiums and the fields are not perfect and there is a usually a hostile crowd.
This kind of environment does not only affect the USA -- or any other MNT team for that matter -- but might also adversely affect the game officials. That is, the USA is out of its “comfort zone” during the away games. Actually, the USA is more out of its “comfort zone” in Concacaf when it plays away games compared to the other Concacaf MNTs (except Canada) due to the socio-economical gap between the USA and those countries and the existing soccer culture in Concacaf countries. Hence being out of their comfort zone affects the performance of the USMNT.
The results of the last World Cup qualification prove this point. During the Hexagonal of the 2014 World Cup campaign, the USA won two, lost two and tied one game accumulating seven points out of a possible of 15 points. The USA finished the Hexagonal in the first place by winning all home games, but the away games were still problematic. Also the recent away losses for Toronto FC (4-0 to Panama's CAI) and Atlanta United (3-1 to Herediano in Costa Rica) during the round of 16 of CCL can be viewed through the same lens to some extent.
The only cure out of this is to get used to being out of one’s “comfort zone” since we know that the “comfort zone hinders maximum performance.” The only way to get prepared for away games in Concacaf is friendly away games. USMNT has to play more friendly games in “unfriendly” Concacaf environments to get used to being out of their “comfort zones."
USMNT played 46 friendly games since Jan. 1, 2014. Thirty-two of those were played at home and 11 away games were played in Europe. Only three games were played in the Concacaf and Conmebol regions: Cuba, Puerto Rico and Chile. The game against Cuba was a political gesture, not a game to prepare for the coming World Cup. The away games in Europe do not prepare the USMNT for the qualification of World Cups, since the qualifying rounds are played in Concacaf countries. I understand that playing friendly games at home and Europe are more lucrative but we have to move the USMNT out of their comfort zone to maximize their performances. The Gold Cup games, which are always played at home, do not help the situation. Concacaf's new Nations League, which starts in the fall, will. If you do not qualify for the World Cup, the lucrative finance produced by playing at home becomes less meaningful.
Second example is from the global game:
On the global side, the assertion that “The comfort zone hinders maximum performance” can also be traced into modern refereeing. Although it is not as much based on objective data as the example explained above, the emergence of VAR seems to create a comfort zone for the assistant referees (ARs). The only reviewable "subjective" decision of an AR in a game utilizing a VAR is deciding whether a player who is an offside position is interfering with an opponent when a goal is scored. Other than that, all other reviewable decisions -- like whether a player is an offside position, whether the ball has crossed the boundary lines prior to a goal or whether the foul committed was inside the penalty area -- are objective decisions and if needed can easily be corrected by VAR or AVAR. This might create a comfort zone for the ARs which had one of the most difficult duties in the game of deciding whether a player was in an offside position prior to the use of VAR and related technology.
As a result of this “comfort zone,” their performance level for these objective decisions will start to deteriorate especially when they are ARs in non-VAR environments. For example, prior to the VAR implementation on a counterattack the AR had to sprint and follow the ball all the way to the goal line to see that the ball did not cross the goal line. Now with the reliance on VAR for game-changing situations, the ARs might get lazier and not sprint properly to be level with the ball, since if they miss an out-of-bounds call and later a goal is scored, VAR will correct their error. Maybe the duties and responsibilities of the AR in games where VAR and the related technology is used should be modified. Actually, it is already modified since now on a promising attack they are asked not to raise their flag for offside -- unless it is very a very obvious situation -- and wait for the outcome.
You can extend the assertion that “The comfort zone hinders maximum performance” to other aspects of the game. The players at all levels of the game in the USA are in a relative “comfort zone.” Especially, the fact that soccer in many parts of the USA is basically a middle class, white collar, suburban white person’s game tell us why the players in our country are relatively in a “comfort zone.” Our beautiful game is played mostly by underprivileged, blue collar family kids in non-perfect environments elsewhere. This might be one of the reasons why our player development might not be as good as we wish it to be. Our players who are in a comfort zone have serious problems maximizing their performances. But this is another topic for another article: “Comfort Zone (II)”.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.