After a recent men’s league game I overheard a young man (probably in the 14-16 age range) tell a buddy, “I can’t believe my parents are late to pick me up! Seriously, what the hell is wrong with just being on time?” The buddy, who was also waiting said, “Who cares? They’ll be here. Let’s go back and play until they get here!” The frustrated teen was already dedicated to his Facebook or Twitter timeline and ignored his buddy who shrugged his shoulders and meandered back onto the field to join a pick-up game. The whole episode got me thinking about a cultural shift that ought to be recognized and overcome.
The importance of sacrifice can’t be overlooked.
I can’t begin to calculate the hours I had to wait for a ride after school or practice. Part of growing up in the late-1980s and 1990s was not having a cell phone. Calling for a ride meant paying a collect call or digging around for spare change. Is waiting around fun? Nope. But like my parents then and countless parents now, most are late because they’ve made a sacrifice to allow their child to play a sport they enjoy, and the logistics of the carting young people around is difficult. My question is: do players actually match or exceed the sacrifice their coaches and parents are making on their behalf?
Good coaches invest their time, energy, effort, and knowledge to help someone else’s kid learn the game. Most are underpaid, under appreicated, and are still learning how best to help others. Parents, like coaches, often must endure the thankless task of keeping everyone happy — the boss at work, the kids at home, the random jackass who’d rather email or gossip behind one’s back than have a candid conversation. Parents often work jobs they hate to put gas in the tank, food on the table, and their players in a pair of $250 bright pink soccer boots (because a $90 pair of Copa Mundials won’t suffice?), and make a sacrifice every day for years.
In my years in the game there were events that didn’t seem like decisions with any bearing at the time, but ended up playing a major part in my journey. Hindsight really is 20/20 and looking at my own experiences has revealed a lot about the relationship between this powerful sport and the person it has molded me into over the years. One of my favorites lines I tell players embarking on their own journey that ask me for advice is “The game waits for no player. It takes from us more than it gives to us.” Most players look at me with bewilderment.
“What the hell does that even mean?”
To me, it means the game gives us very little. Players must learn to take chances and make decisions to improve — and very few of those chances are easy. Furthermore, very few of those chances are forgiving. I’ve seen many players completely fall flat on their face trying to start, improve, prolong, or merely continue their “careers” in the game. I’ve seen players hang up the boots at 22 years of age to become a cog in the corporate machine because of the bleak professional options available in the United States. I’ve seen others, myself included, play the “professional” indoor soccer circuit and play for unfunded men’s teams in high-level games where all that was on the line was a paltry cash prize to pay for pizzas, beer, maybe some of the hotel costs, and of course, pride. The games doesn’t care for a player’s pity story. It doesn’t wait for one to develop their left foot, or find form and confidence. Ultimately, the game bypasses all who play it as Father Time remains undefeated.
My other favorite line is “the game owes you nothing.”
But most of us know this. Growing up in America and playing soccer, for many of us, was a sporting juxtaposition. It was the game people ridiculed, mocked, denigrated, and ignored. It was the sport that all the baseball, basketball, gym teachers, and many an idiot thought they could coach with proficiency. For me, soccer turned me into a journeyman player before I was a teenager. The lack of resources, coaching outlets, playing environments, quality instruction, and a litany of other factors forced players who wanted to play to become journeymen. As a kid I played in the Hispanic league in south San Jose, California despite not exactly “fitting in”. I also played in a league sponsored by the archdiocese and was always finding random pickup games to play.
When my family moved to Chicago’s western suburbs as I entered high school, I found that the coaching was terrible for my high school team and finding a club team was hard. The good teams cost a lot money that my parents didn’t have at the ready. I found solace playing with a good suburban team, a Latino men’s team and a Croatian team — all at the same time. I just wanted to play and realized that I had to go find places to ply my trade on my own. It was hard. I got kicked up and down the field and had the fear beaten out of me. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice and scraped up enough money to send me to Europe a few times to play for extended tenures in the Netherlands and Germany. I don’t know how much overtime they each had to pull to make that happen, but I do know my dad slipped a note in my suitcase that said, “Earn This”.
What does this come down to? Sacrifice.
The following is a comparison of good (average) and great (exceptional) player qualities and decision-making scenarios that I feel today’s player should be armed with as they continue their journey in the game.
- The good player attends every practice with their team. The great player makes every practice. That is, the individual literally has the ability to raise the level of play, team dynamic, and quality for the collective.
- The good player watches high-level matches on the weekends. The great player watches the best teams, but also watches the less-glamorous sides to get a better sense how the game is played by players who aren’t flashy, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime players.
- The good player learns a few tricks and flicks. The great player masters and executes the fundamentals while understanding the difference between a complete player and an exhibitionist.
- The good player sleeps in on the weekends. The great player gets up before the sun rises and finds a way to train and get supplemental reps and conditioning in before starting their day.
- The good player expects the game to come to them. The great player demands as much from the game as the game demands from them.
- The good player has a team where all their soccer is played. The great player has a dedicated team, but finds ways to play in environments, on teams, and with players who make them better.
- The good player practices what they’re good at; the great player focuses on their weaknesses and turns them into strengths.
- The good player hopes they’ll get better. The great player demands more of themselves, the team, and their coach.
- The good player listens to their parents. The great player has the courage to realize that mom and dad don’t always know best and don’t let them fight their battles for them.
- The good player cares if their coach/parents saw that great play. The great player reproduces those great plays not for the recognition, but because it’s what the game requires.
The comparisons could go forever, but the point is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ aren’t just fine-tuning and minor tweaks. The differences extend deep into the DNA and psychology of what makes a player view themselves as a catalyst and difference maker. Without descending down the rabbit hole of ‘what-ifs’, one can trace the separation between good (average) and great (exceptional) based on a few criteria that hinge upon actions and decisions within a player’s control. Actions like opting to train instead of playing video games, optimizing one’s diet, engaging in deliberate practice (more on that in a bit), balancing humility with confidence, actively seeking and finding new and different environments to play in, and not settling for remaining in the “comfort zone” are all examples of things an individual can control.
Some aspects of the game are out of a player’s control. Bad coaches, clueless tactics, geographic/financial/societal/familial limitations, etc. are often filtration factors that affect an individual’s progression in and out of sport. The harsh reality goes back to my earlier point that the game owes you nothing and waits for no player. Revisiting my earlier point, growing up my parents both worked corporate jobs that were pretty far from home. Resources and money were limited. This meant I had to make some uncomfortable decisions as a young player. I knew my parents did the best they could to help me and give me the opportunities, which I am forever grateful, growing up. My older siblings were away at college so I rarely had a ride to training. This meant asking around for a ride, catching a bus/train, riding my bike, even running to soccer practice (if it was close) was not out of the realm of possibilities.
I recently read a weightlifting article titled Mental Strategies for Getting Results. In any activity, deliberate practice brings forth the battle between doing what you like to do, and doing what you need to do. To apply this to soccer, I contend that players in this country are conditioned to settle for average and celebrate doing just a little bit more than is asked of them. When I first wrote my article on a development method I used that required me to get 10,000 quality touches on the ball a day, people immediately doubted me — and perhaps for good reason. It’s excessive, it’s really, really hard, and it’s time consuming and mentally and physically draining. Oh, and it’s additional work that a player must find time to do. That requires sacrifice.
“Don’t you mean 1,000 touches a day, Jon?”
“No. Ten-thousand. In one day.”
Sacrific is part of the game in every country around the world. A player from an impoverished environment makes the sacrifice to separate from the talent pool. I can’t fault a player for not experiencing real-world problems like hunger, gang violence and recruitment, war, drug use, and a lack of resources, but I do believe that greatness requires an individual to make sacrifices. Don’t believe me, ask any player who comes from an at-risk community or who had to grow up far too soon what they’d give to make it as a player — whatever that means for that individual — the answers may or may not surprise you. And that might say more about you than it does that individual — for many don’t know what they don’t know.