Think about your first “wow” moment in the game. Many who love the game experienced that introductory moment of absolute magic while watching one of the world’s best players or teams, but I want to you reach farther back and hone in on that moment outside the professional game. Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a moment of pure magic away from what’s on television, but it’s possible.

My first “wow” moment that I recall was when I was six or seven years-old. My father and I watched a collegiate game between Santa Clara University and San Jose State at Buck Shaw Stadium. The “wow” moment occurred when a player on the touchline gathered the ball for Santa Clara and performed “a rainbow”

over the opposing winger and took off down the wing. I dropped my soda. I tugged my father’s arm and pointed to the vacant space in need of reassurance that he had seen it, too. The rest of the game was a blur. I replayed that move in my head over and over again.

After the game, we could not get home fast enough. I think practiced that move every day as a kid. I wanted to master it. I broke the move down into small steps. 

Plant my left foot here. Roll the ball up my left leg. Kick my left leg up towards my back. Where did the ball go? Dang it. Try again.

The first time I pulled the move off successfully I couldn’t believe it. It was a shame that the only witness was my red and white Siberian Husky, Apollo. It didn’t matter. I learned the move of all moves (at least in terms of what I’d seen at that point in my life). 

My father would regularly tell me to stop practicing the move and would direct me to a wall for some passing games and exercises, which I enjoyed too. But the move! I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Memories and experiences like that make soccer a bit more than a game for me. Every so often, I see it in young players today — that “wow” moment. The difference, however, is these days, the magic of the game manifests in odd ways. 

The game has provided me countless experiences (both good and bad) that have, oddly enough, taught me a thing or two. You see, my father was never one to applaud when I did anything fancy on the field. As I grew older and began excelling in the game, I got used to looking to the sidelines to see my father’s emotionless face after nutmegging an All-American defender or doing an elastico to make an opponent stumble over his own feet. I also got used to him clapping and shouting encouragement when I pinged a diagonal pass sixty yards on a rope to a player’s foot or chest.

I recall hearing the excitement in his voice when I fizzed a pass into a teammates feet and moved into space to collect the return pass. I really call to mind hearing him or my mother (she was just as influential) applaud a solid defensive play or a fifty-fifty tackle. You see, my parents got it all those years ago.

I’m a simple man and the more I play, study, coach, and watch the game, the simpler the game becomes. I also had an advantage over players today who see the game through a kaleidoscope lens of complexity, striving to be the next Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo — and who no doubt look the part, practice the tricks, strive to become the focal point. I had my father to keep me honest and who worked with me on the basics: the passing against the wall, the dribble patterns on the hot California concrete, the hours of running laps on the cinder track with a ball on my foot, the exercises in turning and cutting with the ball at every crack in the concrete or faded yellow parking line — these were things we did together.

None of this was mandatory. It was a choice and it was fun. Creativity comes in mysterious ways.

The majority of the “drills” were just games and tasks my father made up on the fly. I think he saw the danger of a player focusing solely on the ridiculous skills that seldom get used in a game to any great effect. 

Today, I see a culture of players, coaches, and parents who want to know where the leprechaun lives

What does that mean? Think about the people who aren’t successful, who never get better and ask yourself why they never get better?

The first reason is they often lack the desire, focus, and ability (it’s a package deal, kids) to “hone in” on the important things on their journey in the game. Most of the time, I’ve seen that ability is the one component players have in surplus, but they lack the desire and focus to maximize said ability. Other times, it’s the external influences that derail progress. Parents who want to know the answers instead of working to find the answers themselves. Players who want success they aren’t willing to work for. Coaches who want to win without teaching themselves and the players how to win.

The second reason is finding and existing in environments of healthy competition. Not just competition, but healthy competition. I have a friend who’s an aspiring comedian. After a few years “out in LA” he returned to Chicago to perform at a comedy club’s open mic night. He fell flat on his face. After the show, a seasoned comedian asked him why he (my friend) bombed on stage. My friend told the seasoned comedian, “I think I did fine up there. Just a bad audience.” The seasoned comedian then said something I will never forget and something my friend still has yet to fully figure out. He said, “You aren’t competing with yourself enough. You think you’re funny because you aren’t turning your faults, your poor delivery, your flawed pacing — into strengths. When you’re real with yourself, they’ll laugh at your jokes instead of laughing at you.”

Another aspect of the game that perplexes me is this notion that players are immune to constructive criticism. I won’t go into “What the [failed] coach at my Coaching Certificate class said…” or “In Pep Guardiola’s book they said…” because it doesn’t matter. 

When Pep Guardiola gets on a plane and coaches your team, let me know. When you understand the mindset necessary to exist and thrive in La Masia, we’ll talk. 

This is about the real world — off Twitter, out of the books, on the pitch. Criticism is a necessary tool. And there’s a profound difference between criticism and cutting down. Any coach can yell. Any parent can deflect blame. Any player can hide from their own shortcomings. Those are easy cop-outs (that’s why so many take those routes). Accepting and processing criticism is difficult. Listening to the message instead of the delivery takes time. But, those who are real with themselves know what they need to work on — the trick is finding out how best to work on those things.

A word I hate is “hype”. Hype is what people hang their hopes on. Hype is the concentrating on what others say instead of what you do. Hype is gawking at “Amazing 8 year old player — the next Cristiano Ronaldo” videos on YouTube where the kid does tricks, but oddly enough we can’t find actual playing footage of the player. Hype is fluff and fluff is for marshmallows and down comforters and pillows. Fluff keeps a player in mommy and daddy’s good graces and unearned compliments. Hype builds a player up just so the game can knock them down and beat the fluff out of them.

All of this is what I call “chasing the leprechaun”.

Everyone wants to find the leprechaun’s pot of gold, but oftentimes they aren’t willing to get their hands dirty and dig long and hard enough for it, or they’re digging in the wrong place. People focus more on the result than the actual process. 

Too many people subscribe to some entitled belief that “wanting it” is some type of currency in the world. Two phrases that need to be eliminated from your mind are “wanting it” and “making it”. Those phrases are poisonous and are emblazoned on signs on the road to perdition. Quite frankly, I’m sick of people telling others that a kid who chooses to play for a scholarship didn’t “make it”, but a kid who flames out of the professional game after a year, “made it”. Only you know if you “made it” and guess what, that definition changes with the seasons. I’m sick of hearing people try to define “the best” — that’s another phrase we should probably eliminate since it’s too saturated in subjectivity.

Healthy competition is not about winning and losing so much as it’s about learning what to do and how to do it. Winning should be perceived in more ways than just the scoreboard or league standings. 

It’s rare that I meet a player who understands the importance of winning their individual battle on the field. To me, that’s the habit-formation that will lead to better results. It’s rare to see a coach shut up for an entire game and just observe the game so the players can figure out what’s going right and wrong. It’s rare to see a parent tell their kid to put some dirt on that scrape and get back out there and try again.

Now, back to your “wow” moment away from the professional game. Hopefully, that moment was something beautiful at a park, on a dirt patch, or on a field somewhere far from the television cameras. Understand that there’s something amazing about the game off the screen — at any level.

Oh, and I have a confession to make — I never attempted to pull off a rainbow in a competitive game during my playing days. But I did everything else I practiced for hours on end. Oh yeah, I have a little secret to tell you about chasing those leprechauns: I know where their pot of gold is hidden. 

It’s in your “wow” moment.

Published by Jon Townsend

Jon is a long-serving writer for These Football Times and the Original Coach and is the author of the upcoming book "It's Just a Ball: Exploring the Complexities of a Simple Game". Jon is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and AFC Ajax. Based in the U.S., Jon is involved in promoting grassroots football and specializes in player development writing and coaching. He is the co-founder of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit grassroots football organization that is partnered with TFT. His work has been featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Inside Soccer, NSCAA Soccer Journal, White Lines Magazine, and Spartan Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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