“If only I knew then what I know now….”

These are haunting words. Such a phrase is applicable to all facets of life, work, and sport. For young players, the advice they receive from coaches and parents is often only retained in snippets, if at all. People learn from experiences — both good and bad — and the real test and lessons usually come years down the road and those tests don’t have a “re-take” option.

The most startling realizations the truly dedicated players arrive at are generally much too late to apply “when it matters”. Coaches know this all too well as do parents trying to raise their children to be the best versions of themselves as possible. Advice is important, but not as important as an individual’s ability to apply that advice before the game passes them by.

The following is a simple list of advice points that at some time or another players don’t receive, they ignore, or they are too caught up in other things(away from the sport) to fully appreciate.

What’s at Stake?

  1. Find your purpose in the game. Are you playing because it’s something mom and dad expect of you, or are you playing because you want to play? Or, better yet, what do you want to get out of your playing experiences and what will you do in the likely event things don’t work out the way you expected (or wanted) them to? Without finding a purpose for playing, you run the risk of being a rudderless ship going through the motions. That lump in your throat becomes fear and that weight on your shoulder becomes apathy. Define your purpose and revisit and change it when necessary.
  2. Urgency is Currency. The window of time a serious player has to maximize their chances is ever-closing. Young players need to understand that it all goes by a lot quicker than they think — such is life. Be urgent and consistent about your development and supplemental work. One hour here and another hour there applied to your game (over watching TV or playing video games) will pay dividends. Urgency does not mean rushing the process; it means not procrastinating and relying on false hopes that success “will just happen”. Fitness, skill acquisition, getting match reps, goal-setting — all of these are urgent needs and they’re all linked and they require thousands of unsupervised, thankless, and unglamorous hours of supplemental work.
  3. Assess your attitude. The more competitive the player, the more fiery the attitude. This never really changes. High-level training environments wire players to be their own coaches and consequently, their own worst enemies and biggest critics. You will have outbursts — that’s fine. But think about your attitude and then ask yourself, “Would I coach me? If so, how would I handle myself at my worst?”
  4. Measure your aptitude. Great players are always aware of their progress in relation to their respective talent and competition pools. They understand that when they’ve flubbed the majority of their left-footed shots at training or in match play that they had better remedy that weakness rather than avoiding it entirely. Great players don’t miss workouts, log their activities, and they make soccer a lifestyle, not a chore. Furthermore, they don’t hide from challenges. When they’re coughing the ball up to the opposition due to a poor first touch, they spend as much time as it takes to hone that skill on their own until that weakness becomes a strength.
  5. Invest in your game. It’s not a trade secret that if you want to go far in the game you’re going to have to spend some money to do so. This is a reality of [North] American soccer. However, you must learn to spend your money intelligently. Things that aren’t worth the money include but are not limited to: $300 synthetic boots, an official UEFA Champions League ball to kick around with your buddies once a month, every single version of a team’s kit year after year. What is worth it? Spend that $300 boot allowance on buying two or three pairs of leather boots at $100/each — they’ll last longer. Buy good equipment, but don’t spend foolishly. It’s OK to wait until next year to get this year’s kit.
  6. Attention to detail is everything. Habits don’t take “good” and “bad” into account — they will form no matter what. It is ultimately up to the player to develop more good habits than bad ones. Coaches, of course, play a pivotal role here. Attention to detail is paramount to the a player’s development. For example, a player who breaks down the process of creating space for a shot or preparing their body position to receive the ball with a great first touch is paying attention to detail. On a more academic level, attention to detail is a skill that manifests in the form of listening to your coach, trainers, the material you read, and applying the little things correctly to make the big things happen. The Dutch method of player development is the model for attention to detail.
  7. Be a river, not a pond. Your journey in the game is going to place plenty of obstacles in your path. You have a few choices: you can stop and sulk or you can navigate around or through those obstacles. The serious players and coaches are rivers — they never stop going forward, they circumvent obstacles, they stay in motion, and find a way to get to the next destination — even if it means creating a new path. Team Super Elite Academy Premier didn’t select you because of reason X, Y, Z and some politics on the side? Great. Now what do you want to do? Quit or find an alternative team or environment to keep you going forward? The not-so-serious players are ponds. They stagnate and accumulate junk in their lives and become dumping grounds for the others toss refuse into. They invite everyone to pollute their progress and eventually dry up and wither away. Understanding and living this metaphor takes skill and persistence. In all reality, good players, coaches, and parents must learn to push forward and not be hampered by the past or even the present. Let go of that bad season, that awful miss in front of goal, your high school coach who didn’t care. Furthermore, let go of the idea that you didn’t “get yours” — not many people do, you still have a stake in the game in some capacity. The game is not fair, and guess what, neither is life. 
  8. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is perfect advice for everyone. Some of my best coaches — ones who played the game at the highest levels in European football — once told the player pool I was in a few things that probably needed to be said many years beforehand. The first was (excuse the harsh language), “F*** what you think you know….”The second was a more visual lesson. We were asked to stand on a sideline as the coaches asked those of us who were “All-State”, “All-Conference”, “All-Region”, “All-Universe” (yes, they said that) to step forward. We all stepped forward as they kept naming “accolades” of youth soccer until we were nose-to-nose with the staff, many of whom played for the Senior National Team, played professionally in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, and around Europe and South America. Once we were in front of them they asked, “Who here has lost a contract because they missed a penalty shot?”, “Who here has had darts and AA batteries thrown at them during a game?”, “Who here has had bags of piss thrown at them getting off a bus to play an away game?” Not one of us 16-year old’s could step forward. The most experienced coach then said, “Now you know who you’re dealing with…Now you know to remember this phrase: You don’t know what you don’t know.

As a young player, I was plagued by living in absolutes. What that means is in my mind, for many years, I had really good days or really dreadful days. But the reality is there will be more unnoticed days than good or bad ones. Those days are the real meat and potatoes of how you develop in the craft. Those days are the “consistency” required to make headway. It wasn’t until I was about 16-years old that I finally decided to apply the stuff I learned from my travels and experiences to my game. Things like understanding how to put things in perspective, how to simplify my routines, how to set attainable goals, how to listen to coaches while sifting through the rah-rah talk and retaining the good information, how to deal with criticism, etc.

As a coach, I learned really quickly that what was easy for me might not be as easy for current players because it wasn’t easy for me at one point; such is the skill of teaching (coaching). The best advice I received as a young coach was to become a blank slate or empty jar and let more experienced coaches contribute to your learning. In other words, you don’t know as much as you think you know.

Hopefully, a few of these lessons can benefit you in some way and hopefully, you can avoid hearing the phrase: If only I knew then what I know now — at least regarding these lessons.

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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