“You only know yourself when you go beyond your limits.”  — Paulo Coelho

Player development is an inexact science bordering on alchemy. Finding the right team in the right environment with the right coach is a challenge. And when we find those favorable conditions, we don’t want to disrupt that system. This is most certainly the case when a team is constructed around a player rather than around a particular philosophy or model.

But what happens when personal progress stagnates and plateaus?

What happens when progression turns to regression?

The conventional way of thinking suggests a player should find a team and environment where they can hone their skills with confidence and a high success rate. However, what if we flipped that logic in an effort to create a more resilient player with a higher playing capacity that ultimately provides for them a higher ceiling both as a player and as a person?

Most, if not all, great players must find themselves on a team in which they are the worst player. Hear me out because this isn’t as radical as it may sound. This is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Oftentimes, it’s playing up an age (or several) groups. Or perhaps it’s a change of scenery and standard of training and playing (moving from a recreational to a competitive team).

The truth here is blunt and it simple: players need to train alongside people that make them feel (and look) like the worst player on the team. There are few things more motivating than playing and training around like-minded individuals willing to work harder to raise the level of play for the collective.

This is important because too many players have very little idea what the next level looks like, plays like, and feels like. However, they all want to reach that next level.  The reality is the journey to that next level is going to involve a fair amount of sobering realities. In order to make progress, it’s important to be humbled every now and then.

I remember the first time I made what I’ll call “the leap” from my normal team with my friends in our cozy league where everyone knew one another to “the next level.”

The leap was necessary as I was no longer improving with my current team. I was 13-years old and my development had stalled. Training sessions had become stale and games were not pushing me to up my level, so to speak. In fact, I remember more than a few times I realized that I had outgrown a team composed of players I called friends. My motivation waned and much like the others, I began to go through the motions.

And so, I opted to make the leap to play on a team several skill levels and years more advanced than the one I needed to leave if I was to continue to develop as a player.

Such a change was drastic nearly 20 years ago. I found myself on a U18 team coached by a two former pros who played in the original NASL. These guys knew the game. They understood competition. The players I’d soon call my teammates were savage competitors. You see, as I was “still learning” my trade, they were honing theirs.

These guys had no time for a skinny 13-year old who served only to get in their way, misplace a pass, or be a hindrance instead of a help in a game. Many of them were preparing to play for top universities or go abroad to try playing professionally.

I’ll be honest, the transition I made was drastic and extreme. And I’m not suggesting anyone be thrown onto a team five years older. But the basic lesson learned is that I needed to be pushed in all aspects of playing, training, preparation, and mentality augmentation. It felt good not to be “the man” anymore. I remember understanding how to learn from my teammates. I watched their mannerisms and training habits.

My own abilities were strained at first and everyone knew it. There was no hiding. However, after several painfully embarrassing and humiliating sessions my ego was not only put in-check, it was put to the sword. It was at that very moment that I could see the changes manifest in my play. Before, I didn’t prepare to train because I didn’t need to with my former team. I also didn’t miss playing for my former team — not in the least. I was more than happy to be the worst player on this team if it meant I would ultimately improve in the long run.

With this new team led by former pros, I learned to “switch-on” before training started. I realized I needed to do everything in my control to improve away from the team dynamic to help bridge the gaps. Things like paying attention to my fitness and strength, improving my first touch, pushing my thought processing (speed of thought), and asking questions and creating a dialogue with my teammates were priorities.

It wasn’t before too long that I realized I was changing as a player and as a person. The safety wheels were removed and with them, the shackles of safety were cast to the side. I learned to play two-to-three steps ahead of the play. The attention to my movement ahead of the ball and off the ball became more deliberate. I began to understand the game within the game a bit more with each outing.

As intimidating as the new environment was at first, it didn’t take long to understand the rules and to become part of the team.

  • Arrive ready to compete
  • Work hard
  • Don’t let fear control you
  • Do your best to raise your level of play on the day

I don’t have all the answers for players who are currently in situations where they are stagnating and I know it’s not the easiest thing to change clubs or teams or coaches. I do, however, think it’s important to seek the game out in its variety and at least immerse one’s self in different training environments or with a different training group/technical coach to provide a fresh and more objective perspective. At the very least, playing pick-up games with more talented players can make a world of difference.

“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”  — Bruce Lee

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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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