I often reflect on the times I spent with a ball at my foot as a young player. Each memory floods forth starts with the little moments at the park or courts playing a simple game. These days, driving through town by a local athletic complex, I often see young players shooting on an open goal or dribbling against one another. I can’t help but smile to see a new generation enjoying time on the pitch in a fleeting season of youth.
Most of the time, the players out on the fields are out there, not working on a specific skill or task, waiting for their team practice to start. Some don’t go out there to work on their game so much as they go out there to pass the time (and possibly the ball) and it made me recall the importance of specificity not only in this game — but in the pursuit of excellence towards a discipline.
Part of coaching and writing about the game is thinking about the specificity of this “simple game” and how important attention to detail is for the competitive player. Of course, this could apply to any pursuit, which is why it’s worth examining.
Doing the little things well is a skill and if a player can form good habits early on, they can begin to find new levels, abilities, and approaches that will likely extend beyond the pitch. However, I believe that an individual can always get on the right path if that’s not where they started. The trick is recognizing the difference between good and bad habits and understanding which ones you’re reinforcing in an honest and objective manner.
Here is one defining experience of mine that remains a vivid and valuable memory…
I am around eight or nine-years-old. My father’s white Toyota Truck comes to a gentle stop. I unbuckle my seatbelt and for the first time in the twenty-minute car ride to the park, I stop rolling the ball at my feet. On my body, my red Umbro uniform is still clinging to my body and my grass-stained socks are rolled down low. My black and red Mitre boots are on the floorboard, still tied and my feet are jammed into a pair of off-white and scuffed Reebok Classic trainers.
On my face is a scowl, which is intensified and confirmed when I catch my reflection in the side-view mirror.
At this point in my life, I’ve been playing organized soccer for four years and this is the first year of truly competitive play, and due to an opening in the older division and a lack of competition at my age group, my team is “promoted” up a few divisions.
On this particular day, at least if my memory serves me correctly, we’ve just played our first game in an age division three years our senior and several skill levels higher, too.
We lost 6–1.
At first, losing didn’t matter to me. We accepted the result. The inevitability was obvious to us even at such a young age. I was actually OK with the game being over until a teammate’s father said, “It’s fine, guys. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
That’s when something clicked in my mind.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Admittedly, I was incensed and, of course, immature.
The entire ride home, my father tried to distract me from the result. The truth was, I couldn’t care less about the scoreline. It was the manner in which we played that bothered me. Even at such a young age, I was quite a bit more introspective than my teammates.
It also helped that father was an elite swimmer and knew the pitfalls of letting results affect attitude in such a powerful manner. But, I felt something pull at me, something I couldn’t ignore.
Deep down, I attempted to come to terms with my ego and realized it wasn’t even my teammates or the team’s performance that put me in such a sour mood.
It was my own.
The fact of the matter was I played on a team of good players. Even then, however, I played more and was exposed to better competition than my teammates, which is why I was so disappointed and lost in my performance.
Every time I tried to dribble or perform, I was too slow, clumsy, and rigid to be impactful. I lost possession and lost control of my emotions without even considering that the opposition was older, more talented, and stronger than us. They had more experience than we did. They were better in every position.
My failure to recognize this at the moment was pivotal.
And my histrionics were contagious. My teammates reacted to every mistake they made, too.
It is an odd thing to admit frustration like that at a young age. My parents never put negative pressure on me. There were no car ride coaching sessions after the games. If I wanted to talk about soccer, we’d talk about it. Otherwise, my parents remained mindful of their influence on me and my malleable mind.
The phrase I tethered my ire to was “don’t sweat the small stuff”.
In hindsight, I wish I could thank whoever it was that said those encouraging words. Although it angered me in the heat of the moment, it afforded me the opportunity to really think about my performance and my behavior and reactions. Moreover, it allowed me to grow.
After rebuking my father’s attempts to go fishing (he always had our fishing rods and tackle boxes in the back of the pickup truck) or to go get lunch, he finally asked me what I wanted to do.
“I want to go play. Right now.”
At that moment, I don’t think he hears me. But, he pulls off at the next exit and motors towards a nearby park.
My eyes meet my father’s and he nods.
Part of me thinks he’s calling my bluff. But, I am serious. I want to work on something, anything. There has to be some catharsis.
Grabbing my ball, I pull the door handle and step out of the truck. He tells me to go play. Underfoot, the concrete parking lot is smooth and flat yet strewn with random cracks complete with weeds and grass jutting out here and there.
I place the ball on the ground and look at the parking lot surface before turning back to the truck. My father walks over and tells me to play. He knows I’m looking for guidance, but he’s not going to simply accommodate my petulance. He leans on the hood of the truck waiting for me to relent in my stubbornness and ask for guidance.
In a sensei’s voice, rather than that of a father’s, he instructs me to dribble freely and use the cracks, parking lot lines, and debris as indicators to perform a move, turn, or a change of pace — and to perform as though this were an actual game so I would just sloppily go through the motions (that would be a complete waste of time).
As I dribble around in my trainers, it occurs to me that we have in fact called one another’s bluff.
I didn’t think he would pull over and he didn’t think I would get out and dribble or be coachable for that matter with an intensity and precision absent in my matchplay. Before long, he’s using his Timex Ironman watch timer to prescribe times for me to dribble at pace. After a few 30-second bouts, this has turned into an informal yet intense training session.
My father’s approach was simple: instead of pouting and harboring a negative attitude, go out and put that energy to working at the very thing that we naturally avoid or resent.
He also realized that if I had the energy to complain, I had the energy to work harder. Mind you, this wasn’t a punishment session. I was the one who demanded to go play. He just added structure and some interesting parameters around it at my request.
At that moment, however, something remarkable happened.
I was sweating the small stuff.
In fact, I was pouring sweat. It was invigorating and liberating. With every dribble or bead of sweat, my negative performance and attitude were purged out of my system.
The next week, we won our first game.
My attitude was obviously better. But a post-game routine was created.
We returned to the parking lot for more dribbling practice, which soon turned into dribbling patterns mixed with striking the ball against a brick wall and passing it against parking lot curbs to practice taking the ball out of the air and continuing my dribbling.
Before long, I looked forward to spending time playing in that cracked concrete parking lot with my father just as much as I looked forward to playing in the games.
Perhaps it was borne out of petulance and negativity. But, through those elements, I was able to extract a valuable lesson.
Some people say, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
I believe if you’re truly striving for improvement and excellence in the game in any capacity, the small stuff is precisely what you should sweat. I could be perfecting a move or technique, honing and improving fitness, studying and applying some mental endurance — you need to pour sweat often.
Obviously, there are a few layers here as this is a literal and figurative principle.
Application and focus don’t have to be purely physical pursuits and tasks. In fact, I would argue that thinking, reflecting, speaking about, and studying crucial aspects as a form of gap analysis is often just as beneficial to improving.
Attention to detail (a better way of saying “sweating the small stuff”) is one area everyone can improve in almost immediately.
Attention to detail relates to one’s ability to efficiently allocate their cognitive resources to achieve thoroughness and accuracy when accomplishing tasks. These skills allow players to improve their training habits, productivity during sessions, efficiency, and performance during meaningful competition.
Without oversimplifying these routines, which vary for everyone, it’s clear that the top players I played with or against or have coached make quality a priority. They all developed focused routines that allow them to address their weaknesses in a variety of scenarios and through simulation-based exercises to improve upon them. This type of approach also enables and teaches players to be present and to manage the moment in the pursuit of that specific task.
In the narrative of my childhood, what started out as my lack of maturity was really my inability to process and articulate a deficiency in my skillset. The trigger was simply a teammate’s father innocently encouraging us, which in hindsight, was the best thing he could have ever said because it motivated me to take action.
Sweating the small stuff is important, but don’t get it confused with obsessing over failure and rushing to frustration.
Without my father (an accomplished triathlete and swimmer), I would have wasted the opportunity in an angry fit. The guidance he provided wasn’t coaching, but teaching me to be present — to focus only on the 30-second dribbling bout I was in for the duration of the time. Once that was over, it was time to let go of that set and move on to the next.
The process also allows an individual to minimize distractions. By devoting time and effort to the specificity of a skill or behavior, all the energy and focus can be directed towards preparation, performance, and completion of a task. At the very least, by engaging in systematic repetition, a person can practice, rehearse, and fine-tune the micro-processes of something they may be struggling with and apply it with more confidence over time.
The opposite approach is often the most common, which is to avoid mistakes. To only train that which we are proficient in and when things go poorly in a game, to leave it to luck and circumstance to get remedied. That rarely works. The better approach is not to avoid the difficult things, nor is it to around them. It has been said that the quickest way to reach a progress point is go right through the difficult part, which is usually admitting something needs to be addressed to yourself.
It’s too easy to get distracted and detached from the path of mastery or self-improvement. Sometimes, the better approach is focus on the “sticking points” or hindering aspects of your skill-set and work on them from a physical, emotional, and cognitive aspect. Again, don’t frame this as a negative chore or task. Don’t consider this work to be beneath you either. This step in particular is what the exceptionally talented individuals in any discipline do each and every day in some capacity.
By minimizing distractions and getting to the root of what the controllable hindrance is, individuals can focus on manageable chunks of information to process and work on in their own time away from the conventional setting. In the narrative above, that place was an empty parking lot away from my teammates usually after playing in a game.
Operating in principles of specificity can be helpful. It forms a bridge from the macro to the micro-view, which is valuable as it allows a person to deconstruct their thought process and simplify complicated tasks.
This “chunking” effect also provides ample opportunities to take breaks and detach from the larger picture, which is important because it’s so easy to be overwhelmed.
Remember, it’s OK to sweat the small stuff. In the words of late and great Greg Plitt, “Every action has a purpose. When every action has a purpose, every action has a result.”