Has our system created an unintended consequence in player development?

Dr. Jay Martin – Soccer Journal
In early September, a Division I game featured two Top 10 teams, one from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. In this early-season special, two big-time programs went at each other, each hoping to make a statement for the 2008 season. After the first half, it was clear the West Coast team had better soccer players. Pound for pound, they were more technical than the home team. That team lost 3-0… and it could have been more. Good soccer players who played good soccer but didn’t compete. They PLAYED the game; they did not COMPETE the game.

In a recent interview discussing the upcoming hockey season, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters the team would make the playoffs if he could find players `who would COMPETE and not just PLAY” The difference? “Players who PLAY bring skill; players who COMPETE bring everything!”

There is too much playing in American soccer and not enough competing. Playing permeates all levels of the game, from U-5 to MLS and the national teams. We are confusing ability for talent. Allen Fox, author of The Winner’s Mind, says: “Most people mistake speed and skill for talent. Real talent STARTS with energy, drive, work ethic and the will to win. Without these attributes, a player can never be great.”

We have focused so much on playing that we haven’t taught players to compete, to fight, to work hard or to have the will to win. As a soccer culture, we’ve always had an inferiority complex, so we emphasize playing, technical ability and skills. Our youth play a lot of soccer, but few compete. What happened to all the highly regarded U-17s we’ve had in this country? Where are they now? They are playing somewhere.

It is not always the players’ fault. Our “soccer system” or “soccer culture” is dysfunctional. When players are not playing in their club, they simply change clubs. There is no thought about competing for a spot on the team, getting better to fight for a spot… they simply change clubs. The message to players is that striving to get better is not as important as how you play and how you look High school age players don’t care much about the outcome of games (whether they are playing in high school or club), but they do care about “showing”…about playing to showcase their skills and ability for college coaches. How many times have you heard a parent tell their son or daughter that they played well or showed well despite losing the game?

Add to this the large number of meaningless games in youth soccer and we have a deadly combination. When young players play in hundreds of meaningless high school and club games, the emphasis slowly changes from the game to the individual. To playing and showing. Competing is lost. By the time the players move to the next level, they haven’t learned how to compete. Or, as Allen suggests, they do not have the drive, work ethic or will to win.

Players lose motivation and confidence when the ‘Work/play” is no longer easy (i.e. college soccer, or the next level). The rules change at the next level; the emphasis switches back to competing and hard work and the players can’t handle it. They think they are playing (and they are) – but they are not competing. We need players who compete and play; players who have the will to win.

Research is clear that constant praising of children’s innate ability (athletic or intellectual) can prevent them from living up to their potential. On the other hand, studies show that teaching young people to focus on effort rather than ability helps make them high achievers and competitors in school, on the field and in life.

Why do some players, when confronted with failure, give up while others who are no more skilled continue to compete and learn? Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests that the answer lies in people’s beliefs about why they failed. It seems that those who were praised for their ability and intelligence when things are easy have trouble changing gears and working hard when things get tough. Children who are taught to focus on effort and getting better rather than the outcome learn to work hard and solve the problem. Soccer players who change clubs never learn to solve the problems that others face because they never face them. The key, says Dweck, isn’t ability: it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed. She further suggests that many young athletes who are led to believe that talent is more important than effort become uncoachable!

Somehow in the Land of the Puritan Work Ethic, we have separated ability and effort. We are teaching our young soccer players that ability, technique and skill outweigh effort. In fact, our young players believe that having to work hard at soccer is a sign of low ability. Since college coaches are interested in ability, young players don’t work hard, they don’t compete. When they get to college and things get tough they can’t change gears and work hard. They are confused. They played “high-level youth soccer” and made it to a college team playing one way. Now the coach wants the players to change and work hard. Many can’t do it.

A high level of ability will inspire confidence in our young players… for a while. As long as things are going well, the players will be confident, but adversity and failure change everything. How our young players react to setbacks depends on their goals. If the goal is to play at the next level by focusing on ability or skill (performance goals), there will be no improvement, but if the goal is to become a better soccer player; to improve ability (learning goals), the young player will work hard, compete and become a better player. Dweck’s 2002 study showed that praising children for intelligence (or ability) alone rather than effort actually sapped their motivation.

Culture plays a large role in shaping our beliefs. Our soccer culture perpetuates the belief that talent is the answer. And talent is defined as skill. We focus on talent, we praise those who are talented, we fight for talented players for our teams and, as a result, have created a mindset that talent is the end-all in soccer. The mindset that soccer ability is the only answer is a problem and must be changed. We must return to an emphasis on effort, drive, determination and the will to win in addition to skill and talent.

How do we change from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset” in this soccer culture? How do we change the emphasis from relying totally on skill to relying on using the skill in addition to hard work? One way, says Dweck, is to tell our players about those who were successful through hard work and not only skill. These examples should show that real success needs a combination of ability and hard work. Sports in general and soccer specifically provide many examples of this. Take Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal. He has tremendous skill and soccer ability, but he also is the hardest worker on the field; that combination makes him one the best players in the EPL. The hardworking Claude Makalele is another example. Often overlooked at Real Madrid as only a hard worker, his real contributions were displayed when he moved to Chelsea. Real Madrid struggled and Chelsea became one of the best teams in Europe after his transfer.

Another strategy coaches can use to change the mindset is praise. Instead of praising skill alone, coaches must praise effort, hard work and the will to win. Most people believe they should build up people by telling them how brilliant or talented they are. Dweck’s research suggests this is misguided and a mistake.

As coaches, it is time to change our players’ mindset. It is time to make work ethic and effort important again. It is time to combine highly skilled players with hard-working players. Our players must stop playing and start competing.