A Competitive Nature

When I was a young player coming through the ranks of a professional academy in the UK, I was constantly made aware of the absolute importance of a player’s mentality, focus and desire. It was a message that was consistently communicated. Sometime a coach would stress the point vocally but usually, the message was delivered through the intensely competitive culture and environment.

That competitiveness, you may be surprised to hear, was not a will to win games. Instead, players compete to be the best player on the training ground because that means you get to play on the weekend; players compete to be the best player in their position because that results in the coaches talking about them; players compete to be the best player in the area because that results in coaches from other clubs talking about them.

That competitiveness is as real and ruthless as it gets, even at the young age of 10 players are very aware of the stakes and they understand that academies are a place to improve your game, not to make friends. Sure, players make friends along the way but if a player ever confused training with leisure time they will quickly find themselves kicked to the curb. 

The nature of competition within the professional academies is a self fulfilling prophecy in part because it is common knowledge that it is extremely difficult to make it to the top, and partly because people have a very real and accurate understanding about how difficult it is to be privileged with the opportunity to play with the youth set up of a professional club. Not many want to lose that opportunity. Obviously, this directly influences the mindsets of the players that the academies produce; unless you, or someone you know, have been through that process you would be surprised at how ‘cut throat’ it truly is. 

This means that the coaches within these professional academies do not have to be too concerned with a player’s desire, or lack there of. If a player doesn’t have that will to be the best, they can simply release them and replace them with someone who has, and do so with relative ease.

In the US (for better and worse) we are a long way from that environment. Therefore coaches, all too frequently, have the extremely difficult task of developing a player’s inner desire to push themselves.

There are many reasons for this, some complicated, some simple. 

One of the more difficult dilemmas is the big fish small pond syndrome; if you think of the potential standard of players in an environment such as the professional environment; firstly, it is free to play at an academy so the pool of players is optimal, secondly these clubs have the luxury to release extremely talented young players at an astounding rate; yet, because of the magnitude of the club and the clubs stature they can replace those players with just as talented and better players.

In the states it is almost the opposite, players of certain quality are spread more sparsely and with the amount of comparable clubs, these players quickly become superstars in the eyes of their coaches, their parents and themselves. Because the importance of getting results is stressed so frequently, coaches cling on to these players. I have even seen parents of talented players try (sometimes successfully) to hold the coaches and clubs to ransom. 

These players (and parents) then begin to believe their own hype. Sure, little Johnny is the best player in his team, sure, he gets all the goals, sure, he is the best player at the club, and maybe he is the best player in the county for his age, but the real answer is is, “he is good, relatively speaking.” Unless little Johnny’s club can expose him to higher-level players on a regular basis (playing with and against) then he can only really ever become a relatively good player.  Unfortunately, not enough parents and players realize this early enough and even more unfortunately; coaches see it and, instead of pushing them on to an environment where they will be challenged, let them become stagnant as good club players. When this happens, the player quickly loses that priceless desire and competitive nature.  Everything has been too easy for too long. 

That desire and competitive nature is something that can only come from a spark within and, on a basic level, some kids have buckets of it, some have it hidden deep down and some simply don’t have it. If you take it up a notch and look at the desire and competitive nature required to truly make it as a professional, very few kids have it in abundance; some have it deep down but the majority of players just don’t have it. However, it is important to remember that that is ok. It takes a special type of person to make it as a professional athlete, if it was something everyone could do it would be significantly less special; and, a lot of the characteristics of players who do have that uniquely high level of desire and fiercely competitive nature posses many traits that would often be considered undesirable; arrogance, selfishness, ruthlessness to name a few. 

I am not implying that those traits are what make a great player, but I am saying that if they can be channeled in the correct manor, the player has a chance. For me, those players are the most exciting to work with. 

Famous boxing coach Cus D’amato’s headstone reads “a boy comes to me with a spark of interest, I feed that spark and it becomes a flame, I feed that flame and it becomes a fire, I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze.” 

Good coaches, can develop that desire and competiveness but it takes a lot of time and dedication invested to the individual and in a team sport, that can be difficult for a coach and without the spark, there isn’t much any coach can do but go through the motions. I have worked with many talented, Big Fish, Small Pond players who lack that spark.

When a player has that special personality that I, and many other coaches, find so exciting, it is as clear to see as the nose on his face. It stands out. It is rare though, that if I have coached and watched 1,000 players in Florida, I could name three I have coached and I could tell you the team and shirt number of two others.  That’s only 0.5 percent out of all of those players.  They are the players that refuse to lose, they don’t ask for the ball they demand it, they take the last minute penalty, they grab the game by the scruff of the neck. 

It’s not just during the games and training though, part of the reason that good coaches find those special personalities so exciting is because the coach knows those players enjoy the hard work. There are a lot of players who are very good players, they work hard at practice, they play well in games; but that special player is working hard when no one is looking, not to impress anyone, not because he was told to but because he enjoys it. Getting to watch a young player on that path is what keeps me coaching; maybe because with that perfect mix of talent, luck, desire and competitive nature the kid has a chance, a real chance.

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