By Tony Earp
There is no way to predict which players will be the ones who will end up playing at the highest level or achieving the most over their soccer careers. As coaches, we like to think we are good at identifying the soccer stars of tomorrow, but we are often wrong. There is just no way to know how a player will develop and change over time. Too many unknown variables lay ahead of each player that will directly or indirectly affect his or her path and where that path eventually will lead. With that said, with any team or group of players I have coached over my years in this profession, I can easily identify the players who WANT TO BE THE BEST by their focus and effort during training. It is easy to see who wants it the most!
You might be thinking that I am talking about the player who does exactly what is asked and is never a “behavior issue” in training, but I am not. Although that may fit the description of this type of player at times, it is not a defining characteristic. I have coached many players who other coaches would describe as being inattentive, disruptive, and stubborn, but I saw something different. I saw a player who was inattentive because they wanted to play, disruptive because they came up with their own rules, and stubborn to be the type of player they wanted to be. No matter how a coach might label this player, there is no denying that this type of player would put his heart into everything he did. Passion and desire is often not obedient and structured. Some of my most passionate players and those who wanted to be the best, were also the most difficult to manage in training and in games. This is the type of player who does not stick to the path, but creates their own.
On the flip side of the coin is the player who never takes his eyes off the coach and is zeroed in on absorbing as much information as possible during each training session. This player is a coach’s dream in training and in games. He will do whatever is asked and more, while taking advantage of every opportunity to get better. It is obvious this type of player is determined to be the best and his actions show he wants it more than others. Like the player who is driven by passion and desire, this player is driven by other forces. This type of player is fueled by purpose and the quality of each and every action. He wants to be the best and will jump through any hoop, leap any wall, and overcome any challenge to move closer to the goal. This is a player who sticks to the path, and runs through anything standing in the way.
A player who “wants it” is a player who does the little things right all the time. The player who does not take a second off during a training activity or game. A player that is driven to improve and is actively working towards that goal. Most importantly, these players do the most of their “work” when no one is around. They do not just work hard when people are watching, or do what is asked for the proverbial “good job” from a coach or parent. They don’t care about that. They just care about their ability to play the game. Since that is their goal, they take every opportunity possible to work on their craft. They do not just do it when asked to do it by someone else.
When kids are young, the better players can sometimes be the players who have just developed physically or cognitively faster up to that point. There can be as much as a two year difference in physical and cognitive ability of players of the same age group. We point to the players who are more mature in those age groups as being the stronger players. We assume those are the players who be the best in the future, and some may be. But, we must also give our attention to those players who seem to want it the most, who love to play the most, and who have the most passion, drive, and purpose when they play. These players may need time to physically and cognitively catch up to their peers, so they cannot be overlooked. When these players develop, hopefully they received the same coaching and attention needed along the way to help them reach their potential.
Let me give you two examples of what I am talking about….
My first example is a player who I have coached over five years starting at age 8. He was always a “wild one” on the field and showed a tremendous amount of passion and joy to play the game. He was never happy unless he was competing, playing, and winning. He has never had much patience for standing around and listening for instructions, but I could always tell he was listening. When working on one skill, he was always the first player to try the skill his own way. It was common to hear, “What about this coach?” while he tries a heel pass versus the inside of the foot passing the rest of the team was working on. When I called the group in to talk, he used that time to work on his favorite skill move or start an impromptu 1v1 challenge with a teammate by megging him. Although the behavior could be seen as distracting at times, I understood where it was rooted. The kid just loved to play.
As he aged, his passion and creativity matured with him. In his age group, he may be one of the most exciting players to watch on the ball and is completely unpredictable (in a great way) on the field. He never ceases to amaze in what he has the guts to try when he plays that no other player would even dare think about trying during a game. The way he moves on the ball and what he is capable of doing was not a product of my coaching. It was a product of him wanting to be the best. What many people do not know about this player is the amount of time he spent at home on his own just trying things with the soccer ball. Lifting, chipping, bending the ball all around the house and backyard, along with many other challenging skills, provides this player with a distinct advantage when he plays. He is capable of manipulating the ball in a way that other players cannot creating a number of options only available to him when he has the ball.
Second example, I currently work with a player who always arrives early for training. When waiting for training to start, while other players are talking and hanging out, this player finds space to work with the ball. Either dribbling and changing direction, juggling, or anything else the player feels the need to work on, gets its needed attention before the organized training session even begins.
During training, he never trains below a maximum effort and he can be someone tough on himself when mistakes are made. Although undeterred, he will quickly use disappointment as fuel to try again and work even harder. When the session stops, and I am talking to the players, he never cuts away from me with his eyes and often asks questions about the training. More often than not, I can count on him stopping me after training and asking specific questions about his performance and ideas on how he can work on skills on his own.
On a final note about both of these types of players, and the players in my example. The players who want it the most, seem to appreciate their coaches and parents who provide guidance an opportunity the most. These players have never left a training session with me, or any other coach, without saying thank you. Of the two players I talked about above, the first always walks by me on the way out of training with a quick “finger point” and says, “thanks coach.” The second player always shakes my hand, says, “thank you” and then usually asks me a question that is based on helping him improve.
Both of these players are very different in almost every way, but both are very similar in where it matters the most, they both want it the most!
Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at email@example.com