Players or Competitors?
Has our system created an unintended consequence in player development?
By Dr. Jay Martin
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 bigtime
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 in20American 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
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 fo r 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. 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
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
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 confus ed.
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
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 t his 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 hard-working Claude Makalele is another
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.