Thoughts on Developing Athletes

I want to preface this by saying, “I do not have it all figured out and I do not know all the answers.”

Throughout the last few years, I’ve been able to watch A LOT of sports. I’ve been blessed to work in athletics and also work with tremendous people within athletics.

If I weren’t working in sport, I wouldn’t exactly know what my life would look like. Sports, and soccer in particular, really get me going…just love it.

So, I want to write down some thoughts for athletes, coaches, parents, and whoever else may want to work towards the development of sport in the United States (and wherever else you may find yourself). Some of these thoughts come from where and what I wish I would have done when I was an aspiring high-level athlete. I am a soccer guy, so most will be worded that way, but I will try to integrate other sports.

1. Be a student of the game. One cannot and should not prepare oneself in a particular sport without seeking out knowledge in the game. It is amazing how many soccer players do not watch the game. How can one expect to be better if you do not evaluate the game? How can one expect to be better if you don’t watch where the talent is around you to see what you need? How can one expect to be smarter if you do not develop your mind within that sport? I haven’t encountered other sport athletes who are as bad as many American soccer players are at watching their own sport.

I recently talked with a coach who was watching an NCAA Division I soccer game. This particular coach coaches at another level. Both schools are located in the same city (roughly 60,000 population). So, the city is smaller and there are actually 3 men’s soccer programs in the city. The coach had to text his players about the game in order for them to know about it and even think about watching it. How is this possible? Players should seek out the opportunities to watch their sport at any moment. Heck, I know a college football coach who has never been to a professional football game! You seek to make high-level players better, but haven’t been to the stage where they perform? What do you know what to look for? What do you know what the environment is like? It is essential to watch the game for entertainment (it should be fun) and for knowledge (learn something from all players). It can only help your game develop.

A student of the game also knows about his/her sport. Again, soccer players seem to be terrible at knowing the Laws of the Game. It pains me to listen to commentators talk too, they don’t know the game. I had to correct a referee this year when a player was red carded; the referee didn’t know the player was supposed to leave the bench area! A week or two ago, a punt returner in an NFL game returned a punt for a touchdown…but the ball was first touched by the opposing team in order to keep the ball from going into the endzone. The commentator/analyst commended the return man for knowing the rules of football — the ball could either be returned OR the ball could be placed where it was first touched. I learned that rule because of that incident. I imagine there are many other football players that didn’t know that either.

Do not sound or do something dumb because you do not know the rules/laws. It doesn’t help you become a better player OR a developer of players. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE STOP PUTTING AN “S” ON THE END OF “OFFSIDE.” There is only one side you can be off (or on). Sorry, that is a major annoyance.

2. Master the basic skills. This is could be the one I wish I emphasized more as a developing athlete. I really started thinking about this over the last few years of professional development for soccer coaches. The NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) and USSF (United States Soccer Federation) do coaching courses to help coaches better their skills. A saying within those organizations is: “the game is the best teacher.” Meaning, playing the game of soccer is the best way to learn. While it may be true, players cannot hone their skills by playing games. It takes time on top of time on top of time in order to ply one’s trade. I thought it was rather ironic that the NSCAA and USSF were telling us to get players playing, but then they praised and showed a Brazilian national team training video that included players kicking a ball against a wall.

Ironic, no? Brazil is a top soccer country and national team…and their players kick balls against a wall to get better. I became good friends with a couple baseball coaches and learned tremendous things from them. The thing that amazed me about baseball is how diligent they were with film and technical work. They could break down a pitcher’s mechanics from 5 different camera angles and tell them what needs to be worked on. Can you imagine a soccer coach/player doing that? That is roughly unheard of and probably frowned upon. I’d chat with my other coaching friends — volleyball and basketball, in particular — and learn how they are continuously trying to develop players who have learned incorrectly or not emphasized the right things.

One volleyball coach works nonstop on passing when he does youth volleyball games. Why? Because passing is essential to the game. Players want to do so many other things, but if you cannot pass, then you cannot score. I played basketball (way back when, and was not good)…one thing I remember was how critical free throws (or foul shots, whichever is proper) were to the game. The saying goes, “free throws win ball games.” Ask the University of Kentucky (against Michigan State) or University of North Carolina (against Belmont) how critical free throws are. In both games, UK missed 16 and lost by 4 while North Carolina missed 26 and lost by 3! How crazy is that?! The University of Kentucky was supposed to be the #1 team in the country…top recruiting class in the country, blah blah blah…and miss 16 free throws. Nothing needs to be said about UNC missing 26.

Basic, technical skills separate the players from level to level. How good are you at the basics? Can you pass left and right footed? Can you do it quicker? Are you accurate? How often can you throw strikes? How many swings do you take in the batting cages? How many free throws do you shoot? What are you doing to make the basic skills better? You can NEVER be good enough at these things. You can NEVER stop working on the basic skills necessary to play the game.

Great baseball players have taken millions of swings in a batting cage, at a tee, etc. They take thousands of swings a week. The best pitchers can throw strikes with fastballs, it doesn’t matter if they can throw a curveball at 13 years old…they can put their fastball at any spot on the plate they want. Top-level volleyball players can put a pass on the setter from any place on the court. Why was David Beckham so good at free kicks? Why could Zidane pass so well? How can Messi be so good with the ball at his foot? They all worked at those basic skills: striking a ball, passing accuracy, and dribbling skills. Can they rainbow a ball? Probably, but that doesn’t win games. Can they flip-throw? Maybe, but that doesn’t win games. Can they “boot it” or “kick it” or “send it?” Yep…but that does nothing to develop the player.

If you cannot perform basic skills, you cannot compete at higher levels. Simple as that. College coaches won’t recruit you. Professional coaches look away because they don’t want you. You will not play high school sports because you are a weak link on the team. It doesn’t take much to get better…it just takes work. It takes a mindset to say, “I am going to be the best technical player and I’m going to take X reps a day at this.” Did David Beckham get good at free kicks by just taking free kicks in a game? Nope. He hit them every chance he could. My players know where I stand on this, and they reminded me of it…an opponent of ours this year had 10 corner kicks (or so) and hit over half of them out of play — not one teammate could have played the ball! How is that good?! How is that acceptable?!

I still remember a certain “highlight” film at an awards ceremony: football team oogles over a hit where a helmet pops off…the team finished the season 0-10. Guess there should a different emphasis?

3. Do not accept mediocrity or anything less. It’s cringing to hear things like “good try,” “nice shot,” “unlucky,” or anything of the like when something terrible happens. Those statements usually happen when someone airballs a three-pointer, hits the backstop behind the goal 30-feet up, or has a groundball go through one’s legs. No…it’s not a “good try” if you airball it…it needs to be better. It’s not a “nice shot” if you miss the goal by THAT much. And it’s definitely not “unlucky” that a ball went through your legs, regardless if it took a “bad bounce” or not. Make it better. Do better. Expect better.

Not only should you expect better out of yourself, expect better out of your teammates. When you field a groundball and you bobble the transition from glove-to-hand, it is unacceptable. Don’t allow it to happen. Train yourself to ensure it doesn’t happen. When you receive a pass from a teammate that is 15-yards away and you pop the ball from your foot up to your knee, it doesn’t help your team out. Keep the ball on the ground to ensure you do not have to take more touches than what you need. DO NOT SERVE A BALL STRAIGHT INTO THE NET, especially if you are brought in as a server! You have one job…do it right!

Sure, mistakes will be made. No doubt about that. You will screw up. But you’ll screw up more if you allow mediocrity to exist. You’ll screw up more if you are not going to be a basic, technical player. Your team will not be good if you continue to allow less-than-perfect performances in training or matchday.

4. Humility. I think this word is lost in most of the sports world today. Players want to play to impress. Players think they can do whatever they want, whenever they want and get away with it. Players want to show you what they can do. Players are playing for the name on the back of their jersey instead of the name on the front. Players think they have it all figured out and don’t need to listen to development. There is so much to learn about sport. Learning should NEVER stop. You should always be learning something, or you have an issue you need to address personally.

It’s funny to hear about players who want to play soccer at the University of North Carolina who cannot run for 90 minutes. It’s funny to listen to players talk about how they will do an open tryout for the Cleveland Browns who struggled to play varsity football their senior year of high school — it’s all their team’s fault for not being good, so they couldn’t get recruited to play college ball. I’m sure it is the coach’s fault on why you didn’t get the All-Conference or All-State award too.

Quit listening to the Zlatan’s of the world. You are not Kobe…quit acting like you are God’s gift to basketball. Oh, so you had a good high school career? What’s that do for you for the rest of your life? NO ONE CARES! Coaches and teammates want to know how you are not going to let them down. They want to know they can count on you…

5. Take care of your business. Unfortunately, maybe, the American sports system is linked to academic institutions too. Guess what? That’s not going to change anytime soon. So…take care of YOUR business. Don’t make the coaches or teammates hold your hand through everything. If you need to be physically fit to play the sport, do it yourself. Why should a soccer coach make you run during training? You should know that is essential to being a player. Why should a football coach make you lift weights in and/or out of season? That is essential to being a player.

Why should coaches hold your hands to ensure you get halfway decent grades AND go to class? DO IT YOURSELF! You are old enough to make the decision to play ball…you are old enough to make the decision to take care of YOUR business. Okay, so you may be a good player, that doesn’t mean you can’t do your business in the classroom or out of it. Oh, so you mean it’s not okay for a starting QB to rape a girl? NOOOOOOOOO! It’s not okay for anyone to do that, so why would you put yourself in that situation? Be smarter. You mean it’s not okay for me to stop going to class in the middle of season? Nope…due to the academic priority that mostly all athletic programs are tied to…take care of the classroom.

But coach…we had a good win this weekend and we wanted to celebrate. So? You are underage. So? You know the rules of the team and school. So? You do realize the team hasn’t had a winning season for 10 years. There are so many excuses and reasonings that can be said or used. You want to play ball. The coaches want to coach. DO NOT MAKE YOUR COACH A BABYSITTER. If you don’t take care of your stuff, you only have yourself to blame.

Why put yourself, your team, your coach, your institution, and your program in such a place where you hurt them? Use your head. You have a role. Do your job. Do not jeopardize your team’s successes or image because of your selfishness and stupidity. Grow up. The world isn’t as forgiving as what some coaches can be.

6. Save your money. I cannot emphasize this one enough. It’s not more important than the others, but it sure can be for some families. There is absolutely NO reason to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to become a “star” athlete. You don’t need to pay thousands of dollars to play a club sport. You don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to attend camp after camp after camp. You don’t have to travel all over the country in order to get “seen” by a recruiter or scout.

You can do a lot of the work on your own. The amount of time and money you spend with a club and/or camps could be better utilized in focusing on where you want to go and what you want to do. It is amazing talking to families about their potential college decisions. I chatted with a soccer mom in Colorado in July (2013) about her son’s college choices. Odds are, he will not pursue college soccer. He is a VERY intelligent kid — possibly MIT standards. But, what do they do with him? He’s traveling to Florida, North Carolina, etc. to play in these college showcases and big-time tournaments. He doesn’t really have much desire to do that nor is he really looking at going to any schools in those areas. It’s a blind hope to think that colleges will contact him. It happens, no doubt. You are putting yourself out there, no doubt. But…you are better suited in finding a place YOU want to go and pursuing it. College coaches want players who want to be there.

I remember recruiting kids in several different states that may be traveling from afar. They may be going to play in Ohio and traveling from Illinois. The athlete doesn’t want to leave the state for college and/or college athletics. So…why leave for a club tournament or showcase?! Don’t waste peoples’ time and don’t waste yours. Tell your club coach that you want to stay more local and find competitive tournaments there. A coaching friend of mine did that for his club in Indiana. The club players’ response, “You mean we don’t have to go to those tournaments?” The athletes were forced to go because the club made the decision for the kids and families. TERRIBLE! That is gouging families of money. It is complete dishonesty and a shame.

You can focus on things yourself and play more locally or regionally to get better. Now, it is fun to travel all over to play…so, I am not necessarily discouraging that. You just never know what may happen. But, don’t complain about getting $1,000 less in college athletic scholarship when you just got done spending $5,000 a year in club sports. Or…get your grades up a bit higher and get that $1,000.

Do the work yourself. Find a place to play. Seek a degree you want. Find a coach and team that fits what you want. Whatever you do, don’t sit around waiting for someone to contact you even though you spent $1,000 a year to play club sports.

7. Dream big, but be realistic. I love dreaming. I love trying to pursue dreams. But, I also try to be realistic. I know an individual who desires to play at a couple top NCAA Division I schools in his preferred sport, but he doesn’t do anything to get there. He’ll graduate soon and has not received one NCAA DI contact, let alone offer. It’s too late! I remember recruiting a player who recently graduated, he was still holding out for a DI scholarship — this was 3 months before fall camp started!

I mentioned earlier, a certain individual wanted to try out for the Cleveland Browns even though he didn’t hardly play much football his junior or senior years in high school (injury caused some) and didn’t go play college football. That is a true story. I talked to him during his senior year of football and that was his desire. NFL rules dictate that a player has to be 3 years removed from high school before entering the league…said athlete was just going to go to some community college and hope to tryout. No workouts. No competitive football for 3 years. But thought he could make the team.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with setting a high bar and trying to reach it. I’ve done it. But, it’s also smart to plan for reality. What is going to happen if you don’t achieve your dream? Are you going to be crushed and fizzle into oblivion? Or, are you going to make your future happen in real life?

There are many athletes who think DI is the end-all, be-all. Any school can be your “Notre Dame,” as it has been said. You can make any school your dream school and make it the best possible experiences. I loved some commentator talking about National Signing Day, he said that while there may be a few DI athletes signing their National Letter of Intent, there are hundreds of others out there that will be DIII Hall of Famers. You can make an impact any place you go. And you should seek to do that.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. – T.S. Eliot

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4 comments

  1. Aaron

    You have some very valid points here!

  2. Chris

    I have a number of athletes I will be showing this to. Thanks for articulating it so we’ll.

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