During an interview former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger outlined the importance of young players learning to be “consistently motivated” in order to play at the highest levels of the game.
In his typically thoughtful style, Wenger defined a motivated person as “someone who has the capacity to recruit the resources to complete a goal.”
In summary, Wenger believes that when you look at people who are successful they are the ones who are consistently motivated and always willing to made sacrifices to achieve their goals. This mirrors what I have seen during my time in youth soccer. We have had players join our program at various ages and abilities. The ones that I believe can go on to play at higher levels are the ones who are determined to truly make themselves players. During training, they simply get on with it. They train like it will be their last session and are constantly on the edge during our technical warm-ups, trying new things and not being content with their current level of skill.
When we play small-sided games and constantly change conditions, they are the players quickly working out how to succeed within the changing environment. They are the players who are capable of playing at a high level themselves but also inspiring and helping other players around them. In football (soccer) your teammates are the best judge of your performance. Despite what parents and even coaches see on the sidelines, teammates are the ones who truly know if you’re making yourself available for passes, making runs off the ball into open space, changing the point of attack based on what the opposition is doing, making tracking runs back to assist the defence and able to produce something a little different when the pressure is on.
Players and their parents do not often realize how much coaches learn about players when you observe them off the field. Are they mixing well socially, do they carry their own boots and training bag, do they tie their own laces? These behaviours can all be indicators of how self-motivated players are and can give a very good idea of whether or not take responsibility for preparation themselves. Do players ask questions during training to the coaching staff as they try to understand instructions? Can they work things out for themselves, solve problems, and are they determined to overcome obstacles?
Think of the last time you truly had to work out something by yourself. Maybe you had a flat tire, your lawnmower was not working or you just could not get in touch with your boss to make an important decision. We’ve likely all been in those situations where we have had to work things out for ourselves and have had no other options. Chances are you probably exceeded your own expectations of yourself and successfully resolved the issue. You probably also felt a surge of pride and confidence in accomplishing that.
That is exactly the type of feeling that we should be trying to instill in our young players. Parents and coaches can both contribute to this. Parents can give young players the responsibility of checking on their training times and game schedules, emailing the coach if they cannot make a practice or game. The players can be responsible for packing their own equipment and water, carrying their own training bag and tying their own laces. Coaches can help by giving players the responsibility for warm-up, taking care of equipment and even providing them the responsibility to think up and organize the small-sided game at the end of practice.
As a player gets older, this approach becomes more and more important. One of our players attended a camp at a US university a few years ago, where she learned from the coaching staff that if a parent sends an email to a coach inquiring about the team’s program and showing interest in their daughter being recruited, that player’s name goes to the “bottom of the list” . Many coaches at that level are only interested in dealing with players who take the initiative on their own, and not with potentially intrusive parents.
We have many good technical young players in North America. If they can merge good technique with consistent motivation as outlined by Wenger, then we can expect great things from our young players. If we shelter them from decision-making and responsibility on and off the field, my fear is that we will develop skillful young players who will struggle later on with the skill-sets they will need to overcome the inevitable set-backs that elite sport will throw their way.
Let’s teach young players to be determined, demanding of themselves to improve and to be consistent with it. If young players can do that, then they can achieve success at the higher levels.