When writing pieces like this I try to formulate a proper title that addresses the topic properly before diving into a piece. Every time I read the pink boots, haircut, and highlight video portion of this article’s title, images of past players I have played against, with, and friends I have made through soccer come to mind. Players who possess the idea that the personal ego and self image are the most important part of soccer. An idea that seems to have been beaten into the minds of many young American players in the last decade. The villains being companies like Nike and Adidas who take advantage of these vulnerable young minds with their marketing campaigns, Youtube videos of Ronaldo and Messi, and the ever so prevalent Instagram and social media which feeds into these narrow ego driven minds. Once this ego is developed, a player becomes closed minded to many important aspects of the game, and most of the time fails to develop properly as a player. Avoiding the development of this attitude and closed mind set is crucial to the development of the next generation of young players and to the country's current crop of young up incoming professionals.
“They know nothing about how to actually play the game” is a criticism of young American players I would hear from me and Bobby’s legendary college coach Doug Moore. Moore was once considered one of the best youth coaches in the world while at Birmingham City’s Academy in the old days of English football and has coached in the 1980 World Cup and won a Malaysia Cup with Singapore in 1994. “They can all do tricks and flicks, but none of them can tell you a bloody thing about the game” you’d hear the former Aston Villa man constantly repeat after watching our college team train. As much as I would take his thoughts as a personal insult to my soccer intellect, he was absolutely right. So many young players in America, including myself as a youngster, know absolutely nothing about the game we love so much and play religiously. Until college I never knew the advantages of pressuring high up the field, or what the likelihood of a cross or free kick being successful was, what the most common score in football was, or what part of the match most goals were conceded in. I played at the elite levels of club soccer growing up and was never taught these lessons or facts from anyone. The list of lessons and facts about the game I learned from Moore in college could be about a mile long, and I was very lucky as a player to play for such an experienced coach at a crucial stage in my development as a player. Many players are not so lucky and seek other outlets to learn more about the game they enjoy playing, leading to desire Messi’s flare or Ronaldo style as they seek to become a better player.
So where does this attitude come from? It comes from the non traditional ways American players learn the game. Unfortunately many players learn about the game through popular outlets such as the video game FIFA, YouTube or Instagram highlight clips. Only very recently has soccer been available to watch at such ease on television. For most young players, Ronaldo, Messi, and possibly one or two other global superstars of the game are who they mold their personal game around. Thus why you see haircuts, pink boots, and unnecessary tricks and flicks in so many youth games. These players fail to see the defensive work, the movement off the ball, the hours spent on the training ground perfecting their trade that these players spend. They only see the three minute video of them scoring goals, the 30 second Nike commercial, or the highlights from the past weekends demolition of a La Liga opponent. Players see these images and videos of Messi and Ronaldo and think soccer is about hitting free kicks, doing stepovers, flicks, and achieving praise from onlookers and fans. They start to play soccer in order to achieve popularity, not because they love the game, not because they want to be great, and not because they want their team to win. The player then begins lose the motivation to continue to become well rounded and elite level players.
There are an endless amount of articles discussing why the likes of Messi, Neymar, and Ronaldo are absurdly good players and rightfully so. Almost all are blessed with an athletic ability matched by very few in the world, as well as a maestros ability on the ball. With companies like Nike and Adidas driving the popularity of these players to young American consumers, it is not hard to see why young players fall into the traps set by these large corporations. Social media feeds into the player’s egos allowing for them to feel a false sense of achievement from Instagram, Vine, or Snapchat followers for any sort of success they may have had on the training ground or in games.. This leads to players wanting to impress when they have the ball, make the highlight reel, and stand out from the rest of the participants in the match. Many times leading players to making poor decisions on the ball, costing their team possession, and not doing the necessary work defensively in order for the team to be successful. Much like their followers on Instagram or Youtube, the player becomes only interested in the glamorous side of the game. This leads to their ultimate downfall, sooner or later coaches at whatever level they manage to reach will choose a player willing to defend who is just as effective on the ball, damning the player to the bench or off the squad. With the ever increasing amount of companies looking to capitalize on the US Soccer market, it is becoming harder and harder for players to ignore the inner ego inside of them and ensure they develop a true love for the game a young age. The glamorous lifestyles of the world’s elite, matched with the highlight videos, commercials, and advertisements makes it difficult to ignore the desire for the popularity and wealth that comes with being an elite level footballer.
So how do you players avoid falling into this media driven trap that so many young American players fall victim to? Parents and coaches have a huge influence on a young player’s attitude towards playing, and I believe there is a healthy balance of idolization that can be had by young players. There is nothing wrong with watching Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, or Bale and trying to emulate their skills or ability on the ball. It is crucial that coaches encourage a player to develop his or her own identity as a player through an understanding that what works for Gareth Bale, who is one of the fastest athletes on the planet, may not work for them. Coaches should look to point out healthier more realistic role models for players who demonstrate the actual necessities of the sport. Center backs can look to John Terry’s ability to keep the play in front of him and deal with speedy strikers as well as physical targets. Midfielders should look to Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Kante, and Drinkwater for examples of how hard a midfielder needs to work both offensively and defensively for their team. There are a number of great examples for players to base their game around. Coaches and parents should look to promote the idea that they will never be as good as Messi or Ronaldo, but they can be similar to James Milner or Jamie Vardy if they continue to work hard on their skills, understanding of the game, and fitness.
I am 100% supportive of any player is expressive, creative, and is attempting to try new things on the ball as I wrote about previously, but with this comes an understanding that there is a time and a place to dribble at players 1v1 or to try to take on multiple players in order to create a scoring opportunity. As a young player I used to watch Steven Gerrard, Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, and Frank Lampard control the center of the field and the pace of the game, distribute the ball with ease, and score goals from midfield in hopes of emulating these players in my personal game. I never scored a ton from midfield but I saw their tireless work rate, their physical play, and their ability to strike longer passes accurately and was somewhat able to replicate these aspects when I played. So there is value in watching professionals in similar roles and taking aspects of their game into your own. A true winger should look to James Milner, Erik Lamela or Thomas Muller as truly effective wingers who do the business at both ends of the field for their team with somewhat relatable athletic ability and skillfulness of the average player.
The problem with developing this level of an ego as a player is it denies the player the real motivation to learn about the game. If he or she becomes limited to just trying to strike free kicks and take people 1 v 1, they will sooner or later become irrelevant to their team. Even if the player finds success emulating the tricks he sees from these superstars, with the success comes the popularity they have desired. With this success the player risks losing the hunger he or she had when they were seeking approval from onlookers. This happens to young players with this ego in America once they reach college. They are able to capitalize socially on the popularity that comes with being on the soccer team, or have already achieved their goal of getting to that level and they begin to become content with their current level of ability. A player who truly loves the game and is not motivated by the commercial aspect of the game, is more likely to continue to improve as a player and end up achieving great accolades in their playing career. Leaving the swag seekers and Ronaldo wannabes behind,
Coaches have the responsibility to teach concepts of the game that are not only helpful for their players but realistic. Using these mega stars like Ronaldo and Messi as examples for young players should be discouraged as these players have very little defensive responsibility for their clubs due to their phenomenal offensive ability. It may be difficult with only two practices a week to teach players the game fully, but with the resources available online and through various other media outlets, there is no excuse for not giving players access to homework or reading material for them to look at on their own. With more material given to them from coaches, the less likely they are to turn to other outlets for ideas, putting them at risk for developing this YouTube mindset. Parents can also turn away from the $300 Ronaldo edition boots as well, and settle for a less expensive more humble option. This will go far in reminding the player that players must work hard, constantly look to improve, and be students of the game. This will hopefully eliminate the possibility of a young player’s ego taking over the development of the player and will possibly lead the player to a long playing career, not limited by personal closed mindedness and a media driven ego. A better understanding of the game will come from better coaching and more commitment from parents and coaches to ensure the player understands the amount of work this game involves in order to play the attractive style everyone sees every weekend from the game’s elite stars.
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