During my playing days, especially during my teenage years coming through the elite levels of club soccer through my early college years, I could have been described in very different aspects. I was a very good player, I was fit, creative, worked hard, tackled, distributed well from midfield, was good on the dribble, ect. However a common descriptor from anyone who was a teammate of mine during those early days would have been huge asshole, self centered, success driven to the point that anyone who was considered weak or not beneficial to my personal success on and off the field was deemed useless. I worried a lot about my external image, I wanted to be seen as cool, funny and as one of the guys, all while asserting dominance as a key player in the squad as a freshmen. As you can probably tell, this did not exactly fly with everyone on the team, and lead to various conflicts during my early years as a college soccer player with many of the upper classmen and my classmates who saw through my want for personal success over the teams. I started to wonder why I had very few real friendships on the team, something I sought out of my college experience. I failed to really develop strong friendships with my teammates during my personal success focused youth club soccer career. I knew something needed to change personally in my mindset off the field in order to truly build the friendships and relationships that I truly desired from the college experience, and allow any success we may have seen as a team to feel that much better.
One of the best things about the sport we love so much is the group dynamic, the indescribable feeling you get from shared success that every strong unit relishes. The loneliness success brings golfers and tennis players is something the team and tribal aspects of soccer eliminate. A wise coach once told me that you only really have your teammates to rely on. The coaching staff are out for their own jobs, and if you are not producing, will have no problem dropping you or selling you. The owners are out for the good of club and will sell you or cut you. The fans are really only there if you are successful, and will turn their backs on you in a blink of an eye. So the relationships among the members of the team are important to building a strong tribe, a tight knit group that will not break under duress
I found that the best team I ever played on was my college soccer team, where there were substantial relationships between the members on the team. A true feeling that you care about each other and regardless of what happened on the pitch, you would be friends off it no matter what. This feeling of care that develops between squad members, matched with a success driven individual’s willingness to be vulnerable around teammates will allow for strong personalities to be embraced by the team. Criticism and hard words will not be taken personally, only as an expression of their desperate need for success. The substance of the relationships supplies the backbone for competitive personalities to express themselves freely on the pitch, something we see very openly and regularly on successful teams at the highest levels.
We see the powerful relationship between Dele Alli and Eric Dier very regularly on social media and during Spurs games. These two young English talents have been topics of previous articles I have written, the duo continues to be a prime example of the power of friendship among squad members. You can see it in Spurs tactics that the squad is very connected, willing to sacrifice themselves for each other regularly as they press teams around the pitch. You can see the substance in the relationships currently at Liverpool, as Jurgen Klopp has begun to build a powerful unit built on his willingness to put himself in front of the players. He hugs them, gets to know them as people, and encourages these relationships to be built within the squad as well. Klopp’s very hippie and counterculture attitude towards football has made him one of the most successful managers of the last decade.
Many youth coaches can see the players who may be very focused on their own personal success. It comes from an outward focus on what is on the surface, the pink shoes, the slicked back hair, the cut off socks with the trusox dots on running down their heel. You will find that beneath all of the materialistic nonsense there is very little substance to the person. He or she may struggle when things do not go their way, or if the team is losing as they will only look to see how they can save face or look good even though their team may be struggling. The care for the rest of the group is absent and the willingness to defend hard, track runners, or do anything that is not kept in the stats may be absent as there is no personal reward at the end. There is nothing wrong with players who think this way, as this drive for personal success will take them very far in the game if it is built on principles, realistic goals, and discipline. Coaches should look to encourage players to sacrifice their personal success at times in order to build meaningful relationships with the other members of the team. The willingness of the success driven players on a squad to lower their force field that is looking to protect their external image, will lead to a stronger group. The role players who may be less focused on their personal success will now be more willing to fulfill the necessary responsibilities of their given role within the squad knowing that a bond exists between them and the elite members of the squad. .
Looking at the big picture and the reality of the sport. it’s not hard to see that very few players make it to the professional level, and even fewer make it to the point that they can live comfortably off of their soccer career. So driving these ideas to the success orientated players may come off as being soft, the idea of equality and being friends with everyone on the squad will not resonate with an ego that is strategically seeking personal success. The reality of most situations is once a player has reached his or her maximum potential as a player, he or she will only be left with the relationships he or she has developed over their playing career. The relationships I built and sacrificed myself for during the latter portion of my college career has lead me to look fondly on my college soccer experience. I still talk to my college teammates almost everyday, and have built numerous lifelong friendships upon our shared college experiences I would 100% say my college experience was greater than my professional soccer experience, where you are thrown into an environment with like minded success driven individuals focused on their personal success and contracts. A group cannot be strong without a sacrifice from the individuals on the team for the relationships and friendships among the group.