“Soccer is the easiest game to play, but the hardest game to play well”
The quote above describes the game so perfectly, all you need is two people, or a dog for that matter, a ball and two objects to make a goal and you can have a game. This game supplies very complex challenges that are very familiar to everyday life which can frustrate even the most skilled and experienced. Players and Coaches in this game are at the mercy of unfortunate and uncontrollable instances that can lead to 30 different responses from the members of the squad and coaching staff. Attempting to get a squad of players to think, perform, deal with stress, pressure, and criticism all in a similar fashion is sometimes impossible, and the best coaches in the world can leave the pitch asking themselves the question of what’s going on with a group that is leading them to struggle or stall performance wise. Coaches may look to science and statistics for answers, you can look to referee’s decisions possibly that may have changed the outcome of the game, but in my opinion it is very tough to expect a squad of players to respond positively to the adversity and challenges of the game who do not have a foundation of trust and safety in the squad, which allows for vulnerability to exist between the members of the squad.
It is very apparent that dealing with stress and adversity is a key to season long success in some of the world’s most competitive leagues. Of the top two finishers in England last season, Chelsea came from behind to win matches from losing positions 10 times, while Spurs came from behind 7 times during the 2016/17 campaign. Responding positively to mistakes, bad calls, and the occasional unstoppable shot or goal that the opposition may produce is what the best teams do extremely well. You can look to both managers at those two clubs and see the correlation between success under pressure, and the relationship the squad has with the manager. Both Conte and Pochettino are leading the way with their man management and much has to do with their very personal relationship they seem to have with every member of the squad. Tottenham have made very public their before practice handshakes and hugs that everyone must engage in before they train. Conte’s passion and exclusivity of outsiders from the ongoings at the club have made Chelsea’s key to success less evident from the outside, but you can sense the players feed off of the manager’s passion for the game, trust his tactics, his love for defending, and his drive to be successful, much more then the players did under Mourinho the season before.
As always, I look to relate soccer to our human existence and experience. Notice that the foundation of the most basic foundations of our civilization is safety. The reason we do not wander the earth individually searching for food and water is the notion that we feel safer and trust other people more than we do ourselves when faced with the threats that exist in nature. On a hike through the mountains of Central Pennsylvania last week I found myself running down a mountain trail after seeing a bear appear out of the brush near the path, the threat a bear poses to an individual is substantial, as is weather, disease, and other natural threats we face in this world. Being alone against the threat of nature is terrifying for most humans, thus we have gravitated over time to exist in tribes to make life safer against the natural threats of the world we live in. This mindset that seeks safety from a dangerous and dark world that is full of threats exists in everybody to a certain degree, and this tribal sense is stronger in some more then others. A lot of us have some sort of ritual or cultural tradition we partake in that has been passed down from your parents or tribal ancestors. Most of us feel uneasy and uncomfortable being away our family or people who share similar culture and traditions. In fact in 2015 the New York Times reported that half of all Americans live only 18 miles from their childhood home. The feelings of vulnerability we feel away from the safety our home is a very real issue that almost every person and soccer player feels when they journey across the country or the world in search of professional contracts or opportunities to play. Thus why so many players struggle to adjust to new cultures and countries, even when they are bought for large transfer fees. Adventuring to the unfamiliar leads to walls going up and feelings of being vulnerable to unknown threats become very real problems for some players.
As humans discovered agriculture, food and resources became plentiful enough for larger populations to exist. We have evolved into the civilization we see today, but we do not evolve sophistication wise into artists, athletes, farmers, businessmen, or social activists without first going through mindset which seeks safety and trust from parents, elders and leaders. You see this in young children who never fail to stay within sight of their parents when attempting to crawl, or children who cry on the first day of soccer practice as they are getting out of their parents car. Young players must feel this sense of trust and safety around the coaches first and foremost before they start to express themselves and play freely, and this need exists at the elite levels of the game as well. If players are constantly worried that they are going to be replaced if they make a mistake, or they do not trust the players around them, the group will fail to reach its full potential and will struggle if and when adversity arises.
Strong teams have players who lack disclosure with the teammates around them and allow themselves to be vulnerable to each other. All of this exists due to the existence of trust and safety that the coach and other players allow to occur in the club’s environment. This builds a tribal sense that this exclusive group, with it’s own traditions, style, rituals, members and leaders. This group is capable of dealing with any threat and danger the outside world can supply. There is obviously more to success than just eliminating vulnerability amongst a squad of players, but breaking down the barriers that exist when faced with the discomfort and stress of playing soccer at the elite levels, amongst players who sometimes barely know each other personally is an important foundation to success in my opinion.
A recent article published about mental vulnerability written by Mikel Mellick for the website The Conversation referenced what the “All Blacks” from New Zealand can teach us about athletic mental vulnerability. The article talks much more about the open talk about mental health and vulnerability athletes should show when it comes to not being mentally able to handle problems. That is a bit of a different from the topic of this article but nonetheless a very important topic in its own regard. The “All Blacks” are New Zealand’s national rugby team and are known for performing “the haka” before every match, which is a scripted ritual dance that imposes itself on the opposition. The haka is a dance with chanting and singing involved, performed collectively by the entire group of players. Picture the discomfort and embarrassment usually felt by normal everyday people when asked to sing a song in front of others. This shield that is put up is to avoid any embarrassment, judgement, or negative thoughts that may arise from their performance. The openness of the All Blacks and the lack of fear the players demonstrate when performing the haka before matches, establishes the togetherness of the group. Not one person has any regard for outside opinions of the dance, nor is there anyone in the group who putting everything they have into the chant because they feel embarrassed.
After driving Liverpool past Man City in 2014 on quest for their first league championship in years, you can remember Steven Gerrard gathering the group in a huddle after the game then refusing to tell what he said to the reporters. “It’s none of your business” Gerrard told reporters, the leader of the tribe ensuring that he kept his guard up around outsiders and the lack of vulnerability and secrets of the group stay within the group. Americans in general struggle with appearing vulnerable amongst the unfamiliar and our lack of togetherness is constantly criticized by other cultures. I’ve written about pink shoes, social media, and youtube being our downfall previously and it is this worry for the exterior that leads to the opinion that American’s lack substance when it comes to relationships. Our consumer culture has pushed us past some of our old traditional ways of bonding and conversing and into an age where a perfect public image must be presumed at all times in order to ensure personal strategic success. This is a very tough topic to tackle inorganically, as much as you can force players to sing in front of each other or embarrass themselves, the barrier that eliminates vulnerability to me must come internally from individuals and it must be worked on by the entire group.
A group that eats together for example is more likely to develop this safe tribal sense as eating and drinking are when we feel the safest and less exposed to danger. A group that hangs out together off the field as an entire group will help build this trust among each other. A pregame ritual like putting your hands together feeds into this group feel, but a ritual only the players perform would be more beneficial as the coach is not one of the players who is able to be relied on during the stress of the actual game. Singing songs as a group, having nicknames for the field or equipment or giving nicknames for the opposition, all help build this unique togetherness and help eliminate the need to constantly impress or put out a false macho appeal.
Players will soon learn the comfort and relief that being vulnerable brings to their own personal mental health. The ability to laugh at themselves when they are pranked or made fun of by their teammates instead of responding with force or retaliation. The ability to own up to mistakes and their lack of perfection becomes painless as they trust their teammates will not give anything more than expected reactions. There is no more embarrassment amongst the group, a trust builds between the players that will keep any secrets or anything that may make players look bad to the outside world to themselves and from the press. Once this feeling of being vulnerable exists amongst a group, A coach can then begin to build strength and toughness, install principles values, and proper strategy, and then a warmth and love will begin to exist among the members of the team which will lead to a successful experience for players no matter what the end results are in the end.